Friday, December 31, 2010

'tis the season to be counting . . .

Snow Geese Under Half-Moon near Mire, LA
(Photo by Denny Culbert)

     Throughout the U.S., Canada, and parts of the Carribean, Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) have been run for over a century. Google “Christmas Bird Count” for historical details. Each year, the CBC season runs from December 18 - January 4. Well over 2,000 counts are run each season, including over 20 within the state of Louisiana.

Tallying every bird seen/heard Throughout the Day
is the worst part of a CBC
(photo by Denny Culbert)

     Individual count organizers select one day within the season to run a given count. Basically, 15 mile-diameter “count circles” are strategically selected, in which count compilers attempt to include as diverse of a line-up of different habitat types as possible. Then, participants are recruited, and the count circle is divided up in accordance with the number of observers participating. From pre-dawn to post-dusk, participants count every bird that they see and/or hear. At the end of the day, particpants meet to compare notes, and the count list is compiled.

Chris Brantley, Patti Hollard, Walker Wilson, Heather Mancuso
Working a Rice Field in Niblett (southwestern Jeff Davis Parish)

     The “Lac-Thorn” CBC was held on December 18 this year – a dry, cold, windy affair. Weatherwise, you never know what you'll get at a CBC. Last year, Lac-Thorn was so wet we couldn't even make it to Bayou Lacassine – the western terminus of our “Niblett” area, a complex of rice fields, pocket-marshes, and wooded canals, bayous, lakes, and small woodlots located northwest of the intersection of LA 14 and LA 99 in extreme southwestern Jeff Davis parish.

     Ditto for this year's Lafayette CBC held on December 28 – dry, cold, and breezy. Birding all bundled up and eyes watering from frigid winds is a challenge in itself. Our area in the Lafayette circle is way up on the northwestern edge, above I-10 around the rural communities of Mire, Vatican, and Ossun. Like our “Niblett” area at Lac-Thorn, the Mire/Vatican/Ossun landscape is primarily flat and open, but dominated by cattle pastures and only pocked with rice-fields and wooded ponds.


Coming in for a dawn Landing at Mire Crawfish Ponds
28F, Sick East Wind.....Brrrrrrrrrr
Patti's already got her hat on

Bill Vermillion Attempts to Stay Warm, Working the Mire Crawfish Ponds
(photo by Denny Culbert)

An Open-country Bird, the Killdeer can Take it Wet or Dry
(photo by Denny Culbert)

A Tree Swallow Plies the Frigid Air Above a Mire Crawfish Pond
What in the World can he be Finding to Eat in 28F Weather?!!???
(photo by Denny Culbert)

     In both circles, it was so dry this year that most of the rice fields were waterless; so we were at an immediate disadvantage regarding waterfowl, rails, shorebirds, and other water birds. Fortunately, a few fields remained "pumped up" for crawfish production. On both counts, the wind was so steady and chilly that most of the songbirds were laying low for much of the day.

Bless Their Lil' Hearts...Regardless of Weather Conditions,
You Can Always Count on Counting Chickadees.
They Wouldn't Miss a CBC for the World....
(photo by Denny Culbert)

  It wasn't until after lunch that the sun began to peek through the clouds, allowing a few warblers, sparrows, and others to slip up on exposed perches to catch a few rays. Still, the action was heavy, if not always fast and furious. We stayed pretty busy all day long at both places.

Good Things Come to Those who Work their Butts Off
We found this rare Ash-throated Flycatcher at a Very
Secluded wooded Lake near Mire, LA
(photo by Denny Culbert)

Patti Holland and Bill Fontenot Eye an Unidentified Hawk
In Low Light A Thousand or so Yards Away....Ah, Dawn.....

      Dawn is the crucial time for a CBC. Participants need to find a dawn-watch site that is as elevated (definitely a relative term here in south Lousiana) as possible, and that allows for the widest field-of-view. The dawn-watch site should also be located in or at least adjacent to as diverse a variety of habitats as possible, with “big water” being the most important ingredient. For me, as I'm sure is true for other experienced CBC participants, a successful dawn-watch (generally 6:30-9:00 a.m.) accounts for well over half of the total bird species listed for the day.

White Ibis, Cruisin' for Crawfish at Mire
(photo by Denny Culbert)

     Ducks, geese, herons, egrets, ibis, hawks, blackbirds, and other groups are commuting from roosting sites to feeding sites (or vice-versa) at this time. And once the sun rises, sparrows and other songbirds climb up to exposed perches to dry off their plumage, and soak up some warmth.

Here Comes the Sun, Little Darlin'....
A Swamp Sparrow Shaking off Dew at Mire
(photo by Denny Culbert)

     Each dawn-watch holds its own surprises. Just after dawn but prior to actual sunrise this year at Lac-Thorn, our Niblett group was treated to a close-up show featuring a female-type Peregrine Falcon riding a stiff northerly breeze only several feet above a rice field, playfully harassing three Great Egrets who were attempting to get a little breakfast in at a protected corner of the field.

Returning from a Successful "Owl Roost Run" in Niblett

     After dawn-watch, it's a matter of hunting and pecking, seeking out pockets of good-looking habitat that have the best potential for holding birds. This hunt and peck operation continues through the day.

A "Pocket Marsh" at Niblett

Patti Holland and Molly Richard Scour an Isolated Lake in Niblett
Their efforts were Rewarded with a Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Neotrop Cormorant, and Anhinga

      By mid-afternoon, the group begins to inventory potential sites for dusk-watch. As with the dawn-watch, a good dusk-watch spot needs to be elevated, and possess wide-open vista-like views – again, preferably adjacent to water. A successful dusk-watch can add several last-minute species that are generally not found at any other time, including selected duck, sandpiper, and owl species, Black-crowned Night-heron, Woodcock, and the like.

Dusk at Niblett
Molly "Taco Sister" Richard, Bill Fontenot, Patti Holland
(photo by Chris Brantley)
Niblett Dusk-watch Worked to Perfection, Nabbing
Six Black-crowned Night Herons and Two Short-eared Owls
     This year, funky weather conditons resulted in far fewer individual birds counted; plus total misses of numerous species which we ordinarly would tally without much trouble. Still, we did a respectable job at both counts, amassing a species list of 77 at Lafayette and 114(!) at Lac-Thorn. I've gotta say, the Niblett area of Lac-Thorn is about as birdy as it gets in Louisiana – not only from a species diversity perspective, but also from a sheer “biomass” perspective – like hundreds of gulls, tens of thousands of geese, and hundreds of thousands of blackbirds. Consider that our 114 species from the Niblett area alone tops the entire count circle totals from of the majority of CBCs held in the U.S. and Canada each year. Louisiana Christmas Bird Counters are a fortunate lot.

best christmas present ever

We are stardust
We are golden
Billion-year-old carbon;
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the Garden.

                                                                                      -- Joni Mitchell

     Well, maybe not best Christmas present ever – that would have to be a tie between 1) a Cape Canaveral Space Set (1963), a Stellar 3-turret mirrored Microscope [1965; complete with ultra-fine wooden carrying case....i still have this one....] and 3) a James Bond HO Slot Car Set (1966). So let's just say that the garden that I just put in this past Christmas Eve is the best Christmas present I've received in 44 years. Yeah.

     Initially Lydia and I put this garden in not long after we moved here to the wilds of northern Lafayette parish – probably around 1983 or so. The soil is a rich, silty-clay with virtually no sand component in it. Mulch as we did (for over 10 straight years) my beloved tomatoes hated it, as did eggplant and even cucumber. In fact, the only veggies that actually liked it were okra and cayenne peppers. So we eventually abandoned it, which worked out fine, since our professional careers were peaking then, and we had little time for veggie gardening.

     We both come from gardening families. Both sets of parents maintained perpetual veggie gardens. My sister Betsy and I spent more than a few hours in ours. Dad didn't make us weed; but we did plant, water, and harvest. I'd like to know how many butter beans and field peas we shelled. . .

     Peter Perino, my maternal grandpa, was a professional vegetable man from St. Bernard parish.. He and his brother-in-law, Jimmy “V.J.” Campagna secured a piece of really fertile land off the Mississippi River in northeastern Plaquemines parish. They grew veggies for the French Market, specializing in cauliflower. Man did they grow some fine stuff.

     As soon as Lydia and I moved in together in north Louisiana, we started a garden. Up there the soil was almost total sand, and required lots of organic material. At the time I worked for a mosquito control outfit, trapping birds and drawing blood samples for encephilitis monitoring. One of my major trapping sites was the Monroe zoo. Desperate for organic materials, I began picking up elephant and other exotic animal dung there and importing it into our garden. Ultimately, however, the only good things we could get to grow there were illegal.

Dave, double-diggin'; me, clod-bustin
      Fast forward 31 years and, thanks to a little help from our friends, we're at it again. My knees and shoulders are pretty well shot; and I knew that I didn't have it in me to double-dig the old garden. So a few days before Christmas I called our younger plant pal David Kent for help. Being a sustainable-living adherent, he was delighted at the prospect.

Gail Barton, Master Horticulturist/Belly-dancer
     And it just so happened that another longtime plant pal, Gail Barton (, herself a career horticultural professional, was in visiting from Mississippi. She too was thrilled at the idea. She and I went to visit mutual friend, wholesale herb grower June Walker at her place in Sunset; and when June (herself a perpetual veggie gardener) found out about my plan, she donated a number of 4” lettuces, cabbages, parsley, cilantro, etc. to the cause. Yee-Hah!!

     Dave and I finished the “rabbit fence” a couple of days later, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve night we hosted a spagetti dinner (ancient Sicillian family recipe) for family, and when Catherine “CattyCakes” Robichaux – Master Salad-maker – said, “Hey what are we gonna do for a salad?” I jumped at the chance to cut some of June's 4” greens. Duly inspired, Catherine whipped up an outstanding salad, replete with a craftily-concocted tart/sweet 'mayhaw-cheese' dressing that went outrageously well with the spagetti.

     I cannot describe the joy at being back in the grow-your-own business . . .

     Sustainability is where it's at, ya'll. Importing and industrializing our very food supply, as we've been doing for the past 40-50 years, is a dangerous, expensive (economically and ecologically), and unhealthy practice.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

the curious case of the cheneyville cranes

Cranes?... Not! Snowy Egrets (photo by Dave Patton)

If you, like me, were raised up back in the 1950s-60s in the farming or fishing districts of south Louisiana, you might have heard the term “crane” used for any white egret. Some people still use that term today! But true cranes are altogether different animals from egrets. Cranes occupy their own family, the Gruidae (15 species, worldwide; 2 species in North America, the Whooping Crane and the Sandhill Crane), and are actually more closely related to the rails and gallinules than they are to the herons and egrets.

Sandhill Cranes (photo by Dan Bertrand)

Yes, these are Sandhill Cranes, standing at about 4' tall with wingspans exceeding 7' -- big ol' birds that might be confused only with something like a Great Blue Heron. Sandhill Cranes breed mostly in the prairies, plains, and tundra of Alaska and Central Canada, dribbling down to nest in only a few Upper Midwest and Great Basin prairies in the U.S.

Each fall they stage fantastic migrations, turning up almost anywhere west of the Appalachians before settling into central California, the southwestern U.S. (including much of the western half of Texas) and northwestern Mexico.

Curiously, a few Sandhill Cranes have been sort of hanging on as year-round/breeding residents along a thin band of “sand hills” (actually, relict longleaf-pine savannas) from southern Mississippi eastward through southern Georgia and the Florida panhandle. Up until the end of the 19th century, Louisiana hosted year round/breeding Sandhill Crane flocks, confined mainly to the longleaf pine savannas of the Florida parishes (southeastern Louisiana) and the mixed tallgrass prairie/marshland complex in southern Cameron parish just above Louisiana's southwestern coast.

Could these year round breeders represent the remains of a relict Pleistocene-era flock forced southward by the massive continental ice sheet which had built as far south as southern Ohio? It is said that at the last glacial climax of the Pleistocene (ca. 12,000 years ago) the entire Gulf Coast was a perpetually cool grassland (much like modern-day central Canada) which extended all the way south through the present-day continental shelf!

If I'm not mistaken, camel, mastodon, and other giant Pleistocene mammal bones have been found at Avery Island, which would have been right in the middle of the Louisiana portion of that massive grassland complex. Could Sandhill (and Whooping) Cranes have nested/lived down here in big numbers all the way back to that era? It wouldn't surprise me.

The first documented record of Sandhill Cranes in Louisiana came from the reports of Le Page du Pratz, an early French colonial planter who spent 1718-34 in Louisiana (about half that time living with the Natchez Indians), recording plants, animals, and first nation peoples. His book, The History of Louisiana was published in Paris in 1758. In it, he referred to “The Crane” as “a very common water-fowl...very lean and of excellent taste. It eats somewhat like beef, and makes a very good soup.”

I also ran across another interesting 18th century reference to a Coulee des Grues (= “Gully of the Cranes”), subsequently located for me by north Louisiana biologist Kelby Ouchley, at present-day Grand Cote National Wildlife Refuge just west of Marksville, LA in northwestern Avoyelles parish. Mentioned in The Historic Indian Tribes of Louisiana (Kniffen, Gregory, and Stokes, 1987), Coulee des Grues served as the boundary between the Tunica and Biloxi Indian nations in 1780.

Interestingly, Grand Cote NWR sits at the northern end of the historic “Avoyel Prairie,” now almost totally under cultivation/pasture, and situated only a few miles east of the communities of Lecompte, Echo, and Cheneyville (Rapides and Avoyelles parishes), where the first flock of wintering Sandhill Cranes was seen by modern humans in 1962. Yet something tells me that French colonials would have never named a waterway "Coulee des Grues" unless they were seeing cranes around it. Real cranes, not egrets; as we've already established that French colonials certainly knew the difference between cranes and egrets.

“Cheneyville Crane” photo by Jim Johnson

In any case, prior to the 1962 discovery, Sandhill Cranes were almost unknown in Louisiana since the turn of the 20th century, at least. Amazingly, as late as 1974 (see Sandhill Crane citation in Louisiana Birds 1974), George Lowery, Jr. himself was not aware of the Cheneyville flock, referring to only a handful of recent Louisiana sightings – mostly of singles and pairs, and mostly from the marshlands of sothern Louisiana – in his book.

Regardless, subsequent to the 1962 Cheneyville discovery (or, probably better-termed, “rediscovery”), Sandhill Crane sightings have slowly/gradually increased each winter in Louisiana, spreading north of Cheneyville up into Natchitoches and West Carroll parishes, as well as south of Cheneyville, down into northeastern Cameron parish and much of Jeff Davis parish. Each year, however, the Cheneyville area consistently hosts the largest concentration of Sandhills, usually with one or two flocks numbering somewhere around 700-1,500 birds.

My first encounter with the Cheneyville cranes came during the winter of 1977 when I was commuting between Ville Platte and (then) Northeastern Louisiana University in Monroe. Just south of Lecompte, I saw four of them in an expansive pasture just a couple of hundred yards off of LA 71. I remember telling the ornithology professor at Monroe about them, but he dismissed my report out-of-hand, as he was wont to do with every report passed along to him by an (ugh) undergraduate.

Among the wariest birds around, Sandhill Cranes require vast open spaces – preferably well-isolated from human habitation – for both roosting and foraging purposes. Drive through the Cheneyville-Echo-Lecompte triangle and you'll note just that – huge expanses of agricultural lands where birds can safely eat and sleep; never allowing human intruders within 0.25-0.50 mile of them. Ditto for the Holmwood area (just west of LA 14 X LA 27E) in northeastern Cameron parish, where a substantial flock of Sandhills has taken up residence each winter for the past 30 years, at least.

Keen birdwatchers are increasingly finding small groups of Sandhills throughout many parts of Louisiana in early to mid-winter – probably foraging fragments of the larger flocks stationed around Holmwood and Cheneyville. Most of these sightings are coming from ag lands; and most often the birds are seen in flight, for when they do put down to feed you can be sure that it will be in the most isolated spots possible.

In flight however, they are hard to miss: huge gray birds with wingspans exceeding that of geese. They're so big that they usually don't take to the air until mid-morning, when thermals created by the sun-heated ground lift them up into the air.

On November 27 of this year, around the Gueydan-Kaplan area in Vermilion parish, Lafayette birder/hunter Toddy Guidry spotted a lone Sandhill Crane flying at the tail end of a V-formation of about 20 Greater White-fronted (aka “speckle-belly”) geese.

Sandhills in Flight
(they're about the size of Great Blue Herons, but with longer wingspans)
photo by Dave Patton

And you can only imagine the shock experienced by Lafayette birder Dave Patton, who sat “day-dreaming at a stoplight” one December morning and watched a Sandhill flock come out of nowhere and put down in the wide-open field right behind the National Wetland Research Center, smack dab in the city of Lafayette! That must have been about 15 years ago...

The “Cheneyville Cranes” photo by Jim Johnson

So what happened to Sandhill Cranes in Louisiana in the interim between the mid-18th century and 1962? Official modern-day records date back only as far as 1899. Between then and the 1962 discovery of the Cheneyville flock, only about a dozen records are on file for our state, mostly involving single bird or single pair sightings. Then, suddenly, they were back. How/why did they decide to return? Curious, non?

Friday, December 17, 2010

hackberry fest!

Festival-goer (Slummin' at the Chinese tallow booth) ... 
(photo by Russ Norwood)

It all started about three weeks ago when American Robins began piling into the hackberry grove that lines the northern and eastern borders of our backyard. Looking up into the leafless hackberry trees, I was surprised to see them loaded with fruit, despite the dry year that we've just experienced. In fact, it looked like the biggest hackberry crop that I'd ever seen in the 28 years that we've lived back here. Of further interest was the fact that these robins are about a month early this year. Normally, they don't go for our hackberry crop until very late December or early January.

As the days wore on, more and more robins piled in. Primary feasting time was dawn through about 9:00am each day. This morning (17 Dec) I estimated the robin flock to contain about 400 individuals. Originally, I figured about half that amount, but then an adult female Cooper's Hawk zipped overhead and flushed the entire flock into a southbound beeline, at which point I could best estimate the actual numbers of the flock.

Eastern Bluebird (photo by John Spohrer)

Several days ago I noted that two families (about 10 birds, total) of bluebirds had occupied a kinder/gentler, more isolated hackberry clump behind our barn, where they merrily chatted and ate to their hearts' content for four mornings running.

One morning I also noted a lone bluejay snagging hackberries amidst a small flock of robins right off the eastern edge of our back porch. I watched him for awhile, as I have not seen many bluejays engaging in frugivorous (fruit-eating) behavior. Unlike the robins, this bluejay was plucking hackberries one by one, holding them against a branch with his feet, and cracking them open with his bill, much like chickadees and titmice do with sunflower seeds. He worked quickly – almost as quickly as the nearby robins, who were simply plucking fruits and swallowing them whole.

Cedar Waxwing  (photo by John Spohrer)

All along, Cedar Waxwings became attracted into the fray; and this morning I estimated 75-125 of them working the backyard hackberries. This is very early for Cedar Waxwings to be occurring in such numbers. Normally we don't see large concentrations of them down here until holly fruit time (Jan-Feb). And I know I've never seen this many Cedar Waxwings in our yard at one time.

Hackberries really pull in the birds, ya'll. In a statewide bird frugivory survey that a number of us conducted 1994-98, hackberry reigned supreme in terms of the diversity of bird species (27, total) that we recorded using the fruits.

Hackberry Fruits & Foliage (Celtis laevigata)

The hackberry is known to foresters as the “sugarberry,” due to its insipidly sweet fruits. The fruit might look juicy, but it's not – comprised mainly a thin rind, a dab of slimy, pumpkin-colored pulp, and a big seed. But boy do birds love them. Raccoons and squirrels too. On several occasions, Lydia and I have seen raccoons ardently eating green hackberries in August, way before they're ripe.

The Louisiana Francophone name for hackberry is bois connu, a corruption of, “the unknown tree.” Interestng name, non? I've heard a number of possible interpretations for naming it that, but the one I like best is that the hackberry tree was a species which colonists had never encountered in Europe. . . whereas many other New World trees that they enountered such as maples, elms, oaks, chestnuts, etc. had Old World counterparts.

The hackberry natively occurs throughout most of the U.S., excluding only the northern Great Plains, Upper Midwest, and northeastern U.S. Hackberries grow in just about every Louisiana parish. They are primarily bottomland hardwood inhabitants, thriving in high-clay-content alluvium, especially along the densely-forested floodplains of rivers, bayous, and other streams.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


The prey: bald cypress seed cones/innards

     I was sitting on our back porch (nestled in the bottomland hardwood forests of northeastern Lafayette parish, Louisiana) around dusk on the evening of November 27 when my attention was drawn to the big bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) in our backyard about 25' away. Nearly leafless now, the tree is loaded with seed cones, fragments of which were clattering through its branches as they fell to the ground. Looking up, I was amazed to see a half-dozen or so male cardinals picking through the seed cones, dismantling them piece by piece. Were they actually eating cypress seeds?

The predator: northern cardinal
photo by Beth Erwin

     Apparently so. For the next half-hour, cardinals came and cardinals went, but the number feeding in the tree held steady at a half-dozen or so. Walking beneath the tree, all I found were empty cone husks on the ground. Whoa. This is the first time that I've noted a bird species of any kind feeding on cypress seed. I mean, I've heard that some birds do it, I've just never seen it for myself.

     Intrigued, I collected a couple of cones the next morning and dissected one. Surprisingly, the cones fell apart quite easily into myriad “chunks” resembling a sort of intricate, 3-D oriental puzzle, even though the exterior of each cone was still green. In between each component part was filled with a thin-but-sticky, yellow-green, and very aromatic/fragrant resin, smelling very much like “essence of Christmas tree.”

     Seedwise, however, I found nothing resembling a seed; but only tiny, lime-green, worm-shaped bodies. I tasted one. It crunched like a vegetable and proved nearly as aromatic in taste as the resin did in smell. Hmmm.

     So I consulted my all-time favorite native woody plant reference, Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of the Southwest (Robert A. Vines, 1960; tree-lovers, ya'll really should grab a copy of this book from an online used book seller; information packed, covers 99% of Louisiana native woody plants, ultra-fine pen & ink drawings of each plant) and read me some.

     Under the “fruit” section of the bald cypress citation, Vines wrote, “Ripening in October-December, cone globose [roundish], closed, rugose [roughened]....formed by the enlargement of the spirally-arranged pistillate [female] flower scales [cypress flowers have scales instead of petals]....scales angular, horny, thick [see dark, chocolate-brown cone scales in photo above]; seeds 2-winged, erect, borne under each scale...”

     Hmm again. I did not see anything 2-winged and erect under each scale. All I saw were those green, crunchy, worm-like bodies. Moreover, each worm-like body came out of its own perfectly-shaped indention on the underside of the scale – like it really belonged there, you know? Was I looking at yet-underdeveloped seed? Perhaps so. Regardless, the cardinals were definitely eating it.

     The day before (Nov 26) I had seen a number of cardinals fooling with the cypress cones, but I guess I figured they were just “playing” with the cones. Silly human . . .

     Come to think of it, I now remember our big 2.5-year Atchafalaya Basin Bird Survey in 2002-04, where on a number of occasions I coaxed Greg Guirard to take me deep as he could into the swamp by boat so I could census the bird life there amongst permanently-flooded, pure stands of bald cypress/tupelo gum (Nyssa aquatica). As is the case with almost all climax forest systems, the diversity of bird life was relatively low in winter, consisting primarily of wood duck, osprey, several woodpecker species, yellow-rumped warbler (they're everywhere around here each winter), and, yes, cardinals. Understand, the closer to dry land you get in swamp systems, the more bird species you'll record; but once you get a half-mile or more from nearest land, the number of woodland songbirds drops percipitously. No more chickadees, titmice, gnatcatchers, kinglets, etc. Basically you're down to a few swamp specialists . . . so the, uh, robust presence of cardinals in the deep-swamp was striking.

     Were those cardinals feasting on bald cypress seed? I bet they were.

     Under his bald cypress citation, Vines adds interesting tidbits such as, “. . . the cone resin used as an analgesic [pain-killer] for wounds,” and, “The seeds are eaten by a number of species of birds, including wild ducks.” and “. . . has been known in cultivation in Europe [far from its native southeastern U.S. range, non?!?] since about 1640,” and “Fossil ancestors of bald cypress, at one time, covered the greater part of North America in company with the ginkoes, sequoias, and incense-cedars.”

fall has fallen

Nutmeg Hickory Leaf (Carya myristiciformes)
26 Nov 2010, Lafayette Parish

“But ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you...”

Job 12:7

      Down here on the Gulf Rim – at the continental border of temperate and tropical air masses – the seasons of the year tend to run into one another, making it difficult to know where one ends and another begins. Throw in a lil' global-warming and the edges grow even murkier. The real kicker, though, is that through it all, humans are getting ecologically-dumber by the minute. The divorce between human civilization and the natural world is all but complete. Perhaps I exaggerate . . . but papers have been filed, for sure . . .

     Anyway, for those who do happen to pay attention to the natural world – and let's be succinct and call that world what it truly is: “Reality-with-a-capital-R” – it's cool to have the birds of the air and the plants of the earth around to remind us of what season it is.

White-throated Sparrow, photo by Russ Norwood

     Down at this latitude (about 50 miles north of the Gulf Coast), for example, we should not say that winter is here until the White-throated Sparrow has arrived and settled in. Each winter, White-throated Sparrows occupy just about any shrubby forest edge down here, including properly-arrayed urban and suburban backyards. Really, you don't even have to see them. Like so many other winter birds down here, they are very vocal, uttering their loud, musical, “tEA!” (or “dEE!” or “chEE!” or “pwEE!” depending on your ear...) orientation calls each dawn and dusk; and occasionally breaking out into their mournful “old-Sam-Pea-body” territorial breeding song.

Eastern Towhee, photo by J. Spohrer

     Ditto for other local winter-resident birds, including the Eastern Towhee, that big, handsome “sparrow of the briars.” Generally, towhees prefer wilder settings, so their penetrating, “jREE!” dawn/dusk orientation call is heard only occasionally in urban/suburban forests.

Yellow-rumped Warbler, photo by Russ Norwood

     Birds that breed in North America and overwinter in the Central/South American tropics are known as Neotropical migrants; as opposed to birds that breed to our north and overwinter down here along the Gulf Coast, which are referred to as Nearctic migrants. The most common of the nearctics around these parts include species like Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, American Robin, Cedar Waxwing, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

Eastern Phoebe, photo by Russ Norwood

     Another fairly common local overwinterer is the Eastern Phoebe, a graceful, mockingbird-sized flycatcher. Its drabish colors and relatively sedentary feeding habit often renders it invisible to non-birders; but its loud, reedy, “fee-BEE, fee-BEE” call echos through the woodland habitats (woodlands around water are its absolute favorite) that it frequents.

Nutmeg Hickory (Carya myristiciformes)
26 Nov 2010, Lafayette Parish

     If bird-detection proves too much work, then the local trees fairly shout out in-your-face-style that fall is gone and winter's here. That's right, we do not have much of a fall foliage color show down here. What we do have is a winter fall foliage color show!

American Hornbeam Foliage (Carpinus caroliniana)
26 Nov 2010, Lafayette Parish
      It is said that end-of-season foliage color is a product of that tree's metabolic wastes, sequestered in its leaves and visible only after chlorophyll production ceases. As green chlorophyll cells peter out, the oranges, yellows, and reds of these wastes are made manifest.

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
07 Oct 2004, probably in n. Illinois
     So the situation down here is that in October and the first half of November, our trees are still working – still making and storing food – while trees of the northeastern U.S. and upper-Midwest have thrown in the towel for the year and given up their chlorophyll. The time to start looking around here for foliage color is right around Thanksgiving, at the onset of winter.

Swamp Red Maple (Acer drummondii)
19 Dec 2005, Lafayette Parish

     You say you don't have no winter color? Then get you some! All of the abovementioned trees grow fine down here. Others with notable winter color at our latitude include southern sugar maple (Acer barbatum), Nuttall oak (Quercus texana), overcup oak (Q. lyrata), Shumard oak (Q. shumardii), Mexican plum (Prunus mexicana), black cherry (Prunus serotina), black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), sweet gum (Liquidambar styriciflua), witch hazel (Hamamelis virginica), winged elm (Ulmus alata), cedar elm (U. crassifolia), strawberry bush (Euonymus americana), swamp cyrilla (Cyrilla racemiflora; aka “Titi Bush”), and rusty black-haw viburnum (Viburnum rufidulum).

     Even if you don't have room for any more trees at your place, take a post-Thanksgiving drive to your local woods in late November. You'll see winter color, baby. While you're driving, you may as well continue north to the Interstate-20 corridor, where you'll find Louisiana's finest winter color show. The most easily accessible winter foliage color destination around Shreveport is the Walter B. Jacobs Memorial Nature Park ( In northeastern Louisiana, my personal all-time state favorite for winter foliage color is the Sicily Island Hills Wildlife Management Area (

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

a tale of two cypresses

Cypresses I have known/loved:
Bald cypress (above);
Montezuma cypress (below)

     Back in the early/mid 90s, University of Louisiana-Lafayette student/Acadiana Park Nature Station naturalist Michelle Harper presented me with a seedling of a Montezuma cypress that she had found growing in a greenhouse gutter behind the biology building at ULL. Many moon ago, someone had planted a Montezuma there, and it had grown to massive proportions.

     I duly planted Michelle's gift off of the west wall of our house in an attempt to mitigate the harshness of the summer/afternoon sun against our west wall. I had heard from Texas native plant friends that Montezuma cypress was “kneeless,” as opposed to our native bald cypress, which throws knees left and right, so I plopped it in the ground a mere 8' from the house.

     In relatively short order (ca. 15 years), the Montezuma – a mere toothpick of a plant when Michelle gave it to me – has grown to a height of 70', which is about equal to that of the bald cypress that Lydia and I had planted about 50' away on the north side of our house in 1983! Truly a jack-and-the-beanstalk type situation. Apparently, Montezuma cypress appreciates our swampy, “blackjack” clay as much as bald cypress does.

     The bald cypress ranges natively from the Texas Hill Country east through Florida and north to southern Illinois, whereas the Montezuma cypress is predominately a Mexican species, natively pushing its way north of the Rio Grande only into a few of the southernmost counties of Texas.

     Though half of the foliage is gone on the two late-fall photos (above), you may note that compared to bald cypress, Montezuma cypress possesses a moderately “weepy” foliage habit – perhaps owing to the fact that Montezuma cypress leaves are a tad shorter, and its needles a tad longer, than those of bald cypress.

Bald cypress leaf (left); Montezuma cypress leaf (right)

     Both bald and Montezuma cypresses belong to the cypress family (Cupressaceae), and both belong to the genus Taxodium. Up until recently, bald (Taxodium distichum), pond (Taxodium nutans), and Montezuma (Taxodium mucronatum) cypresses, along with close California relatives coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron gigantium), and dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), from China were given their own family (Taxodiaceae); but they have recently been lumped back into Cupressaceae, still a fairly small family, now containing 29 genera and 146 species distributed throughout both hemispheres.

     The story surrounding the dawn redwood is most interesting. It was not discovered (by science, anyway...) until 1944, when a Chinese botanist found a small grove of it – part of a religious shrine, actually – in the Sichuan-Hubei region of that country. The news eventually hit the U.S., and by 1948 Harvard's Arnold Arboretum sent an expedition over to China to collect seed from the tree. Virtually every dawn redwood grown in the U.S. today comes from that original seedlot. Since its initial discovery, dawn redwood has been discovered in only a few other places in China, and is presently listed as “Critically Threatened” in the wild.

     All of these close relatives are known for the huge sizes they attain – redwoods and sequias, up to 300'; dawn redwood, bald and Montezuma cypresses, up to 200'. Do yourself a favor and check out the legendary grand champion Montezuma cypress in the village of Santa Maria del Tule in Oaxaca, Mexico ( – not so tall (ca. 140') but with a trunk diameter approaching 38'! And what about the grand champion bald cypress, located right here in good ol' Louisiana within the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge in the Mississippi River backwaters just north of St. Francisville ( Whoa. Ya'll oughta drive over to see that one. You'll need to make your trip during the dry season, as the site is often flooded under 15' of Mississippi River backwaters.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
(photo by Russ Norwood,

     One last note. This fall, when the usual “flocklet” of Yellow-rumped Warblers arrived to overwinter in our yard, I found it interesting that they immediately zipped up into the Montezuma cypress for a foraging session, eschewing all other trees, including the native bald cypress. Of course I have no idea as to what they were hunting for, but apparently the Montezuma had it – or at least more of it – than any of the other trees.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

what birds eat part II

Female Cardinal . . . where you been?
                                           Photo by Russ Norwood

“Hey me
Hey mama
Where you been?
For so long, For so long?”

                           – Ray LaMontagne
                                             from “Hey Me, Hey Mama”

Blogger note: Besides a couple of photos by long-time naturalist buddy Beth Erwin (curator, Kalorama Nature Preserve, Collinston, LA) and myself, this post features the ultra-fine pics of Baton Rouge ad-man and nature photographer, Russ Norwood. Check out!

     It happens every autumn in backyards all across . . . America? The world? I dunno. All across Louisiana, I know for sure – including here around Lafayette – beginning generally around mid-October (although this fall, not until the first week of November), and usually persisting for the next 6-8 weeks . . . one minute, it's birds galore; and the next minute, BAM! Gone.

     The sudden disappearance of birds – cardinals, chickadees, titmice, mourning doves, woodpeckers, blue jays, chickadees, titmice, cardinals, house finches, etc. in our case – that otherwise spend each and every day crowded around the feeders in one's backyard is dramatic, to say the least. Dramatic enough to be noted by even the most lackadaisical of backyard bird folks.

     So what's the deal? Where have all the birdies gone, long time passing?

     Apparently, no human knows for sure, but conventional wisdom says that backyard birds disappear each fall in response to the ripening of that year's crop of wild seed. Makes sense. Why stick around for stale, non-diverse, store-bought seed when there's a fresh supply of way-diverse wild seed hanging so tantalizingly off of plants just a few wingbeats away? I mean, a bird can return to the ol' seed trough anytime he/she wants; so why not go for the good stuff while the getting's so good?

     Regarding The Great Departure here in the pseudo-wilds of upper Lafayette parish, the backyard silence becomes deafening. Like, wow, so this is what 'quiet' really sounds like, huh? After only about a week or so, though, the chickadees slink back . . . followed a week or so later by the titmice. Apparently, these two species quickly run out of whatever wild stuff out there that happens to trump good ol' black-oil sunflower seeds.

     Of course chickadees and titmice eat far more than black-oil sunflower seeds – all manner of tiny insects, insect eggs, insect larvae, etc. – regardless, they come crawling back home in pretty short order.

Male Cardinal, Kalorama Nature Preserve, Morehouse Parish, LA
photo by Beth Erwin

     The doves, cardinals, and house finches, on the other hand, stay gone the longest; apparently finding far more in the way of wild quality and quantity than do the chickadees and titmice. In the interim, what few cardinals we do notice back in the yard are coming back for water, not seed. Also, we note several of the youngest cardinals sneaking back in each dusk, obviously interested in the safer roost sites they grew up with here around the homestead.

Blue Grosbeak munchin' wild rice at Avery Island 19April2009
                                           photo by Russ Norwood

     Ah, birds and their seeds. So inspiring. What precious little a bird needs to sustain itself, you know? Like, a few grams' worth of seed each day. St. Francis of Assisi (himself known as il povrello, the poor one) spoke of the inspiration that birds provide a person who's looking to live a more simple life.

Field Sparrow, Morehouse Parish, LA 06Nov2010
                      that little hint of a tuft hanging on its bill is leftover little bluestem grass seed
                                                              photo by Beth Erwin

Swamp Sparrow chomping the paint-brush-like seed of boneset (Eupatorium spp.)
                                           photo by Russ Norwood

     I remember the first time witnessing swamp sparrows and American goldfinches devouring goldenrod seed. Tethered to a silken-chute far larger than itself, a goldenrod seed is too tiny for most humans to see or even feel. To a big ol' human, it's just totally amazing that a bird would even bother with it; but bother with it, they do. . .

     Of course most bird species do not limit themselves to a seed-only diet, since seeds are by no means year-round food items out in the wild, particularly up here in the temperate zone. As previously mentioned, small woodland birds such as woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, and warblers are near-perpetual insect eaters, collectively rummaging through forests like a fine-toothed comb, relieving trees of the bulk of the leaf-eating stem-sucking bugs that annually infest them. What would our forests look like without these little birds? Would we even have forests to look at without them? Legendary wildlife conservationist Aldo Leopold (you must read A Sand County Almanac if you haven't already done so . . . in fact, if you've already done so, then read it again) wrote, “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal, 'What good is it'?”

     As little as humankind thinks of or about tiny, insectivorous birds, would it not be ironic if we were to discover that it is tiny, insectivorous birds which are actually in charge of maintaining the health of the planet's forests? Or at very least, the primary care-givers to the forests?

     One day my buddy Neal Walker called to report that cedar waxwings (probably the most frugivorous of all North American bird species) were picking off aphids who were attracted to the new spring growth of a river birch outside of his kitchen window.

Cedar Waxwings devouring newly emerging blooms of green ash: “spring greens”
                                                         Baton Rouge, LA 12April2009
                                            photo by Russ Norwood

     And it doesn't stop there. Students of bird nutrition soon learn that in their relentless search for calories, it's amazing what some birds gain sustenance from. In early spring, obvious fruit eaters like cedar waxwings, along with such dedicated seed eaters like white-throated sparrows and American goldfinches, can all be seen “getting their spring greens” from newly-sprouted flowers, samaras, etc. of deciduous trees.

Winged Elm samaras (Ulmus alata)...excellent February food for Louisiana sparrows and finches

Baby Common Moorhen learning the joys of duckweed
                                                        Lake Martin, LA 10June2006
                                           photo by Russ Norwood

Prothonotary Warbler, a dedicated insectivore if there ever was one, making off with a black cherry fruit
                           Sherburne Wildlife Management Area, Iberville Parish, LA 15June2008
                                           photo by Russ Norwood

     Obviously, such items are packed not only with calories, but also with minerals and other micro-nutrients that these birds cannot easily procure in their normal fare. Got to get it, Papa!