A Rookie Big Year 2014 – Birding Day 1
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
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.
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, Louisiana
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.
We 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!
The central picnic area was filled with several species. Most notably were a small flock of meadowlarks and quite a few 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
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.
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.
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”.
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.
- Common Loon
- Horned Grebe
- Double-Crested Cormorant
- Brown Pelican
- Great Blue Heron
- Great Egret
- Spotted Sandpiper
- Laughing Gull
- Ring-billed Gull
- Iceland Gull
- Rock Pigeon
- Morning Dove
- Pileated Woodpecker
- American Kestrel
- Eastern Phoebe
- Loggerhead Shrike
- Blue-Headed Vireo
- Blue Jay
- American Crow
- Carolina Chickadee
- Northern Mockingbird
- Orange-Crowned Warbler
- Yellow-Rumped Warbler
- Savannah Sparrow
- Northern Cardinal
- Eastern Meadowlark
- Boat-tailed Grackle
- House Sparrow