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307. Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Decatur, Alabama

This 35,000-acre refuge on the Tennessee River in northern Alabama is great for waterfowl and Whooping Cranes in winter and migratory birds in spring and fall.

I have had the great fortune to attend Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge’s Festival of the Cranes several times. It’s held on the second weekend in January, when about 100,000 ducks and geese, 14,000 Sandhill Cranes, and two dozen Whooping Cranes are on the refuge. I always come a few days early to hike and kayak. With ease of access from I-65, I also put Wheeler on my shortlist if I am passing through any time of year. From nesting eagles and Osprey to migratory warblers and thrushes, it offers amazing bird diversity.

The refuge was established as wintering grounds for migratory waterfowl in 1938. And what is good for ducks is also great for a wide range of shorebirds and waders, mink and mussels, butterflies and dragonflies. Driving loops, short boardwalks, and longer forest trails also offer diverse birding options, but the boardwalk near the visitor center and the short walk to the viewing blind are my favorite.

In 2004, reintroduced Whooping Cranes began stopping over for the winter, making the refuge the best place in the eastern United States to see these rare and beautiful birds (from within 200 feet in a heated viewing blind!). The cranes are present from December into March.

307. Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Decatur, Alabama

Directions

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, at 35,000 acres, runs for 20 miles along both sides of the Tennessee River through northern Alabama. To reach the visitor center from Decatur, take Hwy. 31 south to Hwy. 67 and turn left (east). Go 1.8 miles, turn right onto Visitor Center Rd., and follow it to the parking area.

At a Glance

Click on the coordinates below to view location:
34°32’50.90″N 86°57’4.07″W

Habitat

River, wetlands, wet forest, upland forest, meadow, and agricultural fields.

Terrain

Flat river bottom, trails range from 0.25 to 7.5 miles. Driving loop. Wheelchair-accessible path to the viewing blind.

Birds

Snow and Greater White-fronted Geese, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Pied-billed Grebe, Sandhill and Whooping Cranes, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Turkey Vulture, Bald Eagle, American Kestrel, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Blue Jay, American and Fish Crows, Carolina Wren, Brown Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, Eastern Bluebird, Hermit Thrush, Swamp Sparrow, Palm, Kentucky, and Worm-eating Warblers, and Ovenbird.

When to go

Year-round. Spring and fall for migrants. Winter for waterfowl and Whooping Cranes.

Amenities

Viewing blind, boardwalks, restrooms, boat docks. Visitor center and observation buildings closed due to COVID-19.

Access

National wildlife refuge. Open dawn to dusk every day. Trails near visitor center are open and accessible daily, 9-5. No fee.

Tips

Dress for the weather; winter temperatures can fluctuate greatly. Hot humid summers. Excellent photographic opportunities from the viewing blind and trails. Kayak or canoes give access to more remote areas.

For more info

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, 256-350-6639.
Friends of Wheeler 
North Alabama Birding Trail

Birding sites within Wheeler

Beaverdam Peninsula Tower
About 15 miles northeast of the visitors center off exit 3 on I-565; travel south on Greenbriar Rd. Offers views of waterfowl and cranes.

Beaverdam Boardwalk
Just a few miles farther northeast, off exit 5 on I-565 and frontage road. Leads into the largest remnant of the giant Tupelo Swamps, where dead trees harbor a diversity of woodpeckers.

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Brian “Fox” Ellis

Brian “Fox” Ellis

Brian “Fox” Ellis is a storyteller, an author, and a naturalist who performs as John James Audubon, Charles Darwin, and Meriwether Lewis. Fox is a highly sought keynote speaker at regional and international conferences including the International Wetlands Conservation Conference, National Science Teachers Association Conference and the North American Prairie Conservation Conference, et al. Fox is also the Artistic Director for Prairie Folklore Theatre, a unique theatre company that celebrates ecology and history through original musical theatre productions. He is the author of 16 books, including the critically acclaimed Learning From the Land: Teaching Ecology Through Stories and Activities, (Libraries Unlimited, 2011) and the award-winning children’s picture book The Web at Dragonfly Pond, (DAWN Publications, 2006).

Brian “Fox” Ellis on social media