Reclaiming My Time

Thank God for folks who keep me connected to nature by sending their bird sightings. It’s been a minute since I hit the trails (just too hot here in Alabama) so their thoughtfulness fills the void.

From The Carolinas

For instance, a few months ago I got this photo from Frederick Deshon Murphy, founder of History Before Us. Frederick Murphy1Look closely and you’ll see a Blue Heron chilaxing on a tree branch at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, SC. Weeks later the barred owl  pictured below hung out in his Charlotte, NC back yard just long enough for him to snap a few shots. Frederick Murphy2

To Costa Rica

I reached out to Tracy D. Spraggins after a friend tagged me in her Facebook post. She knows I’ve got a thing for birds so she wanted me to check out Tracy’s vacation photos. They were amazing.  Thankfully, she agreed to let me use a few on my blog.

A trip to Manuel Antonio, Costa Rico with her husband PJ (and 17 of their friends) yielded an SD card full of memories, some of which wound up online. I scrolled past white-faced capuchin monkeys and iguanas for these vivid images captured on her Nikon P900.Tracy Spraggins - Collard Aricari

Collared Aracari are small toucans that make their homes year-round in tropical rain forests, which is why she had little trouble finding this one that seems to be playing a game of peek-a-boo.Tracy Spraggins -Groove-billed Ani

These groove-billed ani are members of the cuckoo family, and the great kiskadee, whose range extends as far north as Texas, is related to flycatchers. Check out more of Tracy’s stunning photos here.Tracy Spraggins - Great Kiskadee

Back to Alabama

LaDonna LeMaster, a friend I hadn’t seen in years, invited me over to bird-watch from her porch. We reconnected through (you guessed it) Facebook a while back and occasionally leave comments on each other’s timelines. When she noticed posts about my little hobby she extended an offer to get together. From the minute I walked in the door, it was as if no time had passed and before long we fell right into the familiar chatter of old friends.

She set out fresh baked scones, banana bread, lemon curd, fruit and tea to enjoy while we waited for the show. Unfortunately, besides their chickens (housed in a coop with solar powered fans by the way), a ruby-throated hummingbird and a mockingbird, there wasn’t much activity. None of that mattered though. It was nice just filling in gaps from our years apart. Image-1

And My Front Door

After walking up from the mailbox one evening, my daughter and I noticed a mourning dove in the shrubs near the front door.

“Is it a fledgling?” she asked, inching closer for a better look.

“Looks like a juvenile,” I whispered.

We watched until the dove got tired of the attention and moved farther into the shrubs. That’s when I realized he wasn’t alone. Unwittingly, he’d lead us back to its sibling who’d been perfectly camouflaged among pine straw and leaves. Neither of ’em seemed to be too concerned that we’d found their hiding place though. They went on about their business and we did too.

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So, what have you seen lately? Doesn’t have to be anything as exotic as Tracy’s Costa Rican experience. Even common birds from your own back yard are worth noting. Send me a photo with a brief description and I just might use it in a future blog.

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Side Note

Now, about that blog title. I couldn’t resist y’all. Some bandwagons are just too good to pass up.

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That Time I Slept in a Slave Cabin

I can’t say that I arrived that evening without some notion of what might unfold. For about a year I followed historian Joe McGill’s work with the Slave Dwelling Project, watching as he slept in extant dwellings, reading about inhabitants whose forced labor, for centuries, fueled the American economy. When he announced that Demopolis, Alabama was on the 2017 schedule, I knew I needed to be there.

What’s behind the “big house” is not often clearly, if ever, communicated in brochures or presented in professionally guided tours of antebellum estates. One might think those cabin

unassuming, often, wooden structures are storage sheds, certainly not places where people lived in cramped conditions regardless of relation, or gender or age, at the command of enslavers. After toiling countless hours within a system designed to exhaust every ounce of strength, intellect and spirit from them, they retired to those shelters. Today, the buildings barely receive the slightest consideration though standing only a few yards, in many cases, from the much-lauded manor. Maybe, as W.E.B Dubois proposes in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, “it is so much easier to assume that we know it all. Or perhaps, having already reached conclusions in our own minds, we are loath to have them disturbed by facts.”

The Pilgrimage

We met at the Marengo County History and Archives Museum for a reception and part one of a two part lecture centered around the traveling Smithsonian exhibit, Changing America: The Emancipation, 1863, The March on Washington, 1963.  Joe McGill’s Slave Dwelling presentation was the opening event. As night fell some participants went home, while others, myself included, drove 25 miles down winding country roads dotted by catfish farms and cattle, to Magnolia Grove Plantation in neighboring Greensboro, AL.

Our caravan pulled into a circular drive partially framed by magnolia trees and overgrown hedges. Overnight gear in hand, my friend and I followed shadowy figures across a wet lawn, away from the Greek revival mansion, towards the cabin at the back corner of the estate. Altogether, eleven souls, gathered on an unseasonably cold spring evening for one of the most unusual experiences imaginable.

As I scoped out a sliver of space to settle down, intense anticipation gave way to uneasiness. Besides the fact that it suddenly dawned on me that  I’d be sleeping next to strangers, I also wondered what right we, or I for that matter, had to be there. Amid some of the most robust discussions around the human condition, I listened for the answer.

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Besides two ancient chairs, there were three windows, a fireplace and wooden door we managed to prop shut with someone’s boot. Well after midnight, as conversations slowly drifted to a few whispers, I snuggled into my sleeping bag and thought about the ancestors who’d gazed out those windows, warmed themselves by the fire. What did they look like, talk about, in that room? What secrets did they keep? From which African tribes were they taken?

Daybreak

With the first glimmer of sunlight, I maneuvered between sleeping bodies sprawled across the floor and made my way to the big house. A Northern Cardinal’s familiar whistle cheerily announced the day. I still cannot say with absolute certainty what moved me to drive two hours from Montgomery, that bastion of competing historical narratives, to the little cabin at Magnolia Grove. Maybe that’s too much to expect from a single encounter. What I do know is that the stories of people of African descent, stories fraught with peril, loss, survival, faith and unyielding resolve will no longer languish in the margins. We re-member our voices and they are strong.

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Epilogue

That extraordinary cabin stay rests in the middle of two remarkable encounters. First, the reception May 24th coordinated by Mrs. Mary Jones-Fitts, President and Director of the Marengo County History and Archives Museum. Ms. Jones-Fitts is central to this story. It is she who helped secure the Smithsonian exhibit, Changing America: The Emancipation, 1863, The March on Washington, 1963bringing it to Demopolis then

enlisting Joe McGill as keynote speaker. She also arranged the sleepover. Although it took four years to bring all the pieces together, she persisted and the end result was this incredible experience. Mrs. Jones-Fitz is a historian and genealogist whose love for the Black Belt region and its people infused our conversations. She traveled with us the day after the sleepover.

Our first stop that morning was Ashley Dumas’ home. Ashley, a Professor of History and Social Sciences at the University of West Alabama, was a sleepover participant also. She invited us to her restored historic home where her husband had a delicious breakfast feast waiting for us. It was an unexpected gesture that we lingered over, enjoying more discussion and our hosts’ hospitality. Eventually, the group set off for the Safe House Black History Museum which is where I met Mrs. Theresa Burroughs.

It was a short drive to the museum and after touring it and listening to Mrs. Burroughs account of events that unfolded there, I returned to my car amazed and somewhat overwhelmed. I learned, among other things, that the museum was once the home where townspeople heroically staved off terrorists bent on kidnapping and murdering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Mrs. Theresa Burroughs, our 88-year-old guide, was there that night. In fact, the human rights activist, who still bares scars from the savage Bloody Sunday assault of 1965, helped assemble a protective shield of armed black men who  surrounded the house in the Depot neighborhood where King had taken refuge.

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Mrs. Theresa Burroughs, Human Rights Activist

When asked why she did it, not just that night, but why she endured beatings, protests and arrests throughout the movement, she said, “I just couldn’t live like that anymore. Things wasn’t gonna change, so I decided to do something and if I died trying, well, that was alright too.”

Near the end of our tour, Mrs. Burroughs encouraged the group to sing as we crossed Freedom Lane, the glass enclosed hallway connecting the two structures housing museum artifacts. No doubt it was a scene played out many times before with others who learned that a critical moment in history unfolded there. Though only symbolic, it was a tremendous privilege to cross it with her.

I hugged both women – Mrs. Jones-Fitts that morning at the cabin and Mrs. Burroughs in the afternoon. I appreciate them, and Joe for diligently doing the work they’ve been called to. I’m also sincerely grateful for the ancestors, and the elders whose indomitable spirits cleared a path for us. Now, it’s our turn to forge ahead.

This story has been updated since its original post June 11, 2017 with corrections.

Journey to Peace

“Fo’ day in the mornin,” as the elders used to say, there was wind and waves and water.

I eased down the condo’s weathered walk-way onto a blanket of sugar-white sand. Off-season vacationers sauntered by, offering contented grins, each of us shedding barriers that might’ve separated us had our paths crossed at any other place or any other time. With each step into the rising sun, their comings and goings were less noticeable as I paused at the water’s edge, soaking in the amazing panorama unfolding at every turn. img_4446

Words fail. I just cannot summon the sentences to adequately describe what happened on the beach that day. Creation’s impact on the senses can be so powerful we’d be foolish to fight against it. So why bother? I neither resisted emotions bubbling up inside nor clung to them as they finally broke free into bouts of laughter, tears and, poetry. Yep, there I was walking along the shore reciting poetry into the wind, a remarkable feat considering I once struggled through a fog of depression and anxiety to recall even a single thought. And it was the most liberating experience.

When Lucille Clifton’s, “blessing the boats,” rose up in me, I wept.

When William Wordsworth’s, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” came flooding through, I wept.

I wept in gratitude to the Creator, the one who knows me and made me and welcomes me. Wept ’cause something inside of me gave way, and I – let – go.

 

Joy in the Morning

“Hey, I’m headed down to Orange Beach for a video shoot with clients and I’ve got a condo. You’re welcome to come.”

Joy hardly finished the sentence before I answered, yes. Afterwards, when I hung up, I didn’t have the slightest idea how I would afford it. What in the name of all things awesome made me believe for a second that even a free trip was possible?

As the weeks slipped by, I went about the work I’d committed to – transforming my life through new thoughts, new words, and actions.

Whenever dis-empowering thoughts floated up – Why would you agree to that, you know this isn’t a good time? You’re always reaching for more than you deserve. Stop being so selfish;  I let them pass. Overtime, the tone shifted and I was less inclined to follow every fleeting word, choosing instead to just watch. So, when February 21st rolled ’round and we hit the road I stayed right there at the center of the experience without judgement. It simply was, what it was.

Epiphany

That’s what met me on the beach, the realization that life is not happening to me, it’s happening through me, if I will just trust God and let go. Isn’t that what every nature hike over the last year was building towards? This awakening? And while those outings focused on improved health and healing in the great outdoors, another message was gradually manifesting.

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Sea birds floated overhead, some dived for fish through thunderous blue waves, and a few stood by watching me as I watched them. All the while, spontaneous joy kept bubbling up from someplace deep inside. Finally, unable to move another step, I fell to my knees to scribble a response in the sand.

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By the time I met Joy for dinner that night at the Flora-Bama Yacht Club, she was wrapping up a shoot. As I watched her do her thing, I struck up a conversation with the person seated next to me. What unfolded through that encounter confirmed yet again that life, once we stop resisting seemingly bad experiences or clinging to momentous ones, has far more to offer than we can ever imagine. Everything is available to us.

That realization surfaced again the next morning as I hiked through Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, while resting on the beach at the Mobile Street access, then chatting with new friends well into the evening by the Ole River in Perdido Key.

And the reward for relinquishing the illusion of control? Another step on the journey to peace.

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“When you are no longer willing to identify with the part of you that is separating itself into a million pieces, you are ready for real growth.”  – Michael Singer

On the Trail Again… Finally

So, that was weird – two months without a single birding hike. That changed today though. Joannie Garner met me at Lagoon Park in Montgomery, AL for an early morning outing and it was fantastic! Just the boost we needed to kick off the month of February – a month known for love and historical reflection.img_3985

There were lots of common sightings, you know, stuff like Northern Cardinals, American Robins, Carolina Chickadees, Wrens, Red-Winged Black birds,  and one that, although also a regular in these parts,

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(Stock photo)
still makes one’s heart go pitter-patter. I’m talkin’ about you Cedar Wax Wing, you rakish darlin’ you.

And what would a trip to Northeast Montgomery be without a hoard of Blue Jays fussin’ in the treetops? Annoying, yes, but  what’s cool about them is their tight-knit social structure. Where you see one, there’s bound to be others workin’ together for the good of the family.

There’s a small creek flanking the trail. Sometimes you’ll find herons stalking tiny fish and other water-lovin’ creatures. While today was all about birds, beavers actually stole the show. At least their handiwork did. Nibbled that poor little tree down to a nub. There were plenty of tracks leading towards the creek but no beavers. img_3974

Even though we only hiked for an hour, it felt so good gettin’ back to one of my favorite pastimes. Sharing it with a friend made it all the more special.

 

Did You See That?

 A few months ago, I said opportunities to connect with nature were as close as the nearest   window. Well, Aquilla Stanback was talking to a co-worker in Mountain Brook, AL when she got an

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Red-shouldered hawk image courtesy of Aquilla Stanback
saw a Eastern Red-shouldered hawk. She posted it to Facebook with the caption, “my morning view.” There was something deeply resonant about that. When I asked her about it she said, “Initially, I thought, wow! I knew it was not an ordinary bird… It was very peaceful.”

 

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Red-shouldered hawk image courtesy of Joannie Garner
Aquilla’s hawk is just one of several raptor sightings lately. Joannie Garner, Life and Health Coach from Montgomery, AL crossed paths with what also appears to be a Red-shouldered hawk. She said it turned and followed her during her morning cardio workout, eventually landing in a tree along the way.

 

Jump over two states to South Carolina and see another hawk that Joseph McGill, history consultant at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens and founder of “The Slave Dwelling Project,” spied outside his office window. I’m fond of Mr. McGill’s important and unique work with the SDP and regularly follow his blog and Facebook page. So, after seeing a post with this gorgeous specimen I just had to reach out. Within minutes he replied that he “was drawn to this bird because it was so close to the office building and it made a flying move as if was about to swoop onto some prey. Instead, it landed in a tree close to the office”

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Red-shouldered hawk image courtesy of Joseph McGill

He captured it with his Galaxy Note 6 “from about 20 feet away,” and managed to get as close as 10 feet before it finally flew off.

Kim Jordan of Kim L Photography in Montgomery, AL offered an awesome shot she got from her cousin of a snowy egret struttin’ across a back porch in South Carolina. Check out  that stylish white crown. Makes me smile just lookin’ at it.

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Egret courtesy of Kim Jordan

Other folks, although unable to get pictures, also shared their  encounters. Like LaDonna LeMaster, whose backyard just south of Montgomery apparently is a bird haven. A few days ago she wrote that she saw blue jays, cardinals and, “no lie – a huge bald eagle.”

I’m in love with her backyard! Someday, I’d like to enjoy a warm cocoa while bird watching from her porch. I digress. Where was I? Oh yes, that area off Troy Highway seems to be teaming with eagles as her husband Bill can attest. So fascinated by one he spied while driving passed a fish hatchery, he followed it.

Then, there’s this sweet post by Tricia Strout.

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We’re All Connected

I haven’t hiked in a few weeks and, strangely enough, I haven’t seen any birds either. Personal challenges have proved distracting to the point that, though I’m covering the same territory where I’ve enjoyed countless birds before, I have not seen a single one. Chances are, they’ve been there. I just hadn’t noticed. Then, this happens. People responded to the request for bird pictures, sharing images and chats from their little corners of the world. Neighbors, friends, strangers inviting me, and now you into their lives, connecting us to places we may never see, never knowing how impactful it’s been.

Truth is, I’ve miss the wind at my back, the sun on my face and the thrilling sensation that comes from being attuned to the wild, which is why I’m planning another birding hike. Figure I’ll go next week. By then, we’ll have wrapped up Christmas, Kwanzaa will be underway with New Year’s Day on the horizon. Seems the perfect time for reflection.If you wanna go, just holla.

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Many thanks to everyone who shared their bird stories. You’re the best! Keep ’em coming.

But those who trust in the lord will receive new strength, they will fly as high as eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not grow weak.” – Isaiah 40:31

 

 

 

 

What’s Out There? Seven Tips Beginner Hikers Should Know

In June, a black bear strolled through an Opelika, AL neighborhood, a rabid raccoon attacked a child in Pike Road last month and, according to the social network app Nextdoor, two coyotes were spotted a week or so ago in Montgomery – one wandering through Wyndridge and the other on Wynlakes golf course. Clearly you don’t have to be in the middle of a forest to encounter wild life.

Human activities attract certain animals looking to score a quick, high-calorie meal. They eat our trash, get accustomed to being near us and quickly escalate from novelty to nuisance. Most times they wander off pretty quickly , if not, authorities step in. But what’s the best way to stay safe when you’re hiking in their territory?

If you relish the restorative powers of a wilderness retreat, animal sightings won’t keep you away from the woods. Quite honestly, I’ve never seen anything more threatening than a fox squirrel and that was about three years ago down in Gulf State Park.

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Image: Alexandra Lundahal

With these recent neighborhood sightings however, now seems like a good time to fine-tune my woodlands strategy. Here are seven tips to keep in mind.

 

Research the Park

Don’t just roll up on a forest like you’re special forces. Study the area first. Most parks provide free trail maps on site as well as online so take time to look over it. Maps cans also be a deciding factor in trail selection as some can be extremely challenging, a fact that may not be apparent till you’re right up on it. Also, research the types of animals that live there. Remember, wildlife isn’t like zoo-life which means creatures don’t just hang out in tidy little habitats or enclosures. They can be anywhere. While it’s unlikely you’ll ever stumble onto anything dangerous it’s still good to know what’s out there.

Tell Somebody

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Image: by Gabriel (Gabi) Bukataru via stocksy.com

Don’t be a knucklehead, tell somebody where you’re going and when to expect your return. Whether you’re hiking alone or with others,  always tell someone your location so they’ll know where to send help if anything happens.

 

Pack Sustenance

Water, pocket-sized snacks like nuts, dried fruit, and energy bars are a good idea. And by energy bars I do not mean “candy”. A Snickers bar may be satisfying but it can also cause your energy level to spike and crash, and who needs that on the trail? That doesn’t mean you should buy a lotta pricey stuff for a simple day hike either. Peanut butter is an inexpensive fuel producer and most of us already have it in the pantry. Bottom line – bring enough water and sensible, energy replenishing snacks to keep you movin’, plus a bit extra in the event things go sideways.

Be the Pharmacy

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Image: Uros Zunic via Shutterstock

If you take prescription medicine, bring it.  Don’t play around with this one. Pack the next few prescribed doses just in case.

 

Check the Weather

Thanksgiving day temperatures in Montgomery, AL hit the mid 70’s. There’s no telling what it’ll be next week – 40’s, 80’s? Check the forecast and plan accordingly.

Choose Basic Gear

A communication device such as a cell phone or two-way radio, a light-weight backpack, rain poncho, weather appropriate clothing, closed-toe shoes that have been broken in, flashlight, lighter (or matches), compass, and pepper spray are a good start.

Know Your Limits

I haven’t hiked the Appalachian Trail (at least not yet) so the difficulty level in my outings is moderate at best. Besides, I know my limits. What about you? I suggest choosing trails that fit your fitness level. Translation? If you’ve done more couch surfing than exercising lately, keep it simple. Like wise folks used to say, “Don’t write a check your butt can’t cash.”

It’s good to break away from work-a-day living to escape once in a while to the serenity of the great outdoors. A day hike in the wilderness could do wonders for your peace of mind, but don’t let the prospect of solitude distract you. Traipsing  through the forest is more enjoyable when you’ve got a plan.  If you’re gonna go out, use these tips to go prepared.

NOTE:

If you take a hike, especially to any of the parks and trails I’ve mentioned in previous posts, tell me about it. I’d also love to see pictures and may even post ’em on the Sassy Puffin. Speaking of pictures, I’m featuring bird photos in my next blog that folks have shared with me recently. There’s still time to send in your bird sightings too. Email them to puffin1125@gmail.com.

Sources:

  • Bear video – by Wesley Sinor/wsinor@al.com

We’re Out Here

Autumn breezes sweeping through Oak Mountain State Park were a welcome escape from lingering late summer heat. My friend JC Sankey and I spent time up there a few weeks ago romping through the forest, taking in the splendor of this most colorful season.

img_1823I was still unloading gear from the back of the SUV when she pointed out a pair of brown-headed nuthatches foraging mid-way up a short leaf pine tree. Although nuthatches are common for that area it was an exciting first-time sighting for us. A hopeful sign of what may be ahead.

With supplies securely strapped to our backs and water bottles in hand we moved away from the asphalt towards the trail. Our feathered escorts flitted ahead from branch to branch until finally disappearing into a copse of ginkgo and pine trees. Crossing the Lake Trail bridge, we slipped past slender saplings nestled alongside giants whose dazzling foliage cast an otherworldly glow in the autumn light.

“We’re out here,” I thought contentedly. “With only breeze and bird song and the crunch of leaf litter under foot.”

A little further into the hike we realized, to our dismay, that we were not completely alone. A few mountain bikers whizzed by, leaving a trail of powdery dust in their wake. That was probably the most unsettling part – seeing how absolutely dry the soil was. It’s been what, two months or so since the last torrential downpour? Parts of the path not fullsizerendercompletely covered by leaves shown zig-zag cracks in the ground. A tell-tale sign of Alabama’s severe drought situation. By the time I reached a clearing to take in the lake view, I wasn’t surprised to see how far back it had receded from its original meander line. I wondered what impact the lack of rain not only had on the soil and vegetation, but the entire ecosystem that depended on each intricately connected component for survival – humans included.

img_1860A gigantic fallen tree offered a great resting place for a break. We scrambled up its trunk to a level spot then enjoyed energy bars and a couple bottles of water. Earlier, JC and I talked about other places we’d like to go birding outside of Alabama – the north east Atlantic coast for puffins, South America and the Caribbean for more exotic species. Resting on the trunk now, with wind rustling through the leaves, conversation eased into a comfortable silence.

In our work-a-day lives most of us are bombarded by noise – traffic, tv, phones, co-workers, that lousy background music in grocery stores. Relaxing in a secluded spot in the middle of the woods away from the hassle is truly an awe-inspiring moment. Neither of us was in a hurry to move on.

image-1Eventually we did, and the path, once gently sloping downward, shifted upward in some spots. The increased effort caused a dull ache in my knee. Although JC could’ve gone another 20 miles, I knew I needed to rein it in. The prospect of sleeping with an ice pack wedged up against my leg tamped down the impulse to power through. So, after a brief water break, we turned ‘round, carefully retracing our steps ‘til we arrived back at the Lake Trail bridge a short time later.

The Oak Mountain outing only added two new bird sightings to our life lists – brown nuthatches at the beginning, and a wood thrush half-way in – but, that’s okay. The few hours spent traipsing through that section of the park represents only a tiny fraction of its 9,940 acres, which means there’s a whole lot more to explore. So we’ll go again, and maybe next time, we’ll see you out there on the trail.

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Image: Brown-headed nuthatch – Vicki DeLoach, Creative Commons license

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Where should I hike next? Give me your suggestions on short-distance trips to scenic spots around the River Region and other parts of Central and Southern Alabama.  🙂 Leave your comments below. Thanks for following my blog!