The University Arboretum is simply the best location in the immediate vicinity of Tuscaloosa to find woodland songbirds. With the exception of the hottest days of summer, mid-June through August, the arboretum is full of bird activity. The site seems to attract a small number of visitors and thus offers a quiet refuge for both wildlife and the folks who visit. You may be tempted to bird the heavily wooded entrance road from 15th Sreet, as there is considerable bird activity. Be careful; this is essentially one wide lane and there is traffic. It’s best to park at the end of the road and walk back to see the birds. Birding along this road is actually best in winter when sparrows, wrens, and kinglets tend to seek cover in the dense vegetation here.
The gravel parking area is more than adequate for several cars. It is shaded by numerous tall hardwoods, with a shrubby understory. Spend some time looking up from the parking lot, especially in migration. The canopy here is less dense than along most of the park’s trails, and thus affords a better view of the birds present than some other parts of the arboretum.
As you enter from the parking lot, there is a more open central area with two buildings housing a small greenhouse, a picnic shed, and administrative offices. There are public restrooms here. Eastern Phoebes and Eastern Bluebirds are always present around these buildings and on the nearby lawn. Except in winter, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are often feeding on the plants around the greenhouse. Some of the most productive birding at the arboretum is accomplished from the open area here – surrounded by edge, with both mid-story and canopy clearly visible, scan the trees for vireos, warblers, Summer Tanagers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, flycatchers, various woodpeckers, nuthatches, etc. It’s a good location to scan for Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanager and Baltimore Orioles during migration. From November through May, these trees can be full of Cedar Waxwings. The seeds and fruits here draw good numbers of wintering finches and other songbirds, too. In fact, if pressed for time, one could bird the parking lot and the trees and shrubs near the conservatory and compile a rather impressive list of species for the day.
Resist the temptation-there’s more to see. Behind the greenhouse lies a small wetland with an observation platform. You’ll likely find nothing more rare than Common Yellowthroats or a startled Green Heron here, but Red-winged Blackbirds and grackles do stop in. The fact is, water is the greatest single attractant for wildlife, and birds consistently drop in to this area to drink and bathe, especially in periods of dry weather.
Venture further and walk some of the well-marked trails on the periphery of the arboretum. There are interpretative signs throughout that help visitors identify and understand the native plants that carpet the landscape here. The birds along the trails are not vastly different from those nearer the greenhouse complex, other than the presence of more under- and mid-story species – expect Hooded and Kentucky Warblers, Wood Thrushes, and more wrens and sparrows. The canopy is dense here and, at times, more birds are heard than seen. However, as the paths lead away from the more-visited portions of the arboretum, the more likely you are to encounter a Barred Owl, a Cooper’s or Red-shouldered hawk or a Pileated Woodpecker. The trails are far less dense in winter, and that may be the best time for birding along the paths. On the other hand, the profusion of wildflowers and ferns in the spring can offset the effects of the dense canopy in spring. As the late Tom Imhof one said: “When the birds are slow, botanize!”
In summary, the arboretum is an attractive, convenient site that offers a wealth of songbirds through three seasons. It is well worth a half-day visit any time between September and mid-June. The site is mostly level and well-maintained, with staff present during the work week.
GPS: 33.192138 -87.478184
4801 Arboretum Way
Tuscaloosa, AL 35404
The site is currently not accessible--paths are relatively wide, but can become muddy during rainy weather. It is possible to schedule a golf cart for those with accessibility challenges if scheduled in advance.
From I-20/59 in Tuscaloosa (Tuscaloosa County), take exit 73 (McFarland Boulevard) and proceed north on McFarland for 1.7 miles. Turn right (east) on 15th Street and continue for 2.2 miles. Exit right at the sign for the VA Medical Center and the arboretum. Turn left at the sign for the arboretum. The road dead-ends in the University of Alabama Arboretum’s parking area.
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