Birding Dauphin Island, Alabama (part 2 of 2)
Last time, I talked about my October visit to Dauphin Island and birding its edges. This time, we’ll check out the thing that the island is most known for, it’s extensive maritime forests. My first stop was the largest contiguous piece of this habitat on the island; the Audubon Bird Sanctuary. This tract is huge for a barrier island birding destination at 164 acres. The trails were mostly through pine forests and fairly quiet except your standard pine forest inhabitants like Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Pine Warblers, and Northern Cardinals.
The weather this fall had been bone dry across much of the south and the best bird activity was found in the more diverse vegetation around Gaillard Lake. Gray Catbirds, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Yellow-rumped Warblers were numerous, and traveling in small mixed flocks in the trees lining the lake. Eastern Phoebes were easy to spot sallying from snags.
At the overlook, I was able to see a Belted Kingfisher, Eastern Bluebirds, and a Tennessee Warbler just by sitting still and taking in the crisp morning. Most of the people that passed by were birding this morning. Besides the binoculars, an easy litmus test was what they asked if I had seen first: the alligator or the Peregrine Falcon. I didn’t see the Peregrine Falcon on this day, but I was able to see Northern Harriers, Osprey, American Kestrel, Red-tailed Hawk, and a Bald Eagle in the next 3 hours.
One of the coolest things on the island is a population of Florida Softshell Turtles (Apalone ferox) that live in Gaillard Lake. They look similar to other softshell turtles present in the southeastern United States but they’re MUCH larger by far. This population is the westernmost occurrence of this specie’s range and really made me wonder why these freshwater(?) turtles are present on a small island, surrounded by salt water on all sides. They were easily seen from the overlook and based on their tame behavior, I’d guess that they’re used to being fed.
The “Swamp” section of the Audubon Sanctuary seemed mis-named. Though it seemed like it was usually wet in the middle where there was currently a dry marsh, along the trail there were a bunch of scrubby shrubs like baccharis and willows. The edges were lined with pine trees which looked dead from what I’d guess would be saltwater (storm surge or drought?). The pine trees were good for spotting woodpeckers, Brown-headed Nutchatch, House Finches, and House Wrens.
The “Banding Area” is located on the north east side of the tract and would probably be a great place to revisit during spring migration. This area had more deciduous vegetation and contained much more low cover than most of the tract. There was a small covered area with a mister which was not running at this time. It was fairly quiet for me except for newly arrived wintering birds and an unusual irruptive bird, the Red Breasted Nuthatch.
After a lunch of a fancy hot dog (really, it was good!) at the Ferry Landing and having made a few birding friends from the area, we decided to revisit the Fort Gaines area. We were able to locate Indigo Buntings, Swamp Sparrows, and a migrating Eastern Meadowlark but struck out on some of the more interesting species sometimes found there during fall migration (Clay-coloured Sparrow) and decided to move on after an hour. As we were leaving I mentioned that, besides seeing a Nelson’s Sparrow, a secondary goal I had had was to hit 100 species on my Alabama list (before this trip, it was at 47). I showed them a printout of my eBird target Alabama birds checklist for Mobile County. My companions seemed to take it as a welcome challenge on an otherwise slow birding weekend and what followed was an absolute whirlwind tour of the island as we ticked off species after species in both popular and obscure places.
Shell Mound Park
Our next stop was at a place I had written off as too small to bother with on the north side of the island known as Shell Mound Park. Parking was limited, but I could immediately see why this is one of most popular birding spots on the island. Most of the tract is located on huge shell middens and is vegetated with thick deciduous trees including many old live oaks. The trails were dark, and worn and I was immediately reminded of the tracts behind the grocery store on Grand Isle, LA. This place is a classic example of a “migrant trap” that’s big enough to attract migrating perching birds but small enough to be easily searched. It was a slow day, but I was able to see Common Yellowthroats, Indigo Buntings, a Brown Creeper, and Swamp Sparrows in the “bowl” area as well as a Black-and-White Warbler, Tennessee Warblers, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo in the forest.
One of the most surprising things about the island was the species that weren’t there. I had not seen nor heard a single Carolina Chickadee or Tufted Titmouse on the island. My companions explained that the very small, non migrating species are hesitant to cross large bodies of water to get to the island. I asked about the absence of crows (both American and Fish), Boat-tailed Grackles, and Common Grackles. Fish Crows and Boat-tailed Grackles are present on the island during spring, but head back to the mainland for winter. I checked the eBird records for American Crows and Common Grackles but it was peppered with records with no documentation. I wonder if they should probably be counted as “rare” for the island but if this is one of those cases where eBird’s county filters don’t do geographically separate areas justice.
After Shell Mound park, we continued to drive around to small wooded tracts that are slowly being purchased for conservation efforts on the island. The Goat Trees was one we visited that I would’ve never found on my own. I would image it would be a cornucopia of migrants in the spring.
About-mid afternoon, it was clear that no shower of migrants was going to show so we started searching the island species by species. Got a Rock Dove (feral) on the western neighborhoods, located some Mottled Ducks, Marsh Wren, and a Savannah Sparrow in a small coastal lagoon between a neighborhood and the beach. We got a call late in the afternoon from another of my earlier companions that lives on the island. She had Semipalmated Plovers in scoping distance of her porch and I also got a surprise Cooper’s Hawk chasing after the doves roosting in her pine tree.
On my last day, I spent the morning wandering around the woods and although there was a little more activity now that the wind had died down, it was still very slow. I was at 98 species for my Alabama list but I assumed I’d just have to stop back on the mainland and try to pick up some easy ones like Tufted Titmouse or American Crow. I met up with my companion from the previous day and we decided to give the Nelson’s Sparrow at Dauphin Island Airport one more try. Nelson’s Sparrow is a shy species of sparrow that spends its winters in brackish marsh all along the Gulf Coast. I had never seen one before but I knew that the Alabama Ornithological Society field trip had them at this location the previous weekend so it was probably here to stay for the winter.
We arrived on the road to the airport and parked in the middle of the road facing a sea of marsh grass. The wind was significantly calmer than the previous days. A Broad-winged Hawk flew over (99). We played the Nelson’s Sparrow song using a smart phone app.
It popped up immediately about 25 yards out. I zoomed in, got a few photos and it hopped back down into its hiding place in the thick marsh grass. Huh. I thought. That’s why I’ve never seen that one. Not the most satisfying look, but I’m glad I got a photo to commemorate the occasion. I thanked my companion for all his help and headed back home.
Over the weekend, I was able to see 84 species of birds (with one life bird!), walked over 30 miles, and only spent about $200 on the entire 3-day trip (mostly lodging/gas). You could probably bring the trip to under $100 if you chose to camp instead of getting a hotel room, but the campground was full when I tried.
Definitely a worth-while trip at just a 2-hour drive from New Orleans. Dauphin Island is up there with Grand Isle and the Cameron Parish chenier forests in terms of Gulf Coast migrating bird stops. I’m eagerly awaiting visiting during spring migration because there were a handful of warblers that I’m sure I missed as they flitted through the canopy in their cryptic fall colors.