The blogger’s biking and birding bonanza in ‘bama

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Painted Bunting

Baltimore OrioleLike last year, when we moved from Dauphin Island to Gulf Shores AL, I took the car on the ferry while poor Steve had to drive Betsy 85 miles around on the highways (Betsy is too big for this ferry).  Arriving at the Fort Morgan ferry landing, I drove straight to Fort Morgan State Historical Park to meet up with Eric and Laurel of Raven and Chickadee, while Steve set up camp at our new site in Gulf State Park across town.  As you may recall, we initially met Eric and Laurel a few weeks ago in Apalachicola, Florida. We had no idea our paths would cross again so soon!

In addition to blogging about our travels, birding and biking are other interests we have in common with them.  Since the spring migration of neotropical birds was at its peak here at Gulf Shores, Alabama birding was pretty much the focus of our activities together.  OK by me!

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Eric and Laurel, real birders!

Our first get-together was to observe bird banding at Fort Morgan State Historical Park. The bird banding sessions are operated by the Hummer/Bird Study Group, which was created by Bob Sargent and his wife Martha.  Along with a group of dedicated volunteer bird lovers, they’ve been doing this for the past 20 years.  They gather here to band hummingbirds and other neotropical migrating songbirds in order to study and preserve them.

 Hummer/Bird Study Group

Sargent said, “These birds are all just amazing.  They’ve got a brain the size of half a pea and a navigation system that, even if we live to be 1,000 years old we’ll never understand.”

Once a bird is captured in one of the dozens of nets strung through the Gulf woods, it is weighed, measured, fitted with a tiny metal identification band, recorded, given a quick physical, and then released to continue its northward journey.

Observing the bird banding was a fun and educational experience.  Being able to actually hold and release these beautiful little creatures back to the wild was very exciting for me.

Bob Sargent preparing me to release the bird

Bob Sargent preparing me to release the bird (photo courtesy of Eric and Laurel)

Am I happy or what?

Is this awesome, or what?

Laurel with "her" bird

Laurel with “her” bird

Upon our arrival at Gulf State Park in the afternoon, we were delighted to discover that we were practically next door neighbors.  Steve had checked us into site #37, not realizing that Eric and Laurel were at #32.  That made our happy hour celebration very convenient!

Lowes RV Adventures

Happy Hour at site # 37

On our second outing early the following morning, I loaded my bike into Eric and Laurel’s truck and we drove back to the Fort Morgan ferry landing to take our bikes over to Dauphin Island.  Since I had just come from several days of bird watching there, it was my turn to play tour guide for the day.  And bikes are the perfect mode of transportation for visiting the birding areas, which are all within a radius of only a couple of miles.

As our time on the island was somewhat limited, we went straight to the birding hotspots; Shell Mound Park, Goat Tree, Cadillac Square and finally to the Audubon Bird Sanctuary.  Fortunately, we were also able to catch the Great Horned Owl and her owlets, still at their nesting roost by the beach.

Cadillac Square, Dauphin Island

Lunch break at Cadillac Square

While birding with Eric and Laurel I was able to pick up a few tips, like how to identify the many types of Warblers present on the island that day.  We enjoyed our time together and have planned to meet up again in Texas next winter for more birding adventures.

Green Heron and Prothonotary

The Prothonotary warbler can stand on its own cuteness next to a Green Heron

In addition to my initial bird sightings a few days ago, our two days of birding together resulted in enjoying even more of the colorful, cute little jittery creatures.  The three of us had a great time traipsing through the woods in search of these elusive migrants. Going with real birders made it all the more fun!

Steve stayed home to take advantage of the gorgeous weather and our nice paved parking spot to complete some overdue maintenance under Betsy.  We met up with him at the end of the day and went out for a great dinner at the Tin Top Restaurant.

Lowes RV Adventures

Excellent dinner at the Tin Top restaurant

I learned during our two days of adventures that Laurel is far more than just a blogger. She is an author of several books including Herbal Healing, which you can check out at Amazon.  As an herbalist she is also a columnist and contributing editor for Natural Health magazine.

It was indeed a birding bonanza for the bloggers!

 

Next up:   Just ‘chillin at Gulf Shores, AL



The Sunset Capital of Alabama

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Dauphin Island Sunset

The enjoyment of our two-week stay at Dauphin Island was dictated by the weather, and we had a double whammy of severe thunderstorms, rain and overcast skies.  But on days when the weather cooperated, we headed to our favorite locations to watch the colors of twilight and sunset that the island is known for.  In July 2013, Dauphin Island was deemed by its town council as the Sunset Capital of Alabama.  In reality it’s a logical choice, since the island sits several miles south of the mainland where there’s really nothing to obstruct the western horizon.

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Geographically, its location is at the westernmost white-sand beach in Alabama, and also on the Gulf Coast – unique features that the town likes to point out.  We drove to the west end of the island where we could see the clouds and colors changing 360 degrees around us.  Of course, there were days when Mother Nature produced a dud, but most evenings it was well worth the drive and it’s not like we had a lot of other important things to do.

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The only other time I have posted about incredible sunsets was when we were in Arizona, where the sky in the desert had spectacular twilight hues of oranges and reds, and the cloudscapes were spectacular.  Other than birds, sunsets have become my other photographic inspiration.  I try to catch at least one wherever we go.  But here at Dauphin Island the panoramic sunsets are something to behold, and we have tried to view and enjoy them from various locations.

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Sunset afterglows…

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Dauphin Island has given us several memorable sunsets that I’ve been able to add to my collection.  The hard part is picking which ones to delete!

And that about wraps up our two weeks of hanging out on our favorite southern island.

 

Up Next:  Bloggers Biking and Birding Bonanza!



Dauphin Island is for the birds!

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I know what you must be thinking – I just completed four months of gawking at birds while we were in Florida, and here I am talking about birds again.  Lucky for me, we arrived at Dauphin Island, AL where neotropical migratory birds make their first landfall at the beginning of the spring season.  Migration begins in March and peaks in mid-April. If you’re not a “bird fan”, then you probably won’t be interested in the rest of this post. Even my hubby gave me an agonized look when I asked him to edit yet another bird story!

Dauphin Island

But first, what the heck is a neotropical bird?

A neotropical migratory bird is one that breeds in Canada or the United States during our summer, then spends our winter in Mexico, Central America, South America or the Caribbean islands.  The majority of neotropical migratory birds are songbirds, such as warblers, thrushes, tanagers, and vireos.

Dauphin Island is the first landfall for many neotropical migratory birds after their long flight across the Gulf from Central and South America each spring.

Map of Dauphin Island Alabama

Map of Dauphin Island, Alabama

After a recent storm here I ventured out to the Audubon Bird Sanctuary and the Indian Shell Mound Park, where I was amazed by the abundance of “fall out”, a term used to describe these large groups of arriving migrants.  The cute little colorful birds were all over the place, hopping and foraging.  And it seemed like their stopover lasted only a single day, for when I went back the following morning the area was already quiet.

Audubon Bird Sanctuary

Audubon Bird Sanctuary

The Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary Center lists 347 species that have been sighted on the island.  The Center distributes a migration calendar which lists each bird species expected to arrive, and on what dates.  This year, it’s estimated that the peak spring migration will be around April 15-25 – depending on the weather – but I’ve already seen lots of birders and photographers swarming the island.  Although we’ll be at Gulf Shores in late April, I might just hop on the ferry to come back here for another look!

Dauphin Island Shell Island Park

Some of the many birders and photographers at Shell Island Park

Here are a few snaps that I managed to capture that day.  These tiny birds are skittish and move around a lot.  To make it more interesting, I added some fun facts that I learned about these particular neotropical migratory birds:

  • Migrating birds cross the 600 miles of the Gulf of Mexico without resting.
Hooded Warbler

Hooded Warbler – these cuties were literally all over the place that day.

  • For most long-distance migrants, the birds are born genetically programmed to fly in a certain direction for a certain amount of time.
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

The most challenging bird for me to capture – Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

  • The time it takes a single bird to complete a full one-way migration can range from a few weeks to up to four months, depending on the total distance, weather, flight speed, route and stopovers.
Yellow-throated Warbler

I froze when this Yellow-throated Warbler posed right in front of me.

  • Ninety percent of migrating birds fly at airspeeds between 15 and 45 miles per hour.
White-eyed Vireo

The White-eyed Vireo was checking me out as well.

  • Many songbirds migrate at night, in part to avoid the attention of predators that are also migrating, such as raptors.
Prothonotary Warbler

Four of these Prothonotary Warblers were competing for seeds.

  • Migrants have an internal clock that controls the onset of migration and their pre-migration preparations.
Scarlet Tanager

The Scarlet Tanagers were way up there in the trees

  • Migrating birds use the stars and sounds from the earth below to find their way at night.  Buntings specifically use the pattern of stars around the North Star for navigation.  Amazing!
Indido Bunting

Steve was even excited when an Indigo Bunting visited our site (blue is his favorite color)

And that’s just a few of the gorgeous specimens I’ve seen the last few days!  In addition to all of the migrants passing through, we’re also being entertained daily at our campground (Steve’s review here) by the constant sounds and visits from the locals – Cardinals, Finches, Mockingbirds, Grackles, Doves and Blue Jays, who seem to rule the island.  These guys are eating us out of house and home, as we’ve been refilling our feeder every day.  But there’s nothing like waking up every morning to the sounds of all these wonderful birds singing to us!

Next up:  We go our separate ways


A detour to one of our favorite places – Dauphin Island, AL

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Great Horned Owl

Since it’s still a bit early to continue our northward trek, we’re chillin’ for a couple of weeks at one of our favorite Gulf Coast stops, Dauphin Island.  Unfortunately, a severe weather system slammed the area just a day after our arrival, the worst storm we’ve endured since we began our travels.  It wasn’t just the buckets of rain, but also the lightning and fierce winds that made us hunker down in Betsy.  Our windshield cover even blew off in one of the wind gusts, and that’s never happened before.

Dauphin Island Beach Campground

Poor Steve had to wade out into the water in pouring rain to retrieve our windshield cover

Although this was an unplanned stop, we were excited to be back.  After a couple of weeks here we’ll move back to Gulf Shores, AL for a final three weeks on the shoreline.  That will take us up to May 1st, when it should be warm enough to head north and leave the beaches behind for quite a while.  Our pace will be more leisurely this summer, as we don’t see ourselves visiting as many historical and resort spots as last year.  In keeping with our goal of visiting all 49 states, we’re guessing we’ll be able to add 9 or 10 to the midsection of our map by the end of the year.

The planned route will take us to Michigan by mid-summer and back to Texas by December, where we plan to spend next winter.  The stops along the way will be determined as we move along, and by the end of our third year we will probably have visited at least 38 beautiful states.  Well, that’s the “jello plan” for now, we’ll see what surprises this part of the journey brings – hey, that’s the fun of it!

2014 planned route

Rough outline for our 2014 adventure route

Back to Dauphin Island.  Although we were here around the same time last year, there were a few things we missed during that short stay that we wanted to explore this time around.  Our first couple of days were spent waiting for better weather and doing fun things – like finalizing our taxes 😦  But we tend to get “cabin fever” fairly quickly, and we couldn’t wait to get out to breathe the fresh air and get moving again.  The good news is that our home base at Dauphin Island Campground had private access to the white sand beach, trails to the bird sanctuary and access to the bike path that runs the length of the island (8 miles).  There are other activities within walking/riding distance that made our car almost unneeded here – a pair of healthy legs were the only requirement!

 

Dauphin Island Beach

We’ll definitely be missing this in the months to come

So, what have we done so far?  Well, I did mention that the RV park had direct access to the Audubon Bird Sanctuary, and that was my first destination.  Actually, the whole island is designated as a bird sanctuary, just for good measure.  Everywhere we went the birds could be seen and heard – heaven!  Steve even got caught up in the possibility of seeing new and beautiful birds, so he grabbed our binoculars and tagged along.

We were not disappointed. A great horned owl had established a nest by the beach and was nurturing her two young ones.

Great Horned Owl

This Osprey nest was taken over by a Great Horned Owl, and she and her owlets were the talk of the town

Great Horned Owl

They seem to be saying, “What’s all the fuss about?”  Aren’t they the cutest?

Dauphin Island is the first landfall for neo-tropical migrant birds after their long flight across the Gulf from Central and South America each spring.  In inclement weather, the island has been known to receive large flocks of exhausted birds landing all at once, in what is called a “fall-out.”  Having my first Alabama bird-watching experience after that storm hit was quite amazing.  And that will be covered in my next post.

Finally, our first sunset taken at the west end of the island.

Dauphin Island Sunset

 

Next up:  Dauphin Island goes to the birds!


“Damn the Torpedoes…”

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Fort Gaines.

For the history buffs among you, visiting Fort Gaines while on Dauphin Island is a bonus. Fort Gaines stands at the eastern tip of the island, where you can not only get a panoramic view of the bay and Gulf of Mexico, but also be immersed into the historical and thrilling account of the Battle of Mobile Bay.

English: Fort Gaines, Dauphin Island, Alabama

English: Fort Gaines, Dauphin Island, Alabama (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On August 5, 1864 the US Navy attempted to run the gauntlet between Fort Gaines and Fort Morgan, in what is now known as the Battle of Mobile Bay.  The passage between the forts was protected by the guns of the forts themselves, torpedoes (also called mines) and other obstructions.  While running the gauntlet the navy warship USS Tecumseh struck a mine and went to the bottom in seconds.  It was at this point that Admiral David Farragut reportedly uttered the famous words, “Damn the torpedoes – full speed ahead!’  The navy pushed on, and the 3-week naval and land battle resulted in the capture of Fort Gaines and the Confederate Fleet by the union forces.

East Bastion

It was cool and breezy as we followed the self-guided walking tour of the fort, which was built in the 1800s.  Exploring the original tunnels, bastion, blacksmith area and multiple huge canons really gave us a feel for what it may have been like here during the heat of battle.

Steve enjoyed the museum, learning about the many types of weapons and ordnance used at the time.

It cost only $6.00 per person to visit the Fort, and Steve was happy to find a nice Hanes Daupin Island T-shirt for only $10.00.  Not bad!

A day of history lessons was just enough reason to take another long walk on the beach, as we had been doing every day.  Several visits to the sanctuary and other bird sites yielded no migrant birds yet, but the resident birds were merrily chirping away.  Click here for the birds I managed to capture at Dauphin Island.

Now about where we stayed.  Folks have already asked about the accommodations, so we’ll give the best report we can.

There are really only two options for where to park your RV, Dauphin Island Campground on the east end or Pelican Nest near the center of the island.  Nina of  Wheeling It wrote a thorough review of the Dauphin Island Campground that you may want to check out – it was fully booked when we were there.  So, we stayed at Pelican Nest RV Resort Park, which has only 12 sites and is located right across the street from the center of the beach and pier.  We liked this park a lot during the first few days, but when the weekend rolled around with beautiful warm weather it got busy and noisy on the road out front.  They also re-opened a restaurant next door and it was VERY loud on the weekend nights.  It may come down to deciding how much the noise will bother you in return for the fantastic beach access.  The road noise will be reduced some if you can get a spot behind the office – sites #7-10.  Try to NOT get #1 next to the road, which is where we stayed.

We really enjoyed our week on Dauphin Island – it’s small, relatively quiet and less touristy than some other places in this area. This island has a popular bakery full of yummy goodies and a fresh seafood store.

And finally, another day another beautiful Alabama sunset.

Dauphin Island

Our upcoming stops – tell us about any “must do” tours, excursions,
restaurants, etc. you’ve enjoyed at these places:

Pensacola, FL

Montgomery, AL

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Life’s a beach – finally! Dauphin Island, AL

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From the Sonoran Desert, to the plains of Texas, to the swamps of Louisiana to an island in Alabama!  Yeah!  We have been longing for white sand, sunny days and a long stretch of pristine beach.  One fine place we found all of it was Dauphin Island, Alabama. Following other RVers travels usually gives us great ideas for places to stay and explore along our upcoming path.  One of them is of course Wheeling it, who consistently point us to interesting locations like this island, which we had never heard of prior to reading their blog.

Dauphin Island is a barrier island located three miles south of the mouth of Mobile Bay in the Gulf of Mexico.  There are two ways to get here.  From the west, entry to the island is made by crossing a 3-mile long high rise bridge.

West Entrance to Dauphin Island

From the east  you can access via the Mobile Bay Ferry.  At this time RV’s are not allowed on the ferry because they are running only one boat; be sure to check with the ferry service if you wish to take your RV across in either direction.

Mobile Bay Ferry

The island is approximately 14 miles long and 1 ¾ miles wide at the widest point.  The 14 miles must include the attached stretch of Pelican Island that extends off the main island for several sandy miles, since we measured the main island at only 8 miles end-to-end.  At the east end you will find the Dauphin Island Campground, the Mobile Bay Ferry and Historic Ft. Gaines.

At the west end is several miles of privately owned and partially developed land.  It is estimated that 1300 permanent residents call Dauphin Island home, and we saw how that number soars as the weather warms up.  Vacation homes dot the coastline, with several either under repair or rebuild due to the nasty storms that often go through here.  Below are a few examples if you are interested, and we saw several rentals available too.

The entire island has been designated as a bird sanctuary.  There are two places you can view and enjoy the birds.  Birders take note: spring is almost here and pretty soon the island will be swarming with birds!  At the Audubon Sanctuary there are six trails which guide viewers about what species to expect on each trail.

At Indian Shell Mound Park there are benches everywhere to observe our feathered friends.

Other smaller areas or parks are set up for bird viewing or listening.

The pristine white beaches that stretch along the island are excellent places to take long walks as you view the sunsets and the shorebirds.  There is also a nice, wide paved bike trail running the length of the island.  This is one of the few stops where we have been walking AND biking almost every day.  Paradise!

We noticed that wherever folks were fishing there were almost always one or more Great Herons nearby to “guard” the Catch of the Day.

Dauphin Island Beach

Of course, I was just hooked on birds as usual…

and finally the beach sunsets of Dauphin Island.

Dauphin Island Sunset

Dauphin Island Sunset

Up next where we stayed and Historic Ft Gaines.