Monday, June 18, 2007

Through Alabama into Tennessee

June 4,5, 2007

I drove pretty steadily, but not directly given the two lane blacktop nature of the roads and terrain. I was tempted to stop at Tishomingo State Park, recommended before by Jeff Wilson, and an excellent birding place, but I had heard great things about Bankhead National Forest in Alabama, and wanted to check it out. It had been really dry, no rain in forty days, and at one stop I came across a crew of fire-fighters from Utah. We talked while they mostly napped, waiting for trouble, which was predicted with thunderstorms later in the day. I think maybe the night in town with those southern girls had an effect also, and kidded them about it. That got some wry looks and rolling eyes. Most importantly, I got a look at their good forest map, so I could figure out how to get to the campground. I got there about 2:30 pm, and found a small man-made lake. A couple of day trippers, but the camping was unoccupied. Excellent facilities, and only five bucks. Good birds too, but the best sighting came when I was standing quietly on a little bridge over the clear feeder creek. In broad daylight two beavers, obviously mated from the look of their comfortable side by side swimming, meandered slower than a walk down the creek and under the bridge. I held my breath sorta, peeked over the rail (they were about fifteen feet straight down) hoping they wouldn't see me and be alarmed. I was able to watch them for about twenty minutes. That's more time than all my other beaver watching in a lifetime, since they're usually nocturnal. I've seen them at dusk, but the second I move the tail smacks and they're gone.

In the night it started thunder and lightening, and then hard rain for a couple of hours. When it tapered off, I had to get out and move the truck out from under the trees to avoid the random banging of the post rain dripping on the campershell/drum. It's not so bad when it's raining steadily, just a background roar that I can get accustomed to, with a pillow over my head. The next morning the world was washed and renewed. I guess the Utah guys got to stand down for awhile. I birded around there for the dawn chorus action, and then headed for Wheeler NWR near Decatur. This was my third stop there, and each time I'm more impressed as I discover more nooks and crannies. This time it was the Dancy Bottoms trail, which followed a creek through some great bottom-land woods. I wish I'd been there during migration, but my timing was for New England and I was maybe four weeks late for that far south. Definitely on the to-do list. Back to the visitor center, which hadn't been open when I arrived, and down to their viewing blind. This is the most extravagant and nice blind I've ever seen, it's really a finished building with big windows overlooking a small wetland on one side, and a feeder and water feature passerine attractor on the other side. The approach is through mature hardwoods with lots of brush, so that's good birding too. From there I went to a boardwalk in a swamp near the expressway on the north side of the river, enough different from Dancy (where the soil is well above the creek level) to be interesting.

I had picked up a map of some kind or maybe it was a birding trail brochure, and a place called Hays Preserve caught my eye. Now pay attention! There are two main highways south out of Huntsville. You can't tell it from a normal map, but between the two is a mountain big and steep enough that it has no roads over it. And the signage as you leave the Expressway is worse than dismal. Not once but twice I've managed to miss the place where the main roads divide, and then it's hell to get back to the right place in the right direction if you want the eastern highway, which was where Hays was. Warning: the western road, although mapped as an expressway, has lights every quarter mile and miserable traffic. I got to do it in rush hour one time and it took an hour to clear Huntsville. Anyway, the GPS helped some and I found the one tiny blacktop road that climbed the west side of the mountain, crossing the ridge many miles farther than my goal, and then winding back north until I got to the right highway. I get flustered by wasting time and gas, especially when I don't think it's my fault.

Hays was worth the trouble. It's big, with some good habitat variety, woods mixed with a golf course (!) and pretty birdy. Found my Alabama Hairy Woodpecker there. The brochure had also recommended the University Ag Research Station for grassland birds, so it was back into Huntsville, through the dreaded intersection, but northbound, and then nearly to the Tennessee border. The station was flat and wide open with large paddocks dedicated to various farm critters, cows and pigs and sheep. It was like being in eastern Kansas, with sparrows on the wires and meadowlarks everywhere, found Blue Grosbeaks and Brown Thrashers. I picked up some unexpected birds there, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and Eastern Kingbird. I didn't know you could find that kind of place in Alabama. Then the trend was northeast, over the border into TN, and east to Cherokee National Forest.

I got there kinda late and headed for a campground shown in the National Geographic road atlas. One of it's strongest points is that it shows a lot of obscure campgrounds, but it's hard to tell what you may find. This one was just about a resort, with a lake and boats and pricey accommodations, even for tents. The atlas showed another farther down, so I headed that way. The pavement ended, always a good sign. I was working my way down some curvy approach to a drainage when I caught site of campers on the right. Primitive, but there were porta-potties. No water, but a fair number of folks. I walked up one trail and discovered that it was an entrance to a real Wilderness Area, Citico Creek. Almost dark, I went to sleep. The trip was during the longest days of the year, around the Summer Solstice. First light was about 5:30a, and last was after 9p. And those numbers became more extreme as I got way north later in the journey.


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