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Coastal Birdfest Highlights Species and Habitat

By DAVID RAINER

Possibly more than anytime in the past, the flora and fauna of the Gulf Coast is in the national spotlight. Widespread media coverage has left the impression that everything along the northern Gulf Coast is contaminated with oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Au contraire! While there has undoubtedly been damage, the ecosystem along the Gulf Coast continues to show its resilience.

Just in time to dispel some of those misconceptions is the John L. Borom Alabama Coastal Birdfest Oct. 14-17, which will highlight the importance of habitat to ensure that the vast majority of creatures that inhabit the Alabama Gulf Coast remain plentiful.

“There are going to be plenty of birds for people to see, and if people are concerned about the BP spill, it’s because habitat was degraded,” said Borom, director of Faulkner State Community College Fairhope Campus and the festival’s namesake. “If you’re going to have ecotourism, you’ve got to have habitat. If you’re going to shrimp, you’ve got have clean water. If you’re going to have seafood, you’ve got to have habitat. It’s the same for birds.”

Borom, a Fairhope native, said the national perception of the oil spill has indeed stigmatized the Gulf Coast. And he admits there was some impact.

“If you look at the images on television and see the oiled pelicans, oiled gulls and oiled terns,” he said. “The truth is a lot of creatures and birds got coated with oil and died. Most of it was in Louisiana, some in Mississippi and a little bit in Alabama and a little in Florida. We didn’t get the impact Louisiana got.”

As bad as the spill was for nature, Borom said it could have been worse.

“Many birds migrate through Alabama twice a year,” he said. “The neotropicals – the warblers and all that – weren’t affected at all. They came through in mid April and migrate to Canada or the northern U.S. Then they come back through in October, so they weren’t affected at all.

“Audubon (Society) was concerned that if that oil hadn’t been stopped that thousands of ducks and other migrating birds would have been affected by the oil. Had it been when the loons, coots and ducks were migrating it would have been a disaster. But they got it stopped and we shouldn’t have to worry about that now.”

Borom said the spill was portrayed as having the same impact all across the Gulf.

“It was like poor Alabama got covered with oil and there’s nothing left and everything is contaminated and nobody knows how contaminated it is and everybody is afraid to eat the seafood,” he said. “But they’ve been checking the seafood and shrimp and haven’t found anything.

“The oil has probably not all disappeared. It’s probably seeped into the bottom somewhere. Bacteria will probably eventually decompose it. But it’s in the cold water on the bottom of the Gulf and it may take longer to happen. It may get into the food chain, but we don’t really know. We do know the fish are good to eat now. The shrimp are good to eat now.”

Borom said the Alabama Wild Shrimp Program is one of the birdfest sponsors and John Dindo of Dauphin Island Sea Lab will be one of the keynote speakers during the event to give an update on the spill impact.

Other than easing fears that Alabama has been wrecked by the spill, Borom said the four-day birdfest has numerous objectives.

“The focus of the bird festival is not only promoting the economy by staying at the local Holiday Inn and eating at local restaurants – something Alabama really needs because of a lack of it this summer – but education is the main goal and saving habitat and letting people know what they can do to make a difference,” he said. “Birdfest does a number of things. It promotes ecotourism by getting people to come and enjoy nature along the Alabama Gulf Coast. They get guided tours along the trail. Two, it involves education with our free Bird and Conservation Expo on Saturday when we give away free birdhouses and talk about the importance of habitat and it’s that habitat we need to protect.”

Proceeds from the Birdfest go to habitat conservation. In six years the event has generated about $65,000 that is used to purchase habitat. Most of it has been used to expand the Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuary, while a portion has been used in the Weeks Bay area.

“The focus is if we enjoy birds, if we are going to continue to enjoy nature, they’ve got to have habitat,” said Borom, president of the Mobile Bay Audubon Society. “The idea is to let people enjoy birds with the intention of saving habitat for future generations.”

Borom said the number of people registered for the 23 guided trips are down a little, which is to be expected.

“But we’ve still got people from 16 states and Canada coming,” he said. “I say we’re an international festival because we’ve got one guy from Canada who has been coming for the past five years. That’s makes us an international bird festival and we’ll count it.

“People like birds all over the country and families come together from all parts of the country. It’s a time for people to come together, doing something they like to do.”

On Saturday, October 16, the Bird and Conservation Expo will be held in Fairhope with activities available for young and old alike.

“We’ll have 2,000 people on that Saturday,” Borom said. “People will be coming to the see the raptors – eagles, hawks and owls. Conservation (Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources-Marine Resources Division) will have the touch tank where you can touch the sting rays and horseshoe crabs and a big tent. We’re going to have a presentation on Alabama snakes. We’ve got a workshop on feathers. We’ve got a workshop on beaks and feet. We’re going to do a brief look at butterflies. We’re going to dissect owl pellets. Tim Gothard of the Alabama Wildlife Federation will talk about why we need Forever Wild. We’re going to have all these things to do right here on the Fairhope campus.

Borom said being able to participate in a hands-on event like the expo has significant benefits.

“It brings us closer to nature and makes us realize our lives are totally dependent on the environment around us,” he said. “We are part of nature and it’s in our best interest to pass on as large a chunk of it as we can to the next generation.

 “There’s just a lot of opportunity to promote conservation. There’s a lot of opportunity to promote stewardship. There’s a lot of opportunity to stimulate the economy a little bit. And there’s a huge opportunity to have a good time and enjoy nature.”

Visit www.alabamacoastalbirdfest.com for more information.

PHOTOS: (By John Borom) Brown pelicans, one of the many species that are easily observable along the Alabama Gulf Coast, are putting on their winter plumage, while a boat-tailed grackle shimmers an array of colors in the sunlight.

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