Posted by on Apr 27, 2014 in Alabama, Gallery, Travel | 18 comments

We’ve always wanted to experience the spring migration of songbirds along the Gulf Coast. Eric was interested in adding new species to his life list; as for me—well, I was fascinated by tales of multitudes of brightly colored birds dotting the landscape like Easter eggs.

During the first week of April, our wish came true. We stayed for a week at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, Alabama, right in the midst of prime birding territory. We made field trips to Fort Morgan State Park (25 miles away) and Dauphin Island (a 30-minute ferry crossing from Ft. Morgan) and were rewarded with incredible up-close encounters with buntings, hummingbirds, orioles, tanagers, warblers and other beautiful brightly colored species.

Flyways from the Yucatan Peninsula to North America

Flyways from the Yucatan Peninsula to North America

In early spring, the coast of Alabama is one of the top birding spots in the Southeast. That’s because it’s one of the first places that neotropical migrants make landfall after their arduous 600-mile flight across the Gulf of Mexico. Each spring, millions of birds gather on the Yucatan peninsula, journeying from their winter homes in Central and South America to prepare for the flight to their summer breeding grounds in North America. It’s difficult to imagine any birds, but especially the tiny ones, making that demanding trip—a ruby throated hummingbird weighs barely more than a penny! They fly across the Gulf in one night, navigating by the magnetic fields of the earth and the constellations. Come daybreak, if they’re strong and lucky, they’ve reached land, and have the opportunity to rest and refuel before continuing on to their nesting grounds throughout North America.

We were fortunate to be there during the bird banding that takes place for two weeks during the spring migration. Bob and Martha Sargent have devoted the past 30 years of their lives to tracking and banding neotropical migrants; they founded the Hummer/Bird Study Group, a non-profit organization for the preservation of hummingirds and other neotropical migrants. Their tireless efforts have helped to chart and protect migratory routes, monitor bird health and populations, and gain insights into the effects of weather on bird migration.

Gently holding a worm-eating warbler, Bob reassured us:“They’re not unduly disturbed by the banding process,” he said. “It’s a minor inconvenience in their day, and as soon as we’re finished weighing, measuring, and banding them, they go back to their normal feeding behaviors.” He deeply cares about the welfare of these birds; I watched him overcome with emotion as he gently held a cerulean warbler. “Most birders don’t get to see one of these beautiful birds in 20 years of birding,” he said. The cerulean warbler holds the unfortunate distinction of being the fastest declining neotropical migrant songbird. Why? Because the birds’ forest habitat is disappearing, in both their breeding and wintering grounds.

We watched dozens of birds go through the banding process, which involves weighing, measuring, and placing a tiny lightweight band on the leg. None of the birds seemed traumatized, and each took flight immediately as it was released. Only trained bird banders are allowed to remove birds from the mist nets, take measurements, and band the birds. The public, however, is allowed to participate in the releasing—which lasts mere seconds. Cup the bird in your hands in the way the handler demonstrates, open your hand, and the bird disappears in a flash of bright feathers. The precaution of placing the bird on the back of the hand is taken with small children to avoid inadvertent squishing of the bird.

We were delighted to share our birding adventures with friends who enjoy birds just as much as we do. On our first day at Gulf State Park, we met up with Loretta, Henry, Patricia and Ken, whom we first met earlier this year at Ochlockonee River State Park while searching for the elusive red cockaded woodpecker. They invited us to join them at the bird banding activities at Fort Morgan, and we shared a fun day of birding and a terrific seafood dinner at the Tin Top Restaurant.

Two days later, we met up with MonaLiza (lowestravels) and returned to Fort Morgan for another day of bird banding activities, followed by an all-day adventure on Dauphin Island. She and Steve had just spent a week on the island, and MonaLiza acted as our tour guide for the day. We took our bikes on the ferry, and spent a wonderful day exploring and birding. (Steve is not as obsessed with birding as the rest of us, and he was happy to have some time to work on projects of his own while we birded ourselves into the ground.) We met up with him for another delicious dinner at the Tin Top, though, and had a delightful happy hour together at their place the evening before we left. (I regret that I didn’t get photos of either event—I was obviously having too much fun!)

It's Raining Birds!

Neotropical Migration Routes

Bob And Painted Bunting

Cerulean Warbler

Worm Eating Warbler

Baltimore Oriole Trying To Pry Bob's Fingers Apart

Volunteers Checking The Mist Nets

Birds Waiting To Be Banded

Gently Removing A Bird From The Holding Bag

Banding A Sapsucker

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker

Recording Bird Banding Info

Observing The Weighing And Measuring

Inspiring A Young Birder

White Eyed Vireo

Feeling The Heartbeat Of A Hummingbird

Patricia With A Hummingbird

Giving Hummingbird A Drink

MonaLiza And Her Bird

Orchard Oriole

Releasing The Oriole

MonaLiza Looking For Birds

Searching For Birds With MonaLiza

Painted Bunting

Exhausted Northern Parula

Blackburnian Warbler

American Redstart

Patricia And Ken With Their Bigfoot Flipflops

Brightly Colored Homes On The Beach

At The Tin Top With Henry And Loretta

Fantastic Oysters Rockefeller

Ferry Between Fort Morgan And Dauphin Island

Eric And MonaLiza On The Ferry

Wonderful Bike Paths On Dauphin Island

Indian Shell Mound Park

Trails At Shell Mound

Summer Tanager

Hooded Warbler

Audubon Sanctuary On Dauphin Island

Taking A Break

Green Heron

Great Horned Owl And Owlets

Fierce Little One

Sign In The Campground

Biking Trail At Gulf State Park

Biking The Backcountry Trails

View From Our Campsite

It's Raining Birds!
Neotropical Migration Routes
Bob And Painted Bunting
Cerulean Warbler
Worm Eating Warbler
Baltimore Oriole Trying To Pry Bob's Fingers Apart
Volunteers Checking The Mist Nets
Birds Waiting To Be Banded
Gently Removing A Bird From The Holding Bag
Banding A Sapsucker
Yellow Bellied Sapsucker
Recording Bird Banding Info
Observing The Weighing And Measuring
Inspiring A Young Birder
White Eyed Vireo
Feeling The Heartbeat Of A Hummingbird
Patricia With A Hummingbird
Giving Hummingbird A Drink
MonaLiza And Her Bird
Orchard Oriole
Releasing The Oriole
MonaLiza Looking For Birds
Searching For Birds With MonaLiza
Painted Bunting
Exhausted Northern Parula
Blackburnian Warbler
American Redstart
Patricia And Ken With Their Bigfoot Flipflops
Brightly Colored Homes On The Beach
At The Tin Top With Henry And Loretta
Fantastic Oysters Rockefeller
Ferry Between Fort Morgan And Dauphin Island
Eric And MonaLiza On The Ferry
Wonderful Bike Paths On Dauphin Island
Indian Shell Mound Park
Trails At Shell Mound
Summer Tanager
Hooded Warbler
Audubon Sanctuary On Dauphin Island
Taking A Break
Green Heron
Great Horned Owl And Owlets
Fierce Little One
Sign In The Campground
Biking Trail At Gulf State Park
Biking The Backcountry Trails
View From Our Campsite
It's Raining Birds! thumbnail
Neotropical Migration Routes thumbnail
Bob And Painted Bunting thumbnail
Cerulean Warbler thumbnail
Worm Eating Warbler  thumbnail
Baltimore Oriole Trying To Pry Bob's Fingers Apart  thumbnail
Volunteers Checking The Mist Nets  thumbnail
Birds Waiting To Be Banded  thumbnail
Gently Removing A Bird From The Holding Bag  thumbnail
Banding A Sapsucker  thumbnail
Yellow Bellied Sapsucker  thumbnail
Recording Bird Banding Info  thumbnail
Observing The Weighing And Measuring  thumbnail
Inspiring A Young Birder  thumbnail
White Eyed Vireo  thumbnail
Feeling The Heartbeat Of A Hummingbird  thumbnail
Patricia With A Hummingbird  thumbnail
Giving Hummingbird A Drink  thumbnail
MonaLiza And Her Bird  thumbnail
Orchard Oriole  thumbnail
Releasing The Oriole thumbnail
MonaLiza Looking For Birds thumbnail
Searching For Birds With MonaLiza  thumbnail
Painted Bunting thumbnail
Exhausted Northern Parula  thumbnail
Blackburnian Warbler  thumbnail
American Redstart  thumbnail
Patricia And Ken With Their Bigfoot Flipflops  thumbnail
Brightly Colored Homes On The Beach thumbnail
At The Tin Top With Henry And Loretta  thumbnail
Fantastic Oysters Rockefeller  thumbnail
Ferry Between Fort Morgan And Dauphin Island  thumbnail
Eric And MonaLiza On The Ferry thumbnail
Wonderful Bike Paths On Dauphin Island  thumbnail
Indian Shell Mound Park  thumbnail
Trails At Shell Mound  thumbnail
Summer Tanager  thumbnail
Hooded Warbler  thumbnail
Audubon Sanctuary On Dauphin Island  thumbnail
Taking A Break  thumbnail
Green Heron  thumbnail
Great Horned Owl And Owlets  thumbnail
Fierce Little One thumbnail
Sign In The Campground  thumbnail
Biking Trail At Gulf State Park  thumbnail
Biking The Backcountry Trails  thumbnail
View From Our Campsite  thumbnail