King Rail

I was working down in Southwest Louisiana in Cameron Parish and we’d been hearing this loud cackling from the roadside marsh all week.  After one such bit of cackling, someone spotted a chicken-sized bird running across the road.

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I knew right away what it was since I had looked for one all last year at Big Branch NWR in St. Tammany Parish.
“Marsh chicken!” one guy said
“Galinule” said another, slightly disinterested
“A king rail!” I exclaimed as I dove for my camera.
“Take a good look, because I’ve never actually seen one before and it might be years before you see one again”.
And just as if to prove me wrong to my colleagues, the marsh and the universe; this happened.

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Islands in the Marsh – the Louisiana Cheniere Plain (1 of 3)

sunrise over Cameron Parish

Sunrise over the Hackberry marsh

From Vermilion Bay west to the Sabine River and south of the Intracoastal Water Way to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico is a stretch of land that’s generally more wet than it is solid.  Its residents’ primary occupations are shrimp and oil, it’s home to some nasty populations of biting insects and when the Gulf whips up a particularly nasty storm, the whole region can be completely covered in a salty tidal surge.
It’s not pretty, but it can be beautiful.
The vast majority of land remains untouched; a different kind of big sky country made of a marsh 20 miles tall and 100 miles wide.  It’s home to some unique specialist species and a stopover location for one of the most massive bird migrations on the planet but even in our modern day and age, it’s still a little too wild to be completely tamed by people except upon isolated slivers of high ground.  These landlocked former beach ridges are a fascinating geologic occurrence that makes up the Louisiana Cheniere Plain.

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Albino(?) Squirrel

albino squirrell - 2015.02.15 - McKinney, TXI visited some family in McKinney, TX (just north of Dallas) over the Mardi Gras holiday and had a chance to visit the Heard Natural Science Museum with my nephew.  Apart from the museum, Heard has a 289 acre wildlife preserve with trails and boardwalks.  I got to see Harris’ Sparrow, which winters in a small corridor in the center of the United States, Hooded Merganser, a rookery of Great Blue Heron, Red-eared Slider turtles and this interesting white squirrel.
I’m not sure if it’s albino or just a white morph, but it was definitely an interesting find and the first time I’ve seen its like.

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Ty really like the dinosaurs.

 

 

2014 Big (Learning to Bird) Year Wrap-up

As I posted back in late 2013, I decided to pursue a birding “Big Year” for 2014 to learn the ins and outs of bird identification.  Although I was relatively new to birding and hadn’t been keeping a “life list”, I had a long history of taking pictures of any wildlife I saw.  As I learned to identify birds over the past year, I slowly unraveled the mysteries of my old vacation photos and found I had documented 105 species! Keep in mind however, at this point, I was an absolute newbie at birding.  On January 3, I saw a flock of black speckled birds that had me stumped for 2 weeks.  They were Common Starlings (the most numerous invasive songbird species in the United States).

european starling
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American Crocodile

 

Is it weird to put seeing certain species on your vacation plans?  Well, despite the lack of birds in my late November trip to the Everglades (with some notable exceptions), I did get to see something I’ve always wanted to see.american crocodile - 2014.11.23 - Everglades NP, FL

 

American Alligators are old hat for anyone from southern Louisiana that spends an appreciable amount of time outdoors so you’d think I wouldn’t be so excited about seeing the only other crocodilian native to the United States but you’d be wrong.  I had read that the extreme southern limit of driving destinations in the Everglades at the Flamingo Visitor Center was an excellent opportunity to see an American Crocodile although I didn’t have my hopes up.  This species, like the alligator, was threatened by hunting and loss of habitat and by the mid 70’s, there were only thought to be between 100-400 individuals left in the US.
So, I was quite happy to see a crowd gathering behind the Flamingo Marina after lunch.  A crocodile (maybe 6′) was slowly swimming along the docks, seemingly oblivious to its crowd of observers.  The photo below shows a large crocodile we saw sunning on the boat ramp later in the day.american crocodile - 2014.11.23 - Everglades NP, FL-001A few minutes later we spotted another crocodile behind the marina; this one probably almost 8′ and down the canal a smaller one! The difference between this and an alligator was immediately apparent to me.  The head was the wrong shape and it was a tan/gray color instead of the dark greenish black of an alligator.  The rangers gave everyone tips to differentiate crocodiles from alligators:

  • Narrower head
  • Gray instead of black
  • On an alligator when the mouth is closed, only top teeth protrude from the mouth. On a crocodile, teeth protrude from the top and the bottom.
  • Speckled intermittent black scales on the sides
  • Larger, more protruding tail “scutes”.  The scutes are the spiny protrusions that stick off the top of the tail.  They’re much more vertical on a crocodile giving it a more prehistoric feel, in my opinion.

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Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge Fall Afternoon Wildlife Photos

Bayou Sauvage is one of my favorite places in the New Orleans area to get away from the city but still be within a half hour drive.  It was a perfect fall afternoon for hanging out on the Madere Marsh overlook; one of the best places in New Orleans to see shorebirds.  The variety was a little slim today with a number of Black-necked Stilts, Least Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs but the real treat was a flock of twenty-two American Avocet feeding about 100′ off the overlook!american avocet - 2014.10.19 - Bayou Sauvage NWR, Louisiana

 

The Coastal Ridge Trail is always a beautiful walk and although I didn’t expect to see anything at 4 in the afternoon, I was pretty happy to see a House Wren just as I walked in.house wren - 2014.10.19 - Bayou Sauvage NWR

 

Gulf Fritillary Butterflies (not shown) were still out in force but the highlight of my afternoon was this Common Buckeye. common buckeye - 2014.10.19 - Bayou Sauvage NWR, Louisiana

Carolina Anoles (not pictured) and Five-Lined Skinks could be seen scattering for cover as I walked down the boardwalk.five-lined skink - 2014.10.19 - Bayou Sauvage NWR, Louisiana

A Common Green Darner.common green darner - 2014.10.19 - Bayou Sauvage NWR, Louisiana

 

A Black-and-White Warbler hopped from limb to limb in the thick underbrush beside the trail.  black-and-white warbler - 2014.10.19 - bayou sauvage NWR, Louisiana

 

Common Yellowthroats were everywhere this afternoon.  I was finally able to photograph a female although I saw two of the brilliantly marked males. common yellowthroat - 2014.10.19 - Bayou Sauvage NWR, Louisiana

Chuck-will’s-widow Rescue in New Orleans Business District

chuck-will's-widow - 2014-09-24 - New Orleans, Louisiana.37This afternoon, I was walking out of my building in the heart of the New Orleans Central Business District when I saw two people kneeling down around a large bird that had flown into the side of the glass building.  “I think it’s an owl” someone said.  “I think it’s dead” someone else added.  I knew what it was, although I’d never seen one this close.

Chuck-will’s-widow is the largest North American member of a very strange looking group of birds called the nightjars.  They are nocturnal, primarily insectivorous birds (although occasionally, chuck-will’s-widows have been known to eat other small birds and bats) that fly through the air at night using their huge mouth to snatch prey out of the air.  There are three species of nightjar that we can see in the New Orleans area depending on the time of year.  The Common Nighthawk’s call is a distinctive sound of our summer nights frequently heard overhead at nighttime outdoor football games while the Eastern Whip-poor-will and Chuck-will’s-widow are migrants although they can be found in the northern forests of Louisiana if you know what to listen for.  I honestly never thought I’d see one in New Orleans.  The weird part is this is the second one I’ve seen this week.

So, myself and another concerned citizen were trying to figure out what to do.  If the sidewalk weren’t so busy, I probably would’ve just left the bird alone to recover, but some people walking by were so caught up in their cell phone conversations, I literally had to move in front of them to keep them from stepping on this large bird laying on the ground.  One guy said someone should put it out of its misery (with a shoe to the head), while a groundskeeper moved in with a dustpan and broom to sweep it up.
We asked the groundskeeper if he had a box while I made some calls.  Around this time, the bird started stirring and I was hoping it would just fly off.  Unfortunately, it took flight and immediately struck the glass window of the restaurant fifteen feet in front of it.  We moved to put the bird in the box while it was stunned and it snapped its head up at us and opened its mouth.  These birds have intimidating mouths.  It almost looked like it opened up about 180 degrees wide.

This picture I found on Flickr is a good shot of what a Chuck-will’s-widow looks like with its mouth open. Terrifying.

When it opened its mouth, we could see blood.  We moved to put it in the box again, this time, bringing the box up from behind and gently grabbing near the ends of its wings.  It went into the box and curled up in a corner.  I was relieved because I was very concerned that the box was too big and thought it might flail trying to escape and hurt itself even more.

Following some advice, I drove it to the Audubon Zoo and dropped it off with their hospital staff.  They got me to fill out a form with my contact information, what had happened and what kind of species it was but they informed me that I probably wouldn’t ever hear back as to what happened to it.  It was a little reassuring that a chuck had been brought in last year after a similar building collision and had been released at the Audubon Nature Center after a night in observation.    The staff at the zoo front desk said that their doctors would do what they could, but if the bird was too injured, it would have to be euthanized.  I told them that that was probably fine.  It would be better than the bird suffering a broken neck and more likely an easier death than at the bottom of that sidewalk guy’s boot.

All-in-all, it was an interesting experience.  I hope the bird makes it and learns to stay away from glass buildings in the future.

 

Gulf Coast Empidonax Flycatcher Identification

What started out as a pretty routine exercise in shooting (photos) first and identifying later quickly  turned into a mess when I tried to identify this flycatcher I photographed yesterday in Louisiana’s Atchafalya Basin.  So, I thought I’d do a quick write up on what I’ve learned today in hopes of summarizing and maybe helping to understand this difficult to identify group of birds.

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Summer Birding 2014

It’s been a pretty good summer for me for birding.  The weather in Louisiana has been unusually mild so far. I visited San Francisco for a good friend’s wedding, saw lots of friends and somehow managed to fit in a visit to a new National Park (Muir Woods) and pick up twenty-one life list birds.  And finally, last week I was finally able to add two more local life birds that have been somehow eluding me for over a year; Glossy Ibis and Common Yellowthroat. glossy ibis - 2014.07.27 - Bonnet Carre Spillway, Louisiana Continue reading