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.