Friday, August 22, 2014
Last week I was visiting an apartment complex in Harahan, and stepped around the corner into the small fenced in back yard. There, out of place on the lawn surrounded by walls and high fences was a strange brown bird with long legs and sturdy beak, standing about thigh-high. I called my kids over, and it began to walk away from us, and then flapped awkwardly up onto a nearby roof, which was covered by a temporary tarp. It spent several seconds slipping backwards on the tarp as it flapped and tried to make its way to the crest, finally settling for a spot half way up where it was able to regain its composure.
It was a young Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, fledged earlier this summer, and still not smooth in its ways. There are a good number of them around the city this time of year.
Young Yellow-crowneds are entirely streaky and spotty brown and white, except for their red eye. Here is another picture of one hatched this summer, offered up by Kathy Wells, who photographed it in coastal Mississippi.
Black-crowned Night-Herons are also around our parts, and their young are similar in plumage. To the trained eye they are readily distinguishable by bill shape (more slender and pointed in Black-crowned) and neck/head proportions (thinner necked with a more blocky head in Yellow-crowned, thicker necked with amore streamlined head in Black-crowned). They can also be told by the leg length in flight- only the feet extend beyond the tail in Black-crowned, while a bit of the leg also does in Yellow-crowned.
Yellow-crowneds will be with us through October, with a very few hanging around for the winter. This species turns up in a variety of wetland contexts, including right in the city. One place where they are notably regular is in the ditch that flanks Nine Mile Point Road in Bridge City on the West Bank, where I see them each morning. I see a juvenile most mornings in exactly the same spot; twice I have seen it act utterly unafraid as people walked by within about ten feet of it on the shoulder. Today it drew a double-take from a jogger. There are often Yellow-crowned adults along this road- two today. They are much more dapper: blue gray with a black head decorated with a white cheek, yellowish crown, and the same red eye.
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
August is a month when many birders around the country focus on shorebirds (sandpipers, plovers, and their relatives). It's a bit early for numbers of land birds to be moving, but shorebird migration is in full swing. Adults in faded/worn plumage dominate in August, followed by juveniles (which migrate separately in many species of shorebirds) later in the season.
In southeast Louisiana, the outer coast- between Grand Isle and Fourchon- offers the best shorebirding.
But what about finding shorebirds in and near New Orleans? Finding shorebirds here takes more effort, and numbers are almost never on a par with what is on the coast two hours to our south. However, there are some places that are productive when water levels are right, and sometimes additional hot spots appear in unlikely places- experienced birders are generally alert for rain pools (etc.) that look like they have potential.
Here are some tips.
1. When water is low, the impoundments at Bayou Sauvage NWR in New Orleans East can be good or even great- a single impoundment can hold > 10,000 shorebirds if it is really low. Unfortunately, water on the refuge is not particularly low at this time (thanks to all the rain we've been having). Additionally, shorebirds on the refuge are generally fairly far away from viewing posts such as levees or boardwalks, requiring a scope and a lot of patience. The most productive places in the past have been the impoundments along Recovery Road, at the Madere Marsh Overlook, and at the pullovers along Hwy 11 between Hwy 90 and Irish Bayou.
2. The Bonnet Carre Spillway upstream from New Orleans can be good, especially the areas closest to the Mississippi River. I haven't heard any reports from there recently, and don't know the conditions- worth a scouting visit!
3. While the above two sites stand head and shoulders above any others, it is sometimes possible to find shorebirds in swales or muddy edged-pools that pop up fortuitously elsewhere in the region. One year I found a borrow pit in Ama (West Bank) that had a nice selection of species. Another year a similar pit dug into the lakefront fill at Bucktown was productive. Sometimes a few birds turn up on flats exposed by low water in Lake Pontchartrain, on the South Shore or North Shore. On occasion, the lawns fringing Lakeshore Drive in New Orleans have rain pools with birds.
This morning I toured Lakeshore Drive, and managed to find a pair of Pectoral Sandpipers (with a dozen or so Killdeer) behind the UNO Lakefront Arena. Nearby, three Ruddy Turnstones were on the breakwaters at the Ted Hickey Bridge. Not much, but the rain pool with the Pectorals may become more productive if it dries out a little.
Sunday, August 17, 2014
For a week or two I have been hearing my neighborhood's nesting pair of Mississippi Kites getting especially vociferous, they way they seem to do when the time approaches for their nestling to fledge. I have been eyeing the birds as the circle and dive about the neighborhood, looking for an especially tentative looking individual that might be the young bird. Sure enough, it made its appearance this weekend- circling over the neighbor's house, fanning its tail to reveal the bands that are the easiest plumage mark for separating it from the (solid-black tailed) adults.
Mississippi Kites are generally most conspicuous in our area in August, presumably because the young are large enough to free the females from incubation duty, allowing them to roam the skies with their mates, visible to humans. At the end of the month they will make what is perhaps the most startling exodus of any of our nesting birds. Within about a week, they go from being hard to miss while running any errand around town, to being essentially absent. After that, we won't see them until mid April next year. In the mean time, they will be making their way southward around the Gulf. In the process, they become concentrated by the Gulf shoreline and turn up in shocking numbers at the River of Raptors hawk watch near Veracruz, Mexico.
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
(this post resumes a series I began from January to March this year; the first six installments covered Common Loon, Pied-billed Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant/Anhinga, the three white egrets, Great Blue Heron, and Tricolored/Little Blue Herons)
Today as I was sitting at the traffic light on Jefferson Highway at the base of the Huey Long bridge, a small dark heron- crow sized- came awkwardly flapping and gliding low over the road, banked and wheeled a few times, and plopped down into the stand of cattails that has come up between the two lanes of Clearview Parkway, beneath the shadow of the railroad bridge. Green Heron.
Although generally solitary, Green Herons are common and widespread summer residents in southeast Louisiana, and a few hang around for the winter. They are easily distinguished by their small size- similar to a crow. The only other small member of the heron clan on the continent is Least Bittern, which is virtually never seen away from relatively pristine expansive marsh habitats- and thus is essentially unknown inside our hurricane protection levee. Green Herons are much more tolerant of human development, as illustrated by the sighting above, and are also much less secretive. You are likely to find one working the bayou edge at Couturie Forest in City Park, along the edge of the lagoon in Audubon Park, or stalking a marshy edge in a batture pond. They are also in more "natural" habitats outside the city, tending toward fresh rather than salt water.
Green Herons are an example of a bird named for one of its less striking features, its blue-green body. It's chestnut neck, with white trim along the ventral edge, is much more memorable, as is its shaggy (when erected) black crest. The bird is rather squat compared to most other herons, sporting a heavy neck. They are rather vocal, often crying skeow when flushed- sometimes the first clue to their presence.
Green Heron at Bonnet Carre Spillway
photo: Beth Wiggins
Thursday, August 7, 2014
A few minutes ago I was out in the front yard, and heard my favorite sound of August: the seet of a Yellow Warbler passing overhead. Sometimes they are slightly buzzy, sometimes quite clean- this one was the latter.
Yellow Warblers are circum-Gulf migrants in fall, a label given to migratory bird species that are bound for the tropics to winter, and chose to navigate around the Gulf of Mexico instead of across it. Yellow Warblers are more inclined to continue nocturnal movements into the early morning than are most species, and are commonly seen and heard in Greater New Orleans coming over at c. treetop level up to a few hours after sunrise. They are usually headed some version of west.
They can be heard and seen doing this with frequency as far east as (at least) the Florida panhandle, but such overhead Yellows are generally less common farther inland than New Orleans- being less numerous even as close as Baton Rouge. In places where shoreline configurations concentrate them, hundreds can be seen in an hour or two by scanning- I have seen such flights on the lakeshore at Fontainbleau State Park, and at South Point (RR bridge) and Point Aux Herbes (the base of the Hwy 11 bridge) in Bayou Sauvage NWR, although their occurrence at these places may be highly dependent on wind direction. I have seen abnormal spikes of 100 or so in an hour at Bucktown, and even over my yard in Old Jefferson, though I could not discern what was special about those days that would cause peak movements.
Although lots of warblers make seet notes similar to that of the Yellow Warbler, the numbers of them that fly long distances (disappearing over the treetops and not just jumping tree to tree while foraging) are very small compared to Yellows in the first three weeks of August- and really still somewhat outnumbered by Yellows into mid September.
Sunday, August 3, 2014
Couturie Forest in City Park (on Harrison Avenue) has yielded various reports of migrants lately- including up to 30 Yellow Warblers in a visit, as well as American Redstart, Prothonotary Warbler, Black-and-White Warbler, and Orchard Oriole. Some of these could perhaps be wanderers from relatively nearby, but this is the month when bona-fide directional migration of songbirds begins to again pick up. It may not feel like fall otherwise, but some birds are already on their way to their wintering grounds!
If you go, keep your eyes open for a pair of Black-whiskered Vireos that have been seen in Couturie off and on for some weeks now- including a recent flurry of reports ranging from the north end all the way down to the sections along Harrison. They have sometimes been seen with flocking warblers, and sometimes singing- check out their song at http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-whiskered_Vireo/id. While at that site, notice that the species map shows them no closer than southern Florida. One or two do wander to south Louisiana annually, but are not usually so convenient as City Park. Keep in mind that Red-eyed Vireo also occurs in our area (though not reported recently in Couturie)- best to make sure you see the whisker mark!
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
This morning as I was fiddling with my keys at my front door, I heard the characteristic haunting monotone call of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in my neighbor's yard, seemingly coming from his live oak:
oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo
I stopped to hear it again to make sure it wasn't something else, and it repeated about six more series of notes over the course of a few minutes.
Yellow-billed Cuckoo's don't nest anywhere in my hood, although they are scattered around the city in places will lots of mature trees or in woodlot fragments such as Couturie in City Park. So it didn't necessarily have to wander far to get here. I'm not even sure they didn't nest in the batture 3 blocks away.
Just another example of the late summer wanderings of the local nesting avifauna. This past week Prothonotary and Black-and-White Warblers were reported in City Park (Couturie)- other species that nest in Louisiana, but had to wander a bit to get to where they were found.