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

I’d been looking for a Glossy Ibis whenever I’d see a flock of dark ibis.  Glossy Ibis is a difficult ID to make around here because it looks almost identical to another local species, the White-faced Ibis.  The general way to tell these two apart is by range.  White-faced Ibis are generally west of the Mississippi River, Glossy are east.  Being in southeast Louisiana,  near the mouth of the Mississippi River, we have both species and they mix flocks.
I’d carefully check for the easiest indicator during breeding season, which is a bright red eye for the White-faced Ibis.  If I didn’t see a red eye, I was ready to look at the white facial markings of which the Glossy Ibis has but they don’t wrap completely around the eye.
Last weekend, I got a “Need Alert” email from eBird for Glossy Ibis in the Bonnet Carre Spillway.  I drove around the spillway, photographed some far away ibis and didn’t think I had been successful until I got home and zoomed in on photos of one bird.  Turns out I found one!

DSC_0006 - common yellowthroatDSC_0036 - common yellowthroat

The Common Yellowthroat was a little different.
I’ve known from other people’s eBird reports that people were seeing these guys at all the local birding spots I frequented.  I tried getting people to tell me where they’d seen them.  Nothing.  Around June, I finally learned their song and preferred habitat and I realized that they’re actually quite common… but I still couldn’t manage to actually see one until this week.  I was working in a place that was completely surrounded by cattail marsh (perfect yellowthroat habitat).  I heard them first, but with a little patience, I was able to see lots of these beautiful birds.  I still, however, haven’t landed a decent photograph of one.

My Top 10 Louisiana Summer Birds to Find
At this point, I’ve nearly exhausted the list of new (life/year) birds I can find in the New Orleans area for this time of year so I’ve decided to take a field trip to find something new.   I’ve compiled a list of birds that I know people have seen in the state recently that I may go out in search of this weekend.
EDIT:  I meant to post this a couple of weeks ago, but I have been out of town in Vermilion Parish where I actually landed some of my summer birds!

  1. Scissor-tailed Flycatcher – I was having a conversation about birds with a non-birder guy that works all over the state when he said “Hey, what’s that bird with the real long tail you always see in cow-fields over by Lake Charles?”.  The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is really just a stunning bird and I’ve never seen one before.  Sometime this summer I will have to make it out to western Louisiana to try to find one.
  2. Wood Stork – To be honest, I didn’t even know this was a bird I could see in Louisiana.  I had always pictured it as a deep deep south Florida bird.  I had seen a flock of them before in flight overhead (and mistaken them for whooping cranes.  wishful thinking for a rookie.) but I really wanted to see one for my 2014 year list.  I did some research and read that Sherburne Wildlife Management Area has a Wood Stork Day every summer!  Apparently, in late summer, the rice/crawfish fields across Louisiana become home to a VAST number of wading birds with wood stork included!  Despite missing Wood Stork Day, I managed to track a whole flock of them down earlier this August in Mouton Cove, Louisiana.
    wood stork - 2014.08.05 - Mouton Cove, Louisiana
  3. Neotropic Cormorant – Just look at that range map!  When I saw that people were getting Neotropic cormorants in Louisiana, I thought it had to be a fluke.  Nope. The amazing rice field flocks in Mouton Cove, Louisiana held a tree full of these.  Another life bird!
    neotropic cormorant - 2014.08.05 - Mouton Cove, Louisiana
  4. Great-tailed Grackle – This large tailed grackle is supposed to be pretty common in the western half of Louisiana so I didn’t think I’d have too much trouble tracking one down.  Turns out, one tracked me down.  One morning before work, I stopped in at Don’s Boat Landing on the Boston Canal in Southern Vermilion Parish and there it was, sitting on the power line.  The large tail and different head shape were immediately what tipped me off that it was different than a Boat-tailed, but the bright yellow eye confirmed it.
    great-tailed grackle - 2014.08.08 - Erath, LA
  5. Swainson’s Warbler – People have been reporting this secretive little warbler in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area just outside of Slidell, Louisiana (only 40 minutes from my house) since late spring.  It’s one of the 10 or so warblers that breeds in the Honey Island Swamp but despite five trips, I’ve had no luck hearing or seeing one yet.  I’m beginning to think I may have missed this one for the year.
  6. Yellow-breasted Chat – Another warbler that apparently breeds in the Honey Island Swamp, and another bird I’ve completely struck out on so far this year.  I had worked at learning its song and picked it out and followed one around Old Mandeville for a good hour before I lost it, but despite being fairly certain what I was hearing was a Yellow-breasted Chat, I don’t count a bird unless I’ve seen it before.
  7. King Rail – I honestly thought the super secretive rails and bitterns were going to give me the hardest time when I started keeping a year list, but I really did not take into account just how much time I spend in marshes (it’s a lot).  The King Rail is the only one to have eluded me so far this year.  There have been a couple of sightings in Bayou Sauvage, so I may make a day out of looking for one sometime soon.
  8. Crested Caracara – A beautifully strange looking raptor from Mexico, and a bird that I know I can see if I get to take a trip to Cameron Parish.  Work just hasn’t taken me that way this year.
  9. Black Tern – With the sheer number of sightings of Black Tern in the last month, I can’t believe I haven’t come across one yet.  I’m taking a pelagic birding tour out of Port Fourchon in October, so I’ll see one then.
  10. Wild Turkey – Not necessarily a summer bird, but I know I should be able to see turkey at some point this year.  Usually, I just wait for them to walk out at a state park but here I am, 9 months into the year and I still haven’t seen one.  I may need to take a special trip to a state park up north.

Well, that ought to keep me busy until the great duck scavenger hunt this winter.  Let me know if you have any tips or suggestions!

Northern Mockingbird

 

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.

northern mockingbird - 2013.09.07 - New Orleans, Louisiana.07 - Bossier City, Louisiana northern mockingbird northern mockingbird (4)northern mockingbird (juvenile) - 2014.07.04 - City Park New Orleans, Louisiana

Northern Bobwhite

Bob-Bob-white. (whistled)
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.
northern bobwhite - 2014.08.08 - Erath, LA

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

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 duck
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.

black-bellied whistling duck (2)

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.

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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.

rainbow collage

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).

yellow-rumped warbler (4)

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.

blue-gray gnatcatcher (2)

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.

white-eyed vireo

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.

spring bird migration

  • 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.

gray catbird

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.

indigo bunting

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.

acadian flycatcher

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

magnolia warbler

Magnolia Warbler.   A beautiful bird.

summer tanager

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.

blackburnian warbler_2

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

 

DSC_0260 - Mississippi Kite adult

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

great egret chicks

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.