Thursday, May 9, 2024

Birding Made Easy is back (oh, and a Barred Owl)


Hello Everyone!

It has been several years since I posted on this blog.  And since I sold my last copy of Birding Made Easy.

I am happy to announce that I have updated Birding Made Easy!  The 2024 edition is available at Octavia Bookstore in New Orleans, and from this blog directly (or by connecting with me in person).  The price is now $27 (the Paypal interface still has the old $24 price, I haven't had time to update it yet, so I ask you to please manually enter the new amount).

I have thoroughly worked over the previous edition of the book, and made a substantial number of changes to make it current.

I am now leading walks every second Saturday of the month at the Sankofa Wetland Park on Florida Avenue, the next one two days from now.  We meet at 9:00am.  I lead walks for the Orleans Audubon Society as well, and you can find those listed at Events – Orleans Audubon Society (  I have also been teaching birding courses for Orleans Audubon, which will be listed there as well.

Now some actual bird content!  I had the delightful experience of seeing two Barred Owls together in the Mississippi River batture in Harahan today.  The photo below was taken while I was standing on the mowed grass of the levee, peering into the batture woods.  The owl had flown up off the edge as I was walking past, evidently hunting something on the grass edge.  

Barred Owls are numerous in the wooded swamps outside the city, but don't penetrate far into the urban matrix.  They are particularly scarce within the urban environment now, in the nesting season.  The batture is one corridor where they can be found, normally as far into the city as Old Jefferson.  I have also heard of a few nesting season locations away from the River, in River Ridge and Harahan, which of course are areas where the residential lots are pretty well wooded.  Barred Owls are more active by day than any of our other owls, so it was not particularly surprising to see these birds active at 8:00am.



Friday, June 26, 2020

Purple Martin roosts on Causeway bridge

Tonight I went to the view the Purple Martin roost at its traditional spot at the foot of the Causeway in Metairie, viewing from the west side.  The numbers appeared to be up from the last several visits I have made (going back several years)- I estimated the number of birds visible in the air at peak tonight to be 5-10,000.  Based on my detailed analysis of this roost in 2015, the number of birds actually present (more accurately counted at morning departure when they leave in a steady unidirectional stream) is probably thousands more than that.

Numbers of birds appeared at 8:10, roost entry began at 8:20, and entry was virtually complete by 8:28 pm.  Tall clouds (and perhaps the much-heralded Saharan dust incursion) to the west prevented there being any sunset glow.  There was nobody else at the roost viewing spot, so no covid concerns (it was also easy to maintain distance from users of the bike path while walking to the viewing spot from where I parked on the east side of Causeway near Vets of America).

The closest 100 birds were all female/immature types, consistent with the absence of adult males that I have noted in years past.

I was surprised to see 3-4 Mississippi Kites still soaring along the massive glass face of the Lakeview Building when I arrived, as described happening earlier in the day in years past.  I don't recall them previously doing it so late in the evening.  One did make a maneuver to catch something, but they mainly were just soaring, their reason for being there is still (to me) a mystery.  Always cool to see them soaring along the glass, mirrored by their reflection.

Here is a tape of some of the roost entry

I also noticed that the (much larger) roost near the Mandeville end of the bridge was visible on radar this morning when the birds departed, as it usually is. As also usual, the Metairie roost did not show up on that radar.  The Mandeville roost is not visible from shore, although you might see birds staging and flying out to it from Sunset Point.  The website ( is down at the moment so I can't add a picture of it to this post.

The roosts usually peak around July 1.

Good birding!


Friday, February 7, 2020

Update on Whistler Horde at Ninemile Point

Today around noon ,I took a walk down the Mississippi River levee for the length of the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck aggregation at the Ninemile Point grain elevator on the West Bank, as I did last March.  Today I estimated the Squealer horde to number 18,000 individuals, and there may have been others hidden from view.  This is up from 15,000 last March.

They were accompanied by 4,000 Lesser Scaup, among which  I was able to pick out two drake Redheads. But, I was sans scope, so unable to pick out any Greater Scaup (though I tried).  Actually, the cacophonous Whistlers lulled my senses and had an odd sedating effect, causing me to perhaps not be as diligent in searching out oddities mixed into the duck flocks as I usually would

Also in the area was a nice collection of raptors:  7 Red-tailed and 3 Red-shouldered Hawks, and two young Bald Eagles.

The picks below show two sections of the Whistler horde.


Friday, November 29, 2019

Swallow tornado

Tonight I tried to track down a Tree Swallow roost that has appeared to be visible on radar on the West Bank near the St. John/St. Charles parish line.

These annual November roosts are one of the great wildlife spectacles of Louisiana, with hundreds of thousands of swallows gathering in a massive flock before descending into the cane in the gathering dusk.   The roost entry is in the form of a strange tornado-like funnel (made of birds) that extends from the swallow cloud down into the cane.  The birds "drain" through it as darkness falls.

I had never visited this site before, but located it on radar- an expanding donut ring (or one side of a donut) visible at dawn on, a site that does not filter out bird echos.  When I arrived tonight I found birds streaming over the fields toward the river, and so I followed them and climbed up on the levee to find hundreds drinking (or catching bugs?) on the surface of a pond in the batture.  Large numbers seemed to be gathering higher in the air upstream from there, so I drove a ways in that direction on the River Rd.  I ended up going too far, passing the birds, but could see 100,000 (very rough estimate) high up in the air with binoculars (beyond unaided vision) back in the direction from whence I had come (see photo below).  A falcon of some sort was now maneuvering within the flock, very high in the air, but I could not afford the time to try to identify it to species. 

I returned a bit downstream and could not relocate the flock (how can it be hard to relocate that many birds?!?), until I saw their entry funnel coming down out of the then fairly dark sky a bit farther back downstream toward their drinking pond, blocked from view somewhat by a woodlot.   I moved farther downstream to get closer and saw the last minute or so of the roost entry, the final pulse of birds swirling down through the "funnel" into the cane.  It was surprising how short a time it took for the whole entry to be completed for so many birds.

A local resident came out and couldn't stop talking about how she and her husband had watched these birds in awe for the last couple of weeks and wondered who she should call to report them to.  Blackened the sky, she said.  I told her the roost in Vacherie had been reported at a million in years past and she said she thought that was a low estimate for what she had been seeing.

She said that earlier in the month the birds were streaming overhead toward cane fields upstream at dusk, and only in the last couple weeks had relocated to the cane just off the end of her street.  The street is private, so viewing might only be from the river levee across from it around 350 yards away.  I am not sure the attitude of the St. Charles Parish levee board toward people being up on the levee.

The exact coordinates of tonight's funnel entry point are 30 deg 1 min 10.5 sec N, 90 deg 29 min 48.2 sec W.  This is in the town of Killona.

I managed to snap one picture of the gathering flock, from a great distance (still beyond naked eye detection), posted below.  I felt there were probably 100,000 in an initial count (the picture only includes a part of it), but it seemed it grew afterwards- maybe several fold- but I would hesitate to hazard a guess until I get more optimal viewing conditions.  Unfortunately, this roost location will probably only persist till the cane is cut, which is ongoing.


Saturday, October 12, 2019

Birds overhead tonight


I just came in from a 5 minute moon watch at around 10:45 pm- four small birds crossed the lunar orb, which is conveniently near full tonight.  Of course they were actually migrating a couple thousand feet overhead, and were made visible by passing between me and the lit orb.  I watched with binoculars.

There is also a good density of flight calls- average spacing between them probably 3-5 seconds in my hood, which is rather noisy.  It seems like mainly thrushes, which make medium-low short notes that sound like "heep" or "urp" or something similar.

The bird silhouettes seem way too far up in altitude to be the source of the call notes- interesting.

The movement tonight is in response to the tail winds following the cold front passage- migrant birds normally wait for such circumstances, and then migrate in droves.


Sunday, July 7, 2019

Amazing shot of booby underwater- from Carnival Cruise ship!

Local New Orleans birder Steven Liffmann just came back from a Carnival Cruise with an amazing shot taken near our shores, of a Masked Booby underwater after its headfirst dive in pursuit of prey:

To give you a better idea what the bird looks like under more normal conditions (if looking down at a seabird is normal!), here is another shot of the bird:

Boobies are not related to gulls, despite their superficially similar appearance.   Before the Brown Booby incursion of the last decade (or so), Masked Booby was the presumed booby species to see in the Gulf.  Now Brown is also found regularly.  Their close relative, the Northern Gannet, is also regular in winter and often seen from shore.

Steven's bird was 80 miles off the mouth of the River.   Masked Boobies are generally not visible from land- finding them requires going out in a boat.  The way most Louisiana birders get them is by participating in an organized  trip, in which a group of birders pitch in to hire a boat.  Recently a few birders on the LA-Bird listserve have reported on working the cruise ship angle- James Holmes and now Steven.

Boat birding is essentially the only way to get several other truly pelagic species that are seldom visible from shore.  Audubon's Shearwater, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, and Bridled Tern are three of the more regularly seen such "pelagics"  on these trips, but a range of others are possible.  As a general rule, such Gulf outings are not as birdy as comparable trips out of the well known East and West Coast pelagic birding hubs, but they are a must-do for birders serious about building up big personal Louisiana lists.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Birding Opportunities Produced by Weather

The approaching cold front has prompted me to contemplate and categorize various ways in which particular weather phenomena can produce birding opportunities.  So here goes an attempt at delineating them, with an emphasis on south Louisiana.   All of these, however, are pretty well known to experienced birders across the continent.

1.  Cold front passages

Cold front passages produce concentrations of migrants.  In spring this is crucial in coastal areas along the Gulf, where trans-Gulf migrants are induced by these fronts to stop in our area instead of overflying the coastal belt and heading inland.  A cold front produces a headwind (and often rain) that makes the Gulf crossing a struggle, inducing them to stop on the immediate coast or somewhere in the coastal belt.  These "fallouts" are best viewed  in the Nature Conservancy properties on Grand Isle, but can be impressive even in New Orleans (where the best spot to experience them is usually the Couturie Forest in City Park).  The grounded migrants will often linger for some days until wind directions change to give them a tailwind to continue north.  If the front arrives at the coast in time to intercept the arrival of migrants from across the Gulf (usually around midday), the fallout can happen that same afternoon.  If not, the next day is a better shot.

In fall, cold fronts often usher in waves of migrants utilizing the northerly tail winds that occur in the days that follow them.  The pulse of migrants is usually greatest on the morning following the first night dominated by northerly winds after the front passes.

Because cold fronts are more frequent in the cooler months, cold front birding opportunities are most common early in spring and late in fall.  However, most years we will get a front as late in spring as early May, and as early in fall as August.  At these times they may not usher in much change in temperature, but will still produce the desired wind direction change that can produce good birding.

2. Intense and widespread rainstorms

These can produce fallouts just as cold fronts do in spring, with the birds wanting to pause because they have been struggling through the rain (vs.  bucking a headwind after a cold front).   Rain-grounded birds will usually depart more rapidly than after a cold front, often at first nightfall if the rain has abated.  This is because wind direction is usually southerly and thus favorable for continued migration at times when a lot of non-frontal rain is in our area.

Major regional rain events in spring are generally considered the best conditions for grounding shorebirds.  The rain not only grounds them, but often creates rain pools in large open grassy areas, into which birds will gather.  The "Exxon Fields" at Grand Isle are well known for this.  Before the construction gobbled up so much of the University of New Orleans campus lawns, they also were famous for this.  Sometimes rain pools can have birds along Lakeshore Drive.  There are a few other lawns around, but they are owned by private interests who have not yet been courted to gain permission for general birder use so I will not name them.  However, during a rain event earlier this month, lawns on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish produced gatherings of Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and Pectoral, Least, and Solitary Sandpipers, and a Dowitcher sp.  Shorebirds do not generally stay grounded long- it is best to get out and find them while the rain is still falling.

3.  Tropical weather

Ah, the love-hate relationship of birders with tropical weather systems!  We love 'em for the birding they create, but we fear their destructive potential!  Tropical weather regularly displaces coastal and oceanic birds inland, sometimes hundreds of miles (I recall a Cory's Shearwater in Oklahoma).  For this reason many birders key in on them and get out and about searching for storm waifs as soon as they are able to do so safely.

The most predictable outcome of a tropical weather event in New Orleans is that Magnificent Frigatebirds and Black Terns will appear around the city.  These occur on the coast in numbers, so they may have merely been displaced inland by tens of miles- though we don't really know from whence they came.  Overall in the Eastern USA, Sooty Tern may be the most common truly pelagic species to be displaced inland after tropical systems make landfall, although it seems like just about anything is possible.  Jaegers, shearwaters, petrels, storm-petrels, phalaropes, tropicbirds- have all been reported in the last few years somewhere in the eastern USA after tropical systems passed inland.

The best place to search for storm waifs is large bodies of water- such as Lake Pontchartrain.  Birders saw a Great Shearwater from the Causeway after one recent storm.  There is some indication that birds may also be found following the Mississippi River back out to sea up to several days after a storm, but this needs further study. 

At this point it is not really clear how much of a correlation there is between numbers of waifs carried inland and strength of the storm.  Birds appear to show up mostly on the track or to its east.  While it seems reasonable to think some have become stuck in the eye (kept within it by their avoidance of the eyewall), and others merely pushed onshore by the winds, we don't really know. 

Sometimes other weird phenomena accompany tropical weather.  For instance, Hurricane Juan in 1985 lingered in late October on the northern Gulf, and resulted in unusual numbers of tardy land bird migrants occurring along the Gulf Coast- species that should have been in the tropics by then.  Even flamingos have occurred along Gulf and Atlantic shorelines after tropical systems.

The widespread rain of a tropical system can in itself produce fallouts that are similar to those described in the rain events under # 2 above.  Waterbirds and shorebirds are often in good numbers in flooded grassy fields during tropical weather.  One fancy record I recall:  Hurricane Opal in 1995 induced a Sabine's Gull to pause at Southshore Harbor on the New Orleans lakefront. 

4.  Extended drought

Less of a weather event than a prolonged pattern, extended dry periods produce low water levels in ponds and impoundments.  This can produce extensive shorebird habitat, often otherwise hard to come by in the immediate New Orleans area.  It can draw birds like a magnet.  The place with the best track record in this regard in our area is the impoundment on Recovery Rd in Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge- especially the pond accessed by walking beyond the landfill mound, or via the levee from Chef Highway farther east.  At such times this spot can have thousands and thousands of birds, ranging in size from herons to peeps.

Good birding!