Editor's note: This post is part of the Eighth Day Escape adventure series and contest by Parks Explorer. Throughout this year, Parks Explorer will share trip ideas, staff stories, activity suggestions, and much more from each Alabama State Park. These monthly posts will be personal accounts of traveling Park Naturalist Emily Vanderford, where she details her park adventures and experiences in the unique natural areas across the state. While reading about park adventures is not nearly as meaningful as experiencing them first-hand, Parks Explorer wants you to know just how many opportunities there are for you to enjoy Alabama the beautiful.

The Eighth Day Escape Contest begins January 8, 2016 and will conclude January 8, 2017. Monthly winners will be randomly selected each month and the grand prize winner will be drawn January 8, 2017. Click here for contest entry forms and more information.

WELCOME!

Welcome to the first post of the Eighth Day Escape adventure series and contest! I would like to begin with a brief introduction. My name is Emily Vanderford and I have the privilege of working as a Park Naturalist for Alabama State Parks. I grew up in a small West Alabama town where I was raised by parents who loved spending time outdoors. There were few things I enjoyed as much as being in my father’s shadow during early fall while he scouted for deer trails in the beautiful oak-hickory forests on the family property. As autumn faded to winter, Dad would trade in his tree climber and bow and arrow for a seat next to me in a ladder- stand or shooting house. During spring months, when largemouth bass can be found near weed beds, it was well-understood that the back seat of the bass boat was reserved for me. Summertime meant tending the garden with Mom, and learning from her as she worked so diligently to can and freeze vegetables for the year. My parents will likely never know all the life lessons I learned because they raised me to appreciate the resources around me.

Despite my family’s love for the outdoors, though, there were so many places in Alabama that I never visited or knew about. When you live in a state as biologically rich as this one, it is challenging to understand and appreciate just how many natural treasures there are. For that reason, I am thrilled to be part of the Eighth Day Escape adventure series by Parks Explorer. Join me as I venture to each Alabama State Park and surrounding attractions. Share in my journey of exciting nature finds, fun recreational activities, and inspiring conversations with conservationists from across the state. At the end of each post, there will also be a bulleted list of ideas for your next adventure.

This month’s escape took me to Spanish Fort, Alabama, a great town in the heart of the Southern Coastal Plain. Although I only had time for a two-day, one-night adventure January 6-7, 2016, I had a blast exploring one of “Alabama’s Ten Natural Wonders” thanks to my fellow Alabama State Parks staff and the great folks at 5 Rivers. The Mobile Delta is one of the most biologically diverse areas in North America, but until recently I knew very little about this water-filled wonder some call “America’s Amazon.” The delta is a complex network of tidally influenced rivers, creeks, bays, lakes, wetlands, and bayous. It spans more than 200,000 acres of swamps, river bottomlands and marshes. Where the Mobile, Spanish, Tensaw, Apalachee and Blakeley rivers flow into Mobile Bay, there are two fantastic access points to the waters of the Mobile Delta: Meaher State Park and 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center

5 RIVERS - ALABAMA'S DELTA RESOURCE CENTER

When I arrived in Spanish Fort, my first visit was with Hank Burch and Shonda Borden of 5 Rivers. They were gracious to tell me the history of Alabama's Delta Resource Center and how it has grown since its opening in 2007. We talked of the importance of the Forever Wild program and how places like 5 Rivers are crucial for providing the public with conservation education while also serving as a gateway to the public lands in Alabama. We walked through the beautiful facilities at 5 Rivers, perfect for school field trips or hosting special events. I felt like a kid in a candy store as I wandered through the educational exhibits of Apalachee Exhibit Hall and the Little Bateau Classroom. 

As we talked about the history of 5 Rivers, I enjoyed hearing about how the land under the center is actually a dredge site, made up of soil deposits from the construction of a bridge on I-10. We talked about the interesting plant cover that resulted from the deposited soils (and seeds in the soil) when they were brought from the construction site. On one part of the property along a stroll-worthy hiking trail, you can find a forest of southern live oak trees (Quercus virginiana). These oaks were likely established because the deposited soil was retrieved during a year of heavy acorn mast. Have you ever stopped to think about the way the soil under your feet impacts the plants you see?  

After the great welcome tour and overview of the grounds came the part of the visit I had been looking forward to since planning January’s trip – a boat tour of the area! In an ecosystem with such high biodiversity, you never know what you might see. Even in the middle of the day, I was certain there would be great nature sightings. After only a few minutes in the boat, a red-tailed hawk soared overhead and landed in a tree just across from Delta Hall. Nearby in Justins Bay, a great paddling destination for all skill levels, the water level was much higher than usual on account of recent flooding. Manager Hank Burch talked about how this area is usually a mud flat perfectly suited for kayakers to “plop and watch” a variety of wading birds and shorebirds. Let’s add that to the list of things I want to do this April (or October) during premier migration time.

As we navigated up the Blakeley River to the Apalachee, I saw the sites where there once were two Civil War batteries facing each other from opposite points on the river banks. Upstream, we meandered into Big Bateau Bay towards Conway Creek. Due to high water levels and winter’s effects on the aquatic plants, I did not get a complete picture of the grandeur in this marsh habitat, but I can only imagine how beautiful this paddling destination is when spring and summer months bring out bright greens and beautiful blooms of lilies and lotus.

While out in the boat, we ventured under the Causeway towards Meaher State Park so I could see it from the water. As we navigated off the main channel into the area of Meaher where there is a boat launch, there were still seedpods on some of the American lotus plants reminding me of how pretty the sights will be this summer, especially from the porch of the brand new cabins (my lodging during the trip). I was also able to enjoy a closer view of a bald eagle nest just across from the park’s beach. As we left the park and headed upriver, I got even more than I bargained for as a mature eagle soared in the sunlight. There isn’t much that tops the sight of those bright white tail feathers shining in the sun.

Once we arrived back at the boat dock at Delta Hall, I thanked the great staff at 5 Rivers for the awesome hospitality and made the short drive just across the Causeway to Meaher State Park. On the way out, I made sure to stop by the Cypress Gift Shop. The shop was filled to the brim with beautiful gifts from local artisans, and the nature nerd inside of me got a great thrill from their outstanding library of books.  Since it was raining during my afternoon shopping trip, I enjoyed the perfectly placed bench for previewing a few of the many great reads featured in the store. I couldn’t resist the urge to purchase L.J. Davenport’s Nature Journal – perhaps it will come in handy as I continue my adventures of the Eighth Day Escape Contest.

MEAHER STATE PARK

After leaving 5 Rivers, I checked into my perfectly cozy cabin at Meaher State Park. As the day came to a close, I walked out onto the Gateway to the Delta boardwalk to watch a beautiful sunset over the Mobile Bay. I then headed out for a delicious meal at one of the many great restaurants on the Causeway before calling it a night. The following morning, I started my day with a stunning sunrise view from the porch of the cabin. Kelly Reetz and CJ Jarmon from the Nature Center at Gulf State Park joined me for a morning of exploring the trails at Meaher. Louis Williams, also of Gulf State Park, shared with us exciting new trail work being done at Meaher.

If you have ever been on a nature walk with Kelly and CJ, you understand just how much you can learn from them. Within a few minutes of being on the trail, we had stumbled upon an owl pellet. Kelly began identifying the various rodent bones as we dissected our find. Owls cannot digest the fur and bones of their prey, so they pack them into pellets and spit them up. While it may sound a bit gross, it is such a cool nature find because it paints a great picture of how an owl makes its living. Often when you find a pellet under a tree, you can look up and find the nest from which it came.

Further along on our nature walk as we meandered through a stand of loblolly pines, we saw a sparrow flutter from shrub to shrub and we talked about how many sparrow species can be seen in the park, and how difficult they can be to identify! We noted the number of invasive Chinese tallow (Triadica sebifera) trees, and discussed the challenge of managing this invasive species because of its prolific seed bank. Green leaves of yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), groundsel (Baccharis halimifolia), and common sweetleaf (Symplocos tinctoria) stood out against the grayish backdrop of winter woods. The ground was soaked from recent rains, and the soil seemed to have a sheen on the top. Kelly explained that this look is characteristic of bog soils and is caused by the mineral composition.

After our walk through the piney trails, we headed to the other side of the park where the boardwalk is located. On our way, we saw several eastern bluebirds, a flycatcher, and a loggerhead shrike. The shrike was holding your place for you at campsite 31. When we made it to the trail which connects to the boardwalk, we were greeted by the “tchep” of the yellow-rumped warblers. We watched an eastern cottontail as it scurried to cover along the trail. Near the start of the boardwalk, we watched a blue-gray gnatcatcher (a new bird sighting for Kelly and me!) dance from limb to limb. To finish out our morning walk, we watched a great egret and great blue heron from the boardwalk, and a tri-colored heron seemed to pose on the boardwalk railing as we rounded the corner to head back to the entry trail. For a short walk, the Meaher boardwalk rewarded us with plenty of great bird sightings.

As I wrapped up my Meaher adventure, I went for one more look at the bald eagle nest from the beach at the park. In addition to the pier, this beach makes for great fishing opportunities, especially in the fall. With the addition of the new cabins, everyone can take advantage of this Alabama State Park gem. I hope to make a return visit very soon. I hope you will plan a visit too! In the meantime, follow them both on Facebook: Meaher State Park and 5 Rivers

IDEAS FOR YOUR NEXT ADVENTURE:

For questions about this Eighth Day Escape, email Parks Explorer at Parks.Explorer@dcnr.alabama.gov

 

Go Explore!

Friday, January 8, 2016