The Conecuh National Forest encompasses more than 83,000 acres of diverse and entrancing habitats; these range from early second-growth scrub to broad tracts of mature, open longleaf pine forest, from dense pine-oak-hickory woodlands to extensive lily-pad swamps, from dense wet tangles to open lakes with manicured banks. There are several well-maintained waterfront destinations in the Blue Lake and Open Pond recreation areas (small fees charged) offering picnic tables, restrooms, swimming (Blue Lake), and a shelter (Open Pond). Much of the forest may be accessed via paved highway (AL 137 runs north-south, US 29 runs east-west) or county roads (CR 4 and CR 24 run east-west). There are also numerous incredibly well-maintained Forest Service roads that lead to some of the wilder, less-visited portions of the forest. The Conecuh Trail traverses the forest, too. Trail maps and other information for this Alabama Birding Trails site may be picked up at the ranger station.
Blue Lake and Open Pond recreation areas are the more developed parts of the forest. They are located within a few minutes of one another, both accessed by well-marked roads off AL 137, and are perhaps best for woodland songbirds found in the trees and scrub back a bit from the water. The degree to which the cover near the lakes has been mowed limits the level of avian activity there, though there will still be long-legged waders, some shorebirds (in season), and perhaps a limited number of waterfowl. Blue Lake Recreation Area is closed from November to March, so searches for wintering ducks will have to take place elsewhere in the forest. The woods around these lakes ring with songs from Parulas, Yellow-throated Warblers, Prothonotary Warblers, American Redstarts, towhees, White-eyed Vireos, and Common Yellowthroats.
Note that at the Open Pond area there are actually three bodies of water. Open Pond is the large, tourist-friendly lake reached by a modern paved road. Ditch and Buck Ponds are on the opposite ends of a short dirt road reached by continuing on the main entrance road past the turn to Open Pond until you reach a “T,” where signs point to the short drive to these two small lakes. These smaller bodies of water consistently host waders and shorebirds; turkeys and Bobwhites often appear to drink or bathe, as does other wildlife like foxes and bobcats.
From these more-developed sites, return to AL 137 and head south. Beda Road is a westbound road off AL 17 that allows access to numerous other bodies of water, both large and small. These include the relatively tiny Otter Pond to the larger Falco, Wolf Thicket, and Bear and Blackwater Bays. You should find Purple Gallinules, Common Moorhens, Anhingas, Ospreys, Swallow-tailed Kites, and Painted Buntings in and around these bodies of water. Search hard for Least Bitterns and King Rails in the margins of the ponds and bays.
Return to AL 137 and continue south. The last right (west) turn before the Florida line should be CR 4. Take that and continue just over 1.25 miles; look to the right for FS 321. Take the right turn and park. This tract of mature longleaf pine is the beginning of some of the best-managed and most productive Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat anywhere. At last count, the Conecuh was home to at least 88 clusters of these endangered birds, and this spot at the intersection of CR 4 and FS 321 is the beginning of one of the more densely populated stretches. The numerous white-banded pines are cavity trees. The birds are present in this vicinity in the early morning and late afternoon, as well as much of the day in April and May when young birds are being tended at the nests. The extensive longleaf pine forest here and throughout the southern portion of the Conecuh includes additional nesting compartments, foraging stands, and recruitment stands for numerous groups of RCW’s. The woods are beautifully managed and offer a perfect home for this rare bird.
The same longleaf reservation provides a home for large numbers of Bachman’s Sparrows, Brown-headed Nuthatches, Indigo Buntings, Field Sparrows, Blue Grosbeaks, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Common Ground Doves, and many other species. The forest is biologically rich and diverse, and the species list is quite extensive. Winter brings many additional species to the Conecuh; look for Blue-headed Vireos, Orange-crowned Warblers, and around the grassy wetlands, rare wintering sparrows, such as Henslow’s and LeConte’s.
The proximity of the forest to Florida, along with the tremendous variety of habitats available here make the Conecuh a good place to search for stray or extralimital species from farther south. Watch for Limpkins, Short-tailed Hawks, and in winter, Groove-billed Anis.
The Conecuh stands as one of Alabama’s finest birding sites, and is a prized part of the Alabama Birding Trail system. It is productive and reliable for some of our rarest and most sought-after birds, and should be considered one of the state’s premier birding destinations – in the same league as Wheeler NWR, Lake Guntersville, and Dauphin Island.
From Andalusia in Covington County (fuel, food, and lodging available), proceed south on US 29 for 11.2 miles. Take the left fork onto AL 137 and continue for approximately 4 miles to enter the Conecuh National Forest. The vast acreage is accessed by a network of roads, some paved, some not.