Rookie Big Year – Birding Lafreniere Park in Metairie
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.
Having been to this park many times before, I knew it would be a snap to pick up a handful of common species with a relatively easy adventure with a baby in tow. The park has a bird sanctuary with lots of canals, shallow pools and islands that’s a perfect habitat for winter visitors. In fact, I’d say it’s probably the most frequented park by birds in the Greater New Orleans area except for maybe the Audubon Zoo. This park is also a very popular location for people to visit and hand feed the birds and it’s easy to know which ones get fed regularly. Upon stepping out of my car I was approached by a dozen or so American Ibis, American Coot and black-bellied whistling ducks that seemed to be determining if I was a food source or to be ignored.
One thing I had to watch out for with this park is that if you’re doing a big year, domestic birds don’t count. There are feral/domestic? chickens just roaming all over this park. I don’t know what their story is, but they’re there in all sorts of various colors, shapes and sizes.
There are also several species of ducks, geese and others that I wasn’t really sure about. The bird on the right is a black swan and they have a few of these that seem to stay in the park for as long as I can remember. Beautiful birds, but they don’t count for my list because they’re from Australia. I suspect someone got them to be ornamental birds. Domestic ducks (such as this muscovy duck to the left) and domestic mallards are quite common at this park. The best way I’ve found to tell the difference is that this a park I visit very frequently and I know which species leave for part of the year and which stay year-round. This guide from birds.cornell.edu is a pretty good read about confusing domestic ducks.
Domestic birds aside, let’s get to the good stuff. Mallards can be domestic and it’s likely some of the mallards were, but I had never seen so many at the park at the same time so I assumed some were winter residents. Male mallards are a classically easy duck to identify with their bright green head and yellow bill.
It was quite a treat to see this pair of wood ducks in the pond. They were skittish but unusually tame for this species. Their normal habitat is heavily wooded waterways where they take flight at the smallest sound. They nest in cavities and many people enjoy putting up wood duck houses to entice them to nest in their area. The male is easily one of North America’s most beautiful ducks.
I used to mix up the following two species all the time. The anhinga and the double-crested cormorant are two very common water birds that can be commonly seen in Louisiana. They both lack waterproof feathers like ducks do, so after a dive they’re commonly seen holding their wings out to dry.
Due to their similar size, shape and color, these birds are easily mis-identified. Although this anhinga is in a different plumage, it is normally black just like the cormorant. To tell the different, look at the bills and tails. An cormorant’s bill has a little down curve at the end while the anhinga’s is straight and the anhinga has a long tail while the cormorant has a short one.
A Eurasian collared dove fed on the ground near some benches. I was excited to see it because since I’ve been learning to bird, the only dove I’ve been able to photograph has been mourning doves. When you’re new at birding, almost anything can be a life bird.
On the boardwalk that goes across a shallow pond and a bird sanctuary island you get a great view of everything. Turtles adorn every spare piece of real estate on cypress tree bases, nutria wander in and out of the scrub vegetation and of course, the birds. There were several more geese that I deemed ‘probably ornamental’, a horde of seagulls (ring-billed and laughing gulls) just waiting for the next sap with a bag of bread, a few boat-tailed grackles and the trees were abuzz with yellow-rumped warblers. This tiny perching bird has been one of my most encountered birds for the last 2 months. It’s easy to identify as it has a bright yellow spot both under its wing and (it’s namesake) on its rump. The birder I had met in Mandeville on New Year’s Day frequently remarked “Yup, that’s a yellow-rump. I saw that butter butt”.
And then there was my rare bird. I originally saw it on a tree just off the boardwalk from the bird sanctuary and it was generally not too timid and let me photograph it quite a few times before venturing off into the trees on the bird sanctuary island where I couldn’t follow.
I later identified it using my National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds as a Bullock’s Oriole and then immediately questioned myself when I looked at its range map. It winters in Central America and isn’t shown east of central Texas in the summertime. Nonetheless, I submitted my observation with a picture of the bird to ebirg.org which, upon submitting, asked me if I was sure as this bird was rare to the area. I clicked “yes” hesitantly because I had gone through this exercise several times before with birds I had simply misidentified and had been corrected through emails later (whooping cranes were actually wood storks, blue-winged warbler was a prothonotary warbler and a prothonotary warbler was actually a female orchard oriole).
You see, when a rare bird sighting is submitted on this sight, all the birders who follow the rare bird alerts get an email, so you’re suddenly in the spotlight. I was so happy to get an email later that night. I was correct!
Like I said, a good day of birding. I headed to Bayou Savauge Wildlife Refuge after this, but that’s a post for another night.
List of year birds so far:
- Pied-Billed Grebe
- Black-bellied Whistling Duck
- Canada Goose
- Wood Duck
- White Ibis
- American Coot
- Eurasian Collared-Dove
- Fish Crow
- Bullock’s Oriole