Monday, July 25, 2011

back to the island...

Caspian Tern
(photo by Russ Norwood

Listen, I promise that I'll get to that “tough plants for tough times”'s just that, well, Molly “Eagle Eye” Richard and I did a fun/interesting bird trip to Grand Isle last week, and I got some decent photos of it and so just had to write it up.

Molly "Eagle Eye" Richard Scanning the Gulf of Mexico
Really, she barely needs binoculars...

I'd been needing to go to Grand Isle all summer in order to procure habitat/bird photos for a writing project that I'm in the middle of. I happened to run into Molly (Lafayette birder who owns a camp in GI), told her of my dilemna, and didn't need to twist her arm.

We drove down on July 21, having the usual fine time laughing and singing along to the hits of yesteryear on Molly's favorite oldies station. By the time we hit Port Fourchon, where the birding/photographing would begin, the weather had turned to awesome: 88F with a mild southwesterly breeze thrown in for good measure; mostly cloudy skies nicely blocking that mean old sun, and featuring very cool, darker blue-gray columns of rain showers miles away in almost every direction. Let the birding/photographing begin!

Port Fourchon; mowed marsh (foreground), industry on parade (background)
Sometimes Birding Can Become Quite Surreal, Y'Know?

Port Fourchon is a heavily industrialized oilfield warehousing and transportation terminal plopped right over the marsh, leaving pockets of natural habitat interspersed throughout. Birding there is weird-but-usually-good. The big deal at Port Fourchon on July 21 was Common Nighthawks. They were everywhere: on wires, fences, and directly on the ground – mostly around large limestoned parking and storage areas. Eventually we tallied 50 of them there; more than either of us had seen before in one locale.

Common Nighthawk, Resting on Mudflat

Next we hit Elmer's Island, actually a sandy peninsula featuring hunks of marsh and marsh pools, a nice beach, and a large lagoon. It was noontime, and large aggregations of seabirds were crowded together loafing in the lagoon.

Gang of Brown Pelicans
Loafing in the Lagoon

Overhead, Magnificent Frigatebirds were soaring way up in the sky, working the breeze like it was their personal plaything.

Magnificent Frigatebird Toying with the Breeze
(too bad the image is small; google for better picture...)

By the time we hit Grand Isle State Park on the eastern edge of the island, bird activity had lulled to near-nonexistent, with only mockingbirds and Eastern Kingbirds flitting around the dune brush. We didn't observe a single seabird on the beach. But the skies were still spectacular and the seas were nearly glass-calm.

Adult Clapper Rail Feeding Young

Departing the park, we spied an adult Clapper Rail, a salt-marsh specialist, rounding up tiny land crabs and feeding them to its young. Taking photos for 15-20 minutes, we eventually saw two adults and 4-5 fuzzy, black-plumaged young.

Young Clapper Rail
On cue, the Stones' "Paint it Black" was pouring from
Molly's oldies station at the time...

Even for biophiles who look hard to see the beauty in all living things, it's hard to find anything but goofiness about a young rail. At best, they resemble the illegitimate children of Big Bird. I reckon you'd have to look directly into the eye of a young rail to find the real Truth/Beauty that resides there.

Almost as an afterthought, we decided to check the “Exxon Fields” for shorebirds on the way back to Molly's camp. Now owned by a smaller petroleum processor, this large complex of marsh chunks dotting short-grass fields has traditionally yeilded fine shorebirding. Several weeks earlier, during the peak of the drought, Molly had checked this area out and found it totally dry, with hardly even any living vegetation in the short-grass fields. Since then, however, the rains began, and today featured expansive pools of shallow water and lushly-recovering grasses and forbs, and filled with laughing gulls, willets, black-necked stilts, and numerous sandpipers including the uncommon Short-billed Dowitcher.

Black-necked Stilts Feeding at "Exxon Fields"

Like Clapper Rails, Short-billed Dowitchers are salt-marsh lovers. And because salt-marsh habitats are relatively difficult to access, these two species (as well as Seaside Sparrow) are less observed by the regular birding public.

Bathing Laughing Gulls (foreground) and loafing Short-billed Dowitchers (far background)

Non-breeders in Louisiana, Short-billed Dowitchers occur here mainly in winter, foraging in very small groups in salt-marshes and mangrove swamps. Only rarely are they found in larger groups during spring and fall migration periods, when lucky birders can even find them inland, especially in the ricefield country of southwestern Louisiana. Eventually, Molly and I counted over 160 fall-migrating Short-billed Dowitchers at the Exxon Fields that afternoon – again, more than either of us had ever counted in a single locale in Louisiana.

So now we had accumulated impressive personal high-counts on Common Nighthawk and Short-billed Dowitcher, and probably Clapper Rail (13) as well, all – as the Kinks would sing – on “a lazy summer day.”
Black Skimmer or "Bec a' Ciseaux" en Francais
(photo by Russ Norwood

The last bird of the day -- one of Molly's all-time favorite species -- was a Black Skimmer, foraging in a tiny salt-marsh pool just off the back deck of her camp.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

wests on da' nest...

Western Kingbird, 2.5mi NW of Breaux Bridge
06 July 2011; note dangling nest pieces, lower left
(photo by Bill Fontenot)

Even though it's always “now,” time sure does fly, y'know?

I've been wanting to post a 'tough plants for tough times' gardening piece; and even though recent rains have temporarily quashed The Big Dry that we've been experiencing here over the past several years, I promise to get around to that one. For now, though, the big nature news down here around Lafayette is Gary Broussard's recent discovery of nesting Western Kingbirds just northwest of Breaux Bridge.

He first observed an adult bird on May 22 at a big pasture/powerline complex at the corner of d'Augereaux Rd. X Saw Mill Hwy (LA 354), and emailed me about it, as we both live in the vicinity. Though interesting, this was no big deal, since Western Kingbirds are pretty much “expected” throughout much of Louisiana, especially during migration periods.

But when he saw it again at the same place around noon on June 05, things began to get interesting. Rare nesters in Louisiana, mostly confined to several pairs annually up in the Shreveport area, where landscape values more closely match those of its more usual Great Plains/western U.S. breeding range, any Western Kingbird seen in our state in the month of June is a potential candidate for breeding/nesting. Any nesting noted anywhere outside of northwestern Louisiana would be big news indeed.

When he saw it again at the same place on July 04, that was enough for me. On the following evening (July 05), I went out there, camera-equipped, with grandson Bernie Robichaux tagging along. A thunderstorm had just passed, and thanx to Bernie's sharp eyes we saw two birds further east on d'Augereaux Road, both perched high on nearby mega-powerlines, yet widely separated. So I didn't get a chance to do any photographing. Thankfully, Gary had succeeded in photographing one bird earlier that day, watching it feed at least one nestling at a nest lodged on a crossbar of a wooden power pole on the road side. He also saw the second bird at that time. Returning at noon that same day, he was able to get a photo that showed one adult and the rubbery yellow/red bill of one nestling poking out of the nest. Now that's an outstanding job of documentation. Good on ya' mate.

05 July 2011; note one nestling's mouth just above the crossbar (lower right)
photo by Gary Broussard

Due to his cavalieresque propensity for finding interesting birds, I used to call Gary a Bird Dog; but over the years I've come to realize that he's much more of a Bird Whisperer. Rare birds simply want to show themselves to him. They throw themselves at his feet, praying that he'll at least glance at them.

Anyway, I finally got decent photos of one adult and the nest at 7:30pm (July 06) as I was heading out to see/hear the fabulous Cathead Biscuit Boys at Cafe' des Amis in Breaux Bridge. Traffic was light at that time, and I could park near the nest, and the sun/light was in my favor.  On the evening of July 09, Bernie, his sister Lauren and I, returned to check on the birds, seeing one adult on the crossbar, the other on the nest.

06 July 2011; one adult at (relative) ease, the other (hidden) on the nest
(photo by Fontenot)

Time ticked and Gary stuck with it, observing a second nestling in the early morning hours of July 12. Finally, around noon on July 14, he snapped this awesome photo of the two nestlings – now fledglings – perched vulnerably-low ([sigh]; as fledglings often do...) on the fence below the nest “with parents looking on nervously.”

Western Kingbird fledglings, 14 July 2011
Free at Last, Free at Last...
(photo by Gary Broussard)

Away from the Shreveport area, there are precious few June records of Western Kingbird – the month in which nesting should be strongly suggested, if not confirmed. On June 20, 1970, New Orleans birder Dan Purrington saw an individual in St. Landry parish, three miles north of Lebeau; and most recently (June 06, 2008) a bird was observed by Lafayette bird biologist Bill Vermillion on West Etienne Road in Vermilion parish, about seven miles north of LA 14 between Abbeville and Kaplan.

As far as we know, though, the only other recorded/confirmed instance of Western Kingbird nesting in south Louisiana came on June 11, 1966, when A. W. Palmisano spied a nest attended by two adults at Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge (coastal Cameron parish). By June 23 he noted one adult still incubating on the nest, but the ultimate fate of this attempt was not resolved.

In Louisiana, the Western Kingbird is classed as a “rare to casual (= “occasional” = not observed/recorded every year)” spring and fall migrant; casual in winter; and an uncommon breeder in the Red River ag lands around Shreveport. Louisiana's first-ever record of Western Kingbird dates back just about as far as our records go: an early-April sighting at Barataria Bay in 1837 by none other than John James Audubon.