I’ve seen fire at work. One morning, I drove past a pitcher plant bog, a tangle of grasses and forbs. By sunset, it was scorched earth, the boardwalk a bleached skeleton. The destruction was prescribed, lit by men with drip-torches.
Three months later, the structure was knee-deep in bracken and cinnamon fern. Carnivorous pitchers bloomed a foot high. Sundews, their shorter cousins, set sticky bug traps at ground level. By the next season, the bog was renewed. Bees and butterflies swarmed meadows. Birds flitted from blackberry brambles to upper-story pines. If I hadn’t watched the process, I wouldn’t have believed it.
In late January of this year, crews ignited a different kind of firestorm when they did a controlled burn at the Fort Morgan State Historic Site. Why? The Fort Morgan Peninsula is an Urban-Wilderness Interface area, meaning development is creeping into the forest. Within three miles of Mobile Point are multi-unit condos, businesses and several housing developments. While we’ve been in drought conditions for several years, the peninsula is often drier than the surrounding area. Rain clouds tend to bypass the area and showers don’t start until they are over the mainland. So each year, the peninsula has one or two haphazard wildfires, which can be much more dangerous. Consequently, the State Forestry Commission recommended clearing two of three tree and brush-filled areas at the fort. Surprisingly, some native plants, like saw palmetto, are dependent on fire. Aggressive fire prevention over several decades has allowed faster growing invasive plants to crowd out native ones. Controlled burns destroy invasives, allowing traditional flora, the normal food for migrating species, to flourish.
However, bird watchers and scientists who use the site to study songbird migrations were inflamed. In their view, the burn could not have been at a worse time. Migrating songbirds looking for a safe place to rest after winging across the Gulf were due in six weeks. They have depended on the lush vegetation of Fort Morgan for millenia. Fire threatened that.
Fueling the Fire
The fort, which was named one of 100 Globally Important Bird Areas by the American Bird Conservancy, is a draw for birders around the nation. It is the first landfall for migrating birds whose numbers have declined as development continues. The annual banding sessions on the site have added immeasurably to our understanding of where birds go and what they do. Why authorities ignored the welfare of huge flocks that will transit the area this spring remains a mystery.
Prescribed burns require written plans and can only occur when wind, moisture and temperature line up. Even the direction smoke will blow is part of the equation. This fire was slow and cold, designed to burn the underbrush, spare larger trees, and spur sprouting of native perennials.
Stakeholders at the fort are a jumble of interests and jurisdictions. Alabama Historical Commission oversees the park. It’s also one of five units of the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). The State Forestry Commission conducts the burns with assistance by the Fort Morgan Volunteer Fire Department.
The area burned is called the Middle Ground, site 15C of the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail. For more than 20 years, Bob Sargent’s hummingbird study group has used it and the old stable area as a field laboratory to band and study neotropical songbirds as they migrate to and from Central and South America. Sargent and his team will be working at the fort from April 6 to 17 (visit hummingbirdsplus.org for more information).
It’s not clear if the fort has a habitat management plan in place. What is clear is that some stakeholders, especially the birding community, had no chance to provide input.
Rebirth and New Growth
A month after the fire, I walked the site. Rain had recycled the white ash into the soil. The forest floor was carpeted with the same seasonal, reddish-brown needles that grace my yard. It was still springy to the step. The 6-foot thicket beneath the pines was gone, allowing easier access, but deleting the cover smaller birds need to protect themselves from predators.
A saw palmetto had most of its spiny leaves burned off. Its trunk was intact and a green kernel shone through. Needles of a 3-foot pine were singed away, but the business end at its tip was preparing spring pollen. Yaupon holly was ready to drop red berries. Butterflies, bees and other pollinators were already at work. Bluettes bloomed in the meadow, along with short, white-blossomed bushes along the treeline. Recovery was in progress.
text by Giles Vaden • photos by Dennis Holt