Wild Kingdom

Railroad Park fosters community, even among our feathered friends.

Written and Photographed by Tom Gordon

Since it opened to the public nine years ago, Railroad Park has become a true people magnet. In addition to attracting walkers, joggers, bench warmers and fitness freaks–it has hosted wedding receptions, business parties, nutrition, cheerleading and exercise classes; Alabama Symphony Orchestra concerts, touch football games, family picnics, kite-flying, skate-boarding, and even a U.S. Navy parachute drop involving Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin.

But throughout the year, the park attracts wildlife of different kinds, especially birds, and the warm months have been prime time for a crow-sized bird known as the Green Heron. I could describe it for you, but I’d rather leave the description to an expert source, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: “Compared with most herons, Green Herons are short and stocky, with relatively short legs and thick necks that are often drawn up against their bodies. They have broad, rounded wings and a long, daggerlike bill. They sometimes raise their crown feathers into a short crest.”

Yep. That pretty much nails it, except for one other detail – what I would call a perpetually determined, even possessed expression in this heron’s yellow eyes. (For you long-time movie buffs, think Bruce Dern at his most maniacal.)

If you have seen a Green Heron in Railroad Park, it may have been walking or skittering along a shoreline, its long neck tucked into its upper body, looking as if it had a pair of hands behind its hunched back, hunting minnows or goldfish in one of the park’s ponds or along a stream in the park’s southern end. Or maybe you’ve spotted it standing almost unnoticeable in some reeds, its neck fully extended, looking surprisingly tall.

One of the concepts behind Railroad Park was to make it a bird friendly place. In keeping with that concept, the park’s 19 acres are covered with native trees and plants. Among those natives is a multi-trunked tree known as the wax myrtle, and wax myrtles dot part of the shoreline of the park’s biggest pond, adjacent to its pavilion. In late July, during one of his frequent visits to the park, former Birmingham Audubon Society president Greg Harber noticed a nest hidden in the leafy thickness one of the wax myrtles. The nest was home to two fuzzy, gawky, growing green herons. There is no way to know for sure, but these herons appear to have been the first of their species to have been hatched in Railroad Park.

“I think the main takeaway is that wildlife will respond if we provide suitable habitat for them. In this case, urban parks with a water feature, like Railroad Park (and Avondale Park) are good for people and wildlife,” Harber said.

By late-August, the heron nestlings had long ceased to be nest dwellers, but antsy juveniles – flying around the park and staying near each other as many young siblings are wont to do.  I noticed that one of them still had a lint-like fuzz on its head while the other had shed most of its head lint, and their color was mostly brown. They did not yet have the telltale features of an adult: a grayish green-topped head and back and what the Cornell folks call a “rich chestnut breast and neck.” Those features were evident in another Green Heron, presumably one of the nestlings’ parents, that flew into a bald cypress tree shortly after my arrival and perched on a branch looking out over the park’s northernmost pond.

I imagine most of you have seen the Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams. The line you may remember most from the film is “If you build it, they will come.” Well, Railroad Park was built not just for people but for creatures like the Green Heron. And not only are they coming; now they are comfortable enough to breed there.



Over the last few months, patrons of Railroad Park have noticed that the nine-year-old, popular downtown 19-acre expanse has not been looking its best. The biggest eyesore: streams and ponds at the park’s southern perimeter, so attractive to wildlife and humans, have largely dried up. But this sad state of affairs should be ending soon, perhaps as early as December, and other improvements are to follow.

For weeks, much of the area around the park’s southern water features has been cordoned off with plastic tape and plastic mesh fencing. Workers with hard hats are usually around and a backhoe has been digging in the pond at the park’s western end. Signs are posted around the work sites that say “Pardon Our Dust: Improvements coming soon.”

The biggest improvement is replacing the original water recirculation pump system that kept the streams flowing and the ponds full.

“Installing a new, more durable recirculation pump system is a foundational infrastructure update which supports the park’s water features,” said Camille Spratling, executive director of the Railroad Park Foundation, in a June email.

“The (original) system as a whole has not performed as needed … the current situation is not only unpleasant tio look at but antithetical to the park being an urban oasis for wildlife,” Spratling said.

Well before Spratling’s comment on the situation, the park had hired the design firm, Gresham Smith and Partners, to ‘recommend a re-design,” she said. The foundation also raised money from a mix of local donors, and the pump improvement work started in August. Stone Building Company is the prime contractor, and in an October email, Spratling said the work “should be complete before year’s end.’

Spratling said the pump system “is the most expensive portion” of the improvements planned for the park, and she said she preferred “not to get into the specifics of the cost of all the work, as it’s being paid entirely with private donations.”

The pump project is not the only improvement that the park has planned. Other work, according to Spratling, will include efforts to curb erosion and flooding through plantings around the park, updates in water management systems and work on streams. plus “upgrades to walking paths that make them more durable.”

All in all, Spratling said, the projects “will fortify key park infrastructure, which in turn strengthens Railroad Park’s ability to attract more visitors and revenue-generating events, enrich and grow current programming, as well as protect against harsh weather conditions – all making the park welcoming and accessible for visitors to interact and connect with nature and spend time outdoors.”











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