The Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge was established in 2002 to protect this section of the state’s longest free-flowing river. The river is wonderfully biologically diverse – with more fish species, at 131, than any other river its size in North America. The section of the river known as Hargrove Shoals contains the largest stand of the rare shoals lily (known locally as the Cahaba lily) on the planet. In fact, the river and the surrounding woodlands provide habitat for a surprising number of rare and endangered species. To visit the Cahaba is to turn back the clock – to venture into a land where species you’ve never seen before are common, and many plants and animals that are extremely difficult to find are abundant.
An annual highlight occurs from mid-May through very early June, when the Cahaba lilies bloom. There is an annual festival in West Blocton on the last Saturday in May in honor of these stunning flowers. The festival includes guided tours to the lily shoals and is well worth your time.
There is presently but a single road that traverses the Cahaba NWR, and after the first quarter-mile, the road parallels the river itself for its duration. A word of caution: this is a narrow gravel road. It is effectively a single lane, and requires care to negotiate oncoming traffic. Be careful if on foot – there is very little room for pedestrians. There are a few pull-outs and parking spots available along the gravel road; use them to leave vehicles behind and walk along the road’s edge and to access the (few) trails that intersect with the road.
Think of the refuge as consisting of three habitat zones, each with its own distinct birdlife. The first zone is the river itself and its banks and the adjacent trees and shrubs. The river attracts Belted Kingfishers, Great Blue Herons, and the occasional Osprey or Bald Eagle. Both the latter species nest in the area. There are numerous wildflowers and shrubs along the banks of the Cahaba. Look for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in the Mimosas, as well as around the many other hummingbird-pollinated plants found here. Among the great variety of plantlife found here, note the Hop hornbeams, Ti-ti’s, and Ironwoods along the riverbanks. Louisiana Waterthrushes are common along the river, as are Prothonotary Warblers. You’ll see many Northern Parulas and Yellow-throated Warblers in the trees along the river, and this is a fine place to get a good look at Acadian Flycatchers. American Redstarts also breed here, and Common Yellowthroats are easy to spot in the thickets along the riverbank. Red-shouldered is the most common type of hawk here, with Cooper’s being next.
To the west of the road and upland a bit from the riverbank is mixed hardwood forest – white oak and beech, green ash and shagbark hickory…this mixed hardwood forest has a broad range of birds: Wood Thrushes, Summer Tanagers, Orchard Orioles, Eastern Wood Pewees, Great Crested Flycatchers, as well as Hooded, Black-and-white, and Kentucky Warblers. The area is strong for White-breasted Nuthatches and particularly woodpeckers, including Pileated and a few Hairy and Red-headed. This is the best area on the refuge for migrants in spring and fall, when virtually any species may drop in, as well as for mixed-species feeding flocks of songbirds in winter.
Along the ridges are longleaf and loblolly pinewoods. The common warbler here is Pine, with Worm-eating and Prairie Warblers in the undergrowth, along with numerous Yellow-breasted Chats. Brown-headed Nuthatches are common here. Watch for Bobwhites and turkeys. This area approaches the southern limit for the breeding range of both Scarlet Tanagers and Black-throated Green Warblers, and surprisingly, they may be seen here in small numbers most years.
Close by is the Bibb County Glades Preserve. Be sure to take an hour to explore there as well, particularly in spring and fall.
GPS: 33.0931632 -87.0593142
Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge (Mailing address)
PO Box 5087
Anniston, AL 36205
From the intersection of I-459 and I-59/20 in western Jefferson County (ample fuel, food, and lodging nearby), follow I-59/20 westward 9.1 miles to exit 97 and merge southward on AL 5. In approximately 10 miles, turn left (east) onto Bibb County 24. In 5.3 miles, turn right – within sight of the Piper Bridge over the Cahaba River – at the sign for the Cahaba River NWR and follow River Trace through the refuge.
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