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.
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. Continue reading
Being a permanent resident in the Gulf South and the state bird of my home state of Mississippi, the Northern Mockingbird is one of the first birds I ever learned. The mockingbird is a very common sight in suburbs and can often be found dive bombing neighborhood cats and sometimes even people. They’re not timid birds in neighborhood settings.
A sure fire way to tell if you’re hearing a mockingbird sing is if you think you hear five different birds singing loudly from the same spot.
The most common place I find mockingbirds in the New Orleans area is any park with open grassy areas with some trees for perching like City, Audubon and Lafreniere Parks.
That’s how my grandpa taught me to identify this bird back in southern Mississippi in the 1980s. My grandpa loved his birds.
For the longest time, I’ve heard that haunting melody in the piney woods of Mississippi, but the first time I’d ever photographed (or remembered I’d seen) a bobwhite was this year in Erath, Louisiana when I heard that song outside the window of my car. I stopped and there it was.
Declining in numbers because of its ground nesting habit being too easy to get to by feral cats, bobwhites are something that I took for granted in my youth. They’re not nearly as common now as they once were. So when I hear one, it reminds me of my grand father.
These ducks were one of my first species I ever identified way back when my favorite birding spots was Lafreniere Park in Metairie, LA. They were so ubiquitous, when I thought “duck”, this is what I thought of, even before a mallard. According to the 1952 “Louisiana Birds” by George Lowery, these guys are a relatively “new” species to the United States, although they aren’t invasive. Their range has just expanded over the years.
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (Mexican squealers, Mexican tree ducks as I have heard them referred to) are semi-permanent residents in the New Orleans area as of 2014. Incredibly large flocks can be found in winter in urban parks such as Lafreniere Park, Audubon Park, City Park and Kenner Park where they cover everything in duck poop and their squawk is deafening. These ducks can also be seen year round in the marshes and swamps around New Orleans.
This summer, I saw Black-bellied whistling ducks in Bayou Corne, Houma, Bayou Sauvage and I even found a mother with ducklings in the bird sanctuary in Lafreniere Park.
When George Lowery wrote the incredible book “Louisiana Birds” over 50 years ago, he notes that black-bellied whistling ducks were uncommon winter visitors to the western most part of the state. In recent years, huge flocks of these birds can now be found across southeast Louisiana especially wintering in parks in the New Orleans area by the thousands. This black-bellied whistling duck momma decided it was so nice, she’d stay all summer and raise some chicks in Lafreniere Park in Metairie.
I’m not going to lie. Lafreniere Park is like a refugee camp for abandoned animals. The sheer amount of bunnies and chickens in the early summer is just staggering. But, despite the actions of a few VERY IRRESPONSIBLE people, it is a pretty cool place.
The bird island sanctuary is an amazing place to see wading birds and water fowl, especially in late summer and mid winter. Today, I saw my first urban Roseate Spoonbill of the year. And if that isn’t enough to convince you to check it out, there’s a Black-bellied Whistling Duck with ducklings that are easily the cutest ducklings I’ve ever seen.
Shorebird identification gives me a lot of trouble so today, we’re going to walk through an ID that, as of starting to write this post, I still have not made. I’m going to be using a field guide to narrow down my choice and then doing a process of elimination until I find the correct bird. Let’s see how this goes.
My first spring migration as a birder is over and it was incredible.
I’ve always known that “birds come in the spring” and it had something to do with migration, but I more or less had this conception that it mainly had to do with huge flocks of geese and ducks passing overhead. It was nice to be so very wrong.
It started out simply enough. I was going to try and identify as many species of birds as I could this year to try dive head first into learning bird identification. I was visiting ebird hotspots every weekend and really starting to get familiar with the birds in our area. Mostly the easy stuff, but there were a few winter warblers hanging around like pine and palm warbler, the notoriously ambiguous orange-crowned warbler and the nearly ubiquitous yellow-rumped warbler (which my wife even learned to identify).
At the end of January, I joined up with some group field trips that opened up whole new areas that I would’ve never thought to check for birds. I also learned how bad at spotting birds I was. One group I went with to the old Audubon Nature Center in East New Orleans came back with a group list of almost 70 species while my personal list was just about half that! I clearly still had a lot to learn and I found out that there was no better way to learn than hanging with people with experience.
In February, my success with seeing new birds was dropping off significantly as I realized that the ducks and some of the wintering birds seemed to be disappearing. I had just started being able to tell sparrows apart in the field (well, not really). In the meantime, I was researching online “how to find birds”, “can you bird when it’s windy?”, “do I need camouflage to go birding?”, etc. I had no clue.
In my search, I learned a lot.
- eBird.org – You can set up email alerts for species you haven’t seen in your area or rare finds and receive daily emails.
- LABird – A lot of birders I’d meet would ask me “Are you on LAbird?”. I thought they just meant eBird at first but I finally figured out that it was an email bulletin board (very old school) and it was equivalent to hanging out in the local tavern for information. These email boards are set up for nearly any region you can think of. It’s full of invaluable information on who’s seeing what where.
In early March, #3 started to pay off slowly but steadily. A prothonotary warbler in East New Orleans, a White-eyed Vireo in City Park. Good finds, and when you’re a noobie, almost every bird can be a life bird! I was excited, but my lists were still nothing like what I was seeing coming out of Grand Isle. I knew I had to make a trip soon.
Side note on bird migration in Louisiana:
I don’t have a real firm understanding of how bird migration works yet. In fact, most of this is just what I’ve put together based on hearing birders talk in the field, but I feel like this simplified version that exists in my head works well enough for an example of why South Louisiana and particularly Grand Isle are such amazing spots to witness the North American spring bird migration.
- A lot of North American perching birds (passerines) spend their winters in sunny Central and South America.
- In Spring, they come back. Some of them take a “short-cut” (about 500 miles) across the open water of the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. They depart Mexico at night and fly until they hit land. I’m told this takes about 18 hours give or take, depending on the species and that famous ruiner of the best laid travel plans; the weather.
- So, 500 miles over 18 hours is an average flight speed of about 30 mph. I don’t know about you, but I can’t drive a CAR for 18 hours straight. Needless to say, when these uber-marathoners finally spot land, they are tired. From March to May on the Gulf Coast, you can find migrants EVERYWHERE. Any bit of greenery can be a day long rest stop for a tired migrant. I’ve seen trees adjacent to my parking garage in the Central Business District of New Orleans filled with warblers during migration. The very next day, they had already moved on.
- Some areas that tend to attract higher than normal concentrations of migratory birds are commonly referred to as “migrant traps“. When the trip across the Gulf has been particularly tiring, places near on the coast with trees for shelter like High Island, TX, Cameron Parish, LA and Grand Isle, LA are prime spots for birds to stop and rest. When our common spring weather pattern of large cold fronts that sweep in from the northwest conspires to make things even more difficult for migrating birds, it’s called a “fallout”. I’ve heard stories about birding fallouts where birds would land on the first beach they see or even on boats or oil rigs in the Gulf just for a rest.
Grand Isle is a coastal barrier island about two hours south of New Orleans. Like most of Louisiana’s other barrier islands, Grand Isle’s extensive beach ridges were once covered in extensive tracts of live oak trees that use the high ground to populate an otherwise inhospitable environment. Today, the island is heavily populated by fishing camps and industry, but some good citizens have pooled their resources to save tracts of forest which otherwise would’ve been lost to development. These preserved tracts, along with an amazing diversity of shoreline and marsh environments make Grand Isle one of the best birding destinations in the country.
It did not disappoint. My first morning there, I discovered Grand Isle State Park on the eastern end of the island. I hadn’t even parked my car and I was already taking pictures of the Gray Catbirds that hopped down the ridge trail. I was surprised to see the birds on the coast act much differently than the birds in New Orleans. They seemed much less shy. I only spent two hours in Grand Isle the first day I went but I knew I’d be back. I had seen over 70 species in that short window of time.
Since then, I’ve been keeping up with regular birding spots in the New Orleans area like City Park’s Coturie Forest, Bayou Sauvage Wildlife Refuge and Jean Lafitte State Park. The passerine migration seemed to start dying down for this area about 3 weeks ago, but I’ve been keeping busy trying to find all the shorebirds that seem to pass through in May. I’ve found shorebirds to be a little difficult, so that’s a post for another day.
Until then, enjoy these pictures from my first Spring migration as a birder. I had a blast and can’t wait till fall.