Sunday, February 11, 2018

Urban Barred Owl at 12:30 AM

Yesterday morning at about 20 minutes after midnight, I was on my front step letting my dog answer one last call from nature before retiring for the evening.

Across the street, coming from the midst of a typical residential block, came the hoots of a Barred Owl! The call was atypical:  rather than the usual who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all, it was more like who cooks for you, who cooks.  

Here was a case where familiarity with a bird's tone or general vocal quality was important for making the identification- the hoots were recognizably those of a Barred Owl in clarity, pitch, etc- rather dog-like- even though their cadence was perhaps more like that of a Great Horned.  The latter usually gives a call a few phrases shorter than the classic Barred arrangement, but more deep and breath-y.   

Residential hoods are not typical Barred habitat, but they do wander into such areas sporadically in the winter.  The fact that I am just a few blocks from a pretty woodsy part of the batture probably helps.

I hooted back to it several times (I have been practicing imitating Barred Owls since I was a pre-teen- which is not unusual- it is probably the first owl that most birders learn to copy), and the bird seemed to be trading responses with me.  But it never adopted its standard call.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

What warblers are expected in the New Orleans area in winter?

Yesterday I was driving behind the Walmart in Chalmette, to check out the eagle nest in that vicinity*.   As I drove along the woodland edge, I chanced to notice a mixed songbird flock foraging low in the roadside scrub.  I abruptly halted the car, backed up a bit, and rolled down the passenger side window to "spish" and see what was there.  Yellowrumps charged the car, and with them came a few Orange-crowneds and a drab female Pine.  To my delight and surprise, a Prairie Warbler jointed the group, showing off its bright yellow underparts and neatly-streaked face and side.

The first three species are regular winterers around New Orleans, but Prairie is somewhat atypical.  I generally divide our wintering warbler species into several "tiers" of abundance/likelihood:

Yellow-rumped Warbler
(Undeniably the most numerous species here in winter; a half day's birding our usual target winter habitats -forest, scrub, and marsh edge- will commonly produce dozens)

Orange-crowned Warbler
Pine Warbler
Palm Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson's Warbler
(All widespread and numerous enough to be found on most such half-day efforts)

Black-and-white Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Black-throated Green Warber
Prairie Warbler
Northern Waterthrush
(Regularly occurring trophy birds; an active birder might expect to find around half of these in the course of a given winter; if you find one on a Christmas Count, it will probably be a count exclusive)

Everything else that has ever turned up!  This list is long, and ranges from species a relatively small step down from those above (e.g., American Redstart) to some seemingly impossible vagrants (e.g., Lucy's and MacGillivray's Warblers, and Painted Redstart).   

*an adult was sitting low in the nest, evidently incubating.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Apparent Tree Swallow roosts in the River Parishes, visible on radar

One highlight of each November is the formation of Tree Swallow mega-roosts in the cane fields of the River Parishes.   A roost in Vaccherie has been estimated at a million birds in years past, but locations change somewhat from year to year.  I have seen them as far downstream as Luling.  They last only until the cane is cut, generally around early December.

The roosts are impressive at dusk, when huge clouds of swallows cover the sky.  Their roost entry is very strange, as the birds do not descend into the cane over a broad area, but instead "drain" from the cloud through a small funnel-shaped pathway they create.  For this reason, this phenomenon is often referred to by local birders as a "swallow tornado."

Cane fields are generally private property, so viewing options may be limited.   Sometimes a nearby river levee provides the best viewing, but sometimes engaging a farmer in conversation can open a door to driving out into the heart of the event and standing next to the funnel.  

The roosts are generally visible on the Slidell radar, when accessed online at a site that does not filter out birds.  The image below is from, taken this morning (the 12:29 UTC on its label indicates 6:30 local time).  There are two obvious donut echos, one of which appears to be between Paincourtville and Belle Rose along (east of) Bayou Lafourche, and the other just east of Laplace, perhaps visible from Hwy 61.  Hidden between them (partially covered by the Belle Rose echo- only the southeast edge of the donut is visible) is  a third one, seemingly near Vaccherie or St. James.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Roseate Spoonbill among waterbirds at Shrewsbury Flats

Just made a brief swing through the Shrewsbury Flats- the water retention ponds beneath Causeway Boulevard, adjacent to the Earhardt Expressway. 

An immature Roseate Spoonbill was nice, hanging with the 25 or so White Ibis and a scattering of other large waders.

The most surprising bird was a female/immature Hooded Merganser- not a species that was on my radar to turn up here.

The muddy edges are extensive, and shorebird numbers have grown to 80 Least Sandpipers, 35 Black-necked Stilts, and 4 Lesser Yellowlegs.

An adult Common Gallinule was present, which makes it easier to explain the presence of three juveniles that I saw there a few weeks back.  Looks like they nested.

Good birding,


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Mississippi River skywatch- no tropical cyclone waifs

After leaving Holy Cross this afternoon, I took a short detour to scan the river from the levee adjacent to Tulane's Hebert Center.  Because a load of frigatebirds had come inland not far from this spot during Cindy in June, and Harvey had made landfall in approximately the same location as Cindy near the Texas border, I figured what can happen once can happen twice.

Winds were strong in my face from the (more or less) south- making whitecaps on the water and causing my pant legs to flap vigorously.   I only had binoculars, but a scope would have been useless.  The weather service reported gusts to 35 mph at nearby Alvin Calendar Field while I was there, but it sure felt more like a sustained 30-35 to me!

For the entire half hour I was there (1:40-2:10 pm) there were a dozen or so Black Vultures kiting at various heights along the shoreline to my east, evidently buoyed by winds blowing up river and deflecting up the levee there, where the river makes its sharp turn.  I kept scanning them thinking a frigatebird might be coaxed into enjoying the same updrafts (I have seen this in storm-waif frigates before), but none appeared.

An Anhinga came northwest across the river fairly high up, scarcely making any effort to do anything but let the wind carry it.  Ten on so Chimney Swifts also came across riding the gale, one seemingly on the verge of losing control as the wind bullied it forward.

Several Barn Swallows fought the wind to cross the river southward.  A buffeted Spotted Sandpiper flew by along the shore.   A handful of Laughing Gulls glided up and downstream.  One Caspian Tern flew downstream.  It was the only surprise of the visit- though only mildly unexpected.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The enigma of species missing south of Lake Pontchartrain

Yesterday, Fox 8 posted this video of a beautiful male American Kestrel on one of their cams:

Apart from being a real looker, this bird is also of interest because it is here at a curiously early date-  the species nests on the North Shore, but is normally absent on the South Shore in the nesting season.  Being here before the normal fall migration period suggests it may have wandered down here after it finished breeding.  Such post-breeding dispersal in late summer is pretty widespread in North American birds.

But back up a bit.  Why would Kestrels nest on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain, but not the south side?  Isn't there plenty of acceptable habitat down here?  There does appear to be.  However, fully seventeen other species of North Shore nesters are also absent down here despite apparently suitable habitat:
Wild Turkey
Swallow-tailed Kite
Broad-winged Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Belted Kingfisher
Red-headed Woodpecker
Yellow-throated Vireo
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Wood Thrush
Swainson's Warbler
Kentucky Warbler
American Redstart
Yellow-breasted Chat
Summer Tanager
Eastern Towhee
Blue Grosbeak
This used to be true of Eastern Bluebird and Northern Rough-winged Swallow as well, but they have become more regular nesters on the South Shore in recent years (or so it seems to me).  In reverse, the Bobwhite and Kentucky Warbler were more regular as nesters on the south side decades ago than they are today.

Why aren't all these species on the South Shore?  I and others have pondered this for many years, without a really plausible explanation yet emerging.  A biogeographical mystery under our noses!


Sunday, July 23, 2017

Fall migration milestone: first Yellow Warbler reported

Although some migratory shorebirds are usually reported back weeks earlier (see my late June post), to me one of the pivotal moments of each fall migration is the first report of a Yellow Warbler.

One was reported in St. Tammany yesterday, by Jane Patterson in her back yard.

I normally expect to hear of a Yellow somewhere in the state at the very tail end of  July, but this one was a few days earlier than I anticipated.   It is the onset of a larger movement-Yellow Warbler normally seems to me the most numerous August migrant in the New Orleans area.  Because it is also one of our migrant species with the greatest propensity for "morning flight" (active migration in the early AM), it is not unusual to hear one giving its seet note overhead on any morning during the month.  I have spent many hours listening for these birds in many locations on August mornings, and have on occasion observed movements of up to 100/hour both on the lakefront and in Old Jefferson.  Most such birds appear to be westbound, and presumably are bound to circumnavigate the Gulf.  They do also stage larger corrective flights at South Point on August mornings with northeast winds, but such winds are hard to come by so early in the season, since we are generally still out of range of the cool fronts that create them.  I have long tried to figure out when during August the peak of Yellow Warbler numbers occurs; my best guess is that it is in the last few days of the month, but because substantial flights can occur earlier, I am still wondering.