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.


I was so worried that the fireworks on New Year’s Eve would’ve driven this bird away, but much to my delight, it was sitting right where it’s been sitting for two months on the breakwater where Bayou Castine flows into Lake Pontchartrain amongst a flock of mostly laughing gulls with some ring-billed gulls.

DSC_0067 - laughing gulls (winter)

Laughing gulls are very common birds on Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf Coast. Like most gulls, the plumage can vary based on the bird’s age and the time of year. The easiest way to tell these guys apart is In the summer when their heads are a very striking black. Over the winter the black head fades into a small patch behind the crown. The easiest way to tell these apart from ring-billed gulls in the winter is to note their black legs and black beak while ring-billed gulls have a yellowish beak with a black tip or ring.

DSC_0068 - ring billed gull

Ring-billed gulls are also common on the Gulf Coast. Identification is made easy by looking for their ringed bill and yellow legs.






DSC_0064 - boat-tailed grackle

A boat-tailed grackle patrolled the grass along the shore.




During my brief time looking for the Iceland Gull, I spotted another birder scanning the breakwater with binoculars.  We started talking about birds and before I knew it I was getting in my car to follow her to Fontainebleu State Park a few miles up the road.

Fontainebleu State Park  – Mandeville, LouisianaDSC_0069 - blue jay

Fontainebleu State Park is located just east of Mandeville Louisiana along the Lake Pontchartrain shore line.  There is a $2/person entry fee for the park.  I parked my car at the visitor’s center where we immediately saw several blue jays and northern cardinals and got into my new birding companion’s car (birders are a very trusting lot it seems).  We  slowly drove down the many roads of the park and watched for birds while I got to listen and learn from a veteran birder which was an invaluable experience.

DSC_0070 - eastern phoebeDSC_0089 - pileated woodpeckerWe immediately spotted an eastern phoebe chilling on a post along the main road just asking to have its picture taken.  There were also several American crows lounging about in the grass in the picnic area and an American Kestrel (the smallest American hawk!) on top of a tree on the wood line.

This pileated woodpecker gave us a good chase between trees in the grassy area.  This is one of the largest woodpeckers alive today in America.  It was a very beautiful bird, so I’m sorry my picture against a grey rainy sky doesn’t do it justice.


In addition to birds, several white-tailed deer roamed the park!

DSC_0087 - white-tailed deer






The central picnic area was filled with several species.  Most notably were a small flock of meadowlarks and quite a few killdeer.

DSC_0084 - meadowlarks


DSC_0075 - killdeer









Although not pictured, the trees were abuzz with yellow-rumped warblers, a very common wintering species here in Louisiana.  My birding companion told me about another area to check out near the Causeway called Sunset Point where I might find several other species she had seen that morning.  We parted ways and I headed there next.

Sunset Point – Mandeville, Louisiana

DSC_0093 - great egret

Great egret

Sunset Point is a small park on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain near the Causeway bridge.  There are a few piers and some canals which were just rich with birds.  A great egret sat on a pylon near the entrance and several savannah sparrows and yellow-rumped warblers buzzed in the trees around me.

DSC_0134 - savannah sparrow and yellow-rumped warbler

Savannah sparrow (left) Yellow-rumped warbler (right)

DSC_0097 - loggerhead shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

DSC_0098 - bufflehead


The piers were a great viewing platform for some diving ducks.  I had heard there was a flock of bufflehead earlier in the day but by the time I had arrived, a lone female remained.  She would submerge for about 20 seconds at a time then reappear.


DSC_0106 - spotted sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

DSC_0100 - horned grebe

Horned Grebe

Some guys were on the pier with multiple deep-sea fishing poles set out with chunks of meat and huge hooks claimed they were fishing for bull sharks although they hadn’t caught one yet.  As someone who swam in Lake Pontchartrain constantly as a child, the thought that there are bull sharks that would be this close to shore secretly terrified me.  They were pretty amused to see me as well it seems.  When I got excited about a pair of horned grebes diving in and out of the lake, they asked me what I was doing so I told them “It’s January 1st. I’m doing a big year”.  “Whoa, just like that movie!” exclaimed one guy, “That’s a real thing? I was wondering why so many people were out here taking pictures of birds”.


DSC_0109 - blue-headed vireo

Blue-headed vireo

DSC_0124 - orange-crowned warbler

Orange-crowned warbler

DSC_0129 - great blue heron

Great blue heron

DSC_0130 - common loon

Common Loon

I walked out of the park into some scrub vegetation nearby and was pleasantly surprised.  The trees were filled with mourning doves, northern cardinals, yellow-rumped warblers and blue-headed vireo.  On the ground nearby, quite a few savannah sparrows and orange-crowned warblers bathed in pools and flitted between the ground and the surrounded scrub vegetation.   A great blue heron sat on a pylon across one of the small canals near the park entrance.  I also spotted a common loon diving here and there in the same canal.

On my drive home, across the Causeway, I got to see the very familiar site of brown pelicans flying alongside the bridge along with several rock doves (pigeons) near the Metairie side of the bridge.

Once I was at home, I checked my feeders and found my usual guests, a flock of house sparrows, running all the other birds off from my feeders with the exception of a single Carolina Chickadee swooping in to grab a seed and retreating to the safety of a nearby hackberry tree.

All-in-all, not a bad start to a big year.  I identified 30 species today and I have plans for many more in the coming year.

Here’s my total list in case I forgot to post something here.

  1. Bufflehead
  2. Common Loon
  3. Horned Grebe
  4. Double-Crested Cormorant
  5. Brown Pelican
  6. Great Blue Heron
  7. Great Egret
  8. Killdeer
  9. Spotted Sandpiper
  10. Laughing Gull
  11. Ring-billed Gull
  12. Iceland Gull
  13. Rock Pigeon
  14. Morning Dove
  15. Pileated Woodpecker
  16. American Kestrel
  17. Eastern Phoebe
  18. Loggerhead Shrike
  19. Blue-Headed Vireo
  20. Blue Jay
  21. American Crow
  22. Carolina Chickadee
  23. Northern Mockingbird
  24. Orange-Crowned Warbler
  25. Yellow-Rumped Warbler
  26. Savannah Sparrow
  27. Northern Cardinal
  28. Eastern Meadowlark
  29. Boat-tailed Grackle
  30. House Sparrow