16 September 2009

Grand Isle

I slammed the door on the Ford Taurus and looked over at Chris West and Lanie Collette. "I'm going to hit the woods real fast, but I'll wait for you guys." They walked into the Sureway grocer, and I walked down to the end of the row of stores, glancing to my right at the beachfront levee. This was Grand Isle in Jefferson Parish, one of the most famous birding spots in Louisiana, and the location of two Black-whiskered Vireos this spring. As I reached the end of the row, I turned, and looked down a road from another era. I don't know what Grand Isle looked like before the tourists came, but I have a feeling it was something like what I saw before me: a desolate road vanishing into the dark oaks of the coastal ridge, beckoning and foreboding. I walked down the lane and scared up a Chuck-will's-widow. I smiled, and wondered how many more were out there if Chris and I flushed one yesterday in Cameron. I continued deeper into this enchanted forest, but failed to find any birds. I thought back to Peveto, and realized that, not only were the birds here, but that they were in a flock. I just had to find the flock. I walked down to the end of the road, and saw a lone Blue-gray Gnatcatcher flitting in the oaks. I started pishing, and waited. After about five minutes, a Red-eyed Vireo flew in. I smiled, realizing that the flock was on its way. Soon, about 20 Red-eyed Vireos were flitting amongst the branches and I spotted a Canada Warbler on a branch, and kept watching the birds. A quick pause by an Empidonax flycatcher on a branch became my first life bird for the day: a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. A trail bisected their numbers, but I told Chris and Lanie I would wait for them. They soon arrived, and we headed into the trees. Two Black-and-white Warblers crawled along the branches, and an American Redstart danced about in the branches. Chris sooned chimed in witha "Blue-winged Warbler!" I turned around and found myself 'face-to-face' with a male Blue-winged Warbler, another life bird for me. We watched the birds flitting through the canapy and I realized that all the birds we had seen had been in the upper stories, except for the Canada Warbler I saw earlier. I then began checking the low bushes for Oporornis warblers and was quickly rewarded with my third life bird for the day, an adult Kentucky Warbler. The flock had mostly left us by this time, so we wandered off into other parts of the forest, with Chris spotting another American Redstart and a pair of Canada Warblers. We soon decided to head out towards Elmer's Island for pelagic birds, as the heat began to make the land birds die down.

Elmer's Island WMA is mostly marsh with a small cobblestone area to drive across the mudflats for about 200 yards and then play on the beach. Here, where the cobblestones end at the surf, was a small concrete platform began eaten away by the ceaseless waves rolling off the gulf, stood three birders scanning the endless ocean for birds. The shorebirds cooperated very well, with Ruddy Turnstone and Semipalmated Plover coming within feet of us, and a distant Piping Plover down the beach entertaining us as well. About a thousand Black Terns moved up and down the beach, and Royal and Caspian Terns plunged into the water. While Chris was scanning the distant flocks of birds for shearwaters, jaegers and gannets, a glanced upward in time to see one of the most incredible birds I have ever seen. As I grabbed my binoculars, I shouted to Lanie and Chris "FRIGATEBIRD!" The Magnificent Frigatebird has a wingspan comparable to a pelican, but it is a bird the size of a goose. It's wings are long and drawn out, like an albatross, and the impressive black body with the white revealed that this was a young bird. Over the course of the next hour, I was able to pick out two more in the distance, slowly and laboriously flapping as the looked down upon the swarms of seabirds, just waiting until one presented intself as the perfect target. As we searched the endless skies for Northern Gannets, a storm began to roll in off the gulf. The people around us slowly began to depart, until we were all that remained on the section of beach. Within five seconds, the temperature dropped and the wind picked up by thirty miles an hour. I clung to the tripod, determined to continue scoping the ocean. Chris finally said "I saw a gannet, let's run!" Although I had not seen the bird, I was beyond the point of caring. I grabbed the scope, turned around and ran. Unfortunately, I forgot to wear a belt, and my pants started to fall down. I paused to grab them and it was too late. The downpour hit me. I continued to run down the cobblestones, and finally made it back to Chris's car soaked but no worse for wear.

On our way back, we paused briefly for lunch at the nearby Kajun Eatery. There, I had a delicious cheeseburger and stepped outside breifly. I scared up a really dark colored House Sparrow, and though it was kind of odd. Soon, the bird returned, and I was aware that this was not a House Sparrow but an Ammodramus. Chris came outside and I said "Check out the House Sparrow." He glanced up and said "Yeah they're... Wait. That's not a House Sparrow!" I chuckled and said "I know, I think it's an Ammodramus. Probably Seaside." Chris nodded and agreed that that was indeed what it was. As we went to our cars, we found six more picking the bugs off of car grills and the window screens. It was a great opportunity the Seaside Sparrows, which I dubbed the 'Cajun House Sparrow.'

The rest of the day was uneventful, as Chris drove across the Pontchartrain Causeway and returned me to LSU, and life fell back into it's normal pace. However, now that I know what is out there and what goodies lie in the coastal groves of oak and acacia, I can't help but be impatient to return. You never know what will show up next...

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