Talk about roadtripping! You can live in an area your whole life and miss a treasure that is right under your nose. But my feet have sure been itching lately and when I had the opportunity to join the UAH OLLI group in a visit to Wheeler Wildlife Refuge, I was ready. Wetlands and birds, now that’s something new, to me anyway.
I really didn’t know exactly what I was getting into since, ever since I was a child, I have always been drawn to the mountains, and there are so many mountains in my area, just about any time I think about spending some time outdoors in nature, I think about the mountains. A know a number of folks love the beach in the same kind of way. In fact, a whole lot of them drive right past the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge on their way to the beach.
Nothing at all wrong with any of that for us beach and mountain lovers, but I really did miss an eco-treasure and an earthbound wildlife heaven when I didn’t venture out into some of the area wetlands. If you are roadtripping in Alabama, Wheeler Wildlife Refuge is right at the top of the must-see list for north Alabama.
View from the trail. Image: Regina Garson
Where it’s at:
If you are traveling north or south through Alabama on Interstate Highway 65 (I-65), it is mid-way, about an hour and a half south of Nashville and north of Birmingham. What you want to do is head to the Visitor Center, where you can first learn what you are looking at.
Then, after a nice walk, down a well-maintained trail, about 200 yards away, you will reach the Observation Building (which is climate controlled) and the most amazing display of birds that you could just about imagine: cranes, ducks and geese for a start.
Here’s a short video of what you can expect to see this time of year. George Lee filmed it just days before my visit, at the same Observation Building I visited. If you go to his YouTube Channel, he has some other videos of the refuge as well.
Just to give you an idea of what you are walking into. I pulled the following information from the Refuge website.
The refuge is a breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife. A total of 300 species of birds, 47 species of mammals, 75 species of reptiles and amphibians, 115 species of fish, 38 species of freshwater mussels, and 26 species of freshwater snails have been documented on the refuge.
It tends to vary over the years, but the bird numbers currently peak around 2,000 for geese and 75,000 for ducks. Cranes are another big attraction. You will probably see quite a few Sandhill cranes.
Whooping Crane. Image: USDA
However, if you are lucky, you may even see a Whooping crane or two. Whooping cranes have been on the endangered list for a while, that means that if you hunt and you shoot one, you are in big trouble. Some guy in Texas just recently got in trouble for doing just that.
Needless to say, a whole lot of effort (including work at the refuge) has gone into saving the Whooping cranes from extinction and I was lucky enough to see two of them when I was there.
Now, you are not necessarily going to see all of the above in one day, but you are going to see some birds, and if you are traveling with the family, there will most surely be enough scenery and wildlife to delight the younger family members completely, the older ones too. There are nature/hiking trails on the refuge as well, but I am going to have to go back to check them out when I have a little more time. There are also boat launch areas that provide access to the Tennessee River.
Although Wheeler has something going on all year (click here for a schedule), the peek time to visit (i.e., when you are going to see the most birds) is between Christmas and Valentine’s Day.
A Short History: How it came about
Back in the 1930s, after the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) came in and built dams to supply power to the area, they soon realized that migrating birds were drawn to the changes in the terrain and the wetlands alongside the Tennessee River. The refuge was established in 1938 by Executive Order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and it became the first National Wildlife Refuge to be overlain on a multi-purpose reservoir (Wikipedia). That is a very brief nutshell. Check out the video below for background on the US Wildlife Refuge efforts.
For all the times that I have been profoundly disappointed at what supposed progress has done to the environment in my state, this time I was impressed. The 35,000-acre refuge was established as a wetland habitat for migrating birds and those that came into the area for the winter. About 19,000 of those acres are on land and 16,000 are water. Since some of it is on Redstone Arsenal, and administered by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, it is not all publicly accessible. Of course, there are a lot more details, and they do a whole lot of good work, but you can learn more when you visit, and/or you can check out the links at the end of this article.
Directions to Wheeler Wildlife Refuge:
The Visitor Center for Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge is right at three miles off I-65, Exit 334, the Decatur/Priceville Exit (Highway 67) just south of Huntsville, along the Tennessee River.
There are several fast food places, gas stations, etc., when you get off I-65, so you can easily pick up something to eat as well. It’s a scenic little drive as you get into the wetland area. The sign for the Visitor Center will be on the left.