At 11,252 acres, the Tuskegee National Forest is the smallest in the national forest system and one of only six forests in the system contained in a single county. The Forest incorporates a diverse mix of habitats-mixed pine and hardwood groves, broad ridges and floodplains with stream terraces. The Forest is well watered, with Uhapee, Tsinia, Choctafaula and Hodnett Creeks all flowing through it. The list of birds you can see here is quite impressive, as is the unusual variety of plant species.
A good starting point for your trip through the Forest is Forest Service (FS) Road 900. From Macon County Road 186, turn left (west) onto FS 900 and proceed to the trailhead for the Pleasant Hill trail. This trail meanders through mixed groves of pines and hardwoods. Expect to see a good complement of woodland songbirds. A few miles further on FS 900, you will approach an access point for the Bartram Trail, a National Recreation Trail. Eight and a half miles of the Trail wind through the Tuskegee. A short hike at this access will lead you to a small tributary of Choctafaula Creek. At that point, you have a choice-turn around and return to AL-186 or continue the drive on FS 900, which intersects with FS 913. There is another parking area and access to additional hiking. The other choice is retrace your drive back to the intersection of FS 900 and AL 186. Across the highway is the eastern part of FS 900.
Cross the highway (exercise caution, as Exit 42 of I-85 is a short distance north) and continue onto the packed-clay of Forest Service (FS) 900. The woods here are mixed late-succession hardwoods with a dense understory. From spring through fall, they are filled with Summer Tanagers, Red-eyed Vireos, Wood Thrushes, Great Crested Flycatchers and a host of other woodland songbirds. Drive a bit further to the point where a small creeklet flows under the road. You will see Yellow-throated Vireos in the warm months, as well as Northern Parulas and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Bear left at the intersection with FS-906. There is an extensive floodplain to the right. Look for Swainson’s Warblers from spring through early fall. You’ll find numerous Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Wild Turkeys, Red-shouldered Hawks and Barred Owls.
In a short distance, turn right onto FS-910. The woods begin to thin out, soon becoming rolling grasslands and early-succession scrub with scattered stands of pines. The birds here are completely different from those found two miles up the road. Expect to see Prairie Warblers, Yellow-breasted Chats, Eastern Bluebirds, Field Sparrows, Eastern Towhees and Common Yellowthroats. Common Ground-doves are present on the edges of the woods, but they are easily overlooked among the Indigo Buntings, Eastern Kingbirds and Blue Grosbeaks. Chipping Sparrows and Slate-colored Juncos are abundant in winter. You may spot Northern Bobwhites, but the major attractions at dawn and dusk are American Woodcocks and Chuck-will’s-widows. Each are found on the edges of the woods; Chuck-will’s-widows are present from spring through fall. American Woodcocks are permanent residents, though most numerous in the cooler months. They perform their courting ritual- “peent-ing” and performing their “sky dance”- from January through early June. Great Horned Owls and Red-tailed Hawks hunt the open country. Mississippi Kites nest sparingly in areas with scattered mature trees, and they may be seen soaring over almost any part of the forest from late March through late summer.
At the intersection, turn right onto CR-54 (Vaughan’s Mill Road), a narrow red clay road that leads to US-29 (two and a half miles to the south). In approximately a mile, turn right (west) onto FS 911 to visit the two fishing ponds the Forest Service maintains. Okhusee Thloko (Big Pond) and Okhusee Chutkee (Small Pond) are well maintained with a fringe of mixed hardwood/pine forest surrounding the waters and a short trail system paralleling the ponds. A few wading birds and woodland species will be present.
Turn right on US-29 (MLK Highway) and in less than a mile, turn right into another parking area for the Bartram Trail access. The trail passes through mixed mature pine-oak woodlands, where Kentucky Warblers and Wood Thrushes (warm months) and Hermit Thrushes (cooler months) and woodpeckers are common. Expect to see mixed species feeding flocks along the trail in the cooler months.
A bit farther west along US-29 is the intersection with US-80. Continue on US-29, and just beyond Baker Road, turn to the right to access the Taska Recreation Area. The tall, open pines harbor Pine Warblers and Brown-headed Nuthatches throughout the year, and numerous Yellow-throated Warblers in the warmer months. This is also the best spot in the forest to look (and especially listen) for Bachman’s Sparrows in spring. FS 913A, behind the Recreation Area, will lead the birder to the Pleasant Hill Lookout for an elevated view of the Forest.
Continue westward on US-29/80 and turn right on FS-930 to access the southern terminus of the Pleasant Hill Trail. Perhaps the more interesting adventure is to follow FS-930, a paved road that seems to no longer be maintained, through mid-level second-growth habitat to the west and upland pine forest to the right. Following the old road for a mile or two should produce a good bird list at any time other than the heat of summer.
Return to US-29/80 and continue west. In two and half miles, you will see a sign for Tsinia Wildlife Viewing Area. Turn left (south) onto FS 937, passing through an somewhat open area of pines and hardwoods. The Viewing Area is to your right. Park in the small pull-off and walk the boardwalk (carefully, as of this writing, it was poorly maintained) which leads to a beaver pond. Tsinia Creek (in the Creek language, it means “to view or peep”) and the surrounding 125 acres was once used by the Creeks probably as a hunting area. The Forest Service now manages it for wildlife and plant observations. There are several paths that meander through the area. Any one of them will provide the birder with the usual complement of songbirds.
The town of Tuskegee is about a mile away and Lake Tuskegee is just ahead on the left. Simply take a left on Macon Drive to reach the lake. Devote a full day to properly bird the Tuskegee National Forest.
GPS: N 32.46835 W -85.57703
From I-85 near Tuskegee (food, fuel, lodging available), take exit 42 and travel east on CR-186. The boundary of the Tuskegee National Forest is less than a mile ahead; all roads intersecting CR-186 between this point and US-80 are Forest Service roads that lead into the Tuskegee National Forest.