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Bird Watching in Alabama: Road Tripping Along the Appalachian Highlands Birding Trail

This post is sponsored by the Alabama Tourism Department. All thoughts and opinions are my own.  

Whether you’re an avid birder with years of experience or a newcomer (like me) to the world of birdwatching, Alabama promises an unforgettable experience for all enthusiasts during the Year of Alabama Birding in 2023.

The state’s diverse landscape offers a myriad of trails and birding sites, each providing ample opportunities to spot a wide array of feathered creatures.

From the foothills of the Appalachians to the lush coastal plains and wetlands of the Gulf of Mexico, Alabama’s ecosystems are teeming with birds, making it a paradise for bird watchers of all levels. 

I recently embarked on a road trip that stretches from the northeastern part of the state southward to the vibrant city of Birmingham. 

This road trip allowed me to witness the state’s remarkable biodiversity as a friend and I cruised along the scenic highways and explored the charming small towns of Jacksonville, Fort Payne, Mentone, Gadsden, and Oneonta. 

I was captivated by the region’s natural beauty and the diverse birdlife that thrived in these picturesque locations. 

The Year of Alabama Birding

More than 425 species of birds have been documented in Alabama, making this state one of the best birding states in the country. Visitors can see everything from Bald Eagles and Whooping Crane to Swallow-tailed Kites and Painted Buntings. 

The state is grouped into eight distinct birding trails that offer opportunities to view a wide range of birds. 280 specific birding sites allow for year-round birdwatching. 

The Appalachian Highlands Birding Trail

During my visit, I explored the Appalachian Highlands Birding Trail which covers nine of the state’s 67 counties and includes 34 of those birding sites. 

Of particular interest are the many rivers that flow throughout the area including; the Black Warrior, the Cahaba, the Coosa and the Tallapoosa. These habitats add waterfowl to the range of bird species that reside in the region.

Highlights of the trail include the Birmingham Botanical Garden, James D. Martin Wildlife Park, Palisades Park and Little River Canyon.
We explored as much as we possibly could in four days and left Alabama eager to return to explore more. 

A First Stop: Our Road Trip Begins

I picked a friend up in Atlanta and we made our way towards our home base of Gadsden. 

Originally, I had planned to spend the night in each of the areas I intended to visit but in the end, budget, location and my disdain of packing and unpacking won out and I opted to stay at a single location in Gadsden. From there, we took day trips to various locations. 

Our first stop on the way to the hotel was at the Alabama Welcome Center on I-20 where we stopped to pick up some brochures. We found a Year of the Birding display and heard the sounds of songbirds playing over the speaker. 

On the back of the building, there were rocking chairs that overlooked a shaded yard with several bird feeders. A hummingbird greeted us, perhaps a favorable sign of what was to come in the week ahead.    

I’m not one to pass up a fun roadside attraction so on our way to the hotel we stopped in Anniston to see the world’s largest office chair before making our way to the Choccolocco Wildlife Management Area where we saw a variety of birds, bunnies and even a tiny kitten.

The views in the area were stunning but the drive was a bit rough which definitely made you slow down and take it all in. 

Other notables in Jacksonville:

We saw the Historic Jacksonville Train Depot that was constructed in the 1860’s is now used as event space. The depot stands beside the Chief Ladiga Trail, a paved 33-mile multi-use trail that follows the former CSX railroad corridor. 

The trail is named for the leader of the indigenous Creek people.  If you enjoy stopping at historic train depots, check out the Train Depots Trail.

Where to Eat: 

We grabbed a bite to eat at Effina’s Tuscan Grill and enjoyed the decor and ambiance of this classic Italian restaurant. 

Road Trip Kick-Off: Birmingham

The morning commute from Gadsden to Birmingham was a breeze, taking just about an hour. We found so much to do in Birmingham that you could easily pack a long weekend or more!

For history enthusiasts the Birmingham Civil Rights District, now a national monument, beckons with significant sites from the Civil Rights Movement.

Sports lovers can’t miss the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame that showcases original memorabilia from 323 inductees including sports legends Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, Hank Aaron, Will Mays and Jesse Owens. 

Art aficionados will love the plethora of murals and sculptures located throughout the Magic City as well as the impressive Birmingham Museum of Art

However,for those like me, who are there for birdwatching, a visit to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens is a must! This beautiful attraction, part of the Appalachian Highlands Birding Trail, 

offers free admission and parking making it budget-friendly while providing ample opportunities for bird watching. 

Several spots that I especially enjoyed within the gardens were the Barber Alabama Woodlands, Hulsey Woods and the Japanese Gardens. 

The entrance to the woodlands trail has a large sign with the species you may find in the area. This was helpful in identifying the pair Cooper’s Hawks that flew in and posed so nicely for me. Seeing this rare display was certainly one of the highlights of the trip.  

In addition to birds, you’ll find plenty of Koi and turtles in the Japanese Garden that you can watch from one of the benches that is located along the pond. Plan to spend a minimum of an hour and a half to two hours enjoying the gardens. 

If you plan to visit with kids, you can download the free scavenger hunt that I put together after our visit. 

The botanical garden is right around the corner from the Birmingham Zoo (which is fantastic) and you can easily make a day out of visiting both. 

While we didn’t make it this time around, I’d also suggest a stop at the Vulcan, modeled after the Roman God of the same name. This is the largest cast iron statue in the world and chances are, if you’ve spent any time in Birmingham, you’ve already caught a glimpse of it. The view from the top is well worth the stop. Visit the onsite museum to learn about Birmingham’s roots in the iron and steel industry.

Where to Eat: 

We grabbed a bite to eat in nearby Homewood at Rodney Scott’s BBQ. The regional chain started in Charleston, SC and is known for “Whole Pig BBQ” but I opted for the Loaded Tater Truck with Brisket.

We followed our lunch with a stop just down the street to Edgar’s Bakery where we had incredible moist and delicious Carrot Cake cupcakes before continuing on our journey. 

Gadsden: Birding Along the Coosa River

Gadsden was the perfect home base during our trip to Alabama. We stayed at the Hampton Inn which was ideal with a walking trail just behind the hotel and also directly across from the James D. Martin Wildlife Park.

Gadson provides a haven for bird watching along the Coosa River. Both novice and seasoned birdwatchers can enjoy sightings of various duck species, herons and egrets. 

The boardwalk at the wildlife park was a popular spot for walkers first thing in the morning. While we spotted an egret and heron, we were told by some of the locals that the best time to visit would be the evening when the birds are more active.  

So we decided to explore the downtown area and return later. In the local visitor center, we picked up The Year of Alabama Birding Guide. Inside we found information about the various trails, some tips on bird watching and a checklist to mark off the various birds that we saw along our road trip. 

After seeking out several of the murals downtown we decided to take a lunch break.

We grabbed lunch at Blackstone Pub & Eatery as we enjoyed the air conditioning and planned the rest of our day.

After lunch, we ventured into the Gadsden Museum of Art. I love art museums but I made a point to tour this one so I could see the replica of the Indian Maiden sculpture that is located at Noccalula Falls.  

You can read all about the legend in the museum before you visit the falls and see it for yourself. 

Basically, a beautiful Indian maiden, Noccalula was promised to a warrior of a neighboring tribe by her father. This warrior had plenty but her heart belonged to a warrior from her own tribe that had little. Unable to convince her father to allow her to be with the man who she loved, she stepped from the falls and fell to her death on her wedding day. Since that day, the waterfall has been called Noccalula.

Today, you can camp near the falls, hike to the falls and yes, go birding at Noccalula Falls.  

Where We Ate: 

In addition to Blackstone, we also dined at Top O’ the River.

Family-owned and operated for 30 years, this seafood restaurant was the perfect spot to relax after a long day.

Our seats faced the river where we saw a variety of birds while we munched on the “largest seafood platter in the world” that was served with cornbread, cole slaw and onions, something the waitress referred to as “the set up” and what we learned is a welcome addition to southern meals throughout the region.

After dinner we made our way to the river to enjoy a beautiful sunset before calling it a day.

Oneonta: Hidden Gems of Birding

Oneonta is a hidden gem when it comes to birdwatching. Our visit here took us to the top of Ebell Mountain to explore Palisades Park and under Horton Covered Bridge to seek birds near the river and along the treetops. 

Palisades Park is one of my favorite experiences in Alabama. This 100-acre park provides a peaceful escape for those seeking the quiet and solitude of nature. 

Spend a few minutes calming your spirit in the chapel at Meditation Point, walk one of the many trails in the park, or climb the fire tower for a bird’s eye view of the neighboring landscape. 

This is also a popular spot for rock climbing and rappelling.

I enjoyed birdwatching from the bluff while my friend Julie walked the Trail of Trees. I spotted several birds, including a beautiful Scarlet Tanager that stuck around long enough for me to snap a picture. 

Families will enjoy the playground and picnic areas. There are also several old buildings on site that we were curious about, including an old school building. Imagine our surprise when the onsite office manager offered to allow us a peek inside, a highlight of the trip for my friend Julie, who is a school teacher.  

Before leaving the area we stopped in downtown Oneonta to find some of the murals on the Northern Alabama Mural Trail.  

There’s an entire mural trail in North Alabama that you can check out.

Fort Payne: Gateway to the Appalachians

Fort Payne, located in the foothills of the Appalachians, is a must stop when exploring the Appalachian Highlands Trail. The surrounding foothills offer diverse habitats that attract a wide range of resident and migratory birds that include the Northern Cardinal, Wood Thrush and Indigo Bunting (which I was praying I’d see on my trip). 

In addition to providing plenty of birding opportunities, Fort Payne is also full of history. You’ll find remnants of the hosiery empire that once landed this small Alabama town the nickname of “Sock Capital of the World.”

We ate lunch at Vintage 1889, one of Northeast Alabama’s oldest dining experiences, located in the 134-year-old Big Mill Co., formerly the W.B. Davis Hosiery Mill, the space (currently closed for renovations) houses 21,000 sq. ft. of antiques and collectibles.

Lunch couldn’t have been more perfect. The service, food, decor and vibe were perfect and as a milk glass collector, I loved that they had a collection of Jadeite glassware on display.

We made our way to Little River Canyon and I was sure I’d see plenty of birds but it may have been too warm in the middle of the afternoon because we only saw a vulture sailing over the canyon.

It was hard to be disappointed in the lack of birds. I mean, we found the Mushroom Rock right in the middle of the road and a boulder outcropping to explore nearby. 

And the Little River Falls is a sight to behold. 

We found plenty of people taking a dip in the refreshing water upstream that made me wish I’d packed a bathing suit for the trip.

In addition to Little River Canyon National Preserve, you’ll find other nearby locations that are known birding hotspots like DeSoto State Park and Lookout Mountain Parkway.

We spent several hours exploring the park and enjoying the views before we decided we needed an afternoon pick-me-up. We made our way back to Fort Payne to stop at The Spot Coffee Shop. This cute independently owned shop was the perfect spot to cool off with a Lemon Lavender Freeze. I enjoyed my coffee-flavored beverage so much that I may have to venture back just to sip another!

When I found out the author of Pete the Cat was from Fort Payne and there was a mural of the famed character, I knew I’d have to grab a picture for my grandbaby.  I mean, how cute is this mural? Plus, it’s easy to find. 

Just look for the statues that pay homage to other Fort Payne notables and country music legends, the band  Alabama, directly across the street. 

Mentone: Alpine Birding Retreat

Our final stop in Alabama led us to a small town nestled in the mountains.The elevated landscape of Mentone attracts a variety of bird species while the town’s picturesque location provides breathtaking vistas. 

I saw plenty of birds but I was also driving so I didn’t have an opportunity to photograph them, which gives me yet one more reason to return to Alabama. As though I need one. 

Mentone was stunning. Located on Lookout Mountain, Mentone is an artsy community with plenty of opportunities to immerse yourself in nature. It is also home to the cutest restaurant that I have ever eaten at. 
While Julie and I had planned to eat at Wildflower Cafe, our plans changed when I heard that The Hatter Cafe serves the prestigious Harney & Sons tea.

The whimsical decor was enchanting and we spent an hour sipping hot tea while taking in every detail that makes dining at the cafe an unforgettable experience. 

In Conclusion

Beyond the joy of birdwatching, my road trip through Alabama allowed me to immerse myself in the rich cultural heritage and warm hospitality that this Southern state is renowned for. 

Along the way, I indulged in mouthwatering local cuisines, explored charming small towns with their historic architecture and colorful murals and engaged in friendly conversations with locals and fellow travelers.  

The road trip experience, coupled with the thrill of birding in such beautiful and diverse locations, created an unforgettable adventure that has left a lasting impression on my soul.  

Whether you’re planning a solo escapade or a memorable trip with family and friends, a road trip to Alabama promises to deliver breathtaking landscapes, diverse wildlife and the chance to explore the world of birdwatching for yourself.  

So pack your binoculars and comfy hiking shoes and hit the stops along the Appalachian Highlands Birding Trail. Prepare to be amazed by the beauty and wonder that awaits as you road trip through the Yellowhammer (state bird) State to experience the Year of Alabama Birding for yourself.

Order your Alabama Travel Guide and plan your own road trip. I promise you won’t regret it! Protection Status
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