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May 31, 2006   Email to Friend 

Birdwatching Soars to New Heights in Alabama
April Hawthorne

Nearly 63 million Americans enjoy birdwatching each year.
Alabama's mild climate and varied landscape make it the perfect place for one of the nation's fastest growing hobbies. Armed with a field guide and a set of binoculars anyone can become a full-fledged "birder."

The hobby, also known as avitourism, is taking flight in Alabama with at least six designated birding trails throughout the state. The sites aren't "trails" in the traditional sense, but a series of mostly roadside stops selected for their bird-watching characteristics.

Nearly 63 million Americans enjoy bird watching each year, according to Stan Hamilton, president of the Alabama Ornithological Society. Those watchers spend an estimated $32 billion nationally each year. In Alabama, wildlife viewing, which includes birding, has a $1.3 billion impact on the state, according to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). Bird watchers are as varied as the winged species that fly the skies of Alabama.

John Porter of Mobile County, a 78-year-old retired physics professor from the University of Alabama, is one of many who became interested in the sport simply by placing bird feeders in his backyard. Soon, the winged creatures captivated Porter and his wife. The couple began traveling to see more species, and then they discovered Dauphin Island in south Alabama.

"Dauphin Island is an important 'stop-over' spot for birds when they are migrating to and from Central and South America," said Porter. "It's the spot where they stop and rest from their long journey."

Porter, who formerly lived in Tuscaloosa, loved birding on Dauphin Island so much he later decided to make it his home. Last year, he helped it win recognition as "America's Birdiest Small City," a competition, coordinated by the San Diego Audubon Society that encourages cities and counties to count the species of birds living within their borders.

Such contests prompt people to discover the more than 400 species of birds found in Alabama, a much larger number than in many states. Keith Hudson, a wildlife biologist for the Alabama Wildlife and Fisheries Division of DCNR, says Alabama has a large variety of fowl because of the many habitats the state landscape offers. Hamilton agrees, adding that Alabama is one of the top places to go birding because of the birds' migratory patterns. While Alabama's birding trails include both public and privately owned land, Ann Miller, 76, a wife and homemaker from Jefferson County, takes advantage of Alabama's beautiful state parks to do her birding.

"I enjoy Guntersville, the Tennessee Valley, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Oak Mountain State Park and the Birmingham Botanical Gardens just to name a few," said Miller.

Miller's love of bird watching and her joy of spotting new species helped awaken another hobby within her -- photography -- as a way to document the birds she observes. She describes birding as fun, relaxing and challenging, and a great way to spend a vacation.

Mike Wilson, 49, a technician at the Mobile Press Register from Mobile County, agrees, adding it's a great activity for couples to enjoy.

"My wife is my birding partner," said Wilson, who started birding after noticing the birds in his own yard. "It has gotten us into boating and identifying butterflies, too. Once you get into it, there is so much you can do."

Wilson added that while some consider bird watching a sport and others consider it a hobby, he compromises and calls it a "recreational sport."

Porter, on the other hand, said many people consider it a competitive sport in the sense that some make a long-term competition of seeing how many species they can spot in a lifetime.

"Dedicated birders keep a life list of the species they see," Porter said. "This means they are competing with themselves as well as fellow birders."

In Alabama, there are plenty of places birders can go to lengthen their lists. The Alabama Coastal Birding Trail, for example, spans Mobile and Baldwin counties and boasts 50 sites -- specific spots visitors can stop to look for birds. The trail's sites are organized into six loops, which are clusters of sites close together. Visitors to this trail might see the rare sandhill crane with its dark gray legs and 80-inch wingspan.

"We group sites together into loops so that people can estimate how long each part of their trip will take," said Colette Boehm, director of special projects for the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail. "This lets people know how many stops they can make each day."

The Riverbend Gliders Trail weaves through the flat, fertile corridor of the Black Warrior, Cahaba, Alabama, Tombigbee and Conecuh river basins. Pine warbler and pileated woodpecker, plus neotropical drop-ins such as the blue-gray gnatcatcher, are among those found here. A peek underneath bridges may reveal the nesting habitat of barn swallows, and winter brings a good population of double-crested cormorants.

In central Alabama, birders can visit the Upper Cahaba River Birding Trail in Jefferson County, which spans more than 26 miles. Birders there might spot the Alabama state bird, the yellowhammer.

The North Alabama Birding Trail focuses on the area around the Tennessee River. Landscapes in the region range from tupelo swamps to blazing fields of wildflowers, and towering forests of oak and hickory to vast sheets of open water filled with loafing waterfowl. During winter, large roosts of bald eagles form and stragglers from farther north can be found with the abundant waterfowl and gulls.

Some of the trails were chosen because of the large number of birds that can be seen at one time, while others offer a rare glimpse of more elusive species such as the Cerulean Warbler which, according to Hudson, might be seen while visiting Bankhead National Forest's picnic area on the North Alabama Birding Trail. Birders will know they've spotted this rare bird when they see its blue-gray coloring and black stripes on the back of its small body.

A complete list of trails can be found at www.TourAlabama.org, sponsored by the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel, or www.OutdoorAlabama.com, sponsored by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Use of these trails is mostly free, although there are a few sites that require visitors to pay a small fee.

The Alabama Ornithological Society is working to make birding in Alabama easier.

"The Society is in the last year of creating a breeding bird atlas," said Hamilton. "We've been documenting all birds that breed in the state for five years in order to help people more easily locate specific species."

Porter says while birding is most popular with middle-aged to older Alabamians, it's an activity almost anyone can enjoy. Aspiring bird watchers can get started in their own backyards with the help of the Backyard Conservation booklet, which can be ordered from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service by calling 1-888-LANDCARE. The booklet provides tips and step-by-step projects to attract birds.

Backyard birders can expect to see a variety of Alabama's plentiful species such as the American goldfinch, a small bird with a yellow face and yellow or greenish under parts or maybe the Carolina chickadee with its white face, black crown and grayish under parts.

As new birding trails gain popularity, combining the sport with other activities such as boating, hiking and photography could likely take bird watching to new heights in Alabama.


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