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.
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!)