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  • Writer's pictureKaren Hogan

Alabama NWR Trip January 2018

Updated: Dec 13, 2018

A long weekend trip to visit 3 Alabama National Wildlife Refuges was scheduled just in time to see the hundreds of Sandhill Cranes and thousands of Snow Geese wintering at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur, Alabama.

Teresa-Karen at Beaverdam Boardwalk at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 29, 2018

January 2018

It was early January and I was still sorting through my photos of the December 24- December 31, 2017 Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge Trip but I was ready for another NWR trip. Teresa said she only had time for a weekend trip which is tough since most of the refuges are at least 8 hours from her house. I checked the National Wildlife Refuge System website, it looked like the National Wildlife Refuges in northern Alabama were about a 5 hour drive and she would be willing to take a vacation day on Monday for a three day visit. Last minute planning but it was decided we would visit and bird 3 refuges in Alabama including Wheeler, Watercress Darter and Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuges over the last weekend of January 2018. To begin the trip I drove the 8 hours to Lexington on Friday January 26th arriving around 4pm, Teresa got home from work around 5 pm and we were on the road by 6pm to Bowling Green, Kentucky.


January 27, 2018 Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

We got up early, but had a 3 hour drive from Bowling Green, Ky to Dectaur, AL, we arrived around 9:30 am at the entrance road to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. There were hundreds of Sandhill Cranes standing in the fields and flying overhead. Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1938 and consists of 35,000 acres that stretch for 20 miles along both sides of the Tennessee River. Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge has a great diversity of habitat including deep river channels, tributary creeks, tupelo swamps, open backwater embayments, bottomland hardwoods, pine uplands, and agricultural fields. Thousands of Sandhill Cranes and a small number of Whooping Cranes winter at this refuge. We parked at the visitor center and hiked the Atkeson Cypress Trail next to the visitor center and walked back to the large glass window Wildlife Observation Building. Many folks had come to refuge to see the Sandhill Cranes, the observation building was packed with folks wanting to get a look at these large wintering birds and other wildlife. By the afternoon a Whooping Crane had joined the Sandhill Cranes in the Observation pool and we were able to get some photos and videos through the glass of the observation building. We were excited to observe the banded Whooping Crane feeding with the large group of Sandhill Crane.

Sandhill Cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 27, 2018

Sandhill Cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 27, 2018

Sandhill Cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 27, 2018

Sandhill Cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 27, 2018

Ring-necked Ducks at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 27, 2018

Whooping Crane and Sandhill Cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 27, 2018

Carolina Wren behind the visitor center at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 27, 2018

Teresa hiking the Atkeson Cypress Trail at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 27, 2018

Our next at stop at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge would be the area known as Limestone Bay/Arrowhead Landing hotspot. I was driving my new Toyota 4Runner with Teresa as the navigator, I was concerned and questioned the route as she sent me down, a wet red dirt Alabama road. Teresa was annoyed that I doubted the route she had chosen but it wasn't her navigating skills I was questioning, it was my ability to get this car moving using the 4 wheel drive if we became stuck on this muddy road.

Ever since we got stuck in Texas at the Boca Chica area of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge I have been more concerned about driving on muddy roads especially when rain continues to worsen the road condition. We have been using my 4-wheel drive car since summer of 2017 but I am still a novice when it comes to changing into the higher levels of 4-wheel drive. The red dirt road to the Arrowhead Landing in the Limestone Bay was only two miles and soon we arrived at the corner of the fertile Wheeler Reservoir and the Tennessee River. The Limestone Bay/Arrowhead Landing ebird hotspot has thousands of Snow Geese and Ducks posted for the winter months. Visiting Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge at the end of January meant that most of the ducks had already moved north, our duck counts reflected this, we observed 4 species of ducks and reported low total numbers of each duck species. The Snow Geese were still residing at Arrowhead Landing/Limestone Bay, taking off and landing on the water, we counted approximately 2,000 geese.

Sunset at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 27, 2018

We left the Limestone Bay area to drive 2 hours to Anniston, AL where we would spend the night. We planned to visit and bird at Mountain Longleaf and Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuges the next day. Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge was just outside of Anniston and Watercress Darter was closer to Birmingham. We had been watching the weather, rain and fog for our birding day tomorrow at Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge. As we unloaded our car for the night at the nice lodge like hotel in the Anniston area the rain began to fall.


January 28, 2018 Mountain Longleaf and Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuges

Up before the sun we were ready to bird at Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge by 7am. The forecast was correct, heavy fog and rain showers prevented good views of the unique mountain longleaf pine ecosystem and Moorman Overlook.

Heavy Fog at Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge January 28, 2017

Disappointed we could only list 10 species of birds on our ebird checklist. The Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge office in Anniston also manages the Cahaba River and Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuges and was only open on weekdays. Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge was established in 2003 and now has 9,016 acres that include old-growth mixed hardwood pine forest. Two thirds of the refuge is closed due to unexploded ordinance (UXO) and other environmental concerns. The Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge has 18 miles of hiking trails including 2 strenuous trails the 1.4 mile North Ridge Road Trail and the 3 mile Smoky Mountain Trail located on the South Ridge Road.

Moorman Overlook at Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge, January 28, 2018

Karen at Moorman Overlook at Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge, January 28, 2018

Teresa at Moorman Overlook at Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge, January 28, 2018

Teresa and Karen at Moorman Overlook at Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge, January 28, 2018

As we drove up the steep road to get to the ridge of the mountain I was concerned about the already muddy road that was continuing to get drenched by the rain showers. I made the decision to turn around before we found the trailheads. We should call ahead next time to check with the Headquarters about road conditions.

Wet road conditions at Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge, January 28, 2018

We were able to hike the Ridge Road Interpretive Trail even in the rain. As always we observed and followed the Refuge signs including the ones warning about UXO.

Teresa on Ridge Road Interpretive Trail at Mountain Longleaf NWR, January 28, 2018

Teresa observes UXO sign at Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge, January 28, 2018

By noon we headed to Bessemer, Alabama to find the home of an endangered species of Watercress Darter. Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1980 to protect the small colorful fish called the Watercress Darter. The Refuge consist of 24 acres of mixed pine-hardwood forest with 2 small ponds. As we arrived at parking lot next to the trail head we noticed there were 3 refuge signs blocking the entrance to the trailhead warning the trail was closed. Observing the closed trail signs we walked along the wooded edge behind the West Jefferson County Historical Society's MacAdory House. We also visited the areas around the 2 ponds right off of Division St. The refuge is unstaffed and managed by Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge Office in Anniston.

Sign for Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge January 28, 2018


Karen at Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge, January 28, 2018

Teresa at Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge, January 28, 2018

Karen at closed Trailhead at Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge, January 28, 2018

West Jefferson County Historical Society's MacAdory House at Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge, January 28, 2018

Pond at Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge, January 28, 2018

Pond at Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge, January 28, 2018

Karen crossing Division St at Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge, January 28, 2018

After leaving the Bessemer area we headed north toward Dectaur, Alabama. We would drive back to Lexington the next day, Monday, Teresa would report to work the following day, Tuesday. We determined birding at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge until 2 pm on Monday, would still get us back to Lexington by 7 pm. We chose a hotel on highway 67 just a few miles from the entrance to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. From our observations the day before we knew the Sandhill Cranes were most active around the entrance to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge first thing in the morning. Arriving our first day at 9:30am we figured we had probably missed the most active time for the Sandhill Cranes between 7:00-9:00 am. Tomorrow we would be at the entrance just as the sun came up. We checked in at the hotel and then enjoyed a yummy dinner from a near by Mexican Restaurant, one of our favorite meals, especially when we have leftovers for breakfast.


January 29, 2018 Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

Monday morning was our last day at Wheeler and we were determined to find the perfect spot to watch the Sandhill Cranes during sunrise. The gate to the Visitor Center would not open until 9AM and we arrived at 7AM so we pulled off at the the Day Use Area across the road from the Visitor Center gate. We had stopped at this area on Saturday afternoon but the morning light was bathing the resting Sandhill Cranes in beautiful golds and oranges. We stayed at this hotspot for 2 hours watching the gold and reds fade into a clear blue sky making for great videos and photos of the flying Sandhill Cranes.

Day Use Area at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 29, 2018

Sandhill Cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge January 29, 2018

Sandhill Cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 29, 2018

Sandhill Cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 29, 2018

Sandhill Cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 29, 2018

Sandhill Crane at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 29, 2018

Sandhill Cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 29, 2018

Sandhill Cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 29, 2018

Sandhill Cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 29, 2018

Sandhill Cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 29, 2018

Sandhill Cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 29, 2018

Day Use Area at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 29, 2018

Day Use Area at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 29, 2018

The Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Observation Building and area behind the Visitor Center are great places to see hundreds of Sandhill Cranes standing in the surrounding fields so we stopped for one more look. The Whooping Crane was visible again from the Observation Building and later moved down behind the Visitor Center.

Whooping Crane and Northern Shoveler at Visitor Center Wheeler NWR January 29, 2018

Whooping Crane and Sandhill Crane behind Visitor Center Wheeler NWR January 29, 2018


Whooping Crane flying and Sandhill Cranes behind Visitor Center Wheeler NWR January 29, 2018

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge January 29, 2018

Sandhill Cranes behind Visitor Center Wheeler NWR January 29, 2018

Sandhill Cranes behind Visitor Center Wheeler NWR January 29, 2018

Sandhill Cranes behind Visitor Center at Wheeler NWR January 29, 2018

Sandhill Cranes behind Visitor Center at Wheeler NWR, January 29, 2018


Northern Mockingbird at Visitor Center Wheeler NWR January 29, 2018

Pine Warbler at Visitor Center Wheeler NWR January 29, 2018


Visitor Center at Wheeler NWR January 29, 2018

Teresa is always thorough and picked out a couple more birding locations at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge including Blackwell Swamp and Beaverdam Swamp Boardwalk.


Teresa Is the drive? to Blackwell swamp or Limestone bay? Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge January 29, 2018

Blackwell Swamp at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge January 29, 2018

Beaverdam Boardwalk at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge January 29, 2018

Fox Sparrow at Beaverdam Boardwalk at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge January 29, 2018

Beaverdam Boardwalk at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge January 29, 2018

Beaverdam Boardwalk at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge January 29, 2018

Beaverdam Boardwalk at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge January 29, 2018

Karen at Beaverdam Boardwalk at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge January 29, 2018

Entrance to the Beaverdam Boardwalk at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge January 29, 2018

It was 1:30 pm, we should start our way back to Lexington instead we headed back to the Limestone Bay/Arrowhead Landing for another look of one of our favorite aerial shows, Snow Geese taking off and landing on water.

Road to Limestone Bay/Arrowhead Landing at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge January 29, 2018

Road to Limestone Bay/Arrowhead Landing at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge January 29, 2018

Snow Geese at Arrowhead Landing/Limestone Bay at Wheeler NWR, January 29, 2018

Snow Geese at Arrowhead Landing/Limestone Bay at Wheeler NWR, January 29, 2018

TN-Snow Geese at Arrowhead Landing/Limestone Bay at Wheeler NWR, January 29, 2018

KH-Snow Geese at Arrowhead Landing/Limestone Bay at Wheeler NWR, January 29, 2018

KH-Snow Geese at Arrowhead Landing/Limestone Bay at Wheeler NWR, January 29, 2018

KH-Snow Geese at Arrowhead Landing/Limestone Bay at Wheeler NWR, January 29, 2018

American White Pelicans at Arrowhead Landing/Limestone Bay at Wheeler NWR, January 29, 2018

American White Pelican at Arrowhead Landing/Limestone Bay at Wheeler NWR, January 29, 2018


American White Pelican at Arrowhead Landing/Limestone Bay at Wheeler NWR, January 29, 2018

American White Pelican at Arrowhead Landing/Limestone Bay at Wheeler NWR, January 29, 2018

Snow Geese-Arrowhead Landing/Limestone Bay at Wheeler NWR, January 29, 2018

Snow Geese at Arrowhead Landing/Limestone Bay at Wheeler NWR, January 29, 2018

Snow Geese at Arrowhead Landing/Limestone Bay at Wheeler NWR, January 29, 2018

Snow Geese at Arrowhead Landing/Limestone Bay at Wheeler NWR, January 29, 2018


Blackbirds at Arrowhead Landing/Limestone Bay at Wheeler NWR, January 29, 2018

Blackbirds at Arrowhead Landing/Limestone Bay at Wheeler NWR, January 29, 2018

Sunset at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, January 29, 2018

We counted approximately 3000 Snow Geese, 6 species of Ducks, 800 Sandhill Cranes and 250 American White Pelican, 5000 Red-winged Blackbirds and 1000 Common Grackles. We left the area just as it was getting dark, not too bad, we had a 5 hour drive back to Lexington, we would be home before midnight.


Visited 3 National Wildlife Refuges in Alabama

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge 1/27/18, 1/29/18

Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge 1/28/18

Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge 1/28/18


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