Written and photographed by Tom Gordon
It wasn’t like watching a grizzly bear catch a leaping salmon in its powerful jaws in an Alaskan river, or seeing a lion wrestle an impala to the ground in a cloud of African dust, but it was a mesmerizing moment nonetheless, one I’ll never forget. And it happened here, late last summer, in one of our city’s most prized assets, Railroad Park.
It was late morning. I was walking along the stream in the 19-acre park’s southern end. No buds were in my ears, no cellphone was in front of my face, because I wanted nothing to keep me and my camera from happening upon something cool.
That something took the form of an immature, yellow-crowned night-heron. About three feet tall, the spindly legged, purplish gray bird was standing on part of a path that borders the stream on the north. As is so often the case with herons when we see them, it was motionless, seemingly in a stoic stance, its visage inscrutible. But in reality, it was in full hunting mode, and it was not after any of the goldfish that were elsewhere in the water course. As I watched, the heron stepped almost gingerly, like a skittish swimmer, into the stream. Slowly, with a pause or two, it made its way toward a watery mass of vegetation. Then it plunged its head into the mass and emerged with a three-inch long, female crawfish in its open beak, a passel of tiny black eggs visible in the pouch-like inside of the crawfish’s tail.
The heron took its struggling prey back to the path, where it hoisted it in the air, and swallowed it whole. A few of the tiny black eggs and a scale or two hit the ground as the heron ate. Then, after checking the ground for any edible leftovers, the delicate but lethally equipped bird moved on.
The entire episode lasted maybe seven minutes. I’m sure there have been others. That’s because what I was privileged to witness was one of the things that Railroad Park was designed for.
“Having a healthy ecosystem was always part of the plan,” said Camille Spratling, executive director of the Railroad Park Foundation. “You can’t force that sort of thing. You can help it. But then nature sort of decides what it’s going to do.”
On Sept. 20, 2010, festooned with drought-resistant, mostly native grasses, wildflowers, bushes and trees, the park opened to the public. By then, Ma Nature had already concluded she liked what she saw.
“It’s really been neat,” Spratling says. “There are a number of families that may live within a pretty close radius of the park that maybe … haven’t been exposed to a lot of wildlife just in their growing up. So it’s been pretty neat that we’ve been able to provide that, free, to anybody who wants to come and see it.”
Of course, those who come to the park will notice birds that they see year round in their own neighborhoods—mockingbirds and robins, blue jays and cardinals, mourning doves and house sparrows, just to name a few. But throughout the year, the park has attracted other winged visitors such as yellow-rumped warblers, wood ducks, hawks, peregrine falcons, hooded mergansers, killdeer, goldfinches, red-winged blackbirds, cedar waxwings, herons, hummingbirds, and chimney swifts that on late summer evenings skim the surface of the park’s big ponds like daredevil pilots, dipping their beaks in the water to drink. The big pond just west of the park pavilion is also where three white ducks—possibly left there about two years back by someone under cover of darkness—spend much of their time, to the delight of children.
There are more forms of wildlife than just the feathered kind. Possums, rabbits, chipmunks, lizards and, of course, mice and some rats have been spotted (usually at night), along with a pregnant female beaver that, much to Spratling’s relief, did not stick around long. Empty mussel shells have been found along the stream and mussel-munching raccoons have been the obvious suspects. Even deer were sighted early one morning shortly before the park became operational. The rain-curtain pond on the park’s northern boundary, where the beaver was spotted, has at least three resident slider turtles along with algae-eating koi and carp and goldfish. Spratling says some of the aforementioned critters may have used the railway along the park’s northern boundary as a pathway, and some other creatures may come from eggs dropped by birds. But humans have had a hand in the process, as well.
“We have had some aid from friends, both known and unknown,” Spratling says. “We do know that there have been people who have said, ‘Hi, you know, I have … some fish that would be great. They live in a pond and the people who I’ve sold the house to aren’t going to keep the pond and so these fish need a home and could we donate them?’ And so we check and make sure it was something that would be okay.”
Since October 2015, the park has had a sign near its wetland that uses photographs and text to list birds that are commonly found around the grounds. The Birmingham and National Audubon societies sponsored the sign, and the local group’s website states it regularly hosts “birding events” in the park and includes the park in its annual Christmas Bird Count.
“It really does provide a niche for birds that … you would never see anywhere else unless you had the exact kind of habitat that they needed,” says former Birmingham Audubon Society president Greg Harber, who frequents the park.
“I’m a firm believer in telling people that yes, humans need their space and wildlife need their space, and there’s no reason that the two cannot coexist,” Harber adds.
As Camille Spratling says, wildlife friendly landscaping was in the park’s plans from the start. A local firm, Macknally Land Design, made that a reality and in so doing, set the park apart from other downtown spaces.
“We had a lot of pocket parks and small green spaces, but not a diversified urban habitat,” says the firm’s president, Lea Ann Macknally. “The trouble with downtown Birmingham is a lot of our landscape that has been here for years is non-native, and that’s what growers … saw the demand for from different designers and so that’s what they provided. So we had to work with growers to provide native plants, to actually grow and cultivate and sell native plants, so we could use those for the park.”
More than 600 trees, representing 20 different kinds and nearly all of them native, are scattered around the park. Along the stream in the southern end, you can see river birches, sweetbay magnolias, and tulip poplars. A couple of early springs ago, I watched a flock of north-bound cedar waxwings perch in one of the streamside trees like so many feathered sentinels and descend as one to the water to drink and bathe.
If you head to the park’s northern hillsides, you can find such hardwoods as hawthorns, red buds and oaks, and evergreens such as the American holly. Along the wetland that adjoins the rain-curtain pond is another evergreen, the wax myrtle, a tree whose berries are popular with yellow-rumped warblers. At the park’s westernmost pond, the plants include a shrub known as American beautyberry. One summer day, Harber found a mouse harvesting some of the plant’s purple-blue berries. Red-tailed hawks, which do fly-bys over the park, like to feed on mice, Harber notes.
These features are not on the minds of many of us who come to walk, jog, skateboard, fly kites or kick a soccer ball around on the park grounds, but the poet Mary Oliver says we should train our senses to take them in. After watching a hummingbird feed, Oliver once wrote, “I am scorched to realize once again how many small, available things are in this world that aren’t pieces of gold or power – that nobody owns or could buy even with a hillside of money.”
Keep that in mind the next time you head into Railroad Park.