Finding the Best Trails for Spotting Wild Turkey in Alabama

Wild turkeys display their feathers for the hens.
Wild turkeys display their feathers for the hens. Rodney Campbell
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Have you ever spotted a turkey outside of your grocer’s freezer? As if there aren’t enough reasons to take to the trails this fall in Alabama, getting a peek at wild turkeys and other feathered friends are attracting more and more people to explore the outdoors. The state sits along the corridor of many fall migration routes, and more than 430 different species of birds find food, warmth, safety, and rest in Alabama.

Some stay for an extended period of time while others are passing through on their route from northern Canada and New England down to the warmer tropical temperatures of South America. Birding is not only alive and well here, it is one of the fastest growing outdoor activities in the state of Alabama. It now brings the state more tourism dollars than hunting and fishing combined, and for good reason.

Ask any avid birder where the best trails are off the beaten path, and you’ll likely get many different versions of the same answer—it depends on the season and the type of bird you hope to spy. You’ll find eight major birding trails in Alabama, each favored for the specific types of birds that may be viewed on its paths. Whether you’re hoping to watch a bald eagle feed its babies in the shelter of the nest or see dozens of rose-breasted Grosbeaks crash land into the branches of a tree, Alabama’s birding trails have it all.

The best time to spot turkeys is early in the morning when they find water to drink.
The best time to spot turkeys is early in the morning when they find water to drink. Olin Gilbert

As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, why not try and flushing out some gobblers? Turkeys are fickle birds (as are most), and they are very introverted from the outside world. You will only view them on their terms, and usually by surprise. The absolute best time to “accidentally” stumble upon a flock of wild turkeys is early in the morning as they make their way down to their favorite watering hole. That’s not to say that you won’t happen across them at other times of the day, but early mornings near a water source is usually the best bet if you’re seeking them out.

Wild turkeys prefer to travel in single-sex flocks most of the year and their gobbles can be heard for a mile or more. They are fast on their feet and can reach top running speeds of 25 miles per hour. Most people see these large majestic birds and don’t realize that they can fly. Though they only fly short distances, they can reach speeds of up to 55 miles per hour when going full tilt. Turkeys roost in trees at night and are particularly partial to oaks and pines.

One of my all-time favorite places to go bird watching, and a pretty good spot to get a gander of some wild turkeys, is at Turkey Creek Nature Preserve in Pinson, Alabama. The preserve is located in a transitional zone with a biologically unique habitat. It is home to at least seven different protected species of wildlife, some of which are exclusive to the preserve. Turkey Creek Nature Preserve is 466 acres of spectacular wildlife, stunning waterfalls, and spring-fed clear water creeks. When windy fronts push traveling birds to the ground, many of them land here in the safety of the preserve.

Turkey Creek Falls in the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve, which makes for a great hike with or without spotting a turkey.
Turkey Creek Falls in the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve, which makes for a great hike with or without spotting a turkey. Curtis Palmer

There are four incredible trails here that are ideal for hiking and bird watching alike. The best part is they are open to the public in all of their splendor. Each well-marked trail is blazed (making it easy to follow) and there are plenty of places to stop for a rest. Benches are scattered throughout the paths to offer a seat in the shade when it’s needed most. Kiosks are strategically placed throughout the preserve with information about all of the trails. The two favored trails here are Thompson Trace (1.4 miles) and Hanby Hollow (.9 miles).

Thompson Trace follows the ridgeline above the creek and Hanby hollow offers varied terrain. Wild turkeys usually cross these trails in the morning to get to the creek for their early morning drink. Some of the other species of birds you can expect to encounter on these trails includes a full complement of warblers, pileated woodpeckers, and scarlet tanagers. Belted kingfishers, great blue herons, and, of course, wild turkeys, can be spotted near the water.

Resident manager, Charles Yeager, often leads birding hikes in the preserve for guests, fellow birders, and students. He leads them down the winding trails with their binoculars and souped up cameras pointing out different species of birds and educating them as to their qualities and habits. It is a truly magnificent experience.

Dauphin Island on Alabama's coast features a wide variety of birds like this prothonotary warbler.
Dauphin Island on Alabama's coast features a wide variety of birds like this prothonotary warbler. HarmonyonPlanetEarth

Another incredible place to view birds on their fall migration routes is at the Audubon Bird Sanctuary on Dauphin Island . Dauphin Island is known as the sunset capital of Alabama and it hosts 137 acres of nautical forests, marshes, and dunes. The National Audubon Society has recognized the Bird Sanctuary here as being “globally important.”

A 3-mile trail system is embedded on the eastern end of the island that hosts refuge for 420 different species of birds. This is often their last stop on the fall migration route before they cross the gulf to Central and South America. The island boasts 4.3 miles of trails that loop around a lake and a swamp, and one even follows the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico. The ancient live oaks on the island provide insects and cover that the neotropical migrants depend on. An information box at the north end of the mound tells of recent bird sightings and offers a bird card for the island that can be invaluable to watchers. Migratory birds such as merlins and stilt sandpipers pass through here on their fall migrations. Ruby-throated hummingbirds, yellow-rumped warblers, and wild turkeys are not uncommon in this coastal region of Alabama. The diversity of the bird population here is a huge attraction.

If you are specifically trying to spot wild turkeys, another great place to look is the trails on the southeastern slope of Double Oak Mountain, in Oak Mountain State Park. The slopes of Double Oak Mountain are covered in pines, shrubs and oaks, which is prime for wild turkey. This rare and diverse ecosystem supports rocky outcrops and woodland streams. The huge number of trails here varies in length and elevation, so approach them with care. Foothills Trail, also known as the Yellow Trail, is eight miles long and travels at a low elevation around Lake Tranquility. The Lake Trail is 2.3 miles long and loops around Double Oak Lake.

Different species of birds move at different times so if you are looking for something particular you need to know the migration route. Many birders use weather radars to track migrations in hopes of spotting something elusive, and of course there are plenty of apps that make spotting birds easier. But even if finding that wild turkey remains elusive, you still can’t beat the time on the trails looking for one.

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