March 13th–14th, 2019: Two days of pre-conference birding in southern Louisiana!
Day 1: Grand Isle
It was SO nice this week to escape the winter weather in Minnesota (and some serious flooding) to head south to Louisiana. Temperatures were mostly in the 70s and 80s on my birding days and the weather was optimal for birding!
Because the birding was so great, it was more than a little difficult to choose a bird of the week! I saw 10 lifers(!!!!) in two days, which was already rather difficult to do for me anywhere in the ABA area at this point (with southern AZ and TX being possible exceptions). I also saw numerous other birds that I’d only ever seen on Caribbean islands or in Costa Rica in the past. In all, I saw 110 species in Louisiana, including a few during breaks in the conference (after my two full days of birding).
I stayed in New Orleans for the first two nights with parents of a good friend of mine (thank you both so much) and early in the morning of my first day I headed south to Grand Isle. After about 2 hours on the road, I arrived. It’s hard for me to overstate how excited I was about this particular day: I’d be looking for Roseate Spoonbills, many herons and egrets, lots of southern shorebird specialties, and anything else I could turn up.
Grand Isle is an amazing place to bird, and a really neat place overall. It’s unique character seems to stem from being right on the sea, placing houses on ~15ft stilts, and having quirky southern/Louisianan wooden signboards on almost every front porch. The edges of the highway seemed to be teeming with bird life (especially compared to MN right now) and it was incredibly difficult not to stop before getting to the far west side of the island: Grand Isle State Park.
Once at the SP, my first stop was a beach. I got out my scope–which I was happy not to have had any issues with while flying–and scanned the beach. It was packed with mixed shorebird flocks! In a first sweep, at a medium-high tide, I saw Brown Pelican, Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Royal Tern, Forster’s Tern, Western Sandpiper, Sanderling, Dunlin, Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, Black-bellied Plover, Killdeer, and Snowy Plover (my first lifer of the trip). There were loads of other species in that first area!
At my next stop only about a hundred meters away, looking down from a pier, there was a huge flock on the beach, including well over 100 Black Skimmer (lifer), and a few American Avocet.
At a nearby tower, I was able to look down over a tidal lagoon which held many other new species for the day. The close high flybys of Snowy Egret and White Ibis were exciting.
But new to me in that area were Reddish Egret (lifer) and a bird I’d been dying to see for years: Tricolored Heron. I would see a few of these stunning birds later in the day and at other times on this trip, but I’m not sure any of these later sightings were less exciting. After all, this is the ultra-elegant bird that John James Audubon nicknamed “Lady of the Waters” and it’s captured the attention of many cultures and artists (like Llew Mejia).
After spending a few hours at the Grand Isle SP (and submitting this eBird list), I headed to a few other spots on the isle. First, I drove around some grassy areas to see what I’d turn up. Not much, but I did hear and see an Eastern Meadowlark. Trying to see if I could get a view over the water to the north, I tried some side roads, but couldn’t get access because of private property. But I did manage find a dock/deck structure over some water that had several Greater Yellowlegs and some Marbled Godwit.
I also stopped in the small woods in the middle of the isle and had a quick walk around. It was the the hottest part of the day, so things were pretty quiet. But I was excited when I heard an ungainly large flap through the trees above me at one point. It was too dense to see much, but I had startled a pair of large something-or-others at their daytime roost. Owls? It was a little while before I could maneuver myself to see through enough of the canopy. Once I did, however, there was a stunning Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (lifer) looking back at me! This turned out to be the only Night-Heron of the trip (somewhat oddly), so I sure am glad I stopped there.
I headed next to Elmer’s Island, immediately west of Grand Isle and along the same highway. I had planned to start here in the morning, but couldn’t find the entrance because of construction vehicles. Now it was clear where to enter, but it was far to late in the day to turn up any Seaside Sparrows (a major “target” missed). I did, however, turn up the expected Roseate Spoonbills (lifer) and I flushed an Inca Dove (lifer) from the roadside.
Once I got to the beach I completed the plovers species list. After seeing Killdeer, Black-bellied, and Snowy plovers at the state park, I saw Wilson’s, Semipalmated, and Piping (lifer) here! WOW! This place doesn’t disappoint!
With “beach day” at a close, I headed back to New Orleans for dinner with my friends.
Day 2: New Orleans, Bayou Sauvage, and Big Branch Marsh
I headed out early again, this time to clean up some of the easier city species at Audubon Park in New Orleans. I found my target species here: Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, many woodpeckers and passerines (eBird list).
Then I moved on to Bayou Sauvage to look for rails (with no luck at all) and other marsh species. I found a few new highlights–Mottled Duck (lifer), Anhinga, Common Gallinule, Little Blue Heron, Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, and several American Alligator–but it wasn’t as easy to see around or travel as I’d hoped. It’s a beautiful place, don’t get me wrong, but once the reeds have grown up, it’s hard to see much. Not a lot is audible either because of traffic nearby.
Next up, I headed to Big Branch Marsh. It was really hot now for passerines, but I’d hoped to come across a few more marshland species at the Boy Scout Road trail. I turned up Swamp Sparrow, more Mottled Duck, and some nesting Brown-headed Nuthatch were nice surprises. But I was mostly here for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. This is one of the most reliable spots for this near-threatened species and the park has even marked the trees they commonly use. I waited in the area for about 2.5 hours with no luck. Next time, I’ll have to go early in the morning (I don’t like to do playback in general, and definitely not for a species at risk).
Well, so much for that. Now I would head to Baton Rouge for my conference the next morning. Before getting there I stopped in a subdivision for a reliable wintering Eastern Whip-poor-will, but no luck there either. Hmph. Well you have to leave some species for later, right?
Days 3 and 4: Squeezing in a bit more birding…
The conference was a success! It’s always good to see friends, meet new people, and, in this case, to hear some impressive papers from young students. I also managed to sneak away during a break to a nearby lake to notch a few more Louisiana species for myself: Green Heron, Brown Thrasher, Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow, and Northern Rough-winged Swallow among others. That would be all the birding I could find time for though.
That evening I returned to find my rental car with a flat tire. Ugh. I’d have to fix it in the morning. So yeah, the next morning I got to the car nice and early to have the spare put on, then have the tire patched. A tiny nail was the culprit. But it took over 3 hours to get this simple thing done. Sigh.
I still had some time though, so I headed to nearby Capitol Park/Arsenal Lake where found some Cliff Swallows and an abundance of passerines. Mostly Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Yellow-rumped Warbler, but there was a good-sized flock of Chipping Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Mourning Dove, and White-winged Dove.
On the way back to New Orleans, I stopped at Farr Park, Frenier Landing, and Bonnet Carre Spillway. I had high hopes for the spillway because many species of various families had been seen there recently. I’m not sure where other birders were finding the shorebirds though. This the spillway open and measuring around 15ft, there were no mudflats or other shorebird habitats to be seen. Still, I did hear the only Gray Catbird of the trip and see the only Red-shouldered Hawk of the trip (very strange not to have not observed those species earlier).
I had to get up super early for my flight the next morning (even earlier than one gets up for birding!), but was thrilled to have seen so many amazing southern species on this trip. I was a little sad to have missed out on seeing any kite species, as well as rails (which I might have heard at one location, but couldn’t be sure), sparrows (no Nelson’s, Seaside, or Bachman’s) and the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.
But beyond that it’s awfully hard to complain. I fared particularly well with long-legged waders and shorebirds. In the first category, Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, Green Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, Reddish Egret, Tricolored Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, White Ibis, and Roseate Spoonbill. And in the second, American Avocet, Black-bellied Plover, Snowy Plover, Wilson’s Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Piping Plover, Killdeer, Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Dunlin, Least Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, and Willet.
Southern Louisiana sure is an amazing place to bird! …and it was rather nice to escape winter for a little while.