by Paul H. Franklin
Located in Tuscaloosa County, only minutes from the modern, manicured, managed state park that is Lake Lurleen lies the Sipsey River, a slow-moving, untamed thread of water that wends its way through bald cypress and Tupelo gum bottomlands. The Sipsey River basin lacks visitor services and creature comforts, but it compensates for this lack of barbeque grills, camper hookups, and indoor plumbing by offering almost a mile of some of the best birding to be found in west Alabama.
The easiest landmark from which to bird is the series of low concrete spans known as Shirley’s Bridges, five bridges over the river bottoms. Park on the side of the road just beyond each or any of these bridges to sample the birdlife. The bridges and road itself are at a perfect elevation to allow looks into the midstory of the trees in the bottoms here. You should expect to see an almost unbelievable number of wetland warblers – Prothonotaries, Parulas, Yellow-throateds, and American Redstarts fairly drip from the trees here. Below, the area is packed with Louisiana Waterthrushes. In the darker, slower-moving spots, Swainson’s Warblers are relatively common. You can see Common Yellowthroats everywhere. Flycatchers are well-represented, with swarms of Acadians, many Pewees, ample numbers of Eastern Phoebes, and plenty of Great Cresteds. Yellow-billed Cuckoos are as numerous here as they are in any spot in the western half of the state. You’ll also find numerous Red-eyed and Yellow-throated vireos, Summer Tanagers, and Orchard Orioles.
Where the woods open a bit and swamps are visible, Anhingas breed in small numbers. Mississippi Kites are local breeders, as are Cooper’s and Red-shouldered hawks.
Depending on climatic conditions, the water levels may be low or high. When water levels are relatively low, there are a couple of spots on the western side of the middle bridges whereyou can walk – or even drive – from the road to the water’s edge. Do so, and in the drier bits you should find numerous Indigo Buntings, Field Sparrows, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Blue Grosbeaks, Eastern Towhees, and the like.
Be sure to work all the bridges, aprons, low-lying bits, and trees. Walk or drive down to the water’s edge where possible. Explore the drier, brushier areas. There’s simply no better place to go birding in west Alabama in spring and fall than Shirley’s Bridges.
Directions: From the intersection of US 43 and US 82 (McFarland Boulevard) in Northport (Tuscaloosa County), head west on McFarland Boulevard/US 82. At 4.2 miles, bear right onto CR 21 (Upper Columbus Road). The first of the series of Shirley’s Bridges is at approximately 9.5 miles.
GPS: 33.1645525 -87.6788507