Oak Mountain State Park is the state’s largest park, and its 10,000 acres of richly wooded ridges, valleys, lakes and streams provide recreational opportunities for the state’s largest metropolitan area. Birders enjoy a wide range of birding opportunities, depending on whether you choose to bird by car or prefer to explore on foot, using the park’s extensive system of hiking trails. However, if time is a consideration, you should consider visiting the areas within the park that are most accessible and offer the greatest variety of habitats.
From the main park entrance, follow John Findlay III Drive, named for John Findlay, a local birder who established the bluebird box trail that is much in evidence throughout the park. As you might expect, Eastern Bluebirds are abundant here. As you pass the golf course, check the water hazards for herons, and there are always Killdeer around. The pines here have good numbers of Pine Warblers and Brown-headed Nuthatches. Hawks often hunt the fairways. Look for Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, and Broad-winged (April to September) here.
At dusk and dawn, you can occasionally spot American Woodcocks at the edge of the woods ringing the golf course, and Great Horned Owls are present here at night, as are Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-will’s-widows, though only overnight campers are allowed in the park after dark. The woods along Findlay Boulevard and Terrace Drive are often good for birds, but the heavy traffic along these roads, particularly on warm weather weekends and holidays, makes it advisable to forego birding from these roadsides on such days.
The only major paved road that intersects Findlay Drive is Terrace Drive, which leads to several good birding spots. Turn right on Terrace Drive, and take the first steep paved road to the left to visit the Alabama Wildlife Center. There are very active feeder stations here, and you are welcome to come in and view the birds from the Center’s comfortable observation room overlooking the feeders, which are suspended just outside the window. In addition to feeders, there is a small watering area that usually has many birds–especially during dry weather. The Center cares for injured and orphaned native birds, and is well worth a tour of the premises. In addition to birds being rehabilitated for release, there are multiple birds, particularly raptors, with injuries that have kept them from being released, including a beautiful Bald Eagle and a Eurasian Eagle Owl.
For a good opportunity to learn more about the geology and biology of the park, don’t miss a visit to the park’s Interpretive Center, operated by Samford University, which is located in the building next to the Wildlife Center. The Interpretive Center also has an open-air deck overlooking a wooded ravine where birding opportunities combine with comfortable benches and a peaceful surroundings.
Return downhill to Terrace Drive and turn left. Pass the Park Headquarters on your right and make your next stop at the Wildlife Center’s Treetop Nature Trail, on your left, a 300-foot elevated boardwalk set among mature hardwoods in a stream-fed valley close to the lake. Elevated cages along the boardwalk house a number of non-releasable birds of prey, and the handicapped-accessible elevated boardwalk provides comfortable benches as well as good woodland birding.
Resume your driving tour along Terrace Drive, to a left turn onto Peavine Falls Road and follow it through rich woods toward the highest point in the park. This road crosses a couple of streams; look for Acadian Flycatchers, Louisiana Waterthrushes, and Eastern Phoebes here. Yellow-throated Warblers are fairly common in the hardwoods here, and Red-eyed Vireos are common throughout the park from April to October. The road levels out along the brow of Oak Mountain, where you’ll be rewarded with spectacular vistas. There is a pull-out area here with a few picnic tables. It provides an excellent vantage point to the west. This is the best hawk-watching site in the park and is also a good migrant trap in spring and fall. Breeding birds include Scarlet and Summer tanagers, Black-and-white Warbler, and Broad-winged Hawks. Watch for passing feeding flocks of songbirds here in winter, when juncos line the road and Cedar Waxwings seem to be in all the trees along the ridge. Blue-headed Vireos may be found here occasionally in any season.
Peavine Falls Road ends in the parking lot for the trail to Peavine Falls. That trail is well marked and well traveled. The entire trail is densely wooded and doesn’t vary in elevation until near the end, which is rugged, demanding proper footwear and good fitness and stamina. The lower – older – falls trail is also interesting. It is deeply rutted and barely maintained, but can be rewarding for birds. At the summit of the park, you should expect a heady mix of songbirds. This high point can be especially good following the passage of a weather front during migration.
Returning to Findlay Drive, turn right and continue roughly six miles, passing on your way the North Trailhead, the starting point for several of the park’s most scenic hiking trails. A short distance past the trailhead, Findlay Drive ends at the upper and lower fishing lakes at the northeast end of the park. The upper lake is the larger of the two. Scan the water for ducks and other waterfowl in the colder months, and look for swallows over the water in the warm months. Canada Geese congregate on the banks here, and Belted Kingfishers, Bald Eagles, and Ospreys often fish in the lake. The thick second-growth tangle on the west side of the dam should be birded intensely. The number of species and individuals there can be staggering. Indigo Buntings, American Goldfinches, Blue Grosbeaks, White-eyed Vireos, Common Yellowthroats, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, House Wrens, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Gray Catbirds, Field Sparrows, Summer Tanagers, Orchard Orioles, and on. The list of birds that breed along this strip seems endless. Late fall brings White-throated, Song, and Swamp sparrows; Winter Wrens; Ruby-crowned Kinglets; Yellow-rumped and Palm warblers – to name a few. This area should be worked intensely.
The area around the lower fishing lake is about as good, with Yellow-throated Warblers and some Northern Parulas in the tall pines near the lake in the spring and summer. Every woodpecker native to the state, with the exception of the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker – is seen here regularly. Watch for waterfowl on the lake; Wood Ducks, Pied-billed Grebes, American Coots, and Double-crested Cormorants are most evident. Osprey are regulars and may be observed at close range from the shoreline of the lower lake, as may be the occasional Bald Eagle. There are always a few herons around, and winter birds include good numbers of Hermit Thrushes, a few Fox Sparrows, and occasionally a handful of White-crowned Sparrows and Red-breasted Nuthatches. The areas around the fishing lakes are without doubt one of the most consistently entertaining and productive birding spots in central Alabama.
GPS: 33.319986 – 86.763904
Amenities: Parking, Restrooms, picnic areas, trails, boat launch, fishing
There are multiple opportunities at the park for those who use wheelchairs. The Treetop Nature Trail near the Alabama Wildlife Center offers boardwalk access; the Wildlife Center is accessible. There is one accessible cabin on the lake that can be reserved for overnight visits up to a year in advance.
From I-65 in Shelby County, take exit 246 (Highway 119/Cahaba Valley Road) Turn to the west onto Highway 119, and left again at the traffic light in .1 mile onto State Park Rd. Follow State Park Road for approximately 2 miles, and turn left onto John Findlay Drive, which runs the length of the park. The park has restrooms, drinking fountains, and vending stations. Service stations, restaurants, and lodging in abundance may be found along Highway 119, and on nearby US 31.
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