MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The past year was my first full year as a birder, and I can't let it pass without a look back. So here is a list, with photos, of my Top 10 birding experiences of 2016.
Of course, birding is my hobby, and as much as I love it, most highlights of my past year were much more personal -- spending time with my granddaughters, vacationing with my bride Julie around lakes Michigan and Superior, sharing time with friends, being honored by Auburn University for Mass Media Achievement, working my umpteenth election night (the past few years at WSFA-TV after more than three decades at the newspaper), and many other experiences.
But birding, and spending time with nature, and getting to know new friends through birding, have become important to me as well.
So here is a list of my Top 10 birding experiences, with photos, of 2016.
10. Wood Storks - My birding friend and mentor Larry Gardella spotted some Wood Storks this past August, and I followed his tip the next day to South Montgomery County where I found a huge mustering of young Wood Storks in a slough just after sunset. (See photo.) Storks are both beautiful and odd-looking birds, and getting close to them was exciting.
9. Alabama A&M farm - Alabama A&M University operates an experimental farm about 10 miles north of Huntsville that is graciously open to birders. It is a great place to see the beautiful Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher, a common bird in Texas but uncommon in Alabama. (See photo.) It is also a good place for hawks, Bobwhites, Dickcissels and many other birds.
8. Red Phalarope - One of the advantages of joining a great birding group such as the Alabama Ornithological Association is that it dramatically increases your chances of finding rare birds. That happened in October at the fall meeting of AOS on Dauphin Island. When one of our group saw a Red Phalarope, an uncommon bird that is extremely rare in Alabama, word spread and soon I was able to get within 15 feet of it. (See photo.)
7. Bachman's Sparrow - Again, AOS and outstanding birder Larry Gardella played a role in my being able to see and photograph this uncommon, and difficult to find, bird. During the AOS spring meeting, Larry heard and recognized the call of the Bachman's Sparrow, allowing me and a dozen others to get close enough for photos. (See photo.)
6. Eurasian Wigeon - When birders posted photos of a Eurasian Wigeon, a rare visitor to Alabama, at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, I couldn't resist a drive up to see for myself. (See photo.) Wheeler, in Decatur, is a wonderful birding site. (See below.)
5. Swallow-Tailed Kite - The Swallow-Tailed Kite is arguably the most beautiful of the raptors in the United States, and they make Alabama home from spring through late summer. (See photo.) I was able to see them best -- along with Mississippi Kites -- on a field trip with Birmingham Audubon led by Greg Harber, another outstanding birder and trip leader. In addition to great field trips, Birmingham Audubon does important conservation work as well.
4. Heron rookeries - When I first visited a wonderful heron rookery near Brundidge in 2015, it was a mind-bending experience. (See photo.) So in 2016, I visited that site and another rookery that can be seen from the Gadsden Mall parking lot several times. Seeing hundreds of herons and egrets nesting in a relatively small area is something every birder should experience -- especially after nestlings are active.
3. Bald Eagle nesting - I love Bald Eagles. I saw my first ones decades ago while in the U.S. Air Force in Colorado, and have seen them since everywhere from Alaska to Lake Superior to Yellowstone National Park. But I got my best looks at them last year right here in Montgomery County watching through spotting scopes as two breeding pairs nested and raised their young last winter and spring. (See photo.) After decades of no successful nesting of Bald Eagles in Alabama until the early 1990s, there are scores of breeding pairs in the state.
2. Alabama Wildlife Center - The center, in Oak Mountain State Park near Birmingham, rehabilitates injured and abandoned native Alabama birds. I wrote a column on the center's work last year and toured the center seeing the tremendous care the birds receive. (See photo.) Later Julie and I took our oldest granddaughter to Owl-O-Ween at the center, and I was honored to be able to personally release back into the wild a rehabilitated Great Horned Owl. (See photo.) It was a tremendous experience.
1. Whooping Cranes - One of the nation's most endangered birds, and one of the most beautiful, the Whooping Crane is making a comeback of sorts in Alabama. Only about 500 of the birds still live in the wild. In January, I got to watch one leg of the last trip of Operation Migration. A group of young Whoopers was led on a migration route from Wisconsin to Florida, passing through Alabama following an ultralight aircraft. I saw them in Lowndes County. (See photo.) The program was phased out after 2016. But I got my best looks at Whoopers at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, where from five to 20 Whooping Cranes have wintered for the past few years with thousands of beautiful Sandhill Cranes. (See photo.)
There are many more birding-related experiences I could have listed, such as sitting on the overlook at Monte Sano State Park watching the sunrise over a foggy vista; lunch on the deck of a hospitable birder's home on Dauphin Island sharing tales with fellow AOS birders while watching Ospreys and terns and Night Herons and eating the best homemade gumbo I've ever had; the excitement of seeing a couple of dozen new "life birds" for the first time at spots all around Alabama; driving through Seney National Wildlife Refuge in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, visiting more than four dozen Alabama Birding Trails sites, and on and on.
As a former political writer, I found the politics of 2016 disgusting -- the "fake news" that became so prevalent; the personal attacks that sunk to new depths; the seeming acceptance of disgusting behavior on the part of some politicians, local and national, by so many people.
But personally, 2016 had many great moments.
-- I promised to give readers a heads up about the Berry College, Ga., Eagle Cam from time to time. The cameras are now showing the Bald Eagles sitting on eggs, which you can easily see when the eagles swap sitting duty. See it here.
-- Bird walk at Lakepoint State Park and Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge -- The walk will be from 9 am. to 12 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 11. Details can be found here.
-- Festival of the Cranes, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge -- A two-day event will celebrate the Sandhill and Whooping Crane. There will be educational displays, hands-on children activities, special speakers and of course, the Cranes. Plus there are usually hundreds of various ducks and waterfowl to be seen. The festival will be Saturday, Jan. 14, starting at 6:30 a.m., and Sunday, Jan. 15, starting at 8 a.m.
-- The Alabama Ornithological Society will hold its winter meeting at the Guntersville State Park Lodge Jan. 27-29. Field trips will visit Guntersville State Park, the Guntersville water front, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, and the Guntersville Dam area. The Friday workshop leader and Saturday night keynote speaker will be Marshall Iliff, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology eBird project leader. Find more here.
-- The Birmingham Audubon Society has a wide-ranging slate of programs and field trips on tap, including the Tom Imhoff Beginner Bird Walk series trip to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 14. The trip focuses on beginners but offers a chance for experienced birders to see exceptional winter birds. Cars will caravan from the Birmingham Area starting promptly at 8 a.m. For details, including how to reserve a space, go to the site below.
In addition, the new schedule has been announced for the 2016-2017 Audubon Teaches Nature programs at Oak Mountain State Park. These are wonderful educational programs on a variety of nature issues, from birds of prey to alligators and other reptiles to geology and paleontology. The next scheduled program will be Birds of Prey: Masters of the Skies on Sunday, Jan. 22, at the Alabama Wildlife Center. There are showings at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. The programs are free, but there is the usual fee for entering the park.
For details, click here.
-- Fins, Feathers and Flowers, a weekend waterfowl and wildlife program, will be Feb. 24-26 at Lakepoint Lodge at Lakepoint State Park near Eufaula. There will be field trips each day to the state park and to Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge, including pontoon boat trips on Lake Eufaula. Speakers will include Carrie Threadgill, nongame wildlife biologist with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, who will discuss colonial wading birds in Alabama, and the Alabama Wildlife Center will present its live raptor program.
More information can be found here.