Pack binoculars for Plan B

Published 12:47 am Wednesday, August 11, 2021

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Today’s Special

By Peggy Walker, R.D.

A sanctuary is a place of safety, refuge and protection according to Webster, which is my place for words. And more specifically in a “wildlife sanctuary” predators are controlled and hunting is illegal, as in a zoo, a reserve, a wildlife park or a bird sanctuary.  Today’s Special is back, one last time, on Dauphin Island.

Remember we had seriously windy beach conditions while we were there back in May but thanks to our DIL Kristine’s research we found this wonderfully calm, 3-mile walking trail on the Island.  We put our walking shoes on and loaded up the kiddos, parents, and in-laws and headed east looking for the entrance to the Audubon Bird Walk.

And we found it easily, right off the main drag, rather nondescript and slightly hidden amid the native, coastal vegetation.  Our merry crew entered, parked and picked up a couple of maps to begin the tour.  There wasn’t an entrance fee nor tickets to purchase, and no souvenirs.

That day we noticed few cars in the parking lot and even fewer people along the trail. But service crews were busy clearing the paths of limbs and sticks which we attributed to the ferocious winds we had experienced.  But when we piled out of the Suburban, the winds seemed nearly calm which we surmised was because the parking lot was nestled amidst tall pines and ancient magnolias holding down a thick layer of undergrowth.

This cover protected us from the wind that had kept us off the beach on the other end of this 14-mile Alabama gulf coast island.

The brochure described the areas we would see and included a list of 445 birds we might spot along the way, plus a map.  Zachary led the way as we began our walk through one of the top four locations in North America for seeing spring migrations.  Here we would enter 137 acres of prime maritime forests, marshes and dunes, plus a lake, swamp and beach. And all was beautiful, calm and quiet.

The trail system within the sanctuary had been recently designated as a National Recreational Trail, important because of the large segment of protected forest but also because it is the first landfall for migrant birds after their long flight across the gulf from Central and South America each spring. Here the tired birds find food and shelter and refresh themselves after their arduous journey before they continue north to backyards from Mississippi to Minnesota and on into Canada.

I liked to imagine that the hummingbirds, warblers, towhees, tanagers we eagerly watch for at our feeders entered the United States right here.  And now this area on Dauphin Island has been recognized by the Audubon Bird organization as being “globally important” for bird migrations.  That’s a big deal! It will always be here for future generations.

The Sanctuary contains 5 areas.  We took the pedestrian only route and headed east, through the bird banding area towards the connecting Dauphin Island campgrounds and on around to the Dunes Edge, where the trail edged the beach along the Gulf of Mexico on one side and a swamp on the other. The granddads carried the little girls on their shoulders as we crossed the boardwalk over the swamp for the sign cautioned in all caps, “DO NOT FEED THE ALLIGATORS,” not that I would have anyway.

Thankfully we only saw herons and ospreys standing in the water.  We continued to the Swamp Overlook Trail and on around to Gallard Lake, my favorite spot, where turtles sunned on logs, white water lilies bloomed, fish rose to the top looking for a handout and a duck or two flew over.

The Upper Woodland trail took us north and west to the western boundary of the Sanctuary.  The giant magnolias were gorgeous with live oaks and yaupons mingled in. And on the ground underneath the trees, I saw so many little wildflowers and snapped photos of all that I could without getting too far off the beaten path, I was still a little leery of alligators.  One day, maybe this winter, I’ll make my own souvenir photo collage of all the flowers I saw along the way, that’s my plan anyway.

Then we headed back towards the north end of Gallard Lake to the handicap accessible Lake Loop Trail. Loblolly and Slash Pines dominated the area with Tupelo gum, more live oaks, palmettos, magnolias and always wildflowers.  Many of the plants are identified along the way, too, helpful for those of us who want to know. We saw more flowers and fauna than we did our fine feathered friends that day.  Though we heard many bird calls and whistles, it seems many of the migratory birds had already flown on to all places north. And, maybe if we had been prepared with binoculars, we could have spotted more birds.  But we spent an enjoyable 2 hours at the beach without really being on the beach!

I had planned to end this article with a recommendation to attend the Audubon Society’s Annual Hummingbird Festival at Strawberry Plains over in Holly Springs (MS) but thanks again to COVID, the event has been canceled.  So put that on your calendar for next year to see hundreds, maybe thousands of hummers feeding, being banded and celebrated in a beautiful woodland setting up close and personal.  It’s a local event with national recognition too.  And bring your binoculars!

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