The first time I took my wife to visit my family home in southwest Alabama, she said it felt like travelling back in time just driving down the road. Spring had brought the deep greens of the fields, the thick leaves of deciduous oaks and the evergreen needles of pines alive with color. Historic homes had their windows thrown open to let the soft breezes blow through. Flowers were everywhere, from natives to the ever-present daffodils scattered around old home places.
As beautiful as spring is, though, late summer brings the Swallow-tailed Kites and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers to feast on insects. Prehistoric-looking Wood Storks invade the multitude of catfish ponds to picnic on fish. From a birder’s perspective, that’s the real magic of the Black Belt. Yes, it is hot as fire. Just thinking about the humidity is enough to make me break into a sweat. But the birds, the birds. They are magnificent this time of year. And they are everywhere.
Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites soar above the open pastures. Painted Buntings, Northern Parula, and Summer Tanagers raise their young in the thick woods. White Ibis, Great and Little Blue Herons, Wood Storks, Great and Snowy Egrets, even occasional Roseate Spoonbills, all feast along the edges of the ponds and rivers. It is a time of blistering heat, but also a profusion of life.
There’s a lot of ground to cover, and the temperatures can soar to near 100 degrees coupled with 90% humidity, so much of this trip relies on air-conditioned transportation. Nowhere truly requires an SUV, but a couple of very rutted, barely paved roads (the locally famous Bamberg Road) will leave you feeling satisfied with a little extra clearance from your vehicle. In addition to an air-conditioned vehicle, be sure to pack your favorite mosquito repellent.
Give time to immerse yourself in the region: make the Moore-Web-Holmes Plantation in Folsom near Marion your base camp for the trip ($200 per night for the 3 bedroom, 2.5 half bath house with up to 6 guests). The Greek Revival home, built in the 1830’s, is located on over 1000 acres of property, and is 15 minutes from Greensboro, Marion, Newbern, half an hour from Selma and less than an hour from Demopolis.
A good launching spot for a visit to the Black Belt is Perry Lakes Park near Marion, Alabama. The park and the adjacent State Fish Hatcheries are one of the top locations in the state for birding anytime of the year. Spring is best for experiencing neo-tropical migrants, but summer holds the continued promise of Prothonotary Warblers, Indigo Buntings and Summer Tanagers. The fish hatcheries can be great places for Little Blue Herons, White Ibis and other waders. Plan to spend several hours walking the boardwalk at the park: woodland songbirds abound in the hardwood bottomlands at Perry Lake (actually an oxbow lake of the free-flowing Cahaba River). Climb the 100-foot-high birding tower, built by students from Auburn University’s Rural Studio, for spectacular views of the surrounding bottom lands, including any soaring raptors and flitting songbirds.
Once you’ve experienced Perry Lakes Park, continue on to Marion. A quick windshield tour of the town provides a glimpse into the state of rural Alabama communities. There is much pride here, but also poverty and struggle. The architecture, much of it built in the early to mid 1800’s, showcases the craftsmanship and wealth that this community once had. Elmcrest, located on the campus of Judson College, was built in 1838. The Lincoln Normal School, founded in 1867 by freed slaves as a school for African American children, closed in 1970, but the Phillips Memorial Auditorium still stands as a testament to the struggles this community has risen to. Jimmy Lee Jackson’s gravesite is located near Marion. Jackson. His 1965 death at the hands of an Alabama State Police officer was a catalyst for the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches later that year. There are many other places of historical and cultural significance found in Marion. You could spend several days exploring the history of Marion, but hey, we’re here to see some birds!
Head south from Marion on Highway 183 for approximately 15 miles (for the first 3 miles, Highway 183 combines with Highway 5—watch for the turnoff). Once you’ve left the much busier (by rural Alabama standards) Highway 5, keep a careful eye on the roadside as you head south. There are many places to pull off on the public right-of-way, and the pastures and ponds found along this road hold the promise of kites and flycatchers as well as Loggerhead Shrikes, Bald Eagles, and lots of swallows. But don’t spend too long peering for birds along this stretch of road. Red Bramberg Road, 15 miles from Marion, is your next destination. This 3-mile stretch of paved, heavily pot-holed, very narrow road passes through some fantastic territory. Catfish ponds with hundreds of Wood Storks feeding, Bald Eagles soaring overhead, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Eastern Meadowlarks sitting on the power lines: this 3-mile stretch of road is the synopsis of what makes birding in Alabama’s hottest time of year so worthwhile.
The road is little used and not in good repair—normally, this would be a detriment to travel. But for the plodding birder, this is perfect. Traveling this road at anything above 25 miles an hour is nearly impossible, and very few vehicles use the road—you are more likely to meet a tractor than a car. When stopping to get a closer look at the bird-life, be sure to keep your vehicle to the side of the road when possible—and don’t stop where oncoming traffic can’t see you. There are multiple places to pull completely out of the roadway as well, so make use of those when possible, but you never know where that Eurasian Collared Dove might show up.
Once you’ve driven the 3 miles along Red Bamberg Road, turn right (north) onto Highway 61. This drive takes you through Newbern, the headquarters of Auburn University’s Rural Studio (you saw several of their unusual creations at Perry Lakes Park—the outdoor bathroom, for example). Watch the fields on both sides of the highway for both Mississippi and Swallow-tailed Kites. If a farmer happens to be cutting hay while you drive past, watch closely at the dust cloud behind and above the tractor. Grasshoppers are likely everywhere—and the kites that eat them will very probably be just above, swooping and snatching prey.
Take a break in Greensboro. It’s hot, and a cool slice of pie from Pie Lab will surely help make the day brighter. Try the coconut cream pie or their butterscotch buttermilk pie—the menu varies by day and you can’t go wrong, so get whatever sounds good! The Stable is a new coffee and sandwich shop, a great place to have something before pie.
Greensboro was settled in the early 1800’s, officially becoming a town in 1823, and the town thrived during the Antebellum era. Magnolia Grove, built in 1840 and owned by Alabama’s Historical Commission, is open for tours–offering a good opportunity to break from the sun. There are many other homes built in the same time period that are worth seeing. Like most southwestern communities, Greensboro is also filled with the history of the civil rights movement. The small but significant Safe House Museum is just one example. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. sought refuge from the Ku Klux Klan in this shotgun-style home, now a museum that documents the local struggle for equality.
From Greensboro, there are a couple of great options, depending on how long you want to stay. One option, head north on Highway 69 for 22 miles to Moundville Archeological Park. Located on 326 acres, the park preserves the site of a powerful prehistoric community that was, at its peak, America’s largest city north of Mexico. A part of the park sits on a bluff overlooking the Black Warrior River. The hardwoods surrounding this part of the park hold White-eyed Vireos and Indigo Buntings. Watch for hawks soaring overhead. Mississippi Kites are a possibility. The museum at the park offers a fascinating look back in time to the Mississippian people who constructed these flat-topped earthen mounds, including many of the stunning treasures that have been unearthed at the site. Moundville is just 17 miles from Tuscaloosa, with a multitude of hotels and restaurants.
Another option is to head down Highway 69 towards Demopolis (25 miles away). There are multiple catfish ponds along the way, and hay fields in between. You will almost certainly see a variety of wading birds, including Wood Storks. With any luck, you’ll also spot some kites, and, possibly Painted Buntings. In recent years, a few Roseate Spoonbills have frequented the area. Check ebird reports to see what’s being seen nearby for the best chance to find less common visitors such as these. (Ebird reports for Perry County, for Hale County, for Marengo County.)
In fact, one of the best ways to bird-watch here in summer is to frequently check e-bird. Though somewhat remote, many birders visit the area and there is an active contingent of e-bird participants. Traveling the roadways near catfish ponds and hay fields can also lead to some unexpected discoveries.
Once in Demopolis, spend a little while at Foscue Creek Park, A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers park with camping options. Northern Parulas breed here, as do Summer Tanagers, and the shoreline of Demopolis Lake has wading birds during any season.
Spillway Falls Park, just two miles away, offers another view of Lake Demopolis with the possibility of Anhinga, Osprey, and Bald Eagles. Ring-billed and a few Forester’s Terns, along with a mix of herons, egrets and Double-crested Cormorants are usually near the dam and in the shallows. A spotting scope is useful for watching waders from a distance at this spot.
For a quick escape from the heat of the day in Demopolis, Gaineswood, designated a National Historic Landmark and built in the mid-1800’s, offers tours of the home (334-289-4846). Bluff Hall, built in 1832 overlooking the Tombigbee River, includes a gift shop and a small museum with period furniture and clothing.
Demopolis has several hotels, along with dining options for the evening. The Foscue House is a great place for a steak. Stacy’s Cafe in downtown Demopolis on the square has a very good meat and three (the fried chicken is always a winner when available). Alternately, return to Folsom and the Moore-Web-Holmes Plantation via Highway 80 and then Highway 25. Highway 25 has multiple catfish ponds, so watch closely as you drive back.
A morning trip into Selma is a prerequisite if you want to experience the beautiful architecture of the Antebellum period and a must for its important civil rights history. Sturdivant Hall, Brown Chapel AME, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the Vaughn Smitherman Museum, the Slavery and Civil War Museum, and so many more locations beckon you to spend the day experiencing the deep history of this river community. (www.selmaalabama.com/explore/attractions.html)
Summer birding is adequate here. An hour spent exploring The Old Live Oak Cemetery, with its antebellum mausoleums and graves with rows of large live oaks draped in Spanish moss, gives you a chance to experience both birds and history. You may find Yellow-billed Cuckoos, as well as vireos and flycatchers. Spring is a better season, but the history is year-round, and there are always some birds feeding nearby.
Bloch Park is just a mile away and offers the possibility of Eastern Kingbirds and Loggerhead Shrikes. Louisiana Waterthrushes and Acadian Flycatchers are also real prospects. Yellow-throated and Red-eyed Vireos are likely in the trees along Valley Creek Park, which adjoins Bloch Park.
From downtown Selma, you have several options. One, head west on Highway 22 towards Old Cahawba Archaeological Park (site of Alabama’s first capital). Little remains of the historic structures, but it sits at the confluence of the Cahaba River and the Alabama River. Mississippi Kites breed here, the sounds of Chuck-will’s-widows echo through the ruins in the evening, and Swainson’s Warblers can be found here in summer with some luck. Historic Gees Bend is another 50 minutes away; a ferry can carry you across the river to Camden. The Gees Bend Ferry (check departure times) provides about 20 minutes of time on the river, so watch for wading birds—you might even see an alligator or two. Alternately, head back to Marion via Highway 14 or County Road 45, watching the roadsides for Kestrels, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Loggerhead Shrikes.
Just an hour north from Marion, the largest Red-cockaded Woodpecker Colony in Alabama is located in the Oakmulgee District of the Talladega National Forest. It is one of the few places in Alabama where you can see the federally endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker. With over 100 clusters of the birds, finding one might seem easy, but the forest here is deep, dense and these birds are small and excellent at staying hidden in the tree cover. The best time to see them is during breeding season earlier in spring, when they constantly bring food to the young in their nest cavities. But, early morning just around sunrise and early evening in summer should work, too. They leave their cavities early each day to forage and return just at dusk. Stop by the Ranger Station in Centerville to find out current information about exactly where your best odds to spot them are.
There are several hotels found around southwest Alabama. We’ve found good opportunities for a more personal experience using Airbnb.com. Try these locations in downtown Selma (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/24332983 and https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/24390246). Demopolis and Selma have hotels, and Tuscaloosa is just a 45 minute drive away, with plenty of options for lodging. Campgrounds include Foscue Park in Demopolis, though it is geared more towards RV camping. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates multiple campgrounds in the area.
Rural Southwest Alabama (This website is dedicated to twelve counties located in rural southwest Alabama which includes a large portion of Alabama’s Black Belt area. This region is known for its rich and diverse heritage, historic homes and churches, and natural beauty. This website contains details about historic and interesting places that you will find in this area of Alabama.)
Alabama’s Front Porches (The Front Porches website highlights all of the incredible activities that are available in the Alabama – Tombigbee region of rural southwest Alabama. Find out more of the attractions you’ll be telling your friends about by browsing through our site. And remember to check back frequently, as we continue to update the site with new trips, birding opportunities, food finds and much more.)
Visit West Alabama (This website highlights West Alabama, and includes dining, lodging and attraction information for Hale, Tuscaloosa, Bibb and other counties)
About the Author: Joe Watts lives with his wife Ann, an aging Burmese cat and an adopted tabby Siamese mix cat in one of the historic neighborhoods of Birmingham, Alabama. He spent the first 18 years of his life in the Black Belt, before moving away for college. He currently serves on the board of directors for the National Audubon Society and served as President of Birmingham Audubon from 2016-2019. He manages the Alabama Birding Trails project alongside the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development. He has worked in several fields, including a reasonable stint in the publishing industry, working for Southern Progress as a food editor and general writer for several magazines. He’s been a non-profit executive director and currently works as a web developer, graphic designer, writer, tourism consultant and occasional freelance photographer since 2000. In 2013, he became a Certified Interpretive Guide.