Monday, April 24, 2017

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks mobbing Mississippi Kite!

This morning I stepped out my front door to see seven large birds wheeling above the trees across the street.  It was a Mississippi Kite pursued by six Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks that were equal it in size (and I am sure quite a bit heavier).  

I have seldom seen a Mississippi Kite mobbed by anything- there is little reason to, since they eat insects and have unimpressive talons.  Mobbing is usually engaged by birds against larger species that pose a predatory threat.  But these six whistlers were on its case in a major way,  tracing its circles and keeping on its tail.  

I pulled out my phone to take a video, but it took too long to go through its booting steps.  The birds moved south and were blocked from sight.  Aargh!

Mississippi Kites are a common and widespread nester throughout residential New Orleans, wherever there are trees of sufficient stature to nest in.   From now through August, they will be the most common raptor in our urban skies- with the possible exception of the two vulture species, in some parts of the city.  They are one of our last migrants to return from the tropics each spring.  The first I saw in my hood was yesterday.

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks have a puzzling history here in New Orleans.   They had been gradually expanding in our direction from Texas for decades, and had reached south-central Louisiana.  Then, a few decades ago, they seemingly jumped eastward over lots of potential habitat and suddenly established a presence in, of all places, Audubon Park.  Before long there were thousands loafing in the lagoons there.  They have continued to expand throughout southeast Louisiana.  While still reported in largest numbers at urban sites, they are becoming a common site in our rural surroundings as well. They have taken to nesting in residential areas of the city, presumably in tree cavities.  The birds harassing the kite this morning were presumably local nesters in my hood.

On a different, but important, note:    The next two weeks are usually the fortnight with the highest volume of bird migration through our area in the spring.  How many of the birds will land rather than passing over will depend on the weather- a cold front usually provides the best birding.


Thursday, March 30, 2017

Great Crested Flycatcher back from the tropics...

This morning I stepped onto my doorstep to be greeted by the reeeep! of a Great Crested Flycatcher, my first of the spring. The species nests on my block, as it does widely in residential areas in and around New Orleans where there are large shade trees.  They are quite noisy from the time they arrive back until mid summer, after which they quiet down (as is typical of most nesting species in late summer).  After that, they can be surprisingly good at escaping detection- I might hear or see the local nesting pair only a handful of times from then until they leave in September.

The Great Crested is one of only a handful of neotropical migrants- the technical name for birds in our hemisphere that travel all the way to the tropics to winter- that spend their nesting season in residential New Orleans.  The others are Chimney Swift, Purple Martin, Mississippi Kite, and Bronzed Cowbird. Martins and cowbirds have been back for some time, and I heard my first report of a swift today, in City Park.  Mississippi Kites are likely to take a couple more weeks to make it up to our latitude. 

Several other neotropical migrants nest within our urban landscape but typically avoid residential yards- such as the Cliff and Barn Swallows under some of our bridges, the Eastern Kingbirds in some of our open spaces, and the Least and Gull-billed Terns on a handful of our large gravel rooftops.   Outside the city, in shady hardwoods especially, there are many more- a host of flycatchers, vireos, warblers, thrushes, buntings, and others, which turn places like the Honey Island Swamp or Jean Lafitte Park into a smorgasbord of song during the nesting season.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Tornado skirts (?) Night-Heron colony off Chef Hwy

Yesterday, I took a small group of my students to examine the impacts of the Feb 7 tornado on bird populations in the residential neighborhoods through which it tracked.  The EF3 tornado is estimated to have had winds of c. 140 mph and ran more or less parallel to Chef Menteur Highway in New Orleans East, cutting nearly perpendicularly across an array of residential side streets that run north from Chef.

Shortly after we began walking up one of these side streets from Chef (Knight),  we encountered Yellow-crowned Night-Herons in the live oaks that arch above the street, singles and pairs huddled around nests that are scattered through the trees.  One pair was copulating.  As we progressed, we counted 32 birds before we ran into the tornado damage a little over a block off Chef.  When we came back to Chef on the next street east, we saw another ten.  

Though incomplete, this count makes this a larger colony than any other I know of for this species in Greater New Orleans.  At first I thought that the tornado narrowly missed the birds, less than a block away.  However, one homeowner we spoke with smack in the middle of the tornado path said she had formerly had birds "pooping crawfish" on her property, so it sounds like the nest trees did previously extend up the block into the impact area.  Presumably there were no herons there when it came through- the species did not return on migration until March.  Hopefully the birds that would have nested in the trees taken by the tornado will just move to adjacent areas.

For some idea of the damage caused by the storm, here is a pic (with a European Starling on the wire).


Friday, March 3, 2017

Visiting birder Alan Crockard took these cool photos of a Red-cockaded Woodpecker flying across a marsh in Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge in Lacombe on Lundi Gras.  Not a view one usually gets of the species- traversing open air space.  Way to be fast on the draw, Alan!

The Red-cockaded is an endangered woodpecker found only in particular types of pine stands.  The only two reliable places to find them in southeast Louisiana are on this refuge, where pine flatwoods are managed by controlled burn and nest/roost boxes are inserted into trees- both strategies to improve habitat for the species.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

First Yellow-crowned Night-Heron back

Just now I was cutting drywall in my front yard in the dark (don't ask!), and heard my first Yellow-crowned Night-Heron of the spring.  It gave its typical skeow several times.  The species nests throughout the metro area in residential neighborhoods with lots of large trees, especially oaks.  In my 'hood, a pair typically nests in my neighbor's yard next door or across the street, and several (in some years 20+) nest a few blocks away on Dodge Ave just off Jefferson Highway.

I have also heard a report of Barn Swallows back in the state- also newly returned migrants.

It's March- things are starting to roll!


Monday, February 20, 2017

Second migrant species reported

A pair of American Golden Plovers, passing through en route from southern South America to the Arctic, was reported yesterday near Shreveport.

This, the second species of migrant reported, comes about four weeks after the first- Purple Martin. This gap of weeks between the first martin and the next species to follow is pretty typical- although it remains baffling why the vanguard martins always show up long before anything else.

The plover observers also reported an apparently departing group of migrating Greater White-fronted Geese, northbound.  A few additional species should be reported back in the next week or so.....


Monday, January 30, 2017

The first spring migrant has returned- right on schedule!

Every year, the first species that is detected returning from parts south of us is the Purple Martin.  They seem to always get reported from somewhere in the last week of January, when we are still in our coldest month.  And this despite relying entirely on flying insects for their food!  

Right on schedule, Martins were reported a few places over the weekend, as close as East Baton Rouge and St. James Parishes.  However, the earliest bird reported this year, spotted sometime last week, was in Oak Grove in the far northeast corner of the state (!).

The fact that the first martins are back, however, does not mean their nesting boxes will be full this week.  There is usually a time lag of several weeks between the first report and the bulk arrival of the species.

Usually the first birds back are males, which is actually a widespread pattern among songbird species.  Males precede females in spring migration, so as to have an edge against rival males of their species in procuring nesting territories.

One of the oddities of our spring migration schedule is that it is likely to be a solid month before any other species arrives back.  The next returnee to be reported is less easy to predict- a Swallow-tailed Kite or Northern Parula perhaps?