In a completely honest acknowledgement, Alabama has never been filed in the “positive” drawer in my mind’s filing system. For many of us who grew up in the 1960’s and particularly in the North, there has been a negative association formed by politics, race, religion and even language. George Wallace and certain money seeking evangelists were about as negative memories as I have from that era. If someone mentioned Alabama to me, my first thoughts were of those memories and then probably football – and that was it. Certainly birds, birding and birders would not come to mind. Is any of that fair? At most only in part and re-examining my feelings, thoughts, impressions and biases in many areas has been an important part of my 50/50/50 undertaking. Using birds, birders and birding as points of entry, I wanted to explore personal experiences not ones from the media or past personalities or even history. Visit the actual places. Meet real people. Listen, look and engage. Maybe grow…
The original plan was to bird Mississippi after Louisiana then finish the trip in Alabama – flying back to Seattle from Mobile. As described in my previous blog post, two things changed that. The most important was that it had taken some time to connect with local birders in Alabama and when I did, I hit a home run (two actually) but scheduling only worked with an earlier visit. Since reversing order also worked with my Mississippi connection, that was no problem. The second matter was that malfunctioning camera. There was what appeared to be an excellent camera store in Mobile, Alabama and nowhere else close, so I wanted to get to the store to see if there was a solution – either a repair or a rental lens. It was a long drive from Jennings, LA to Mobile, and that precluded more birding in Louisiana but without a functioning camera that was less of a loss than it might otherwise have been.
This is probably a good place to talk about some of the non-birding aspects of my travel undertaking. In addition to new experiences, I am trying to gain some new perspectives and life approaches. In any planning or project, the ability to adapt and to be flexible is important. Stuff happens. Sometimes completely unforeseeable but sometimes at least somewhat foreseeable if lessons are learned from earlier experiences. Either way the ability to find solutions is invaluable. They may not be perfect but if they improve what comes next, then that is a big plus. AND being able to accept less than perfect but still really good is, well – really good! There have been times when I have not been as good at that as I would like. I am trying to improve. The camera issue is a good example.
First, since photos are an important part of my birding, maybe this will once and for all get me to ALWAYS bring a back up camera with me. My Canon SX60 is not nearly as good as my SLR set up, but until only three years ago, it and its predecessors were all I had and they enabled me to get serviceable and sometimes even quite good photos. My SLR had died on my big trip to Arizona last year and had not one of the birders allowed my to use his SX50 I would have had no photos. I should have learned the lesson – I didn’t. Stubborn, stupid, overly optimistic? Maybe all of them, but the reality is that stuff happens. I need to be a better Boy Scout – and “Be Prepared”. I WILL NEVER GO ON ONE OF THESE TRIPS WITHOUT A BACK-UP!!!!!
Even though the lens’s sudden inability to communicate with the camera body was inexplicable and definitely maddening – it was a fact. Now what? Research solutions online. Use common sense. Contact friends with some technical expertise. I had done all of that and nothing worked. OK look at plan B – trade birding time with a visit to that camera store in Mobile and see if that would solve it – or if not maybe they could rent me a lens. It would not make up for the missed photo of a Yellow Rail but maybe it would allow me to get a photo of a Clapper Rail or a Seaside Sparrow – both important to me. And as I often write in my blog posts, sometimes when a goal or target is not hit, there is a consolation prize that might be pretty darn good as well.
As it happened Calagaz Photo Supply was fairly close to the hotel where I was going to be staying in Mobile. I could visit the store, check into the hotel and if I was lucky even do some birding on my own. My visit to Calagaz was unplanned but was one of the best parts of my trip. Bottom line is that they could not resolve the camera problem, but they did rent me a reasonably priced telephoto lens. So that was good, but what was really good was the interaction with the folks there. Calagaz is a small, privately owned camera and photo supply store. It is not some big national company with a phone tree help line or a call center. The people there are invested in personal service and care deeply about photography. We talked about photography and my birding and then shared pictures, mine and Dori’s, taken over the years. I think they felt almost as bad about my missed photos in Louisiana as I did. I would gladly recommend them to anyone.
The lens I rented was a Tamron 150-600 mm zoom for Canon. It is a heavy lens and I knew I would need to get used to it especially for hand held photos which mine would be. So after checking in at the hotel, I headed south to Dauphin Island – where I would return many times over the next few days. I birded on the causeway to the Island, at the Airport and a couple of forested spots – providing a variety of conditions to check the lens. Probably due to my unsteady hand with the heavier and longer lens, I found that my photos were not as crisp as I would have liked. This required shooting at a faster shutter speed which in turn required some adjustment of the ASA. Not perfect – but acceptable. In about 3 hours of birding I was able to find 38 species – so I was confident I would get my 50 the next day with expert help.
Birding friend Chazz Hesselein who now lives in (near?) Tacoma and used to live and bird in Alabama had told me that the Dauphin Island Airport was an excellent spot for Clapper Rails. I did not see one on this visit but heard at least 3 so knew I would be trying for a photo on another trip. At the pond there, however, I did find both a Tricolored Heron and a Reddish Egret – less common than the other waders in the area.
Feeling very good about the birding and photo opportunities for the next day, I returned to my hotel and contacted Larry Gardella who I would be meeting the next morning to finalize arrangements. This was Saturday night and the next morning would be the shift back from Daylight to Standard time. Theoretically this meant losing an hour of sleep, but my sleep pattern is so chaotic when I travel that I had been getting up by 4:00 a.m. anyhow. Without going into details, I was up even earlier AFTER adjusting for the time switch. Plenty of time to meet Larry at Gate 4 of the Blakeley Island Mud Lakes hotspot. This is a restricted access area, but we had taken care of the details to get permission to enter the property and were birding in sunlight by 6:45 a.m.
Larry is a top Alabama birder and in fact has the highest species list for this location – 166 species. Interestingly good friend Chazz is number 2 at 163 even though he has not lived there for many years. In addition to knowing the area and its birds very well, Larry was fascinating because he has seemingly been everywhere. He is fortunate to have a spouse that not only supports his birding but also participates and contributes in her own right. They have been all over the world and it was particularly kind of Larry to take time to help me this day as they were heading off to Hawaii in a day or two – vacationing with birding on all the islands.
Blakeley Island Mud Lakes are a complex of disposal ponds that host a wide array of shorebirds and waterfowl. A former industrial waste treatment site, the waters in these dredge material management ponds are currently used for the disposal of dredge materials by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Alabama State Port Authority. Although Larry said we missed some expected species we did pretty well with a final list of 51 species (including some Common Grackles and Starlings that I had seen just before arriving at the Ponds). This included 10 shorebird species, 4 ducks, 5 waders and 7 raptors. Included in this latter group was a Golden Eagle – a very rare bird here and in the area and one that quite pleased Larry, My terrible long distance photos were confirming but not more.
Even though I had seen many earlier in Louisiana, I was particularly pleased to see and photograph a group of Black Bellied Whistling Ducks – some of my favorites. In the same pond there were at least 70 American Avocets and 30 Black Necked Stilts.
Black Bellied Whistling Duck
American Avocets (with One Black Necked Stilt)
This is another area where Glossy and White Faced Ibis overlap with the former being more common. We had sufficiently good scope views of three to clearly see their brown eyes and ID them as Glossy Ibis. I just barely had my 50 species for the day. Larry wanted to visit another spot for some insurance species and also because a Harris’s Hawk was being seen there. Harris’s Hawks are often kept by falconers and it is possible that this bird is an escapee, but it was first seen last year – migrated away and then returned this year. As it turned out I did not have to worry about whether to count it or not since we were not able to locate it at the Chickasaw Ponds , but we added 9 new species for the day removing any question on hitting 50.
Larry is a Christmas Bird Count Regional Editor, a mostly retired attorney (Legal Services Alabama) and a transplant from the northeast. Our discussions were mostly about birds and I would welcome an opportunity to talk about Alabama with him. He likes being there and certainly enjoys the birding. I am sure I could learn a lot from him on all of those subjects. I also hope to hear about his Hawaii visit.
I thanked Larry again for putting up with me for the morning and helping me find 50 birds in Alabama. But the day was still young and I decided to return to Dauphin Island and try to find a photogenic Clapper Rail as well as to add to the species for the day. I also remembered a restaurant along the way that advertised the best “Po’ Boys” and figured I had to have at least one on my visit. As I said in my previous post there would be more than one overindulgence on the trip and this was another one – a shrimp Po’ Boy – which is essentially just a sandwich on a baguette type roll – maybe with some sauce. It was good – why not I like bread and shrimp, but one was enough.
The map below shows the area birded that day – only about 40 miles from Chickasaw to Dauphin Island, mostly through rural countryside. But before going to the Island I made a detour to Grand Bay Savannah to the west – almost to the Mississippi state line. Henslow’s Sparrows were a possibility there as well as Clapper Rails and some passerines. The last 5 miles of road were gravel, red clay and water. I almost turned back thinking my GPS had to be wrong, but eventually I got to the boardwalk which led out to some reds after going through a woody area. No sparrows and no rails but I picked up 6 new passerine species for the day including the only Brown Headed Nuthatches I had seen on the trip so far.
Then I headed to Dauphin Island passing through Bayou la Batre – more exotic sounding than it appeared. Along the way I passed by the only cotton field that I saw on my entire trip. Maybe it is from the “land of cotton” reference in the Dixieland song or memories of colonial and Civil War history, but I had expected cotton fields every where. Maybe they are just farther north.
Dauphin Island has some wooded areas, some bays and a long sandy beach. It has been hit very hard by hurricanes in the past 20 years. Some homes have been rebuilt and others not. The birding is certainly excellent. My first stop again was the airport. The Tricolored Heron was back and was joined by a Snowy Egret, two Semipalmated Plovers and a Willet. An Osprey flew overhead and I heard the rattle of a Kingfisher. I had not even gotten out of the car and here were new birds. WAIT – what was that?? A dark form was next to the grass in one of the channels. OMG it was a Clapper Rail. I did not dare get out of the car. I rolled down the window (unfortunately it was on the passenger side) and took a picture – it was my ABA Life picture of a Clapper Rail!! Not going to win any prizes but no question about the identification. This alone justified renting that lens.
Clapper Rail – First ABA Photo
Unfortunately the Clapper was moving further into the channel and it quickly disappeared. But I had my photo and I was quite happy. I explored some other spots on the Island and birded for a awhile at the Audubon Bird Sanctuary which produced a really good bird and my best encounter with an alligator. It was about 5 feet long and was close but fortunately in the lake/pond at the center of the sanctuary and I was on a platform just above it.
Alligator – Audubon Sanctuary – Dauphin Island
The really good bird got me very excited at first because I just knew it was a warbler and still in bright plumage but I was not sure which warbler it was. I got a series of photos that helped with the identification and was able to ID it as a male Pine Warbler. They are not rare at this time at this location, but I later found out that bright ones are very unusual. Something rarer would have been even better, but it was a great way to end the day – species #77.
Pine Warbler – Audubon Sanctuary – Dauphin Island
When I asked about the most “Mobile” thing to do while in town, several options were mentioned including some grand homes but the one that came up most was a visit to the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park. A summary of the Battleship’s history and that of the park is provided by the park as follows:
“From its humble beginnings on February 1, 1940 as the keel was laid at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia, Battleship USS ALABAMA (BB-60) has had a remarkable career. She began her World War II adventures in the North Atlantic in 1943, then later that year, went to the South Pacific seas. She ended up in Mobile, Alabama as a National Historic Landmark and memorial to millions.
Home to a crew of 2,500 courageous Americans, this 45,000 ton gentle giant’s WWII adventure culminated with BB-60 leading the American Fleet into Tokyo Bay on September 5, 1945. Nine Battle Stars for meritorious service were awarded the “Mighty A” during her brief three year tenure as the “Heroine of the Pacific”.
Most American warships end their useful life after wartime, but ALABAMA was destined to live another day. In May 1962, the Federal Government announced that BB-60 and others would be scrapped, but a forward-looking group of Mobilians and other Alabamians saw a bright future in the aging warship. They envisioned the ALABAMA as the anchor attraction of a Veterans Memorial Park to be located in Mobile. That impossible dream came true on January 9, 1965 when USS ALABAMA Battleship Memorial Park opened to the public.
More than fifteen million visitors later and a statewide economic impact approaching one billion dollars, the Park is easily the most recognizable symbol of the State of Alabama.”
A more detailed history can be found at: http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-2958
The Battleship USS Alabama
I took a short tour – similar to a tour I took of the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier in San Diego last year. Although I stood fervently against the Vietnam War and believe that most military undertakings in the last 50 years have been misguided and wasteful of resources and lives, it is impossible to visit a ship like this or the USS Midway and see the photos and films of the War in the Pacific in WWII and not appreciate the sacrifices of the men and women who fought in them and the sad need for such sacrifice. There is a much closer connection to the military in the South than in many other areas of the country. It is a cultural factor. Seeing this historical ship helped me understand that – whatever I may think of current conditions.
My usual procedure when I am traveling is to exchange the mini SD card from my camera and the one in my tablet to review photos. I knew from this experience the previous night that the photos with the rented lens were not super crisp and photos from this day were about the same – and I had to take most of the blame myself just not being steady with the large lens. I vowed to do better the next morning. I joined Emma Rhodes – Coastal Assistant Biologist at Birmingham Audubon – at Pelican Island on Dauphin Island who graciously allowed me to join her on her coastal bird survey that morning. We were also joined by Orin Robinson, a graduate student at Cornell and a native of the area. I was by far the least talented birder in this group as had been the case with Larry Gardella the day before.
With Emma Rhodes and Orin Robinson at Pelican Island
We had excellent weather and excellent birds – 32 species in all including 13 shorebird species, 8 gulls and terns and 4 waders. The highlights were the Snowy and Piping Plovers, some Red Knots and an incredible fly-by stream of over 3000 Double Crested Cormorants – more than any of us had seen at one time – ever.
There were hundreds of terns – primarily Royal but also some Sandwich Terns and many Black Skimmers.
Sandwich Terns (Yellow Tip on Bill Visible)
It was a beautiful beach with very white sand which was good for the many crabs we saw skittering back into their holes and also great background for close up Dunlin and Short Billed Dowitcher photo ops. We also found a single Marbled Godwit which was a life bird for Orin – a real treat for the day.
Crab on the Beach
Short Billed Dowitcher
We hiked back about 1.4 miles to the car and headed over to the Airport – by now very familiar to me. We heard a number of Clapper Rails but never got a visual. Same with Sedge Wren. Emma was most interested in a Nelson’s Sparrow and tried to lure one out with playback. There was no response, but when we tried Seaside Sparrow we got fleeting looks at one and then a second bird that responded with quick inquiries before disappearing in the dense grass. Emma did not have tall boots so we did not follow it into the swamp to try for a photo. (I filed this away for future reference.)
A rare Varied Thrush had been reported in a woodlot on the Island. We gave it our best shot but were unable to locate this bird that I can find regularly at Yost Park about a quarter mile from my home. We ended the day with 42 species seen. Had I not already had a great day with Larry the day before, I could easily have gotten over 50 species again with short visits to a couple of different habitats, but that was no longer important. It had been a really great morning with two outstanding ornithologists/ birders with yet another great Dauphin Island experience. Two more were ahead.
After a thank you and goodbye to Emma and Orin, I returned to the Airport bolstered by the quick view of the Seaside Sparrow earlier. Just as I was putting on the rubber boots I had used at the Yellow Rails and Rice Festival and to head out into the muck, I saw movement in a small channel next to the grass. There was only about 5 seconds before it disappeared, but I now had a second photo of a Clapper Rail.
I plodded out hoping it would reappear – but not this time. I switched gears and thought “sparrow”. This turned out to be one of the best and worst moments of my trip. When I got out about as far as I could go in the area where Emma had called out one an hour earlier, I played the various songs and calls for Seaside Sparrow. A minute or so later in what may have been a delayed response, a very dark sparrow flew in very close. My inexperienced brain played a trick on me. I had noted so many dark Savannah Sparrows in the Louisiana rice fields that I initially processed it as another one. Too late I remembered that Seaside Sparrows are also very dark and in fact larger than Savannahs. This was a relatively large sparrow. Just as my poor brain put two and two together, the bird that had been in the open (sort of) disappeared. I spent another half hour trying for a repeat performance. There was another brief appearance of what I am sure was the same bird, but this time no perching and it was 20 yards further away. No photo.
Disappointed I headed off to Mississippi for my next adventure. That will be covered in my next blog post, and this is where I am going to go out of chronological order and share my last visit to Dauphin Island, after Mississippi, on the morning before my flight home from Mobile. And now my brain was thinking only Seaside Sparrow. Before heading into the grass, I noticed some movement out on the airport runway. It was a distant Red Fox – always a welcome observation and I took it as a good omen.
Back into the mud – to the same spot where a Seaside Sparrow had made a brief appearance before. It took about 20 minutes, but finally a large dark sparrow made an appearance hiding in the grass about 10 yards. Maybe if I had my own lens set up I might have been able to focus through the layers of grass – maybe… I did the best I could and then got a tail end photo as it flew into some closer reeds and then disappeared. Barely ID quality photos but the yellow “supraloral” is discernible and given all of the previous failed attempts, these photos – my first of this species – will have to do. Someday I will get better ones – but these made me very happy.
Pleased with the morning but with time to kill, I revisited Pelican Island and walked the same loop covered earlier with Emma and Orin. Similar birds as seen with them but without the giant Cormorant fly over. If you get the impression I really liked Dauphin Island, you are correct.
It was time to return the lens to Calagaz, return the car to Hertz and head home. It would be a long wait at the airport, but the long week of early mornings and not enough sleep had taken its toll. If it were possible to take an earlier flight, I probably would have paid the premium and taken it. No such option. I did some reading, edited some photos and actually dozed off for an hour or so. It had been an excellent visit. Altogether I had seen 100 species in Alabama. I had added two ABA Life photos bringing me to 693 species photographed. I had hoped for photos of Sedge Wren and both Yellow Rail and King Rail, but given the camera woes I was pleased with the two new photos I did get – the glass is not half empty; it is half full – actually way more than half.
Some reflections: (to be added later)