Biogeographers place Red Mountain within the Ridge and Valley (Level III) Ecoregion, one of the most biologically rich regions of the southeast. Ecoregions are land areas sharing a similar geology, topography, climate, vegetation, wildlife, land use, hydrology and soils. The Ridge and Valley Ecoregion is a geologically and topographically complex area that harbors many different ecosystems. Wherever there is a change in the type of bedrock near the surface, there is a corresponding change in soil characteristics. Just on Red Mountain there is limestone, hematite, shale, sandstone, chert and their corresponding soils. Soils have a great effect on plant growth, and changes in bedrock and soils produce significant change the overlying ecosystems.
Topography also shapes ecosystems by determining the orientation of the land relative to the sun, slope steepness, and relative landscape position. Together, soil and topographic features affect the availability of light, water, temperature, and nutrients, and therefore the ecosystems. Given all the combinations of topography and geology in the Ridge and Valley Ecoregion, the region’s biodiversity levels are very high.
Little remains of the original Red Mountain ecosystems at Vulcan Park and Museum (VPAM), but we understand the basics about these ecosystems through studies of nearby forested areas along Red Mountain. Partially shielded from direct sunlight, forests on the northwest slopes of the mountain are moister than those on the southeastern slopes. The northwest slopes are also underlain by rocks rich in calcium (especially limestone) making their soils more basic and less acidic. Consequently, these were Mesic Calciphytic Forests with trees and other plants that prefer basic soils (e.g. Redbud, Basswood, Slippery Elm)
In contrast, the ridge and southeastern slopes receive more direct sunlight and are drier. The bedrock types here produce both acidic (chert and sandstone) and basic soils so soil chemistry is closer to neutral. Only trees and plants tolerant of hotter, dryer conditions would thrive here. These southeastern slopes would have originally supported Montane Longleaf Pine Woodlands and Xeric Oak-Hickory Forests, and periodic wildfires would have been a natural and regenerative disturbance.
VPAM doesn’t have forests to explore, but remnants of the original forests on Red Mountain can be found along Vulcan Trail whose trailhead begins just below the park along Richard Arrington Junior, Boulevard South. Large forested preserves open to the public on Red Mountain in Birmingham include Ruffner Mountain Nature Center and Red Mountain Park.
A natural spectacle to watch for when visiting VPAM is soaring hawks and vultures taking advantage of winds deflected upwards by the mountain. Some use these winds for local flights, while others use ridgelines to migrate great distances. Among the more frequently seen species are Turkey Vultures and Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, Cooper’s, and Broad-winged Hawks.