Payne Lake could be described as a microcosm of the Oakmulgee, with its mixed hardwood-pine forest, cattail swamp and rolling hills in close proximity. For most birders in Alabama, the Oakmulgee is known as the place to find Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. You may also explore the rolling hills of maples and oaks, the early-succession forests, Cypress swamps and tracts of old-growth Longleaf Pine.
Begin with the entrance road. The mature mixed hardwood-pine forest on both sides of the road is the home to many birds year-round. You can see Blue Jays, Brown Thrashers, Carolina Wrens, Carolina Chickadees, as well as Wood Thrushes, possibly both tanagers, warblers, vireos and other woodland songbirds. From spring through fall, this is the place to see Black-and-white and Kentucky Warblers.
At 1.4 miles, turn to the right to the spillway. At the lower end, Acadian Flycatchers and American Redstarts are common in the warm months. You may also spot Swainson’s Warblers here. The spillway to the north may attract shorebirds in migration and long-legged waders much of the year, but especially late June through first frost. Continue east along the road, and note the picnic shelter to the left by the lake. The trees on both sides of the lake shelter Red-headed Woodpeckers, Red-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos and Northern Parulas (spring to fall). Scan the lake to the north for waterfowl in colder months, for Belted Kingfishers and Bald Eagles all year, and for Osprey (mostly in the warmer months). Swallows soar above and skim the surface of the water in warm months. Watch for Eastern Phoebes, Eastern Wood-Pewees and Chipping Sparrows in the picnic area. There are restrooms in a small building on the south side of the road just beyond the picnic shed.
Follow the road eastward past the lake and left. This section of the park is mostly hardwoods, with a view of the lake to the west. In addition to a good selection of breeding species (vireos, tanagers, woodpeckers, flycatchers), this is an excellent migrant trap and a productive spot to look for wintering feeding flocks in the cooler months.
Retrace your steps past the picnic area and spillway and turn right (north) on the main paved road. This road winds past the lake on your right and a variety of habitats on the left. Watch for a couple of cattail and lily pad inlets on the right. There are often Wood Ducks here. You might see Least Bitterns or King Rails in the breeding season, and American Bitterns in migration. As you approach the campground, there are rolling hills on both sides of the road and Blue Grosbeaks, Prairie Warblers, Worm-eating Warblers, Yellow-breasted Chats, Common Yellowthroats, Brown-headed Nuthatches, and Pine Warblers are common to fairly common in this area. There is a second picnic area shaded by hardwoods next to the restrooms and close to the beach. Orchard Oriole may be seen in the trees.
The road changes to dirt shortly after passing the campground (access restricted to campers) and dead-ends at the parking area for the nature trail. The trail is lengthy — beginning with stretches of dilapidated boardwalk, then a path through dense, wet woods to a promontory overlooking the lake. There is a tremendous amount of bird activity here. You will find Wood Thrushes, Summer Tanagers, Louisiana Waterthrushes, and even Swainson’s Warblers. Be careful on the path; don’t walk alone as it is extremely remote and little-traveled. Wear insect protection and, if possible, leather shoes that extend well above the ankle – this is snake country. Watch out for moccasins, canebreak rattlesnakes, and copperheads. The end of the path has gorgeous stands of native orchids from May through September. If you don’t want to walk the trail, the birding from the parking lot of the nature trail is quite good.
Directions: From the intersection of US 82 and AL 25 in Centreville, AL (fuel, food, and limited lodging available), proceed south on AL 25/5 for 6.5 miles. Turn right (west) on AL 25 (Payne Lake Road) and proceed 16 miles (note the Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat and nesting sites en route) to the right turn at the signage for Payne Lake Recreation Area. The lake is 1.4 miles ahead.
GPS: 32.8805655 -87.446861
Oakmulgee Division, Talladega National Forest (Mailing address)
9901 Highway 5
Brent, AL 35034