By Jim Hannaford
Photos by Kate Reali
The yellow-rumped warbler was on a marathon flight to sunny Central America when it experienced a slight delay. The sudden stop near Fort Morgan was a brief one, but it was long enough to launch a career path for 12-year-old Emma Rhodes.
The small bird was one of literally billions on a migration course through our area when it was captured in a specially designed net as part of a scientific bird-banding program in the Fort Morgan area. Rhodes was on a field trip with a tour group from the Alabama Coastal BirdFest when the two older gentlemen in charge of the banding demonstration, Bill Summerour and Bob Sargent, asked her to assist. They fitted the bird with an identification band (kind of like an ID bracelet) and asked Rhodes to release the warbler back into the wild. In that moment she realized that hands-on work with birds could be a viable vocation.
“I remember letting the bird go, and I was just awestruck,” she says. “At that point I was hooked, and that experience confirmed in me what I wanted to do with my life.”
Twelve years since that life-changing experience, Rhodes is a full-time avian biologist for Birmingham Audubon’s Coastal Programs who is dedicated to helping protect and sustain bird habitat. Not everyone that’s active in the birding community here is as serious about it as she is, but they all seem to agree that this ever-growing pastime is rewarding on many levels. It’s a hobby that’s fairly easy to take up, doesn’t cost a lot in terms of equipment and supplies, is relaxing, and is simply a great reason to get outside and enjoy nature. And here on the Eastern Shore, we can enjoy a wealth of birding opportunities starting, more than likely, in our own yards.
“We’ve got a lot of birds here, and it’s a wonderful place to experience birds,” says Dr. John Borom, who is widely respected as one of our top local birding experts. “The kinds of birds you see depends on the season of the year, and the fall is one of the best times to see lots of birds because they are beginning their migration.”
Biologists say that around 445 different species of birds have been reported in Alabama, and the vast majority of those have been in our two coastal counties. Starting in October, it’s nothing short of incredible how many birds pass through (or at least over) our area – literally billions of birds fly hundreds or even thousands of miles from North America to spend the winter months in warmer places such as Mexico, Central America, and South America, where food is more plentiful. Each April, they return north to their breeding grounds.
Borom is the retired longtime director of Faulkner State Community College (now Coastal Alabama Community College). Like Rhodes, his love of nature came early. He recalls his dad (who was Fairhope’s high school football coach) pointing out coveys of quail back in the late 1940s near their family home off Morphy Avenue in an area that was largely undeveloped back then, but today is home to the Thomas Hospital complex.
“I had a father that would show me things when I was a little kid. Not everyone has that,” Borom says. “It was a wonderful place to grow up. It’s still a wonderful place to live, but it’s very different today.”
His comments spark a conversation about development, which threatens birds because it destroys some of the habitat that they need to live and reproduce. Saving as much of that precious habitat as possible is the main mission of the BirdFest, which is in its sixteenth year and was named in Borom’s honor back in 2008.
Coastal Birding Trail
“You won’t find a better treasure than this,” says Lynne Fitzgerald, who heads up a group called Audubon Eastern Shore Birders. She is talking specifically about the Village Point Park in Daphne, where 3,000 feet of trails, including a sturdy wooden boardwalk in places, wind through some 70 acres of woodlands, swamps, and marsh. “There are all the different habitats right here.”
And for the seasoned eyes and ears of Fitzgerald and a handful of friends gathered here on a weekday evening, there is a lot to experience. Variously they point out wading herons and diving terns as well as a bee-lining pair of black-bellied whistling ducks, a hovering hummingbird, and an imposing osprey flapping regally overhead, its talons clasping what appeared to be a freshly caught mullet.
The park in Daphne, just south of Bayfront Park with its big pier, is one of 50 stops along the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail, which is not contiguous but includes six different loops of trails totaling around 200 miles starting in Lillian and stretching westward to Grand Bay. Though many of the locations on the trail are more primitive, this one in Daphne is well maintained and easy to access and has amenities that include a spacious parking lot, clean public restrooms, and a covered picnic pavilion.
“There aren’t that many communities that have something like this,” says Fitzgerald. And she should know. A retired educator from Louisiana, she traveled widely before settling on the Eastern Shore in part because of the birding opportunities. Birding is considered to be one of the fastest-growing hobbies in the world, and Fitzgerald believes one of the reasons for that is that it is so easy to get started. Literally, all you have to do is “stop, listen, and look” – but it helps to have a good pair of binoculars and a field guide (or, increasingly, a smartphone camera and eBird app). You can do it alone in your own backyard or with a group on a field trip, and you also can enjoy it along with other outdoor activities.
The four-day Birdfest, which is the first weekend in October each year, includes sightseeing tours on local waterways and educational events at sites such as 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center as well as a free Bird and Conservation Expo at the community college campus in downtown Fairhope. Proceeds go toward conservation efforts, specifically the purchase of land to preserve bird habitat.
The festival draws from around Alabama and other states, too, so there’s no question it contributes to the local economy. It is one of several facets of ecotourism that is being promoted through tourism websites and social media platforms. “It’s a growing industry, something that’s evolving and coming of age,” says Phillip Hinesley, a nature tourism specialist with Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism. “People are wanting to get more in touch with nature.”
Birding Goes Digital
It’s a timeless hobby, but it’s getting younger in some respects.
The stereotypical bird watcher (or birder, as they prefer to be known) is a gray-haired retiree with a pair of binoculars hanging from around his or her neck, and Baldwin County certainly has plenty of those. But there’s a younger breed of birder these days that’s armed with a smartphone instead. A free app and interactive computer database called eBird, which was developed by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, allows people in the field to upload photos and track locations of birds almost instantly around the world. Use of the app has increased tremendously in recent years, meaning that birding has gone digital in a big way. Another popular app called Merlin helps users identify birds.
“I would call it a citizen science project that has been widely successful,” says Kathy Hicks, an educator at 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center, which is operated by the Lands Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “It’s a tremendous resource for learning about bird behavior and learning birds in general.”
Hicks says that, yes, most birders are older, but she is seeing younger faces along the trails. She estimates that 80 percent of them use eBird on their phones or their computers at home. Recently, eBird had a “rare bird alert” that a fork-tailed flycatcher (whose range is typically southern Mexico to Argentina) was spotted near the museum at Fort Morgan. Within hours there were 50 or so birders there to observe. “It gets the word out,” Hicks says.
More than 400,000 birders have entered more than 500 million bird sightings on eBird, and this data helps researchers make sense of why birds travel throughout the year, which species are thriving and which are not doing as well. This is all important because, even after centuries of study, a lot of what we know about avian biology is still shrouded in mystery.