Natural Alabama: Bob Reed says ‘It’s All about Habitat’
By Bob Reed
Many birders who visit Alabama have a couple of birds that they hope to see. One is Bachman’s Sparrow, and the other is the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. But if they get off a plane in any major Alabama airport and look around, chances are excellent that they will find neither bird. Why? Because there is no suitable habitat for them.
They prefer “open pine woodlands with wiregrass and saw palmetto in the understory. They also occur in grassy areas, oak-palmetto scrub, powerline cuts, and clearcuts with little to no shrubs in the understory. Bachman’s Sparrows tend to abandon clearcuts” as they regenerate and forest patches that haven’t recently burned.[i]
The Red-cockaded Woodpecker prefers “old-growth, open-understory pine forests of the southeastern United States — particularly in longleaf pine — that was naturally maintained by lightning-started fires every one to five years. This habitat was once extensive, but almost disappeared during logging in the 20th century. The birds are now often found in mature loblolly, slash, shortleaf, Virginia, pond, and pitch pine forests. The woodpeckers are sometimes found in younger stands or stands with dense hardwood encroachment. In southern Florida, they can occur in scattered slash pines mixed with bald cypress and grassy wetlands. If the forest surrounding their territory is cut down, they may persist for a short time but leave within six to 10 years.”[ii]
Knowing the habitat of a particular bird is essential if you hope to find it. Field guides are an excellent source of information about habitat. So is the Cornell Laboratory website, from which I took these two descriptions. Another very good source is to talk to a local birder.
Fortunately, many birds are generalists when it comes to habitat. Northern Cardinals and Northern Mockingbirds, for instance, can be found virtually everywhere in Alabama. You can expect to see them, even when you are looking for something else.
One of the pleasures of birding is that you can do it almost anywhere, even in big cities. It’s good advice to beginning birders or experts to bird where you are. Don’t discount common birds like Rock Pigeons or House Sparrows. They can still teach us to be more observant of our surroundings.
As we become more observant, we will naturally see more birds, and we will become aware of where we see them, and in what kind of trees, shrubs, grasses, and so forth we see them. We will notice that Belted Kingfishers are always within sight of water. White-throated Sparrows want heavy underbrush to dive into in the event of a raptor’s approach. Ducks and herons, of course, want water.
Another important factor is where different birds are seen vertically. Some birds, such as wrens and sparrows, rarely get more than a few feet above the ground, while others, such as many warblers and other song birds, spend most of their lives high in the tree canopy, and still others are somewhere in between.
So why bother with all this advice? Alabama is blessed with a beautiful coastline, which in spring and fall is a wonderful place to see birds. Migrant traps like Fort Morgan and Dauphin Island are spectacular places to see many species of birds in a short amount of time. However, in my opinion, there is more to birding than adding to a list of birds. Please do not misunderstand; I am a lister, and I do not plan to stop.
After spending a weekend on the coast during migration, you should have a good list of beautiful birds. But I would argue that you will have little else. Do you know the birds? Do you know where they live? Their particular needs?
I am not against birding migrant traps; I will continue to do so as long as there is habitat left. But I would suggest that seeing a bird on its breeding ground often takes much more awareness of the bird and its habitat requirements.
One must consider things from a bird’s eye view. One must be quiet. One must be observant. One must work a little harder for each bird. The observer of a bird in its territory must do so on the bird’s terms. Once you find a bird on territory, in its natural habitat, you will have a much more intimate knowledge of the bird. And you will be richer for having made the effort to visit the bird in its home.
This discussion leads us to another important concern for most birders and others. Without the proper habitat, you will not find the birds. The proper habitat is critical to the survival of many birds. Take away the swamps, or clear all the hardwoods, and species will have no place to breed. Or, take away wintering habitat and the breeding habitat may not be important because the birds will have died during the nonbreeding season. Migratory birds have many challenges facing them, not the least of which is the loss of habitat on their nonbreeding, breeding, or stopover territory. Fighting for habitat is always important to birders.
Finding birds is fun; it’s interesting, and it’s a wonderful activity to get us outside. So don’t be discouraged if you don’t find the bird the first time; over time you will develop a sense of what birds are likely in what habitat. After all, you need to leave something for next time; that’s another one of the beauties of birding. As you bird, pay attention to what habitat is surrounding you. Is it mixed hardwoods, or open grassy fields, seashore, or mudflat? Each of these, and many more, have their own set of birds. That is still another one of the joys of birding.
Another equally important factor is what season it is, but that will be a later article.
Bob Reed is a retired US Army officer, former president of the Alabama Ornithological Society and current editor of the Society newsletter, The Yellowhammer, and a freelance writer. He lives with his wife, Pat, and the birds in Tallassee.
[i] https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Bachmans_Sparrow/lifehistory#habitat accessed January 30, 2019
[ii] https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-cockaded_Woodpecker/lifehistory#habitataccessed January 29, 2019
Natural Alabama: ‘County listing’ adds new excitement for veteran birder Geoff Hill
By Geoff Hill
I’ve been birding for about 40 years, and there is very little chance that I will find a new life bird anywhere within at least two days’ drive of my home in Auburn, Ala. (Actually, if I drove for a day and went out on a boat for a day, it could pretty easily happen, but I hate boats). I’ve seen all of the regularly occurring birds on the Alabama state list. My state list grows only with rarity chases these days. My plight is the plight of all active birders — you can only see a new bird once and the list is very finite.
I craved new listing challenges. As I ran out of life birds and state birds, I searched for new outlets for my love of finding and listing birds. I stumbled upon a solution to my birding doldrums in county listing — trying to see as many birds as possible in every county in a state.
Until about mid-way through 2016, I paid little attention to the county in which I was birding. When I wrote down what I saw (I can be a really lazy birder and I’m now kicking myself for not creating lists for some key trips over past years), I kept day lists with key places visited noted at the top of the list. Most of the places I birded fell in one county, but I didn’t pay much attention to what that was. Then, in 2016, eBird came out with their profile pages (see this blog post: http://www.ornithologistsblog.com/single-post/2016/11/01/eBird-Profiles) and suddenly I could see my birding activity in Alabama broken down by county. The graphic was transformational for me. I suddenly wanted to fill in the blank spots on the map. County listing gave me a reason to get out in the field every weekend, and it put to great use my intimate knowledge of the sounds and habitat associations of the birds that regularly occur in Alabama.
Alabama has 67 counties and I live pretty far off center — close to the Georgia border and about two-thirds of the way down the state. The counties in the far northwest corner are a full four hours drive from me. My first focus was all of the counties that surround my home county of Lee — Chambers, Tallapoosa, Macon, and Russell. I had a great list for my home county — Lee. I also had a lot of birds for Macon County because I had birded Tuskegee National Forest regularly since I moved to Alabama in 1993. But I had almost no lists for Chambers, Tallapoosa, and Russell, even though I knew I had seen a fair number of birds in each of these counties. I simply had few notes to refer to. So I started targeting those counties on weekend trips. I wanted to have at least 100 birds in all the counties around Lee County. I’ve now got 100 birds in all surrounding counties and my next goal is 150 species in each of those counties.
The other goal that I quickly settled on was to get at least one eBird list for every county in the state. This actually turned out to be even more fun than it seemed like it would be. Driving past a sign that marked the boundary to a new county and then knowing that every bird you saw was new and countable made every thrasher and bluebird fun again.
On October 27, 2017, I recorded birds in my 67th Alabama county when I recorded an American Crow in Franklin County. My eBird map of Alabama now has no blank, uncounted counties.
With at least 20 species of birds recorded in all 67 Alabama counties, my next goal is 67 in 67 — -at least 67 birds in all 67 counties. Then I’ll shoot for 100 in all 67 counties. An experienced birder has a high probability of recording 100 bird species in any county in Alabama if he or she spends a full birding day in late spring/summer and then again in winter in the county. It gets challenging when the birder splits a single birding day among multiple counties, which is what I tend to do. Then, achieving a total of 100 birds in only two birding trips gets more tenuous. But plotting and planning and taking chances is part of the fun of county listing.
County listing rekindled my enthusiasm for weekend birding trips. It gave me an outlet for my listing urges. But county listing on eBird has a much bigger upside than just personal satisfaction at filling in a birding map. By entering checklists from across a state, including some of the most out-of-the-way and least-commonly-birded parts of Alabama, major gaps in the eBird database are filled in. The Alabama Ornithological Society has made a commitment to increase eBird coverage across the state and county listing is a fun way to help the AOS achieve its goal of having Alabama birds thoroughly documented in eBird.
Geoff Hill, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and is Curator of Birds at Auburn University. He is currently President-elect of the Alabama Ornithological Society and an avid eBirder.