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A Great Place for Birding – Alabama’s Gulf Coast

The Mississippi Flyway presents a grand avian array.

Kathryn Lemmon

My appreciation for birds really began with a trip to Costa Rica some years ago, where our tour group tallied 102 bird sightings in 10 days. That qualifies as a success.

We trekked through mud and rain. We got up especially early and went out late, to see what Mother Nature had to show us. Who needs an alarm clock when the howler monkeys wake you daily at 5 a.m.?

The highlight, at least among the birds, was seeing a quetzal, whose iridescent green feathers were coveted by the ancient Mayans. They did not harm this rare jungle creature, oh no – harming a quetzal was considered a capital crime, and his tail plumage was more precious than gold. I think they had the right idea.

By all accounts, interest in birding is on the rise. However, you need not travel as far as Costa Rica to see birds, although the quetzal does remain a magnet for serious birders.

The Mississippi Flyway

The Alabama gulf coast has a diverse assortment of winged wonders who make their permanent residence near the water. But there’s an added dimension – this section of the gulf is situated on the Mississippi Flyway, a major route for migratory birds.

Here’s an easy to “swallow” lesson on flyways – sorry, ’couldn’t resist that bird pun. Bird migration between breeding grounds and winter quarters in the western hemisphere generally takes place along north-south routes through geographical areas called “flyways.” The four major North American lanes – the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific flyways – follow significant topographical features, including the coasts, mountain ranges and rivers.

The Mississippi Flyway is the longest, stretching across 3,000 miles, from the Arctic coast of Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico. It is defined by two rivers, the Mackenzie in Canada and the Mississippi in the United States. Both waterways have a north-south orientation, contributing natural definition to this busy pathway overhead.

Three thousand miles seems like a mighty long journey for a living thing the size of a bird, but nature has its own design. If you’re just getting started in birding, the Alabama coast can be a great introductory location. Now’s the perfect time to begin your Life List (a formal list of birds you have seen and identified). Observation points are convenient and situated in public areas, so there’s plenty of easy access. Dig out those binoculars and you’ll be all set!

Alabama Coastal Birding Trail and Fort Morgan

Bird-watching in the region got simplified several years ago, when the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail opened in April 2002. Arranged as a series of six loops covering 220 miles, the trail has 54 marked sites with directional and interpretive signs for birders.

The loops cover two counties and are in close proximity, thus several birding expeditions can be experienced within a relatively short span of time. What a great deal – you can try a new hobby and still have plenty of relaxing beach time.

The Fort Morgan loop, for example, travels along the coast where herons, loons, gulls, egrets and other shore birds congregate. The Civil War-era fort is a viewing area for spring and fall Neo-tropical migrants as well. The fall migration of monarch butterflies is an added attraction. In the air and on the ground, there’s much to see.

Besides the bird connection, Fort Morgan is famous for a well-known quote. This is where Admiral David Farragut commanded “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” The fortification was one of three built in Mobile Bay as defense against enemy invasions. Historical or not, the kids will enjoy exploring the tunnels and racing along the stairways, which surround the open parade ground.

While some coastlines have suffered from overdevelopment, the Alabama coastal community puts a high priority on maintaining a careful balance with nature. The birding trail was a joint effort between tourism officials, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Transportation.

Banding the Birds

Fort Morgan is the official location of the annual bird-banding station, which operates for two weeks every spring and fall. Here, the little guys make an unplanned and abrupt stop in their lengthy journey. Trained volunteers drape nets high in the treetops, then catch and band thousands of migrant birds representing dozens of species.

Soon, the birds continue on their quest, but not before being photographed, weighed and measured – all in the name of science and long-term preservation.

Group leader Bob Sargent took a few moments to chat with us about the bird banding. Birds are his passion. He and his wife, Martha, founded the Hummer/Bird Study Group (HBSG) as a nonprofit organization, to study and preserve hummingbirds and other Neo-tropical migrants.

Sargent spoke of Fort Morgan and its long-term prospects. With such a premier location on the water, the fort and the surrounding acreage are vulnerable. When big money is at stake, not everyone puts a high priority on wildlife conservation or on our nation’s historic sites.

“For birds, this is a special place – a last place to rest before they set out. We’re gravely concerned about the fate of Fort Morgan and what will happen, should the site be turned over to developers. It could wipe out the habitat,” said Sargent. This bit of terra firma is the first landfall and the last departure point for thousands of migrating birds. The Fort Morgan location offers researchers a rare and needed opportunity for study. If you’re in the neighborhood or just love birds, banding sessions at the Fort Morgan Bird Banding Station are open to supporters and the general public.

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge (bon secour means “safe harbor”) is relatively new, having been established in 1980. More than 370 species of birds have been identified in the refuge and it’s also a nesting place for sea turtles.

Hurricane Frederick devastated much of the area in 1979, providing an opening for high-rise condo development. Showing foresight, Congress established Bon Secour to halt the trend and preserve the land for wildlife, including migratory birds.

As I write this, my favorite bird, the chickadee, hops along my windowsill, tempted by sunflower seeds. He’s in good company at the bird buffet, since four feeders are nearby. The chickadee works hard for his meal, bashing away full force at the shell. You have to admire his determination.

For More Information

Alabama Coastal Birding Trail
P.O. Drawer 457
Gulf Shores, AL
(877) 226-9089

Alabama Gulf Coast Visitors and Convention Bureau
P.O. Drawer 457
Gulf Shores, AL 36547
(800) 745-7263

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