The sight of an eagle coasting on an air current, its massive wings extended but motionless, will stop a lot of folks in their tracks and hold their gaze skyward. We’ve long been fascinated by birds and their ability to soar through the air. But birders’ appreciation for our feathered friends goes much deeper, and these enthusiasts routinely venture outdoors with one purpose: to find and observe birds of all shapes, sizes and colors.
Suzanne Langley, executive director of the Birmingham Audubon Society, said the state’s most recent census numbers show 600,000 people identify as bird-watchers and birders in Alabama. And they spend more money on their recreation (equipment and travel) than any other group except hunters.
“Birding has a pretty significant economic impact on our state,” Langley said, “more than groups like golfers.”
The number is high for several reasons. First is the wide variety of birds that can be seen in Alabama. “We are such a biodiverse state, ranked sixth in country, and we have a lot of unique habitats that birds are attracted to, so we offer a broader range of species than many states,” Langley said.
Boasting long periods of mild weather in which to see birds plays a role, too. “Avidity refers to the number of days you can ‘bird’ in a state, and we offer more days here than a lot of other states,” Langley said.
But perhaps most important are the stewardship efforts of individuals, organizations and businesses that are preserving and rehabilitating key bird habitats and providing access to prime bird-spotting sites.
Alabama Power’s conservation activities, while not limited to birds, have benefited the state’s avian populace for years, Alabama Power biologist Chad Fitch said.
“There are many common plant and animal species that live on company lands and in the waters around our facilities. However, a few species are rare enough to warrant some level of state and federal protection, and conserving these natural resources is a commitment that we have made as a company,” Fitch said.
Alabama Power works with agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) monitoring species of flora and fauna to ensure they are not adversely affected.
Fitch pointed to Alabama Power’s work on behalf of the red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW), an endangered species that lives and nests in mature, longleaf pine forests like the ones found around Lake Mitchell, one of the company’s management areas.
“We have a monitoring program and wildlife management plan for the RCW that includes using wireless cameras to check on them about once a week during nesting season,” he said. “We look in the cavities they create in trees. These cavities are where they live and lay their eggs, and so protecting this specific habitat is crucial.”
Fitch and his team count the eggs and check to determine gender once the eggs hatch. They note the number of chicks that leave the nest and the number of adults in each family group, which occupies its own cluster of cavity trees. This data is submitted to the USFWS and ADCNR each year.
“This year, we documented 10 active clusters that include 46 RCWs,” Fitch said.
Alabama Power enhances RCW habitat with prescribed burns and mid-story clearing to remove hardwood trees that crowd out the pines, as well as remove flying squirrels that sometimes invade and try to take over RCW cavities.
“We will install artificial cavities in trees if, and when, the number of birds at the end of a nesting season exceeds the number of cavities available. That way, we know they have a place to live and to reproduce,” Fitch said.
Other bird-related efforts include Alabama Power’s participation in the annual, nationwide bald eagle survey. Fitch, along with cmopany survey crews, observed 19 total bald eagles at the following reservoirs: Martin (five), Henry (two), Smith (six) and Weiss (six).
“These are significant conservation tools that contribute a great deal to the recovery of eagles in Alabama,” Fitch said.
In addition to its close working relationships with state and federal agencies, Alabama Power partners with local groups that share the company’s dedication to conservation. In 2008, when the Alabama Tourism Department wanted to create trails to fill in the gaps between birding trails in north Alabama and the coastal Alabama trail, it reached out to chambers of commerce across the state for help. In Alexander City, Joanne Ninesling, who’s now the project manager for the Piedmont Plateau Birding Trail (PPT) in central Alabama, was tapped to lead the charge in her area. She turned to Alabama Power.
“When we were forming the PPT, Alabama Power was so gracious with their consent and assistance in accessing some of the 34 designated sites on the PPT,” she said.
Sheila Smith, land supervisor with Alabama Power’s Shoreline Management, and her team helped Ninesling and others identify several promising bird-watching sites around Lake Harris and Lake Martin.
“We were able to grant them access, and they cut the trails,” Smith said. “Any time we get requests like this, we do our best to accommodate them as they fit into the mission for our natural and undeveloped lands and our commitment to give back to the communities around our lakes. It’s been a great partnership with this group. They do some maintenance, we do some mowing, and we’ve provided some signage. It’s really a win-win.”
Today, places like Holly Hill in Dadeville, which is accessible only by an Alabama Power maintenance road, can be reached by birders. By granting access to the Cherokee Ridge Association for hiking trails along Lake Martin, the company made this area of the PPT available for birders, too. The Smith Mountain summit in the Cherokee Ridge area – which Alabama Power recently deeded to the Cherokee Ridge Association – is one of Ninesling’s favorite spots.
“It’s amazing, and it is not yet one of the official sites on the PPT, but it should be soon,” she said. “APC also updated the PPT birding site at Fox Creek and made it more handicap-accessible. We are really excited to be partnered with APC.”
One of Ninesling’s favorite birds is the pileated woodpecker, also called the “OMG woodpecker” due to its large size. While it is prevalent all along the PPT, and people often hear it, seeing one is a rare treat. “They are very skittish, so if you get to see one, you’re lucky,” she said.
Most birders appreciate every sighting, and as nature lovers, simply like being outside. Folks like Ken Hare, who’s based in Montgomery but enjoys observing birds well beyond his backyard, count themselves fortunate to live in a state with such a wealth of natural resources.
“Just getting in the great outdoors is definitely part of the appeal for me,” he said. “Birding is a great way to get involved in nature.”
His interest has become a part of his work life; a political column that he was writing for WSFA-TV’s website has turned into a column called Natural Alabama, which has a focus on birding. Hare praises the opportunities Alabama offers birders.
“We have 440-plus species of birds that can be seen here, ranging from all sizes and types,” he said. “And every season brings a different birding experience.”