The North Alabama Birding Trail (NABT) is not an actual physical trail; rather it is made up of 50 individual sites scattered throughout 11 counties in north Alabama. The sites range from simple roadside pull-offs, to short walking trails, to more remote locales accessed only by lengthy hikes or even canoes. Each site was selected for its birding opportunities, either for the number of bird species present or as a known haunt of a particularly rare or uncommon bird. The NABT was officially opened in 2005, joining the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail, which consists of sites along the Gulf Coast.
The NABT was the result of a cooperative effort between north Alabama businesses and private industry, local governments, tourism agencies, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and the federal Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Program. The trail was developed to capitalize on the numerous natural areas in north Alabama and was funded by a matching grant through the federal Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Program. Matching funds were provided by eleven north Alabama chambers of commerce and convention and visitors bureaus, the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Association, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and several corporate sponsors, including British Petroleum, 3M US, and Nucor Corporation.
Much of the birding trail is located in the Tennessee Valley in northern Alabama, which is home to the most varied landscape in the state. From the mountains in the northeast corner, through the lakes and rivers of the central valley, to the dense woodlands of the Bankhead National Forest in western Alabama, the diversity is remarkable. This rich environment provides attractive habitats for numerous species of resident and transient species of birds. The forests attract woodland birds, the vast waterways provide habitat for waterfowl, and acres of open farm fields are filled with songbirds.
NABT sites are marked by roadside directional signs imprinted with the distinctive logo of a belted kingfisher, the trail's official symbol. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources provides a trail guide with detailed road directions to each site as well as a description of the site and a bird checklist. Each site displays a different aspect of the varied north Alabama terrain. Some sites feature boardwalks that snake through thick tupelo swamps, others overlook fallow fields, meander through hardwood forests, or provide vistas of open lakes and rivers. Many of the sites feature kiosks or descriptive panels providing information about the birds that frequent the area, the habitat, and the area's natural and human history.
The trail sites are divided among three loops. The Northwest Loop consists of 15 sites that lead visitors along the shores of Wheeler, Wilson, and Pickwick lakes. The three lakes are home to large numbers of gulls, bald eagles, and numerous species of waterfowl in the winter. Other stops include Key Cave National Wildlife Refuge, Bankhead National Forest, and Joe Wheeler State Park. In the fall, Rock Springs Nature Trail near the historic Natchez Trace hosts large congregations of migrating ruby-throated hummingbirds, hundreds of which pass through the state annually. Migrating shorebirds stop over at Leighton Ponds, a collection of flooded lowland areas along the loop just east of Tuscumbia. A site just below Wilson Dam on the Tennessee River offers views of hundreds of double crested cormorants, pelicans, and gulls.
The Central Loop features 18 stops, with many of the most popular located within the boundaries of Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. During the winter months, the refuge is home to thousands of sandhill cranes, snow geese, Canada geese, and a dozen or so duck species that rest and feed on the refuge's backwaters and fields. An impressive observation building at the refuge overlooks an open body of water that attracts ducks, geese, grebes, and other waterfowl, as well as birds of prey such as kestrels, harriers, and an occasional bald eagle. Other notable stops include Swan Creek Wildlife Management Area, Madison County Public Lake, Round Island Recreation Area, and Monte Sano State Park, whose wooded highlands attract hundreds of migrating warblers in the spring and fall.
The Northeast Loop rambles through the Appalachian foothills of the remote northeast part of the state. The 17 stops along this loop include Skyline Wildlife Management Area, Buck's Pocket State Park, DeSoto State Park, Little River Canyon, and Russell Cave National Monument. The stop at Lake Guntersville State Park is an excellent place to see bald eagles, gulls, loons, and grebes. Little River Canyon, in turn, is home to a raptor population that includes red-tailed and broad-winged hawks and the occasional peregrine falcon and golden eagle.
The high numbers of birds that visit the sites along the NABT can be attributed to its location along the eastern fringe of the Mississippi Flyway, one of four major bird migration routes in the United States. As a result, Alabama plays host to an unusually large number of different birds. During their annual migrations, large populations of migratory waterfowl, songbirds, and other species pass through the state. To date, almost 400 species have been spotted in Alabama.
The types of birds that can be observed changes with the seasons. The prime birding periods are during the spring and fall migrations, when migratory songbirds pass through the state. During these times, the woodlands are full of dozens of species of singing and flitting warblers. Winter is the best time to see ducks and other waterfowl: Canada geese, snow geese, egrets, herons, numerous duck and grebe species and cranes congregate in back bays and rivers. Winter also offers good birding for vagrants, rarely observed birds that leave their traditional home ranges and appear in Alabama. Some of these visitors include scissor-tailed flycatchers, red-necked grebes, and white pelicans.
According to the Alabama Tourism Department, 703,000 birders spent $626 million in Alabama in 2001, four years before the NABT opened. Most of these birders visited either the north Alabama area or coastal Alabama. The NABT has experienced steadily increasing visitation since its opening, attracting significant numbers of birders. These visitors provide additional income to ancillary services and businesses, including state parks, campgrounds, restaurants, and hotels.