Mobile Bay: Day Four

A glorious morning, bright and cool, and we headed straight to Shell Mounds to greet whatever the nighttime breezes had brought in. The woods were lively, with Kentucky, prothonotary, hooded, yellow-throated, worm-eating, and Tennessee warblers all showing beautifully well to happy eyes. Black-bellied whistling ducks and a solitary sandpiper were quick flyovers, and a couple of yellow-bellied sapsuckers reminded us that more northerly climes still have a lot to look forward to too.

We kept an eye on our own migratory clock, and after a couple of other brief stops, made our way to the ferry terminal for the 35-minute voyage across the mouth of the bay to Fort Morgan. Least terns and piping plovers provided the entertainment as we waited to board, while an immature great black-backed gull was an exciting surprise. The crossing itself was enlivened by several pods of playful dolphins.

Fort Morgan looks every bit as good for migratory birds as Dauphin Island to the west. Cattle egrets, Savannah sparrows, summer and scarlet tanagers, and loads of indigo buntings crowded onto the roadsides. Our destination was the banding station maintained by Alabama Audubon. It was warm, but the net runners brought in a steady flow of indigo buntings, cardinals, and warblers for close-up views.

We returned to the western shore of the bay so John could introduce us to a site I hadn’t thought about, Bellingrath Gardens. On a hill above the Dog and Fowl Rivers, this colorful riot of native and cultivated plants was fairly quiet at mid-day, but we’ll definitely be including a stroll here on our 2024 VENT tour, in hopes of repeating our experiences with fishing herons (poor sunfish!), loud and tame summer tanagers, bald eagles, and pied-billed grebes. The skies were gaining a bit of overcast, but the beds and thickets of Bellingrath were still full of butterflies, too.

We stopped for an early supper, then moved on to one of the more mysterious birding localities in the Mobile area. The “disposal ponds,” whatever those might be in practical application, turned out to be quite attractive to birds, among them a few lingering green-winged teal, a merlin, lots of blue grosbeaks, and a nice smattering of shorebirds, most of them—at fifty each—lesser yellowlegs and dowitchers. The warm light of a glorious late afternoon turned even this industrial moonscape into a beautifully evocative experience.

We’d been watching the tide table all day, and as sunset approached, we resolved to take advantage of the falling tide to the east of Battleship Park. The mudflats revealed were few and relatively distant, but the thousands of terns and gulls were joined by the trip’s first American white pelican, while seven glossy ibis joined the herons in the shallow water. It had been a great day.

Remember that you can always see more details about our stops and the birds encountered there at the eBird trip page.


Florida’s Woodpeckers and Gulf State Park, Alabama

And another great day is in the books.

It was downright chilly—not quite 50 degrees—when we left Mobile this morning, but the bright skies matched our spirits as we headed east into the Florida Panhandle. Pensacola, a city I’d never seen, proved remarkably attractive, Gulf Breeze even more so. Bob and Lucy (with whom I’d birded in Arizona some years ago) generously opened their home and their feeders to us. And to more than 100 (!) indigo buntings, blue grosbeaks, wood thrushes, brown thrashers, downy woodpeckers, and many other residents and migrants.

Hard as it was to tear ourselves away, other birds awaited us in Blackwater State Forest. It was a gloriously beautiful day, and we dawdled happily along the red dirt roads through the pines, enchanted by pitcher plants, sundews, and orchids in the seepage bogs. A peregrine falcon passed over high and dramatic, while eastern towhees chewinked from the thickets; I got a good look at a total of one, but it was a fine white-eyed male, a very special bird to those of us used to the red-eyed towhees farther north in the species’ range. The stars of the whole glorious show, of course, were the red-cockaded woodpeckers, which eventually gave spectacular eye-level views as they fussed and fed in the trees right next to the road. This is the second-rarest of picids in the US, exceeded in scarcity only by the Arizona woodpecker, and I’m already looking forward to showing them to my companions on next April’s VENT tour, when they will certainly by a highlight for many of us.

We bade a grateful farewell to Lucy and Bob, then stopped for a quick lunch in Milton before moving on to Gulf State Park back on the Alabama side of the line. A lingering common loon was a nice find, as was a marbled godwit sharing the beach with human waders.

Once back in Mobile, we met up with John her at the hotel and headed out to the bay for a lavish seafood meal chez Felix as brown pelicans, royal terns, cattle egrets, and double-crested cormorants looked enviously on. The only thing wrong with the day? Joe has to return to Birmingham early tomorrow morning, so we’ll continue our scouting without his good counsel and good company.


Alabama’s Eastern Shore: Day Two

The scouting continues, and I have to say that the Mobile area is quickly becoming one of my favorite spring birding spots. I wasn’t so sure when I got up early this morning to heavy rain, thunder, and lightning—but by the time we reached Village Point Park, the weather had begun to improve and excitement levels rose. It was still raining lightly when Larry met us in the parking lot, but the precipitation ended shortly thereafter, and our walk out to the bay found the clouds scattering until the sky was nearly clear.

We started with two of my favorite birds, the always appealing eastern towhee and a late white-throated sparrow. Warblers were scant on the way out, but on our way back, they included a prothonotary and a very vocal Swainson warbler, both species sure to be of interest to next year’s participants. I’ll admit that my first indigo buntings of the year took my breath away just as much.

We’d decided to defer breakfast in our hurry to take to the field, so stopped in Fairhope to make up for it; a flock of at least 60 cedar waxwings welcomed us in the parking lot, gorging themselves with only slightly less enthusiasm than we showed for our pancakes, omelettes, and biscuits. By now the sky was bright blue, and tempting as it was to linger over just one more cup of coffee, the thought of even more birds got us back out promptly. The Gator Boardwalk lived up to its name with at least two seven- or eight-foot reptiles floating deceptively placid in the water, while big painted-type turtles basked on the logs.

The Weeks Bay NERR could have been a disappointment: the buildings were deserted, the parking lot closed, a tree down on the boardwalk and the nature trail under a couple of feet of water. Three great crested flycatchers, though, rid our minds of any frustration, and a rose-breasted grosbeak was enough to draw a gasp as we watched it at close range in a brush pile. We were due anyway at Five Rivers, where a boat was supposed to be waiting for us at the landing named for William Bartram, whose explorations of Spanish Florida brought him here 250 years ago. The boat canceled, on strength of a decidedly faulty weather forecast, but our wait was enlivened by ospreys, bald eagles, and the first anhingas of our visit so far. Meaher Park, just across the road, made a poor first impression with its ranks of enormous rv’s and campers; the east end of the park, though, turned out to be peaceful and pleasant, and I’m sure it can be very birdy in the right conditions.

The lost boat trip meant that we had time to drop in to Battleship Park, just ten minutes short of our hotel. The park and the eponymous big boat were crowded on a lovely Sunday afternoon—crowded not just with people. The extensive rain pools were obviously irresistible to shorebirds put down by the early morning’s bad weather, among them some 160 short-billed dowitchers (most griseus, with a few apparent hendersoni, too) and a couple of dozen pectoral sandpipers. The adjacent marsh turned up four glossy ibis, a few common yellowthroats, orchard orioles, blue grosbeaks, a tricolored heron, a marsh wren, a black-necked stilt. . . . It’s nice indeed when the day ends as well as it began!

Tomorrow we plan to start with a quick drive to Florida, a state I haven’t birded for some years. Rare woodpeckers are on the menu, and who knows what else spring on the Gulf Coast will bring us. Stay tuned.

And don’t forget that more details are available in the eBird trip report for this outing.


Dauphin Island: Day One

It’s rare that I’m able to scout a new tour on exactly the same dates set for the tour proper—but it’s worked out just right as I make preparations for next year’s new VENT tour of Alabama’s Gulf Coast. We’ll be back a year from today, and I hope that the trip’s first day is as exciting as this first day of reconnaissance was.

The day started mighty early, with a 3:10 am departure for Newark. The flight to Houston was uneventful (or least I slept through whatever eventfulness there may have been), but the connecting trip on to Mobile was bumpy, boding ill, I feared, for the weather here in Alabama. And in fact, the rest of the day on Mobile Bay and Dauphin Island was unsettled, with occasional light rain giving way mid-afternoon to almost two hours of steady pelting. But it didn’t bother the birds, and so it didn’t bother us.

I won’t list the sites and the 80+ bird species we found at each—eBird’s new Trip Report feature makes that unnecessary—but there were plenty of notable experiences on this, my first visit to Dauphin Island. A brief visit to Shell Mounds at the end of the day, after being rained most vigorously out earlier, revealed an apparent small arrival of passerines, including blue-winged and prothonotary warblers, blue grosbeaks, and orchard orioles. A walk out the Dauphin Island Pier produced a singing sedge wren and a dozen eastern kingbirds; the flooded playground there gave us spectacularly close views of least and semipalmated sandpipers and dunlins. Even more dramatic was a female-type magnificent frigatebird riding the wind just above Fort Gaines, at the eastern end of the island.

Tomorrow takes us to more sites and more birds—and I’ll try to write again afterwards.


The A.M. h.c. Sturms

In the later years of his life, I am told, Roger Tory Peterson enjoyed using the academic title “Dr.,” a reference to the half a dozen degrees honoris causa awarded him by half a dozen American institutions.

It’s embarrassingly poor form, of course, to use the title when it hasn’t been earned. Be that as it may, the practice of bestowing honorary higher degrees on ornithologists was already a venerable one in 1952, when Peterson received his first, from Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania.

In 1825, for example, Princeton granted an honorary degree to Charles Bonaparte; it isn’t clear whether Bonaparte was present at commencement to receive it, but the circumstance lends a bit more substance to the petulant question Patricia Stroud reports as addressed that summer to his stingy father, Lucien: would he please send money to help support Charles and his family, or “does he want him to accept a professorship in one of the universities of the United States”?

It is perfectly understandable that Peterson, an American living in an age of easy travel, or Bonaparte, a provisional immigrant spending most of his time just a couple of hours south of Princeton, should be the recipient of an academic honor from an American university. But what are we to make of this, from the Literary Record and Journal of the Linnaean Association of Pennsylvania College in autumn 1848:

Pennsylvania College, now Gettysburg College, was founded by German Lutherans, but the conferral of honorary degrees on the brothers Sturm of Nuremberg—who never once visited the United States—still seems odd, and the kind archivist at Gettysburg was able to establish no further connection between the still-young institution there and J. H. C. Friedrich and J. Wilhelm Sturm, prominent naturalists and artists in mid-century Bavaria.

The brothers’ father, the entomologist, botanist, and engraver Jacob Sturm, had himself enjoyed international celebrity among naturalists on both sides of the Atlantic, with honorific membership in the Maclurean Lyceum and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and the General Union Philosophical Society of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He was so well known in that state that on the occasion of a sojourn in Germany, John Gottlieb Morris, a graduate of Dickinson, undertook a journey of 200 miles to visit Sturm in Nuremberg, in anticipation of “the richest zoological treat.”

Obviously starstruck, Morris “examined the extensive collections and spent three days most delightfully in the society of this excellent old man.” That visit was also the occasion for Morris to meet the two younger Sturms, themselves “fast rising to eminence.” Their own collections were notable for the most extensive series of hummingbird specimens Morris saw anywhere on his European travels, and he was equally impressed to see that the brothers (who, like the sons of Audubon, had married sisters) were in possession of the same “extraordinary artistic talents” as their father and grandfather.

Morris had corresponded with Jacob Sturm for some five years before he met him, and after their time together in Nuremberg, he maintained the connection in letters and in the transatlantic exchange of specimens. The Sturms, pére et fils, sent their American colleague many of their publications and “other valuable books.”

In 1832, Morris had been among the founders of Pennsylvania College, and he would go on to teach natural history there and to sponsor the college’s Linnaean Association. It’s small wonder that he should have used his influence to have his institution honor his Bavarian fellow-naturalists, especially as their father, Jacob Sturm, Morris’s original contact, was in an unstoppable decline.