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|No. 186||BATON ROUGE, LA||June 1999|
The Mississippi River Delta
April Pelagic Report
Deserving Young Birder
Tern ID article
Tern Figure 1
Tern Figure 2
Audubon State WatchList
The Botanical Birder
Spring Meeting Report
AOU Checklist 7th Ed.
NGS 3rd Edition
Welcome New Members
|The Mississippi River Delta: Hotspot for Winter Birding|
|by Arvind Panjabi|
|The Delta. Terminus of the longest river system in North America and home to hundreds of thousands of wading birds, waterfowl and shorebirds, the Mississippi River delta is one of the largest and most nutrient-rich freshwater estuaries in the lower 48 states. Long known for the large numbers of waterfowl this area supports in winter, much of the region was designated as wildlife habitat in the earlier part of this century by both the federal (Delta National Wildlife Refuge) and state governments (Pass a Loutre Wildlife Management Area). However, despite the recognition and protection this area has received, it remains one of the least explored areas in the country from a natural history perspective. From the infrequent birding trips that have been made here, the region has undoubtedly proven itself to be one of the most ornithologically interesting areas along the northern gulf coast, particularly in regard to passerines. Many Louisiana birders are well aware of the unusual birds that are often reported from this region, especially in winter. Most of the effort by birders is directed toward the many small woodlots within the Venice-Buras area, particularly those surrounding Fort Jackson, which comprise some of the largest and most intact woodlands in the area. Each visit almost invariably produces an unusual record of some state rarity, such as Brown-crested or Ash-throated Flycatcher, or other unexpected wintering birds such as Scissor-tailed and Least Flycatcher, or an array of possible warblers. Yet while the road ends in Venice, the habitat for songbirds does not, and only a few ornithologists have ever surveyed the lower delta region, and never regularly, mainly because it is only accessible by boat. |
When I first agreed to conduct a research project on habitat use by transient land birds during spring stopover at the delta, I knew nothing about the area other than it was situated on the northern gulf coast at the end of the Mississippi River. When I arrived in early February of 1998 with my assistant, John Podewils, we were immediately impressed by the incredible abundance of wintering passerines. Swamp Sparrows flushed from our feet by the dozens wherever we walked. Mornings would echo with a tremendous chorus of wintering and resident birds alike as we attempted to count the droves of warblers, vireos, kinglets, flycatchers, gnatcatchers, catbirds and innumerable other birds that flitted between the trees and shrubs. Nowhere else had I ever seen so many Orange-crowned and Palm Warblers (not to mention Yellow-rumps) packed into such small strips of habitat. The abundance and variety of wintering raptors was equally fascinating. Osprey, Peregrines, Merlins, Kestrels, Krider's Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, and Sharp-shinned Hawks abound at the delta in winter, and Cooper's Hawks breed there in greater numbers than anywhere else I have encountered them.
Perhaps most interesting however, was the frequency with which we encountered bird species which typically winter in the tropics. Over the course of two late-winter/spring field seasons I observed a wide variety of species which are infrequently encountered in Louisiana during the winter. The following are brief accounts of the uncommon wintering birds I encountered in the Mississippi delta region during this time.
On February 2, 1999, my assistant Dan Harrington and I were birding the woodlots across from Fort Jackson, when we heard the unmistakable 'pee-eeeeet' of a Broad-winged Hawk. We were able to approach it closely and obtain very good looks at the bird. It flushed several times but seemed reluctant to leave the immediate area. Unfortunately, we rarely birded this area after mid-February, so I don't know how long this bird remained at this site.
On March 5, 1999, Dan Harrington and I flushed an owl from its roost in a wax myrtle bush on Savage Island, Delta NWR. It flew a short distance and then perched in another wax myrtle, about 20 meters away from us. We got our glasses on it and immediately recognized it as a Long-eared Owl. As Dan ran back to the boat to get his camera, I hurriedly sketched the bird in my field notebook. Fortunately, by the time he got back with the camera the bird had not flown. He was able to get one photograph, but when he tried to get closer to the bird, it flew. On two occasions prior to this date, and about one week after this date, an owl, presumably this same one, was flushed from the wax myrtles in this same area. This bird was most probably present for most of the winter in 1999, and was also possibly present in 1998. During that year an owl, similar in size, shape and color, was repeatedly flushed from these same wax myrtles between mid-February and late March, however we were never able to observe the bird when it was perched, and therefore could never identify it.
Chuck-will's-widow and Whip-poor-will
In 1998, a Chuck-will's-widow was observed on two occasions in willow forest and scrub along Pass a Loutre in early March. Unidentified Caprimulgids were also observed at a few other locations, including downtown Venice and on Delta NWR, in February and March. In 1999, two Chuck-will's-widows were observed repeatedly in scrub/willow habitat near the LDW&F camp on Pass a Loutre WMA, between February 7 and March 5. A smaller, less brown Caprimulgid (presumably a whip-poor-will) was observed a few times in scrub/willows near Loomis Pass on Pass a Loutre WMA between February 10 and 16, 1999.
Although there exist several records for this species from the delta region, I observed this species only once on February 20, 1998, when a group of seven or eight were observed by John Podewils and myself in willow/scrub/roseau cane habitat on the north side of Cubit's Gap, just south of the old refuge headquarters site. We did not encounter this species in 1999.
On February 17, 1998, we first visited Savage Island, a ~15 ha mosaic of scrub, marsh and willows situated in Cubit's Gap on Delta NWR. No sooner had we stepped off the boat when a Myiarchus flycatcher presented itself to us with a swooping flight through the willows ending up on a perch less than 20 feet from us in plain view. I had heard of Ash-throated Flycatchers wintering in Louisiana, but this was no ash-throated. It's larger size and proportionately larger bill immediately suggested Brown-crested. Over the next week we revisited this site several times and frequently detected a Brown-crested flying amongst the scrub, sometimes perching in the taller trees, and vocalizing infrequently. I was fortunate enough to capture and photograph this bird on February 25 so I could reaffirm my initial observation. Indeed, morphological measurements were more in line with Brown-crested, and the diagnostic pattern of rufous in the tail was evident. A few days later, I was able to closely observe an unbanded Brown-crested in the vicinity of where the first bird was captured. Clearly there was more than just one individual wintering on Savage Island in 1998. Then during the last week in March, I observed two Brown-cresteds at two of our other survey sites. One individual was observed in the woodlands along Raphael Pass on March 25, and a presumably different individual was observed on the 28th at the site of the former refuge headquarters, both on Delta NWR. These two sites were located about ¼ mile and 1 ½ mile from Savage Island, respectively, and about 2 miles from each other. No aluminum band was observed on either of these birds. It is possible that these birds were present all winter and eluded detection during at least a half-dozen prior visits to these sites, but this seems rather unlikely since the large size and conspicuous behavior of this flycatcher would render it rather detectable. It is intriguing to consider the possibility that these birds may have been migrants (perhaps coming from even further east?) as these observations were made right around the time the Brown-cresteds departed from Savage Island (last recorded date for Brown-crested on Savage Island was March 24). In 1999, things were different. One Brown-crested Flycatcher was observed by several people in the 'Myiarchus woods' across the highway from Fort Jackson near Buras. I first observed this bird on March 20, probably shortly before its departure. I could not find a single Brown-crested at any time south of Venice, despite an earlier start to our field season. This species may have been absent from the lower delta in 1999, and it seems that its presence and abundance in the delta region varies considerably between years.
In 1998, we observed one individual several times on Goose Island, a wooded spoil bank on Delta NWR, between March 11 and March 24. Even within this time frame, this bird was not always detected during surveys of this site and it is possible that it roamed between several of the nearby wooded and scrubby islands. Whether this bird was present prior to these dates is uncertain. In 1999, an Ash-throated (possibly the same bird?) was again found wintering at this site between February 24 and March 30. Again it was not always detected during surveys, suggesting that this bird may have had a relatively large area in which it roamed.
Of all the unusual wintering birds I observed in the delta, the presence of this species perhaps intrigued me the most. In 1998, at least five individuals were observed at distinct locations on both Delta NWR and Pass a Loutre WMA; however, this is a very conservative estimate. They were detected regularly during surveys, usually by their 'whit' call, at four out of the six scrub sites. Although they were consistently detected at scrub sites, they were most regularly observed perched in the lower parts of taller emergent willows, usually just above the height of the surrounding scrub. They were present from mid-February well into the latter part of April, with the last individual recorded on May 2. One bird was captured, photographed and banded on Savage Island on March 21, 1998. In 1999, the situation was very similar. At least five Least Flycatchers were detected at the same four scrub sites, although there may have been as many as eight individuals all in all. There were probably more birds than we could conservatively count at larger contiguous areas such as Savage Island and on Pass a Loutre, since it was difficult to determine territory size and thereby estimate the number of birds present without color-banding individuals. During surveys, a 'whit' call would often be heard coming from one direction, and then a short time later, coming from a markedly different direction. If these were different birds, they never responded to each other's calls. Therefore I had to assume it was the same bird whose territory covered a relatively large area (>100 meters across). However, on April 6, one individual was captured, banded and photographed at Savage Island, in the same area as the previous year. This bird was molting its rectrices, and only the outer tail feathers were full length, giving the bird a fork-tailed appearance when viewed in the field. The next morning, an unbanded individual with a full tail was observed calling and foraging in almost the exact spot where the one had been captured and banded the previous day. This incident led me to believe that the Least Flycatchers probably held relatively small territories and were probably more abundant than I had suspected. Because this species was detected fairly consistently between years, and given the abundance of scrub habitats in the lower delta, particularly on Pass a Loutre WMA, it is likely that Least Flycatchers are fairly regular and widespread throughout this region in winter.
Black-throated Green Warbler
One of the first unusual wintering birds we encountered in 1998 was a male Black-throated Green Warbler foraging in a small flock with chickadees and Yellow-rumped Warblers in a homogeneous stand of leafless, 30-ft high willows on a crevasse off Brant Pass, Delta NWR. This bird was repeatedly observed at this same location throughout the winter and into mid-April, where it foraged in the upper parts of the trees gleaning prey from the bare twigs, invariably in the company of chickadees and Yellow-rumps. That a ‘foliage-gleaning' insectivore would prefer to subsist through an entire winter obtaining food only from bare twigs, when foliated habitats were available nearby, was rather surprising to me. Of all the unusual wintering passerines we observed, only this bird was found in this type of habitat (even-aged willows with little or no woody undergrowth, frequently flooded). Perhaps the tall continuous canopy provided by the even-aged willows was more important to this bird than the presence of foliage. In 1999, I was again surprised to find a Black-throated Green (most probably the same individual) wintering at this same location, and exhibiting the same flocking and foraging behavior as observed in 1998.
We first observed a male of this species participating in a mixed-species flock in the live oaks surrounding Fort Jackson in mid-February of 1998. On this same visit, we saw a female foraging in Rubus scrub alongside the road that runs between the reservoir and the Mississippi River at the fort. Another male was seen in late February at the former site of the refuge headquarters on Delta NWR, in open scrub and tallow woodlands. A fourth individual, a female, was netted and banded in Baccharis/Wax myrtle scrub on Savage Island in late February. In early February 1999, we again found a male participating in a mixed flock in the live oaks surrounding Fort Jackson, but we did not observe any in the lower delta. This could related to the fact that we netted less frequently and later in 1999 than in 1998.
This species was found wintering in the area during both years, but never down in the lower delta region. One individual was observed regularly in the live oaks around Fort Jackson during February and March 1998, and at least two individuals (possibly three) were present in this area in early February 1999.
A single individual of this species was found participating in a mixed flock of chickadees, kinglets, and warblers in the woods adjacent to Fort Jackson, on January 31, 1999.
A female Wilson's Warbler was observed foraging in Elderberry scrub along Octave Pass on Delta NWR on February 23 1998, but was never detected again on subsequent visits. During the first week of April of that year, a male Wilson's was observed near the LDW&F camp on Pass a Loutre WMA for a period of five consecutive days. Since Wilson's Warbler is a relatively rare spring migrant in Louisiana, and these dates would be unusually early for a migrant Wilson's, it is possible that this bird was also a wintering individual. In 1999, we detected three individuals of this species. One male was observed repeatedly on a wooded spoil bank in the Delta Duck Oilfield on Delta NWR where it mainly kept to foraging in Lantana/Baccharis scrub, but later foraged in the lower and middle parts of willows after they began leafing out. A male and a female were observed repeatedly at a single site near Loomis Pass on Pass a Loutre WMA where they appeared to be holding adjoining territories in Elderberry/Baccharis/Lantana scrub. These birds all seemed to depart by early April.
In mid-February 1998, we found a single Ovenbird wintering at the site of the former refuge headquarters of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service along the main channel of the Mississippi River, just north of Cubit's Gap. Although we censused this site regularly beginning in mid-March, this bird escaped subsequent detection during our surveys, probably because of its secretive nature. An Ovenbird, probably this same individual, was later observed at this same location in late March. In early February 1999, we found two Ovenbirds at this site, one of which was detected within 20 meters of the same location as the one seen in 1998. Two more wintering individuals were found in the lower delta, one in the woodlands on the natural levee along Raphael Pass on Delta NWR, and another in a mix of scrub and willows near Loomis Pass on Pass a Loutre WMA. Two additional individuals were observed in early February in the 'Myiarchus scrub' across from Fort Jackson, for a total of six Ovenbirds observed in the delta region during 1999. All Ovenbirds observed seemed to be closely associated with areas of dense undergrowth.
In 1998, this species was seen or heard with surprising frequency. We detected at least 8 individuals at six different sites prior to mid-March of that year. At some sites these birds were detected regularly during visits, with sometimes two or more individuals occupying the same site, while at others only a single observation occurred. In 1999, this species was detected less frequently, with four single individuals observed repeatedly at four different sites in the lower delta region during February and March. An additional individual was also observed in the 'Myiarchus scrub' across from Fort Jackson in early February.
One individual was observed wintering in mixed scrub and open woodlands at the former site of the refuge headquarters on Delta NWR in 1999. Although we visited this site regularly during February, we did not observe this bird until early March. It was later seen on two occasions, the latest being in mid-March, although the bird probably persisted at the site somewhat later.
This species was found wintering in the region during both years. On February 22, 1998, John Podewils and I found a pair of female-plumaged birds along the edge of the woods adjacent to Fort Jackson. These were the only wintering birds of this species seen this year. In 1999, a female-plumaged bird was found wintering on a wooded spoil bank in the Delta Duck Oil Field on Delta NWR. It was detected during surveys several times between February 25 and March 17.
|This species was not observed in 1998, but at least three female-plumaged birds were present in 1999. One was found in the 'Myiarchus scrub' near Fort Jackson on February 2. Another bird was located in dense scrub near Loomis Pass on Pass a Loutre WMA on February 6th and was seen again on March 25. A third individual was found on February 25, and seen several times thereafter, in the dense understory of Goose Island, a wooded spoil bank on Delta NWR.
After spending two winter/spring seasons working in the lower delta region, there is little doubt in my mind that the Mississippi River delta is one of the most unique areas for wintering birds in the United States, and is probably surpassed only by south Florida in terms of the variety of wintering "neotropical migrant" species that can be encountered there. Although none of these individual species could be considered common in the delta, it is their cumulative presence, and the possibility that just about anything might show up, that makes birding this area such a unique experience. I would strongly recommend to anyone who is interested to visit this out-of-the-way spot. Although the area where I have been working is south of Venice and accessible only by boat, the woodlands along Highway 23, especially around Fort Jackson, are probably the most accessible and productive birding spots for short visits. There are even larger areas of woods and scrub further to the north, such as around Empire and even up toward Belle Chasse, that have probably rarely, if ever been birded, yet appear to be promising habitat for a variety of wintering birds. More coverage by birders will undoubtedly yield further discoveries of unusual birds, and will aid in determining the abundance and regularity with which such species occur in this region.
School of Forestry, Wildlife & Fisheries, LSU, Baton Rouge, LA 70803
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|Pelagic Trip Report: April 1999|
|by John Sevenair|
|The north wind sped us along as we motored south from Port Fourchon. We crossed from brown water to green no more than a few thousand feet offshore. The sun was rising, and a few dolphins jumped nearby. I think most of us were pessimistic. The wind was pleasant near shore, but as we moved away from the shelter of the land the waves would build.
We took a lengthy break to bird near a slow-moving trawler. The fishermen were dumping their by-catch, which attracted a dense cloud of birds. There were Laughing Gulls, and Herring Gulls, and Royal Terns. After that it got more interesting. There were some Brown Pelicans. We had already added Northern Gannet to the LOS Pelagic Trip List. There were some black-backed gulls there, almost lost in the crowd. Steve Cardiff made the call: "Kelp Gull!"
We finally figured out that there were two adults there, one with a single white spot on each outermost primary and one without. They were striking birds, clean and white, with black backs and yellow legs. Some of us called out that there were possible hybrids in the mass of gulls. How did these Kelp Gulls come to be here, off the coast of Louisiana? It's a Southern Hemisphere species without any serious record of long-distance vagrancy. Kelp Gulls have been breeding, and interbreeding with Herring Gulls, on the Chandeleur Islands for a dozen or so years now. Did some migrants from the Antarctic overshoot, to find a new home on the baking summer sands of the Chandeleurs? Did some zoo or oceanarium catch some to go with a penguin exhibit and carelessly let them escape? We may never know.
As we took pictures and speculated, an immature Magnificent Frigatebird floated overhead, as airy and graceful as any bird in the world. At one point it drifted within a few feet of a Northern Gannet. Neither species is extraordinary in Louisiana, I know, but it's certainly unusual to see the two together.
We finally broke off and continued south, hoping to reach blue water and seabird vagrants from distant seas. Whitecaps were everywhere, but as long as we went with the wind things weren't too uncomfortable. Thensomething interesting flew past, or so somebody thought. We turned into the seas, and our boat started plunging. As I stood on deck, waves repeatedly blocked my line of sight to the horizon -- they were at least eight feet high. Breakfasts were deposited over the side, as chum. Our fearless (but sensible) leaders realized that we weren't going to accomplish anything under these conditions, so we turned back.
Another trawler stop on the way back produced no rarities, but some Blacktip Sharks and Bottlenose Dolphins did visit our chum line. A short chase among gulls resting not far from shore produced what looked like a Lesser Black-backed Gull. The waterway leading back toward Port Fourchon hosted a heron rookery that included Roseate Spoonbills on their nests. We got back to land about three hours early. On Grand Isle, migrants turned the lane leading back to the Santiny place into a tropical paradise -- Blue and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Indigo and Painted Buntings, Summer and Scarlet Tanagers. But I suppose that's another story....
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|Deserving Young Birder Sought|
|An anonymous donor has reserved a space on the July 17 LOS pelagic trip for a "deserving young birder." Please send nominations as soon as possible privately to Donna L. Dittmann at: firstname.lastname@example.org. The definition of "deserving young birder" is rather vague, but would include any avid birder up to undergraduate and graduate level college students. Prior to submitting names, please confirm with your nominee that he or she is actually available on 7/17 and interested in going on a day-long ocean cruise.|
|Table of Contents|
Join LOS ||
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LA Birdline || Local Contacts || Online Birding Resources ||  Featured HotSpot