Some of the most historically significant landscapes in the U.S. South are also home to remarkable biodiversity. Bobolinks and kites still inhabit meadows and fields where Black people were once enslaved. Shorebirds nest on coastlines where slave ships once landed, and Barred Owls call through the night over paths that freedom seekers once tread.
Across the region, historians, residents, guides, and naturalists are sharing with visitors how Black heritage, the history of U.S. slavery, and the struggle for civil rights are intertwined with the surrounding landscape and wildlife. Birders can gain a deeper, more nuanced sense of this history and place firsthand with these standout tours, festivals, and trails.
Harriet Tubman Byway, Eastern Shore, Maryland
Abolitionist Harriet Tubman was an unsung naturalist, even using the call of a Barred Owl to safely signal to freedom seekers as they made their way, by night, along the harrowing path to escape their enslavers. Tubman’s intimate familiarity with the great outdoors began when she was just a little girl, then called Araminta Ross, growing up in Dorchester County, Maryland.
In 2020, lifelong resident Alex Green, who has run Harriet Tubman Tours with his wife Lisa since 2017, and Jim Rapp, longtime owner of Delmarva Birding Weekends, began collaborating to weave these related worlds together into one experience: Birding the Harriet Tubman Byway. “It’s like lost history,” Green says of the stories connected to these sites, many of which are now open spaces or abandoned buildings. The tours, he says, “connect the dots” between nature and history through these stories.
In winter, tour participants caravan to a number of sites significant to Tubman’s life and childhood. In warmer months, they tour by both car and boat, listening to stories from the Greens and looking for birds such as resident Bald Eagles with Rapp. “It’s not like, ‘Here’s a Tubman site, here’s a birding site.’ It really is the whole landscape,” Rapp says.
One stop is the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Before it became a federal migratory waterfowl refuge in 1933, it was a muskrat farm that relied on enslaved laborers, where young Araminta would check traps. “She had to go out there in this harsh environment and do these horrible tasks as an enslaved eight-year-old girl,” Rapp says. “We have this mental picture of a place that can be beautiful, but also there’s tragedy there. Every time I leave the tour I always have a different emotion through me.”
Where and when to go: The Harriet Tubman Byway is a 125-mile self-guided drive through Maryland’s Eastern Shore, including the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park designated by Congress in 2014. Birding the Harriet Tubman Byway tours, which focus on Dorchester and Caroline counties, are scheduled year-round (summer 2023 dates are in July, August, and September).
Black Belt National Heritage Area and Birding Festival, Alabama
Southern Alabama’s Black Belt region, which Congress declared a National Heritage Area in 2023, is a sprawling landscape of farm fields and diverse natural habitats, from riparian forest to tallgrass prairie. Its wildlife areas and parks, such as the Cahaba National Wildlife Refuge and the Tuskegee National Forest, are also home to some 450 bird species. To date, however, tourists have more commonly come to learn about the area’s fertile civil rights history than to experience nature. In the 1950s, Black Americans risked their lives here rallying for desegregation and the right to vote, becoming shepherds of the Civil Rights Movement after centuries of slavery, sharecropping, and Jim Crow laws. Landmarks include the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, a National Historical Landmark where, in 1965, police brutally beat voting rights marchers.
This storied rural region, however, also struggles with high poverty today. As part of efforts to spur economic development, many are looking to attract a new wave of ecotourists, says Scot Duncan, executive director of Alabama Audubon. To celebrate and discover the area’s rich avian biodiversity, you can attend Alabama Audubon’s Black Belt Birding Festival, now in its third year, this August. (It’s the perfect time to make the trip: the state declared 2023 the “Year of Alabama Birding.")
Third-generation cattle farmer and agritourism advocate Chris Joe, who hosts one of the festival’s popular events, is among the leading voices of this movement. “You think about the South, you think about civil rights, Selma, but what else is there that you can showcase? It’s the land, it’s the people that take care of the land, and the wildlife that goes with it,” says Joe, from his family’s Black Angus cattle farm near Greensboro. Joe was looking for creative ways to showcase the farm’s environmentally friendly approach to habitat management, he said. “I came up with: ‘Why don’t we just start seeing if people want to come in and birdwatch with us?’ Next thing you know, it just took off.”
Visitors to the Joe Farm might see Dickcissels, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Summer Tanagers, and Indigo Buntings, not to mention the Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites that swirl and swoop as they chase the tornado of insects kicked up by the Joes’ tractor. Beyond the festival, the Joes do additional birding tours on their land. “We try to make people understand that they can observe nature without having to feel like they have to be rich in order to get the experience,” Joe says. “You don’t have to go all around the world to experience something different.”
Where and when to go: The third annual Black Belt Birding Festival takes place this summer on August 4 and 5 (registration closes July 31), and includes a range of field outings and events. Dress for hot weather. The Joes also welcome birders several times a year, and you can explore the Alabama Black Belt Heritage Area website for other natural, historical, and cultural attractions in the region.
Jekyll Island and the Colonial Coast Birding Trail, Georgia
Birders will find the stops along Georgia’s Colonial Coast Birding Trail a flurry of activity year-round, but especially in summer when seabirds, shorebirds, and wading birds nest. Anyone following the route should be sure to visit one particular site: Jekyll Island’s South End Beach. This barrier island is home to the Wanderer Memory Trail, which was first established in 2018 and declared a “Site of Memory” by UNESCO’s Routes of Enslaved Peoples project. The interactive site shares the story of the Wanderer, a ship that landed illegally in 1858 carrying more than 400 enslaved Africans— decades after the federal government outlawed the slave trade. Visitors follow the journey of Umwalla, who was kidnapped to the United States from his home in Guinea at age 10 and taken to Georgia aboard the ship.
The birding trail also overlaps with a stretch of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, home to many historic sites of significance to the Gullah Geechee people. Descendants of formerly enslaved West and Central Africans, they call the coast from North Carolina to northern Florida, including the Georgia Sea Islands, home.
Queen Quet Marquetta Goodwine, chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation and founder of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition, says the region’s rich cultural history and nature environment are deeply intertwined in Gullah/Geechee tradition. “Water is all through our lives,” she says. “Water is all through our spirituals. [We’re always] working somehow in the waterways, with the water.” Her community, she says, has fought long and hard to preserve the coastline’s beaches and forests to protect all living creatures who reside there. That’s why Gullah/Geechee destinations, from the Pin Point Heritage Museum to the Cumberland Island National Seashore, are edifying places to learn from and enjoy local culture and wildlife.
When and where to go: Explore Jekyll Island (including the Wanderer Memory Trail) and stops along the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and the Colonial Coast Birding Trail year-round. Shorebird migration here happens in late summer.