Black-bellied Whistling Ducklings

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Black-bellied Whistling Duck with ducklings in Lafreniere Park in Metairie, LA (6/9/2014).

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.

 

Roseate Spoonbills at Lafreniere Park in Metairie

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Roseate Spoonbills are one of the most distinct birds in Louisiana. The Greater New Orleans area seems to get an influx of them in mid to late summer where they first arrive in the coastal marshes of Lake Pontchartrain and can soon be found in City Park, Audubon Park and random canals around the city. This one at Lafreniere Park in Metairie, Louisiana is an early arrival this year. (6/9/2014)

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.

Name That Bird – Mystery Shorebird in East New Orleans

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.

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Learning to Bird and My First Spring Migration

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.

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I realize the monk parakeet isn’t actually migratory, but I didn’t have any decent pictures of any other green birds.

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).

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Yellow-rumped Warbler in Metairie showing off its “butter butt”.

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.

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My group saw Blue-gray Gnatcatchers about a dozen times before I finally laid eyes on one.

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.

  1. eBird.org – You can set up email alerts for species you haven’t seen in your area or rare finds and receive daily emails.
  2. 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.
  3. Patience.

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.

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White-eyed Vireo

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.

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  • 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.

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Gray Catbirds are notoriously shy in NOLA City Park but at Grand Isle State Park, they hopped around without a care.

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.

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Indigo Bunting at Grand Isle State Park.  If I had known then how many of these guys I would be seeing up north later in the year, I probably wouldn’t have spent over an hour following them to get pictures.  Still, I think these are one of my favorite birds, just for the color.

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Acadian Flycatcher in one of the tracts of woods preserved by local landowners. This particular bird was in the tract behind the supermarket.

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Magnolia Warbler.   A beautiful bird.

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Summer Tanagers had me doing double-takes the first week they showed up in New Orleans since I had just spent a winter seeing cardinals as the only red birds.

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Blackburnian warblers and people going to work late seemed to be a recurring theme at Coturie Forest this spring.

Photo of the Day – Kites Over Harahan

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Mississippi Kite (juvenile) – eating a bee!
May 1, 2014 Harahan, LA

 

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Mississippi Kite
May 1, 2014 Harahan, LA

Today off of Citrus Blvd, I noticed about eight Mississippi Kites circling low and flying over a big grassy lot.  I tried to figure out what they were eating and the picture I got of the juvenile looks like they were eating bees!
These are usually birds I see circling high above, so I was tickled to have them swooping all around me :D

Photo of the Day – Great Egret Chicks

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Great Egret chicks
Lake Pontchartrain marsh – April 18, 2014

The shores of western Lake Pontchartrain have taken brutal beatings due to inundation with salt water during recent storms like Katrina (2005), Rita (2005), Gustav (2008) and Issac (2012). The quintessential swampy corridor of Interstate 10 that once welcomed visitors to New Orleans has been visibly lessened as open water has chomped its way into the marsh and scraggly toothpicks of dead cypress replace the once haunting Spanish moss draped swamp. It really makes you think about the tenacity of life to see these great egret chicks sitting in a nest in a stunted cypress tree so out in the open, that we were able to drive a boat right past.

That, and the fact that they look like a cute little feathered Cerberus.

Photo of the Day – Painted Bunting

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Painted Bunting
Coturie Arboretum – New Orleans, LA City Park — 4/27/2014

Ever since I first cracked open a birding guide, I knew one day I would need to see this bird.  For the last month, I’d heard they’d been spotted in the Greater New Orleans area.  Last week I met a birder who had just seen one before I walked up.  This morning, I spotted the not-so-brilliantly colored female of the species.  This afternoon, not only did I get to finally see this crazy rainbow colored bird, but it sat and posed for me about 15′ away.
The adrenaline rush had me so happy, I wanted to share this moment of triumph with someone else.
“HEY BUDDY” I called to a guy jogging the trail nearby.  “Come check this out”.
He gave me that look that you give strangers when they shout at you in the woods but came over nonetheless.  I pointed it out.  He seemed fairly impressed and said “That’s really neat! I guess I should start looking around while I’m running out here” then continued on his run.
Not quite what I was hoping for, but I’ll take it.

 

 

Coturie Forest in New Orleans City Park – Good Birding Day

This morning, I had a great birding day at Coturie Forest in New Orleans City Park.

It started yesterday evening when my family and I took the dogs for a walk.  It was beautiful out, but all I was seeing were the familiar water birds.  Just about sun-down, my dog ran into some thistles and scared out two hummingbirds!  I haven’t ID’d any hummingbirds yet, so I had no idea what they were and before I could snap a picture, they were gone.

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So, this morning, I headed out with a mission to find those hummingbirds.
I had expected a dreary day with some rain, but was only misted on.  The woods were unusually quiet.  A few black-crowned night herons and others stalked the shallow edges of the bayou and a pair of wood ducks dabbled in the middle of the pond but that was about it until I got to the abandoned golf course.

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A group of sparrows fed on the ground (song, swamp and savannah) and red-winged black birds sang noisily from the nearby reeds.DSC_0427 - song sparrow

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Finally, I found my hummingbird!  I believe it’s a ruby-throat.  It was about 1000′ north of the arboretum exit sitting on a branch near some thistles.  DSC_0438 - ruby throated hummingbird

 

On my way out, I spouted the familiar broad-winged hawk that has been hanging out in the park for the last month or so.  It sat on the power-line and was not phased by runners, dogs with cowbells tied around their neck or me and my camera.DSC_0447 - broad winged hawk

 

I was just about to leave and I happened upon a group of cardinals feeding on the trail.  I hadn’t seen any cardinals that morning, so I decided to hang out in the bushes and try my luck at photographing whatever came by to join.  I was in for a treat.DSC_0475 - cardinals

Almost immediately, a hooded warbler swooped down into the group of cardinals I was photographing.  I was so surprised, I lined up to take a 2nd photo (the shot below) but was photo-bombed by an out of focus female cardinal in the foreground.  Luckily, I still got a pretty great shot of the warbler.DSC_0464 - hooded warbler

 

From my little hiding hole right off the path, lots of birds were landing all around me.  This downy woodpecker was about 8′ from my camera when I took this picture.DSC_0522 - downy woodpecker

 

 

Carolina and house wrens sang in the undergrowth, but I hadn’t yet photographed a house wren for my year list this year, so I was happy to snap this one.DSC_0519 - house wren

 

A white-eyed vireo practically begged me to take its picture as it showed off its handsome yellow mask on a branch across the trail from me.DSC_0491 - white-eyed vireo

 

Two black and white warblers (life bird for me!) were hugging the trunk of some nearby trees and I figured out why I hadn’t seen these birds before.  They seem act a lot like tree clinging birds but do it down lower in the undergrowth.
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And finally, I got my first decent picture of a blue-grey gnat-catcher for the year!  I had spotted this bird back in January, but hadn’t been able to get a decent picture until today.  DSC_0510 - blue-grey gnatcatcher


It was great birding this morning and I learned that sitting still and having some patience can really pay off.

-Jody

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Rookie Big Year – Birding Lafreniere Park in Metairie

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Jasper is birding with me

Today was a good day.

I woke up around 7 am and my son, Jasper (7 months old) wanted to play.  I thought this was an excellent opportunity to take him to the park for his first birding outing so we got in the car and drove down the road to Lafreniere Park in Metairie.  Despite pushing a big orange stroller, turns out he was my good luck charm.  Not only did I get to check quite a few birds off my list, but we spotted a rare bird that was just beautiful.

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A Rookie Big Year 2014 – Birding Day 1

As I posted back in September, I’ve been planning to do a Big Year in 2014 and this morning on the first day of 2014, I got started.

In case you didn’t read the wikipedia link, a Big Year is an informal competition among birders to identify the most unique species of birds within a single calendar year in a certain geographic area.  I’ll be participating in the official American Birding Association Area consisting of the continental United States and surrounding waters.

Mandeville, Louisiana Pontchartrain Yacht Club – Lake Pontchartrain

This is actually a picture from November, 2013. Although I saw the iceland gull January 1, 2014, the weather was rainy so I didn't get a decent picture.

The Iceland Gull is a nearly completely white bird. To make sure it wasn’t just a mis-colored gull, the tell-tale sign is that it has no black on its wing tips.

So, here it is, 2014.  Where to start?  I knew the perfect spot.  Earlier this year, Peter Yaukey’s blog Birding Made Easy New Orleans informed me of a rare spotting of an Iceland Gull at the marina on the Mandeville lakefront.  Considering its range is given by the ABA as northern Canada and this is only the 2nd documented sighting in Louisiana EVER, it seemed to be a good idea to get this bird on my list as I would not likely find it anywhere else.

Score.

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