Flying High: A birding expert shares tips on how to plan an avian adventure on Dauphin Island, Alabama

Why the island is great for birding, which birds you’ll see, and advice for those who have never gone birding before
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Alabama
A pelican flies over Dauphin Island.

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Andrew Haffenden

Our Expert
Andrew Haffenden is founder of Nature Travel Specialists, which offers wildlife tours all over the world. His love for birding began in the mid-nineties, and he’s been leading birding tours on Dauphin Island since moving there in 2012.

What makes Dauphin Island one of the best places in the country for birding?
Lots of birds migrate across the Gulf of Mexico to their breeding grounds farther north, and Dauphin Island is the first tree-covered land for many of them after flying 600 miles or so. They’re really hungry, thirsty, and exhausted, so they put down on the island. I personally have seen 300 species of birds here, which is about half of all types of birds regularly found in the U.S. east of the Rockies. When you can get half the birds east of the Rockies in that small area over the years, you know you’re in a pretty birdy spot.

Dauphin Island, AL
A hooded warbler

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Dauphin Island, Alabama
A rare reddish egret

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Which kinds of birds are you likely to see on the island?
Warblers are a very popular bird for birders to see. There are also a couple of important birds, one of which is the piping plover. It’s a small, really cute shorebird that winters down here. People like to see reddish egrets, which are very rare and spectacular. We get beach birds as well, like terns, gulls, and shorebirds. It’s really the amazing variety we get here, rather than any given bird, that people come for.

Where are some of the best spots on Dauphin Island to see birds?
One is the shell mounds, a hugely rich area for birds because it’s full of live oaks and other trees that attract insects. I’ve been there when there have been probably 2,000 birds just everywhere. The Audubon Bird Sanctuary is also a very good area for birding. On a typical day, people will go to these spots and work a circuit around the island. No two birding spots are more than a mile and a half away from each other.

Dauphin Island, AL
A piping plover and its chick

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What’s your advice to someone who has never gone birding before?
Generally, I say to people, “Get out and look.” And that seems like really obvious advice, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t do that. The best way to learn the birds is to be out as much as possible. Another tip for new birders is to throw away the Internet. Get a guidebook. Take it with you in the field and identify the birds you expect to see that time of year. That way, you can put little marks on them and your eyes can go straight to those birds and not worry about the other twenty that look similar but aren’t found that time of the year or in that area.

Any other must-see Dauphin Island attractions?
Dauphin Island is called the sunset capital of Alabama, and it really is. The sunsets are totally spectacular. It’s an east-west island, so go out on the pier or on West End Beach and spend half an hour out there with a glass of wine and watch the sun set over the water.

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Southbound.

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