The fresh fruits and vegetables coming into season this time of year provide an abundance of food for the soul, but they also create an abundance of peels, shucks, seeds and other kitchen waste. Rather than throwing that residue into the trash, consider turning it into food for the soil.
Organic kitchen waste as well as grass clippings and other yard waste can clog landfills, but they are prime ingredients for making compost, which can be used as an amendment to improve soil quality and health. Composting happens all the time in nature as organic materials slowly decay and form humus, a dark, rich organic matter that serves as a slow-release natural fertilizer, improves soil texture and moisture levels and helps suppress soil diseases and pests.
We humans can harness and speed up the composting process by combining organic carbon-based “brown” ingredients with nitrogen-based “green” ingredients (see a list of options in the sidebar) then using hot or cold composting methods to promote more rapid decay.
Hot (active) composting is the fastest method to make garden-ready humus in a few weeks or months because it provides ideal conditions for soil microbes, which break down organic material. It also kills many pathogens and weed seeds that may be harbored in the raw composting ingredients. However, hot composting requires more effort, such as paying closer attention to the carbon to nitrogen ratio in the mix, keeping the compost moist and turning it frequently.
Cold (passive) composting is easier. All it requires is collecting organic waste in a pile or in layers and letting nature takes its course. However, it may take a year or more to create garden-ready humus using the cold composting method.
Whichever method you choose, there are two things to consider: site and system.
The ideal composting site is an outdoor space with partial shade and far enough away from the house so it’s not an eyesore, but close enough so you can easily take out kitchen waste and add yard waste. However, composting can be done almost anywhere, including on an apartment balcony or even indoors. (Before composting in urban areas, check with your local municipality to find out if there are any restrictions or incentives for composting.)
When choosing a system, there are a number of options. You can dig composting trenches or pits in the ground, or compost above ground using a simple pile or in containers ranging from DIY wire cages and trash cans to fancy store-bought bins and tumblers. Perhaps the easiest system of all is sheet composting (sometimes called “lasagna gardening”) where raw ingredients are layered directly onto a garden bed.
I can attest from personal experience that sheet and pile composting are very easy, but be aware that those systems can attract some drop-in guests. We set a game camera near our open composting area last year and documented quite the parade of birds, foxes, coyotes, opossums, raccoons, deer and more than a few neighborhood dogs that stopped by for a snack. If you don’t want to host dinner guests, a closed system is likely a better choice.
There’s so much more to learn about composting than will fit in this column, but if you want to explore the options, get your hands on a good composting guide (The Rodale Book of Composting: Easy Methods for Every Gardener is considered among the best, but many others are available) or check with your local Cooperative Extension office for guidelines. Then get started making food for your soil. It will be good for your soul.
Almost anything organic can go into your compost EXCEPT meat and dairy products, bones, oils, wood and charcoal ashes, human or pet waste, diseased plant material and weed seeds. Here’s a sample of a few appropriate brown and green compostable ingredients.
Woody plant trimmings
Kitchen and garden scraps
Coffee grounds and filters
Leafy plant trimmings
Feathers, fur and hair
Tips to accelerate “hot” composting
Hot composting is a faster method to get garden-ready humus into your hands. Here are some tips for maximizing the heating process, which ideally should reach 90 to 140 degrees F:
Smaller compost piles or bins (around one cubic yard in size) heat more efficiently.
Use more carbon (brown ingredients) than nitrogen (green ingredients) in your mix (experts suggest a ratio of 3:1 or higher).
Before adding new ingredients to your compost, chop them into smaller pieces.
Keep composting materials moist enough so that a handful of compost feels like a damp wrung-out sponge.
Turn or stir the compost frequently (every week or two) to keep the pile aerated.
Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at email@example.com.
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Before Alabama became a state in 1819 and the outbreak of the “Alabama fever” that would follow, many families had already moved west to what was then the Mississippi Territory.
Obtaining land patents, three families migrated from Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia to establish new farms in the sparsely settled regions.
More than 200 years later, three descendant families continue to utilize those same soils tilled by their early arriving ancestors and every generation since.
As a result, those families were acknowledged through the state’s Bicentennial Farm Program.
Headed by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, the program recognizes Alabamians who are still active in some form of agriculture on at least 40 acres of land and can document their ancestry 200 years or more back to the same land.
“With the state’s 200th birthday coming in December of 2019 and all of the celebration preparations being made for Alabama’s Bicentennial, it seemed like the perfect idea,” says Amy Belcher, state Agriculture communications director.
Establishing a legacy
More than likely the Harrison, Wallace and Cates families took the Federal Road to settle into what is now Butler County. They all settled within a few miles of the rough, narrow trail that extended from Fort Mitchell on the Georgia line to Fort Stoddert in Mobile County.
In the western part of the state, two other families claimed land in what is now Greene County.
Col. John McKee, Indian agent of the Cherokees, Choctaws and Chickasaws and later U.S. Congressman, settled near present-day Boligee and built a house, “Hill of Howth.” In later years, William Proctor Gould, whom McKee regarded almost as an adoptive son, brought his family to live in the house with McKee. Gould inherited the property at McKee’s death.
Just a short distance away during that same era, Thomas Reeves and his family moved to the area from Virginia and began the process of clearing land on 150 acres.
The Harrisons, Wallaces and Cates, who settled just north of present-day Greenville, married into each other’s families. Like many farm families of the times, they likely came to frontier Alabama out of necessity, Ann Cates Boutwell said of her ancestors.
“They would pick up and leave the farms they had, and think nothing of it,” says Boutwell. “They had basically worn out the land they were farming. They didn’t understand at that time the need to replenish the soil to grow crops.”
Col. Eric Cates Sr., who died this year at 99, was the last one to grow crops and raise cattle on what has become known as Persimmon Ridge Farm. He also had a distinguished military career serving in both World War II and the Korean Conflict and later with Alabama National Guard. In addition, he served in the state Legislature.
“Every generation of my family farmed,” Boutwell says. “My father started farming when he was 14 years old and basically farmed all his life, and our family grew up in a farming environment. When he got older he converted all the farmland and pastures to timber and divided the land up among his children.”
Boutwell might have left the farm, but she didn’t exactly leave farming. Her husband, John Boutwell, also a Butler County native, took a job with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. That job progressed to one with McQueen Smith Farms in Prattville, where the Boutwells live. John Boutwell also spent several years row-crop farming on leased property in Autauga County.
While Don Wood, 58, a descendant of Thomas Reeves, lives and works as a certified public accountant in nearby Tuscaloosa, he and his 11-year-old daughter, Mary Hardy Wood, still manage to maintain what is now a 1,455-acre farm, Wilkes Creek Plantation. He raises cattle and his farm is used to grow soybeans, cotton and timber.
During the non-growing season, he manages a successful commercial hunting operation that has attracted country musicians like Blake Shelton and the late Troy Gentry and numerous Alabama and Auburn sports legends.
“I always knew I would be involved in some activity at Wilkes Creek Plantation because it has been a big part of my life,” Wood says. “The love of the land and being able to spend time outdoors has kept me in farming. It keeps me in touch with my family heritage.”
Wood admits that even he is astonished that the farm, with its ebbs and flows, has made it through six generations in the same family. He hopes it will continue.
“It is humbling to know that my family has held onto the land for longer than Alabama has been a state,” Wood says. “I have included Mary Hardy in my farming operation since she was a baby. I am hoping to pass it on to her.”
Wood’s ancestor, Methodist minister William Stith Hardy, built the current house – said to be haunted – in late 1886. The property also contains a church built in 1830 where William Stith Hardy later pastored. A large barn, constructed in the early 1900s to replace an earlier barn built in 1880, remains in use.
Thet Spree, 70, grew up in the Hill of the Howth homestead and was living there when the land was divided up among heirs and the house, originally a log structure, was dismantled and used for construction of another house in the county seat, Eutaw.
Howth is an Irish term for health and was called that after the Choctaws showed the site to McKee.
“It never floods, and the water runs all year,” says Spree, who now owns the property and an additional 5,000 acres where he cattle farms, raises catfish and grows timber.
While Eric Cates III, 62, has spent much of his adult life away from the farm, lessons learned growing up in an agricultural environment still have an impact.
“I think the passage of time and departing a familiar place like the farm helps you better reflect on the value of those experiences,” Cates says. “I certainly gained an appreciation for what all farmers and their families learned. Our dad was always so proud of our farming heritage and instilled that in each of us, which is why ‘The Farm’ remains a focal point for our families and a place where we continue to gather frequently.”
The farming heritage will continue in some manner at Persimmon Ridge. The Boutwells’ son, Andrew, is employed with an Atlanta-based forestry consultant firm and also manages all of the timberlands grown at Persimmon Ridge Farms.
Wood says farming has always been a business of highs and lows, but he is confident that because of recent trends in consumer demands, agricultural opportunities will abound on Wilkes Plantation for Mary Hardy and for smaller farms in general.
“I would encourage anyone interested in agriculture to pursue their dreams,” Wood says. “People worldwide have become more and more conscious of what they are putting in their bodies. I think it’s only going to get better for the agriculture industry. Find your niche and go for it.”
The Bicentennial Farm Awards program is ongoing, and landowners who meet the following qualifications may apply as future recipients.
Farm must have been in the same family for at least 200 years.
Farm must be at least 40 acres of land owned by the applicant or nominee.
Farm must currently have some agricultural activities.
Applicant must reside in Alabama.
Owner must complete an Ownership Registration Form supplied by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries.
Landowners should contact Amy Belcher at 334-240-7126 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org to receive an application.
A copy of the application is also available on the department’s website agi.alabama.gov under the “Forms” tab at “Century & Heritage Farm.”
In the dessert realm, milkshakes are fairly humble concoctions. They lack the fanfare of an expertly iced, lofty layer cake. They don’t require the skill that’s behind a flaky pastry or a perfect pie crust filled with rich custard or succulent seasonal fruits.
Milk plus ice cream plus a sufficient “shaking” (or stirring) motion to blend the two ingredients together equals a milkshake. It’s as basic as it gets. Until recently.
Enter “extreme” milkshakes. These incredible edible edifices are constructed with creativity and great care. The creamy milkshake itself is merely the foundation for myriad embellishments: multiple sauces and drizzles, bits of candy and crushed cereal, pillows of marshmallow fluff and whipped cream, entire wedges of cake or cookies precariously balanced on the edge of the vessel holding the shake’s liquid base.
These milkshakes have raised the bar significantly, elevating what was once just a simple sweet thing to a flashy, showy star. Here’s the scoop on a few of our favorite Alabama places for indulging in these crazy creations.
The Yard Milkshake Bar
Owners of Gulf Shores’ Island Ice Cream & Treats, Chelsea and Logan Green opened The Yard Milkshake Bar in 2017. The couple wanted to expand their ice cream business but knew that to stand out in the crowded beach scene, they’d need a unique concept.
“I had so many ideas on new ways to make ice cream interesting, and these milkshakes were one of them,” Chelsea says. “I instantly knew we’d found our niche in the ice cream industry.” The numbers prove her right. Last year, The Yard sold almost 90,000 milkshakes in Gulf Shores.
In addition to the original spot in Gulf Shores, there are locations of The Yard in Fairhope and in Panama City Beach, Fla., with a franchise location just opened in Mississippi and additional locations in the works. They all boast the same “over-the-top” appeal that brings in crowds who are happy to pay upwards of $13 for a single milkshake.
Chelsea shared why she believes they do, and how every customer helps promote the business. “Everyone loves ice cream, and when it’s as pretty as the milkshakes we make, people want to show it off,” she says. “Our shakes are known as ‘Instagram worthy.’ When someone posts their shake on social media, more people see it, and come in to get their own picture.”
They truly are a treat for the eyes. The Unicorn is a rainbow explosion of cotton candy, sparkling sprinkles, glistening marshmallow cream and an upside-down sugar cone “horn.” But when it comes to food, looks only go so far, as Chelsea explained.
“They’re visually appealing, but they also taste amazing.” According to several who’ve had The Yard’s best seller, the Cookie Dough Delicious, with cookie dough ice cream in a chocolate-iced jar dipped in chocolate chips and then topped with chocolate chip cookie dough and a drizzle of fudge sauce, this grand chocolate feast far surpasses the last part of its name.
Other varieties include Monkey Meets the Moose and Salted Caramel Cheesecake. “At The Yard, the milkshakes come first,” Chelsea says. “We spend hours coming up with specials and unique combinations that not only look great but taste great too.”
K&J Elegant Pastries & Creamery
Chef Kristal Bryant opened her bakery in 2013, and when she put extreme milkshakes on her menu in early 2017, she claims she was the first in the state to do so. “A customer had shown me an article about milkshakes in Australia called Freak Shakes that had all these elements. They were really cool, and I thought ‘How fun! I’d love to do those at some point,’” she says.
When she moved to a new location in February 2017, the space had room for tables and chairs, so she decided to add to her offerings. “There was no one in our area offering hand-dipped ice cream, so I decided we’d do that, and then I remembered the milkshakes, so we added them too,” she says.
She created the flavors, gave them names and sketched how they’d look. As soon as they were available, they were a hit. “When I first saw one, my reaction was just ‘wow!’. And it made me smile. I think that’s why others like them so much too,” Kristal says.
The Cookies and Cream milkshake with extras like an entire scratch-made brownie, a cloud of whipped cream and an ice-cream cookie sandwich all stacked on top is a jaw-dropping sight. “People see that come out, and they’re like, ‘Whoa!’,” Kristal says.
But it’s equally taste-bud-tantalizing, thanks to Kristal’s use of premium ingredients like Blue Bell ice creams and her own fresh-baked-daily delights. “I am huge on quality and consistency,” she says. “That’s what makes our shakes really special.”
The Mason Jar
Grab a booth at The Mason Jar and settle into its cozy country-style digs for a meal of Southern standards: country fried steak, chicken and dumplings and fried green tomatoes are popular orders. But most diners remember to save some stomach space for dessert. If they’re in the mood for one of this eatery’s extreme milkshakes, they know to set aside a lot of it, since the shakes earn the adjective “extreme” for the almost ridiculous number of toppings.
With its rather pedestrian name, the Peach milkshake seems tame. But when it arrives at the table with four other entire desserts jutting out of the top, the truth sets in. There’s an iced peach honey bun (that when peaches are in season will be traded for a ripe peach), a delicate sugar cookie, a sugar cone filled with warm peach cobbler and a vanilla cream horn. Finally, three gummy peach candies ring the straw that extends through layers of whipped cream into the milkshake studded with peach bits.
Owner Danny North explained how milkshakes became part of the Mason Jar’s offerings. “My wife Christie had the idea,” he says. “She thought we should do something different and special that would enhance our guests’ dining experience.” The shakes have done just that; the Mason Jar is becoming known for them. “People love milkshakes in general. But when you start jazzing them up with crazy toppings, it makes for a lot of fun for kids and even the adults,” Danny says.
A sense of whimsy is evident in the themes that inspire many of the shakes, like Birthday Cake, Mermaid and the Super Hero (complete with an Astro pop, Rice Krispie treat and gummy bears). “We put a lot of thought into each shake,” Danny says. “We also use a premium ice cream along with quality toppings. They’re all really good shakes.”
But Danny does admit to playing favorites. “My favorite is the Strawberry Cheese Cake,” he said. “We recently designed a Banana Split shake that’s really good too, though, so I may have two favorites.”
Payne’s Soda Fountain and Sandwich Shop celebrates 150 years in Scottsboro this year. Founded originally as Payne’s Drug Store in 1869 by Civil-War veteran William Henry Payne, it is the oldest continuously operated business in Scottsboro and Jackson County and is also believed to be the oldest continuously operated business in the state of Alabama.
The pharmacy was located in different parts of downtown Scottsboro before moving to the northwest side of the courthouse square in 1891 where it sits today. Although the Payne family still owns the building, the soda fountain is now run by run by Lisa Garrett and her daughter, Jessica Walton.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many drugstores across the U.S. added soda fountains to their business to attract customers. Mr. Payne, a visionary businessman, added a soda fountain when he moved his pharmacy to its current location on Laurel Street. As the first place in Scottsboro to sell Coca-Cola, customers would come in and enjoy a beverage or ice cream while having their prescriptions filled. “Pharmacies were more like convenience stores back then,” Walton says.
Even though the drugstore closed in 1991, Payne’s continues to offer customers the opportunity to experience an era when soda fountains were the favorite hangout spot in town. Today, it’s still a hangout, and one that serves good food in addition to tasty treats.
While there are different types of sandwiches and salads on the menu, such as a Dagwood and a Cobb salad, Payne’s is best known for its red slaw dog, which is a hot dog topped with ketchup-based slaw. “People come here when they haven’t had them in years because they can’t get red slaw dogs anywhere else,” Walton says. For many, it is a trip back to their childhood – eating a red slaw dog and waiting with their parents for a medical prescription.
Walton’s goal with her entrees is to offer customers a healthier alternative to other restaurants in Scottsboro. For example, there are no fried items offered except for chips. Not only does Walton use whole-grain bread for the sandwiches, but the meats are not processed and vegetables are fresh cut daily. “We try to steer towards something you can’t get anywhere else,” Walton says.
No trip to the soda shop, however, is complete without enjoying hand-dipped ice cream and served in a cone or an old-fashioned glass or glass bowl. Patrons regularly come to Payne’s for sundaes, banana splits, and coke or root beer floats.
Those who are feeling adventurous can order the Banana Rama – twelve scoops of ice cream, five different types of toppings and four bananas. And orders can be custom built to the customer’s preference. “You tell us what you want, we build your order up and make it look beautiful,” Walton says.
Because of its long history and location, customers of all ages and walks of life love Payne’s. “I don’t think that there’s a demographic that hasn’t been or isn’t frequently in here,” Walton says.
Payne’s also draws tourists. Walton says she has received visitors from such countries as China, Mexico, France, Ireland, and Guatemala, as well as domestic travelers. “We are number one on TripAdvisor.”
Many Scottsboro residents both young and old have fond memories of Payne’s. Regulars will tell Walton stories of working in the kitchen in high school or attending a birthday party as a kid, or in the case of one regular customer, proposing to his girlfriend at the restaurant. Some who came to Payne’s as a child with their parents are now bringing their grandchildren for a bonding experience. “Older customers remember coming to Payne’s with their family” Walton says.
Walton receives great satisfaction in running a restaurant with a long history as well as interacting with customers. “I have never worked at a place I felt so passionate about,” Walton says. “Making sandwiches and ice cream for customers I do not know makes me happy.”
The superior customer service and the quality of food are responsible for the repeat business, Walton says. “I am really proud of our waitresses, their attitude and their ability to make our customers feel at home and welcomed.”
Another aspect of the soda shop that keeps customers returning is Walton’s commitment to maintaining the atmosphere and layout of Payne’s the same as it was 150 years ago. “I think we would really be hurting ourselves if we tried to change,” Walton says. “Many times we thought about expanding or moving to another location, but then it would not be Payne’s.”
Plans are in the works to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Payne’s. In the meantime, Walton assures residents that Payne’s will remain a staple in the community for the foreseeable future. “Payne’s has always been here, and hopefully it will always be here,” Walton says. “It will always be a cherished Scottsboro memory.”
Q: We moved into our home last spring. It’s pretty new and seems well-insulated in winter. But it was hot last summer, so we had to run the A/C a lot, and the electric bills were a killer. Do you have any tips on how we can cool our home this summer—without going broke?
A: We’ve discussed some of the easiest ways to make your home more efficient, like reducing solar gains, insulating and ventilating the attic, and sealing air leaks. You may need to focus on inefficiencies in your home’s cooling system. But before we address that, let’s look at some other potential problems:
Do you have freezer or second refrigerator in the garage? This can be a major energy hog, especially if it’s old and you live in a warmer climate.
Do you have a well? Your pump may be draining your energy use as you rely on it more during the summer. Start by looking for leaks in the system, and if necessary, reduce irrigation.
How about a swimming pool? It may be time to overhaul or replace the pool pump. If the pump is in good shape, try putting it on a timer.
If you have central air conditioning (A/C) or a heat pump, make sure your filter has been changed or recently cleaned. The next step is to call an HVAC contractor for a tune-up and a complete assessment of the system. A tune-up can improve the efficiency and extend the life of the unit. The tune-up includes cleaning the condenser coil, a check of the refrigerant levels and a good look at the pump and electrical contacts. Talk to the contractor about the efficiency of the A/C unit. If it’s old, it may be cost-effective to replace it, even if it’s still functional.
Ductwork is equally important as the A/C unit, so make sure the contractor you choose is capable and willing to provide an expert assessment. A real pro will know how to measure the air flow at each supply and return register. If you’re not getting cool air to the rooms that need it, the contractor may be able to make modifications to the ductwork.
Leaky ductwork could be your problem. If the ducts are in unconditioned areas like a crawl space or attic, it’s especially important to make sure they’re sealed and insulated. It will also help to seal ducts that are in conditioned spaces.
Some HVAC contractors can do a duct-blaster test to measure duct leakage. Discuss whether you should ever close any supply registers. Most experts recommend that supply registers are always open.
If you cool your home with window A/C units, there are a few things you can do to maximize your cooling while keeping costs as low as possible.
Use window A/C units in rooms that can be closed off with a door, to make the cooling as effective as possible.
Make sure you have the right sized unit for the size of the room. A unit that’s too big will cool the room before the humidity has been lowered, which will make it feel less cool, while a unit that’s too small will have to work harder, causing a shorter life span—and it may not do the job.
Use an electric fan or ceiling fan to help distribute the cold air throughout the area you are cooling.
Turn off the A/C unit when no one is in the room.
If your window A/C unit isn’t cooling properly, it may need to be replaced. Look for an ENERGY STAR-certified unit to make the most of your cooling dollars.
Of course, the simplest way to save money on your A/C is to not use it. As much as possible, keep your activities limited to rooms that are easily cooled. Try to spend more time cooking and eating outside. If you have a basement, think about setting up a second bedroom down there where it’s cooler. Think of it as your new summer hideaway!
This column was co-written by Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessen of Collaborative Efficiency.
For more information on getting the most from your A/C, please visit: collaborativeefficiency.com/energytips.
When warm weather arrived at my grandparents’ north Alabama home, the ice cream maker appeared on the patio. It was time to hand crank some homemade deliciousness. This seemingly endless process, however, was always delayed by some mysterious bird in the nearby field. Granddaddy would motion for my brother and me to stop cranking and listen.
“Bobwhite is saying his name! Hear him?” he’d exclaim. While I wasn’t exactly sure if I heard anything, or why a bird would be talking in words for that matter, those are now fledgling memories of my life as a birder.
“Alabama is the fifth most biodiverse state in the U.S.,” says Greg Harber, Birmingham Audubon board member. “This translates into great plant and animal diversity, including the state’s bird populations. Its location on the northern Gulf coast underscores Alabama’s importance to Neotropical migrants during spring and fall.”
Dr. Geoffrey Hill, ornithology professor at Auburn University and president-elect of the Alabama Ornithological Society, says, “Alabama has thousands of miles of low-traffic country roads through diverse habitats where birding is both productive and relaxing.” He then adds, “We also have some of the most beautiful and ‘birdiest’ white sand beaches in the world!”
Walls of Jericho Forever Wild tract & Skyline WMA
More than 40,000 combined acres of protected land in Alabama’s northeastern corner is a spring warbler destination. Contiguous undeveloped forests, woodland gaps and grassy coves, mountains, karst formations, and some of the highest water quality streams in the state create rich habitat for birds, endemic invertebrates, native freshwater fish, herpetofauna and cave-dwelling species.
Site No. 41 (Northeast Loop) of the North Alabama Birding Trail system offers easy access in this area.
“Winter brings thousands of ducks, geese, and cranes to Wheeler NWR, which hosts the largest wintering population of federally endangered Whooping Cranes,” says Harber. Following this, spring migration at the edge of the Mississippi Flyway is rich with warblers, vireos, and other passerines on their way north. Three hundred bird species, 47 mammalian species, 75 species of reptiles, 115 fish species, and dozens of invertebrates make this region of Alabama’s Tennessee River Valley their home.
Multiple Central Loops on the North Alabama Birding Trail system access the Wheeler NWR.
Bird list highlights: Savannah, Chipping, Song, Swamp, and Field Sparrows; Summer and Scarlet Tanager; Prothonotary, Blackpoll, Bay-breasted, Pine, Tennessee, and Palm Warblers; Common Yellowthroat; Ruby-crowned Kinglet; Tree, Northern Rough-winged, and Bank Swallow; Horned Lark; Great-crested Flycatcher; Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs; American Coot; Double-crested Cormorant.
Bankhead National Forest
The 180,000 acres of national forest in three northwestern counties are classified as one of American Bird Conservancy’s “500 Most Important Bird Areas in the United States.” The Sipsey Wilderness and Brushy Lake Area are included in this contiguous forest, with patches of virgin timber, dramatic canyons, gentle waterfalls, and scenic waterways.
Enjoy sites No. 14 and No. 15 (Northwest Loop) of the North Alabama Birding Trail system.
Bird list highlights: Cerulean Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Summer Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Ovenbird, Hooded, Kentucky, and Worm-eating Warblers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Acadian Flycatcher, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Wood Pewee, Rusty Blackbird (winters here, migrates north early spring), Northern Bobwhite (resident), Red-headed Woodpecker (resident).
Key Cave National Wildlife Refuge
Unique ecosystems at this small 1,060-acre refuge protect endangered cavefish, two blind crayfish species, 40,000 endangered Gray Bats, and 160 species of birds. Habitats of upland hardwood forests, native warm-season grasses, and oak-hickory forests sit atop the critical groundwater recharge zone for the area. Site No. 9 (Northwest Loop) of the North Alabama Birding Trail is in this refuge.
(Shoal Creek/Talladega District & Oakmulgee District)
This Important Bird Area (IBA) of 391,000 acres is divided into two districts across central Alabama. They protect what remains of an ancient forested ecosystem that once stretched from Texas to the Carolina and Virginia coasts. Large variation in elevations, multiple rivers, edge habitats, bottomlands, open glades, and other environments make these two locations busy highways for both spring and fall migration.
Find multiple sites with hundreds of miles of trails in the southeastern portion of the Appalachian Highlands Birding Trail system, and the West Alabama Birding Trail system respectively.
Bird list highlights: Black-throated Green Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, Indigo Bunting (important migration patterns), Blue Grosbeak, Yellow-breasted Chat, Red-cockaded Woodpecker (rare, resident), Red Crossbill (nomadic/(winters here, migrates north early spring), Bachman’s Sparrow (resident), Barred Owl (resident).
State Cattle Ranch/ Black Belt IBA
Located in the Black Belt, this 4,600-acre grassland tract is a botanically unique area similar to the tall grass prairies of the American Midwest. Purchased via the Forever Wild Program, efforts to re-establish native grasses benefit numerous grassland bird species.
Also, a suite of long-legged waders frequent the property’s numerous ponds. The M. Barnett Lawley Forever Wild Field Trial Area is open to birders (who should make prior arrangements with the site’s manager).
Bird list highlights: American White Pelican, Great Blue, Green, and Little Blue Herons, Snowy and Great Egrets, Wood Stork (summer), Pied-billed Grebe (resident), LeConte’s Sparrow (winters here, migrates north early spring), Henslow’s Sparrow, Painted Bunting.
This is the destination for waders, waterfowl, shorebirds, marsh birds, hawks, and Neotropical migrants riding the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyways. Both banks of the Chattahoochee River on the Alabama-Georgia state line, as well as islands, open water, palustrine wetlands, and upland forests, make this location a critical migratory stopover and breeding site.
Five Wiregrass Birding Trail sites provide access into this area.
Bird list highlights: Sandhill Crane, King Rail, Bald Eagle, Snow Goose, Northern Shoveler, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Wood Duck (resident).
Conecuh National Forest IBA
As part of a 1 million-acre conservation corridor extending into the Florida panhandle, this region protects an 84,000-acre southern Longleaf Pine ecosystem including river floodplain hardwood forests. In addition to miles of hiking trails, there are many options for birding by water as the area is also rich with wetlands, bogs, creeks, and swamps.
Auburn University’s Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center is located within the national forest. Birders can schedule visits at the headquarters.
Bird list highlights: Red-cockaded Woodpecker (colony), Bachman’s Sparrow (global species of concern), Henslow’s Sparrow, Northern Bobwhite (global species of concern), Painted Bunting, Barred Owl, Summer Tanager, Yellow-breasted Chat, Wild Turkey, Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Come for the wildflowers and stay for the birds. This area of rare pine savanna (crossing the shared southernmost border of Alabama and Mississippi) is a living mechanism of fresh- to saltwater transition in a relatively undisturbed ecosystem, ending in coastal salt marsh habitats. Alongside orchids, pitcher plants, sedges, rushes, and carnivorous sundews, springtime welcomes hundreds of avian migrants.
Explore the Henderson Camp Road – Grand Bay Savanna Forever Wild Tract.
Bird list highlights: Black and Yellow Rails, Seaside Sparrow, Swallow-tailed Kite, Whimbrel, Loggerhead Shrike, Red-winged Blackbird, Red-headed Woodpecker, White-eyed Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.
Dauphin Island/Fort Morgan IBAs
“Alabama is quite the treasure when it comes to coastal birds and Neotropical migrants. These locations are a crucial part of the Mississippi Flyway,” says Emma Rhodes, Mobile Bay biologist. “Having these protected lands ensures suitable stopover habitat, the sustainability of ecosystems, and the enjoyment of nature for future generations.
“The vast array of breeding plumage colors are amazing, particularly during a fallout event. Also, Pelican Island (on Dauphin) can be productive for a diversity of shorebirds, waders, and ducks.”
Six Alabama Coastal Birding Trail Loops offer 200+ miles of birding in the region.
Bird list highlights: Piping, Wilson’s, and Snowy Plovers, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, Red Knot, Orchard Oriole, Parasitic Jaeger, Brown Pelican, Osprey, Sanderling, Laughing Gull, White- and Red-eyed Vireos, Northern Parula.
Harber concludes, “Encouragingly, there are some large private landowners and conservation groups who work diligently to enhance and manage habitats for species of concern. When taken in conjunction with state and federal lands, this helps meet the needs of our native birds and other wildlife. And, it makes Alabama a great place to go birding any season of the year.”
And decades later, I still stop what I’m doing to listen to a bird song or zoom in with my binoculars on a flit of color in the trees. Thank you, granddaddy!
For additional information, visit the following birding organizations: