We often curse the heat and humidity when they blanket Alabama during the summer months. But those conditions—combined with abundant water resources and sunlight—support an incredible diversity of animal species across the state.
Alabama boasts 420 species of birds, 93 types of native reptiles, 30 frog species, and 43 species of salamanders. Add in the thousands of types of plants that grow in the state, and you have more than 4,500 wild species, making Alabama one of the five most biodiverse places in the country—something that comes as a surprise to many.
“Alabama is the Fort Knox of the nation’s biodiversity,” says Georgia Whit Gibbons, a retired ecology professor at the University of Georgia.
Several events across the state give outdoor enthusiasts great opportunities to experience this wealth of wildlife. From birds to bats to eagles and snakes, the most fascinating creatures in Alabama take center stage at these eight excellent wildlife-watching events.
1. Gray Bats of Sauta Cave
On a summer evening at Sauta Cave in north Alabama, the sun begins to set. Suddenly, as if on cue, 300,000 gray bats—the largest population east of the Mississippi River—burst from the mouth of the cave and flood the twilight sky. From June to August, this scene is repeated every night, giving visitors many opportunities to witness one of nature’s truly dramatic events.
The cave is located at the Sauta Cave National Refuge along an embankment of Lake Guntersville near Scottsboro. While you can visit on your own, the best way to view this remarkable sight is by donning a poncho (to avoid being covered with bat droppings) and joining naturalists from Land Trust of North Alabama on a “Tuesdays on the Trail” hike to the cave. The hike is really just a short walk of about 100 yards, so it’s doable for people of all ages, including kids, and it’s free. During the outing, which usually starts around 7 pm, you’ll see the bats put on their show and have a chance to talk with biologists, who provide expert insight on the bats and answer questions.
2. Eagle Awareness Weekend
In 1984, Lake Guntersville State Park established Eagle Awareness Weekends to educate the public about these majestic birds as well as the conservation efforts of the Alabama Nongame Wildlife Program, which was created to protect raptors in Alabama.
Held over several weekends in January, Eagle Awareness events include presentations, demonstrations, and hikes to view bald and golden eagles. Each weekend begins with a Friday evening program that includes speakers and a social gathering. After that, it’s a packed schedule of educational talks and field trips to see the birds and other wildlife in their natural environment.
3. Indigo Snake and Wildlife Festival
The Indigo Snake and Wildlife Festival is a celebration of two endangered species of reptiles that are indigenous to longleaf pine forests like those in Alabama—the Eastern indigo (North America’s largest non-venomous snake), and the gopher tortoise. The festival is held every May at the Conecuh National Forest Open Pond Recreation Area in Andalusia.
Known (and named) for their iridescent blue-black color, Eastern indigo snakes live in the sandy confines of longleaf pine forests alongside the gopher tortoise. And, as you’ll learn, they actually live in the same burrow. In addition, you’ll also hear about efforts to bring both back from the brink of extinction. Visitors will have the chance not only to see but also to touch the snakes, while learning about the many other animals that call the longleaf forest home.
4. Share the Beach
While this isn’t a scheduled event, it’s one outdoor enthusiasts don’t want to miss. From July through October each year, loggerhead and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles—the latter the most endangered sea turtle in the world—hatch along Alabama’s Gulf Coast and make the dangerous dash from the nest to the Gulf waters.
Each April, volunteers with the Share the Beach program begin combing the beaches from Fort Morgan to Orange Beach looking for nests. The volunteers work to protect the nests, make observations, and also educate the public about turtle conservation. About 45 to 55 days after the female turtle lays her eggs, more than 100 hatchlings make the arduous journey to the ocean.
When you visit the Alabama beaches this summer, stop and talk to one of the volunteers wearing a green Share the Beach shirt. Volunteers are eager to share information about when the eggs are likely to hatch, so you can wait with other visitors from around the world to see it happen.
But the best way to experience this extraordinary event is to become a volunteer. Volunteer work requires specialized training on U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service rules and regulations. A complete list of volunteer opportunities and applications can be found on the Share the Beach volunteer website.
5. Festival of the Cranes
Many people don’t know that Alabama is a major stopping point in the annual migration of sandhill cranes as well as the endangered whooping crane. Each year, more than 20,000 cranes migrate into Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur, and an annual festival celebrates their arrival.
The free, two-day Festival of the Cranes is held in early February and includes workshops, opportunities to view the birds, hands-on activities for kids, and photography exhibits.
6. Alabama Nature Center
A fun and educational time is all but guaranteed at the Alabama Wildlife Federation’s Alabama Nature Center in Millbrook. Each weekend throughout the year boasts a special wildlife event. One week it might be “Turtle and Tortoise Time” or “Reptile Rendezvous”, where both kids and parents get hands-on experience with turtles, snakes, and alligators; the next it could be a guided nature hike to view whitetail deer and eagles, and catch and ID insects. There is a small admission fee for each event, with proceeds benefiting ANC’s educational programs.
7. Alabama Coastal Birdfest
Bird lovers may flock to the Alabama Coastal Birdfest, but this nature-centric festival is a great way for any outdoor enthusiast to appreciate all kinds of wildlife, not just the winged ones.
The four-day gathering takes place the first week of October and is headquartered at the 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center in Spanish Fort. Participants attend classroom presentations about birding and then hit the Gulf Coast birding trails to check off a few species from their list. They also have plenty of opportunities to view dolphins playing in the Gulf surf and alligators lurking in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta.
Many of the events the first three days have an admission fee, but the Bird & Conservation Expo on the final Saturday is free and offers chances to get up close with raptors, snakes, and many other creatures.
8. Turkey Creek Nature Preserve BioBlitz
The BioBlitz is a fun way to get down and dirty with wildlife at the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve in Pinson, just north of Birmingham. During this 24-hour event that spans two days, members of the public join teachers, students, and scientists in exploring the fantastic array of plants, fungi, reptiles, and other animals on the 466-acre preserve. The event helps the scientific community learn more about this unique and fragile environment, and it has led to the discovery of four new protected species.
Everyone is invited to join this unique experience, and camping is available for those who want to spend the night. (The nature preserve provides dinner the first night and breakfast the following morning, but RSVPs are required.) The timing of the BioBlitz alternates between spring and fall each year, so check the nature preserve website for dates.
Written by Joe Cuhaj for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL.