A trail for the birds – and bird watchers

A trail for the birds – and bird watchers

Swallow-tailed kites are rock stars of the bird world. The dramatic raptors are known for their cleft tail, four-foot wingspan, striking black-and-white plumage and showy aerobatics. They’re considered rare, but you could see them on the Piedmont Plateau Birding Trail. The trail is part of Alabama’s expanding system of birding trails that is to bird lovers what the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is to golfers.

Though it’s one of many states targeting far-ranging birders, Alabama has a lot to crow about. While Alabama is 25th among states in land area, it ranks fifth in biodiversity (with more than 400 bird species sighted here), according to a report by NatureServe.peidmont3

“Alabama is a great outdoors state,” says Grey Brennan, regional director of the Alabama Tourism Department. “We are geared to capture nature-based tourism. Birding trails are lower-cost, high-reward attractions. Ultimately there will be eight of them, in every part of the state.”

The Piedmont Plateau Birding Trail is the third fully operational one (after the popular coastal and north Alabama trails). Meandering across east central Alabama, it takes in the southernmost foothills of the Appalachians and numerous lakes and waterways. Launched in 2008, the Piedmont trail numbers 34 sites in nine counties, offering birders a range of habitats and species (birders nominate and evaluate all birding-trail sites).

The trail’s latest addition, Fox Creek, occupies a peninsula on Alabama Power’s Lake Harris in Randolph County. Like other sites on the trail, this one required a coordinated effort. It was led by the Lake Wedowee Property Owners Association (LWPOA), which leases the Fox Creek site at no cost from Alabama Power. While the state tourism department helps plan and promote the trails, they only come into being with local initiative.

“We put in money and man-hours and took advantage of existing relationships with area businesses for contributions,” says LWPOA member Barry Morris. “I don’t think we approached anybody who said no.”

Donations included heavy equipment, labor, gravel and materials to clear and grade the parking lot and build an information kiosk.

“The Fox Creek site is classified as natural, undeveloped land under our license,” says Sheila Smith, team leader for Corporate Real Estate at Alabama Power. “It’s land we have for the general public to use and we want to encourage them to do so. It’s a good thing for the community.”

Partners in the Fox Creek addition and supporters gathered in December to celebrate the opening of the Piedmont Plateau trail’s new section. Alabama Power has another section of the trail, the 11-mile
Cherokee Ridge Alpine Trail, which occupies a prime spot on the southeast shore of Lake Martin.

At Fox Creek, volunteer-cut trails supplement power company access roads. “We’re also putting in benches, tree identification markers, nesting boxes and native plants that are food sources, like hollies and buttonbush,” Morris, an avid birder, notes. “The habitat ranges from brush and woods to open grassland and shoreline — you can spot anything from hawks to hummingbirds.”

Spring is a good time to see migrating passerines — perching songbirds such as warblers and thrushes. Year-round residents include wading birds, wood ducks and the flashy belted kingfisher.

Many of the trail sites also lend themselves to hiking, biking and other recreation. “They’re a learning opportunity for our students and an amenity we highlight to attract businesses here,” says Cotina Terry of the Randolph County Economic Development Authority.

“The trail was an opportunity for our counties to work together,” says Mary Patchunka-Smith, executive director of the chamber of commerce in neighboring Clay County. “We’re rural and can’t do it alone. Anyway, tourists don’t care about county lines, they just want to come and play.”

Nisa Miranda, director of the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development, calls the birding trails “a team-building exercise, a chance for local leaders to get to know each other, sometimes for the first time.”

“If you’re fortunate enough to have a nature-related attraction, you draw tourists that spend more than typical tourists, on meals and lodging and equipment,” she says.

The number of birders in America is large, and growing: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tallied 46.7 million bird-watchers nationally in 2011, including 17.8 million who are active away from home. The latter category has increased by more than 20 percent since 2001; their birding-related spending is up by more than 45 percent since 2006. These coveted eco-tourists typically have higher levels of education and income.

Birders today can call on a wealth of digital resources, from smartphone apps and GPS-stamped photos to ebird.org, the Cornell website that crowd-sources information to create a vast, evolving snapshot of bird life in America. At the same time, “it’s an antidote to the nature deficit disorder we’re all suffering from,” says Ann Miller, chairwoman of the birding trails committee of the Birmingham Audubon Society, which organizes regular birding trips all around the state.

You don’t have to be a seasoned birder to be thrilled by the sight of an endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (a colony lives at the Piedmont Plateau trail’s Coosa Wildlife Management Area/Double Bridges site on Lake Mitchell). Or the above-mentioned swallow-tailed kite, which you’re likely to see swooping in mid-summer in and around Swift Creek Park in Autauga County on the Piedmont Plateau trail. Or countless other species, rare and familiar.

Bird-watching is a bloodless form of hunting that engages the senses and awakens ancient instincts. It’s an excuse to spend time in, and focus on, nature.

“The main trend of modern life is more and more divorced from nature,” Miller observes. “Birding is about getting in touch with reality in a way that makes you aware of the big picture. People share their knowledge freely. It can be very sociable, and it’s fun.”