“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Rare Sighting on Fort Morgan Peninsula

I trekked down to Alabama’s Fort Morgan Peninsula, a thin finger of dunes and beach the juts into the Gulf of Mexico along the southern shore of Mobile Bay. My quest: to take a look at the bird banding efforts of a group called the Hummer/Bird Study Group (HBSG).

The HBSG is a group of volunteers is dedicated to studying hummingbirds and migratory songbirds and part of their study includes the capture and banding of migratory songbirds at various locations throughout the United States. One of their primary banding sites is among the dunes and coastal scrub of Fort Morgan. For two weeks every Spring and Fall, the group sets mist nets out in the dunes of Fort Morgan State Park to capture migrating birds.

For migrating birds, Fort Morgan peninsula is perhaps one of the most important pieces of real estate along the Gulf coast.  It is particularly critical to migrating birds because it is the first landfall for arriving Spring migrants and the last departure point when they head south in the Fall.  Uncountable numbers of birds fly through this funnel point each migration season.  Taking advantage of this dense concentration of migrants, HBSG annually bands thousands of birds as they pass through the peninsula.

I hiked into the scrub and found a small group of dedicated people busily extracting birds from capture nets, weighing them, measuring them, recording the species and then gently releasing them to continue on their way. The data the HBSG collects is important to understanding populations, migrating times and species fluctuations. I had been to the site many times before, but my latest visit in April of 2012 put me there in the middle of a slow period.  For various reasons, primarily due to weather conditions, the number of birds passing through Fort Morgan was low and banding activity was slow.

He's the good looking one on the left
So I took off into the dunes to do some birding on my own. The capture nets may have been empty but the trees were alive with migrants and resident birds and I quickly spotted Swainson’s Warbler, Wood Thrush, Eastern Towhee, Palm Warbler, Hooded Warbler and Prothonotary Warbler and a dozen other species.

My best spot was yet to come. I met another birder along the trail and joined up with him. It took me many minutes to realize that it was Scott Weidensaul, naturalist, author and an accomplished birder.   Scott is one of my favorite authors ( his works include Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere With Migratory Birds, Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians and Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul) and I think I’ve read every one of his books.  It was a real thrill to walk through the dunes with a famous author and birder. The high point of my birding day at Fort Morgan.

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