Next Stop: Dauphin Island

by Emily Hulbert, Clarkrange, TN | Mar 1, 2024 | 0 comments

Dauphin Island, Alabama
Audubon Bird Sanctuary
Dauphin Island, Alabama. Photo © George Dodd|

White sand seashores…ocean breezes…quiet pine forests…

With such peaceful beauty to call its own, it’s hardly a wonder that millions of passersby visit Dauphin Island, Alabama, every year.

Millions? Yes, indeed—though only a small fraction of these are human visitors. The majority of those seeking the island’s refuge arrive on feathered wings.

Dauphin Island, located in the Gulf of Mexico just off southern Alabama, is one of the best bird-watching locations in North America. The island is the first land that many birds encounter when migrating north from South America.

One morning in June, as the air steamed with southern humidity, my family and I discovered the lovely tranquility of Dauphin Island in our trek along the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail (a route consisting of six birding loops in the Alabama counties of Baldwin and Mobile).

After traversing several long bridges flanked by sunlit waves, and streets shaded by majestic live oaks draped with Spanish moss, we arrived at the Audubon Bird Sanctuary on Dauphin Island. We entered the maritime forest beneath a canopy of towering pines. Spiky blades of saw palmettos bristled the ground, and sunbeams dotted the boardwalk and pine needle trails.

A birding checklist for the Sanctuary boasts an impressive 341 species. It includes the Black-whiskered Vireo, Magnificent Frigatebird, American Avocet, and Roseate Spoonbill, cuckoos, gallinules, loons, hummingbirds, fifteen species of flycatchers, a multiplicity of shorebirds, and thirty-nine species of warblers!

Unfortunately, my family and I had discovered this premium location for bird watching during neither the spring nor fall migration season, and the midday heat seemed to have silenced all the other native feathered residents! Yet we soon discovered many other surprises awaiting us.

Signs marking vegetation along the trail told us that longleaf pines, slash pines, and loblolly pines all occupy the forest. Overhead, fifty-foot-tall live oaks spread wide their gnarly branches and leafy foliage. Sand live oaks graced the forest with their thick, evergreen leaves. Persimmon, sassafras, wax myrtle, and Chinese tallow trees each added their unique charm. Here, elegant southern magnolias with their glossy leaves and white fragrant flowers grow wild.

We also noticed the frequent signs stating, WATCH FOR ALLIGATORS. STAY ON TRAIL. “Here’s the perfect place for alligators,” my dad declared as he led the way to the marsh banks of Gaillard Lake. We continued with both trepidation and excitement.

Green lily pad saucers with white teacup blossoms floated in clusters on the murky water. With apprehensive hope, we scanned the lake for those deceptive floating logs with eyes….

“There’s a bird!” My mother’s announcement lifted our eyes to the treetops. Ah, yes, an osprey was waiting for his lunch. On the opposite edge of the lake, a heron balanced on a fallen tree, hunting fish.

Before long we noticed that the pine tags on the path were now mingled with sand. Up ahead, beyond an incline in the trail, we saw that the forest ended and the vast blue sky began! Then our ears caught the pulsing, thundering rhythm of the ocean’s majestic roar.

We climbed the little knoll, and the land suddenly leveled out to an immense white sand dune, scattered with grass-like sea oats and scrubby bushes of sea heather. Here and there solitary pines swayed above the sand. And beyond the dunes lay the sparkling blue ocean, stretching out until it touched the sky.

“Dolphins!” my father exclaimed, and we strained our eyes to see. When he handed us the binoculars, we could see the energetic school of dolphins leaping and diving gracefully, far out from shore.

Perhaps the Brown Pelicans delighted us most of all. We enjoyed watching flocks of the clumsy-looking birds with wide bills and drab coats gliding by.

Considering all that we discovered at the Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary, I can only imagine the thrill of visiting during migration season.

Next year, as millions of birds again follow their migratory path, many of them will make Dauphin Island their “next stop.” Maybe you can too. Then whatever you experience, whether sun-dappled saw palmettos, windblown sand dunes, or that rare warbler you never dreamed you’d see, may your heart overflow with praise to the wonderful Master Who created it all.

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