26 October 2009

Fun With Sparrows

As I sat at LSU, I couldn't help but think of everything that was going on. I have suffered from two partially collapsed lungs in the past month and a half, perfectly timed for midterms. As one may expect, my grades began falling like a lung with a hole in it. Luckily, I am getting everything worked out now, and am under less pressure from school, but this last weekend, I knew exactly what I needed: a mental health day. A day that I could let myself slip away, and have fun before the tests this coming week. And as I walked out the door to my dorm and saw Jeff Harris drive up to pick me up, I knew that we were going to have a great day of birding the next day. Of course, how can you go wrong when you go to Grand Isle?

On Saturday morning, I awoke from a fitful slumber. It's hard to get a good sleep when you can't stop thinking about the birds that could be just down the street. I slowly raised myself from my couch/bed, and woke up Jacob Saucier across the room. As I woke up, I looked around at this high tech house we were staying in. It was so nice that I often forgot we were on stilts 14 feet off the air. This was the 'camp,' something that made me realize I would never say no to camping in Louisiana again. As we gathered our things in the living room and waited for the others to trickle in and be ready to go, we discussed what our first move would be. Kevin Morgan, Jeff Harris, Jacob Saucier and I discussed the best course of action for maximum bird potential. We soon decided on Sureway Woods, the Audubon property of live oaks behind your local neighborhood Sureway grocery. At first, things were rather slow. Jacob almost stepped on a Chuck-will's-widow that ended up knifing through the dark foliage, and we got a Swamp Sparrow while trying to refind the Chuck. The woods slowly began to light up, showing that the woods were really as empty as we had perceived in the dark. We found some Gray Catbirds and a calling Hooded Warbler, but then had no idea what to do. There were no birds anywhere it seemed. While we discussing other areas to go, I spotted a small bird flitting in a nearby tree: Black-throated Green Warbler! It took a few seconds for Jeff to get on the bird, and only a few more for him to realize we were looking in different directions. A calling Blue-gray Gnatcatcher joined the birds and a lone Blue-headed Vireo foraged in the canopy with them. 'The flock' was here! And just as quickly, it was gone. We soon all pressed onward to the other part of the forest across the road and ran into fellow birders Jane Patterson, Lainie Lahaye, and Sean, whose last name escapes me and was a visiting Cornell graduate looking for a grad school. As we wandered on, things began to pick up a little more. I soon spotted a Black-and-white Warbler and a Magnolia Warbler, while Jeff found a Veery running across the trail and I started losing track of who was spotting what around me. Though there wasn't much, there was a nice variety of birds.

Soon after this we decided to check out another track of woods in a neighborhood. I forget the name of these woods, but they didn't have anything extremely memorable in them. Sean spotted two Scissor-tailed Flycatchers in the neighborhood, and the woods held close to 100 White-winged Doves. We checked the beach briefly, where I decided to check the gulf. Suddenly, I spotted something a ways out, with long dark wings, and a flight that was definitely different than the other seabirds present. "HEY GUYS IT'S A... oh no wait, that's a harrier!" Sure enough, the bird turned out to be a Northern Harrier. Goes to show anything could be anywhere though...

Our next stop for the day was Exxon Fields. Kevin, Jacob, Jeff and I inched picking through the shorebirds, pulling out Stilt Sandpipers, Dunlin, Least Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and even a sneaky Wilson's Snipe. While we were sitting there, I saw a hawk lilt harrier like over the field and then got a flash of the underside. "SWAINSON'S HAWK!" The other fumbled to get a better angle out of the car windows as I pointed it out. The angle on the bird remained terrible while we discussed how unlikely a Swainson's was here, until it turned again, revealing it's classic underside.
Swainson's Hawk, Exxon Fields, Grand Isle, Louisiana

Also out on the fields was a nice flock of about 30 Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, always a pleasant surprise.

We then headed out to Elmer's Island to paruse the beach for the rest of the day. Sean needed his lifer Snowy Plover and I, my lifer Wilson's, so we began scouring everything for these two birds. Ironically, we found three Piping Plovers in the process but were inexplicably failing to find the other plovers. However, as we pushed further down, my luck returned. Thank goodness I had a camera...
...because there was this cooperative Wilson's Plover fighting another! LIFER! Also on the beach were cooperative Reddish Egrets, Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, and a few Avocets out in the lagoon. As we drove down the beach again, Sean spotted his lifer Snowy Plover and a Lesser Black-backed Gull.

As the finale for the entire day, we stopped at a Seaside Sparrow spot, and ended up having not only Seaside Sparrows but 30-40 Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows! They were extremely cooperative as well.

One of the Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows that was a lifer for me, Lainie, and Kevin. And, my favorite pic of the day:
Seaside Sparrow at Elmer's Island.

Until next time, Good birding and thanks for reading!

11 October 2009

Game Day in Cameron

I walked around nervously, glancing upon the shelters in various states of disregard. Sections of grass were warning taped off, concrete areas fenced up, and the ESPN stage was surrounded by semis and people wanting to get the best seats for the show. The parking lots were filled, and people were everywhere. A giant semi truck full of beer drove by. I shuddered. The game was almost 24 hours away, and the campus was already starting to go into party mode. It was at this moment I realized how thankful I was that I would not be on campus tomorrow for the LSU x Florida game, and how much I was looking forward to Grand Isle.

4:45 AM: GAME DAY.

The lights of Baron Rouge reflected off of the low hanging clouds, making the sky glow an eerie, pale yellow. I sat in the front of the car, staring out the window as the windshield wipers whisked water from out field of view. I glanced back at the back seat, towards Jacob Saucier and Jeff Harris. Kevin flicked his blinker on and slowly eased off of the interstate. As he shifted his car and accelerated around a turn he glanced towards us, asking "So you guys for sure want to go to Cameron instead?" Jeff played with his iPhone a little more, and said "If we go to Grand Isle, it'll be raining for a good four hours probably. We can hit Cameron right after the front moves through though." Jacob excitedly sat up in his seat. "We could hit Cameron right after the front... That would be perfect!" Kevin started accelerating up the ramp westward, towards the land that just a few weeks ago produced my lifer Seaside Sparrow, Upland Sandpiper and more. We crossed the river and entered the Atchafalaya Basin, it's unending swamps made even more daunting by the darkness that gripped them. As we headed west, the sun slowly began to rise, but by the time it had become light enough to see, the trees were far behind us.

We raced southward through the Cameron Prairie. A prairie, by definition, is a large expanse of grassy, treeless land that is mostly flat. In Louisiana, this means it must be mostly underwater as well. The endless boggy grasslands are home to thousands of water birds and hundreds of gators. As we drove towards the coast, I got to see my first big flocks of Greater White-fronted Geese that had arrived for the winter, locally known as Specklebellies. Before I knew it, we were at the coast, with the Gulf of Mexico stretching out into distance ahead, all the way to the Yucatan hundreds of miles away. Here, at the beach, we had a Merlin perched on some litter and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher bracing itself against the cool winds. A welcome change from the 90+ degree weather the day before was this post-front coolness, with temperatures of 67 degrees forcing all the cold and wet critters to hunker down. As the sun began to warm the land, we decided to go to Peveto Woods, the legendary migrant trap of Cameron Parish.

When we first arrived at Peveto, it was pretty quiet. Almost instantly though, the birds (and the neverending mosquito hordes) made their presence known. As we stepped into the woods, we were bombarded by the biggest American Redstart flock I have ever seen. Almost every tree we looked in had one of these flashy warblers, and it was not uncommon to have up to ten of these little warblers in view at the same time! As we slowly walked into the forest, the other eastern migrants made themselves known. Canada Warblers flitted through the brush, a male Magnolia Warbler fed in some ragweed, and a Hooded Warbler darted through the undergrowth. Indigo Buntings were flying all around us, accompanied by their giant cousins, the Blue Grosbeaks. The forest was teeming with Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, who fought over the few flowers, defending their small migratory food stores. The hummingbirds possibly outnumbered even the Redstarts, with birds flying past your field of view every few seconds. Kevin soon spotted a female Selasphorus hummingbird on some morning glory. The hummer (probably a Rufous) darted around these woods so atypical for a Western hummingbird, chasing around the Ruby-throats that tried to use his flowers. As we continued on, Nashville Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets joined the Redstarts, and some Black-and-white Warblers crept along the trees. A Common Yellowthroat called from some tangles, and Eastern Wood-Pewees darted amongst the branches. Jacob spotted a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher as a Baltimore Oriole fed in a nearby tree. The woods were simply incredible. Everywhere you looked had birds, be they Tennessee Warblers or Yellow-billed Cuckoos. It was one of the best birding spots I have ever been to, and even got two life birds out of the short visit: Black-throated Green Warbler and Philadelphia Vireo. As we watched a Reddish Egret prance on the beach just outside of the woods, we decided that it was time to move on, and to try to get some birds further down the road.

After several minor stops, each of which having Black-and-white Warblers or Northern Waterthrushes or other day birds, we ventured towards Rutherford Beach, the place where Chris West and I had found my lifer Seaside Sparrows on my last trip. Out towards the middle of the marsh, we pulled over and decided to play some Rail tapes. Though we tried almost every tape, we were only able to elicit vocal responses from two of the rails: Clapper Rails and King Rails. In these giant coastal marshes, these large Rallus species segregate out by salinity of the water, with Clappers in the most saline environments and Kings in the freshest, and all their hybrid young running around in the brackish marsh. We were soon able to get a bird out in the open with the Clapper Rail tape that was a hybird, and amazingly, he came within several feet!

Rallus elegans x longirostris, Rutherford Beach, Cameron Parish, Louisiana

Though we didn't get a pure Clapper to come out for photos, we did get this male King Rail to come check us out:

Why did the King Rail cross the road? I think the hybrid in the background is wondering the same thing...


King Rail checking us out from a few feet away.

I do have a lot more pictures of these rails, and I can (almost) guarantee that at some point in the future I will have a post dedicated to separating out King Rails, Clapper Rails, and their hybrids.

Also near the location where we harassed about a dozen rails was a new state bird for me - White-tailed Kite! I spotted it sitting in a dead tree along one of the canal roads.

After playing in the marsh, we headed back to Cameron to check out one of the Gulf shorelines for waders and other odd things. On our way there, I spotted a Crested Caracara flying across the a parking lot! It was a life bird for Jeff, which made me feel better as I was now not the only one getting lifers on a routine Louisiana birding day. Though we did not get good views, it was awesome to see one again. We continued on to the beach, where Jacob instantly spotted another state bird for me and a life bird for Jeff - a Long-billed Curlew. We soon walked up to the platform, and could see several hundred American White Pelicans, as well as a gigantic Black Skimmer flock, numerous Laughing Gulls, a few Marbled Godwits, a Whimbrel (lifer number three for Jeff), and two Lesser Black-backed Gulls. In the winter time, this location has had Short-eared Owl and is also supposed to good for Nelson's [Sharp-tailed] Sparrow, so I have a feeling I will be returning in the near future...

After this stop, we headed north towards Lacassine NWR in Jeff Davis Parish, picking up our Peregrine Falcons #6, #7, and #8 for the day as well as Merlin #~10. We arrived at Lacassine near dark and quickly birded through one of the loops. Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, thousands of Plegadis ibis and Greater White-fronted Geese crisscrossed the sky. As we were heading out, Jeff spotted a harrier out over the marsh. We stopped, and I got my binocs on the bird and froze. It was a SHORT-EARED OWL! We quickly piled out of the car, trying to get scopes on the bird when it flew. No white rump indicated that it definitely was not a harrier and that this bounding crepuscular creature was indeed Asio flammeus. It was a lifer for me, Kevin, and Jacob, giving each of us a lifer for the day. Just when we thought the action was over, Kevin's lifer American Bittern slowly flapped over the road ahead of us. We then began to race towards Baton Rouge in order to get back before the game let out, and talked about the incredible day we just had. It is a day of birding I shall not soon forget.

04 October 2009

Big Green Big Day / Fossil Fuels Find Flycatchers

This weekend, my friend John F. Garrett of Los Angeles, California and I decided to do Green Big Days in our respective areas. I have yet to hear of his final results, but have no doubt he got more than me. Regardless, I had an awesome day. Venturing out to the levee several times and wandering through the live oaks on campus produced several good birds, 56 species in all. Highlights are below:

Wood Duck: Presumably going towards a communal roost, the seemingly endless stream of Wood Ducks overhead around 6:45 PM totaled around 120, though I probably undercounted greatly.

Common Nighthawk: Not a bird I am used to seeing this late in the year, the five birds along the levee yesterday evening were fun to watch.

Eastern Wood-Pewee: A new campus bird for me, I was able to find three of these flycatchers around LSU.

Mourning Warbler: My year bird of this species was along the Mississippi River below the levee. My thanks go to Jason Beason for helping me ID this species. If not for a story he once told me about a bird he caught in eastern Colorado, I would not have realized what I was looking at!

Northern Parula: Pausing briefly at a construction site in front of one of my classes revealed this new campus bird for me. I later found another by one of the dining halls.

Canada Warbler: Taking the cake for the day, in my opinion, was a lone female Canada Warbler in a Chickadee flock in one of the most urbanized and worst-bird-habitat parts of campus: the Greek Row on Dalrymple.

Today, I took a break from my environmentally friendly attitude and drove down to Richfield Riversilt with Van Remsen, Amy Shutt, Josh Sylvest and some other (I'm sorry I'm bad with names). Overall, it was a pretty dead day with our best birds being Nashville Warbler and a flock of Wood Storks. however, as we were leaving, I saw the profile of a shirke-like bird with a long tail. I looked at it through my binoculars, and immediately got the others on it. It looked like Kingbird, but definitely not an Eastern Kingbird. Van took one look and was able to confirm that it was indeed not an Eastern Kingbird, but a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher! This was a new parish bird for me, and probably the only one I will see east of the Mississippi this year. Score one for fossil fuels finding the rarest bird of the weekend!

Until next time, take care!