24 February 2010

Ruff

I had never been so happy to hear blaring indie rock before. The whining synthesizer of my ringtone annoyingly announced the joyous news. I scrambled for my phone, and was horrified when the call was dropped. Kevin Morgan stared out into the flooded rice fields, waiting for the news. In the distance, we could see another birding car starting to speed away. Call back: answering machine. I quickly re-dialed: answering machine. I swore under my breath, and tried one more time. "Hello?" the crackly voice asked. "ERIK - what's up? You get it?" "Ya, I -t it, 'bout - mile west -of in--section..." Barely enough information had made it through, but it was enough. We hastily made our way back out to the highway and began coasting along the flooded rice fields. Long-billed Dowitchers covered the fields, interspersed with Greater Yellowlegs, Black-bellied Plovers, Killdeer and the occasional peep. It was here in this flooded back-country of Louisiana near Thornwell that Steve Cardiff, Donna Dittman, and Paul Conover found a winter male Ruff (Philomachus pugnax) the day before. We coasted by the previously reported location, and I glanced out at the small flooded field through the bitter wind. Erik was already there, with a scope pointed towards the rarest bird within a hundred miles. I walked over to the scope and slowly eased my eyes to the eyepiece, and there it was.

Ruff, Thornwell, Louisiana

Ruffs are normally Eurasian birds, but every year a few of them stray into the United States. This bird has been recorded in almost every state now, but remains sporadic and unpredictable most of the time. I consider myself lucky to have been able to see this amazing vagrant.

16 February 2010

Ammodramus Adventures

Over the past few weekends, I have done several Louisiana birding trips with one group of birds as the main target: the grassland birds. Being from the intermountain west, the 'grassland birds' always seemed out of reach, going through the center of the continent and hardly ever crossing the Rocky Mountains. So when I came here to Louisiana, I was hoping to pick up on these grassland birds that winter at forest fringes or reach the eastern edge of their range in this swampy state.

And so, two weekends ago, Jerry (cannot remember his last name, sorry), Jeff Harris, Kevin Morgan and I headed out into the pine-savannah of St. Tammany Parish. On the north shore of Lake Pontchartrian near the Mississippi border, this parish helps make the toe of Louisiana's 'boot' on a map. We arrived at about 8 o'clock in the morning to rondezvous with some New Orleans birders to find the elusive bird of the thick grasses: Henslow's Sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii).

When the entire group had assembled, we headed into the marshy grasses. Jeff explained to me that this area was actually a pitcher plant bog, one of a few in the state. Indeed, the first thing of interest we found in the entire area was a dead pitcher plant. These amazing plants entice insects to fly inside their leaves and digest them for additional nutrients in their nutrient-deprived environment. We continued on over these interesting plants, scaring up numerous Sedge Wrens (Cistothorus platensis)along the way. It was fun seeing these birds in their natural habitat, after only having seen the lone Western Colorado individual found by Ron Lambeth in the past.

After about an hour of scouring the field, we finally flushed up the bird we all desired. Unfortunately, the only views we had were of the Heslow's Sparrow flying quickly as it darted out of the way, but I was able to glimpse the diagnostic green face and darkish back on this amazing eastern Sparrow.

The next weekend, Kevin, Jeff and I decided to head north to Caddo Parish to try our luck with grassland species. We were not disappointed, finding a group of about six Lapland Longspurs in a field north of Shreveport. While there, we also had a small group of longspurs that I believe to be Chestnut-collareds as well! This is a review bird for Louisiana though, so we will have to see if it gets accepted. (Note to self: submit record.)

Later, we joined Terry Davis at the Shreveport Regional Airport:

Shreveport Regional Airport, Louisiana

Our goal bird was Smith's Longspur, possibly the hardest longspur to get in the world. Though we did not find them, we did have lots of other cool grassland birds, the most notable of which was a Sprague's Pipit! I got one other lifer there as well: Le Conte's Sparrow.

Two days later, I did some winter bird atlasing with Jeff and Jacob Saucier in Avoyelles Parish in an area known as big bend. This was some of the best lowland swamp forest I have ever seen, and we had a great time. Though species diversity was fairly low, we had a lot of cool birds, such as Pileated Woodpecker checking out a nest hole, Brown Creeper, Winter Wren, and Blue-headed Vireo.

Jacob Saucier in Big Bend

Until next time, good birding!

02 February 2010

The Creature from the Flooded Woods

The Louisiana Ornithological Society (LOS) field trip stared into the tangled, fallen mass of trunks. A chatter call erupted from the flooded timber, announcing the presence of an impossibly small bird for such a loud sound. Soon, the bird became visible to us all: an Eastern Winter Wren, a lifer for me and Kevin Morgan! The bird scurried up a trunk, checking out the loose bark and branch tangles for food. The bird was noticeably paler than the two other Winter Wrens I had seen in the United States before, confirming its Eastern identity.

The only other times I have seen Winter Wren in the United States it has been the "Western (Pacific)" Wren, two migrant birds observed in different years in the vicinity of Connected Lakes State Park in Grand Junction, Colorado. These birds are told apart by being noticeably darker and possessing a different song from their Eastern cousins. Recent studies show that are probably different species, and in the coming years will probably be split into two separate species. It will be interesting to see how many species the "Winter Wren" becomes in the future. It is currently the only wren known from the Old World, and studies may prove that the population I saw in Ireland and other scattered European, Asian and North African populations are isolated species of their own.

Again, I apologize for the brief post, but school has been keeping me busy. I will try to post more things (and more interesting things) in the near future. Until then, good birding!