Best known to most outsiders for the civil rights struggle, Birmingham is also known for a huge iron statue of the Roman god Vulcan, first class medical research, and, increasingly, great food. Missing any of these would be missing the heart of this southern icon. But, with over 250 birds on the county checklist, there are excellent birds at nearly every step.
Anytime in Birmingham can offer good birding opportunities, but spring in the Magic City really is magic. Migration brings an onslaught of songbirds, some passing through as they head far north to their breeding grounds, others settling down for the season. Winter is usually least productive, and summer is, well, hot. Even in winter, though, waterfowl, from Ross’ Goose to wayward waders, can turn up nearby. In summer, nesting Anhinga are just a stone’s throw away—along with soaring Mississippi Kites. Even Roseate Spoonbills and Wood Storks have been spotted within 30 miles of the city center, though that’s outside the norm.
If flying into the Birmingham Airport, be sure to spend a little time around the edges. Loggerhead Shrike live near the airport in small numbers year-round (Check e-bird for the best spots). Wintering sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks are also possibilities. As with many airport areas, this one hasn’t had the same growth and redevelopment that other parts of the city have seen in recent years, so don’t expect glamour.
Highlights for any visit to Birmingham include the obvious, or at least obvious to a Birmingham insider: a visit to the Civil Rights Institute (bcri.org), the statue of Vulcan, largest cast iron statue in the world (visitvulcan.com), the Negro Southern League Museum (birminghamnslm.org), and Sloss Furnaces (slossfurnaces.com). But you can find plenty of information about these places to visit. For birding, the parks, including some very near these attractions, are the highlights.
Day One: In the City in Spring
7 a.m. Grab a cup of coffee and a pastry at The Abbey in Avondale (theabbeybham.com) before heading to the eastern side of Birmingham for some migrant watching. Anytime during the day can be good here, but early morning offers a symphony of birdsong. Kenucky, Chestnut-sided, and Hooded Warblers get started singing early in the day, so an early wake-up call is really worth it.
Ruffner Mountain is the place to start your morning adventure. A thousand-acre park in the city of Birmingham, Ruffner Mountain has nearly 15 miles of trails, ranging from easy to challenging. Start your morning by sipping coffee (bring your own) at the treetop deck, listening to (and watching for) birds. A walk along one of the trails offers an almost immediate immersion into wilderness and a great opportunity for spring migrants continuing their northward journey, following an exhausting trip across the Gulf of Mexico. Fall brings some of those same migrants back, as Ruffner provides a good place to eat and build strength before the long flight south. Vegetation along the trails can be thick, so you will hear some birds that you never see, but whenever there are open areas, expect to find birds there as well. The park rarely seems crowded or noisy, and the birds are plentiful. (ruffnermountain.org)
Looking for a lunch spot after exploring? Drive just 3 miles to the Irondale Cafe (made famous by the movie Fried Green Tomatoes as the WhistleStop Café) for a cafeteria-style meal, complete with, you guessed it, fried green tomatoes and hearty slices of pie. (irondalecafe.com)
East Lake Park makes a perfect after lunch stop. There will likely be migrants in season, but the reason to visit is the lake and the Black-crowned Night-Herons. The herons usually spend all day on the small island at the center of the lake, away from humans, but close enough to be carefully observed. Water from Roebuck Springs and Village Creek keeps this 45-acre lake full. The 100-acre park shelters the lake (and the birds) from the surrounding urban area. Mature hardwoods are home to resident songbirds, as well as winter feeding flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Highlights are the resident Black-crowned Night-Herons and, from spring to fall, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. Green Herons and Hooded Mergansers are frequent visitors in season. Belted Kingfishers work the lake while swallows (Barn, Rough-winged and sometimes Tree and Cliff) swoop over the water. Watch the skies for Red-tailed and Red-shouldered hawks, too.
The 67-acre Birmingham Botanical Gardens is a great place to end a long day of birding. Walk along the mostly level grounds, enjoy the beautiful blooms and watch for some of the 150 birds documented here. The Gardens is listed as one of the top attractions in Alabama for a reason. It is one of the best sites for songbirds in the Birmingham area, particularly during spring and fall migration. Concentrate on the more-natural northern end of the park, especially 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. You’ll almost certainly find both White-breasted and Brown-headed Nuthatches year-round, along with just about any songbird that passes through Alabama in spring. (bbgardens.org)
Spend the night just across the street from the Gardens at the new Grand Bohemian Hotel Mountain Brook. The hotel is located within 5 minutes of the Birmingham Zoo and less than 15 minutes from the Vulcan Statue and Park and downtown Birmingham. Enjoy family style pizza less than a mile away at Davenports Pizza Palace, serving the same thin crust pizza for over 50 years. Enjoy a nostalgic scoop of ice cream on the way back at Mountain Brook Creamery.
Alternatively, get a head start on the next day by driving south to Oak Mountain State Park (see description under Day 2). Tent and RV camping, along with back-country camping options are available. Spend your evening deep in the woods listening to owls calling before getting up early and avoiding rush hour!
Day 2: Close by, but Deep in the Woods
Rise early for breakfast at Another Broken Egg or coffee and a pastry at Revelator Coffee before heading out for another day. If you spent the night at Oak Mountain, brew yourself a cup of coffee over a campfire and enjoy the birdsong from your tent-site.
Get started birding with a visit to Oak Mountain State Park, Alabama’s largest state park. With 10,000 acres of ridgeline, valleys, lakes and streams, it is just a 30-minute drive from downtown Birmingham. There are miles of roads to drive within the park, a lake you can paddle on (rentals available) and over 50 miles of trails to hike and bike. Birds abound throughout the park, but a sure spot to find them is the Alabama Wildlife Center on Terrace Drive, a 5-minute car ride from the park entrance. In addition to the many injured birds receiving care in the facility, there are multiple bird feeders that attract a multitude of songbirds. Look along the lakeshore for waders. A hike to Peavine Falls can provide some good woodland birds, but mostly provides a nice hike to enjoy the waterfall. Black-throated Green Warblers and Blue-headed Vireos breed in the highest elevations in the park – be sure you’re familiar with their songs and listen for them as you hike the ridgetops. (alapark.com/oak-mountain-state-park)
Break for lunch, either with a picnic in the park or by heading towards Alabaster, about 20 minutes south. Joe’s Italian has the kind of lasagna that will help you get through the rest of the day, or take a nap trying. Their Lasagna Bianca combines spicy sausage, turnip greens and a rich cream sauce into a dish you won’t soon forget. For a lighter lunch, try their tomato basil soup, but be sure to save room for one of their famous cakes. (joesitalianonline.com)
Next, head 15 minutes south to Limestone Park, an unusual Tupelo Gum swamp that shares space with an RC aircraft club. The model aircraft is visible (and audible) most mornings, but the birds seem to have decided to accept them, and rarely react. American Coots and Pied-billed Grebes are usually common as are most hawks and both vulture species. Blue-winged Teal are usually here year-round. The real treat, though, are the Anhinga, which have nested nearby in recent years. The park has hosted Roseate Spoonbills and Wood Storks as well, though these were very uncommon sightings.
Ebenezer Swamp Ecological Preserve is another 10-minute drive west of Limestone. An upland hardwood swamp has an accessible boardwalk that leads you into the swamp. Prothonotary Warblers, Northern Parulas, Common Yellow-throats and Yellow-throated Warblers are all present spring and summer, as are Summer Tanagers, Wood Thrushes and Hooded Warblers. Barred Owls are common, as are Pileated and Red-headed Woodpeckers. Keep an eye out for beavers, a keystone species for the park. Glossy Ibis and Purple Gallinule have been seen in the park. Expecting to find them would be a mistake, but knowing that rarities are relatively common here is a reason to expect the unexpected.
Railroad Park: Not a traditional birding hotspot, but right in the heart of Birmingham’s developing downtown, the park is close to several of the city’s museums and offers an excellent place to enjoy a quick walk. Highlights in the park include Peregrine Falcons, Green Herons, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons and other surprises. Due to it’s central location, the park boasts well over 100 species of birds. Spring and fall are typically the best bets for birds, but surprises happen often. Stroll across the street to have coffee at the Red Cat or visit the Negro Southern League Museum. Catch a minor league baseball game at Regions Field, within easy walking distance. (railroadpark.org)
Avondale Park: A small, urban park, Avondale Park is at the heart of one of Birmingham’s developing entertainment venues. A brewery and a dozen restaurants are within easy walking distance of the park. What the park lacks in size and wildness, it makes up for by providing reliable Brown-headed Nuthatches and occasional rarities for the area, such as Common Loons and Ross’ Goose. The park can be birded in 30 minutes. Walking across the street for dinner at Melt, a grilled cheese sandwich restaurant, or Saw’s BBQ and a local beer at Avondale Brewery make this park an easy choice.
Moss Rock Preserve: A 349-acre nature preserve and 10 miles of trails, you may find Blue Grosbeaks, Yellow-breasted Chats, and American Woodcocks in season. The plant biodiversity found in sandstone glades within the park is surprising, with multiple rare and sensitive species. More than 140 species of birds have been recorded on the preserve.
Turkey Creek Nature Preserve: A fast-flowing stream and a series of waterfalls along with botanical diversity makes this park an outstanding spot to bird on all but the hottest days of summer. Hooded, Black-and-white, Kentucky and Pine Warblers breed here, along with Scarlet and Summer Tanagers. Watch for Louisiana Waterthrushes and Acadian Flycatchers in the warmer months. Located northeast of Birmingham, it would be easy to spend a half-day birding the park. (turkeycreeknp.com)
Connect with Audubon: Alabama Audubon (alaudubon.org) has been active in Alabama for more than 75 years, leading multiple outings every month. With ongoing projects throughout the state, be sure to check with them to find out if there’s an event while you are visiting. Bird-walks and other events are open to the public and, typically, free.
About the Author: Joe Watts lives with his wife Ann and two young Burmese cats in one of the historic neighborhoods of Birmingham, Alabama. He currently serves on the board of directors for the National Audubon Society and served as President of Alabama 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.