Birding along the Riverfront Trail

Melissa Martin

Flint RiverQuarium Education Manager

ALBANY — As the sweltering summer heat gives way to the cool, crisp days of fall, a massive exodus begins in nature, one that many people do not even notice. Each year, during fall migration, flocks of birds fly south, traveling sometimes from the far reaches of the Arctic, over oceans to the Southern Hemisphere to stave off the impending cold weather and find food. It is a mass movement of species that typically happens over the course of several months.

Albany is located on a busy flyway for many bird species that take refuge right here in southwest Georgia, fueling up for the long journey south. The months of August, September and October are the best times of year to catch a glimpse of these pass-through visitors. A prime birding location is the Riverfront Trail which runs along the Flint through downtown Albany.

You can access the head of the birding trail at the Dougherty County Riverfront Park adjacent to the Flint RiverQuarium. After descending the grassy bank, walk north along the paved path that runs parallel to the river. A fork to the left leads to a wet ditch 50 feet ahead or you can just continue along the paved path passing under a train trestle alongside the river for the remainder of the walk. While the total trail is approximately three miles in length, the first quarter to half mile of the birding walk is the most productive for fall migrants.

You do not need much equipment to enjoy birding. Some sturdy, comfortable walking shoes and your powers of observation are the only necessities, although a good pair of binoculars and a field guide to help you identify the birds you see are both nice to have. If you want to keep track of the species you spot, take along a notebook and pencil. You also will need a hat, sunscreen and a bottle of water if the weather is warm.

The quiet, peaceful hours of early morning are an ideal time to look for birds and listen for their calls. The Riverfront Trail is at its best then also. With the river running beside you and the sights and sounds of nature all around you, it is easy to forget that you are in the middle of downtown Albany. If you are not an early riser, however, the birds will still be active and feeding through early afternoon.

One group of birds to watch for is the vibrantly colored warblers. There are 37 accepted Georgia warbler species according to the Georgia Ornithological Society, the organization tasked with validating bird sightings in Georgia. These birds may put down roots and stay year-round, they may live here part of the year or they may choose to just pass through on their travels. Parts of the Riverfront Trail are considered a mecca for 35 of those 37 species. These birds have some amazing unusual color combinations, each species a little different from another. There are birds with black and white striped backs like the Black-and-white Warbler, some sea foam green heads and backs like the female Black-throated Blue Warbler, and others with golden-yellow heads and breasts like the Prothonotary Warbler.

These birds engage in a feeding frenzy, downing caterpillars and other bugs and seeds to bulk up for the big move south. Most of these sassy birds will utilize all of the excess fat they have stored on that trip, some just in time to hit land on another continent before they have to feed yet again. Driven by instincts, these seemingly fragile creatures will travel thousands of miles without stopping, braving wind and rain to reach their destination.

Other birds you might see stopping off to feed on the trail this time of year include the Scarlet Tanager which is a flaming red bird (not to be confused with the northern Cardinal) with deep black wings and tail feathers and the Baltimore Oriole, a medium-sized bird with a sharp pointed bill, sporting a burnt orange breast and belly, black back, wings and head. Also, you might encounter the Rose-breasted Grosbeak which looks exactly like its name implies. It has a rosy colored breast painted on a white background with black wings and head. These birds like to feed in the tops of the trees.

If you would like to learn more about birding, the Flint RiverQuarium will be offering a Birdwatching 101 class led by research biologist Jim Cox of Tall Timbers Research Station in Thomasville as part of the Wings and Wildlife Festival on Saturday, September 24, from 10 a.m. to noon. You can learn the basics of birdwatching in this introductory class and then turn your new knowledge into action with a birding hike along Riverfront Trail. There is a $3 fee in addition to regular admission price to the Flint RiverQuarium for this class, which is suitable for all ages. You can register by calling the RiverQuarium at 229-639-2650.

If you want to learn more about birdwatching throughout the year, check out the local Audubon Society which meets September through May on the second Thursday of each month (unless otherwise posted) at the Flint RiverQuarium at 7 p.m.

Birdwatching is a fun hobby that allows you to enjoy the outdoors, get some exercise, travel, meet people and learn more about important members of the natural world-birds! It is also an activity that the whole family can enjoy. One of the great things about birdwatching is that you can do it just about anywhere-in a city park, at a wildlife refuge, along a country road and, most importantly for a lot of people, in your own backyard. Or, if you live in southwest Georgia, you can enjoy some prime birding right in the center of downtown Albany along the Riverfront Trail!