Spring on the Gulf Coast


Summer Tanagers were abundant and often tired and approachable during my April 2016 birding weekend on Dauphin Island Alabama.

Last weekend, I went down to Dauphin Island, a seven-mile-long barrier island on the coast of Alabama. It was the annual Alabama Ornithological Society weekend, held each spring on the third weekend in April which is always near the peak of migration. This year, the weekend fell early, so the migrants would be dominated by Prothonotary Warblers and Orchard Orioles instead of Blackpoll Warblers. I drove down Friday night and the forecast for birding was not great—strong easterly winds which often blow migrants over toward Louisiana and Texas. But I wanted to get out and see some birds, and the guest speaker, who would be around birding all day, was Kimball Garrett, a prominent field ornithologist from the LA County Museum and long-time acquaintance of mine through national bird meetings.

Tired Scarlet Tanagers, like this male, would allow for close-up photographs.

As promised, it was windy when I woke up Saturaday morning. I was to meet the birding group that Kimball was leading at 7am so at 630, just before sunrise, I walked across the street from my hotel toward the beach. I saw a lot of bird activity in the front yard of a school that lies right on the Gulf of Mexico and was elated to see that the open area was covered in grosbeaks and buntings. I estimated forty Blue Grosbeaks and forty Indigo Buntings covered the school yard. There was also a beautiful male Scarlet Tanager in the small bush at the edge of the fence. Despite the poor forecast, this was looking like a fine spring birding day. It would probably not be a full-blown fallout, but I was hoping for a day with a lot of migrants on the island.

Kimball Garrett leading a bird walk at the 2016 AOS meeting.

Because the coast was unpleasantly windy and the woods were full of songbirds, the woodlots offered by far the best birding. So, we spend almost all day at the Shell Mounds, the Audubon Sanctuary, the Goat Tree and other migrant traps on the east end of Dauphin Island and avoided the open ocean and bay fronts. It was an excellent day of coastal birding. Everything was perfect. There were a lot of birders around, but it never seemed crowded—just enough people to find interesting birds. The number of birds was not overwhelming, but there were migrants seemingly everywhere. Every bush or tree had a few migrants in it, so there was plenty to keep the day interesting. It was overcast but never really threatened rain. And, away from the ocean or bay, in the woodlots, it wasn't even very windy.

I spent all morning birding with the official AOS tour being led by Kimball for which I kept my big camera lens in my car and just used my small 100 – 400 mm lens with no tripod. We run up a nice list of birds with Painted Bunting, Blue-winged Warbler, and Least Bittern perhaps being the best birds.

A Least Bittern hung out in the same spot for two days during the April Bird Festival in Alabama.

The morning AOS birding ended at noon and I split from the group. They were going to a group lunch and afternoon activities before we would all reconvene at the AOS banquet that evening. I got a quick lunch and got out my big 500 mm camera lens. This was a rare cloudy day on the Gulf Coast, and the light was almost perfect for photography—bright diffuse lighting. I went back to a group of bottlebrush bushes, loaded with huge red flowers that seemed to be dripping with nectar. There are patches of bottlebrush all over the east side of Dauphin Island and it seems that every year a different set of bushes has the most nectar. This year, it was a set of six mature bushes in a small cemetery along the main road. At mid-morning we had stopped at this spot and seen a parade of birds, and I was itching to come back with my camera. I was not disappointed. The 30 or so Ruby-throated Hummingbirds was still present as were five species of warblers and many Orchard Orioles. I managed to get a few nice shots.

The bottlebrush bushes in the cemetery on Dauphin Island drew in a lot of birds.

By the evening, bird numbers were picking up as new migrants arrived at the island. And many of the arriving birds were exhausted. There were several male Scarlet Tanagers in the grass along the fringe of the Shell Mounds. These birds looked like they were on death's doorstep, but almost all of these would rest, revive, and recover. So long as a bird puts down on land and it avoid predators, it is a winner. It is the birds the splash into the Gulf that are gone from the gene pool.

Both Summer and Scarlet Tanagers were coming in exhausted in the afternoon of April 16. It was weird to see so many canopy birds down on the ground.

The next day I had to drive back to Auburn. I only had a few hours for birding in the morning and bird numbers were way down from the night before. All of the tired tanagers had recovered and flown off. But I managed to get OK photos of two birds that were my main targets for the trip--Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Wood Thrush.

Wood Thrush and Yellow-billed Cuckoos were two of my photo targets for the trip.

All in all, in was a great weekend. I got to see a lot of birder friends, and hear Kimball Garrett give a fun and interesting talk on criteria for adding introduced birds to state lists. I recorded about 106 species with almost no time spent at the beach. My list included 18 species of warblers, four vireos, and huge numbers of species like Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, and Barn Swallow. It may be a long time before we have better birds at a spring AOS meeting.