Saturday, August 15, 2015

Tide Turning

It's still hot, Lafayette still seems to have a force field that deflects rain, and ironweed and mistflower still haven't bloomed around the house, but there does seem to be change in the air.  School started this week in Lafayette Parish, preseason football is here, and a peek at the 10-day forecast shows a solid wall of cloud and lightning bolt icons after a 6 week run of a malevolent little cartoon sun. The first weekend of the school year is one of relaxation and rest.  After sleeping as late as I could, a glance out bedroom window showed a scene that could have passed for Indian summer, complete with a hummingbird whizzing around the urban backyard wondering why the feeders were dry.

After remedying that situation, I got back to work doing nothing. Spray from a new mister drifted like smoke in a slight north wind. The air felt slightly cool.

A young Mockingbird with spots on its breast opened its wings and almost tipped over. I could see a tumor on its bill, and one on the bend of each wing. That youngster may have a tough road ahead.

A Broad-winged Hawk glided low directly over the porch and a large freakishly plain orange wasp landed on a peppervine sprout and appeared to be scouting the stem. The young male rubythroat, with a few iridescent throat feathers growing in a crescent on its throat, sampled the fresh nectar of the feeders and perched in a toothache tree where White-winged Doves fed from the clusters of fruit.

White-winged Doves are the most hardcore addicts of toothache trees I've encountered. Even during the height of fig season when all the other backyard birds were in a fig frenzy, Whitewings ignored everything but toothache fruit.  Hopefully these far-ranging doves will eject plenty of the seeds in their rambles and start some renegade toothache tree forests around the town.

A young-looking Great-crested Flycatcher popped out of the toothache trees--flycatchers are also heavy addicts of the fruit of this tree.  I hoped for more birds to appear, maybe some migrant empids, but the morning rush was tapped out.

Whatever cool I had imagined is gone, the air feels dry now, and Mississippi Kites are up riding the heat waves. It's still summer, but pretty soon the kites and flycatchers will be gone, and they'll take summer with them.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Cameron Parish 08/05/2015

It was an interesting day on the coast today, if not for birds, then to see how the coast is shaping up with fall migration clearly underway.  On the way down, I saw a shut down shop called the STEP IN #1.  With the forecast for the mid 90s and considering the dead air of the recent drought, I was hoping that I wasn't going to the STEP IN #2.

My first stop was Holly Beach, which was in Back to School mode, with almost no human presence. Everything was typical of the season: Sanderlings and turnstones are setting up shop, juvenile terns are begging from parents that seem ready to cut the cord, and Snowy Plovers are arriving while Wilson's Plovers prepare to depart.

Juvenile and adult Least Tern.  Click for a closer look; the plumage of the juvenile is beautiful.

Wilson's Plover and Snowy Plover 

My next stop was at the Baton Rouge Audubon Society sanctuary at Peveto Woods. My visit was notable for several reasons, especially that there were very few deerflies, and the heat was bearably dry, with the slight wind making the shade feel very comfortable.  

I had a few fall migrants including 3 Black-and-white Warblers and a Least Flycatcher, as well as plenty of soon-to-depart species such as Orchard Oriole, Great Crested Flycatcher, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  

I was hoping to see the large vagrant moth known as the Black Witch today, and I was half-lucky in that regard.  I came upon one that had made its way here from who knows where only to end up in a "banana spider" web.  

Among other insect sightings, I watched a Queen butterfly wing through the sanctuary, stopping to lay an egg on a vine there.  I was unfortunately unable to focus the camera on her.  I was luckier with these two dragonflies which I have no idea about the ID of.

Later in the day I headed to Broussard and then Rutherford Beach. Both were showing larger scale reruns of what I'd seen on Holly Beach, but again, it was a beautiful day and a pleasure to enjoy it. One odd thing I did note was the near absence of Laughing Gulls.   

Driving north up the Rutherford Beach road, I began to see dead mullet in the roadside ditch, I suppose the result of low oxygen levels that summer heat can bring on.  As I neared the open marsh, I realized where all of the missing Laughing Gulls were. What looked like white water lilies blooming in the open expanses of water were actually thousands of belly-up mullet, and a horde of birds was on hand for the occasion.  I don't know if the gulls and herons were eating carcasses or fish that were being fitted for their carcasses, but there were hundreds of gulls, dozens of herons, and on the mud flat of a large drying pool, hundreds of shorebirds.  

I ended the day driving back on Chalkley and Fruge roads with the sun getting low and the edge of the heat dulled.  It was a beautiful day, rich with the promise of the coming months of migration. With school starting next week, I'll be a bit busy for the next nine months. Today was a great day out to say goodbye to summer.  

Friday, July 31, 2015

LBRC Photo and Record Gallery

Evenings this summer have been spent working on a project on the LBRC website to create a template that all accepted and published LBRC records can eventually be uploaded and linked to.  At this point, all of the published synopses of accepted and unaccepted records for every species currently on the Review List have been stationed on individual species' pages, and linked to the digital records from the LBRC site. Eventually all of the old paper LBRC records and photos will be scanned and posted as well. 

The next step is to include the pages for the records of species that have been removed from the Review List. Following that, published synopses (anonymous) of unaccepted records of species not on the Review List will be added.  

Each species page contains a date graph and a parish map for accepted records 

as well as the accepted and unaccepted records and synopses.  Where pictures are available, a representative photo is included.  

The portal is at the LOS LBRC site, under the link "Photo and Record Gallery," specific address:

If you browse the site, be sure to let me know about any errors, of which many must have crept in.

1, 2, 3...

Who's perched atop the pile? 
Maybe because we're in the summer doldrums,* a friend recently got the itch to tally up his Louisiana list to submit to the ABA, and he urged me and a few others to do the same.  My total (403, see Booby post below) doesn't measure up to the others in the exercise and probably never will.  I've seen all of the "easy" birds for the state, so each addition to the list now becomes a mini-Everest, and that means there's a whole lot of Himalayas between my list and those in the 420s and 430s.

In comparing the lists of the leaders, we had to figure out what birds are eligible for lists. There's no List Police, but obviously a level playing field is in order.**  We basically went by the common sense rules that have been employed in the past for Louisiana Big Years: Species can't count if they're not on the U.S. list (House Crow), not on the Louisiana list (Monk Parakeet, feral/introduced Canada Goose, Budgies, other exotics), or pertain to sightings of individuals that weren't documented and/or weren't accepted into the state record.

Most of their list totals will make their way to the ABA site little by little.  Feel free to pass my total, I'm not in it to win it.  I may know how to count, but I just want to see birds.  

*I actually like the summer doldrums, and even though I wasn't able to watch birds much this summer, a recent trip in the suffocating heat revealed roadsides loaded with ragweed and ready for migrants.  Fall is in the 100 degree air!

**The issue of creating a level playing field has come up before and might reemerge soon.  A recent glance at eBird shows that a couple of birders are in the 320s/330s on their year lists and stand a fair chance of breaking the state Big Year record if they get lucky.  The only complication is that no one really knows what the Louisiana Big Year total is.  The lists of past competitors that have claimed the title aren't available, but I think the number to beat is about 350, give or take a bird.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Seabirds of the Summer Doldrums

I recently ventured outside of my SWLA comfort zone on a boat trip with Dave Patton and Danny and Rob Dobbs to see the Lake Ponchartrain Brown Boobies. Despite trips to the Dry Tortugas and offshore Louisiana, this had been a jinx species for me. My life Brown Booby turned out to be 20 of 'em.

The species is number 403 on my state list, which may sound like a lot, but I think I'm the lowest ranking member of the 400 Club, well behind most of the others who have crossed the 400 milestone. And I must be one of the last birdwatchers in Louisiana to add Brown Booby to the life experiences list...

The presence of these birds in Ponchartrain may make sense to the boobies, but it baffles most of us.  This species had generally been found only offshore--or at least on the beach--until a few years ago. The 20 individuals we saw outnumbered the total number of Brown Boobies ever recorded in Louisiana prior to the event.  

The boobies at the lake were first found a couple of winters back, and even though many of the birds there now are adults, whether some of these birds are the same individuals from before is a matter of speculation.  Keep in mind that 3 Brown Boobies were also found in a lake south of Lake Charles a few years back, and in one of the oddest bird records I can remember, Steve Cardiff saw a Brown Booby flying over the SWLA ricefields last winter in close proximity to geese. Records are piling up. Something's going on, and as is probably often true, people may be the last to find out what it is.   

The boat trip was a good end to a summer that saw me doing far more yard work and spending more time at home than in a long time.  It was a great summer, and here's to a good fall and a great school year!  

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Hybrids between Blue-winged and Golden-winged warblers are well known and are pictured in most field guides.  The hybridization between the two appears to favor the former species and seems to be crowding the latter species into a corner of its previous range.  Blue-wingeds are winning the battle, one hybrid at a time.  Migrant Golden-wingeds are certainly getting harder to find here in SWLA, and coincidentally or not, I've seen several hybrids over the past couple of years.

Some people have argued that the two species might actually be different sides of the same coin: one species that shows two looks.  When explanations about the appearance of the two birds pop up using Mendelian genetics and Punnett squares, that certainly sounds like an attractive theory. Those explanations are based on the dominant and recessive traits expressed by genes in each species, which basically seem to show that the appearance of the ground color and facial patterns of the two species are based on each species having a dominant and a recessive allele.

Here are two photos of Golden-winged X Blue-winged warbler hybrids.  The first is known as a "Brewster's Warbler, featuring the dominant white underparts found in Golden-winged and the dominant dark eyeline of the Blue-winged.  This hybrid type results from first generation hybrids, or in this case, probably from a backcross of a first generation hybrid to a Golden-winged Warbler.
The second shot is of a bird showing the recessive traits of yellow body color and dark throat and eyemask.  This combination happens when hybrids cross, so it would be a second generation or later hybrid. This bird is known as a "Lawrence's Warbler."  This is a terrible photo, but after snapping photos of leaves and sticks hoping that the bird would pop into view, this is all I got.
It seems odd that major traits in each species are controlled by recessive genes. I guess I'm tempted to think (based on knowing almost nothing about it) that if two populations of one species split apart long ago, there's no reason that each side couldn't have ended up expressing recessive traits.  Blue eyes in humans are more or less recessive (although apparently controlled by multiple genes), but some entire populations of humans are blue-eyed.

Imagine a population of these warblers where only recessive alleles existed, basically an entire population of Lawrence's Warblers.  Now imagine that the population existed isolated for thousands of years. That would be a pretty nice-looking kind of bird.

I bring  this subject up because a group of us had a Lawrence's Warbler, the one pictured above, yesterday down in Cameron Parish.  It was a beautiful bird, rare and a treat.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Pulse Check

I just realized that my last blog post dates from almost a year ago.  I'm not surprised.  I remember a line from a tombstone in an old National Lampoon that read, "One thing led to another, and before we knew it, we were dead."  One thing keeps leading to another here--in good ways--but my birding time has taken a hit.

No big deal. There was a time when Louisiana was so vastly under-birded that it felt like every birder had a sacred duty to get out just to create baseline data.  Nowadays, there are so many great Louisiana birders that no corner of the state is being neglected.  The evidence is obvious: LSU is having a true renaissance with its most dedicated, talented group of young birders in the past 20 years, birders in every corner of the state are forcing chasers to expand their carbon footprints and use up their sick days to chase hot birds, and new birders are accelerating their learning curves so quickly that the beginners of yesterday are already turning into trusted experts. So much for under-birded! The corps of Louisiana birders is by far the strongest ever.  This fall and winter alone, state birders have made it easy to add this incredible list of hard-to-get species that hadn't graced our state in years:

Eurasian Wigeon
Red-necked Grebe
Ringed Kingfisher
Lucy's Warbler

None of that would have been possible even a few years ago when Louisiana was so very under-birded--and of course, when we relied on word of mouth* instead of LaBird, eBird, and FaceBook. With such a great birding network and such instant communication, birders today can see more species in a year than their counterparts a generation ago might in a decade.  That's upped the expertise level immensely, and the increase in expertise has paid off handsomely.  I think it's safe to say that soon, Louisiana birders will almost start with 400 species on their list.  Given the boom in birding and technology, I think it's also safe to say that the Louisiana state checklist is set to explode.

Louisiana birding is in great hands. Tune in next year when I post again...

*Do you remember when the Rarity Alert meant the pay phone at Peveto?

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Spring disappears into the distance

I haven't been posting regularly thus far this year, but I this morning find myself with a few minutes, a cup of hot tea, and a cool morning on a new porch to reflect on the birding events of the past two months, so...

April and May are huge months for migration through SWLA. Millions of birds stream like a river miles above the coastal plain every night. The river starts as lleast as far away as the Yucatan Peninsula across the Gulf of Mexico, and probably has tributaries that feed in from points all along the western Gulf coast. Many birds are "trans-Gulf" migrants that cross the Gulf in one long flight. Others are "circum-Gulf" migrants that travel mainly over the land and around the Gulf. The river they form probably follows the rules of all rivers, flooding or running dry at various times according to the weather, but most importantly for the bird watchers that hope to glimpse the river in flood, the river meanders and changes course, sometimes slowly, sometimes by the day.

In recent years, the river has crossed directly over SWLA. It became visible when the volume was so great that it overflowed or when there was an obstacle like a thunderstorm in its path. A trip down to coastal Cameron Parish allowed birders to sample the outliers or the overflow, or enjoy the fallout when the river got blocked and the birds had nowhere to go but down to the ground.

For the past two years, the river seems to have shifted course to the east. Grand Isle, which often found itself devoid of birds in recent years when Cameron was flush with them, has recently experienced a flood of them. Cameron Parish, on the other hand, has had spotty action with notable gaps in the species represented.

I had several chances to go down to Cameron Parish this spring during April and May, and while the action was usually interesting enough to justify the trip, there was never an overload. In fact, in terms of species I had a chance to view, it was as poor a year as I've ever seen there. Some of the species I would normally see plenty of that I scratched on this year include both waterthrushes, Ovenbird, and Bay-breasted Warbler. I never saw more than a dozen or so warbler species in a day, and even on days when I did see fair diversity, birding was slow in terms of numbers of individuals.

No matter how slow the action was, I had a great time whenever I went down to the coast. If there's not action in one spot, you can always find it in another. The beaches were interesting. Molly Richard, Patti Holland, and Angela Trahan found this Black-legged Kittiwake on Rutherford Beach in April, and I came across it a few days later. This species is rare in Louisiana, but what I found most uncommon about it was the fact that it was in an adult-like plumage with a silvery back instead of the broad black markings of a young birds which typically show up here.

Also interesting was this Caspian Tern wearing jewelry:

Last time I saw a banded tern in Cameron, it turned out to be one that Dan O'Malley had banded in the islands of Terrebonne Parish. I'll have to ask Dan if this is one of his birds, too. 

Peregrine Falcons eat other migrant birds, but I doubt this one could have eaten all of the missing songbirds this spring. 

Mike Musumeche pointed out a roosting Lesser Nighthawk in a pecan tree in Peveto Woods one day in April. A few days later I noticed the same bird in the same tree, although it chose a different branch. Note that I marked rows of markings on this bird. I'm always trying to solve the mystery of nighthawk markings. There's a pattern there that can allow nighthawk species to be told apart.

Another nice sighting was this Kiskadee, one of two present on a day at Lighthouse Woods with Dan Lane, Michael Plauche, Van Remsen, and the Dean of Louisiana birders, Mac Myers.

On another day, Mac and I had this dead Common Loon on Rutherford Beach, such a far cry from the northern waters where it would have spent its summer.

Also far from home, or at least out of place, was this Red-headed Woodpecker in sight of the coast in early May. There's not much habitat for this species south of the marsh. I hope it found a better place to stay.

There were a few species in higher than normal numbers. This young Common Tern was one of thousands that I was lucky enough to get to sift through this spring. There were more Common Terns together this spring than I can ever remember seeing so early.

On the other hand, the Brewer's Blackbird, below, was a bit late, staying at least until the 4th week of April on Chalkley Road, on the way home from the coast.

At the same spot, this Yellow-headed Blackbird hung around into early May: 

And to make May trips more worthwhile, there were a few typical later migrants to look at.  Magnolia Warblers are always fun to watch: 

And the hundreds of Wilson's Phalaropes feeding in a frenzied flock, below, were almost impossible not to watch all day. 

And, of course, there were still good birds to see back in Lafayette. Cedar Waxwings stick around into early May, and in terms of beauty, they really don't have to take a backseat to anything on this planet. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Mississippi Kite

The recently returned Chimney Swifts have company in the skies over my neighborhood. I don't know when it arrived, but this Mississippi Kite was circling high overhead this afternoon.

It sure is good to see it.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Spring, Sprang, Sprung

April 6? How did that happen?

All winter long, walking through brown woods and fields full of kinglets and sparrows, it seemed hard for me to believe that spring would ever bring Hooded Warblers and Chimney Swifts again. This cold year, that was especially true. And yet, little by little we came news of the first migrants of spring arriving on the coast, and the next thing I knew, winter was a  memory.

This year, I didn't have many chances to get out in March. It wasn't until near the end of the month that I was able to break away and make a run to the coast.

For all the fuss we make about rare birds, for me, seeing the first migrant of the year is the real rice and gravy of birding. The earth has run another lap, the spotlight of the sun is sliding up the globe, and the birds follow in its glow. Nothing in birding is more exciting to me than seeing a brilliant yellow warbler flashing through the soft green of new hackberry leaves after a winter of birds that blend in with dead grass.

Mac Myers and I went down on March 23, and although there weren't a lot of migrants, it was a treat to see what was there. We saw Black-and-white, Hooded, Parula, and Yellow-throated warblers, and Great-crested Flycatchers in the woods, rosy Sandwich Terns on the beach, and a few other spring arrivals, such as this Baird's Sandpiper.

We also scoped out a rain pond on the roadside and found this female teal swimming with a mixed flock of ducks. Going by the long, spoon-shaped bill, the plain face, and size, our first thought was Cinnamon Teal. Although Cinnamon Teal hybrids are sometimes found in Louisiana, and telling a female hybrid might be a hard task, this looks like a typical Cinnamon female to me.

The next weekend, Mac and I headed down again. There were a few more migrants, including our first pewee and our first Tennessee Warbler of the year. A brilliant male Summer Tanager really lit up the place, as well.

Typical of this time of year, without much effort we tallied 135 species for the day. Spring is here.

Yesterday, I headed down alone. Dave Patton is off globe-trotting, and Mac was waiting to go on Monday, but I needed to get out.

I arrived pretty early in the morning, and eyeballed the first beach flock I saw on Holly Beach. One bird jumped out at me, and I grabbed my camera instead of binoculars. I didn't have time to fiddle with settings, and the lens was slow to focus in the dim light, but I had to hurry. The only other person on the beach had decided to take a slow stroll right through the flock of birds I was studying. I snapped a couple of photos, but felt I had missed the bird I was trying for as they all took flight. Unfortunately, they spread out, and the bird I was looking for was gone.

The images through the viewfinder were black, so I tried to relocate the bird. I knew it was a Little Gull, a fairly rare bird, but I doubted that I had good enough documentation. Getting good proof of any unusual sighting is a necessity, even if it can be a pain. I've studied enough old records to know that sometimes, no matter who the observer is, doubt can creep in. Documentation should be good enough to convince anyone in the future about the credibility of a sighting.

Long story short, I found the gull a couple of times, but I wasn't sure how good the images would be until I finally parked and let the flock coalesce around me. I managed to relocate the gull among hundreds of Forster's and a few Common Terns, as well as the many Bonaparte's Gulls the Little Gull was probably hanging out with, and managed to digiscope its frenetic bout of preening with my phone.