Birds and bi-planes

Before dawn we left our hotel in Orange Beach and headed down the road to Fort Morgan, an old Civil War fort now in ruins. We pulled of the road and walked through the woods to a clearing where a bird-banding tent was set up. The place was buzzing with passionate birders.

Several volunteers were in the woods checking the gentle nets capturing the birds while others sat at a table weighing, measuring, checking body fat and banding the birds as they were brought in from the woods in little cheesecloth bags. The information was added into their computer files.

Team leader Bob Sargent showed us a whip-poor-will, chuck-will's-widow, gray catbird, American redstart, common yellowthroat, marsh wren, eastern wood pewee, mockingbird and rose-breasted grosbeak. Sargent held them gently, fanning their wings out and talking about them.

For 20 years, Bob and his wife Martha have been catching and banding neotropical migrant birds heading to Mexico and Central America for the winter. Their trained, licensed volunteers come from all over the country to band 125 to 130 birds a day for two weeks in the fall and then two in the spring when the birds return. Bob said millions of birds leave from the area to head south after first storing lots of fat under their skin for the long trip.

Then we went to a small airport and took turns going for a windy 20-minute ride in a 1928 Travel Air bi-plane plane named Bird of Paradise and reminiscent of the Wright brothers.

We sat in an open cockpit wearing leather caps and goggles. Crammed deep into our seats, we flew out over the water, the long strip of white-sand beach and hotels like the migrating birds, and leaning out, we took photos like crazy. The trip was over too fast but our photos will keep our memories alive a long time.

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