Report: Marion County Field Trip

swainson's warbler  photo USFWS

Swainson’s warbler
photo USFWS

The May 23, 2015 Birmingham Audubon Field Trip to Hamilton in Marion County began with an impressive display of the skills that our members bring to the study of nature even in the unlikeliest places. The location was a gas station,  just off Interstate 22 outside of  Hamilton where we stopped to rendezvous with Beth Motherwell, of the University of Alabama Press in Tuscaloosa. A few of us immediately fanned out to explore the area behind the gas station, and Pelham Rowan soon reported that he could hear a Swainson’s warbler singing. The rest of the group rushed to hear this secretive warbler, and we also heard wood thrush and hooded warbler.  We could identify the birds by their songs, but we could not actually see them.  The birds were enjoying a small creek flowing just a few yards away screened from disturbance by a dense belt of second-growth vegetation.

polyphemus moth        Anne Miller

polyphemus moth Anne Miller

As we turned back towards the cars, David Shepherd spied the forewing of a polyphemus moth, lying on the ground beneath a small crabapple tree just behind the gas station. We discovered more large moth wings scattered on the ground including the giant cecropia moth and the beautiful pale green luna moth.  Claire Datnow collected 8-10 of the wings for an educational display.  The small tree was close to a huge light fixture that illuminates the gas station at night.  We concluded that an owl, perhaps an eastern screech owl, was taking advantage of the light’s hypnotic attraction for night-flying insects to harvest the large moths.  The tree was obviously the owl’s favorite perch for consuming his prey.

With the trip already off to an excellent start, we proceeded to the Hamilton Indian mounds. These are three Mississippian Indian Mounds on the banks of the Buttahatchee River which are reached by a pleasant ½ mile path that flanks a densely vegetated wetland on one side and open agricultural fields on the other. The quiet park is a site on the West Alabama Birding Trail.* We wandered up to the mounds, where we also found the old ford where Andrew Jackson’s Military Road, built in 1816, crosses the river. The clear, shallow shoals of the Buttahatchee make a beautiful backdrop for the ancient Indian mounds, which are shaded by groves of mature oaks and hickories. Birds seen (or heard) included red-shouldered hawk, belted kingfisher, yellow-billed cuckoo, pileated woodpecker, white-eyed and red-eyed vireo, summer tanager, and indigo bunting.

Pikeville Courthouse photo Matt Hunter

Pikeville Courthouse         photo Matt Hunter

Our next destination was a brief visit to the Pikeville Courthouse which was built in 1820, and served as the Marion County Courthouse from 1820 to 1882. The deserted and sadly dilapidated building is surrounded by a wide expanse of lawn with numerous large shade trees and a small graveyard. Although the back of the building can be seen from U.S. 43, it faces another remnant of Jackson’s Military Road. We were fascinated by the historic building and especially by its surrounding trees many of which appear to have survived from the early courthouse days.

Our next stop was the Marion County Lake which is also a site on the West Alabama Birding Trail.* Here we gathered around some shady picnic tables and enjoyed a picnic lunch followed by a stroll down a quiet stretch of roadway through the woods bordering the lake. Birds seen and heard included wood thrush, summer tanager, black-and-white warbler, pine warbler, Kentucky warbler, hooded warbler and yellow-breasted chat.

purple martin   photo Matt Hunter

purple martin
photo Matt Hunter

Our next visit was to the Sam Murphy Wildlife Management Area, where we hunted for prairie warblers, yellow-breasted chats, and indigo buntings in old clear-cuts along the road. Our mission successfully accomplished, we made a final stop a few miles away at the farm of Jerry Brown, who has received national recognition for his folk pottery made from local clay. The farm also features a huge colony of purple martins housed in dozens of gourds.  There were clouds of martins swooping around, perching on the extensive system of poles supporting the gourds, and bringing food to their hungry young. Most of us made a point of purchasing a souvenir piece of pottery from Brown’s pottery shop.

This was supposed to be the end of the trip, but we made a brief stop on our way back to I-22 to visit an old gravel and sand quarry not far from the pottery. The quarry’s eroded cliffs were capped by thick bands of iron deposits above the loose Cretaceous sandstone and gravel formations. We all found interesting rocks to collect as reminders of a fascinating visit to Alabama’s Upper Coastal Plain making this a good way to end a delightful trip with talented and well-informed companions. Those participating were: Pat Dortch, Matt Hunter, David Shepherd, Wayne, Peggy and Cindy Williams, Lisa Bailey and Pelham Rowan, Claire and Boris Datnow, Judy and David McClusky, Beth Motherwell and Anne Miller.

*For more information on these Alabama Birding Trails sites, see