Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Birding Alabama


Body of water near Florida Short Rd near Guntersville, AL 3-16-10

I birded my way to Alabama counting vultures and hawks along the highway. In a little over three hours we arrive at my friend Ruth's house and are greeted warmly by her family. I have known Ruth and Ron since before we were both married. She and I helped each other through pregnancies and childrearing. Now all these years later we are still friends. Though we may only see each other once a year we always feel comfortable with one another and get very easily back into whatever conversation we choose. She is such a good friend that she does not even mind me leaving first thing the next morning to go birding with Matt Morrow, a young man I met through my blog. Matt will be coming to Arizona soon to see owls and I hope to go birding with him here.

I awaken early on Tuesday, March 16 to another gray and gloomy sky. Still, it does not dampen my sprits as I dress, leaving Gus behind to visit with our friends. I meet Emma in the kitchen. Emma is the granddaughter of Ruth and very bright. I have known her since she was born. She and I have kept up bit of a friendship over the past 10 years of her growing up and I am so happy to have her going birding with me. I remind her to dress warmly and bring dry socks and shoes in case her feet get wet. We leave the house and head south to Guntersville, about an hour away from us.


Pine Warbler near Guntersville, AL 3-16-10

On our way to meet Matt we stop at a parking lot after crossing a causeway. Before us the dark pewter water ripples through the tall green pines. I pause in my trek to the water's edge to photograph a pine warbler down in he grass. It is a small gem amongst all the large water birds we will see today. Then Emma and I draw near the water’s edge where we see hundreds of cormorants and seagulls floating in and flying over the gloomy and tossing waters. The lighting is terrible for photography, so we make a quick count, then get back on the road. I am eager to meet Matt!

DSC_0612 Matt and Emma 3-16-10

We finally meet up with him at Lake Guntersville Boat landing. As soon as we get out of the car Emma announces that she is cold. In spite of my warning, she did not bring an extra jacket. Fortunately for her, I have one she can wear in the car. I greet Matt with a hug. He is taller than I expected. I sense his gentle sprit right away. I start chattering like a magpie and then we turn and start looking for birds.


The first bird we see is a Great Blue Heron wading belly deep in the water. Emma is duly impressed by the bird, but quickly looses interest and starts clambering around the banks and the boat docks. “Don’t tumble into that water,” I admonish her. “I don’t want to have to fish you out of there!” Emma smiles and flits about like a water sprite or a butterfly as if she is not aware that there are gloomy skies above. She is her own little ray of sunshine on this gray day.

While Emma plays, Matt and I count birds. While I only have binoculars, Matt has a spotting scope. I see the flock of Canada geese flying overhead. I can see a few Double–crested Cormorants fly by. Coots are everywhere like fleas on the water but we need Matt’s scope to see the Common Loons far out over the expanse of gray water. We can also see purple martins flying. Then Matt finds Horned Grebes for me! This is my first Life Bird* of the day, number 372! As if to echo my elation a Carolina wren bursts into song from the forest edge. The liquid notes fill the air around us and then a Bufflehead pops up right in front of us! Who cares about the grayness, this is a great day! In the lagoon behind us Matt shows both Emma and I the black-crowned night herons he had scoped out before we arrived. Then, as we return to our cars a Kingfisher makes its appearance at the forest edge. When we focus our bins on it, it flies around the bend and out of sight. With most of the birds counted in this location, we moved on to the south end of Guntersville Dam.

DSC_0619The Guntersville Dam South is where I was suppose to meet Matt originally, but I am glad we changed our plans and met at the boat landing. I could have found my way almost here, but I might have missed the final turn which is a nondescript back road that winds down through forests and fields. I must say that in spite of the gloomy day I am quite surprised by the rolling hills and deep forests of Alabama. I expected it to be all flat swamp land. At least in this part of the state it is not.

DSC_0625 Matt brought me here to see if we could find a Red-headed woodpecker. When I first left on this trip, that was my one target bird. I think I may have seen one when I was a teenager in Connecticut, but I am not sure and I do not have the species on my Life List. However, the next bird I add to my Alabama list is this Bonaparte’s gull. I have only seen it one other time in 2006 at the Bear River Bird Refuge near Brigham City, UT. It is a lovely little bird with delicate wings. Matt says you can tell it by its tern-like quality and the triangular white patches on its wingtips. I watch the exquisite bird fly by, a graceful note in this gray day. All around us the birds are wheeling and calling. A cold wind blows over the water. I pull on my knit gloves and keep on watching. After awhile we move away from the water’s edge towards the wooded part of this location. As we are walking down the paved roadway towards a trail I see a bird at the base of a large tree. As Matt and I get our bins on it, Matt exclaims, “There it is! There is the Red-headed Woodpecker!”

DSC_0648And sure enough, there is my Red-headed Woodpecker, Life Bird* number 373! I am amazed by the bold blocks of color. In true woodpecker fashion, it clings to the bark of the tree and works its way up the trunk to the branches, searching the bark for a meal. When we draw near the woodpecker uses the tree as a shield and keeps the tree between us and it working its way around the circumference.

DSC_0652 We continue down the road fully aware of the time crunch. I promised my friends I would be back by noontime for lunch. Already the morning is getting way from us. Around us the sky and the forest is full of vultures. If you love vultures, then you need to come here, because I counted at least 30 black vultures and 12 turkey vultures, and those are conservative numbers.

DSC_0653 They eye us hungrily as we walked by. It is decided that we do not have time to go for a hike down the trail and so we work our way back to the waters edge where we find killdeer, an eastern bluebird, a junco, an American goldfinch, and a Tufted Titmouse.

DSC_0666A downy woodpecker clings to the bark of this tree. I smile to see this “common” bird, for I have not seen one in a long time. Then, just as we are about to get in our cars to leave matt spots a pair of juvenile Bald Eagles over the water. I try to get a shot of them and I do, but they are so far down the river and the light is so poor that the photos are not worth showing. Still, I come away with two life birds for the day.

DSC_0692 But I am not done yet. We follow Matt to the Rt. 431 Pilings along the Tennessee River Bridge where he points out a Lesser Black-back Gull asleep on one of them. Life Bird* number 374! Three Lifers for the day!

DSC_0693Before we leave, I hand Emma my Nikon D80 and let her take a picture of Matt and I. Matt is a gentle soul and a gentleman. I so enjoyed his company. He is very knowledgeable of the birds in his area and was a tremendous help in showing them to Emma and I. He was immensely patient with both of us, and I look forward to birding with him again.


We drive home tired but happy and just barely in time for lunch. The rest of the day is spent with Ruth and Ron. We go out to dinner that evening, then come home and chat before going off to bed. Of course, I counted birds in Ruth's yard all three days I was there. It was at her house that I saw Cardinals, Cowbirds, House Finches, White –throated and Song Sparrows, Mockingbirds and Mourning doves.

The next morning it is time to say good-bye. As we stand on the front porch with all our stuff in the car I throw my arms around Ruth's neck and suddenly the dam breaks. I am sobbing on her shoulder and she and I both know that it isn’t just because I am saying good-bye to her. Ruth knows she is getting all the tears I had held back in Kentucky. Now I am in a safe place. Now they flow freely on the shoulder of my good friend. Now I WILL cry. DSC_0740

Ruth and Kathie 3-17-10

And Ruth pats my back and tells me she loves me and understands. Then Gus takes this picture of us and we get in our car and start driving and once again I start to count the birds.

Alabama Birding List:

  1. American Robin
  2. Turkey vulture
  3. European Starling
  4. Blue Jay
  5. Northern Mockingbird
  6. Northern Cardinal
  7. Dark-eyed Junco (slate-colored)
  8. Mourning dove
  9. Carolina chickadee
  10. Red-winged Blackbird
  11. Song-sparrow
  12. Ring-billed gull
  13. Pine Warbler
  14. Double-crested cormorant
  15. American Coot
  16. Carolina Wren
  17. Bufflehead
  18. Canada goose
  19. Tufted Titmouse
  20. Horned Grebe*
  21. Herring gull
  22. Great blue heron
  23. Black-crowned Night heron
  24. Belted Kingfisher
  25. Purple martin
  26. common Loon
  27. Red-bellied woodpecker
  28. Cedar Waxwing
  29. Bonaparte’s gull
  30. American goldfinch
  31. Killdeer
  32. Red-headed woodpecker*
  33. Northern flicker
  34. American kestrel
  35. Eastern bluebird
  36. Downy woodpecker
  37. Bald Eagle
  38. Black vulture
  39. White-breasted Nuthatch
  40. Lesser Black-backed gull*
  41. Pied-billed Grebe
  42. House finch
  43. Chipping sparrow
  44. Brown-headed cowbird
  45. American Crow
  46. White-throated sparrow
  47. Eastern meadowlark

*Life Birds-the first time I have seen this particular species in my life.

For More information on birding in Alabama and the Guntersville area click on the following links:

North Alabama Birding Trail

Guntersville State Park

Guntersville Peninsula


Anonymous said...

Wow Kathie, that Red-headed Woodpecker was certainly worth seeing. A striking bird indeed.

Unknown said...


I loved reading your blog, and I had such a nice time birding with you. I only wish you could have stayed longer as I could've easily found brown-headed nuthatch for you. If you come back again, come in mid-April, and we'll clean up on a dozen or more warbler species at the dam or at Monte Sano State Park in Huntsville.

P.S. The day after you were here, while I was waiting for the next visitation time at the hospital, I went to Hays' Nature Preserve in Huntsville with my little cousin, and saw at least 15 or 20 red-headed woodpeckers. I don't know why I thought I'd never seen them there before. Although if we'd gone there instead, you would've missed your horned grebe and LBBG. Guntersville is much better in the winter, though Hays' can be amazing in the spring.

- Matt

Anonymous said...

Kathie, it was wonderful to have you around, even though it was such a short visit! I'm so glad you enjoyed visiting with our family and that you found so many great birds. Too bad the weather was so cold and dreary while you were here, you will have to come back again to see our warm sunny days too! Thanks for including the pics of Emma :). ~Jess

FAB said...

Hi Kathie. What an enjoyable and profitable trip you had with a 'companion soul' to find all those super additions to your list. Great read. FAB.

Kathie Brown said...

Roy, later on it landed in the grass right in front of us, but the lighting was so dim and gray that none of my shots came out as well as I had hoped. Still, I was thrilled to see it.

Matt, I can only hope that I can come back one day. I would like to see your state when the sun is shining! It was much different from what I expected. Thanks again for all your help.

Jess, you know I love you all! It was such fun and I did get some good pics. I meant to let your Dad download them befor eI left, but forgot. I will have to send them to you or else post them on Facebook! Emma is a hoot!

Early Birder, Thank you. It constantly amazes me how easy it is to be with other birders. So far my experience has been that we fall into comfortable companionship!

Mary said...

Wonderful account of your trip so far. I have never seen the black vultures and seldom see a Red-headed woodpecker...neat! I think it is funny that while I was collecting "life birds" in Tucson, you are collecting them on my side of the country :-) Isn't it great to travel??