Encompassing more than 5,000 acres of diverse natural habitats, Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve near Fairhope, Ala., is home to seagrass beds, needlerush marshes, cypress-tupelo swamps, upland forests, and pitcher plant bogs.
Two rivers, the Fish from the north and the Magnolia from the south, provide the bay with abundant fresh water. This rich mixture of habitats produces an equally rich mixture of animal life, including alligators, blue crabs, marsh rabbits, and the endangered Alabama red-bellied turtle. Weeks Bay is also important as a nursery area for a variety of marine and estuarine species, such as brown and white shrimp, redfish, speckled trout, and striped mullet. The marshes and seagrass beds provide juvenile organisms both a rich food supply, in the form of plankton, and escape cover from predators.
The reserve also serves as a feeding, nesting, and wintering habitat for almost 350 species of birds. Migratory songbirds, such as warblers, tanagers, and vireos, flood both the upland and bottomland forests during their spring and autumn visits. White pelicans, coots, and a variety of waterfowl winter in the bay's protected waters, while wood ducks, brown pelicans, and pileated woodpeckers are year-round residents. Great blue herons, great egrets, and white ibises are frequently seen stalking the edge of the marshes for prey as ospreys patrol overhead in search of a seafood dinner.
The diversity of natural environments within the reserve allows for a range of outdoor activities. Visitors can meander any of four interpretive trails that explore the forests, marshes, and bogs. The bog is especially beautiful in the spring, when the pitcher plants, sundews, and other species unique to this habitat are in bloom. The two bottomland forest trails lead to the edge of the marsh and provide excellent birding and photography opportunities.
Due to sedimentation from upstream and several recent hurricanes, Weeks Bay is relatively shallow, with an average depth of only 4 feet. While not suited to larger boats, the bay is an idyllic spot for small, shallow-draft sailboats, canoes, kayaks, and flat-bottom boats with small engines. Alligators and ospreys frequent adjacent Eslava Creek, while the Magnolia River boasts the only remaining aquatic mail route in the United States.
During many visits to the reserve, I've studied gopher tortoises and their habitat in the uplands and investigated the diversity of organisms that inhabit the marshes. While fishing in the area, I've swept my dip net through the needlerush or tape grass and marveled at the variety of organisms, including immature crabs, needle fish, snails, grass shrimp, fiddler crabs, and juvenile fish.
Examining these seemingly insignificant creatures gives me a deeper insight into the area's complex food web and ecological diversity. For entertainment, I've watched fiddler crabs at low tide, when they come out of their burrows. In a display that reminds me of our own species, the male crabs spend much of their time trying to impress either each other or the opposite sex by waving their single large claw (the other is very small) up and down and back and forth.
Entertaining as the crabs may be, I really enjoy studying the reserve's small gopher tortoise population. I measure the diameter of their burrows (a direct correlation with tortoise size), noting vegetation type and tree density, which are good indicators of how many tortoises a given area can support. Since they feed mostly on herbaceous vegetation, like grasses, tortoises prefer open, parklike areas with plenty of direct sunlight.
The best part of studying them is that it's a low-tech pursuit. A tape measure, a notebook, and a little background information are all I need, and my findings provide the reserve staff with baseline data for managing the tortoises and their habitat. This is an excellent project for anyone with children, especially young ones. Watching wiggly, squishy, living things is a great way to stimulate interest in and concern about the environment.
To meet its education and research imperatives, the reserve has a modern interpretive center, equipped with classrooms and laboratories for use by elementary students as well as university researchers. It also houses excellent interpretive displays of the flora, fauna, and estuarine processes of Weeks Bay and its surrounding watershed. Staff members are always eager to help anyone interested in exploring and studying the reserve, and are equally interested in new discoveries reported by visitors or volunteers.
Many of the special programs put on by the reserve throughout the year involve hands-on activities, such as water-quality sampling or studies of marsh organisms. Weeks Bay also participates in coastal cleanup, held annually on the third Saturday in September. Volunteers pick up trash, then identify, count, and weigh it to help determine the amount and sources of debris that make their way into the marine environment.
Spring or autumn are the best times to visit Weeks Bay. Boat traffic and public use are light, and the weather is at its best. This is also an ideal time for fishing for speckled trout or redfish along the edge of the marsh. Recreational fishing is permitted within the reserve, but a saltwater fishing license is required.
The winter months are surprisingly pleasant; there are many days when the temperatures reach the mid-70s, and you can practically have the bay to yourself. Of course, water temperatures are typically in the high 50s to low 60s at that time of year, so bring hip boots or chest waders if you plan on investigating any of the aquatic areas.
A few things you won't find at Weeks Bay are high-rise hotels, condos, floating casinos, or fast-food restaurants. Instead, you'll see the Gulf Coast as it once was in its entirety marshes, forests, wildlife, and sparkling waters while getting the ecostudy opportunity of a lifetime.