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Post by Michael Sznajderman from Alabama NewsCenter
From a tiny, rare woodpecker, to soaring raptors, including the symbol of the nation, to delicate shorebirds along the Gulf Coast, Alabama Power and its employees are working to protect the state’s important native bird species and those that journey through on their annual migrations.
The company is also supporting and contributing to efforts to protect the world’s only winged mammals: bats.
“A lot of birds – and bats – are facing challenges,” said Chad Fitch, an Alabama Power biologist involved in several of the ongoing efforts to support birds. “We are working with multiple partners on a variety of projects to help them both.”
One of the company’s most prominent initiatives, with partner support, is focused on expanding the population of rare red-cockaded woodpeckers, which saw dramatic reductions over the past century but are now showing signs of recovery. In fact, federal officials last year proposed “down-listing” the species, from endangered to threatened.
“Due to the conservation efforts of diverse stakeholders across its range, it is no longer in danger of extinction,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) stated in proposing the woodpecker down-listing. “Due to these efforts, habitat conditions and population numbers are improving, a vast majority of populations are stable and growing, and threats to the red-cockaded woodpecker have been successfully managed to the point that it has met recovery benchmarks.”
Alabama Power’s contribution to the woodpeckers’ recovery is centered at a remote, 1,600-acre parcel of old-growth, longleaf pine forest near Lake Mitchell that the company has helped to protect and improve for more than 30 years. Mature longleaf forests are the preferred habitat for the woodpecker, and through the years the company, in partnership with the USFWS and Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), has been able to help increase the population of woodpeckers residing in the forest.
In addition to the Lake Mitchell site, Alabama Power has been working to improve longleaf habitat on other company properties, while planting more longleaf where appropriate.
The effort coincides with a broader drive – involving Alabama Power and parent Southern Company, and multiple public and private partners – to restore and expand historic longleaf habitat across the Southeast.
Once the predominant forest type in the region, more than 90% of longleafs disappeared over the past two centuries, the victim of timbering and development. Longleaf forests sustain a multitude of plant and animal species, including birds such as turkey and quail, which favor healthy longleaf forests and the grasses and wildflowers that thrive below the tall pines.
Fitch has seen signs of turkey in the company’s longleaf forests, and an expansive list of plants and animals. He said the careful, prescribed burns the company conducts in its longleaf groves enhance the soil and release the natural seedbank buried in the leafy understory. Getting rid of the leaf layers encourages growth of grasses and flowering plants that turkey and quail seek out in the spring.
The lakes and shorelines maintained by Alabama Power are also locations where birds flourish and where the company has ongoing programs to protect and nurture them.
At Lake Harris, for example, the company maintains wood duck boxes, as well as platforms for native ospreys. In past years, the company installed osprey platforms at Lay and Neely Henry lakes with the assistance of ADCNR.
Osprey populations were adversely affected in the middle 20th century because of the effects of the pesticide DDT. But since the chemical was banned, the bird has made a strong comeback in many areas of the U.S.
Another bird of prey that has made a big comeback nationwide is the bald eagle. Alabama Power participates in annual bald and golden eagle midwinter surveys, along with partners, including the U.S. Forest Service and ADCNR.
The annual survey conducted by Alabama Power biologists and other staff focuses on identifying bald and golden eagles, and their nests, around the company’s reservoirs. During the 2018 survey, the company recorded a record 35 bald eagles on five Alabama Power reservoirs. Eagles continue to use the reservoirs, with four new nests and 28 birds observed during the 2021 survey.
Alabama Power has partnered with birding organizations and others to help improve and enhance sites that are prime for birdwatching.
Sheila Smith, with Alabama Power’s Shoreline Management team, worked with the group to identify good birding locations on company property, cut trails, install signage and help with maintenance. The PPT has grown to 40 birding sites across east Alabama.
“It’s been a great partnership that supports birding, supports conservation education and supports local economies,” Smith said.
More than 45 million people nationwide watch birds at home or travel to do so, according to the USFWS. Bird-watchers spend an estimated $41 billion annually on trips and equipment.
Josh Yerby is an Alabama Power real estate specialist focused on maintaining and enhancing The Preserves, the company’s recreation sites around the state. He said the Little Fox Creek Trail on Lake Harris, Ten Island Trail at Lake Neely Henry and the boat ramp on the State Highway 9 Causeway at Weiss Lake are all recognized birding sites.
The Alabama Birding Trails website notes that visitors to Fox Creek can expect to see swallows and purple martins in spring and summer, and belted kingfishers, wading birds and wood ducks year-round.
“During the winter months, additional waterfowl, gulls and terns appear. Keep your eyes peeled for ospreys and bald eagles,” the website proclaims.
At Ten Islands, a broad array of bird species can be viewed throughout the seasons, on the lake’s open waters and in the surrounding woods. Looking toward the lake, birders can spot gulls and geese, ducks, loons and grebes, swallows, purple martins and chimney swifts. Turn landward and go farther into the interior and birders may see, depending on the season, sparrows, eastern towhees and white-eyed vireos, gray catbirds, prairie warblers, yellow-breasted chats, indigo buntings and common yellowthroat – not to mention Tennessee, palm and orange-crowned warblers during the spring and fall migration. Catching sight of a chuck-will’s-widow, a whip-poor-will, eastern screech-owl, blue-winged, prairie and worm-eating warblers during the summer months is a possibility. Eastern bluebirds, American goldfinches, cedar waxwings, as well as barred and great horned owls are visible with a little patience, the website states.
More than 430 bird species have been spotted in Alabama, and many migratory birds will stop at Alabama Power lakes on their journeys north and south.
Alabama Power and Southern Company, working with multiple partners, have helped protect and expand the population of a number of Gulf Coast birds and shorebirds.
One majestic bird Alabama Power has supported with partners is the sandhill crane. Considered one of North America’s tallest birds, “sandies” can grow close to 4 feet in height with a wingspan up to 7 feet. And while the majority of sandhill subspecies are not rare, one – the Mississippi subspecies, found only in a few southern counties in Alabama and Mississippi – is on the federal endangered list. The Mississippi sandhill crane differs from many other sandies in that it does not migrate.
Alabama Power has supported efforts to protect and expand the nation’s precariously small number of whooping cranes, a federally endangered species that migrates through the state in winter, on the way to Florida.
Other Gulf Coast bird species supported by Alabama Power and Southern Company, in partnership with the NFWF and others, include the red knot, oystercatcher and whimbrel.
Bats are another winged creature that Alabama Power and partners are working together to help protect.
For years, company biologists have been closely involved in studying the state’s bat population. Since 2017, Alabama Power and Southern Company have partnered with NFWF on the Bats for the Future Fund, which supports research battling the spread of white-nose syndrome, a highly contagious disease that has killed more than 6 million bats during the past decade.
Jeff Baker, an Alabama Power biologist, said many people don’t realize the significance of bats – not only as part of a healthy and diverse ecosystem, but for the state’s agriculture industry.
He said bats are important pollinators, with some plants relying completely on bats for their survival. But bats are also vital as natural pest-killers – because of the voluminous amount of bugs they can consume. Estimates put their annual value to agriculture and timber production nationwide at more than $3 billion.
“We need bats, plain and simple,” Baker said. “And we are trying to do our part to advance the research and find an effective cure to white-nose syndrome.”
Learn more about the company’s efforts to protect birds, bats and other important species by visiting www.alabamapower.com. Search for “Environmental Stewardship.”