DAUPHIN ISLAND – It’s a matter of life and death these days on Dauphin Island – not for humans, but for birds returning to the United States from their winter homes. The barrier island off the coast of southwest Alabama is where tens of thousands of them make their first landfall each year in April.
“After they’ve flown across the Gulf of Mexico, the birds are starving to death – literally,” said Don McKee, a board member of Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuaries. “They have got to have food, so they stop here to eat. And they need to rest, too. They are exhausted.”
Their worn-out condition can be good for birders, he added, “because they are so tired and so hungry that they aren’t all that concerned about people watching them.”
As birds flock to the island in April and again in October, so do the people who love to watch and record their comings and goings – so much so that “birding tourism” is a significant part of Dauphin Island’s economy, according to Mayor Jeff Collier.
“We are a national hotspot for birding, which is becoming more and more popular, not just locally but worldwide,” Collier said. “With our designation by the National Audubon Society as a Globally Significant Important Bird Area, more and more birders are coming to Dauphin Island. We can see their impact on our economy in the spring and fall.”
The town works hard to protect its environment “so that it’ll be bird-friendly,” the mayor said. “This coincides with the fact that we are a barrier island. The things we do to increase a sustainable bird habitat also increase our sustainability as a barrier island.”
In addition to its location, Dauphin Island is attractive to birds because of its abundant trees, shrubs and flowers, according to McKee, who said Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuaries buys vacant lots from time to time to preserve even more natural spaces.
“We have to have natural habitat for them,” he said. “Live oaks are great sources of bugs and worms. What we see as a beautiful big tree, the birds see as a grocery store. They love bottlebrush, too – a bottlebrush is like a full-service hotel to the birds.”
McKee said the spring migration usually peaks in mid to late April. Most of the birds fly up from the Yucatan Peninsula, and how long they stay on Dauphin Island depends a lot on the weather.
“If there’s a north wind, they may not have the strength to fight that head wind and so they’ll set down here and feed and rest longer than they might otherwise,” he said. “And they don’t like to fly in the rain, so if it’s raining they may stay for a couple of days.”
As for birders, they are unobtrusive tourists, needing little in the way of public services and recognizable primarily by the binoculars hanging from their necks. Some are accompanied by children and grandchildren.
“Children love being taken for a walk in the woods,” McKee said. “And the best time to teach people about birds is when they’re young, while they’re still curious. All you really need to have with you is a pair of binoculars and a bird book.”
To learn more about birding on Dauphin Island, visit the Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuaries website (www.coastalbirding.org) and the Dauphin Island Park and Beach Board website (www.dauphinisland.org).