Every autumn, millions of birds leave North America and cross the Gulf of Mexico to spend the winter in South and Central America and the islands of the Caribbean. In the spring, migratory birds return north and stake out territories, find mates, and produce offspring. On both legs of the journey, Alabama's Gulf Coast provides a brief respite for these travelers on their journey across the eastern half of North America. The Alabama Coastal Birding Trail (ACBT), created in 2002, is an important way for the public to learn about, enjoy, and help preserve these migrations and habitats.
During their time on Alabama's coast, songbirds refuel on insects and fruits such as hackberries and hollies. And in fact the intestines of many songbirds will grow during this period to accommodate the increase of fruit in the diet. Shorebirds hunt invertebrate prey along the beaches and the mudflats of estuaries. These important areas where migrating birds rest and refuel are called stopover sites, and they are indispensable for maintaining bird populations. Stopover sites are particularly good places to watch birds, and for years coastal birdwatchers have known the whereabouts of these areas. In April 2001, local bird watchers, local conservation groups, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau joined together to dedicate the ACBT. Bob Reid, of the Alabama Ornithological Society, along with John Porter, of the Dauphin Island Audubon Sanctuary, led the organizing efforts to form the trail, using the popular Great Texas Coastal Birding Trails in Texas as a model. The Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau erected and maintains the signs and is also responsible for dispersing both electronic and paper copies of the guide for the birding trail.
The trail consists of 50 stops organized into six loops that take travelers down primary and secondary roads. Each route is between 15 and 30 miles long, and numbered signs featuring an image of a reddish egret mark the location of the stops. The ACBT encircles Mobile Bay and passes through Mobile and Baldwin counties. Some of the stops are simply pull-offs alongside a road with a view of a bay or ocean. At least one stop takes birders through a relatively old forest on a trail marked with narrative educational signs. Other stops take them into well-developed and less pristine areas of the state. Indeed, the trail guide warns visitors to refrain from touching the soil at one of the stops because of its highly caustic nature. However, all the stops have their rewards, which can take the form of sighting a long-billed curlew, an incredible view of a Blackburnian warbler, or a chance to take a snapshot of a bald eagle snatching a fish from the water.
The trail offers a number of places where birdwatchers can encounter resident and migratory birds. Despite Alabama's relatively small coastline, it is host to nearly all the birds that can be found along the Gulf. In fact, the coast of Alabama is world-renowned as a premier location for bird watching. During peak migration, birdwatchers and nature photographers from all over the world and the United States can be found at trail stops. More than 300 species of birds have been sighted, including many endangered species, such as the snowy plover. The best time to visit to ACBT is during spring and fall migration seasons, when birds are leaving or entering the Gulf Coast, but visitors can expect to see birds at many times of the year.
Not all species of birds migrate at the same time. During the fall migration, shorebirds migrate before land birds, peaking in late August and early September. Peak land-bird migration occurs from mid to late September. Spring migration is less predictable and often depends on the weather. Because birds prefer to migrate with the wind at their backs, it is best to visit during spring when a front moves through the area from the South. Often during spring migration, a phenomenon known as fallout can occur. It happens when birds exhausted from their flight across the Gulf encounter a weather front coming in from the north. Birds would be forced to expend too much energy if they attempted to fly into this headwind, and many literally drop out of the sky. This is the optimal time to see birds because many species can be seen at close range. It is not unusual to see more than 20 species of warblers during a fallout.
Peak migration periods are the best times to visit the trail sites, but ACBT offers a variety of bird-watching opportunities throughout the year. In winter, for example, visitors can see a large number of ducks and other water birds. Indeed, many species of ducks can be found in the Gulf only during winter. Of the many duck species to be seen, one of the most interesting are the scoters, which are all black except for bright, gaudy beaks. Winter is also a great time to see wandering species from the western portion of North America, such as the western kingbird and the scissor-tailed flycatcher or elusive sea birds such as jaegers and gannets. For those averse to biting insects, winter can be the best time to visit because mosquitoes are largely absent. The same cannot be said for the summer, when mosquitos are most active. But summer is the best time to see breeding birds and young fledglings. Many species of herons, egrets, and terns breed along the ACBT, and adult birds can be seen carrying food to their young during the summer months.
The number of visitors to ACBT has been increasing steadily, generating income for local shops, campgrounds, restaurants, and gas stations. This trend is typical throughout the United States, as bird watching and the use of natural areas gain popularity. Bird watching is now big business. Data from the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau indicate that more than 20,000 trails maps are used or downloaded every year. Bird watching and nature activities generate some $50 million per year in the Mobile Bay area alone. The ACBT is an example of ecotourism—that is, visitors are not consuming or using a resource so the activity does not the degrade the resource, in this case birds. Ecotourism often results in smaller profits when compared with other uses of the land, but the monies generated from ecotourism tend to have greater benefits for local businesses over the long term. The future use of the ACBT will depend not only on protecting sites such as Little Lagoon Pass from development but on protecting populations of birds in both their breeding and wintering ranges. The U.S. government has initiated such efforts through the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, which aims for collaborative efforts among international conservation groups and scientists. Despite the importance of the ACBT birds and bird watchers, many of the sites are not protected. Indeed, a stop that was once a sod farm is now a housing development. Sod farms are particularly good sites to see shorebirds, such as sandpipers and plovers, but there was no mechanism set up for the sod farmer to benefit directly from bird-watching activities.
Some of the protected sites include the Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuary, which cannot be developed. Dauphin Island is experiencing a high rate of residential and commercial development, so the sanctuary is an extremely important site for conservation. Other protected sites along the trail have numerous benefits for wildlife, plants, and people. For example, the forest on Fort Morgan provides a haven not only for birds but for many migratory species of insect, including butterflies and dragonflies. Fort Morgan also serves as a location for scientists to monitor bird populations through banding programs. Visitors to the trail should be aware that a few sites are on private lands, and permission from the landowners is required. Some sites also require a fee to access the site. Future efforts to preserve the trail will necessarily focus on acquisition of sites or the provision of some benefit to private landholders for preserving sites for future generations of birds and people.
Rappole, John A. A Guide to the Birds of the Southeastern States: Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2006.
Jeffrey A. Stratford
Published May 4, 2007
Last updated March 26, 2013