The Oakmulgee Division of the Talladega National Forest is home to the largest concentration of endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in the state of Alabama – in excess of 100 groups, clusters, or clans of the birds live here. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are denizens of mature pine forests – particularly Longleaf pines, and stands of 100 acres or more of pines 75 years of age or older. The birds don’t tolerate significant hardwood encroachment in the mid-story, so forestry management for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers generally involves prescribed burns and/or other efforts to remove or control the hardwoods. Because of the management practices necessary to create or preserve Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat, inhabited forests are easily recognized. Look for large tracts of mature, open pines. There is often evidence of recent burning, and seldom is there any significant mid-story. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are the only woodpeckers that almost exclusively nest in living pines. They excavate their own nesting and roosting holes, most often just below the lowest limbs, and they dig resin wells into the cavity tree. The exudate from these wells is amber to yellowish to white, and produces a look not unlike a huge candle, making cavity trees easy to spot. These trees are often spotted by forest service personnel and marked with paint. In the Oakmulgee, cavity trees are marked with white bands near the ground.
So that the visitor may have the most current status of the colony, it is advised that a stop be made at the Forest Service Ranger Station on AL 5 near Brent.
Although the Oakmulgee boasts the greatest concentration of these birds in the state, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are comparatively rare even here – only several hundred birds scattered over tens of thousands of acres of forest. The birds are much in evidence along FS 745, perhaps the most reliable place in the Oakmulgee to see the birds. Increase your likelihood of success by arriving at the appropriate Red0cockaded Woodpecker habitat in the very early morning – preferably within 45 minutes of dawn – or in the late afternoon, as dusk approaches, as those are the times when the birds are most likely to be seen in the stand of trees containing the cavity trees. Their breeding season extends from March through late May or early June in Alabama. During this period the adult birds are tending the nest or feeding their young, and they spend large portions of their days at or in close proximity to the trees containing active nests. This is the ideal time to get lingering views of this rare species.
Despite the fact that, by their presence alone, the existence of hundreds of the rare and endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers makes the Oakmulgee well worth a visit, it has much more on offer than “just” the Woodpeckers. Winter birding here is, admittedly, not overly special. Scattered feeding flocks of the customary species dot the landscape, and the forest’s location at the Fall Line means that the Oakmulgee is at or near the northern limit for regular occurrence of wintering species such as Orange-crowned and Palm warblers, Blue Grey Gnatcatchers, and Blue-headed Vireos.
Spring and fall are surprisingly rich for migratory songbirds, and the Oakmulgee’s list of breeding species is impressive. Even more so, though, is the sheer abundance of many of these breeders. The piney woods teem with Pine Warblers, Eastern Bluebirds, and Brown-headed Nuthatches. Bachman’s Sparrows sing their plaintive songs from the floor of the same pine woods that house Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. There are numerous Prairie Warblers, Chipping Sparrows, and Yellow-breasted Chats in the same areas in the warm months. Summer Tanagers, Great Crested Flycatchers, Eastern Wood Pewees, Blue Grosbeaks, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Orchard Orioles are common throughout the forest. Eastern Screech-Owls occasionally occupy abandoned cavities; look for them at dawn and dusk, when Chuck-will’s-widows appear in clearings, glades and at the shoulders of the roadways. Field Sparrows, White-eyed Vireos and Catbirds abound in the edges and tangles in the warm months, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets are present in the same areas in winter. Hooded, Kentucky, and Worm-eating Warblers; Wood Thrushes, and a few Black-and-white Warblers are present in mixed woods, where all the (other) woodpeckers of Alabama may be found. There are numerous creeks, seeps, swamps, and bogs in the forest, and Northern Parulas, Yellow-throated Warblers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Prothonotary Warblers, Louisiana Waterthrushes, Acadian Flycatchers, American Redstarts, Barred Owls, and even a few Swainson’s Warblers may be found in or near the wet areas. Look for Wood Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, and occasionally other marsh ducks, particularly in winter, though Blue-winged Teal are sometimes seen here in migration.
Common raptors are Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, Cooper’s, Broad-winged (spring to fall), and Sharp-shinned (fall to spring) hawks, with a few American Kestrels in the cooler seasons. Great Horned Owls are relatively well-represented here, as well.
The Oakmulgee is criss-crossed with roads. In fact, there are so many roads and so many curvy roads that a map of the Oakmulgee Division of the Talladega National Forest looks like an aerial view of a plate of spaghetti. Some are well-maintained, paved roads, such as County Roads 1, 16, and 49. Others are dirt roads maintained by the Forest Service. These roads vary from well-tended, all-season, all-weather roads, to roads that are seldom-traveled and less well-maintained…as in 4-wheel drive and high-ground-clearance advised. Other FS roads may be gated and closed at various times and seasons for sundry reasons. Be prepared for a variety of road surfaces and be open to taking circuitous routes through the forest to ensure easy travel if you are in a typical passenger vehicle. Do not be dissuaded; the Oakmulgee is one of the state’s best birding locations from March through October, and it should not be missed.
From the intersection of Highways 82 and 25 in Centerville (Bibb County – fuel, food, and limited lodging available,) follow AL 82 west for 6.7 miles, turning left (south) on Bibb 16 at Eoline. Follow Bibb 16 for 3.75 miles, turning right (north) on Bibb 1. At 2.6 miles, turn left (west) on dirt Forest Service 737. In .5 mile, at the top of a hill, bear left onto FS 745. Prime Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat begins in .5 mile and continues for at least 2 more miles. Look for white-banded mature pines for nest/roost trees.