Birds Come From All Directions to Enjoy the Tasty Treats Hidden Beneath the Mud
In the late summer. fall, and winter, reservoir levels in the Tennessee River Valley drop drastically to expose areas of mudflats. although unsightly to some, theses areas are rich in prey for a large variety of migrant and wintering birds, creating an all-you-can-eat buffet that is hard to resist—at least for the birds.
Changing Water Levels
In the late summer, the Tennessee Valley Authority begin to release water from its series of reservoirs along the river This releases alters bird habitat quite radically throughout Northern Alabama. Although the timing of low water levels varies, when in coincides with shorebird migration, the result can be spectacular. Hundreds of shorebirds of various species that advantage of this rich habitat. Wading birds such as herons and egrets also benefit greatly at this time.
Later in the year, ducks and gulls take advantage of the shallow waters.
Herons and egrets hunt in shallow water for frogs, snakes, crayfish, and small fish. The large expanse of shallow water at the end of the summer can produce spectacular birding when large concentrations of young wading birds flock to the pools. Longer legged species like the Great Blue Heron and Great Egret are able to forage in deeper water.
Another frequent visitor to the mudflats is the Bonaparte's Gull. These gregarious birds find easy pickings in the shallow waters nearby and can often be seen floating on the exposed mud. Check these flocks carefully for any vagrant gulls that may join them.
The Sandpiper family (Scolopacidae) is the largest group of shorebirds as well as the most physically diverse. For a novice, distinguishing between sandpipers can be a somewhat daunting task since many species are very similar. Each groups to separate include the yellow-legs, the dowitchers, and peeps. Peeps are the smallest and most confusing group of sandpipers. The Brownish Least Sandpiper is the only commonly encountered peep in Alabama with yellow legs.
While many people are familiar with Alabama's most common resident plover, the Killdeer, there are several other species that migrate through the area. The Semipalmated Plover is similar to the Killdeer, but is slightly smaller, with only a single black breast band. Other plovers such as American Golden and Black-bellied may be found in more vegetated areas and short grass fields.
One of these birds is not like the others
The biggest thrill of scanning mudflats for shorebirds is discovering a species that does not regularly occur in the area. Since shorebirds travel great distances during migration, it is not uncommon for a number of vagrants to turn up almost anywhere.
American Avocet - With its characteristic upturned bill, black and white wings, and golden brown neck, it is hard to confuse this handsome bird with others. The closely related Black-necked Stilt is also a rare possibility.
Ruddy Turnstone - This small sandpiper is seen along the coast although uncommon sightings do occur inland. Ruddy Turnstones are a warm reddish color as their name suggests. Their shortchanged wedge shaped bills are used to turn over stones in search of prey.
White-Rumped Sandpiper - This is one of the larger peeps that can still cause confusion when mixed with other small sandpipers. When in flight, however, its white rump is diagnostic of the species.