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.



Monday, February 24, 2014

It's been a long year so far...

...and it isn't even Mardi Gras yet.     

January started off fairly typically, like the warm winters we’ve been having for almost 20 years straight.  In early January, I was driving around birding with Dave Patton, and I worried aloud that we might not get another freeze for the winter, and that the flowering plants in my yard would just keep getting bigger.  It’s been at least 3 years since freeze had knocked them back, and the yard was a jungle.  Little did I know what was to come. 

Incidentally, as we drove home that day, I saw my first Vermilion Parish Crested Caracara, or “Mexican Eagle,” as they’re called around here.  It was perched in a tree around the cemetery that marks the spot of the former town of Cossinade (although it always sounds like Cossinale to me when it’s said in French).  

Historical note: Cossinade was the hub of the prairie area just west of Kaplan back in the homesteader days of the late 1800s and early 1900s.  It was even big enough to have a church (Catholic; everyone was French).  However, when the railroad came through it passed to the south, and the town of Kaplan was created on the rail line.  Cossinade couldn’t compete.  Older people say the priest burned down the church at Cossinade so he could move to Kaplan.

Now there’s just a cemetery there where folks like my great-great uncle Demosthenes Trahan and his wife Azema Prejean, two of the original SWLA Prairie homesteaders, spend their rest. 

And a Caracara. 

Distant, blurry shot of the Cossinade Caracara.  

Rusty Blackbirds
One interesting side note for the winter has been the surge in Rusty Blackbird numbers.  At the school where I teach, there’s been a resident flock since early January at least.  Heavy rains flood the playground, and among the birds that flock to take advantage of worms and whatnot crawling out of the flooded ground are a couple hundred Rusty Blackbirds.  These birds are typically bottomland dwellers here, and because their population is plummeting, they've become hard to find lately.  I track the numbers as well as I can, but I’m on the job, not birding. 

One morning I arrived early, and there was a group of over 100 Rusties feeding under the oaks by the driveway where parents line up to drop their kids off for school.  I greet the families and open their car doors every morning, and since I was close to my duty station and had a few minutes before the bell, I grabbed my binos and camera to document the flock.  I remember that it was  a frosty morning because I had a new and very short haircut, my ears were getting pretty cold. 



Long story short, when I went into the office after duty that morning, I found out that one of the moms in the car line hadn't recognized the guy that had opened the door of her truck for her daughter every day since August, and had called the office to let them know a strange man with binoculars was taking pictures of the school*.  The principal wanted to call 911 on the spot, but the secretary told her to see if she could recognize the strange man.  She couldn't.  Luckily the custodian told her, “It’s just Conover,” and I was able to escape the shame of becoming a convicted birdwatcher. 

Here’s the school I was taking a picture of:



My high count for Rusty Blackbirds at this spot this year was 320.  I hope that means Rusties are doing better. 

*She did the right thing, and I told her that and thanked her for her vigilance.

Freezes and Storms
By the end of January, I had to admit I was wrong when I’d told Dave about another winter on its way out the door without a good freeze to show for it.  On January 21, temperatures dropped and stayed below freezing through the next day.  Rain fell and froze in layers, then pellets of sleet fell and bounced off the ice.  School was closed, birds came in huge numbers for the seed I threw in the yard, and I spent the day using blow-dryers and boiling water to keep the hummingbird feeders thawed for my 5 winter hummers (3 Black-chinned and 2 Rufous).  My son is doing a birdfeeding experiment for science class involving suet use—and his suet blocks were in constant use.  In a small backyard where the presence of 2 Orange-crowned Warblers normally leads to vicious combat, 4 Orange-crowneds were pateintly queuing up to wait their turn to devour chunks of the lifesaving fat.  I don’t think politeness and charity was on their minds; they were probably too starved for energy to waste any on fighting. 


The suet buffet, and a scene from a freeze.  

Another storm hit a week later, also bad enough to shut down the town.  Temperatures dropped to the high teens or low 20s, and not much above above freezing for a few days.  People who live where snow and freezes last for months might chuckle at our weather wimpiness, but remember that SWLA is where their birds come to get away from that weather.  The invertebrates that birds like wrens survive on are impossible to eat when they’re trapped in ice, and small birds need a good supply of fuel to keep themselves warm.  The number of birds that fell asleep on those cold nights and never woke again must have been staggering.  Many species that are typically encountered several times per hour during the normal course of birding disappeared almost completely, while other species became remarkably scarce.  I've seen only 3 House Wrens since the freezes, Eastern Phoebes have disappeared from many spots, and Orange-crowned Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, the core of many winter flocks, have experienced huge losses.  Desperate flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers fed on roadsides like sparrows, flushing in groups of dozens.



Pine Warblers and American Goldfinches still seem to be in good numbers after the freezes. 


These weather events were much more brutal further north across the continent, of course, and that probably caused the upswing we’ve seen in waterfowl numbers.  White-winged Scoters are seemingly everywhere across the state, giving us a good chance to study a bird that’s normally very rare in Louisiana. 






White-winged Scoter sampler


Nearshore Birding
On the coast, this is normally the hardest time of the year for birds.  Gulls and pelicans can starve during normal winters here.  I've seen many dead pelicans on the beach thus far, which is normal, and pelicans have been feeding in roadside borrow canals. 

During these hard times, coastal birds cluster around shrimp boats to fight for the bycatch that gets thrust to the surface by nets or dumped overboard.  That makes it a good time for Dave to take his boat out to troll for jaegers.  Dave throws popcorn to attract a few Laughing Gulls, and that starts the stampede.  Soon larger gulls join in, and that attracts the jaegers. 



Three looks at Pomarine Jaegers, one with a full tail, a dark bird, and one with shorter popsicle-stick tail feathers. 

Jaegers are like the falcons of the sea.  They fly in fast, find a gull with food, and bully it into handing it over.  It’s fascinating to watch these birds engage in aerial combat, force a gull to surrender its meal, and then catch the meal before it hits the waves.  So fascinating, in fact, that Dave has become an addict.  When the weather is good, he takes his boat to sea to see what he can find.  If the weather is good and it’s the weekend, I like to join him.  Who knows what might come in from distant seas?


White Pelicans and a Bonaparte's Gull on a gray day. 

I've been out with Dave in Cameron (out of the Calcasieu) and Vermilion (out of Freshwater Bayou) parishes so far this winter.  We've been lucky with jaegers.  In Vermilion, with Judge Edwards, we got great looks at several Pomarine Jaegers, as well as a quick pass by a gull that looks good for Great Black-backed.  Both would be new for Vermilion Parish, I believe.  Dave has really opened a new chapter in Louisiana birding with his frequent jaeger trips, showing that Parasitic Jaegers are regular at some times of year, learning the habits of local Pomarine Jaegers, and meeting up with some great birds over time  (Razorbill, plus California, Glaucous, and Thayer’s gulls, and of course, lots of jaegers).  Even if no rare birds are around, the boat provides different looks at common birds.  Ever seen a pelican chase popcorn?     
Marsh near Freshwater Bayou, Vermilion Parish

Other Notes and Birds

There have been plenty of beautiful hawks to look at.  Harlan's Hawks, Red-tailed hawks that are usually dark, have been easy to find.  Paler Red-taileds have also been in good supply, with some stunning looking birds.  The pale-headed Red-tailed Hawk below (not a great picture, sorry...but a great bird) has set up shop along Holly Beach in Cameron Parish.  


Dark and pale Red-tailed Hawks.  

Another fine hawk has been present along Holly Beach, but it's been elusive.  A Ferruginous Hawk has been seen there since early December, but not often.  It either perches out of sight on the ground for much of the day, or comes and goes.  Shawn Kurtzman spotted it this month, the first sighting since Dan O'Malley relocated it in late December.  On a trip down a little after Shawn's sighting, I came across it as well.  It's a large hawk that seems eagle-like in its bearing.  







So that’s where I am in the year.  In a few days I’ll see my first Barn Swallow of the spring, and soon after I’ll notice the lack of cranes and geese.  Yellowtop and buttercup will cover the landscape, and hot days will be tempered by chilly nights.  In less than a month, birding will switch back to coastal woodlots where brightly colored warblers will light up the dull woods.  Bitter as winter has been, it’s almost spring.  

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Out with the Old Year

2013 birding was a welcome diversion from reality.  It was an eventful year for me, and every chance I got to look at birds was great tonic.  I hit the field in bursts whenever I could whether conditions were favorable or not, and did a lot of backyard birding the rest of the time.  Jaegers or mockingbirds, it was all pretty great. Still, I can only hope that 2014 will be an easier year!