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Wildlife and the Outdoors
A Birding Trail for North Alabama
M. Keith Hudson, Wildlife Biologist
We stood on the bank of the Tennessee River and slowly scanned with binoculars the extensive flats of lime-green aquatic vegetation before us. Hundreds of overwintering ducks and noisy gulls were stirring. Several graceful and hungry herons stalked along the shoreline, while nervous sandpipers probed for grubs in the mudflats. We were not alone surveying this scene - a bald eagle on the other bank was also eyeing the vista.
“This spot is perfect,” I said to my consulting associate, “It has everything…a lot of birds, a variety of birds, uncommon birds, it’s safe and accessible, and human visitors would not adversely impact the habitat. We agreed, this could be a prime spot, of just the type we were looking for…
Alabama will soon have a new outdoor attraction - The North Alabama Birding Trail (NABT). It is expected to be completed in early 2005. This series of approximately 50 selected sites across the Tennessee Valley will compliment the currently existing Alabama Coastal Birding Trail. Both are not “trails” in the traditional sense, but a series of mostly roadside stops selected for their birdwatching characteristics. These trails are in response to one of the fastest growing recreational activities in the nation – recreational birding, also known as avitourism.
So, how is the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division (WFF) constructing an outdoor recreation trail? As with any endeavor of this sort, the first step is to acquire funding. The NABT is being funded by a $280,000 three-to-one federal matching grant through the Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Program, where funding was earmarked to provide recreation and education about Alabama’s nongame wildlife species. The 25 percent match ($70,000) is being provided by 12 north Alabama Chambers of Commerce/Convention and Visitors Bureaus, North Alabama Tourism Association, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Association, TVA, Amoco/BP Corporation, 3-M Corporation, and Nucor Corporation. The tourism groups are very excited about the prospects of this trail. Generally, the typical birder is just the type of tourist these groups would like to see visit their area -- well educated and with money to spend.
Through a competitive bid process, FERMATA, an Austin, Texas-based company, was employed to assist in developing the trail. FERMATA is North America’s leading nature tourism consulting group, specializing in providing cost-effective strategies for generating revenue in local communities through sustainable nature tourism projects.
Next, appropriate sites had to be selected. Birders, interested persons and organizations were encouraged to submit “site nomination forms.” From these potential sites a committee of wildlife biologists and knowledgeable birders selected about 50 that met the desired criteria. Sites needed to be good birding areas of course, but also had to meet safety, accessibility, and environmental criteria.
Some sites were selected because they offer the birder a chance to see a lot of birds. These include several sites to potentially view thousands of waterfowl, bird rookeries, or dozens of hummingbirds. Other sites might not have as many birds, but may offer the opportunity to see a lot of different kinds of birds – a diversity of species. Still other sites may, at first glance, seem to be unremarkable, but have been selected because they contain rare, uncommon or endangered species -- such as scissor-tailed flycatchers, sand-hill cranes, perhaps a bald eagle, or the very rare cerulean warbler. Some sites are in forest habitats, some are grasslands, some are water-related…each habitat type offering for the birder that group of birds found within each specific habitat.
Now that the sites have been finalized, work will begin in earnest to create and construct appropriate interpretive and wayfinding signage. Each site will either have a covered kiosk, interpretive panel sign, or low-impact wayfinding sign to aid the visitor. An interpretive map and brochure will be published and an interactive Internet web page will provide site locations, directions, interpretation, and education. Progress and information on the trail can currently be obtained at the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ web site, www.outdooralabama.com, or the FERMATA web site at www.fermatainc.com.
The belted kingfisher has been chosen as the signature bird species for the NABT and will go on the highway directional signs and literature. This highly gregarious and popular bird will be a good symbol for the NABT, as he is quite common and a visible inhabitant along the Tennessee River sites.
“What potential site do you want to visit next?” I asked my consulting companion from FERMATA.
“Some other type of habitat, somewhere more upland, with forest habitat?” She replied, “Isn’t there a site in Jackson County where it’s possible to hear ruffed-grouse drumming?” “Yep, it’s the only place in the state where ruffed-grouse can possibly be seen or heard.” And with a kingfisher chattering loudly over our shoulder…we were off.