Gulf Coast Birding: Fort Morgan, Dauphin Island, Theodore
by Edith Parten
Alabama’s Gulf Coast is a stopover point for birds as they return from Central to North America in the spring, so it’s the perfect place to see herons, seagulls, pelicans and more.
The Alabama Coastal Birding Trail (877-226-9089) spans Baldwin and Mobile counties and is a bird watcher's paradise. You can watch pelicans fly in formation as they prepare to nosedive into the Gulf of Mexico for the catch of the day. Or see great blue herons sail across Mobile Bay and watch a breathtaking sunset.
The trail winds through more than 50 birding sites and is enhanced by directional and interpretive signage. Loops are close enough that you can easily drive from one to the other. Along the way you’ll find plenty of places to eat, sightsee and soak in the local flavor, so grab your binoculars and head out for a walk on the wild side.
Explore a Wildlife Habitat
On your way to Fort Morgan, stop and visit the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge (12295 AL Hwy. 180, Gulf Shores; 251-540-7720) located off Fort Morgan Road. The refuge is made up of 7,000 acres of wildlife habitat for migratory birds, sea turtles and the endangered Alabama beach mouse. The refuge has been named one of the 10 Natural Wonders of Alabama because of its wild, undeveloped land. More than 370 species of birds have been identified at Bon Secour during migratory seasons. Visitors can explore the area by walking one of the five trails within the refuge. The Jeff Friend Trail meanders along a maritime forest and lagoon, the Centennial Trail winds around sand dunes and swamps, the Pine Beach Trail takes you along an ecosystem that includes a saltwater and freshwater lake, and the Dynamic Dunes Beach Trail takes you along the waters’ edge. The tours are for both beginners and experienced birders.
Each October, local birders host the Alabama Coastal BirdFest. The event includes workshops, demonstrations, and guided bird tours. Participants can sign up for guided or unguided trips to explore some of the best birding spots on the coast. You can also shop for bird-related merchandise
Visit an Island Bird Sanctuary
After bird watching at Bon Secour, drive to the ferry landing at Fort Morgan (101 Bienville Blvd.; 251-861-3000). The ferry takes you across Mobile Bay to Dauphin Island, named one of North America’s best places for migratory bird watching.
Ferry prices start at $18 for one car and one driver. If you don’t have a car, the price is $6 per person. Children younger than six are free. The ferry departs every 1.5 hours during the summer. Hours vary by season, so it’s best to check the website for schedules and prices.
You can also enjoy watching birds in the 160-acre Audubon Bird Sanctuary on Dauphin Island (211 Bienville Blvd., Dauphin Island; 251-861-3607), considered one of the top bird-watching sites in the United States. In 1988, the town designated the entire island a bird sanctuary. In fact, WildBird magazine named Dauphin Island a top-four location in North America for viewing spring migrations. Also stroll down the trail system to the freshwater lake, an interactive nature loop, forests and white-sand beaches.
Dauphin Island is one of North America's best places for migratory bird-watching. In 1988, the town and the entire island were designated a bird sanctuary.
Discover More On Dauphin Island
While on Dauphin Island, be sure to visit the Estuarium and Sea Lab (102 Bienville Blvd.; 251-861-2141) where you will find marine life native to Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Located at the ferry landing, the Sea Lab features a 10,000-square-foot exhibit hall with interactive exhibits and living displays showcasing the area’s marine life. The educational facility highlights the four key habitats of coastal Alabama: the Mobile Tensaw River Delta, Mobile Bay, Northern Gulf of Mexico and the Barrier Islands. Outside is a living marsh boardwalk that meanders along portions of the fourth largest estuary system in the U.S. It’s great for all ages.
Across the street from the Sea Lab is a Civil War fort famous for its role in the Battle of Mobile Bay. You can almost hear Admiral David Farragut shout the famous command, “Damn the torpedoes – full speed ahead.” Visitors can tour Fort Gaines (51 Bienville Blvd.; 251-861-6992) for a look at how soldiers lived in the 1860s. A tour of the 19th-century brick seacoast fort includes a working blacksmith shop, bakery, Officer’s Quarters, cannons and more.
Take in the Beauty of Bellingrath Gardens
As you leave Dauphin Island, your next stop should be in Theodore at Bellingrath Gardens and Home (12401 Bellingrath Gardens Rd., Theodore; 251-973-2217). Located on the west side of Mobile Bay, 30 minutes south of Mobile, this area also offers excellent bird-watching opportunities and is home to the largest public gardens in the state.
Originally the fishing camp of Walter Bellingrath, who made his fortune bottling Coca-Cola in Mobile, the gardens opened to the public in 1932. An avid gardener, Mrs. Bellingrath's dream was to create a “Charm Spot of the Deep South.” She succeeded. The couple constructed a 10,500-square-foot mansion around a central courtyard on their 65-acre estate. You’ll see a variety of migratory birds as you stroll through the tranquil setting that’s filled with seasonal flowers year-round. Camellias are in bloom in the winter, azaleas in the spring, roses in the summer, and chrysanthemums in the fall. The 15-room, 10,500-square-foot house, built in 1935, is open year-round for tours. Across from the home is the Delchamps Gallery of Boehm Porcelain which houses a large collection of painted porcelain animals and birds.
Enjoy walking on the 1,500-foot-long Bayou Boardwalk trail at Bellingrath that will take you through the backwaters to see cranes, eagles and more. Interpretative panels identify wildlife and plants along the way. You’ll also see flora and other creatures native to the area.
Behind the house is the pavilion where you can enjoy views of Fowl River or take a river cruise on the Southern Belle River Boat. The 45-minute cruise offers participants picturesque views of the river and gardens. Visitors will also see wildlife and birds in their natural habitat.
Where To Eat
You can enjoy fresh Gulf Coast seafood in a casual setting with a touch of Southern hospitality at the Original Oyster House (701 Hwy. 59, Gulf Shores; 251-948-2445) in Gulf Shores which is just south on Hwy 59 from Fort Morgan Road in Gulf Shores or at Doc's Seafood Shack and Oyster Bar (26029 Canal Rd, Orange Beach; 251-967-4800).
Enjoy breakfast or lunch at the Lighthouse Bakery (919 Chaumont Ave.; 251-861-2253) on Dauphin Island which offers sandwiches, soups, hot breakfasts and pastries. At Bellingrath Gardens, lunch is served daily starting at 11 a.m. in the Magnolia Café (12401 Bellingrath Gardens Rd., Theodore; 251-973-2217). Soups, sandwiches and salads are always on the menu, with specialty dishes featured throughout the year. The café serves snacks and drinks in the afternoon.
For lodging and dining options in the Dauphin Island and the Mobile area, visit the following websites: www.dauphinislandtourism.com and www.mobilebay.org.
Bird-Banding at Fort Morgan
Start your birding trip in Fort Morgan (110 State Hwy. 180; 251-540-5257) at the historic Civil War site where for two weeks each spring, bird watchers can enjoy the banding season. You’ll be able to see a variety of birds at this banding station, including hummingbirds.