2-1-2014. The Pinhoti Trail near Coleman Lake in the Talladega National Forest, north of Heflin, was the destination for today’s Birmingham Audubon field trip. Our target birds were Red Crossbills and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, and possibly Fox and Bachman’s Sparrows, with Golden Eagles being on the wish list, too. As it happened, the Bachman’s Sparrow and the eagle were the two we missed.
When we arrived at the Pinhoti Trailhead parking lot there was no need to review the calls of the crossbills prior to hitting the trail, because we could hear several birds calling as soon as we exited our cars. Although hearing them was never a problem – we encountered them in multiple locations – locating them by sight was another issue.
We opted to take the trail in the direction of Coleman Lake because the birds were calling from that direction, and before long Jessie Griswold had located at least three of them in the top of a large pine tree. We had to follow them a bit as they flew from treetop to treetop, but we eventually did see all three birds (an adult male and two females/immatures) in the spotting scope. The views, crossed bills and all, proved to be quite satisfying – especially for those for whom these proved to be life birds. I would estimate that we had walked perhaps 100-125 yards down the trail to where we encountered these birds. As I said, there were multiple birds vocalizing and so it was only a matter of time before we saw them.
Also in the same vicinity we heard a Red-cockaded Woodpecker calling but never did get a clear view of one perched, although I did see an appropriately sized woodpecker flying away from where I was hearing the calls. Elizabeth Conn found our one and only Fox Sparrow here as well.
Further along the trail, up the hill from the small creek that feeds into the lake, we encountered a noisy mixed flock of small birds: Brown-headed Nuthatches (very abundant in this whole area), Pine Warblers, both kinglet species, chickadees and titmice and at least one, possibly two, Brown Creepers.
The lake itself bore silent testimony to the chilling temperatures from earlier in the week: parts of it were still frozen where the footbridge crossed the lake! Perhaps it was a bit indicative of our personal backgrounds when some identified the patterns in the thawing ice sheet as tree-shaped or shaped like arteries and veins – even to the point classifying one pattern as the ascending aorta! How’s that for specificity?!
The far side of the lake (which turned out to be the campground overflow area) proved to the second area where we readily heard more crossbills and from there we followed the roads back to our cars at the trailhead parking lot, where we ate a late lunch. As was our experience when first arrived that morning, the crossbills were easily heard and we even had a flyover of a couple of them.
Following lunch we opted to take the trail across the street from the parking lot – away from the direction of the lake – in hopes of seeing an Red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW). Alas, we never were successful in this endeavor, but we did have a brief but definitive view of a Hermit Thrush eating sumac berries, thanks to Joe Lahr’s keen eyes. If the berries were this bird’s stash for the winter, it is well supplied, but keeping away the many American Robins passing through the hillsides might be a challenge if the robins stay long! They and Red-winged Blackbirds were common amidst all the pines. Along this portion of the trail we heard more crossbills and saw nuthatches, both brown-headed and white-breasted, along with a healthy measure of active Yellow-rumped Warblers.
All in all, it was a lovely day in the field and it proved to be the perfect antidote for those who had been holed up in their houses during the winter storm that struck the state during the middle of the week. Since we missed the Golden Eagle and Bachman’s Sparrow, we’re just going to have to return again next year!
Greg Harber, trip leader