Winging It: On the trails with birder and Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge volunteer Tom Ress

By Deborah Storey | Living 50 Plus

Finding a sport that’s physically easy, fun, challenging and not too expensive is tough as you get older.

Birdwatching can be the perfect answer: equipment needs for beginners are few and north Alabama is one of the top places in the state to see rare and colorful birds.

Tom Ress, 71, is a lifelong birdwatcher.

“I’ve been doing it since I was in my 20s,” Ress said. “I’ve just always been an outdoors guy and birds are an integral part of that.”

When he first married and moved to Indiana, Ress met a fellow birder and “we just kind of fed off each other and it’s just gradually increased over the years.”

For years, Ress worked as a civilian supporting the military in various locations, including Fort Knox and Lexington Army Depot in Kentucky.

“My final position was as logistics manager for the Army’s Chinook helicopter fleet,” he said.

After retiring from Redstone Arsenal, Ress began volunteering at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur. The refuge is on the Alabama Tourism Department’s list of eight recommended birding trails.

“I lead birding tours and kayak tours and do waterfowl surveys and bird counts at the refuge,” said Ress, of Athens. “It’s just been a lifelong love.”

He’s frequently asked how to get started in the hobby. Several birding organizations like the North Alabama Birdwatchers Society sponsor birding tours.

“We get a lot of visitors down at the refuge that are interested in birds and really don’t know how to go about it,” he said. “My recommendation is always go with an accomplished birder. You can always learn by yourself, but you’re certainly going to increase that learning curve early if you go with an experienced birder.”

Walking with a knowledgeable guide in a popular birding spot is “the easiest way to become proficient quickly,” he said.

“On Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge alone we’ve seen almost 300 different species through the years,” he said. “Wheeler gets a lot of winter waterfowl, ducks and snow geese and whooping cranes.”

Binoculars, water and weather-appropriate clothing are all you need to get started.

“It’s not like taking up golf where you have to have hundreds of dollars’ worth of equipment,” he said. “You can start out with a moderately priced pair (of binoculars), but you don’t want to get cheap binoculars … . It’s nice to have a scope that you can use. You definitely need a birding guide that tells you what the various birds are.”

Sibley Guides birding books are his favorite.

North Alabama is a great place to bird, Ress said, with a variety of habitats. Besides the refuge, Monte Sano in Huntsville is a prime birding spot. So are Land Trust of North Alabama trails.

North Alabama is on the fringe of a bird superhighway.

“We’re on the eastern edge of what’s called the Mississippi Flyway, which is a migration route for birds from the northern states to the southern states where they spend the winter and spring,” he said.

Most birdwatchers have particular species they want to see. New birders want to spot bald eagles. Whooping cranes are high on many lists.

“That’s an endangered species and there’s about 600 left in the wild,” said Ress. “We’re very fortunate at Wheeler that we get about a dozen or so that overwinter here.”

To celebrate the whooping cranes and more than 10,000 sandhill cranes that winter at Wheeler, the Friends of Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge created the Festival of the Cranes. The 2024 festival will take place Jan. 12-14.

“We get a lot of birders from all over the Southeastern United States that come specifically to see (the whooping crane) because it’s so rare,” Ress said. “It’s a big, beautiful bird. It’s 5 feet tall. It’s gleaming white with black wingtips and a red cap.”

Several apps help birdwatchers know what they’re looking at — and hearing. The free Audubon Bird Guide from the National Audubon Society helps identify birds based on description.

“Merlin in particular is a nice app because you can record the bird’s song and it will tell you what the bird is,” Ress said.

Ress has seen about 2,000 species through the years.

“Really that’s not a whole lot,” he said, noting extreme birders have seen 4,000 to 6,000 species.

Ress traveled to Africa in October and added 100 new “lifers” to the list of species he’s seen.

“I have never really taken an international trip that was specifically birding, but that’s always a primary part of my trips,” he said.

In Africa, he spotted a martial eagle, a huge raptor. He’s seen penguins in the Galapagos Islands, and too many other kinds to list.

“You have to have patience,” he said. “You have to have a good eye, which develops over the years. You learn about how birds move through the trees, which attracts your attention. That’s how you spot them — look for flashes of color in the trees.”

Birding adds to the outdoors experience when “you know there’s a different bird out there to stalk.”

Dedicated birders have to put up with rain and cold because the best times for birding around here aren’t the mild days of summer. Spring is when songbirds and migratory birds move through north Alabama to return to nesting areas. During fall migration, birds head to wintering grounds.

“Summer is very slow around here. Summer is not a good time to bird in north Alabama. You might as well forget it in June, July, August and September,” Ress said.

At Wheeler, “birds come in the middle of November and leave about the middle of March. That’s when we get most of our visitors there,” he said. “That’s the prime time.”

Birders at Wheeler are starting to see species new to the area. 

“There are increasing sightings of a bird called a limpkin. It’s endemic to Florida, rarely seen north of the coast. It’s starting to move into this area,” said Ress, who attributed the sightings to climate change.

Climate change seems to be responsible for giving local birdwatchers new species for their life lists and journals.

Others spotted more often are black-bellied whistling ducks and swallow-tailed kites. A recent hurricane blew flamingos way off course into the Tuscaloosa area and southern Tennessee.

One sought-after species is a little surprising.

“We get a lot of visitors from the West Coast and overseas,” said Ress of Wheeler. “Believe it or not, the bird they really want to see is the Northern cardinal because they don’t have them over there. That’s a beautiful bird, but we take it for granted.”

Even suburban backyard bird feeders draw a surprising array of winged visitors.

Ress, who lives on a lake in Athens, has seen hummingbirds, warblers, ducks, geese and egrets without much effort.

“I can sit on my back porch with a cup of coffee and get 25 species,” he said.