So, I relocated to the Huntsville area from Ohio about three weeks ago. Here's the great thing about Huntsville, and it's four words long: Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Let me tell you why this place is so great, shall I?
Close to home. In Ohio, I had ONE close to home mega-awesome birding spot. But the habitat there was riparian woodland, so I was limited to certain species. It never disappointed, got several first year warblers there for 2013. However, I like a place with a bit of diversity. My favorite place was Killdeer Plains, but it was 65 miles from my home, so I couldn't go as often as I wanted to. Wheeler is fifteen minutes from my current residence, and I absolutely love having a place so close.
Also, the diversity of habitat is fantastic. You can find prairie, since it's located in the valley. Also tupelo swamps, cypress swamp, marsh, and of course, the Tennessee River.
In three weeks, I have chased two rarities (and found them!), and gotten several lifers. It's helped me to really get into birding down here, not knowing anybody or anywhere to go... I was concerned on whether or not I would like this move. However, nowhere in Ohio I birded compares to Wheeler, hands down.
So, I don't know about you, but I watch ebird like a hawk. (Pun intended) I noticed Anhingas and a Wood Stork had both been reported on the Wheeler eTT. If you don't know what the eTT is, it's a "public ebird terminal" type thing. Anybody who birds at the refuge can stop into the visitors center and log their sightings right to ebird.
The unfortunate thing is, there's no information on where these species were seen. So, it's like searching for a needle in a haystack. This might discourage some birders, but not me! I welcome the challenge!
I made two trips to the Blackwell Swamp area the first week I was here. While I picked up Brown-headed Nuthatch, Blue Grosbeak, and Kentucky Warbler for my lifers... there were NO Anhingas or Wood Storks in sight. It had been a couple days, and I won't pretend like I wasn't a tad bit disappointed. However, I knew that this is the risk you take when blindly searching for rarities.
The next week, I decided to check out the visitor's center. There's a trail over by there, leading to a Wildlife Observation Building, which overlooks a marsh area. I figured, why not check it out? I've been needing Little Blue Herons since I got down here. So, I make the hike. No birds along the trail, but I did find these little guys:
1/80- f/5.6-3200 ISO
While I love birding, I also love all baby animals. I had to stop and shoot several photos. However, the lighting was terrible in the woods, and this was the only clear image I got. Perfect little face though, don't you agree?
Anyways, the Wildlife Observation Building was incredible. Floor to ceiling glass overlooking a large marsh area. The worker told us over the winter, thirteen thousand Sandhill Cranes resided here, along with a few Whooping Cranes. Anybody who knows me knows that my favorite birds back in Ohio to go see were the Sandhill Cranes. This made my heart soar, knowing I wouldn't be missing these magnificent birds down here in the south.
As soon as I walk up to the glass, I notice a bird flying in the sky. White body, dark head/neck, and black flight feathers. Immediately I called out, "WOOD STORK!" I started dancing and celebrating, completely forgetting that maybe I should snap a photo so I could get the sighting confirmed on ebird. So, with no time to change my settings from the dark forest, I got a very grainy, but still ID-able photo of the Wood Stork:
I rushed back to the visitor's center, camera in hand, and reported the sighting. The women working were very thankful, as they pay attention to the Wheeler eTT, and nobody had seen the stork since the initial sighting.
That day was a long one, as I walked several trails, took lots of photos, and didn't return home until the afternoon. I wouldn't get out for a few more days. At this point, I really really needed to find that Anhinga. I was determined.
So, let's move ahead a few more days. It had rained briefly, and if there's anything I've learned while birding it's that birds come out after the rain. I know it's my best time for birding, especially in the hot southern summer time.
I decided to hit Blackwell Swamp. No walking trails, but plenty of birding by car. I didn't have any bug spray and figured birding by car would be my best bet. Little did I know, it would also be my lucky day.
At first I arrived at the swamp, and I saw a bird I swore was an Anhinga. He was a little too far off for me to get a clear photo, so I wrote it off as a Double-crested Cormorant. My excitement crushed, I decided to drive back through the woods, in the hopes to find the Barred Owl I'd spotted the week before.
Driving back through gave me plenty of Summer Tanagers and Indigo Buntings- probably the two most prevalent passerine species I find over at Blackwell Swamp. (Followed closely by Great Crested Flycatchers) I circled around the swamp, not finding any Anhingas at the other end. A little bummed, I made the decision to make one more round to the other side, to see if the "Cormorant" had perched a little closer for better photos.
What I found when I got back to the other side made my entire week. I saw, in flight, a male Anhinga. Unfortunately the photos were not ID-able, so I started scanning the swamp. That's when I saw her pop out of the swamp and perch. A female Anhinga!
Though my photo wasn't the best, it was definitely ID-able. I'd not even been in Alabama for two weeks and already chased down two rarities! I was feeling pretty good at this point, and maybe on top of the world (for birding, at least). I would return the next day to find the male Anhinga perched, though too far for good photos. I am certain that they may be nesting at the swamp.
Since chasing these two rarities, Blackwell Swamp has given me even more lifers. Notably: Bachman's Sparrow, and King Rail. Now you can understand why I love this place so much, right?
Next week, I plan on hitting a spot out near Muscle Shoals called "The Sinks". It seems to be a great place for shorebirds and waders, and Roseate Spoonbills were reported this week in the area along with Little Blue Herons. Cross your fingers that I find what I am looking for, and then some more!
Until next time.
Happy birding to all of you.