Alabama’s myriad of rivers, lakes, streams, and beaches, and its dense hardwood and pine forests are critical habitats for hundreds of species of birds, not only the common backyard variety but also many rare and endangered species. How many, you ask? How about over 440 between Huntsville in the north to Mobile on the Gulf Coast.
This diversity makes Alabama a birder’s paradise, so much so that over 10 years ago, the Alabama Non-Game Wildlife agency and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources joined forces to create a trail that isn’t a mere path but a string of 280 separate locations (and growing) across the state that have been identified as prime areas for bird-watching, places where you can simply immerse yourself in the joyful sounds of birdsong. It’s called the Alabama Birding Trail.
These locations have been divided up into eight separate geologic regions: the Appalachian Highlands, Black Belt, Coastal, North Alabama, Piedmont Plateau, Piney Woods, West Alabama, and Wiregrass Regions.
Each of the stops on the trail offers viewing along paths that range in difficulty from challenging to easy handicap-accessible treks. One day you can stroll down old logging roads through beautiful swamps and wetlands to glimpse brown thrashers or brown-headed nuthatch. The next, leave your footprints on the white beaches of the Gulf of Mexico as you spy on osprey and sandpipers. Then travel to take in panoramic views from a mountaintop overlook, gazing skyward as a bald eagle soars overhead. Best of all, within each of these regions, you can make wonderful weekend excursions as you hop from one site to another while enjoying all that each town and city along the route has to offer.
To make the most of your birding adventures in the state, I highly recommend that you make plans to attend the annual Alabama Coastal Birdfest. The five-day event takes place the first week of October and is packed wall-to-wall with presentations on everything from raptor demonstrations to how-to” instruction and many -- and I mean many -- guided tours of various locations across the Alabama Gulf Coast including the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta (also known as America’s Amazon).
So, what are some of the best locations along the Alabama Birding Trail, you ask? Whew, there are many. But here are 10 of my favorites from each region.
1. Audubon Bird Sanctuary
Coastal Region, Dauphin Island
Alabama’s barrier island, Dauphin Island, is known as “America’s Birdiest Town.” And for good reason. The island is recognized by the National Audubon Society as one of the top four bird-watching locations in the world and a “globally important location for bird migration.” In fact, of the 440 species of birds found in Alabama, Dauphin Island plays host to 420 of them. That’s 95 percent of all species in the state, and the best place to see them is at the Audubon Bird Sanctuary.
The sanctuary is open seven days a week from sunrise to sunset and is located on the island’s main road, Bienville Blvd. Here, you will find 4.5-miles of easy walking trails (trail maps are available online) that interconnect and lead you through wetlands, past shimmering ponds and lakes, and to the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, you will be treated to Swainson’s Warblers, nesting Osprey, Black Whispered Vireo, or any number of migrating birds.
2. Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge
Coastal Region, Gulf Shores
Over 300 species of birds have been cataloged at the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge on Alabama Highway 180 in Gulf Shores. Miles of easy walking trail (one of which -- the Jeff Friend Trail -- is handicap accessible) transition you from maritime forest and wetlands to the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the species you may see along the trail include bald eagles and peregrine falcon in winter, Prairie Warblers, and along the beach, the scurrying and hectic day of the tiny Snowy Plover. On the refuge’s Pine Beach Trail, there is a huge two-story birding platform that overlooks Gator Lake and Little Lagoon, the perfect spot to relax, enjoy lunch or a snack, and watch the birds. Trail maps are available online.
3. Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge
Wiregrass Region, Eufaula
The Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge is described as having some of the best birding found anywhere in the state. That’s due to the site’s location, on the banks of Lake Eufaula. The refuge consists of several different units, each a patchwork of mixed woodlands, open fields, and marshes that provide homes to an incredible number of bird species including the Orchid Oriole, Dark-Eyed Junco, and Indigo Buntings.
While there are miles and miles of easy walking trails throughout each of the refuge’s units, the rangers at Eufaula suggest that you begin by doing a driving tour along Wildlife Drive, stopping at various birding platforms along the way to get a feel for the enormous site.
The refuge is located seven miles north of the town of Eufaula on Highway 65. It’s open seven days a week from sunrise to sunset but is closed to the public from November through March so that wintering waterfowl are not disturbed.
4. Old Cahawba Archaeological Park
Black Belt Region, Orville
Mix a little bit of history with your birding at the Old Cahawba Archaeological Park. Located on Cahaba Road in Orville, Alabama, Old Cahawba was once the site of the state capitol from 1820 to 1826 and is now an active archaeological site.
The first thing you will notice as you drive into the park is the old church from the 1800s and the grassy fields surrounding it, which provide homes to many different species of songbirds.
From there, there are numerous easy-walking nature trails through the bottomland hardwoods to view Eastern Towhees, Grasshopper Sparrows, Flycatchers, and many more as you make your way to the banks of the wide Cahaba River.
The park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. The visitor center opens at 10 a.m. The attendants love to chat about the park’s history and suggest the best trails to take that will make your birding adventure more enjoyable.
5. Little River State Forest
Piney Woods, Uriah
A hidden little gem off Alabama Highway 21 just north of Atmore is Little River State Forest. Here, the 3.2-mile moderately difficult Gazebo Trail winds its way through a mixed deciduous and pine forest where many different songbirds serenade you as well as a variety of warblers, cardinals, and nuthatches.
The forest is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, closed major holidays. There is a small day-use fee to enter.
6. Moundville Archaeological Park
West Alabama Region, Moundville
Expansive open fields dotted with marshland offer the perfect birding location at Moundville Archaeological Park.
Maintained by the University of Alabama, Moundville was once the site where Native Americans lived during the Mississippian period around 1000 A.D. Here, they built tall earthen mounds where they either lived or held ceremonial events.
Not only is Moundville a historic and active archaeological site, but it’s also a prime birding location. Whether you drive and stop at locations along the Mound Road that encircles the site or walk the easy nature trail, you will be able to view many different bird species including the Eastern Phoebe and Eastern Kingbirds, and catch Mississippi Kites soaring in the deep blue sky.
Located on Mound State Parkway in Moundville, the site is open from sunrise to sunset. The admission office is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., so if you arrive before the office opens, be sure to return to it and pay your admission fee before leaving. There is also a fascinating museum located on-site that is a must-see with artifacts and films depicting life at this location all those centuries ago. Admission is included with your entrance fee. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
7. Coon Creek Nature Preserve And Recreation Area
Piedmont Region, Tallassee
A beautiful, easy-walking hiking trail, the 4-mile (total) Wood Duck Trail at the Coon Creek Nature Preserve in Tallassee makes for a perfect hike, especially as the sun comes up with a light fog coming off the preserve’s namesake creek. As you silently walk the path, you will be treated to way too many birds to name here, but you will definitely spot Osprey, Belted Kingfishers, Blue Heron, Egrets, and, of course, Wood Duck.
This is one peaceful and quiet trail. In fact, most of the time you will be the only one hiking it. The trail is open sunrise to sunset and is located on Yates Lake Road.
8. Ruffner Mountain Nature Center And Preserve
Appalachian Highlands, Birmingham
A key green space for birds and wildlife is located on the northern side of Birmingham -- the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve.
Ruffner features an extensive trail system that ranges from easy to difficult, interconnecting to form many possible loop hikes that weave their way through a varied habitat of upland forest and wetlands. A wide variety of berries such as Sugarberry and Saddle Berry produce fruit that attracts many species of birds, among them the Red-Eyed and Yellow-Throated Vireo, Summer Tanagers, and the Red-Headed and Pileated Woodpecker. Winter brings a variety of Sapsuckers and Wrens, and from the preserve’s Winter and Cambrian Overlooks, you can watch Red Tail Hawks soaring overhead in the cold winter air.
A centerpiece of the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve is the Nature Center that has exhibits and hosts presentations that focus on the environment, wildlife, and history of the mountain.
Admission to Ruffner is free although they do ask for a donation to help continue their mission. The preserve is located on 81st Street South in Birmingham and is open Tuesday through Sunday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
9. Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area
Piedmont Region, Delta
Only a few miles west of Cheaha Mountain and state park in the Talladega National Forest, the Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area is a popular parking area for hikers to hike upstream to several waterfalls and swimming holes in the summer. The lake itself, however, is perfect for bird-watching and leaves the maddening crowd behind.
The lake is formed by a dam that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The Lakeside Loop trail takes you around the lake, far away from the parking area, where you will have your best chance to view Yellow-Throated Warblers, Great Egrets, Blue Heron, Scarlet Tanager, and Northern Parula.
If you hike north from the parking lot, it is an easy 2.2-mile out-and-back walk through a beautiful wetland to the CCC Dam. Be sure to bring that bug spray in the summer.
If you choose to do the full 2.1-mile loop hike, keep in mind that the trail is moderately difficult and can be a tough go for some. It also requires the fording of the spillway at the bottom of the dam, so you need to use caution. The rec area is also prone to flash flooding during heavy rain, so keep an eye on the weather.
The rec area is located five miles west of Cheaha State Park on Lake Chinnabee Road and is open daily sunrise to sunset but closed from November to March due to treacherous roads in the winter. There is a $3 day-use fee to park at the rec area.
10. Lake Guntersville State Park
North Alabama Region, Guntersville
Lake Guntersville State Park and the surrounding area is known for its bald eagle population. In fact, the city and park celebrate the eagle every weekend from mid-January to mid-February during Eagle Awareness. During the celebration, the park hosts informative presentations on bald eagles and raptors as well as many hikes to view eagles nesting and soaring over the hillsides. Quite a breathtaking sight. The park is located on State Campground Road in Guntersville and is open from sunrise to sunset.