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.

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