The refuge was established as wintering grounds for migratory waterfowl in 1938. And what is good for ducks is also great for a wide range of shorebirds and waders, mink and mussels, butterflies and dragonflies. Driving loops, short boardwalks, and longer forest trails also offer diverse birding options, but the boardwalk near the visitor center and the short walk to the viewing blind are my favorite.
In 2004, reintroduced Whooping Cranes began stopping over for the winter, making the refuge the best place in the eastern United States to see these rare and beautiful birds (from within 200 feet in a heated viewing blind!). The cranes are present from December into March.
At a Glance
Click on the coordinates below to view location:
River, wetlands, wet forest, upland forest, meadow, and agricultural fields.
Flat river bottom, trails range from 0.25 to 7.5 miles. Driving loop. Wheelchair-accessible path to the viewing blind.
Snow and Greater White-fronted Geese, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Pied-billed Grebe, Sandhill and Whooping Cranes, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Turkey Vulture, Bald Eagle, American Kestrel, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Blue Jay, American and Fish Crows, Carolina Wren, Brown Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, Eastern Bluebird, Hermit Thrush, Swamp Sparrow, Palm, Kentucky, and Worm-eating Warblers, and Ovenbird.
When to go
Year-round. Spring and fall for migrants. Winter for waterfowl and Whooping Cranes.
Viewing blind, boardwalks, restrooms, boat docks. Visitor center and observation buildings closed due to COVID-19.
National wildlife refuge. Open dawn to dusk every day. Trails near visitor center are open and accessible daily, 9-5. No fee.
Dress for the weather; winter temperatures can fluctuate greatly. Hot humid summers. Excellent photographic opportunities from the viewing blind and trails. Kayak or canoes give access to more remote areas.
For more info
Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, 256-350-6639.
Friends of Wheeler
North Alabama Birding Trail
Birding sites within Wheeler
Beaverdam Peninsula Tower
About 15 miles northeast of the visitors center off exit 3 on I-565; travel south on Greenbriar Rd. Offers views of waterfowl and cranes.
Just a few miles farther northeast, off exit 5 on I-565 and frontage road. Leads into the largest remnant of the giant Tupelo Swamps, where dead trees harbor a diversity of woodpeckers.