The Conservation Story of Limestone Park, A Birmingham Audubon Urban Bird Habitat.
The Bird Call Blog by Ken Wills, Volunteer Limestone Park Project Coordinator
Several years ago, Birmingham area birders realized that the marshes, tupelo swamps and old pasture grasslands of Alabaster’s Limestone Park provide bird habitats and birding opportunities found in few other places in the metropolitan area of Birmingham. Locally uncommon and rare birds like Meadowlarks to Anhingas
can be found in the park at various times of the year. Access for birding in the park was often limited. Birmingham Audubon members Anne Miller and Maureen Shaffer worked with Alabaster Mayor David Frings to build a bird observatory overlooking the wetlands and grasslands in 2012. Birmingham Audubon provided funds for the supplies and the City of Alabaster provided the labor. Limestone Park has also been added to the Appalachian Highlands Birding Trail.
In 2013 the new mayor of Alabaster, Marty Handlon, was sworn in and I saw an opportunity to establish a relationship with the new administration. With the city’s permission, Birmingham Audubon initiated work days at Limestone Park. Hans Paul and Jessie and Sam Griswold were among the first folks to volunteer at the park. They have since been joined by other volunteers such as Liz Masoner, Jim Brown and Pelham Rowan. We initially started removing exotic plants from the park, controlling exotic fire ants that harm wildlife and putting out a few bird houses. We also marked out mower exclusion plots for locally rare Atamasco Lilies. Then Dick Mills, the renaissance volunteer, joined our efforts at Limestone Park. With Dick’s involvement, our efforts blossomed in may ways. The number of bird houses has greatly expanded, and most of those were built by Dick himself. We now have quite a nice nesting population of both Eastern Bluebirds and locally uncommon nesters, Tree Swallows. We also are establishing native canebrakes and a small bald cypress grove below the beaver marsh. In addition, we have worked with the Education and Field Trips Committees of Birmingham Audubon to host educational bird walks at the park. However, the most notable project that we have been involved in is the half-acre prairie restoration.
In the Spring of 2014, we hand tilled a plot in the old pasture as a test plot for prairie restoration. The upland soils are a mix of natural heavy clay and fill dirt from unknown sources and they initially did not produce very good results. At this time, unexpected opportunity presented itself to improve the soil for planting. In the late spring of that year, we had been watching the city bring in load after load of fill dirt to the center of the park. We questioned a truck driver and there appeared to be no end to the amount of dirt they were bringing in. Concerned that the park’s wet meadow might be filled in, we contacted the city. The city informed us they had requested some dirt be brought to the park from other city projects to both build a levee around an adjacent private trailer park that was being flooded by park streams during times of high water and to provide some richer dirt for the park’s community vegetable garden. After we brought the amount of dirt to their attention, they realized too much dirt was being brought to the park. Dick Mills had the idea that some of this relatively rich dirt could be spread out and used as a good bed for a prairie restoration. The city was happy to spread some of the abundant, unneeded dirt on about a half-acre of upland pasture. We kept it weed free during the summer and then, with the help of city staff and heavy equipment, planted it with a variety of collected and purchased native grass and wildflower seeds. Later in the fall, seedlings were planted by Hands On Birmingham volunteers so that there would be something showy for folks to see in the first growing season. It normally takes a prairie planting several years to fully develop and bloom, so more Hands on Birmingham volunteers added additional seeds to the plot in January. Much of the funds for the project came from Birmingham Audubon‘s new Urban Bird Habitat Initiative Program.
Dick and our volunteers did some spring weeding on the plot, and when we hit a dry spell in May and June 2014, several of us spent quite a bit of time watering the prairie. We continued to do so as needed during this time of establishment. Our work produced first year results that were beyond our wildest dreams! The whole prairie became a sea of multi-colored native flowers including Indian Blanket, Gray Headed Coneflower, and Gayfeather Blazing Star which peaked in July and yet are still colorful as fall begins. Various birds including Bobolinks and Goldfinches have flocked to the prairie over the growing season. As fall begins, locally rare grasses such as Big Blue Stem and Indian Grass are starting to produce seed heads. This was also unexpected during our first year.
The Urban Bird Habitat Initiative Project at Limestone Park continues with collaborative workdays that involve volunteers from the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Birmingham Audubon. With assistance from Birmingham Audubon’s new Program
Director, Andy Coleman, we planted native trees and herbs grown by the Gardens. In the near future we will collaborate with the Gardens in hosting a Bio Blitz to fill in the gaps on the list of the park’s native plants and animals that I am compiling.
We see a great future for Limestone Park. Birmingham Audubon, with the City of Alabaster, Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Hands on Birmingham and other groups continue to improve the wildlife habitat of this unique park.