Ecotourism and Nature Travel to the Gulf Shores of Alabama, Part 1

Reader Contribution by Lisa Kivirist and Inn Serendipity
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In Alabama, there’s a narrow strip of snow white beaches that stretch for 32 miles, providing seasonal homes to nesting Loggerhead, Kemp’s Ridley and Green turtles. Pods of dolphins frolic just off shore and hundreds of migratory bird species find refuge in the coastal scrub or maritime forests. It’s called paradise by many, eager to walk the beach, crash waves, jump on skim boards or sunbathe. On a map, it goes by Orange Beach or the Gulf Shores.

In nearly every way, the shimmering azure expanse of the Gulf of Mexico captivates with its soothing waves licking upon the shore, gulls arguing over a newfound edible treasure, or the graceful pelicans skimming the water’s surface. Despite the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, or in some ways because of it, these communities have re-emerged as hotspots for an escape into nature.

On a recent trip with husband-photographer, John Ivanko, we experienced Alabama’s wild side on foot, in a kayak, with fishing poles on a coastal safari, and in a warrior II yoga pose. This is the first of two posts sharing the ecotourism adventures to be had, including a first for us, hand-releasing a newly banded migratory bird. As we covered separately, the area is also becoming known as a food traveler destination.

Coastal Birding for Birders

You don’t even need to be a seasoned birder to enjoy the experience of bird-banding with the Birmingham Audubon Society. It takes place during the annual spring and fall migration at the Fort Morgan Historical Park, about 30 miles from Orange Beach. This birding hotspot at Fort Morgan, designated as “One Hundred Globally Important Bird Areas” by the American Bird Conservancy, is part of the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail, a network of six birding loops spanning over 200 coastal miles.

“This is the birds’ first stop for food after a six-hundred-mile journey,” explains Brittany Peterson, manager of the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge and birding expert. “Think about yourself, if you drove that long in your car non-stop without eating or drinking.  It’s a pretty amazing feat that something this small can do that year after year,” she adds as she holds the small Northern Wood Thrush in her hands that was just banded and weighed for tracking research. 

“Now who would like to release him?” Peterson asks.  Hands quickly pop up. The crowd includes both seasoned birders, judging by their gear, hats, pins and patches, as well as those new to catching a glimpse of these tiny but mighty species on their rest break. Everyone was entranced by this rare opportunity to handle and release the banded birds back into the air from their hands. For a moment, you felt a bit like James Audubon himself, the ornithologist and bird illustrator often credited with coming up with the very first bird-banding experiment.

The birding bonanza continues at the over 7,000-acre Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. The name Bon Secour is derived, appropriately enough, from the French words meaning “safe harbor,” with this protected area making up some of the most globally imperiled coastal scrub remaining in Alabama. It sits along the flyway of millions of bird migrants every spring and fall. 

“The spring migration peaking every April offers an amazing amount of bird species all at once that you simply can’t see in one place,” entices Peterson. “With 340 different species recorded at Bon Secour, if you get there at the right time you can check-off your whole species list at once.”

Ecotourism Adventures: Kayaking and Biking

Who can turn down a chance to say you went kayaking with alligators? Guided by Stephanie Williams, a naturalist with Ike’s Beach Service, we paddled across the shimmering waters of Lake Shelby in the Gulf State Park. “While I’ve only seen baby alligators, should you be approached by a larger one, just take your paddle and smack it loudly on the front of the bow of your kayak,” advises Williams with a grin.

While no gators were ever spotted on our trip, our small group of seven enjoyed plying across the waters of the brackish lake, caused by the salt water from the ocean meets the fresh spring water feeding the lake. Instead of gators, we watched as a graceful osprey circled around her nest nearby.

Paddling with a guide offers a backstory to what we were witnessing and, especially for beginner kayakers, Williams navigated the group through a marsh and with the tides when possible. “The first part we’ll be paddling is against the wind, so be prepared to pump it,” encourages Williams. “But we’ll be rewarded coming back with an easy, relaxing ride.” Just make sure you’re in your swimsuit since waves may crest over the front of your kayak.

You can also take in the Alabama Gulf Coast on a bicycle. Stop by Beach Bike Rentals and leisurely explore the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, a 15-mile trail that traverses six different ecosystems.

Inshore fishing with Intercoastal Safaris

Hook and cook your dinner of flounder, redfish, pompano, sheepshead or speckled trout, while getting an insightful backstory to the ecology and culture alongside an entertaining side dish of  local flavors of the area with a guided fishing tour with Intercoastal Safaris. That’s what we tried next, as the afternoon heat and humidity started to kick in. It’s Alabama, after all.

“People will call me the best fishing guide all the time, but I’m not a fishing guide,” laughs the warm and friendly owner of Intercoastal Safaris, Steven Lee, self-dubbed “hospitality manager” and owner of the operation. “Really and truly what I want to tell them is we’re a marketing company that happens to excel at hospitality.” Lee went on over 300 guided hunting and fishing trips and pulled together the best of the best practices for his guided and custom created tours, tailored to a variety of audiences and working with a network of over 25 vetted guides in the area. “We’re the top ranked bachelor party outside of Las Vegas,” he adds with a wink while sticking to the nature interpretation and fishing advice with our small group of six.

While the fishing stories and local lore are bountiful on an Intercoastal Safaris cruise, it’s the opportunity to experience the coast from a boat that will truly draw you in. Captain Mike expertly turned our vessel around after he spots a pod of dolphins frolicking and feeding under the Perdido Pass Bridge. Our group snapped lots of photos, since none of us lived where we can get this close to them without being in the Splash Zone of SeaWorld or a zoo.

In true fishing story fashion, we did indeed almost hook our dinner of flounder while fishing off a rocky breaker at Alabama Point. This is, before our line broke. We didn’t feel too bad, since a nearby boat of local fishermen didn’t seem to be doing any better.

Lisa Kivirist, with her husband, John D. Ivanko, a photographer and drone pilot, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef cookbook along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by renewable energy. Kivirist also authored Soil Sisters. As a writer, Kivirist contributes to MOTHER EARTH NEWS, most recently, Living with Renewable Energy Systems: Wind and Solar and 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son, Liam, and millions of ladybugs.

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