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Field Trip Friday: Wheeler Wildlife Refuge


This past Monday, the kids and I drove to Wheeler Wildlife Refuge, located just outside Decatur in Northern Alabama. Our plan was to meet some of our friends, do some bird watching and take a short hike. We didn’t know that it would turn into a really special treat.

Wheeler Wildlife is the first wildlife refuge to be overlain on a multi-purpose reservoir.  I didn’t know what that meant when I heard it on the movie at the refuge, so I looked it up. A multi- purpose reservoir means that it is a man-made lake that is managed by people for different purposes. According to the website, the area was once plagued by mosquitoes so they began managing the mosquito population by draining the lake during certain times of the year. The result was remarkable. Not only is the land extra fertile in the areas that are sometimes flooded, but it also played a part in becoming a winter habitat for Alabama’s largest duck population.  And yes, it did help to control the mosquitoes.

Created in 1938, today Wheeler is home to nearly 300 species of birds, not to mention the mammals, amphibians, insects and reptiles that roam the 35,000 acres of land.

The kids and I arrived earlier than I’d planned, but that was okay. I thought it’d give us plenty of time to ask the Ranger on duty a few questions and snoop around in the small gift shop. We didn’t really have a chance to do either because as soon as we stepped in the door the Ranger informed us that there were two whooping cranes visible from the Observation Buildings, a short walk from the Visitors Center. Not sure how long they would be there, we wasted no time high tailing it down the path and into the building where we were rewarded with a remarkable view of the extremely endangered creatures.

We learned that each Whooping Crane is banded so they know where they are at all times. Sadly, there are only 576 known to be left…in the world!

The Observation Building is wonderful! It has two floors with large windows enabling you to great views of the waterfowl as they fly in and out of the lake and over the fields. On the first floor you’ll find a room with ceiling to floor windows and bleachers, ensuring that even with many visitors, you’ll have a great view. There are also spotting scopes so if you don’t have good binoculars, you can still get an up close look at the birds. You’ll also find many large wooden signs depicting the most commonly spotted species of birds.

We saw hundreds of Sandhill Cranes that can be found nesting at the refuge. Though we saw hundreds, I found it interested that nearly 8,000 call Wheeler home this time of year. sandhill cranes

The Observation Building also has speakers that pipe in the sounds from outside. This time of year it’s rather noisy, since November thru February you’ll find many migratory birds.

We lingered for a bit and tried to take a few photos before heading back to the parking lot to wait for our group to join us.

After I’d directed all our friends to the Observation Building  to catch a glimpse of the Whooping Cranes  for themselves, we all headed inside to view the indoor exhibits depicting the various habitats found at the refuge and to watch a short 20 minute film that gave a brief history of the refuge, as well as what you can expect to see on your visit.      wheeler wildlife refuge displays

On this particular visit, my goal was that the kids would be able to identify some of the waterfowl that we would see. We headed back to the Observation Building once more with simple notebook pages in hand that I’d put together showing some of the birds that we were likely to see this time of year. Though it’s incredibly simple, the point was just to introduce the kids to birds that they may not be familiar with so that they would hopefully be able to name a few of them in the future if they aren’t already able to do so.  This was easy to put together with information that I found on the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge website with pictures that were easily found on the web.

bird spotters guide

Unfortunately, the day was quite a bit cooler than we’d anticipated and as we ate our packed lunches outside on the metal picnic tables, we nearly froze. I really need to remember that we are from Ohio, so the Alabama winters don’t really feel too bad to us- unlike our friends who have lived in Alabama or warmer climates for quite some time.

We ended our day with a quick 1/2 mile hike along Atkeson Cypress Trail. It is a scenic hike along a boardwalk though a cypress swamp.

Wheeler Wildlife Refuge is FREE and part of the North Alabama Birding Trail. If you are an avid bird watcher, this is the place to be right now. Though I didn’t set up an organized field trip with the refuge, the staff is more than willing to do that for educator’s and groups. The days and hours that the refuge is open change throughout the year so it is best to check out the website or call (256) 350-6639 to verify hours before your arrival.   You’ll find directions here.

Have you been on any fun field trips lately? Link up and share- even if it’s a field trip you took last summer! The link- up will be up for the next 7 days if you’d like to join in.

Field Trip Friday will be back the first Friday in February for another link-up so don’t forget to mark your calendars and get your posts ready!

Until next time….~Happy Field Trippin”!


Monday 10th of January 2011

What an awesome trip! I love the photos! We have missed taking as many field trips this year! She is doing IS at Christian school 1 day a week. I really feel we need to stay home and do bookwork the rest. Gotta get out of that mindset!

Wish you were still here to organize trips so we would go. :)

Aunt Daisy

Sunday 9th of January 2011

Tonya, we had a great day. It was fun learning new things, seeing friends and making new friends. The day was more chilly than we expected and yes, the metal benches were FREEZING. Being with such good company made the cold wind not so cold.


Saturday 8th of January 2011

I lived in Decatur during my middle school years and two of my high school years. Loved it there. It was very small and I had alot of friends. Have you guys visited Point Mallard? Is it still there? Most summers as a kid were spent in the wave pool and the water slides. In the winter they had an ice skating rink.BlessingsDiane


Saturday 8th of January 2011

I guess I didn't realize whooping cranes were endangered. :( I just looked at the website to see when the best time to visit is. It said fall, winter, or spring. Sounds like now would be a great time to visit, but I think I'm taking the boys on a little trip through Alabama in the spring. They would love this.


Friday 7th of January 2011

Wow, that sounds like a field trip we would love! So exciting to see Whooping Cranes! Protection Status
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