Birdwatching is becoming big business in Calhoun County
by Eddie Burkhalter
eburkhalter@thepiedmontjournal.com
Jun 03, 2012 | 3704 views |  0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Klaus Duncan is a members of the Calhoun County Birdwatchers, one of many groups across the nation. Spending the afternoon looking at birds can mean big business, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, $35 billion annually, in 2006. Photo: Photos: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star
Klaus Duncan is a members of the Calhoun County Birdwatchers, one of many groups across the nation. Spending the afternoon looking at birds can mean big business, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, $35 billion annually, in 2006. Photo: Photos: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star
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Klaus Duncan swung his head toward an unseen chirping sound in the eaves of the Jacksonville Community Center, then back to where his hands were busy poking around the inside of a bird house in front of the building.

“Look here. It’s grass, see? That’s not a bluebird nest anymore,” Duncan said, his German accent sharpening the consonants. He looked back up at the eaves with a grimace.

The birdhouse was meant for a bluebird, but that bird is long gone. A dreaded house sparrow — the Joker to the bluebird’s Batman — has set up camp in the weathered gray box. House sparrows will kill bluebirds and their nestlings if given the chance.

Duncan pointed up as a small bird four shades of brown shot from a tiny crevice like a rocket, then settled on the ground, needling through the grass with its beak.

Duncan and his fellow birders in the Calhoun County Birdwatchers group began their bluebird trail last year. The first birdhouse in the trail is the one Duncan inspected, sitting on a pole in front of the Community Center. From there, boxes dot poles in a line along the Chief Ladiga Trail, through the campus of Jacksonville State University, ending where Federal Mogul sits just off Alabama 21.

While many hardcore birders hate house sparrows with a special passion, yanking their bedding from stolen bluebird nests and cursing them to the heavens, Duncan admits that he sometimes leaves them be.

“They’re birds, too,” Duncan said with a hint of shame in the admission.

Birdwatching is big, and big business.

Pete Conroy is the director of Jacksonville State University’s Environmental Policy and Information Center and Field Schools. Conroy said birders pump billions into the U.S. economy annually. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put the number at $36 billion in 2006.

“These are people that will take their vacations and fly and stay in hotels, just to see a particular species,” Conroy said.

Alabama is rich birding territory. The Talladega National Forest is home to the southernmost nesting colony of the rare Red Crossbill.

“People will fly from all over the place to see that bird, as well as many others,” Conroy said.

They get a bad rap with some, these birders, with all their expendable incomes and binoculars and recording devices, and the way they’ll just yank the car over to the side of the road to stare into trees. But birdwatching is growing in popularity the world over.

“I’m a birdwatcher, and I know some people kind of roll their eyes when they here the term ‘birdwatcher.’ But hey, it’s just kind of fun and it’s free,” Conroy said, adding that in Alabama, it wouldn’t be unusual to see 40 or 50 species in a day.

New birdwatching trails are popping up across the state, like the massive new Appalachian Highlands Birding Trail, which launched in May. The collective of 38 birding sites runs through nine counties, stretching from Talladega County to the Georgia border and north to Etowah County.

Calhoun County’s portion of the trail includes the Frog Pond Overlook off of Alabama 9, the Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge on the former Fort McClellan and the Anniston Museum of Natural History.

The Appalachian Highlands Birding Trail is the sixth of eight organized trails that will ultimately cover the state of Alabama.

Backyard birders

While many birders keep lists, traveling to areas far and wide to check off certain species, there is another kind of birding that’s just as popular and offers the same kind of thrill.

“There might be fanatical birdwatchers, but there are also those who feel that there’s nothing more pleasant than having a birdfeeder outside the house. You don’t have to leave your back porch to enjoy birds to the same extent,” Conroy said.

Duncan and his wife, Sandra Kelly, are both birders. While Duncan enjoys taking trips with his group to see those rare birds, both he and Kelly are avid backyard birders. The backyard of their Jacksonville home is a bird’s paradise.

Ponds supply easy access to water — crucial, Duncan said — and several bird feeders are arranged close to one another, because a single bird feeder will only make birds fight each other for a chance to grab a snack. Hang out several and you’ve got yourself a deli.

Winter is the best time for birders, Duncan said, as the trees are bare and birds are more readily seen. By late May, migratory patterns take over and many species begin their treks to other areas.

Even in the heat of June, Duncan’s backyard was alive with the sound of chirping. Mockingbirds, nuthatches, sparrows, bluejays and starlings all fluttered in the thick stand of trees in Duncan’s yard. He can recognize them by their calls, even if he can’t always see them.

“There are a lot of backyard birders out there,” Duncan said, tilting his head at the sound of some unseen bird. Duncan came to the United States from Germany with his family in 1953. Both he and Sandra are retired teachers.

Sandra Kelly is a big fan of backyard birding. From her chair on the back patio she talked about why she thinks birding has become so popular.

“I think it started back in the bird counts,” Kelly said. “Determining how changes in habitats were affecting birds was a big concern back then.”

The first Christmas Bird Count, which not surprisingly takes place on Christmas Day, was held in 1900 in just 25 locations in the U.S. and Canada. The purpose of the count, sponsored by the National Audubon Society, is to provide population data for researchers. By the year 2000, the number of people taking part in the count had grown to 52,000 across 17 countries.

In addition to the Christmas count, the Great Backyard Bird Count is an annual four-day event in February, in which anyone can head out into the backyard and record what species they can see. This year, 104,000 people took part, counting more than 17.4 million individual birds. Scientists will use that data to track migratory patterns and determine if disease, changes in habitat or other climate changes are affecting bird populations.

Duncan would like to see more people get involved with birding. As he put it, there is just so much out there, right in your backyard, that you don’t know about.

“What excites me is knowing these animals live among us, but they have their own life. Their own characteristics,” Duncan said. “And if you understand them, there is a whole different world out there.”

Conroy recalled a recent moment that reminded him of why he enjoys birding so much, and why it’s a good thing to put down the smartphone and laptop every once in a while.

“I remember not too long ago, a Sharp-shinned hawk was chasing a bluebird around a tree in my front yard,” Conroy said. “It was just pretty. It was this moment of pure nature that you can either share with someone or enjoy by yourself. It’s a tranquil, easy way to entertain yourself in a world of too many electronics.”

Eddie Burkhalter admits he has house sparrows living in the eaves off his front porch, and has no plans to shoo them away, but his cats may. Contact him at 256-235-3563.

Calhoun County Birdwatchers

• For more information on the Calhoun County Birdwatchers, call Klaus Duncan at 256-782-2991.

Great Backyard Bird Count

• For more information on the Great Backyard Bird Count, to print off a bird checklist or to look at past results, visit birdsource.org/gbbc. The next Great Backyard Bird Count will take place Feb. 15-18, 2013.

Appalachian Highlands Birding Trails

The massive new Appalachian Highlands Birding Trail launched in May. The collective of 38 birding sites runs through nine counties, stretching from Talladega County to the Georgia border and north to Etowah County.

Calhoun County’s portion of the trail includes the Frog Pond Overlook off of Alabama 9, the Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge on the former Fort McClellan and the Anniston Museum of Natural History.

Frog Pond Overlook

Birds to look for:
The parking area is at the head of an unpaved Forest Service road, and the road bed creates an edge effect through the surrounding forest. Expect to find numerous pine warblers and brown-headed nuthatches, as well as a fine selection of woodland songbirds. Pileated woodpeckers are quite common, and wild turkeys are present in good numbers.

From the parking area, follow signs to the short trail that leads to Frog Pond Overlook. The trail is filled with songbirds — in warmer months look for vast numbers of Eastern towhees, Eastern bluebirds, field sparrows, song sparrows, Carolina wrens, downy and hairy woodpeckers, common yellowthroats, and white-eyed vireos. In colder months, you will find ruby-crowned kinglets, fox sparrows and hermit thrushes. Look for red-tailed, Cooper’s and broad-winged hawks. Great horned owls patrol the area at night, and whippoorwills and Chuck-will’s-widows are easy to find at dusk and dawn in the clearings along the Forest Service Roads.

Follow the trail to the pond. There should be swallows and chimney swifts in the skies over the pond from March to September. Belted kingfishers and red-shouldered hawks are common sights in the trees around the pond, and barred owls breed in the wet woods. Great blue and green herons are frequently seen hunting the shallows in the pond. Other waders are primarily seen in late summer and fall.

Directions: From I-59 in Etowah County, take exit 191 and turn north on US 431. At the “T” intersection (.2 mile), turn right onto US 78 and follow 78 for approximately 4 miles. Turn left (north) on Highway 9 and follow for 5 miles. Turn right on (unpaved) Joseph Springs Road and follow .3 mile. Turn left at and park at the yellow pipe gate. Follow signs to the foot path to Frog Pond Overlook.

Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Reguge

Birds to look for:
All the state’s woodpeckers (other than the red-cockaded) frequent the refuge, with pileated and hairy woodpeckers present in good numbers throughout the year. Brown-headed nuthatches, chipping sparrows, and pine warblers are abundant throughout the year. Wild turkeys are also present in large numbers. Red-tailed hawks, along with barred and great horned owls are seen regularly, as are broad-winged Hawks from April to September. Look for Bachman’s sparrows in the pine woods — listen for the species’ plaintive “here-kitty-kitty-kitty” call from late March through mid-June. Black-throated green warblers, ovenbirds and scarlet tanagers are all found at the higher elevations from spring to fall. You’ll also see blue-headed vireos and sharp-shinned hawks. Summer tanagers, hooded and black-and-white warblers, blue-gray gnatcatchers (spring to fall), and American goldfinches are found throughout the refuge.

Directions: From I-20, take exit 185 (Anniston/Oxford) and travel north on Highway 21 for 12 miles, through Oxford and Anniston. Just beyond the Anniston Museum of Natural History, turn right on Summerall Gate Road and follow it for approximately 2 miles. Bear right at the “T” intersection onto Berman Road and then in .5 mile take another right onto Bains Gap Road. Head through the gates and into the refuge.

If driving from the Georgia line along I-20, take Exit 199 (Heflin), and travel 12 miles north on Highway 9 to the Joseph Springs Motorway. Turn left on the motorway at the “T” intersection with Choccolocco Road. Take the first right and then left onto Bains Gap Road to enter the refuge.

The Anniston Museum of Natural History

Birds to look for:
To the left of the museum’s main building, a loop nature trail passes through the woods. The trail winds by a series of enclosures containing several species of live hawks and owls. The trees above ring with songs of breeding songbirds from March until mid-June. Notable breeders here are hairy, pileated and red-headed woodpeckers, red-eyed and yellow-throated vireos (blue-headed is possible), pine and black-and-white warblers, great-crested flycatchers, summer and scarlet (few) tanagers, Eastern wood-pewee, and brown-headed and white-breasted nuthatch, among others. Carolina wrens work the understory. In winter, house wrens, juncos, white-throated and song sparrows are found here. The best time of year is spring and fall, when the hilltop forest becomes a first-class migrant site.

SOURCE: Alabamabirdingtrails.com
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Birdwatching is becoming big business in Calhoun County by Eddie Burkhalter
eburkhalter@thepiedmontjournal.com

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