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THOMAS A. IMHOF
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Fifty years ago when I first came to Alabama, birds were just about everywhere. Back then it was not so much a matter of finding the birds but identifying them. There were very few field guides and the local birder often had to go to the library or borrow from a friend in order to learn the field marks of a foreign rarity. The few waterfowl refuges in existence had ducks and geese in them in season, the mudflats had sandpipers, the woods in migration season had lots of little birds, and most backyards had plenty of birds, as they still do. Such feeders as then existed were well patronized, and birding was wonderful.
Every once in a while you would have to let a bird go as unidentified and you wondered whether you had seen a plumage variation, or a color phase such as a partial albino, or a truly different species. At that time you could not only find lots of warblers and vireos but flycatchers, tanagers, orioles, thrushes, and others as well. However, we had no House Finches here, no Cattle Egrets, our only cowbird was not known to breed south of Birmingham, Cliff Swallows bred only in the Tennessee Valley, and Barn Swallows bred there and also at Fort Morgan. We had no European gulls anywhere, no tree ducks (now called whistling), no Ringed Turtle Doves (Streptopelia risoria), and no hummingbirds in the cold weather. But Peregrine Falcons and Bald Eagles bred in the state and possibly other species such as Raven and Ruffed Grouse. You almost never encountered a fellow birder in the field, and societies thatemphasized birding and conservation were just starting.
So you see, there has been plenty of change in these fifty years, for not only have birds increased or decreased dramatically, but birders have increased dras-
GREG D. JACKSON
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The gulf coast region is the smallest birding region in Alabama, but packs a good punch. This area (Map 2), comprising Mobile and Baldwin Counties, has a species roster just short of the entire state list, and many birds are found here exclusively. If you have time to visit only one region in Alabama, this should be it. Terrain in this area is flat or rolling. The Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers empty into Mobile Bay, carrying flow from much of Alabama and parts of eastern Mississippi and western Georgia; waters exit into the Gulf of Mexico between Fort Morgan and Dauphin Island. Although most of the drainage of this region is into the Bay, some flow from west Mobile and east Baldwin Counties reaches the Gulf by alternate routes. The bays and the Gulf are generally shallow. Mobile, situated at the northwest corner of Mobile Bay, is the second largest population center in Alabama, exceeded only by Birmingham. Pines predominate in the upland zones of the region, interspersed with live oaks and other hardwoods. Hardwoods and cypresses dominate the bottomlands of the Mobile Delta and along other waterways. Extensive marshes are found at the head of Mobile Bay and along Mississippi Sound in southern Mobile County. Farmlands, with large open fields, are common in the southern portions of both counties. The area immediately along the coast has mixed areas of pines, oaks, marshes, scrub, and dunes. Gulf beaches, with their beautiful white sands, are a prime vacation attraction.
Dauphin Island and Fort Morgan, the two best areas for birds in this region, are located on the Gulf. Both are isolated from the surrounding mainland, concentrating migrants in relatively small areas. These are the top spots to visit for the chance of a spring "fallout," a concentration of trans-Gulf migrants that can be phenomenal. Major fallouts are rare and are not witnessed every year. When they occur, you may see more brightly colored transients in a few hours than during the rest of the season. The opportunity to observe rivers of low-flying warblers, or hundreds of Scarlet Tanagers and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in a few trees, is one of the great experiences in birding. Lesser precipitations, still impressive, are more frequent.
A classic fallout occurs when a strong cold front, with attendant rain and north winds, traverses the coast and goes into the Gulf during the day. Most trans-Gulf passerine migrants depart from Mexico just after nightfall, and if unimpeded will cross the North American coast the following day. If skies are fair with winds from the south, most of these birds will continue inland as far as Birmingham before stopping. Thus, when several days of sunny weather are experienced, birding for transients often is poor on the coast. The migrants halt on the outer coast when caught over the Gulf in rain and opposing winds, and many perish in the water. Those that survive this buffeting are exhausted and stop at the first land they reach. Some of these migrants not only exhaust their reserve body fat, but metabolize some of their muscle mass as well. If they can continue their flight that evening, many will do so. In the spring, the largest numbers of birds usually are present in the afternoon.
Birding in March produces good numbers of departing waterfowl and arriving passerines which breed in the South. April is generally regarded as the best spring month for birds, with shorebirds and northern passerines appearing in good numbers by the end of the month. Picking a time to bird in April is problematic; the earlier you go, the more chance you have of encountering a frontal system and perhaps a fallout, but waiting until later offers a better variety of northern transients and shorebirds. The third week of April probably offers the best compromise. May can produce large numbers of shorebirds, and if a cold front passes in the first half of the month, many northern-breeding passerines may also be seen. Spring birding activity centers on Dauphin Island (Map 2, A) and Fort Morgan (Map 2, C). Gulf Shores (Map 2, D), Mobile Causeway and Blakeley Island (Map 2, E), Bayou La Batre, (Map 2, B) and the East Mobile Delta (Map 2, F) also can be interesting.
Summer is the dullest season for many birders, but the coast provides some interesting temptations to brave the heat. Breeding is in full swing in early summer, and inland areas such as the Mobile Delta are alive with song. Waterbirds also are found in abundance, and summer can be a great time to study terns on the outer coast. Large waders are plentiful, and shorebird passage occurs even in June and July. Many southern passerines also migrate as early as July. When birding in the warmer months, pay attention to sun and heat protection, as the high humidity combined with elevated temperatures can be dangerous. Summer also provides an opportunity to become familiar with some of our biting insects!
Fall migration is a prolonged affair. If you consider the whole species list, it begins in June and continues to January. Late fall is excellent for most waterfowl. Raptors are most abundant in late September and October; and shorebirds peak on the coast in August and September. With passerines, most of the southern breeders and flycatchers pass through in late August and September, while most northern species are abundant in October. As in the spring, the best birding is generally after a cold front, but in the fall it is preferable to be out early in the morning. The day after a front may be fantastic for raptors on the outer coast. The last week in September through the first half of October is probably the best general time for a visit. Fort Morgan and Dauphin Island are usually the top spots, although Blakeley Island can be great if the water levels are good. Winter species generally have arrived by the end of November, although some birds are more likely to be seen in late December and early January. By the end of January, numbers of waterfowl begin to decline as they exit north. Late winter may reveal a few early returning migrants, notably Purple Martin. Most birders concentrate on Gulf Shores and Dauphin Island at this season, although Mobile Causeway and Fort Morgan can also be productive.
Pelagic birding is always an adventure, with great possibilities and unknowns. Our knowledge of deepwater species in the northern Gulf is increasing, but we still have much to learn. Shearwaters, storm-petrels, boobies, Magnificent Frigatebird, phalaropes, and pelagic terns have been seen on offshore trips, some appearing to be regular at the proper season. The section on pelagic birding provides more detail on this topic.
Dauphin Island probably is the best single spot for birding in Alabama, and is a top focal point for migration in the Southeast. Approximately 350 species have been reported on the island, nearly ninety percent of the state list. Although birding on Dauphin Island is best during migration, it can be exciting at almost any time of the year. The island is part of Mobile County and is three and a half miles south of the mainland. Together with Fort Morgan three miles to the southeast, it guards the mouth of Mobile Bay. Flanking the eastern end of the island are Little Dauphin Island to the north and Sand Island to the south, accessible only by boat. As Dauphin Island is only about fourteen and a half miles long, its compactness and size make it easy to access the important birding sites. The larger eastern end is heavily wooded with pines and live oaks, and it is here that most of the permanent human residents live. The narrow, treeless, western part of the island (which stretches for seven and a half miles) consists mostly of marsh and dune, although habitat is vanishing rapidly through construction of vacation homes.
ACCESS: You may reach the island by road on AL 193 (about 25 miles south from Exit 17 on I-10) or by ferry from Fort Morgan. Weather permitting, the ferry runs year round (except some holidays). The first ferry leaves Dauphin Island at 8:00 a.m., with departures scheduled every one and a half hours for the forty-five-minute trip to Fort Morgan. Posted schedules are located at the intersection of AL 193 and Bienville Boulevard near the water tower, at the ferry landing 1.7 miles east of this intersection, and at Fort Morgan. You may call the ticket booth at Fort Morgan (334/540-7787) or the office in Pensacola (850/ 434-7345) for the latest information.
ACCOMMODATIONS: Accommodations on Dauphin Island have been limited since Hurricane Frederic destroyed the large motels in 1979. Two comfortable, locally owned, motels are available; the Gulf Breeze Motel (334/861-7344) has single and double rooms as well as efficiencies and the Harbor Lights Inn (334/861-5534) has efficiencies. Both are located across the road from the Seafood Galley, a locally well-known seafood restaurant with hours convenient to birders. Fort Gaines Campground (334/861-2742), situated across from the ferry landing, is the only designated area for camping. Short-term rentals of beach homes (three-day minimum) can be obtained by calling Surfside Real Estate (334/ 861-2332). Several other real estate companies offer beach home rentals for longer stays (one-week minimum) at attractive rates. For information on these, call the Dauphin Island Chamber of Commerce (334/861-5524). A Shoney's Inn is located in Bayou La Batre (1-800/222-2222) (eighteen miles). You can find other lodging along I-10 in Mobile (thirty miles), and in Gulf Shores (twenty-two miles east of Fort Morgan)
SITE GUIDE: All of the covered sites are easily accessible from Bienville Boulevard, which is the primary east-west thoroughfare on the island. We will examine sites from east to west, starting at the eastern tip of the island. The Airport, East End, West End, Sea Pointe, and the causeway are reliable year round and are the best bets in both summer and winter. In migration, you should also cover the Sanctuary, the Shell Mounds, the Goat Tree, and a few residential areas. (Mileages are measured from the intersection of AL 193 (Le Moyne Drive) and Bienville Boulevard at the water tower and are given in parentheses.)
Begin at Pelican Point (2.4) near Fort Gaines (Map 3, A). A parking area is at the eastern terminus of Bienville Boulevard south of the fort. From here you can scan the mouth of Mobile Bay to the southeast and look beyond to Fort Morgan. Pelican Point usually is best early and late in the day for passing waterbirds. Check the rocks and beach west of the road end for shorebirds; light is best in the early morning. This spot is good for shorebirds and gulls, with records of several unusual species. It is the most reliable spot in the state for Marbled Godwit, especially in October, and Red Knot is found here regularly; Long-billed Curlew is seen occasionally. This is a good place to look for Franklin's Gull in the fall. The field and fence near the parking lot can produce Western Kingbird and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, especially in the fall, and other western strays such as Groove-billed Ani and Vermilion Flycatcher have been seen. This can be a good spot for Bobolink, mostly in the spring. Fort Gaines may be entered (small fee) from the north side. Although interesting, it usually is not productive for birds. One winter, however, a Rock Wren decided to call the fort home. The rocks along the channel north of the fort may yield Spotted Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, and a variety of gulls. Local rarities such as Lesser Black-backed, Glaucous, and Great Black-backed Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwake have been recorded here in recent years.
The grounds of the adjacent Dauphin Island Sea Lab may yield Gray Kingbird. The Sea Lab's Estuarium presents four exhibits of key coastal Alabama habitats. Housing three large aquariums (featuring Mobile Delta, Mobile Bay, and the northern Gulf), the 10,000-square-foot facility also has a barrier island exhibit. Twenty smaller tanks provide microcosms of the main areas, and hands-on exhibits can be tried. Annual tide charts are available in the display area of the administration building. A good vantage point for gulls is the rocks by the ferry slip at the north edge of this property.
Continue west on Bienville to the Ferry Landing (Map 3, B) (1.7) opposite Fort Gaines Campground and scan for loons, grebes, cormorants, mergansers, and gulls. Restrooms are available at the landing. The campground has been a good spot for Gray Kingbird from late April to September; none have been present since Hurricane Danny in 1997, although hopefully they will return. Go west and turn right (north) on Albright Drive (1.5). Proceed on Albright to a T-intersection at the Drury Pass Channel and the "Sea Pointe" sign. Turn left and continue 0.3 miles to the loop at the end of the road. Sea Pointe (Map 3, C) is a residential area at the tip of a small peninsula. From the road, you can scan Dauphin Bay and Little Dauphin Island to the west and northwest, respectively. Little Dauphin Island usually is reliable for Osprey in the spring and fall. Loons, grebes, mergansers, and other waterbirds may be seen in the surrounding waters. Sandbars and oyster beds can be good for shorebirds, including American Oystercatcher, gulls, terns, and other waterbirds.
DAUPHIN ISLAND BIRD SANCTUARY
The 164-acre Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuary (Map 3, D) is a heavily wooded enclave extending south from Bienville Boulevard to Pelican Bay. Most of the area is pine forest mixed with scattered groves of live oak. Several deciduous swamps are in the southern part of the refuge just north of the dunes, as well as a half-mile strip of beach and dunes along the Gulf. Gaillard Lake is a small freshwater area in the west central portion of the tract. Birding in the sanctuary is best in migration and is optimal from about one hour after sunrise to midmorning, and again in late afternoon until an hour before sunset. No facilities are available on the property. Insect repellent often is helpful, especially after rains and in the fall when the deer flies are hungry. If you decide to walk in the swamps, keep an eye out for western cottonmouths; rattlesnakes are also found in the sanctuary (something to think about when deciding to chase through the palmettos after a bird)
The main entrance to the sanctuary is on the south side of Bienville Boulevard (1.4) and is marked with a sign. Sanctuary hours are from dawn to dusk. From Albright Drive go west 0.4 miles to Audubon Street, make a U-turn, and return east 0.2 miles to the sanctuary entrance. Follow the shell road a short way to the parking lot, where you will find trails leading to various points in the forest. A large sign at the parking lot displays a map of the trails, and brochures are usually available. Take the trail leading to the left (east). Bear left (north) at the first intersection and continue winding through the woods until you reach the main trail. Turn left (east) again and proceed until you reach a grove of live oaks with a central open area and trails leading north and south. The distance from the parking lot to this spot is about one half mile.
Here, as on the rest of the island, live oaks are the preferred feeding spots for many migrants. Go about 100 feet left (north) of the main trail and enter the banding area. This consists of an oval trail with several lanes cut through the brushy oak woods. Careful perusal of this locale may be very productive. This section of the sanctuary is one of the better spots on the island if you have a good migration day, and many unusual species have been found. Even Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher has been banded here, and the loop trail often is good for Empidonax flycatchers. Thrushes are seen frequently on the trails, and most migrant woodland species are noted here regularly. This is a prime location for Swainson's Warbler in April, although it is difficult to observe.
Another good walk is to the swamp south of the banding area. Check the trees and bushes along the way for migrants. At the swamp, an observation platform aids birding. Popcorn trees, an introduced species, have covered the entire swamp in recent years and the Friends of Dauphin Island Audubon Sanctuary are in the process of trying to eradicate them. Here you may find Purple Gallinule in the spring (when water is present), Red-headed Woodpecker (warmer months), and both waterthrushes (in migration if the area is wet). The pine woods in this area and throughout the sanctuary are good for Red-bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Carolina Wren, and Pine Warbler year round. If you are lucky while walking through the sanctuary, you might run upon a flock of birds harassing a resident Great Horned Owl.
Return to the trailhead near the parking lot and take the boardwalk on the trail to the west. This path passes the west shore of Gaillard Lake. The lake usually has wintering Pied-billed Grebe and may have a few other waterfowl in the colder months. Anhinga sometimes can be found at the south end of the lake, particularly in the fall, and you may discover a few herons and egrets along the shore. Alligators are spotted frequently. Head to the southwest corner of the lake and proceed on the trail over the dunes to the Gulf beach. The dunes have many scattered pines and this area has been excellent for Gray Kingbird prior to 1997, most reliably from mid-May through August. A trail along the south shore of the lake goes to the swamp south of the banding area, and if time permits, can be used as a circular route.
CADILLAC SQUARE AND THE GOAT TREE
Return to Bienville Boulevard from the sanctuary parking lot, turn right (east) and proceed until you can make a U-turn and return west 0.8 miles to Cadillac Square, a public park on your left (Map 3, E) (0.6). The oaks in the park may produce a few migrants, and this is a pleasant picnic spot with public restrooms. The capital of the Louisiana Territory was located here early in the eighteenth century. Head west again on Bienville Boulevard and turn right on Grant Street (0.6). Go one block to Cadillac Avenue and park off the road. A large tree at the northwest corner of the intersection is called the "Goat Tree" (Map 3, F), and woods in this area may be productive for passerines in migration and winter.
Faces of Freedom Summer
By BOBS M. TUSA
Photography by HERBERT RANDALL
THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS
Copyright © 2001 The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved.