October Off-Grid Birding

The Bird Call Blog

by R. Scot Duncan

Photos by Debbie McKenzie & Greg Harber

Indigo Bunting by Debbie McKenzie.

Indigo Bunting by Debbie McKenzie.

Unable to join the migration of birders to the coast for the Alabama Ornithological Society meeting, nor able to bird at Ruffner due to a popular half-marathon trail race that obliterates the tranquility of the early morning at the nature center, I succumbed to the urge to do some off-grid birding. Specifically, I headed to Trussville to explore some potential birding locations to add to my neighborhood birding circuit – and I found two great spots!

The morning was cool and humid, with a low ceiling of thick clouds that fell in line behind the cold front that passed across the state during the night. Cold fronts in fall usually bring a wave of migrants riding the southbound winds that follow, but the rain ahead of the front lingered over much of North Alabama until the wee hours, thus preventing any major influx of migrants into our area. [Tonight (Sat/Sun Oct 10/11) will be different. Rains have moved eastward and skies will be clear. Winds will be weak, but out of the NW, which should help move new migrants into the North Alabama theatre.]

Chestnut-Sided Warbler by Debbie McKenzie.

Chestnut-Sided Warbler by Debbie McKenzie.

My first stop was the Trussville Sports Complex property which includes floodplain along the Cahaba River. I’d had breeding Swainson’s Warblers there several years ago when visiting to do some trail running, but I’d never been there to bird. Upon arrival I was saddened to see the clearing of forest along the river to install new stormwater piping, I think. However, the construction seems to have been over for a while, and the zone of disturbance is now thick with tall fall weeds (goldenrod, ragweed, cocklebur, et al.) that provide a buffet of insects and seeds for hungry fall migrants. The cleared strip along the river also provided edge habitat for spotting canopy birds.

Indigo buntings were thick as flies, and I kicked up about one Common Yellowthroat for every 50 yards I walked. Other warblers were sparse, despite the abundance of suitable vegetation, but I did manage to spot a GOLDEN-WINGED WARBLER in the one warbler-flock encountered. Redstarts, Magnolias, and Chestnut-sideds rounded out the rest of the flock.

Male American Redstart by Debbie McKenzie.

Male American Redstart by Debbie McKenzie.

Though the birds were sparse, I was favorably impressed with the diversity, extent, and accessibility of this habitat, and I am excited about birding this spot later in the fall and in the winter when the abundant seed will attract hordes of hungry sparrows. If you visit this location, bring boots – floodplain trails tend to be soggy, as this one was in a few spots today.

My second scouting trip was to Turncliff Parkway, a broad, winding road that slinks below the crest of Red Mountain in Trussville and terminates in a small subdivision (the spot is across the interstate from the newish glorified strip-mall known as the Pinnacle; it starts on Edwards Lake Road). I’d been eyeing this property from afar for many years – I could see from the ground and from satellite imagery that it included a vast Kudzu patch draped across the mountain’s ridge. But despite the Kudzu, the open terrain with tree patches has always beckoned.

Male Golden-Winged Warbler by Debbie McKenzie.

Male Golden-Winged Warbler by Debbie McKenzie.

The road leading to the subdivision began by climbing through patches of mountain forest and utility clear-cuts. Though this lower elevation part of the parkway looked birdy, I didn’t have enough time to stop, despite hearing both Blue and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks as I drove. Near the crest of the mountain, the road delivered me into one of the largest expanses of Kudzu I have ever seen. The elevation and open sky afforded views of mountains far to the Southeast. Several exposed cliffs revealed that this was an old mine or quarry site. A cattail-choked retention pond at the base of the slope looked enticing, but was too far for today’s excursion. The property is neither fenced nor posted. Which provides delicious temptation for birders!

The birding was surprisingly good, and convinced me that I should stop here regularly. Stepping out of the car triggered an eruption of Eastern Bluebirds, House Finches, and Indigo Buntings from the roadside vegetation. More birds than I could track and identify scattered in all directions. Many flew into the sea of Kudzu, dove in, and disappeared to watch me and feed without revealing themselves. Occasionally I would flush birds from the Kudzu near the road, and birds would leap up, fly a short distance, and drop into the cover. They reminded me of flying-fish out on the Gulf.

Magnolia Warbler by Debbie McKenzie.

Magnolia Warbler by Debbie McKenzie.

Others birds cooperated by perching on the powerlines or in isolated trees. Palm Warblers and Field and Chipping Sparrows fed in the roadside weeds or bathed in the street puddle. Common Yellowthroats chipped unseen from positions deep in the Kudzu. A BALTIMORE ORIOLE made an appearance in a vine-draped privet, and a late-for-fall WORM-EATING WARBLER briefly emerged from the forest edge.

Baltimore Oriole in Mulberry Bush by Greg Harber.

Baltimore Oriole in Mulberry Bush by Greg Harber.

These were all pretty good sightings and numbers, but the moment when I decided that this was to become a new regular birding spot for me was when a LINCOLN’S SPARROW popped up briefly from the kudzu in response to spishing. A SEDGE WREN was also approached within a few inches of me as I played bird calls on my phone to draw birds out of hiding. The parkway was also a great vantage point for observing hawks, as I saw both Cooper’s, Red-tailed, and Red-shouldered. This would be a good spot for watching hawk migrations later this month and in early November.

I ventured into the kudzu at one point chasing what may have been a Mourning Warbler (but was probably a bad look at a Common Yellowthroat), and found the ground to be solid and just a few inches beneath the “surface.” But I didn’t want to venture far – on the road was the mangled body of what was just yesterday a beautiful 4-foot long Copperhead.

I am excited to return to both these locations in the near future and see what they will produce. Contact me directly if you need more specific directions to either location.

Dr. Scot Duncan is an ecologist and author living in Birmingham, Alabama. He can be reached at sduncan@bsc.edu.