The May field trip to Blackwater River State Forest was a perfect day for birding.
A light cloud cover kept the heat down without the threat of rain. When we turned onto Three Notch Road headed north, we were surrounded by pines, tall and slender, with an understory of wire grass, and a scattering of palmettos, scrubby oaks, gallberry, and a variety of wildflowers.
Driving slowly we listened for the clear, sweet whistle and musical trill of the Bachman’s Sparrow. They were calling in the morning air from several directions.
Our group of 15 stopped along the road when we saw a group of pines banded white to indicate a cluster of nesting Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.
We all got out and walked the trail just off the road and started looking and listening for the woodpeckers and sparrows.
Red-cockadeds are a Threatened Species, just recently taken off of the Endangered Species List. This “downgrade” is a testament to the hard work by biologists throughout the Southeast who have studied the species and facilitated nesting with artificial cavities inserted into the living pine trees, with banding the birds for tracking, and in some cases relocating birds to start new clusters.
We were able to discern several artificial nest sites in use. Once the cockadeds accept these cavities, they start drilling around the cavity-causing the pine sap to dribble down the tree and forming a sticky barrier to predators. We also saw natural cavities, each of which takes several years to drill.
The Bachman’s Sparrow presented a more difficult target to see! This gray-breasted bird is streaked in brown and gray above and seems from a distance to have no outstanding features. A true LBJ (Little Brown Job). No bright wingbars or face patterns.
However, once you get a closer look, the finely patterned, rusty-brown feathers of the back and the rusty adult crown create a stunning, but subtle, forest bird.
Add to its perfect camouflage the fact that it usually sits still for minutes at a time, and even though it may be singing, it is most challenging to find and view with optics.
Many birding skills play into finding a bird, and the most used one is watching for movement. It’s amazing that a bird can fly into vegetation right in front of you and disappear!
When it does that, focus on the spot where the bird landed, and it usually gives away its location within a minute or so by moving.
This technique paid off while looking for the Bachman’s. We followed the song, then stood still waiting for the telltale movement. We got knockout looks at both iconic species.
Thirty-six species of locally nesting birds were seen or heard on this early May trip.
Arriving early in the forest can increase your chances of finding these birds, both unique and permanent residents of Blackwater River State Forest.
Among the other specialties of this forest are the seepage bogs where rare and uncommon carnivorous plants can be found.
The large bog is fairly overgrown with shrubs this year and won’t knock your socks off until after the foresters do a controlled burn.
The scheduled burn in the next few months depends entirely on rain and weather conditions, but we can anticipate a stunning show at the bog next spring.
We visited a smaller bog with an array of yellow pitcher plants (Saracennia flava). Always try to view the plants of the bogs with care. There is no way to walk through them without crushing some of the curious and unusual plants.
If there’s a pathway or animal trail, always lessen your impact by staying on it.
Blackwater has a network of trails that combs through several ecological zones and a lightly rolling landscape.
Picnic areas and a large lake attract many families in the summertime.
Recreational areas include cabins and campgrounds including an equestrian campground.
Canoeing and tube-floating the Blackwater River is a popular activities. Hunting is allowed in appropriate seasons, and field trials are held in cooler months.
Along with the Yellow River Water Management Area, the forest helps connect the Conecuh Forest in south Alabama with the forested areas of Eglin Air Force Base to our east helping to form critical wildlife corridors.
These corridors help keep genetic diversity in resident species as animals and birds can move from one area to another.
The Nature Conservancy of Alabama is working diligently to connect these areas with the southern Appalachians.
As it is now, our nearby areas – Conecuh, Blackwater, Yellow River WMA, and Eglin AFB – form the largest contiguous ecological community of its type in the Southeast.
Of special note, management of these areas focuses on and promotes the re-establishment of longleaf pines, the majestic timbers that once covered 60 million acres of the southeast (only 5% of that remains).
Within longleaf ecosystems, many endangered and threatened species of flora and fauna reside.
But that’s another story.
BY: Lucy R. Duncan