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.