By David Rainer
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
There’s almost nothing that will get your attention more than wildfire, especially when it happens on such an eco-sensitive location as Dauphin Island.
Unfortunately, that rude awakening occurred three years ago when a spark that originated somewhere on the edge of the campground roared through 80 acres of pristine, barrier island habitat.
That prompted action from several entities, including the one responsible for the island’s habitat, the Dauphin Island Parks and Beach Board. After more than a year of jumping through hoops of various sizes, the board was granted a conservation easement on a 160-acre tract on the east side of the island. The bulk of that tract is the Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary.
Matthew Capps of the Dauphin Island Parks and Beach Board said the tract under the conservation easement includes 133 acres of different types of forest with a maritime forest, pine savannas, a freshwater bog, a four-acre lake and beachfront.
“The wildfire three years ago opened our eyes to the lack of management in the bird sanctuary,” Capps said. “What the conservation easement does is add a layer of protection so that future development
won’t occur on this part of the island. We had to create a new management plan. The management plan allows us to do more things to protect the land. Now we have a method to do controlled burns. It gives us a way to get funds to do the burns. It addresses climate change. It addresses invasive species. It gives us the tools necessary to make this a premier birding site, because Dauphin Island is known for being globally important. We’re rated in the top four in the country for birding. There are about 400 species that fly over Alabama and we will see about 95 percent of those on the island.”
A number of sponsors contributed to the process to obtain the conservation easement: Mobile Bay Audubon Society, Birmingham Audubon Society, Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuaries, Inc., Gulf Coast Birding Observatory, Weeks Bay Foundation, Alabama Ornithological Society, Atlantic Coast Conservancy and Pelican Coast Conservancy.
The State Lands Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources provided funds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to help build boardwalks in the sanctuary.
The sanctuary land was deeded to the Dauphin Island Park and Beach Board in 1954. However, access to the property was limited until Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuaries, Inc., (www.coastalbirding.org) led by Dr. John Porter, acquired several tracts on the island, including a parcel that now serves as the entrance into the large bird sanctuary.
“That started our conversation about placing these properties under a conservation easement,” Capps said. “The Dauphin Island Parks and Beach Board was really excited about it, because it helps us further our mission of providing and protecting public lands so that future generations will be able to enjoy this as a park.”
Capps said the conservation easement covers the bird sanctuary, Dauphin Island Campground, Cadillac Square and Dauphin Island Sea Lab’s Shelby Center. He said the easement is set up in zones to allow certain activities.
“Anything the Sea Lab does for educational purposes is allowed,” Capps said. “We have a very close relationship with the Sea Lab. In the campground, we can build new bathrooms or update the sites,
anything we need to do in there. The strictest set of parameters is set for the bird sanctuary, but we can go in and build fire breaks and conduct controlled burns.
“Cadillac Square is a small park on the central part of the island that is of great importance because the trees there date back to when Dauphin Island was the capital of the Louisiana Territory. That was the home for Governor Cadillac. Also it’s a great birding site and a great meeting place for birders.”
Capps said the Sea Lab brought in more than 9,000 students for classes last year, and the Alabama Coastal BirdFest brings 3,000 visitors to the island.
Speaking of the BirdFest, Dr. John Borom, who helped get the annual event started almost 11 years ago, said a conservation easement is the best solution for the Dauphin Island property.
“This is a wonderful thing,” Borom said. “This will ensure that land will remain forever as it is for birds and birders. If you don’t have some sort of protection, things have a way of getting away from us. This guarantees that future generations will be able to go into the Audubon Sanctuary and enjoy nature. The easement is an additional level of protection for this place that is a wonderful stopover for the neotropical birds.
“Dauphin Island is an important component in the migration of the neotropical birds and an important component of the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail. It’s a popular spot for the participants in the Alabama Coastal BirdFest. This area and the land acquired by John Porter and Dauphin Island Sanctuaries, Inc., are now all under conservation easement.”
Borom said Dauphin Island is also a great venue for enthusiasts to watch shore birds on the beaches, wading birds on the inland lake and others species on the different habitats. One of those different habitats is Shell Mound Park, a mound of oyster shells left by the Mississippian tribe of Native Americans that dates back to between 1100 and 1550.
Ralph Havard, who retired to Dauphin Island after 35 years with the Alabama Marine Resources Division, has been involved with the Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuaries, Inc., for many years, and he offered commendations to the Parks and Beach Board for having the foresight to protect the property.
“This is a very important 160-acre piece of land,” Havard said. “There’s no telling what could have happened to it down the road. The conservation easement is etched in stone from now on. The reason it’s important is so many species of neotropical birds depend on Dauphin Island as a place to rest
during their migration. Having food and water when they get to Dauphin Island as they are traveling is very important. This gives the birds a good-sized area with the essentials for their migration back and forth across the Gulf.
“The other good thing about it is the conservation easement will offer a higher level of stewardship for the land. We can improve public access for birding and go ahead with the reforestation needed after the wildfire.”
Havard said that Dauphin Island doesn’t attract the beach crowd like Gulf Shores and Orange Beach and depends on fishing and birding for economic well-being.
“At least 25,000 to 30,000 people come to Dauphin Island to see the birds annually,” Havard said. “These people are renting hotel rooms and beach houses. Of course, we get a lot of fishermen, too. But they normally load up their boats and go back to Mobile. Birding is a very important component to Dauphin Island’s economy.”
Borom echoed Havard’s assessment of the role Dauphin Island plays in the birding community.
“Dauphin Island is a wonderful birding area, one of the top birding areas in the United States,” Borom said. “People come from all over to Dauphin Island to see birds. They come especially in the fall and the spring, but they come other times to see shore birds. I’m very delighted we have a conservation easement on that property. It’s comforting to know that my children and their children will be able to enjoy the Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary.”
PHOTOS: (Patsy Russo and David Rainer) A great horned owl hijacked an osprey nest on Dauphin Island and hatched a pair of owlets last year. Dauphin Island, rated as one of the top birding sites in the nation, is a stopover point during migration for many neotropical species. Plenty of shore birds, like this American avocet, either make Dauphin Island home or visit during annual migrations.