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SABA In The Conecuh Forest

By Pat Johnson & Charles Kennedy

On May 23, 1998 about 20 members of the South Alabama Birding Association packed their bags, binocs, and bug spray and headed for the Solon Dixon Forestry Center near Andalusia, AL. Exciting birds were seen quickly. Wild turkeys were feeding along the roadside and a Swallow-tailed Kite drew lazy circles in the heat shimmering May blue sky above the center parking lot. It was hot. I mean really hot!

The Solon Dixon campus and surrounding forest is a beautiful and interesting area complete with, sinkholes, caves, and miles of dirt roads that meander through thousands of acres. Deep in the woods there is a cold, clear spring bubbling up from the ground. Deep in the woods there are also alligators, snakes, and lizards. These reptilian types did not deter a hardy group from taking a mid-afternoon respite from the heat in the spring however.

The campus is centered around the old Dixon home and is shaded by towering oaks, gums, and pines. This is where we did most of our Saturday morning birding. Flags of Spanish Moss wave from practically every limb. As we sat on the spacious porch of the cafeteria waiting for lunch somebody noticed a pair of Orchard Orioles tending their young in a neatly woven moss nest. In the same tree a Blue Jay nest was spotted and just across the lawn was a parula nest, tiny and tucked away in the moss. This was quite a contrast to the bulky crows’ nest in the top of the same tree. Scopes were set up and we got good close-up views of all these mom and pops doing their thing. A Pine Warbler was seen feeding a fledgling but the nest could not be found.

The Saturday afternoon birding was more of a sound than sight event. It was very hot and the birds were playing it cool, hunkered down in the thickets and low places of the forest. A fleeting flash of chat, a wood thrush, vireos, and prairie warblers were seen, but most of the birds were nothing but half-hearted chips and lackadaisical songs from deep in the brambles and shady places. After about an hour of this the boldest birders headed for the creek and the rest went to the dorms for a nap.

Things picked up after dark. A good meal, a couple of bird quizzes, and a few rousing songs were all it took to get everybody revived. The "owl prowl" was soon afoot. A short walk from the campus found us in the Dixon Family Cemetery. What a place to be in the dark of night. What a place to search for the most mysterious birds of the world. While Tommy Pratt told about "Brain-sucking Hyenas", "Wampus Cats", and other unimaginable beasts a screech owl tape was sending plaintive cries into the night. A whispered "that wasn’t the tape" brought all ears to attention. And there he was! The little reddish brown guy flew into a thick tangle of trees and shrubs and just sat there, a few feet away calling oh so softly. This was really exciting. The soft calls of the owl combined with the dark night and the cemetery to make for a most memorable occasion. A calling Screech Owl viewed up close and personal for as long as you liked. What more could you ask for. Well it was a life bird for several members of the group!

On Sunday we headed to nearby Conecuh National Forest and watched four red cockaded woodpeckers feeding. We also heard several Bachman sparrows calling back and forth in the underbrush. On then to Open Pond for Purple gallinule, Common Moorhen, and Green-backed Heron in the water lilies.

In all, the group observed or heard approximately 55 species of birds, watched an alligator and an armadillo and had a lot of fun.

A special thanks to Rhett Johnson, Solon Dixon Center Director, for sharing his expertise with us on Sunday morning and to the Center staff for their excellent hospitality and delicious meals.

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