Tom Ress, Alabama Birding Trails Ambassador
Ah, the pleasures and pain of winter birding! Winter birdwatching in Alabama can be thrilling, but it can also test the resolve of even the most dedicated birders. Pursuing non-cooperative prey, birders may brave bracing winds, freezing temperatures and cold rain and snow. The physical toll is evident. Fingers and toes let you know of their displeasure with tingling pain; watery eyes make peering through binoculars a challenge; eyebrows develop crusty layers of ice; faces become numb as you squint into your spotting scope. The weather takes a toll on your gear, too. Eyeglasses, binoculars and scopes fog up; boots leak as you slog through wetlands and swamps; gloves get wet and stiff. All good reasons to stay home by the fireplace.
Unfortunately, especially for those of us who don’t like cold weather, winter happens to be prime time for birding. It is the best season to catch ducks and geese gathering as they feed. As the temperatures fall, the waterfowl arrive—and they seem to know where to go to make birding the most unpleasant.
In Alabama, thousands of ducks, geese and other waterfowl congregate on our rivers and lakes after migrating south from their summer breeding and nesting grounds. When they arrive, they’re not looking for thick hardwood forests where hapless birders can enjoy at least some shelter from the winds. You’ll find waterfowl in large numbers on the water because it acts as a food source and offers safety from coyotes and other predators. There’s safety in numbers and the birds know it. This means the water is where you can often spy massive flocks of gadwalls, American wigeons, ring-necked ducks, snow geese and greater white-fronted geese swimming and feeding. So, if you want to see large numbers of waterfowl with little effort, you’re going to have to brave the cutting winds whipping across open water.
The tradeoff is worth it. Winter offers the possibility of spotting some interesting birds. In addition to ducks and geese, over the past couple of decades, Alabama has seen a huge increase in Sandhill cranes. Prior to the 1990s, Sandhill cranes were a rare sighting in the state. Today, thousands migrate into the state with 20,000 or so overwintering at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. American white pelicans have also increased and can be found during the winter at Limestone Bay at Wheeler NWR, Elk River in Limestone County and below Wheeler Dam and Wilson Dam on the Tennessee River.
If you’re looking for something other than waterfowl and wading birds, Alabama has also seen an increase in the bald eagle population. Guntersville State Park and Guntersville Lake are great spots to spy these magnificent birds in the winter. The dropped leaves reveal previously hidden roosts and nests.
Spending fruitless hours in the numbing cold is no treat, so choose birding locations that will maximize your birding numbers. Fortunately, using tools like eBird makes it easier to head to a location that will increase your chances of hitting a waterfowl wonderland.
Checking out known productive birding spots such as the stops on the Alabama Birding Trail should be your first move. A feature of eBird allows you to isolate an Alabama Birding Trail location or other site and review what other birders have spotted there.
Check out eBird before you step out the door and you’ll spend more time in the warmth of your living room and less time in the chilly cold tracking down birding hot spots.
Bundle up and happy birding!