Birding Dauphin Island, Alabama (part 1 of 2)

I’ve often heard Dauphin Island, Alabama referred to as one of the best birding spots in the United States.  In mid-October, when the rest of my family went out of town, I visited it for the weekend.  Although the weather didn’t cooperate, I was able to nearly fully explore a very interesting piece of Gulf Coast barrier island habitat and ended up the trip with 86 species on the island.

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Dauphin Island is approximately two hours drive from New Orleans and due south of Mobile, Alabama at the intersection of Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.  Highway 193 connects the island to the mainland over a 3.5 mile bridge or you can reach it by ferry from Fort Morgan, Alabama.  The island has a population of about 1,200 people and has a land surface area of about 6.2 miles even though the island itself is over 16 miles long.  Most of the homes, businesses and trees on the island are on the eastern 3 miles.  I booked a room at the Gulf Breeze Motel which I found very reasonably priced at $80/night although it has a 2-night minimum.  There are a handful of restaurants on the island, a grocery store, gas station, and some souvenir shops although as it was past beach season, I found most of these closed or with reduced hours.

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Dauphin Island is a barrier island.  Barrier islands form on transgressive coastlines and are typically long, narrow, and parallel to the mainland shore line.   The Gulf side of the island consists of sandy beaches with an unusual spit (Pelican Island) formed by the longshore deposition of outwash from Mobile Bay.  North of the beaches are sandy dunes that range from a few feet high in the west to over forty feet high on the eastern part of the island.  These enormous dunes create a potential for unique habitat on Dauphin Island.  Where most Gulf Coast barrier islands have scrub vegetated dunes followed by marsh, Dauphin Island is so wide that it allowed large tracks of forest to form consisting of live oaks groves and pine savannas.  The north side of the island is dominated by salt marsh.

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In the spring, Dauphin Island is one of the first places to land for migratory birds making the 600 mile Gulf of Mexico crossing from the Yucatan Peninsula and in fall, it’s one of the last places to fuel up before making the journey south.  Pair this with its rich forests and diverse habitats and that’s why the island is one of the premier birding destinations in the United States matched only by Grand Isle and Cameron Parish in Louisiana or High Island in Texas.  These neotropical migrants are best seen from April-May and September-October.  Large tidal flats and extensive stretches of beaches makes this a great place to see shorebirds and wading birds.  The salt marshes on the north side of the island are the home of some specialty species that may be hard to get other places in the country.

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Salt marsh at the Dauphin Island Airport

Pelican Island
I arrived in the afternoon, just in time for low tide, so I parked behind the Gulf Breeze Motel and started walking towards the beach. A Red Phalarope had been seen last weekend out on the Pelican Island Peninsula so I was interested in seeing that.  Pelican Island isn’t really an island… most of the time… it’s a spit that sticks out into the Gulf and forms Pelican Bay, a calm, shallow body of water with plenty of exposed sandbars and tidal flats at low tide: a recipe for shorebirds.  A public beach landing led to a pier over the dunes and I was on the beach.  It was a beautiful white sandy beach, although the water was still very turbid unlike the crystal clear waters of Pensacola an hour to the east.  Offshore oil rigs were visible in the distance.  There were few birds on the Gulf shore itself; mostly Brown Pelican, Sanderling, and Royal and Caspian Terns wheeling overhead.  Long runnels (water trapped by low tide in long troughs) ran parallel to the shore.  A Reddish Egret was a nice treat but there were also Black-bellied Plovers, Snowy Plovers, Great Blue Herons, and Great Egrets.

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A nearly exclusively coastal species, a Reddish Egret was a welcome sight at the end of the pier.

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Sanderling were the most common birds on the shore running up and down the beach.

 

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Snowy Plovers were almost invisible in the sand.

As I walked south, the spit became more narrow and the only birds I saw were Sanderlings.  At this point, I realized I was very thirsty and later I found out that I was about a halfway through a four mile walk.  Things really picked up when I switched over to the calm east side on Pelican Bay. The water on the bay side was much clearer.  Some phenomena of tide or the weather or both had deposited hundreds of jellyfish on the beach.  Blue crabs were in the surf and sting rays were patrolling for the crabs. Tidal pools and exposed sand bars teemed with Piping Plovers, Short-billed Dowitcher, Willet, and Caspian Terns.

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Piping Plovers are classified as endangered by many states and threatened in the United States. Their population is under 7,000 birds. A few of the birds on the island were tagged with color bands.

 

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Short-billed Dowitcher

When I finally got back around to the pier, there were some marshy ponds where I found a Pied-billed Grebe as well as flushing my first Wilson’s Snipe of the fall.  The wildflowers on the trails back to the pier were great as well with goldenrods, beach morning glory, and others that I didn’t recognize with Common Buckeye, Gulf Fritillary, Gray Hairstreak, and Long-tailed Skipper butterflies flitting among them.

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Long-tailed Skipper

Fort Gaines & East End

The eastern end of the island is home to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab as well as Fort Gaines, a historic United States Coastal Fort.  There are piers and rock walls that are definitely worth searching since someone from the week before had spotted a possible Kumlien’s Gull (that turned out to be a confusing hybrid).  Gulls had been conspicuously missing from my previous beach walk and I found out why: they were all here.  The only two groups I saw were Laughing Gulls (in the hundreds) and a few immature Herring Gulls.  There were a few more shorebirds here including Ruddy Turnstone, Least Sandpiper, and a Marbled Godwit!

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The East End rocks was the only place I saw Least Sandpipers on the island during this trip.

The fort itself had Mourning Doves, Eastern Bluebirds, and Eastern Phoebes perching on its walls while Palm Warblers fed in the sandy grass outside the fort.  There is a small grove of trees behind the fort with a very unofficial looking trail where we found Indigo Buntings, Swamp Sparrow, and a lone Eastern Meadowlark in the grass between the trees and the beach.

Palm Warblers give me a hard time every time I see them for the first time in a season. Always pay attention to the pumping tail and preference for open habitat.

Palm Warblers give me a hard time every time I see them for the first time in a season. Always pay attention to the pumping tail and preference for open habitat.

There was another very interesting bird that I later discovered, had been hanging around for over a month.  A white Great Blue Heron.  I say “white Great Blue Heron” instead of “Great White Heron” because I met one of the local moderators and he explained that the subspecies known as the Great White Heron (Ardea herodias occidentalis) is genetically and geographically distinct from white Great Blue Herons (which do occur outside of southern Florida.  The only way to know for sure would be to do genetic testing… but for now, most people are still calling it a Great White Heron.  Either way, very cool bird.

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All that was just the first day and I hadn’t stepped foot in the woods yet.  Next time, I’ll cover the forests on the island as well as my search for the elusive Nelson’s Sparrow in the salt marshes on the back of the island.