The Tennessee Valley Authority water system that dips into Alabama from both corners of Tennessee does more than generate power and control the river for residents of these states. This six-state series of dams and lakes provides vast wetland refuge for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds each year. If, like us, you’re keen on birding in Alabama, this is your ultimate guide for where to go and how to do just that.
This project is in partnership with Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association. All opinions are our own.
About the North Alabama Birding Trail
Midway through Alabama’s designated Year of Birding last year, we started along the North Alabama Birding Trail, which knits together 50 sites throughout 11 counties in the northern quadrant of the state. Mostly located within reach of the various dams and locks along the Tennessee River as it snakes through North Alabama, this birding trail is rife with hotspot opportunities for amateur and professional birders alike.
You can drive this trail all in one big loop or break it up into portions like we did and spread it out over seasons, depending on where you live and what your schedule allows.
Note: We are very much amateur birders, and even if you consider yourself a mere novice or have never gone birding before, don’t let that deter you from considering this wildlife trip. Birding is a fun hobby, and Alabama is a great place to start it!
What seasons are best for birding
The sites on this birding route are state-designated, and the trail is a four-seasons kind of endeavor meaning you can enjoy birding in Alabama no matter the time of year as every season will bring with it different species and alterations to the visual landscape. Alabama has a very temperate climate, so even the winter isn’t that cold.
We finished the trail during winter months when bald eagles were nesting and sandhill cranes were chilling in Wheeler National Wildlife Refugee during their annual migration. Winter is a great time of year to see waterfowl—cranes and eagles usually stick around through the end of February—with the foliage sparse and the birds out eating and chatting with one another about all the things, as birds do.
The hardwood trees this time of year make for a stripped-down habitat, which was especially clutch for us, as was the telephoto lens that allowed us to capture these enchanting creatures for posterity instead of simply viewing them through a pair of binoculars.
The state parks also host Eagle Awareness Weekends throughout January and February, which is a great time to go and also take the kids in your life.
Summer and the shoulder months between the extremes of Southern seasons are also good times to get outdoors and hunt for songbirds, migratory avifauna, and other flying animals as the temperatures swing and they change their mind about where they want to live and breed.
What kinds of birds you’ll see in Alabama
There’s no shortage of bird species in Alabama, as you’ll learn from this guide. These are just a few you may spot while traveling the North Alabama Birding Trail: eagles, herons, sandhill cranes, whooping cranes, goldfinches, swallows, gnatcatchers, jays, pelicans, nuthatches, chickadees, wrens, swifts, grackles, sparrows, woodpecker, towhee, egrets, warblers, gulls, terns, flickers, cardinals, martin, flycatcher, plover, duck, goose, kites, titmouse, turkeys, storks and sapsuckers.
Where to find birds in Alabama
The cool thing about this trail is that no matter where you may be visiting in North Alabama, there’s likely a birding site within an hour of you. Many of the sites are on the sides of non-major roads without large parking areas, so keep your eyes peeled for the sign markers and have your binoculars ready. Of course, anytime you’re making a water crossing on a bridge, be it a pond, a creek or a part of the TVA system, be extra alert as this is often where you’ll find prime bird spotting.
If you bookmark this link on your phone, you can use it as you go to find the exact GPS coordinates for all 50 sites.
A short hop from Atlanta or Chattanooga, the eastern most portion of the North Alabama Birding Trail begins at Russell Cave National Monument (Site #4), which is where you might start your adventures if you’re traveling from Tennessee. This small museum destination offers a glimpse into one of the oldest archeology digs in the country; it also boasts artifacts discovered from between 12,000 and 350 years ago in the cave complex, plus a mile-long trail hike where you should keep an eye out for vireo, tanager, hawks, and smaller fluffballs like finch, parula, chickadee and flycatcher.
Note: You cannot physically enter the cave, but if you’re looking for a digital spelunking opportunity, here is the University of South Florida’s research project that laser mapped the entire complex.
Just down the road from there at Crow Creek Refuge is Stevenson Town Park (Site #43), a hotspot right on the water that collect waterfowl hunting for a meal in the colder months. Eagles, egrets, woodpeckers, gulls, kingfisher and all manner of ducks swarm this spot on the outskirts of Chattanooga.
Continuing the journey west and south on the North Alabama Birding Trail, birdwatchers can stay along the Tennessee River and Guntersville Lake, a massive and nearly 75-mile-long reservoir, to catch clear sightings of nonstop waterbird action.
The landscape here just breathes birds, and if you roll the window down you’ll constantly hear chirps and calls. Every strip of water is populated with flying creatures, and the possibility for snatching glimpses of rare birds were immense even for even rookies like us.
Additionally, you’ll find open-field and deciduous forest bird-spotting along the southern border of Tennessee at the James D. Martin Skyline Wildlife Management Area. Located only an hour from downtown Huntsville, Guntersville is a lovely stopover from Skyline during your journey chasing birds in North Alabama. Or, drag your RV or camper into the woods and camp out in one of these campsites.
On the outskirts of Huntsville headed toward Decatur, you can pop off Interstate 565, park and walk the short trail to Beaverdam Swamp Boardwalk (Site #25). While we didn’t see any beavers, the Tupelo swamp landscape is a beaut—and completely different terrain from what you’ll find elsewhere in Alabama.
In winter, keep your eyes peeled for wren feeding under the boardwalk. Woodpeckers—pileated, red-bellied and downy—also love this grove of trees, as do barred owl and various reptiles and amphibians who hang out in the swampy marsh.
A few miles down the road from the boardwalk is Site #24, Beaverdam Peninsula Tower. We visited during the balmy months of fall, so this site was vacant then, but it’s a great one for the winter months when you can climb the observation platform to view what is described as an “all-the-birds-can-eat” buffet when sandhill cranes and snow geese come to feast on the seeds left from last summer’s crop. Greater white-fronted and ross geese are also common visitors, as are horned larks and American pipit.
Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Alabama
Billed as the gateway to the North Alabama Birding Trail, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge (Site #16) is situated in the middle of Flint Creek, a snaking series of streams and swamp that pour into the main Tennessee River complex behind the Wheeler Dam, a TVA hydroelectric plant that spans over 6,000 feet wide and helped tame the river in the 1930’s.
This impoundment of water has been, of course, a boon to wildlife and water sports in the area, with golf courses, lakefront homes and boat docks surrounding the lush 1,000 miles of shoreline and ecosystem. If you have to pick just one spot to explore along the birding trail, this is your place as many of the sites are contained within the refuge.
Pro Tip: The Festival of Cranes each January, in particular, is a prime time to visit Wheeler National Refuge. More than 14,000 sandhill cranes and several of the endangered whooping cranes migrate here for the winter months.
Expect to see duck, geese, crane (including the extremely rare whooping crane) and thousands of other migratory waterfowl if you venture anywhere near the water in this Alabama birding hotspot. Fishing is excellent year-round in the swamps and tributaries that feed them.
The town of Decatur is a good place to headquarter yourself if you’re exploring the central loop of the North Alabama Birding Trail, with restaurants and breweries—one even bird-themed!—within easy access to more than 13 stops on the trail, from Site #1 at Mallard Fox Creek Wildlife Management Area in the west to Site #26 at Blackwell Swamp in the east, which backs up to Redstone Arsenal.
Try Cross-Eyed Owl Brewing Company if you’re thirsty or Simp McGhee’s for cajun food, Bank Street Grill for steaks, Josie’s for Mediterranean dishes or The RailYard for French-American fusion.
Double Springs, Alabama
Venture 30 minutes south to explore the Bankhead National Forest, Alabama’s crown jewel of 180,000 acres of protected land that also contains the Black Warrior Wildlife Management Area, 91,000 acres of big and small game hunting grounds. The densely forested terrain is home to many unique and biologically diverse ecosystems that host warblers, chats, osprey, tanager, owl and many other species you might spy from the Central Firetower (Site #14) and Sipsey Wilderness Trail (Site #15).
The Shoals, Alabama
Just outside of Florence and Muscles Shoals, the meeting point of the Tennessee River and Wilson Dam absolutely teems with birds no matter the season. Site #6 is the Wilson Dam and Visitor Center, which sits at the base of the 4,500 foot wide neoclassical hydroelectric dam and is linked with a large network of walking and hiking trails.
Take a stroll out to the end of the path alongside the bluff of the Tennessee River to spot herons, gulls, pelicans, hawks and eagles—and a very cool waterfall.
It’s really hard to talk about North Alabama without mentioning the rich music history contained within this region, so if you’re into birds, it’s likely that you’re into song, and it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that you’d find some intersections between the Swampers, the rhythm section behind the scenes for Cher, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Rolling Stones, Bob Seger, The Staple Singers, Rod Stewart and many more icons of music.
You’d also be missing a note-worthy meal at Odette if you didn’t take a pitstop from birding into the front-yard downtown of the University of North Alabama called Florence and have a bite or two at this or one of their many other great restaurants.
Our top tips for birding
We’re no expert birders, but we’ve learned a thing or two over the past few years, and that’s always go where the guy with the long lens is positioned. This is exactly how we saw an eagle feeding her eaglet, when we came upon local photographer Larry with his lens trained to the trees.
Many birders tend to be friendly—especially if you show a passion in their favorite pastime—so it never hurts to ask where they’ve spotted certain species in recent days, which is how we’ve experienced some of our best sightings.
Tracking sightings at specific locations via eBird, a platform provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, also proved useful. This free service populates bird detections with user-generated data logged by a whole lot of bird enthusiasts. The volume of users on this platform is high, so no matter where you are there’s likely good information about the latest spottings.
And, of course, there’s the app component, Merlin, which any bird nerd knows about. Again, it’s free to download and use and an invaluable tool for recording and identifying bird sounds, as well as uploading photos and ID’ing any bird you’re having trouble placing. Simply place your phone on record while using the app and it will identify the exact animal that it’s hearing, which is just incredible.
Other things to do in North Alabama
Of course, if you’re planning a trip to Alabama, it’s likely you’re going to do more than just track birds. As a native of this area—I grew up just over the border in southern Tennessee, and my dad was from Birmingham—I’m confident the region will surprise you in its diversity of wildlife and other offerings.
While Huntsville is renowned for its space scene, it’s also a hub for the arts and brims with food, wine and breweries. And it just makes a great summer vacation spot in general, particularly if you’ve always wanted to see the Rocket City Trash Pandas play.
Speaking of the arts, this is a region that loves its trails, and we traveled the North Alabama Mural Trail in full a couple years ago and documented the entire thing.
Visit our tourism partner’s site to see even more tips on what to do in North Alabama.