While much of the United States is suffering from record-breaking cold temperatures and snowfall, the temperatures on the Alabama and Mississippi Gulf Coast fluctuate between a few days of cold and a few spring-like days. The mild winters that many of us take for granted (or are one of the reasons we live here) attract two very different types of visitors to our area but which have a lot in common – we lovingly refer to them as “snowbirds.”
The non-feathered type hail from a variety of northern places including Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota, and even Canada. They tend to be older, retired and with the ability to travel for extended periods of time. Some of them will call the Gulf Coast home for a month or two while others will extend their stay up to six months.
During their time with us, these visitors from the north do more than just give our local economy a much-needed boost. There are several state snowbird clubs which host regular get-togethers for their overwintering transplants and conduct fundraisers for various local community causes (often competing with their counterparts from other states to see who can outdo the other). They also enjoy exploring our natural resources, whether walking on the beach, taking a quick dip in the Gulf of Mexico, biking or hiking our many trails or kayaking our waterways.
Many of them also enjoy looking for the other type of snowbirds that visits us – the feathered ones. In fact, birding is one of the largest and fastest growing spectator sports in the United States and it can be done by anyone (regardless of your skill level), anywhere at any time, and you don’t need a lot of expensive gear.
The Mississippi and Alabama coasts are both important stopover points for migrating birds during the spring and the fall, but there are many species that overwinter here as well. Of the 445 species of birds that have been listed for the entire state of Alabama, about 420 of those have been observed in Baldwin and Mobile counties during the proper season and in the right habitat. According to the Alabama Ornithological Society, approximately 174 species regularly stay along the Alabama coast during the winter and it is not uncommon to see many different species while visiting one of the prime birding spots.
What makes the coast such a good place for them? Among other things, we have plants, trees and shrubs that are adapted for our mild climate and which will produce seeds, nuts and berries for the birds to feed on during the winter (as well as those returning from their more southerly migration) and which also provide good shelter for our visitors. We are blessed with many good sources of clean, fresh water that the birds depend on to survive. The water typically doesn’t freeze like it may further north.
Like our human snowbirds, birds have an important role in our community because they eat insects, disperse seeds and pollinate plants, and they can provide us with hours of inexpensive entertainment.
Whether you are a coastal resident or a visitor from any part of the country, and whether you are new to birding or a seasoned birder, now is a great time to grab a pair of binoculars and a good birding guide, check out the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail or the Mississippi Coastal Birding Trail and see how many of our feathered friends you can check off your “life list” in a single visit.
With our winter visitors here a bit longer and the beginning of the spring migration just around the corner, you should be able to spot a large variety of species. Just remember to respect the birds and other wildlife, the environment, and the rights of others, and abide by the American Birding Association’s Code of Birding Ethics found here.
If you want to improve your birding skills, there are frequent lectures, meetings and workshops in the area you can attend (usually for little or no cost) and go ahead and mark your calendar for the annual Alabama Coastal Birdfest, held the first week of October each year. Happy birding!