Bird Watching in Alabama

From the sugar-white beaches of the Gulf of Mexico north to the scenic Tennessee River Valley and east to the foothills of the Appalachians, Alabama is home to a wide variety of birds. More than 180 species regularly breed in Alabama, and more than 400 species have been recorded in the state, placing it among the best birding states in the Lower 48.  Alabama’s abundant hardwood forests and many waterways and lakes make it attractive to millions of birds.  The geography offers many specialized areas, providing suitable habitat for shorebirds, raptors, passerines, and sparrows. It is reasonable to see well over 250 species in a year, and by working hard, a few birders have seen more than 300 species in one year in Alabama.

Hernando de Soto and William Bartram traveled through Alabama in the 16th and late 18th centuries, respectively, but recorded little about the birds in Alabama. Had they been looking, they almost certainly would have seen ivory-billed woodpeckers and Bachman’s warblers—last seen in Alabama in 1907 and 1966, respectively—that bred in the state, but are no longer present.  Both these species are gone, victims of human expansion and the birds’ inability to adapt. They stand as a reminder to us all of the fragile character of the balance between humans and nature. Additionally, the Carolina parakeet and passenger pigeon were hunted to extinction, and the common raven has withdrawn north. A central Alabama record from 1881 speaks of a flock of passenger pigeons that blacken the whole sky, yet only a decade later they were generally absent from Alabama.

The first formal record of Alabama birds is by Nathan C. Brown, who visited Elmore County in 1878 and recorded 119 species. Dr. Arthur H. Howell published Alabama Bird Life in 1924 which included a state list of 274 species. The Alabama Ornithological Society, founded in 1952, was the first organization of birders in the state, and several Alabama chapters of the National Audubon Society date back to the 1960s. The first Alabama Christmas Bird Count, in 1909, recorded 19 species, and since 1928 at least one count has been recorded annually.

Alabama has a very temperate climate, meaning there are 365 days a year when one can see plenty of birds anywhere in the state. Many birds that breed in more northern latitudes winter in Alabama, and many more pass through during spring and fall migration, making Alabama a year-round supermarket of birds.

Alabama is rich in its diverse habitat. Beginning in the south, Dauphin Island on Alabama’s gulf coast is often cited as one of the best spring migration hot spots in the nation. During spring and fall migration, the sky is the limit. Virtually every trans-gulf migrant is possible. The normal compilation for the spring meeting of the Alabama Ornithological Society is about 215 species identified in the two coastal counties during a three-day period.

Alabama’s many swamps and river bottoms offer a lush home for wading and water birds, passerines, and raptors. While Alabama’s rivers are not a major flyway like the Mississippi River, they are followed by many wading and shore birds, and collectively they can be quite busy during both migration periods.

The Coastal Plain offers an extensive dry prairie which attracts sparrows, cattle egrets, meadowlarks, and many other birds. The many small natural and manmade ponds of this region are excellent places to find wood storks in late summer and wading birds during migration periods. The pine woods of the plain are home to brown-headed nuthatch, great crested flycatcher, Bachman’s sparrow, and many woodpeckers, including the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.

The foothills of the Appalachians, known as the Mountain Region, mark one of the southernmost breeding areas of the ovenbird and the black-throated green warbler. Moreover, they offer some breathtaking scenery, such as Little River Canyon, one of the largest canyons east of the Mississippi, where every year the trees bud and then change to lush green, to vibrant reds, golds, and oranges, and then to bare limbs that divide, and divide again into delicate branches revealing blue sky or exposed rocks.

The lakes of the Tennessee Valley attract an impressive array of wintering ducks, grebes, scoters, and eagles. The grasslands of the valley provide excellent winter habitat for sparrows, pipits, longspurs, horned larks, and a few short-eared owls.

There are many dams along Alabama rivers that create extraordinary habitat for wintering waterfowl and for both wintering and breeding bald eagles. These lakes are easily accessible, and offer excellent birds year round. Additionally, birding at some of the dams is especially rewarding as gulls and other water birds congregate below the spillways.

One rule for the birder in Alabama: Never pass up a swampy or damp area.  During the colder months, they may yield swamp, white-throated, and song sparrows, anhinga, a wide assortment of ducks, house and sedge wrens and, in the lower third of the state, marsh wrens, yellow-rumped and orange-crowned warblers, and common yellowthroat. During breeding season, check for wood duck, bitterns, rails, moorhen, egrets, herons, yellow-throated vireo, Acadian flycatcher, northern parula, yellow-throated, prothonotary, Kentucky, hooded, and Swainson’s warbler, and red-headed woodpecker, which breeds in dead trees of flooded areas.

There are a few words of caution necessary. Those same swamps are also home to many insects intent on making birders the meal de jour. While birding in the southern half of the state, one can encounter hordes of mosquitoes almost any time of the year, but particularly spring through fall.  Protective clothing and insect repellent can make your birding experience much more enjoyable.  This is especially true as you approach the immediate coast.  Other pests include chiggers, fire ants, poison ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak, and venomous snakes, including copperhead, coral, cottonmouth or water moccasin, and several species of rattlesnakes.

Additionally, the summers, from early May to well into September, can be very hot and muggy, and hikers should always take care to drink plenty of water and gauge not just how far they’ve gone, but how far it is back.  A good birding cap or hat is essential to protect your head and face.

Alabama has a quite restrictive trespassing law.  The absence of No Trespassing signs is not an indication that visitors are welcome.  If you do not have written permission to enter private property, do not enter.  A good spotting scope is useful for viewing distant birds from roadways,  as well as from lakeshores.

Alabama has more than its share of severe weather. Hurricanes, while rare, can be deadly, and should be taken seriously. Flooding and high winds can make travel impossible.  The incautious motorist can find himself completely cut off from help without warning. If a hurricane landfall is predicted for Alabama or a neighboring state, your mobility may be severely restricted, and lodging may become a real problem. You should always take tornado watches and warnings seriously, and protect yourself from these unpredictable, violent storms. Cold fronts and winter storms can force irruptive species southward, and can yield good birding in their wake. However, Alabama has very limited assets to deal with rare winter storms.  Before entering a winter storm area, check with local or state authorities for road conditions.

No matter what season you watch birds in Alabama, you can expect first-class birding, whether by automobile, canoe, bicycle, or foot. If you are with non-birders—no problem. They can play golf on the internationally known Robert Trent Jones courses, fish for bass, visit historical Civil War and civil rights locations, or just soak up the sun on Alabama’s beautiful beaches. So grab a field guide and your binoculars. You are in for a treat.

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