Sign in

close

Registering for this site allows you to access your order status, history and manage any subscriptions. Just fill in the fields below, and we’ll get a new account set up for you in no time. We will only ask you for information necessary to make the purchase process faster and easier.

Create an Account

FREE SHIPPING OVER $75 IN THE US. USE CODE FREESHIP.

Shopping cart

close
  • No products in the cart.

2019 Hale County Black Belt Birding Tour.
Photo by Mike Fernandez, Audubon.

Alabama Audubon - Black Belt Birding Initiative

Alabama is one of America’s most biodiverse states, with landscapes ranging from its Gulf Coast migratory pit-stop to plateau country in the north, from coastal plain to mountains, and in between the rolling plains of the Black Belt region. Except Ansel Payne, the executive director of the 75-year-old Alabama Audubon, believes relatively few birders and nature lovers are aware of that – a realization he himself came to only fairly recently.

Alabama is one of America’s most biodiverse states, with landscapes ranging from its Gulf Coast migratory pit-stop to plateau country in the north, from coastal plain to mountains, and in between the rolling plains of the Black Belt region. Except Ansel Payne, the executive director of the 75-year-old Alabama Audubon, believes relatively few birders and nature lovers are aware of that – a realization he himself came to only fairly recently.

“I think the truth is, if people were only thinking about birds and nature, this would be on every birder’s wishlist,” he says. “There are just too many good things to see in one spot. Where else can you see Cerulean Warblers and then drive a couple hours and see Painted Buntings and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers?”

He pauses. “Nowhere!”

Payne moved to Alabama in the summer of 2015 after his wife received a professorship at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He grew up in West Virginia, an hour north of Charleston, attended college in New England, and continued his studies at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. A year into his Alabama residence, he got a job as a naturalist for Alabama Audubon, and months later became its outreach director. He’s now a champion for the state and its birds.

“I think the truth is, if people were only thinking about birds and nature, this would be on every birder’s wishlist,” he says. “There are just too many good things to see in one spot. Where else can you see Cerulean Warblers and then drive a couple hours and see Painted Buntings and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers?”

He pauses. “Nowhere!”

Payne moved to Alabama in the summer of 2015 after his wife received a professorship at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He grew up in West Virginia, an hour north of Charleston, attended college in New England, and continued his studies at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. A year into his Alabama residence, he got a job as a naturalist for Alabama Audubon, and months later became its outreach director. He’s now a champion for the state and its birds.

2019 Hale County Black Belt Birding Tour. Photo by Mike Fernandez, Audubon.

Dave Ewert doing field research in The Bahamas, where Kirtland's Warblers winter.
Photo courtesy of ABC.

“I was hesitant to move here, frankly. Here’s the thing, though,” he says. “People have to overcome what they think Alabama means to them. That’s our history. I wish people would recognize the complexity of the state, and how so many of the terrible stories of American history happened here, but also the heroic response to those terrible stories also happened here.”

Birmingham Audubon Society, as the organization was known when Payne joined (he led its name change last year), had been run by dedicated volunteers until 2013, but with significant support from the estate of a local family, it has grown its staff and its ambitions. With federal and state money, too, it opened a field office on the Gulf Coast to manage the protection and monitoring of beach-nesting birds there. Payne became executive director in the spring of 2018; their staff is now up to 10 employees, with several coastal biologists plus a conservation director.

“I think we’re developing a reputation as a national leader among Audubon organizations,” he says.

LaFond saw the need to do something. In 2010, while volunteering on a local winter raptor survey, she learned about a large parcel of farmland that was going to be sold and subdivided into tract housing, fragmenting the unbroken habitat that grassland birds need to survive. A few years earlier, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) had purchased almost 300 acres of critical habitat within the IBA in Fort Edward, and they were considering protecting another 180 acres, but town officials opposed further acquisitions. The state did not pay taxes on the land – although it was open to it, since it did so already in the Catskills and Adirondacks – and the town worried about that financial loss.

LaFond realized that a non-profit land trust was needed. She founded the Friends of the IBA, which would later be renamed Grassland Bird Trust, and in 2011 the organization held its first event, a Winter Raptor Fest. More than a thousand people showed up at a large dairy barn in the middle of snow-covered grasslands. Buoyed by this support, LaFond sprung into action. 

Part of that reputation comes from their efforts to make Alabama Audubon more representative of the state. For decades, Payne says, the organization would run field trips to the Black Belt Prairie Region, or Black Belt, a crescent-shaped, biologically and geologically distinct area that extends from southwestern Tennessee through east-central Mississippi and then across central Alabama. The Black Belt owes its name to its rich soil but also the agricultural slave economy that grew there because of this fertile land. Later, Civil Rights struggles played out in towns like Selma and Greensboro. Today, it remains extremely poor.

“This region is characterized by weathered rolling plains of relatively low relief developed on chalk and marl of the Cretaceous Selma chalk,” according to one ecological assessment. “Historically, the natural communities of the Black Belt consisted of a mosaic of various hardwood and mixed hardwood/pine forests, chalk outcrops and prairies.”

Kirtland's Warbler. Photo by Joel Trick, USFWS.

To learn more about the organization and its efforts, as well as to contribute directly, please visit the Grassland Bird Trust website or click the donateb  

A juvenile Green Heron about to be banded. Photo by Sam Griswold.

“I was hesitant to move here. Here’s the thing, though,” he says. “People have to overcome what they think Alabama means to them. That’s our history. I wish people would recognize the complexity of the state, and how so many of the terrible stories of American history happened here, but also the heroic response to those terrible stories also happened here.”

Birmingham Audubon Society, as the organization was known when Payne joined (he led its name change last year), had been run by dedicated volunteers until 2013, but with significant support from the estate of a local family, it has grown its staff and its ambitions. With federal and state money, it opened a field office on the Gulf Coast to manage the protection and monitoring of beach-nesting birds there. Payne became executive director in the spring of 2018; their staff is now up to 10 employees, with several coastal biologists plus a conservation director.

“I think it’s a trajectory that any nonprofit would be proud of,” Payne says.

In recent years, their efforts have centered on making Alabama Audubon more reflective of the state. For decades, Payne says, the organization would run field trips to the Black Belt Prairie Region, or Black Belt, a crescent-shaped, biologically and geologically distinct area that extends from southwestern Tennessee through east-central Mississippi and across central Alabama. The Black Belt owes its name to its rich soil but also the agricultural slave economy that grew there because of that fertile land. Later, heroic Civil Rights struggles played out in towns like Selma and Greensboro.

Bald cypress trees at one of the oxbow lakes of Perry Lakes Park. Photo courtesy of Alabama Audubon.

Golden-winged Warblers nest in young forests, or brushy wetland openings within mixed-age deciduous forests, also known as early-successional habitat. The types of disturbances that once created these gaps in a forest, like blow-downs or local wildfires, rarely happen anymore. And it isn’t only Golden-winged Warblers that have suffered, but other fellow travelers like American Woodcock and Ruffed Grouse.

A decade ago, a coalition of agencies and organizations identified the Golden-winged Warbler as an urgent priority and created comprehensive plans to reverse its decline. ABC answered the call for action, securing funding to hire foresters who would restore or create their preferred habitat. With a grant from the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund, ABC hired a forester to work on state, federal, and tribal lands. And in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, ABC has partnered with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, a federal agency that provides incentives to private landowners for proper forest management. ABC’s team is now up to seven foresters.

"This region is characterized by weathered rolling plains of relatively low relief developed on chalk and marl of the Cretaceous Selma chalk,” according to one ecological assessment. “Historically, the natural communities of the Black Belt consisted of a mosaic of various hardwood and mixed hardwood/pine forests, chalk outcrops and prairies.”

Those prairies formed an important ecosystem in the Southeast, but by the beginning of the 20th century they were all but gone – gobbled up by agriculture or development. The birds of the Black Belt, however, remained an attraction. But when Alabama Audubon’s members visited, they rarely spent much money in the area before driving back to Birmingham, which never sat well with Payne and others within the organization. In several Black Belt counties, a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line and many lack access to health care and running water.

Remnants of old-growth forest at Perry Lakes Park. Photo courtesy of Alabama Audubon.

2019 Hale County Black Belt Birding Tour. Photo by Mike Fernandez, Audubon.

There is also very little public land. Alabama Audubon’s members would visit an old-growth cypress swamp called Perry Lakes Park, where they’d find Prothonotary Warblers and Bald Eagles, and a state-owned, appointment-only quail plantation, but otherwise they did their birding from the highway shoulder, bracing themselves against gusts from speeding trucks. It was not ideal.

“Everyone thought we were part of a funeral,” Payne says. “We would stand there and watch out across a private farm field.”

What they were looking for were Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites overhead, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Loggerhead Shrikes on fence posts, Indigo and Painted Buntings in the fields, Summer Tanagers in the woods. What Payne was also hoping to find, and he had been for several years, were African-American landowners with whom they might partner to bring ecotourism and conservation to the Black Belt.


A chance encounter in the summer of 2018 changed everything. On one trip, birders had watched from afar as Cornelius Joe and his son Christopher mowed their hay fields as kites swirled around them grabbing insects in their wake. To the birders it was an incredible show, but one in which Chris and his father had no idea they were leading players.

“I remember seeing some cars off the highway in the distance,” Chris says now. “I had no idea what they were doing, but it turns out they were watching the kites.”

Chris had never heard of birding, but as a district conservationist for the USDA, he was already well-versed in wildlife and habitat management. He also had been working at his multi-generational, family-owned farm since he was old enough to walk. A short while later, he came across photos on Instagram of Alabama Audubon’s Black Belt outing, posted by its new outreach director, Sarah Randolph. He reached out to her, and within days, Chris was touring Payne and past president Greg Harber around the farm.

They knew instantly that it was a perfect match. “It was as though the universe heard what we were looking for,” Payne says.

Those prairies formed an important ecosystem in the Southeast, but by the beginning of the 20th century, they were all but gone – gobbled up by agriculture or development. The birds of the Black Belt, however, remained an attraction. But when Alabama Audubon’s members visited, they rarely spent much money in the area before driving back to Birmingham, which never sat well with Payne and others within the organization. In several Black Belt counties, a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line and many lack access to health care and running water.

There is also very little public land. Alabama Audubon’s members would visit an old-growth cypress swamp called Perry Lakes Park, in Hale County, where they’d find Prothonotary Warblers and Bald Eagles, and a state-owned, appointment-only quail plantation, but otherwise they did their birding from the highway shoulder, bracing themselves against gusts from speeding trucks. It was not ideal.

Cornelius Joe and Dr. Drew Lanham, author, poet and wildlife biologist. Photo by Mike Fernandez, Audubon.

Alabama is one of America’s most biodiverse states, with landscapes ranging from its Gulf Coast migratory pit-stop to plateau country in the north, from coastal plain to mountains, and in between the rolling plains of the Black Belt region. Except Ansel Payne, the executive director of the 75-year-old Alabama Audubon, believes relatively few birders and nature lovers are aware of that – a realization he himself came to only fairly recently.

“I think the truth is, if people were only thinking about birds and nature, this would be on every birder’s wishlist,” he says. “There are just too many good things to see in one spot. Where else can you see Cerulean Warblers and then drive a couple hours and see Painted Buntings and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers?”

He pauses. “Nowhere!”

Kirtland's Warbler. Photo by Joel Trick, USFWS.

“I remember seeing some cars off the highway in the distance,” Chris says. “I had no idea what they were doing, but it turns out they were watching the kites.”

Chris had never heard of birding, but as a district conservationist for the USDA, he was already well-versed in wildlife and habitat management. He also had been working at the farm, Joe-owned for more than a century, since he was old enough to walk. A short while later, he came across photos on Instagram of Alabama Audubon’s Black Belt outing posted by its new outreach director, Sarah Randolph. He reached out to her, and within days, Chris was touring Payne and past president Greg Harber around the farm on a tractor.

They knew instantly that it was a perfect match. “It was as though the universe heard what we were looking for,” Payne says.

Chris drove them in a tractor along six miles of trails on his family's 200-acre farm, through wet woods alongside narrow Big Prairie Creek, beside pastures filled with dozens of Black Angus cows. His father had taught agriculture-related classes in the Tuscaloosa school system for 34 years, but having retired a couple years earlier, he now focused exclusively on their cattle. Chris was himself looking for ways to bring people to their farm, and to him this novel activity of birding sounded like a great idea. The birders would come, Payne promised, because many sought-after birds were already there: The Joe Farm, Payne said, was in the heartland of Painted Bunting and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher territory.

Chris hosted a few small groups beginning in February 2019, while he and Alabama Audubon planned a much larger event for that summer. It took place in July, and more than 130 people came to the farm. Today, Chris recalls his excitement. “I got to the farm the night before, washed the tractor off, hooked up the trailer, put the hay bales on there.”

They organized a catered lunch at their church, and afterward everyone headed to the farm. One woman had traveled from South Carolina. They saw lots of Mississippi Kites and one Swallow-tailed, Wood Storks, Loggerhead Shrikes, Summer Tanagers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. Chris says he was overcome by the response, as was his whole family.

“I didn’t have a handle on how needed it was, especially in the area we’re in,” Chris says of tourism in the Black Belt. “I stumbled on it and here we are!”

Since then, Chris has hosted individuals and groups, large and small, and he recently organized several events: a kite festival and a fall carnival. He purchased a custom-made 18-foot trailer with a spring-loaded rear ramp so that all visitors can get around the farm. He estimates that more than 300 people have visited in two years. And he’s never paid for advertising; Instagram has been his window into the birding world. He’s recently partnered with a bed & breakfast in Selma to create more of a package deal, and he’s also entertaining the idea of allowing birders to camp on the property.

2019 Hale County Black Belt Birding Tour. Photo by Mike Fernandez, Audubon.

These events are a family affair, Chris says. One of his older brothers, Timothy, is an artist who offers bird sketching classes to visitors; his older brother Cornelius and younger sister Denise will taxi people on their Gator utility vehicle if they fall behind the group. His mother Leola handles the entertainment, and his father Cornelius drives the trailer. His wife Christy helps while their one-year-old daughter Summer seems almost ready for her own binoculars.

Alabama Audubon had planned four events at the Joe Farm this year, but they were forced to cancel them because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Payne hopes to restart them next year. “I think what’s so beautiful is we’re just playing a facilitating role in this ground-up movement toward Black spaces, Black birders, Black nature awareness,” he says. “It’s totally de-centered from the white conservation organizations.”

Today, Chris is in conversations with raptor specialists at the University of Mississippi to install Barn Owl boxes; in addition, he has been studying pollinator-friendly native plants to supplement the wildflowers already growing there. He and his father are also going to build a tower for Chimney Swifts, part of an Alabama Audubon monitoring and conservation program that helps replace chimneys with other structures as breeding sites.

Barton's Beach at Perry Lakes Park. Photo courtesy of Alabama Audubon.

Payne envisions a Black Belt birding network, and he’s speaking to a few other landowners about following in the Joe family footsteps. To that end, they’ve raised almost $250,000 from grants and foundations to open an office in Greensboro and hire Meg Ford, a Birmingham native and musician and educator, to lead efforts to bring the economic and environmental benefits of ecotourism to a rural area rich in nature and birds but starved of the resources to showcase it.

Part of that work also includes helping to restore the now-closed Perry Lakes Park – a unique ecosystem of oxbow lakes and hardwood floodplain forest on the Cahaba River, where wading birds, woodpeckers, and the songs of Prothonotary Warblers fill the cypress swamps. It’s state-owned but the lease was held until this summer by Perry County, one of the poorest in Alabama. 

The county has had to shoulder much of the long-term maintenance, an extremely difficult task given its financial state; it can't afford to hire someone to open the gate on a daily basis, for instance, or keep up the trails and facilities. For many years, support came from students of small Judson College nearby and a professor there named Thomas Wilson; they carved out trails, built boardwalks, secured money for a birding tower, and brought in Rural Studio, Auburn University's famous design-build architecture program, to erect structures. They also helped defeat a move by the state to timber the whole place.

But community involvement has faded in recent years, and on a recent visit, Payne and Meg Ford found it wrecked. “Mostly by entropy, and then also by some storms that came through,” Payne says. Trails hadn’t been cut out in a while, and they got lost in swamps that alligators and snakes call home. "You don’t want to get lost in there,” he says with a laugh.

Canoe view of one oxbow lake at Perry Lakes Park. Photo courtesy of Alabama Audubon.

They worked quickly to create a coalition with other local nature organizations and Rural Studio, and Alabama Audubon is now accepting donations earmarked for Perry Lakes Park. The groups are working to repair trails and boardwalks. Details of the lease are being worked out between the state and county, Payne says, and he hopes that the entity ultimately in charge will call on Alabama Audubon’s logistical capacity and volunteers to help bring it back.

It’s just one of a number of Alabama Audubon's initiatives; with three offices now, in Birmingham, the Black Belt, and the Gulf Coast, the scope of their conservation work continues to grow. “I think we’re developing a reputation as a national leader among Audubon organizations,” Payne says proudly.

2019 Hale County Black Belt Birding Tour.
Photo by Mike Fernandez, Audubon.

Payne moved to Alabama in the summer of 2015 after his wife received a professorship at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He grew up in West Virginia, an hour north of Charleston, attended college in New England, and continued his studies at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. A year into his Alabama residence, he got a job as a naturalist for Alabama Audubon, and months later became its outreach director. He’s now a champion for the state and its birds.

“I was hesitant to move here. Here’s the thing, though,” he says. “People have to overcome what they think Alabama means to them. That’s our history. I wish people would recognize the complexity of the state, and how so many of the terrible stories of American history happened here, but also the heroic response to those terrible stories also happened here.”

Birmingham Audubon Society, as the organization was known when Payne joined (he led its name change last year), had been run by dedicated volunteers until 2013, but with significant support from the estate of a local family, it has grown its staff and its ambitions. With federal and state money, it opened a field office on the Gulf Coast to manage the protection and monitoring of beach-nesting birds there. Payne became executive director in the spring of 2018; their staff is now up to 10 employees, with several coastal biologists plus a conservation director.

A juvenile Green Heron about to be banded.
Photo by Sam Griswold.

“I think it’s a trajectory that any nonprofit would be proud of,” Payne says.

In recent years, their efforts have centered on making Alabama Audubon more reflective of the state. For decades, Payne says, the organization would run field trips to the Black Belt Prairie Region, or Black Belt, a crescent-shaped, biologically and geologically distinct area that extends from southwestern Tennessee through east-central Mississippi and across central Alabama. The Black Belt owes its name to its rich soil but also the agricultural slave economy that grew there because of that fertile land. Later, heroic Civil Rights struggles played out in towns like Selma and Greensboro.

“This region is characterized by weathered rolling plains of relatively low relief developed on chalk and marl of the Cretaceous Selma chalk,” according to one ecological assessment. “Historically, the natural communities of the Black Belt consisted of a mosaic of various hardwood and mixed hardwood/pine forests, chalk outcrops and prairies.”

Remnants of old-growth forest at Perry Lakes Park.
Photo courtesy of Alabama Audubon.

Those prairies formed an important ecosystem in the Southeast, but by the beginning of the 20th century they were all but gone – gobbled up by agriculture or development. The birds of the Black Belt, however, remained an attraction. But when Alabama Audubon’s members visited, they rarely spent much money in the area before driving back to Birmingham, which never sat well with Payne and others within the organization. In several Black Belt counties, a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line and many lack access to health care and running water.

There is also very little public land. Alabama Audubon’s members would visit an old-growth cypress swamp called Perry Lakes Park, where they’d find Prothonotary Warblers and Bald Eagles, and a state-owned, appointment-only quail plantation, but otherwise they did their birding from the highway shoulder, bracing themselves against gusts from speeding trucks. It was not ideal.

“Everyone thought we were part of a funeral,” Payne says. “We would stand there and watch out across a private farm field.”

What they were looking for were Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites overhead, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Loggerhead Shrikes on fence posts, Indigo and Painted Buntings in the fields, Summer Tanagers in the woods. What Payne was also hoping to find, and he had been for several years, were African-American landowners with whom they might partner to bring ecotourism and conservation to the Black Belt.

2019 Hale County Black Belt Birding Tour.
Photo by Mike Fernandez, Audubon.

A chance encounter in the summer of 2018 changed everything. On one trip, birders had watched from afar as Cornelius Joe and his son Christopher mowed their hay fields as kites swirled around them grabbing insects in their wake. To the birders it was an incredible show, but one in which Chris and his father had no idea they were leading players.

“I remember seeing some cars off the highway in the distance,” Chris says now. “I had no idea what they were doing, but it turns out they were watching the kites.”

Chris had never heard of birding, but as a district conservationist for the USDA, he was already well-versed in wildlife and habitat management. He also had been working at his multi-generational, family-owned farm since he was old enough to walk. A short while later, he came across photos on Instagram of Alabama Audubon’s Black Belt outing, posted by its new outreach director, Sarah Randolph. He reached out to her, and within days, Chris was touring Payne and past president Greg Harber around the farm.

They knew instantly that it was a perfect match. “It was as though the universe heard what we were looking for,” Payne says.

Cornelius Joe and Dr. Drew Lanham, author and biologist.
Photo by Mike Fernandez, Audubon.

Chris drove them in a tractor along six miles of trails on his family's 200-acre farm, through wet woods alongside narrow Big Prairie Creek, beside pastures filled with dozens of Black Angus cows. His father had taught agriculture-related classes in the Tuscaloosa school system for 34 years, but having retired a couple years earlier, he now focused exclusively on their cattle. Chris was himself looking for ways to bring people to their farm, and to him this novel activity of birding sounded like a great idea. The birders would come, Payne promised, because many sought-after birds were already there: The Joe Farm, Payne said, was in the heartland of Painted Bunting and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher territory.

Chris hosted a few small groups beginning in February 2019, while he and Alabama Audubon planned a much larger event for that summer. It took place in July, and more than 130 people came to the farm. Today, Chris recalls his excitement. “I got to the farm the night before, washed the tractor off, hooked up the trailer, put the hay bales on there.”

They organized a catered lunch at their church, and afterward everyone headed to the farm. One woman had traveled from South Carolina. They saw lots of Mississippi Kites and one Swallow-tailed, Wood Storks, Loggerhead Shrikes, Summer Tanagers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. Chris says he was overcome by the response, as was his whole family.

2019 Hale County Black Belt Birding Tour.
Photo by Mike Fernandez, Audubon.

"I didn’t have a handle on how needed it was, especially in the area we’re in,” Chris says of tourism in the Black Belt. “I stumbled on it and here we are!”

Since then, Chris has hosted individuals and groups, large and small, and he recently organized several events: a kite festival and a fall carnival. He purchased a custom-made 18-foot trailer with a spring-loaded rear ramp so that all visitors can get around the farm. He estimates that more than 300 people have visited in two years. And he’s never paid for advertising; Instagram has been his window into the birding world. He’s recently partnered with a bed & breakfast in Selma to create more of a package deal, and he’s also entertaining the idea of allowing birders to camp on the property.

These events are a family affair, Chris says. One of his older brothers, Timothy, is an artist who offers bird sketching classes to visitors; his older brother Cornelius and younger sister Denise will taxi people on their Gator utility vehicle if they fall behind the group. His mother Leola handles the entertainment, and his father Cornelius drives the trailer. His wife Christy helps while their one-year-old daughter Summer seems almost ready for her own binoculars.

Alabama Audubon had planned four events at the Joe Farm this year, but they were forced to cancel them because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Payne hopes to restart them next year. “I think what’s so beautiful is we’re just playing a facilitating role in this ground-up movement toward Black spaces, Black birders, Black nature awareness,” he says. “It’s totally de-centered from the white conservation organizations.”

Today, Chris is in conversations with raptor specialists at the University of Mississippi to install Barn Owl boxes; in addition, he has been studying pollinator-friendly native plants to supplement the wildflowers already growing there. He and his father are also going to build a tower for Chimney Swifts, part of an Alabama Audubon monitoring and conservation program that helps replace chimneys with other structures as breeding sites.

Chimney Swift. Photo courtesy of Alabama Audubon.

Payne envisions a Black Belt birding network, and he’s speaking to a few other landowners about following in the Joe family footsteps. To that end, they’ve raised almost $250,000 from grants and foundations to open an office in Greensboro and hire Meg Ford, a Birmingham native and musician and educator, to lead efforts to bring the economic and environmental benefits of ecotourism to a rural area rich in nature and birds but starved of the resources to showcase it.

Part of that work also includes helping to restore the now-closed Perry Lakes Park – a unique ecosystem of oxbow lakes and hardwood floodplain forest on the Cahaba River, where wading birds, woodpeckers, and the songs of Prothonotary Warblers fill the cypress swamps. It’s state-owned but the lease was held until this summer by Perry County, one of the poorest in Alabama. 

Barton's Beach at Perry Lakes Park.
Photo courtesy of Alabama Audubon.

The county has had to shoulder much of the long-term maintenance, an extremely difficult task given its financial state; it can't afford to hire someone to open the gate on a daily basis, for instance, or keep up the trails and facilities. For many years, support came from students of small Judson College nearby and a professor there named Thomas Wilson; they carved out trails, built boardwalks, secured money for a birding tower, and brought in Rural Studio, Auburn University's famous design-build architecture program, to erect structures. They also helped defeat a move by the state to timber the whole place.

But community involvement has faded in recent years, and on a recent visit, Payne and Meg Ford found it wrecked. “Mostly by entropy, and then also by some storms that came through,” Payne says. Trails hadn’t been cut out in a while, and they got lost in swamps that alligators and snakes call home. "You don’t want to get lost in there,” he says with a laugh.

Canoe view of an oxbow lake at Perry Lakes Park.
Photo courtesy of Alabama Audubon.

They worked quickly to create a coalition with other local nature organizations and Rural Studio, and Alabama Audubon is now accepting donations earmarked for Perry Lakes Park. The groups are working to repair trails and boardwalks. Details of the lease are being worked out between the state and county, Payne says, and he hopes that the entity ultimately in charge will call on Alabama Audubon’s logistical capacity and volunteers to help bring it back.

It’s just one of a number of Alabama Audubon's initiatives; with three offices now, in Birmingham, the Black Belt, and the Gulf Coast, the scope of their conservation work continues to grow. “I think we’re developing a reputation as a national leader among Audubon organizations,” Payne says proudly.

To learn more about Alabama Audubon, as well as to contribute directly, please visit its website or click the DONATE button below.

Alabama Audubon, started as Birmingham Audubon Society in 1946, promotes conservation and a greater knowledge of birds, their habitats, and the natural world. We've designed a special collection to support its statewide conservation initiatives, including in the Black Belt. We'll donate at least 20 percent of the profits to those efforts. Look for details in the product descriptions.