Thanks to a long-term project of the Alabama Tourism Department and the Alabama Department of Conservation, Alabama has a much easier way to be part of the great eco-vacation explosion: the Alabama Birding Trails.
With over 430 bird species documented in Alabama, there’s more to see here than you can imagine. Watching a Bald Eagle feeding babies in the nest near Guntersville State Park? Check! Sitting quietly as dozens of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks literally crash-land into the nearest tree on Dauphin Island. Absolutely! These are just two of the stops along this series of 8 trails and over 260 stops.
Ask ten bird-watchers to name the top 10 bird-watching spots in Alabama for spotting birds and you’ll likely get ten different answers. It depends on the time of year, they’ll say. It depends on what types of birds you want to see, they’ll argue. But some of the same spots show up in every birder’s secret list of places. Here are some of the the best bird-watching hot spots in Alabama, all located along one of Alabama’s Birding Trails:
Birmingham Botanical Gardens (Jefferson County): One of the best and most-visited sites for songbirds in the Birmingham area during spring and fall migration, especially the more natural northern end of the park. Be sure to visit the Bog Gardens, the Kaul Wildflower Garden, the Fern Glade, and the paved trail loop that begins between the Wildflower Garden and the Fern Glade.
Cahaba National Wildlife Refuge (Bibb County): Home to the free-flowing Cahaba River and famous for rare Cahaba Lilies that bloom each May, the Refuge provides abundant opportunities to spot riparian songbirds such as Louisiana Waterthrushes, Acadian Flycatchers, Northern Parulas, Prothonotary and Yellow-throated Warblers, and American Redstarts from early spring through fall.
Cheaha State Park (Cleburne & Talladega Counties): Atop the state’s highest point, this park is one of the southernmost locations to find a number of Alabama’s breeding birds such as Blue-headed Vireos, Cedar Waxwings, and Sharp-shinned Hawks. Located in the middle of the Talladega National Forest, the entire area has vast tracts of forest lands, and accompanying forest birds.
Cherokee Rock Village (Cherokee County): The boulder fields at Cherokee Rock Village stand sentinel along an east-facing ridge and overlook Weiss Lake far below. This is an extraordinary location to find Scarlet Tanagers, Summer Tanagers, and Great Crested Flycatchers, and is a fantastic site for observing soaring raptors.
Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge (Choctaw County): Choctaw NWR is composed of over 4,000 acres of rivers, sloughs, bottomland hardwood forest, and a small amount of tall-grass cropland. Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites, Anhingas, Purple Gallinules, Least Bitterns, King Rails, and Common Moorhens nest here, with Painted Buntings, too. Ospreys and Bald Eagles are a common sight, and as many as 10,000 waterfowl winter here most years. You can experience the Refuge by foot and from the roadside, but bring a boat to experience the full range of habitats.
Coleman Lake, Talladega National Forest (Cleburne County): The only reliable location in Alabama for Red Crossbills, it also boasts roadside views of endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. In addition to excellent spring and fall birding, wildflowers are everywhere in season.
Conecuh National Wildlife Forest (Conecuh County): The 83,000 acres of the Conecuh house scores of Red-cockaded Woodpecker colonies and hundreds of Bachman’s Sparrows in the pine forests. You’ll also find Anhingas, Purple Gallinules, Common Moorhens, and Least Bitterns in its wetlands, and Swallow-tailed Kites and Painted Buntings thinly scattered throughout the forest.
Dauphin Island (Mobile County): There are many individual birding locations on Dauphin Island, such as the Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuary. In truth, the entire land mass (along with Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge across Mobile Bay) is a Mecca for birds. During spring each year, migratory birds fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico until they spot Dauphin Island, the first location they can land after hundreds of miles of sea. And land they do, in droves. Every fall, Dauphin Island is the last spit of land birds have to forage on before their long migration south.
Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge (Barbour County): Eufaula NWR has two sections in Alabama: Upland and Kennedy off US 431. Upland has a motor trail that winds through pinewoods, grassy fields, and marsh, and is excellent for waterfowl, sparrows, and raptors in winter. During summer, grassland species and some waders gather here. Kennedy is composed of marshes and sloughs south, and the lake to the north. It can be spectacular for wetland songbirds, wading birds and many species of waterfowl during winter.
Lakepoint State Park (Barbour County): Adjacent to Eufaula NWR, this state park is situated on the shoreline of Lake Eufaula. From bluebirds and juncos to nesting Ospreys, Bald Eagles and Brown-headed Nuthatches, this is a particularly “birdy” state park. There are also waders, shorebirds, and wintering waterfowl—any visit to nearby Eufaula NWR should include time to bird here.
Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson (Elmore County): The entire area (and adjacent Forever Wild property) is rich with birdlife; look for woodpeckers, listen for owls, and watch for swallows over the river. There are nesting Swanson’s Warblers, rare breeding birds for Alabama, in the wet woods along the south side of the entrance road. The trails in the arboretum hold large numbers of Northern Parulas and Yellow-throated Warblers.
Lake Guntersville State Park (Marshall County): Renowned for its Eagle Awareness Weekends, this park is best visited in winter. A winter trip here will almost certainly provide opportunities to see Bald Eagles, often on the nest with young. Dense populations of waterfowl are also typical during winter. The educational programs held each weekend in January and February are wonderful for all ages, as well.
Little River Canyon National Preserve (DeKalb & Cherokee Counties): As you drive along the rim of this scenic canyon, listen in the open fields for Yellow-breasted Chats and Prairie Warblers. Watch for hawks catching thermal winds from the scenic vistas found at the upper portion of the canyon. Don’t miss the Canyon Mouth Park, either… it can be a good place to experience songbirds in the trees near the Little River and in the scattered woods beyond the picnic areas.
Oakmulgee National Forest (Bibb and Hale Counties): The Oakmulgee Forest contains the state’s largest population of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. They nest and forage exclusively in stands of open, mature pines, where they are easiest to find early and late in the day. The best season is spring, when adult birds are near their nests much of the day. Bachman’s Sparrows are found in the same or similar habitat, and numerous songbirds are found here, both in the pine forest and in nearby tracts of hardwoods. Located within the forest, Payne Lake is a productive location for woodland birds in all but the dead of summer. While in the area, particularly in summer months, make sure to keep an eye toward all the catfish ponds lining the roads. You are very likely to spot Wood Storks on the banks, and very possibly Swallow-tailed Kites in the air.
Perry Lakes Park (Perry County): Woodland songbirds abound in the hardwood bottomlands at Perry Lakes, while the State Fish Hatcheries feature a variety of waders, shorebirds, and ducks and geese in winter. Don’t miss the view from the 100-foot-high birding tower, offering eye-to-eye views of songbirds, as well as excellent views of soaring raptors.
Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge (Morgan County): Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge’s (NWR’s) showpiece Visitor Center is a temperature-controlled facility ideal for watching the hundreds (sometimes 1000’s) of geese, ducks, and Sandhill Cranes that spend the winter on the refuge. With two stories and several spotting scopes for visitors’ use, the building is perfect for large groups or introducing new birders to the wonders of Alabama’s birdlife. In recent years, spotting Bald Eagles soaring overhead is not uncommon. In the past several winters, endangered Whooping Cranes have made their winter homes on the refuge, sometimes feeding within easy view of the observation building.
These sites may be some of Alabama’s hottest spots for watching birds. But don’t be fooled. Depending on the time of year, the weather, and your luck, any of the sites listed on the www.alabamabirdingtrails.com website can be amazing and a top bird-watching hot spot in Alabama. The main ingredient to having good luck birding is to get out and enjoy the beautiful Alabama outdoors. And keep your eyes and ears tuned in for the sights and sounds of nature.
More information on Birding Trails in Alabama
Over 10 years in the making with 270 sites around Alabama, the system of eight trails highlights the best public locations available to watch birds year-round. Alabama provides critical habitat for hundreds of birds, from the Endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker to the now flourishing Bald Eagle. Interest in wildlife observation continues to grow, and more and more people want to explore our amazing biodiversity, which makes us second only to Florida in the Eastern U.S. in total number of species of plants and animals. The Birding Trails project provides a major attraction for nature-loving tourists, while offering exciting birding opportunities for Alabama’s school groups, families, and seasoned birders.
“We want people to know that within an easy driving distance from Birmingham, there are several spectacular birding sites. These natural places are excellent outdoor classrooms, helping teachers engage young minds to the beauty and wonder that is Alabama,” says Nisa Miranda, Director of the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development and project manager for the Alabama Birding Trails Project. “These trails bring tourists into suburban and rural areas that will benefit from the dollars that find their way into the local economy.”
The Alabama Tourism Department has provided much of the funding for this project; The University of Alabama Center for Economic Development is providing the leadership role of facilitation and project scope; The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is providing their depth of knowledge relative to wildlife habitat, birding and previous birding trails experience; The Birmingham Audubon Society has provided experience that only deeply knowledgeable birders could. Chambers of Commerce and tourism organizations across the state have taken great pride in the project, as have Federal partners, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Forest Service and others.
Special thanks to all those who have been involved with the project, from the funding and long-term determination to see the project to completion of the Alabama Tourism Department under the leadership of Lee Sentell and the active role of Kerry Teague to the tireless work of folks like Mark Sasser and Keith Hudson with the Alabama Department of Conservation, this project wouldn’t be possible. Without the help of folks like the Birmingham Audubon Society’s Anne Miller and Maureen Shaffer, the active roles of Chambers of Commerce around the state and the long-standing dedication of more people than can be named in a short article, this project wouldn’t have succeeded.
Bird-watching Hot Spots in Alabama
A version of this article originally appeared in Outdoor Alabama magazine.
By Joe Watts and Paul H. Franklin
Joe is a passionate proponent of nature tourism in Alabama and is currently working with the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development on several tourism-related projects, including the Alabama Birding Trails. He currently serves on the board of directors for the National Audubon Society.
Paul is a wildlife photographer and naturalist who has been developing site descriptions for the Alabama Birding Trails project, and is a long-time instructor of photography and bird-watching in the Birmingham area. All photos by Paul Franklin unless otherwise noted.