Wintering at Wheeler

Trip Start Mar 07, 1997
Trip End Dec 25, 1998

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Flag of United States  , Alabama
Friday, December 25, 1998

Go with me? The skywatch may be over for the little ones straining to see reindeer, but it's just beginning for bird lovers. Now is the time to dust off the binoculars and visit the winter homes of our feathered friends. And Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, on an Alabama stretch of the Tennessee River, is this weekend's destination.

This place is huge, with 34,500 acres set aside for homesteading ducks and geese on leave from Canada's icy clime. "The rangers just did the Christmas bird count," said Nina Blackburn, volunteer in the Visitor's Center, "and they saw 15,000 mallards and 800 snow geese. We have 6,000 American wigeons, too, and 600 Great Blue herons. It's the best time of year to visit."

There are many hiking trails on the Refuge, but a visit should begin at the Visitor's Center, where exhibits show us what we're likely to see outside, and clue us to the markings of the different birds. Then we'll walk 200 yards down the trail to the toasty-warm observation tower which overlooks the pond. The two-story building is equipped with one-way glass and a microphone for hearing outdoor sounds. It seems 4 pm is Happy Hour for the birds and we're likely to see them in abundance then, feeding and socializing noisily.

Why are so many birds attracted to the area? Part of an experiment begun in 1938, Wheeler literally farms for wildlife. By exercising control over the river's water level and the surrounding crops, a habitat has been created for thousands of waterfowl and wading birds which were not there when the Refuge was established. The experiment has worked so well its example is now followed around the world. See you there.

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Decatur, Alabama
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