Soon, the limbs of trees will be filled with the cackling cacophony of grackles and blackbirds, whose silhouettes will vibrate across the bare limbs like the leaves that just fell away. The birds swarm together in the sky like great black puffs of smoke, changing direction in the air as water around rocks in a stream, following some inaudible call to order. It’s a sight that, to me, has become a fall tradition to seek out. I always wonder what they might be arguing about in those treetops. I like to imagine they’re a giant travel weary tour group, arguing that they took a wrong turn and somehow ended up here, and now they’ll just have to make the most of it with a late meal at Denny’s and an overnight stay at the Super 8. Tomorrow, they’ll get back on course to their southern destination.
Beginning in late August and early September, birds from the northern most regions begin their yearly autumn trek to their winter homes. Many will pass through our city on their way. From backyard birds like warblers and grosbeaks to raptors to waterfowl, this is a great time to look outside for strangely feathered visitors. In my neighborhood, some of the first passers-through are ducks, who land on the spring-fed pool on the southern edge of the neighborhood. “We’ve got a lot of water around in Alabama… many larger creeks and larger lakes, so you may see twenty to thirty different species of ducks and geese staying through the winter, here.” Jamie Nobles, professional zoologist and volunteer for Ruffner Mountain Nature Center, explained that many migrant birds, particularly raptors, like to travel along the natural curve of the land. “With (Birmingham) being on the eastern side of the Appalachians, we’re in the flight path of many of these birds on their way to the gulf area, Texas and Mexico.”
“What brings them here?” I asked Nobles. “Food.” Where they stop, says Nobles, is largely amenities based — whether they can find a comfortable place to rest, find reliable food, water and shelter. “For most birds it’s only four to five months that they stay gone, but they want to get to a place when the food is most available… They’ve figured out, if I leave South America in April, I’ll be able to get to Canada, (the breeding territory) within a few weeks.” While raptors largely travel solo, “Grackles,” (i.e. those birds that cover the trees and make all the noise) “are one of those species that congregate in a mass of thousands, and a lot of other species such as blackbirds will join in, finding food, finding shelter, and finding those things together.”
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When humans fly, we frequently feel we are helpless victims of the flight industry, enduring long layovers in out of the way cities, grotesque and tedious security measures, and being packed into overbooked flights or otherwise forfeiting our flight due to overbooking. If we are brilliantly lucky, an airline may compensate us for our delay with a food or hotel voucher. Most often, however, a delayed or canceled flight results in tired, angry patrons condemned to waiting indefinitely in the terminal. I cannot envision what a night spent in the pre-renovation Birmingham-Shuttlesworth Airport would be like, but I imagine it would be beyond terrible.
At the age of 26, I took my first-ever flight, and it was from the Birmingham International Airport, now the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. I’d been to only one other airport to drop off and pick up passengers, and that was the monstrous Hartsfield (pre -Jackson) in Atlanta. For my premier trip, I was flying to Las Vegas via Houston. On the way back, Birmingham via Memphis. So in that trip, I got to compare our tiny airport with three other airports. Before boarding in Birmingham, at my boyfriend’s urging, I had a drink to smooth my rapidly fraying nerves. I honestly can’t remember where it was, only that it was the only option for a drink at that terminal, and that I always call it “The Snack Bar” when I am telling the story.
At the Houston airport, we had to take a tram from one side of the airport to the other to get to our terminal. Even after the tram sped us around half the airport, we still found ourselves running wildly through the extensive corridor of terminals to board on time. I still remember, however, the smells of all the many food vendors, my head whipping side to side as we passed one restaurant after the other. I was so hungry by the time we boarded, I had to ask for peanuts. (I was served pretzels.) Naturally, Las Vegas’ airport is a behemoth, baroque maze of mini-casinos and restaurants, all serving to welcome new visitors to the city with the promise of gold-paved streets and most assuredly send them home with pockets of lint. In Birmingham sized Memphis, I expected an equitable airport, but even Memphis’ airport seemed to have a greater focus on hospitality for their patrons.
This year, our airport began a long-anticipated, extensive renovation project, a project they’ve understatedly deemed “Terminal Modernization”. For a city our size with an airport akin to that in TV’s Wings, it’s a project that is long overdue. The potential impact this will have on how those who pass through our city could theoretically be just as big a motivator for the project as any. The terminal is a visitor’s first impression of our city. In flight, many times an airport is all that we see of a city. My impression of Cleveland, OH is based solely on my experience at their airport, which was outdated but clean, with many pizza choices and conspicuously no bar-b-cue joints. Cleveland is probably not a city I will think to visit without a good reason, but I feel sure that if I had to go there, it wouldn’t be terrible. By contrast, if all I’d ever seen of Birmingham was our airport, I’d wonder if Birmingham was just waiting for the last gasp, for someone to pull the plug on it forever.
When I spoke with Toni Herrera-Bast at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth Airport about the modernization project, I recounted my first flight story to her. She emphasized the importance of the modernization side of the expansion, explaining that the core purpose of the project was to update an airport infrastructure which had not been updated in decades. Security checkpoints take longer when they are inefficient and outmoded, for example. She added, “Although we are increasing our terminals in size, we are looking to keep costs the same.” It’s evident to me, however, that though their motive may not be to get scores of flight routes added to the airport’s hub, that may be an outcome. “I think it will,” Herrera-Bast agreed. “We’ve always had a good, diverse group of airlines,” but restated the emphasis was an update. “We are increasing the number of concessions beyond security, increasing our amenities. When customers arrive at the airport, they just want to get through that security checkpoint and relax. We want to give them an opportunity to shop, to get food, and enjoy themselves while they’re here.”
There are other attractions for routing new flights, in particular, international flights. “We will have international gates with customs as part of the terminal expansion,” which she pointed out was only around 1.6 million of the overall 201 million dollar renovation.
Whether for pleasure or for business, we, like the birds, are compelled to take to the skies. Where we choose to land is based largely on the virtues and comforts we may find waiting. If Birmingham’s airport is to truly be a competitive, international airport, we must present a greater sense of hospitality to our visitors, give them incentive to leave the tarmac and enter the streets of our city. And when people get routed to or through Birmingham post-expansion, I sincerely hope they will board their next flight with a better impression of our city. And maybe it will make that return flight home for us residents that much sweeter. We only have to wait 2 more years to find out…
Janet Simpson-Templin is a musician and a regular Weld contributor, who writes about the urban and natural landscapes of the metro area. Send your feedback to email@example.com.