Autumn breezes sweeping through Oak Mountain State Park were a welcome escape from lingering late summer heat. My friend JC Sankey and I spent time up there a few weeks ago romping through the forest, taking in the splendor of this most colorful season.
I was still unloading gear from the back of the SUV when she pointed out a pair of brown-headed nuthatches foraging mid-way up a short leaf pine tree in the parking lot. Although nuthatches are common for that area it was an exciting first-time sighting for us. A hopeful sign of what may be ahead.
With supplies securely strapped to our backs and water bottles in hand we moved away from the asphalt towards the trail. Our feathered escorts flitted ahead from branch to branch until finally disappearing into a copse of ginkgo and pine trees. Crossing Lake Trail Bridge, we slipped past slender saplings nestled alongside giants whose dazzling foliage cast an otherworldly glow in the autumn light.
“We’re out here,” I thought contentedly. “With only breeze and bird song and the crunch of leaf litter under foot.”
A little further into the hike we realized, to our dismay, that we were not completely alone. A few cross-country bikers whizzed by, leaving a trail of powdery dust in their wake. That was probably the most unsettling part – seeing how absolutely dry the soil was. It’s been what, two months or so since the last torrential downpour? Parts of the path not completely covered by leaves shown zig-zag cracks in the ground. A tell-tale sign of Alabama’s severe drought situation. By the time I reached a clearing to take in the lake view, I wasn’t surprised to see how far back it had receded from its original meander line. I wondered what impact the lack of rain not only had on the soil and vegetation, but the entire ecosystem that depended on each intricately connected component for survival – humans included.
A gigantic fallen tree offered a great resting place for a break. We scrambled up its trunk to a level spot then enjoyed energy bars and a couple bottles of water. Earlier, JC and I talked about other places we’d like to go birding outside of Alabama, – the north east Atlantic coast for puffins, South America and the Caribbean for more exotic species. Resting on the trunk now, with wind rustling through the leaves, conversation eased into a comfortable silence.
In our work-a-day lives most of us are bombarded by noise – traffic, tv, phones, kids, that lousy background music in grocery stores. Relaxing in a secluded spot in the middle of the woods away from the hassle is truly an awe-inspiring moment. Neither of us was in a hurry to move on.
Eventually we did, and the path, once gently sloping downward, shifted upward in some spots. The increased effort caused a dull ache in my knee. Although JC could’ve gone another 20 miles, I knew I needed to rein it in. The prospect of sleeping with an ice pack wedged up against my leg tamped down the impulse to power through. So, after a brief water break, we turned ‘round, carefully retracing our steps ‘til we arrived back at Lake Trail Bridge a short time later.
The Oak Mountain outing only added two new bird sightings to our life lists – brown nuthatches at the beginning, and a wood thrush half-way in – but, that’s okay. The few hours spent traipsing through that section of the park was only a tiny fraction of its 9,940 acres which means there’s a whole lot more to explore. So we’ll go again, and hopefully next time, we’ll see you out there on the trail.
Where should I hike next? Give me your suggestions on short-distance trips to scenic spots around the River Region and other parts of Central and Southern Alabama. 🙂 Leave your comments below. Thanks for following my blog!
About the author: See that lady out there with the binoculars? That’s probably Tonya. Follow her blog at www.thesassypuffin.wordpress.com where she shares her latest adventures and ruminations. Tonya’s a motivational speaker, birding guide, creativist, and nature enthusiast pointing folks towards health and healing right where they live.
Image: Brown-headed nuthatch – Vicki DeLoach, Creative Commons license
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