Monday, June 26, 2017

Brown Booby on the Causeway Bridge

Today as I was driving southbound on the Causeway at 7:25 PM, I was treated to a Brown Booby at mile marker 16.3.  It was just off the bridge, and turned in such a way as to approach the side just as we passed.

This is the exact spot where a roost of this species has been located for the last few years.  Birders crossing the bridge had been seeing small numbers occasionally, but it wasn't until a boat trip in June 2015 that allowed better viewing of the bridge structure that we discovered that there were many more there than suspected.  The peak count I know of was of 37 on one boat visit last October.   To my knowledge, there have not been any recent boat trips- a similarly large number could still be roosting on the bridge there every day.

How crazy- this species was an extreme rarity in Louisiana waters up until a few years ago.  Then they inexplicably started appearing with greater frequency- including on near-coastal lakes and even once flying with geese over the rice country!  This tropical species has been turning up in other parts of the country- and even Canada- with increased frequency at the same time as this has been happening in our own state.  These odd appearances out of range and out of habitat together pose one of the most fascinating and enigmatic ornithological mysteries I have ever heard of, and I have yet to hear an explanation that is even remotely convincing.

So the next time you cross the Causeway, keep alert!  These birds can turn up anywhere along it, but are most likely to be seen near mile marker 16.3 on the west side.  When roosting, they are invisible from the roadway- thousands of cars pass these rare birds every day, completely unaware of their presence!

Good birding, Peter

Friday, May 5, 2017

Hundreds of Mississippi Kites migrating through South Point!

This morning I took a walk out to South Point, which is the point of land from which the railroad bridge leaves New Orleans East and heads across Lake Pontchartrain to Slidell.  This is the railroad bridge visible to your left as you cross the twinspan.

South Point is interesting because it is the logical jumping off point for birds that are wanting to cross from the south shore of the lake to the north shore- by sticking northward from the southern shore, it cuts that overwater distance to 5 miles.

I had hoped for a migratory movement of some sort to be going on, but was unsure what to expect. We know big migratory movements  happen here in fall, but know virtually nothing about spring.

The point is only accessible via a mile or so walk, which starts at the "fishing bridge", which you may have noticed on the lake side of I-10 more or less across from the Irish Bayou castle.

As I walked out, I noticed  a flock of 21 Mississippi Kites negotiating the wind, which was howling from the west-northwest.   Lakefront Airport says 23 mph, gusting to 32  Felt stronger than that to me!

They made their way up to the point at about the same pace as I was walking, and we arrived there at 845 AM.

Then another flock of 22 approached, along the same tack as the others.  They headed out over the water toward Slidell and gained altitude until they were beyond range of my unaided eye.  

Around 930 the sky to the south suddenly became filled with kites- 185 in one flock!  This was far more Mississippi Kites than I had ever seen at one time before.  They were mostly low, dipping and tilting in the stiff wind.  They eventually headed out across the water, gaining height like the previous flock of 22.  I watched them through binoculars beyond naked eye visibility.

Another 10 minutes passed, and another flock- 155- appeared to the south and again headed toward me.  Shortly thereafter, another flock of 85 doing the same.

That's 468 Mississippi Kites in an hour.  That's crazy- quite likely a new record high count for the state of Louisiana, and something I never would have anticipated.

Two brief snippet videos are below, of parts of the flocks, taken by cellphone.

Good birding!




Thursday, April 27, 2017

Birding opportunity at City Park- tomorrow!

Spring is a time of boom and bust migration here in New Orleans.  According to reports, there is a little "boom" happening today in the Couturie Forest on Harrison Avenue in City Park- the city's premier migrant trap.  James Beck reported today that he and a handful of companions found 15 warbler species, accompanied by numbers of other passage migrant species, including 20+ each of Red-eyed Vireo, Great Crested Flycatcher, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Indigo Bunting.  Warblers were let by 15 Bay-breasted, 12 Tennessee, and 3 of the hard-to-find Cerulean and one harder-to-find "Brewster'" Warbler (Golden-winged x Blue-winged hybrid).

Because winds are still from the northerly half of the compass, chances are that many or most of these birds will hang tight and still be there tomorrow- continuing migration would require departure into a head wind.  All these species migrate at night.  If you go, focus on both the live oaks and whatever fruiting mulberries you can find in more open sunlit areas.

This fallout is a puzzling.  At first glance it appears sensible- we know cold fronts precipitate fallouts by inducing birds to stopover instead of passing over us, and one came through last night.  However, this front was still hours away when the birds would have arrived across the Gulf yesterday.  This arrival is typically around mid afternoon, and the front didn't reach us until around 3 AM- about 12 hours too late to hit the birds with a headwind and induce them to ground.  There was no rain ahead of the front, so that couldn't have caused them to stop.  Could it have intercepted last night's flight instead?  No- James reported the fallout as already underway at 930 am, before birds from last night's flight across the Gulf should have reached us.

Just when you think you have migration figured out!  Sheesh.


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.