|National Wildlife Refuges||National Parks||Acreage of Important Bird Areas|
Alabama includes a little bit of the Gulf Coast in the south and a little bit of the Appalachians in the north. Both ends are of interest to birders, as are many wildlife refuges, parks, and national forests in between.
In the extreme southwestern corner of the state you’ll find Dauphin Island, a Gulf Coast barrier island that ranks with the legendary “fallout” sites of spring migration. Northbound birds, tired from crossing the Gulf of Mexico, stop here to rest and feed, on good days creating a virtual zoo of songbirds.
Visitors (and locals, too) can take advantage of Alabama’s eight birding trails, offering directions to and information about 270 sites around the state.
Alabama Birding Hotspots
Dauphin Island has long been one of the legendary spring birding sites of the Gulf Coast. When the weather is right (usually after rain or a cold front), this barrier island can see what’s called a “fallout,” when birds that have crossed the Gulf of Mexico home in on the first wooded land they spot. A single tree may shelter a mix of a dozen vireos, thrushes, warblers, and other species.
There’s more to Dauphin Island than migrant songbirds, too. The area’s beaches are frequented by many shorebirds, and there’s a mix of seabirds to see in and above the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The bird list for the relatively small island stands at more than 320.
Some bird habitat has been lost to growing commercial development, but several significant wooded areas have been protected, including a 164-acre dedicated bird sanctuary and smaller areas such as Shell Mound Park and Cadillac Square. From mid-March through mid-May, these and other sites will be full of birders enjoying throngs of migrants and hoping for a rarity such as Ash-throated Flycatcher, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, or Painted Redstart. Gray Kingbird and Black-whiskered Vireo appear with some regularity.
Sites including Pelican Point and Bayfront Park are productive for wading birds, gulls, terns, and marsh birds in general.
A ferry regularly runs the four miles across the bay to historic Fort Morgan, another “fallout” site similar to Dauphin Island. Situated at the tip of a peninsula on the Gulf Coast, Fort Morgan is also a good vantage point from which to watch migrating raptors in fall.
This very rewarding refuge protects beach, dunes, shrub habitat, and woodland on the Fort Morgan Peninsula, west of the lively tourist town of Gulf Shores. Though not as famous as nearby Fort Morgan or Dauphin Island, it can be a fine “fallout” site for spring migrants, as well. Its range of habitats makes Bon Secour an excellent all-around birding location anytime from fall through early summer.
The refuge is known as a nesting area for the threatened Snowy Plover. Certain areas are closed at times to protect the species.
The refuge visitor center on Highway 180 is a fine source of advice, and often has a list of recent bird sightings. Each of the four refuge trails is worth walking, and connections make various combinations possible. The Jeff Friend Trail is a one-mile loop that’s handicapped accessible. The Pine Beach Trail is known for good birding, passing though varied habitats, at one point with a saltwater lagoon on one side and a freshwater lake on the other.
The refuge bird list totals more than 230 species. When it comes to spring migration, just about anything is possible from the entire list of eastern neotropical migrants. Nesting and year-round species include Brown Pelican, Osprey, Common Ground-Dove, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Pine Warbler. Northern Gannet is seen regularly out in the Gulf.
Continuing west on the peninsular about 12 miles leads to historic Fort Morgan, famous as a spring migration hotspot and for raptor migration in fall.
The town of Gulf Shores is known more for spring-break partying and summer family fun than for birding, and nearby Gulf State Park is very busy with tourists in summer and on warm weekends in spring and fall.
From late fall through winter, however, two nearby spots provide lookout points for birders scanning the Gulf of Mexico for waterfowl, loons, and various seabirds. The state park pavilion and the Fishing and Education Pier both offer slightly elevated views out to open water.
Seen fairly often in winter are Black Scoter, Common Loon, Northern Gannet, and Bonaparte’s Gull, along with many other common species of waterfowl, gulls, and terns. Of course, birders are always hoping for rare scoters, loons, shearwaters, or phalaropes.
Away from high tourist season, it can be pleasant to walk the long beach for close looks at shorebirds. Keep in mind that just ten miles west are the fine trails at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, a rewarding birding site from fall through spring.
Birding the 84,000 acres of Conecuh National Forest isn’t as simple as going to one site or walking one trail known for special species. Good birds abound in this area of longleaf pine forest and mixed hardwoods, but birding here usually involves driving some of the paved and unpaved roads and stopping often to look and listen.
Three of the notable birds here are the southern pinewoods trio of Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Bachman’s Sparrow, often target species of visiting birders. The nuthatch is usually easy to find, since the little birds are very active and constantly giving their squeaky call. The woodpecker is widespread in the pinewoods of this national forest, but it’s helpful to find clusters of active nesting trees, usually marked with heavy flows of light-colored sap like candle wax. (Try driving west from Highway 137 on Road 4, near the Florida state line—or better yet, call the national forest office and ask for the location of active colonies. There’s a ranger station in the town of Andalusia.)
Bachman’s Sparrow moves its nesting areas as the habitat changes, and can be hard to find except in spring and early summer when it sings its trilling whistle.
Other birds to look for here include Wild Turkey, Swallow-tailed Kite (rare), Red-headed Woodpecker, and Painted Bunting.
Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge is located on the Alabama-Georgia border where a dam has created the Walter F. George Reservoir on the Chattahoochee River. (The refuge includes a unit on the Georgia side, one of that state’s best birding sites.) Habitats include woodland, shrubby and open fields, and various wetlands, including the reservoir itself.
Because the refuge features several different areas and has seasonal closures, it’s a good idea for a first-time visitor to call for advice or stop at the refuge headquarters on Highway 165 about ten miles north of the town of Eufaula. The easiest way to experience the refuge is to drive the seven-mile auto tour route on Highway 285 a short distance south of the headquarters.
Apart from the waterfowl and waders typical of the Southeast, the tour route offers a rewarding mix of habitats, hosting species of open country, shrubby fields, and forest. At times, water levels in impoundments attract a good variety of shorebirds, and Sandhill Crane has appeared occasionally in fields. Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, and Brown-headed Nuthatch are among the resident birds. Osprey and Bald Eagle are seen fairly commonly, and Northern Harriers hunt over fields in winter.
With such a diversity of habitats, Eufaula offers interesting birding practically year-round. Midsummer can be hot and devoid of much land bird activity, but late summer brings shorebird migration. Visitors should be aware of hunting seasons and which areas are closed in winter to avoid disturbing waterfowl.
Located in the Talladega National Forest about 75 miles northeast of Birmingham, Coleman Lake is an attractive recreation area with campsites and picnic areas. Mature longleaf pine forest makes it home to several sought-after birds.
Birders from outside the South visit areas like this to find three pine-specialist birds: Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Bachman’s Sparrow. All these are present in the Coleman Lake area, but there’s also a bonus: for some time this has been the southernmost places in the eastern United States to find Red Crossbill. These finches, with their oddly crossed bills that evolved to extract conifer seeds, are found frequently in area pines, though flocks wander erratically. Listen for their calls to find them.
Other nesting birds found near Coleman Lake include Yellow-throated Vireo, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Scarlet Tanager. Blue-headed Vireo, a scarce breeder in Alabama, has nested in the area.
Cheaha State Park, in the Talladega National Forest about 60 miles east of Birmingham, is named for 2,411-foot Cheaha Mountain, the highest point in Alabama. Birders know it as one of the most rewarding destinations in the state.
Though Cheaha’s species list isn’t as long as that of a low-country wetland area, it's quite special for the region. As an extension of the Appalachian Mountains, the site hosts nesting species such as Blue-headed Vireo, Cedar Waxwing, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Scarlet Tanager.
Alabama Highway 281, also known as Talladega Scenic Drive, winds through the Talladega National Forest to reach the state park. By stopping at overlooks and exploring side roads, birders can experience different habitats on the way to Cheaha. Once at the park, several trails allow exploration of the site. The Bald Rock and Pulpit Rock trails both lead to excellent lookout points with views of the surrounding forest and hills.
Other notable breeding birds of Cheaha include Wild Turkey, Pileated Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Prairie Warbler, and Blue Grosbeak. In fall, birders gather at the observation platform atop the mountain to search the sky for migrating raptors.
About 30 miles southeast of Huntsville in northeastern Alabama, Guntersville Lake ranks among the most popular birding destinations in the state. The chance to see nesting and wintering Bald Eagles may be the highlight, but the lake is equally known for wintering waterfowl, nesting Osprey, and wading birds.
Guntersville Lake is a large and sprawling impoundment on the Tennessee River, and has several viewing areas favored by local birders. One of them is Guntersville State Park, on Highway 227 northeast of the town of the same name. From the shore here in winter can often be seen dabbling and diving ducks, loons, grebes, and Bald Eagles. The park hosts very popular eagle-themed programs in winter. By continuing past the park over the Town Creek Bridge, you’ll reach other viewpoints along Highway 227.
In the town of Guntersville itself, walking trails parallel the lakeshore nearly all around the peninsula on which the town is located. These trails make it easy to move around to where rafts of waterfowl may be located in winter. Northwest of the town, Guntersville Dam is excellent for viewing Bald Eagles year-round, as they regularly nest nearby. The dam area offers another chance to view the lake itself for waterbirds and gulls. A number of unusual raptors have showed up here over the years, including regular visits by Peregine Falcon. Both the north and south sides of the dam are good birding locations, but there’s no road across the dam. A long, roundabout drive must be made to go from one side of the river to the other.
One of Alabama’s premier birding sites, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge comprises several units near the cities of Decatur and Huntsville. With a cumulative bird list of more than 260 species, it’s productive year-round because of its wide range of habitats. Visitors to the refuge can explore bottomland hardwood swamps, fields where geese and cranes feed in winter, open lake with wintering diving ducks and loons, and forests with residents and migrant songbirds. Refuge sites are mostly located on backwaters of the Tennessee River upstream from Wheeler Lake.
The best first stop for birders is the excellent refuge visitor center southeast of Decatur off Highway 67. Maps and advice here can help newcomers find various sites around the refuge, the directions to which are sometimes complicated. In addition, the nearby observation building provides an enclosed area with large windows for viewing wintering flocks of geese, ducks, and Sandhill Cranes. Endangered Whooping Cranes are sometimes present here, part of an introduced population breeding in the upper Midwest.
Similar winter viewing can be found at the refuge’s Beaverdam Peninsula Tower, near Limestone Bay on the other side of the Tennessee River from the refuge visitor center (south of I-565). Also on Limestone Bay, Arrowhead Landing is one of the best local sites for viewing ducks and other waterbirds when water is high; find shorebirds and wading birds here when the water is low. Also in that area, the Beaverdam Swamp trail winds through an extensive tupelo swamp, where birds include Barred Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, and Prothonotary Warbler.
Dancy Bottoms, south of the refuge visitor center and east of Highway 31, is another place to explore a hardwood swamp, with similar species as Beaverdam Swamp. Nearly any woodland around the refuge can be good for songbirds in spring migration, but Dancy Bottoms is a favorite in that season.
These are just a few of the most popular birding areas. Refuge personnel can provide other suggestions depending on the season.
Designated an Audubon Important Bird Area, this 180,000-acre national forest in northwestern Alabama’s Cumberland Plateau contains a wide diversity of woodland types, from shortleaf and longleaf pine to most hardwood valleys to drier oak-hickory. It also encompasses some of the state’s most scenic landscapes and Alabama’s only national wild and scenic river.
Songbirds, especially warblers, make Bankhead National Forest a favorite birding destination. Brown-headed Nuthatch, Ovenbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Kentucky Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Cerulean Warbler (a local specialty), Black-throated Green Warbler, Summer Tanager, and Scarlet Tanager nest here, among more than 80 breeding species.
An information kiosk is located on Highway 33 about 11 miles south of the town of Moulton. One popular birding route is Northwest Road, which runs west from Highway 33 about a mile south of the kiosk. Another 1.5 miles south on Highway 33, a drive west on Cranal Road leads in 3.9 miles to the Sipsey Wilderness Area, known for nesting Cerulean Warbler.
Take Road 5 off Cranal Road to reach the Sipsey River picnic area, another good spot to explore. At the Brushy Creek Recreation Area east of Highway 33, a 30-acre lake is home to birds such as Wood Duck and Belted Kingfisher, adding interest to a day in the national forest.
You could wander anywhere in Alabama and see rich natural habitats and beautiful birds, but when the wind shifts in spring or fall, it’s time to head for the coast. The Gulf of Mexico exerts a powerful influence on migratory birds, and twice a year the tiny transients swarm by the thousands along its shores. The Alabama Coastal Birding Trail will lead you to the best of the migrant stopover sites, from legendary places like Fort Morgan and Dauphin Island to dozens of lesser-known gems. On big migration days the trees are alive with a kaleidoscopic swirl of brightly hued warblers, tanagers, orioles, buntings, and other songbirds, resting and refueling for the next leg of their journeys. Throngs of sandpipers and plovers march across the mudflats. Ibises and egrets pirouette in the shallows. On days when migration is slow, you can follow loops of the trail to inland woods, where you might hear the surprisingly sweet whistles of the elusive Bachman’s sparrow or a barred owl belting out baritone hoots from the deep shadows of a cypress swamp.