Ten Islands Historical Park was set aside to commemorate a little known Civil War skirmish, and similarly, the park now serves as one of Alabama’s more often overlooked birding destinations. Neely Henry Dam, which is located across AL 144, is just south of the park. Ten Islands Historical Park is a site you must explore if you’re in the vicinity. Begin with the paved entrance road, which offers numerous pullout opportunities. Stop and scan the open water to the east, where in winter you may find gulls (mostly Ring-billed, but some Bonaparte’s, Herring, and keep an eye open for such rarities as Glaucous, Lesser black-backed, and maybe the odd Thayer’s). You may also see rafts of diving ducks, some loons (look for Pacific), grebes (watch for Eared or Red-necked), geese, and the occasional soaring Bald Eagle. Swallows, swifts, and martins zip over the water in the warmer months.
There are a number of different habitats on the west side of the entrance road. Begin with early second-growth brush – saplings and pines. Expect Field Sparrows, Eastern Towhees, and their ilk throughout the year. By late March, White-eyed Vireos, Gray Catbirds, Prairie Warblers, chats, Indigo Buntings, and Common Yellowthroats arrive. The west side of the road should prove productive for Tennessee, Palm, and Orange-crowned warblers in spring and fall migration. The latter two species are rare here in winter. The entrance road is also an excellent spot for Chuck-will’s-widows and Whip-poor-wills. Eastern Screech-Owls are also found in the older, more dense woods to the northwest. Halfway to the park itself is a pullout and a trail that proceeds a short distance through second-growth habitat. This is a good place to look for Blue-winged Warblers, along with chats, Prairie Warblers, and White-eyed Vireos from late March to September. The same trail is worth exploring for sparrows and wrens in winter. The older pines to the west and northwest — as the road winds toward the main portion of the park — have permanent Brown-headed Nuthatches and Pine Warblers. Look for Worm-eating Warblers from April to October. The entire length of the entrance road has numerous Eastern Bluebirds and goldfinches. Cedar Waxwings may occasionally nest in the trees along the road. Barred and Great Horned owls are local breeders here.
There is a historical marker and an observation platform that overlooks the developed portion of the park. Use it to scan the skies for soaring birds. Bald Eagles and Ospreys both nest nearby, as do Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, Broad-winged, and Cooper’s hawks. Sharp-shinned Hawks are regulars from fall to spring. Mississippi Kites are seen, rarely, in the vicinity in late summer and early fall. Falcons – Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine — may appear at any time during spring and fall migration.
From the main parking lot at the lake’s edge, there is a wooden deck that offers a great perspective to scan the lake for waterfowl, eagles, and Osprey. The parking lot area is home to restrooms (closed in winter), a smattering of picnic tables (some covered,) and juncos (in winter.) The brushy areas between the picnic tables and the water should be excellent for sparrows, wrens, and even migrant warblers.
A well-maintained trail proceeds from the northwest portion of the parking area to follow a finger of the lake. There are mature mixed hardwoods bordering the south side of the trail. This is the single most secluded portion of a quiet park, and you may find Wood Ducks in the backwaters here. Herons and egrets, which may be present anywhere along the shoreline, may be most approachable here. Expect Winter Wrens along the shoreline and in the rip-rap from October to April. The forest should house a broad range of woodpeckers, including Pileated and Hairy. In season there may be Red-eyed, Yellow-throated, and even Blue-headed vireos, along with Black-and-white Warblers, Summer Tanagers, Great Crested Flycatchers, and Eastern Wood Pewees, among others.
From Neely Henry Dam in St. Clair County, proceed west on AL 144 across the dam and take the first right turn onto the unnamed entrance road to the park. The road winds through good birding habitat and dead-ends at a parking lot on the edge of the lake. Restrooms are available here in the warmer months. There are a handful of covered picnic tables.