Thursday, March 28, 2013

March to the Beach

I've never been to the Gulf Shores region. I have never even so much as peeked over the border to Alabama or Mississippi. In fact, I've not visited much of Georgia other than Atlanta and the northeast quarter of the state. Nor Louisiana. I decided sometime back that I wanted to visit the gulf shore if only because I've heard so much about as a birding place but also as an interesting place to visit. The big oil spill actually made me want to go even more.

The plan was to visit from Mobile, Alabama, (and Mobile Bay) west along I-10 and US 90 through the panhandles of Alabama and Mississippi, to the junction of I-10 and I-59 just inside the Louisiana state line in famous Pearl River bayou. Then I'd turn northeast and head for home. Home was too far away for one leg of driving so I started back in mid-afternoon and stayed the last night on the road in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Mobile Bay area could be interesting. On one side is bayou, to the north is river and more swamp, and the bay's shoreline along the east. I spent most of my time in the bayou below the city: Coden, Bayou La Batre, and the Bellingrath Gardens. The distances are not far. The roads fairly nice. With a little experience a person could probably find lots of pull offs and back road to explore. I made it onto Dauphin Island which is due south of the city by lunch and took the rest of the day to go eastward across the mouth of the bay and back north to I-10. Got back to the hotel about 7:00 or so.

Out in the bay is not all that lovely. An awful lot of derricks, I thought, and years of abuse have taken a toll. And new derricks are still being built. Now that the bay has been ravaged there's no defense to stop doing more damage. Dauphin Island is very much built up as a resort town with all the required eateries and fancy gifts hops. This progress has probably elbowed out a lot of good birding areas. But, good spots do exist and they were worth the look. (Across the gold coast are a string of estuary marine research facilities and there is one on the east end of Dauphin Island.)

I didn't make it above of the I-10 bridge on either side of the bay. The maps suggest there a several good birding places. I suspect there are also many undiscovered hot spots and the birds don't always know where they are supposed to be.

I wanted to visit the Fort Blakeley civil war site but it was just too late in the day. Another time perhaps. My great-great uncle (my grandmother's uncle) fought for the Union at Fort Blakeley and, on the afternoon of the day of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, he won the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The other regard about maps and guides is that they don't necessarily get updated. Various sites are just that, sites! A block of undeveloped land that is not really part of the immediate landscape and won't have much to offer. You don't know any of this until you get there, of course. And maybe that is also part of the adventure.

The gulf coast is routinely battered by hurricanes so I found it interesting to see what and who built on near the shore. Because the land is so low, being a mile or two or ten inland doesn't necessarily mean much. What makes for maybe good natural history studies makes for awful human living conditions. But, for the 75 miles I put in driving across the coast there are a lot of businesses, various sizes of towns, and lots of people. Hurricanes or no, people like to live near the water. In Biloxi I stopped at a gas station along US 90 (aka “Government Street” across both states). Stations are not much present in downtown Biloxi if only because everything has been squeezed out by the casinos. This station was between US 90, itself 50 feet from the sand, and the gulf. I thought that because of the hurricanes and massive water erosions gas stations would always be some more ecologically safer distance inland.

It is also very easy to eat very heavily along the coast. Food is advertised as one of the biggest draws and they don't lie. I had (of all things) a baked potato that was more like a buffet on a spud. And another night I had something good I can't recall but also a genuine chocolate milk malt. While maybe the coast is noted more for seafood, the best seafood I ate was at Shark's in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on the last leg home. Most breakfasts were at the hotel for which I was becoming bored. Lunch was an orange and a banana. But I never was lacking for a place to eat.

Was the bird watching any good? Yes. When I could stop and watch, that is. Getting some variety is hard to do, however. Along the coast and Mobile Bay the large quantity of the same birds makes it worth while to take a side trip. Found a little blue heron that way. Yellow-rump warblers. Bald eagle. Heard a Mississippi Sandhill Crane (I'm sure of it). Meadowlark.

Along the shore were lots of gulls: ringed-bill, herring, laughing. Turkey vultures galore! Grackle. Towhee. Fish crow. Not too many egret. Pelican all over the landscape. Not many shore birds. (I think the weather was a bit against them.)

With another set of eyes to help watch for birds, watch for signs, and watch for drowsiness in the driver, the trip would be so much the better.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Early Spring Woodcock

This is the time of year the woodcock males come out of the woods to play in the evenings. With a little luck . . . .

We started the day in the mid-afternoon sunshine at Musick’s Campground. If you follow the Tenn./ Va. state line east from Bristol until you stop on South Holston Lake, your finger is on Musick’s Campground.

You’re welcome to bird there but be sure to sign in and sign out. Be respectful of their property and of the folks who stay there.

Because Musick’s is lakeside you’ll see droves of gulls, a few cormorant, various grebe, and a smattering of other waterfowl and, of course, yard birds. Depending on the water levels, which open or close a variety of sand bars for the gulls, you’ll probably need a spotting scope.

But what we were really after was Woodcock. This time of year they start to sing near the Weir Dam. Take US421 “south” (east by the sun) out of Bristol and 3-4 miles before the lake, follow the signs to South Holston Dam and Osceola Island. From the parking lot at the weir dam, cross the road, turn left and hike towards the dam, take the first right, stop at the power line clearing, and wait. They come out at dusk.

The woodcock is the less famous relative of the snipe. Both are about the size of the robin with longish beak but the woodcock has rounded wings and the snipe has sharp wings. When the male is signaling he uses a zip sound called at regular intervals. Peterson’s describes it as “zeept” suggesting a nighthawk. Then, to prove his worthiness, he’ll take off in an ever-widening spiral pattern, until he is well over the tree line. He’ll make a slight whistling sound as he flaps his wings. You probably can catch him rising but once overhead he is really hard to see. You’re supposed to hear him as begins to spiral back down to his spot again. (I didn’t.) And then, the routine starts over again. It’s a lot of fun!

Along the way we took some time to ponder a snow goose at a farm pond. The photograph a screech owl in the sycamore tree on the far side of the river, downstream from the footbridge at the weir dam.