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Refuge: Thoughts on Birding at Bon Secour

 

The seven of us, perfect strangers, stand together at an unpaved roadside pullout. I’m eager to start the bird walk, but first things first. First, Denise McInturff, Park Ranger at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, gives us the 4-1-1 on the place: when it was acquired, how it’s managed, why it’s important, and so forth.

01a sign“Any questions?”

One of my companions does, in fact, have a question for Denise.

“What’s your favorite spot in the whole refuge?”

I’ve known Denise for only three or four minutes, but I know enough already to anticipate a scientific response. It’s clear from Denise’s brief overview of Bon Secour that she’s knowledgeable about botany, butterflies, and the big picture of ecological relationships.

What can I say?—I have anticipated the wrong response.

Denise explains that her favorite spot at Bon Secour is the end of the trail we’re about to hike. She loves it for its beauty, but, even more, for its solitude. It’s right on the Gulf, yet nobody goes there. Of course Denise understands and appreciates the biological value of the spot. But that’s not her answer to the question.

 

Anybody who’s been birding a while knows the difference between U.S. National Parks and U.S. National Wildlife Refuges. We know the mantra by heart: National Parks, administered by the U.S. National Park Service, are for people, National Wildlife Refuges, administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, are for wildlife. Needless to say, it’s a bit more nuanced than that. I mean, Yellowstone and Yosemite, any birder will tell you, are for Great Gray Owls. “Multiple use” is the guiding principle for the management plans for those iconic National Parks: interpretive signage and gift shops, yes, but also seasonal closures for nesting raptors. On the flip side, there is an undeniable human dimension to the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge system.

Think of the famous auto loops at Brigantine and Bombay Hook—those were put there for people. Major birding festivals—again, they’re intended for people—focus on refuges like Bosque del Apache and Tinicum. And as Denise McInturff reminds our little group, hunting is allowed on many national wildlife refuges.

One of my favorite U.S. national wildlife refuges is Target Rock, a postage stamp preserve on the densely populated north shore of western Suffolk County, Long Island, New York. I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you, without googling it, the biological significance of Target Rock. What I can tell you is that I love going there. I love the still ponds. I love the catbird-filled thickets. And I love how the trail takes you right out to Long Island Sound, with its yodeling Long-tailed Ducks and, most of the time, not a human being in sight.

 

We ritualistically apply sunscreen and DEET and tuck our socks into our pant legs, and we’re off. Orange and black butterflies—monarchs, queens, and gulf fritillaries—show us the way. Warblers and woodpeckers work the slash pines. A White-eyed Vireo sings weirdly from a briar patch on a snow-white sand dune. But we keep up the pace. I keep up the pace. I really want to see the end of the trail, the place that’s so special to Denise McInturff.

The trail bends sharply south, past a lagoon and a King Rail. We’re on a beeline now for the Gulf. The dunes rise higher, but there’s a cut through one of them. We go that way. Suddenly the dunes are gone, and there is nothing ahead but flat beach and surf. It’s a paradox: The landscape is practically featureless, yet constantly in motion. The effect is mesmerizing.

02a Snowy Plover

Snowy Plover (Charadrius nivosus). Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Baldwin County, Alabama; Nov. 6, 2015. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

I see a Snowy Plover, and my first instinct is to think biological thoughts. I know a lot about this species, actually. But biological thoughts do not come to me.

I am weightless now, floating in outer space. Sand and surf—they become as one. Sight and sound conjoined, then gone. The universe, at once hyper-dimensional and featureless.

The Snowy Plover is a singularity, the only object in the cosmos.

 

It’s time to head back. I hear human laughter again, and the cry of a Willet. One of my companion points out a beautiful stingray, and I reciprocate by showing her—except…it’s gone. I scan the wrack line and the white sand beyond, but the Snowy Plover is nowhere to be seen.

A thought, a quasi-scientific thought, occurs to me. Werner Heisenberg famously discovered that the act of seeing something alters it forever. Heisenberg was talking about subatomic particles, but poets and philosophers soon enough learned to apply quantum uncertainty to human affairs. In my encounter with the plover, I had seen, I had achieved, I had detected—the physicists would say—perfect solitude, mindfulness, “suchness”; and then, perforce, let go, forever.

 

Alabama Beach Mouse (Peromyscus polionotus ammobates) & Ghost Crab (Ocypode)

Alabama Beach Mouse (Peromyscus polionotus ammobates) & Ghost Crab (Ocypode). Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Baldwin County, Alabama; Nov. 6, 2015. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

Denise walks us back through the dune field. The pace is leisurely now, and we notice fine tracks everywhere in the sand. The broad, slanted ones were traced by ghost crabs, genus Ocypode; the widely spaced clusters mark the hippity-hoppity meanderings of the Alabama beach mouse, Peromyscus polionotus ammobates.

P. p. ammobates is the raison d’être of Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. Its trinomial, ammobates, means “sand climber.” The Alabama beach mouse is listed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as Endangered; it occurs nowhere else on Earth but here, in the dune fields of coastal Alabama. The species is utterly and completely dependent on Bon Secour and adjoining properties.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Fascinatingly, the entire dune ecosystem is dependent on the industrious beach mouse. Basically, the species is a sort of Johnny Appleseed, constantly planting the sea oats and beach grass that anchor the dunes. Take away the mice, and you take away the dunes; take away the dunes, and you lose everything.

 

We continue inland, through the slash pines and then finally the live oaks around the roadside pullout. There are no beach mice to be found here, but their ecological footprint is unmistakable: Those sturdy pines and stately old oaks wouldn’t be here without the beach mice.

We depart, each one of us, with a deep appreciation for the value of this national wildlife refuge—for the little mice that scamper hither and thither across the dunes; for the coastal ecosystem that depends on them; and most of all, if we’re honest about it, for the human spirits that are lifted in places such as this. At Bon Secour and more than 500 other holdings in the system, we have found our mighty refuge.

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If You Go . . .

Visit the official website of Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge.

Check out our eBird checklist, including photos and audio from our time afield.

Learn about Gulf Shores, Alabama, your hub for any visit to Bon Secour.

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted at The ABA Blog for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.
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