|No. 191||BATON ROUGE, LA||June 2000|
A look Back: 1999 Yard List
Birding the Batture
Favorite LA Birding Sites
The Botanical Birder
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LOS NEWS: Page   
|Birding the Batture|
|by Darren Clark|
Shortly after arriving in Louisiana in 1996 to pursue a graduate degree in photography from LSU, I set out to explore my surroundings. I quickly became frustrated as I drove down River Road and couldn't see the Mississippi River because of the extensive levee system. I found a few access points to the river just south of Baton Rouge and walked over the levee and into a strange world of flooded, silt-laden, partially-cleared woods, and fields. I knew I would be spending a lot of time in this landscape making photographs, and as I spent a little time walking the area I came to realize the potential it had for birding.
This account deals primarily with one particular location along the Mississippi River just south of Baton Rouge known as Duncan Point. Duncan Point consists of several acres of open fields and pits dug for removal of river silt, a small willow-lined drainage ditch, a fairly extensive wooded area, and the Mississippi River itself. Similar situations exist in a number of places within the batture and this account could just as easily refer to any of these places. The batture is defined as the inward-facing slope between the crest of the levee and the river. This linear landscape is subjected to annual flooding, and therefore extensive sediment deposition. This annual cycle of flooding and receding and sediment deposition creates a place that is in a state of constant flux, and the bird life responds accordingly.
Usually, although this year (2000) is an exception, during early spring (March and April) the batture is under water, and birding is often limited to viewing the batture from the levee with a scope. Osprey, Bald Eagles, Double-crested Cormorants, Ring-billed Gulls, Bonaparte's Gulls, Egrets and Herons, and various Swallows, are among the expected birds in early spring. If the water doesn't get too high there is a great opportunity to view Sparrows and other grassland birds utilizing what little habitat is available. I have seen birds that are usually unapproachable such as Soras, Grasshopper Sparrows, and LeConte's Sparrows sitting in the open and giving great looks because there is really no other place for them to go.
In late April and early May, when the waters begin to recede, some good Shorebird habitat is often created, although Fall seems to be better for shorebirds in the Baton Rouge area. Some of the shorebird species I've seen in spring include Semipalmated Plover, Solitary Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Least, Western, and White-rumped Sandpiper.
Passerine Migration is less dramatic and mostly consists of returning summer residents, although an occasional Rose-breasted Grosbeak or Blue-winged Warbler makes an appearance. Some of the more expected "songbirds" include Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Eastern Wood-Peewee, Eastern Kingbird, Red-eyed and White-eyed Vireo, Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Summer Tanager, Indigo Bunting, Painted Bunting, Dickcissel, Blue Grosbeak, Orchard and Baltimore Oriole. Some of the more unusual bird sightings from the batture in spring include Wild Turkey, Laughing Gull, and Black- bellied Whistling Duck.
In late July and early August, the concentration of water birds at the batture can be quite impressive to say the least. As the flood waters of spring subside, large pits that have been dug for various purposes trap the water and its associated aquatic life. This concentration of food is irresistible to several species of waders. Great Egret is probably the most abundant bird species. When conditions are right, it's not unexpected to see 500 birds. White Ibis, Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Little Blue Herons, Green Herons, both Night Herons, and Tri-colored Herons also occur, sometimes in surprising numbers. Joining this regular mix of waders are Roseate Spoonbills and Wood Storks. Both seem to show up in mid to late July. Stork numbers peak in mid September. In 1999, I counted a peak of 82, and in 1998 there were 150 birds. Roseate Spoonbills occur in far fewer numbers, the highest one day count being eight birds.
Another feature of the receding flood waters is the creation of mud flats. Quite a few species of shorebirds stop to feed on their migration south. The following species are common to abundant fall migrants in the batture: Semipalmated Plover, Black-necked Stilt, both Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Common Snipe. The following species are uncommon to rare: Black-bellied Plover, American Avocet, Short-billed Dowitcher, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Baird's Sandpiper, Dunlin, Stilt Sandpiper, and Buff-breasted Sandpiper.
While spring is somewhat slow for passerine migration, the numbers pick up in fall. In late July and August passerine migration begins with the passage of Yellow Warblers, and Empidonax Flycatchers. At times Empidonax Flycatchers can be quite abundant, a humbling and challenging experience, indeed. By September, the mix of birds is quite diverse, with good numbers of migrant Vireos, Warblers, Tanagers, Orioles, and Buntings mixed in with the summer and permanent residents. One late September day stands out in particular. It was during a break in a Tropical Storm, and the Willows and Cottonwoods were suddenly full of birds. I was able to count fifteen species of Warblers in less than 30 minutes, before being chased out by the rain. Aside from the weather and insects, September birding in the batture can be quite rewarding.
In mid-to-late October, Flycatcher and Warbler numbers drop off a bit, and the numbers of Buntings and Grosbeaks are sometimes overwhelming. One day counts of 500 Indigo Buntings, 50 Painted Buntings, 50 Blue Grosbeaks, and 20 Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are regular fall numbers. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers usually make an appearance in mid-to-late October as well. I thought it a bit unusual the first time I encountered these birds in the Baton Rouge area, but every October since I've been in Louisiana I've seen them along this stretch of River Road and in the batture itself.
Aside from the birds mentioned, some of the more unusual fall birds I've recorded at Duncan Point include Magnificent Frigatebird (following Hurricane Georges), Least Tern, Black Tern, Western Kingbird, Lark Sparrow, and Clay-colored Sparrow.
It's hard to know exactly when Fall ends and when Winter begins. In late October, the ponds dry up, the wading bird numbers thin out, and Red-tailed Hawks and Harriers patrol the fields, and the little brown birds that flush from the grass are no longer Indigo Buntings, but rather Field, Swamp, Savannah, and Lincoln's Sparrows. It becomes quite apparent that the bird life has made a major shift.
I think Winter is my favorite season for birding in the batture. Obviously the weather, and relative lack of biting insects has something to do with it, but there is something to be said about the slow pace of winter birding. The birds aren't in a hurry to move on as they are in migration. As a birder, I also don't feel the pressure to get out every available minute to see all of the birds before they move on, as I do in Spring. There are also not many better places I'd imagine, to become familiar with the winter sparrows of Louisiana.
As I've alluded to earlier, because of the changes Duncan Point undergoes, there is quite a large mix of habitats crammed into this relatively small space. Several species of birds use these different habitats, sometimes at incredible densities. Because of the silt operations at Duncan Point the batture woods are often cleared out, creating an extensive edge habitat. The forest edge is occupied by Eastern Phoebes, Winter Wrens, Song, White-throated, Lincoln's, Chipping, and the occasional Fox Sparrow. The thick growth of Ragweed, and other assorted tall plants and grasses provide food and cover for Palm Warblers, Eastern Towhees, Vesper, Field, White-crowned, and Swamp Sparrows. Because of the flooding and sediment deposition, there are extensive open areas with dense, short, fine grass. These areas are good for Sedge and Marsh Wrens, Soras, Savannah, LeConte's, and Grasshopper Sparrows.
There are also quite a few Raptor species that are part of the winter bird landscape of the batture. Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers patrol the open fields, while Cooper's, Sharp-shinned, and Red-shouldered Hawks hunt the forest edge and interior. The Mississippi River, and the flooded pits, which hold trapped fish are the source of food for Bald Eagles and Osprey. Other birds that use the river and flooded pits include American White Pelican, Double-crested Cormorants, Great Blue Heron, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Wood Duck, and Ring-billed Gulls.
Some of the more unexpected winter birds I've seen at Duncan Point include American Bittern, Common Ground Dove, Nashville Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Lark Sparrow, and Henslow's Sparrow.
I will be moving from Louisiana in August to take a teaching position in Idaho. Although this is a great opportunity for us to be closer to family, and to be in a place that feels like home, I will miss Louisiana a great deal. The people I've met, the food I've eaten, the birds I've seen, and the places I've photographed have all been great. I think though, what I will miss most of all are the days spent birding Duncan Point, fighting the miserable heat, the biting insects, and the mud of the Mississippi River batture, and being rewarded by a Bittern springing from my feet, or a Blackburnian Warbler in the Willows, or 300 White Pelicans soaring overhead, or rounding a bend to discover a stinking pond full of dying fish and Roseate Spoonbills and Wood Storks and countless Great Egrets, or that September afternoon when a flock of hundreds of migrating Eastern Kingbirds flew low overhead.
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|New LOS News Feature -- Favorite Louisiana Birding Sites|
|Darren Clark's great narrative about birding at Duncan Point initiates what I hope will become a regular feature of LOS News. I would like to have members send in descriptions of their favorite Louisiana birding spots to share with the readers of the News. Darren gave us a seasonal synopsis of his experiences in the Mississippi River batture that was really fun to read. However, I don't plan to have any tight editorial theme for this feature ... I hope members will treat their favorite birding location in any style that inspires them to contribute. If one of you has a location to share with us, or one great experience at a Louisiana bird spot to describe, I hope you will get to the keyboard and put it on record. Please send your submissions to me for inclusion in the news. I encourage line drawings, original maps or high contrast photos (for black and white reproduction) along with submissions. Please do not send in copyrighted material, though. My email and snail mail address is included with the list of officers in this issue. May the muses strike each of you to send an article. Good birding! ---- Carol Foil|
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|by Bill Fontenot|
One of the most common and easily recognized native Louisiana plants, Virginia creeper also possesses one of the most wonderful scientific names in the biz: Parthenocissus quinquefolia, a Greek moniker which translates to "five-leaved virgin ivy." Virginia creeper is a semi-woody vine belonging to the grape family (Vitaceae), a large group of temperate and tropical plants containing at least 20 genera and over 600 species. The genus Parthenocissus itself contains but 10 species (native mostly to North America and eastern Asia), three of which occur in the United States. Here in Louisiana, P. quinquefolia is the only representative of the genus; but it occurs in literally every nook and cranny of the state. It also occurs throughout most of the U.S. and much of Canada, as well as Cuba, the Bahamas, and several Mexican states.
Of the U.S. species of Parthenocissus, Virginia creeper is somewhat unusual in that it often possesses adhesive pads or discs at the ends of its tendrils; thus, it is capable of climbing a concrete freeway stanchion as easily as it would a tree. Here in Louisiana, Virginia creeper shows an exceedingly vigorous growth habit, often climbing to the tops of mature canopy trees, and then doubling back down the other side just for good measure. It also commonly snakes beneath leaf litter to form a groundcover which can encompass acres of land - particularly within the moisture-retentive soils of bottomland hardwood areas.
Virginia creeper's signature 5-foliate, heavily-toothed, palmately-compound leaves render it one of the most easily identifiable of our native vines. Even still, a substantial percentage of people routinely misidentify it as poison ivy (which possesses 3-foliate compound leaves). Like its other grape family relatives, Virginia creeper is a good fruit-producer, throwing off copious panicles of small (0.05-0.3"), grape-like fruits each autumn. Resembling blueberries in size, shape, and color, and fixed on bright red pedicels (fruit stalks), the fruit clusters make a handsome presentation.
It is the quality and quantity of a plant's fruit-production, of course, that interests both birds and bird-o-philes; and in this regard, Virginia creeper is at the top of its class. Few, if any, other temperate region plants can match the combination of nutritional value, sheer numbers, and duration of presentation of its fruits. Regarding nutritional value alone, a 1985 paper published in the journal Ecology (Vol. 66(3); Johnson, Willson, Thompson, & Bertin), reported Parthenocissus quinquefolia fruits to contain a mean lipid content of 25.66%. Compare this value to that of two other temperate species known for the huge quantities and long duration of presentation of their fruits - elderberry (2.8%) and hackberry (0.36%) - and you get the picture. In fact, the only other temperate plant species which, in my opinion, could hold a candle to Virginia creeper is southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora); and it should be remembered that this tree is not nearly so densely and widely distributed as is Virginia creeper.
So what's the big deal about lipid content? It's all about the quality of fuel. Considering, for example, the long hours of non-stop flight needed for a migratory bird to successfully complete a trans-gulf trek, lipid calories burn slowly - like a hickory log on a fire - while carbohydrate calories burn many times faster, implying potential energy deficits on a unit-energy-per-unit-mass-consumed basis.
Three large water hickories (Carya aquatica; aka "bitter pecan") stand around the north deck of the nature center where I work here in Lafayette, LA. One of these trees, a 65-footer, is completely entwined with an especially heavy-fruiting specimen of Virginia creeper. Each fall, the nature center staff and its birding visitors witness amazing episodes of bird frugivory on this particular vine. Beginning at the end of August, and continuing through early November, the daily parade of both local and fall-migrating birds which utilize the fruits of the vine is indeed remarkable. Though I've yet to collect any quantitative data regarding this phenomenon, my loosely-kept list of avian visitors includes Red-bellied Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, American Crow, Fish Crow, Wood Thrush, Veery, Swainson's Thrush, Hermit Thrush, American Robin, Gray Catbird, N. Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, E. Starling, White-eyed Vireo, Philadelphia Vireo, N. Cardinal, Common Grackle, Scarlet Tanager, and Summer Tanager! On certain days, especially within the month of October, the number of birds/species attempting to simultaneously utilize that particular vine result in prolonged, chaotic "traffic jams," with birds often colliding with one another as they entered and exited the site.
On our Louisiana avian frugivory survey report (Journal of La. Ornith. 1999), I mentioned, "Observations on a single plant of this species [P. quinquefolia] at the Acadiana Park Nature Trail between 3-10 October 1994. . . revealed usage by 15 species of birds - quite comparable to subject plants noted in tropical frugivorous species-rich assemblage studies. . . and much exceeding a temperate species-rich assemblage investigation . . . conducted in upstate New York [on not one, but a whole colony of arrowwood viburnum]." By the way, in our Louisiana bird frugivory survey, Virginia creeper tied with poison ivy as the fruit species which hosted the widest variety of bird species (22) during the survey period (January 1994-January 1999). Verdict: Virginia creeper is a superior "bird plant."
As is the case with poison ivy, "bird gardeners" who live on smaller properties should probably refrain from actually planting Virginia creeper in prepared beds, for this vine typically develops massive sub-surface root/root sprout networks. On the other hand, it would be wise to conserve any plants found growing up trees, fences, and other vertical structures away from prepared beds. Should any of you decide that you want as much Virginia creeper around your place as possible, don't worry about tracking it down at a nursery. You'll find that throughout most of Virginia creeper's natural range, it will most likely find its own way into your garden, be it located in urban, suburban, or rural areas. The birds that visit your yard will see to it! Thus, Virginia creeper husbandry becomes more a matter of pulling it up where you don't want it, and leaving it where you do.
Like poison ivy and muscadine grape, Virginia creeper foliage has a propensity to "color up" (most often, coral-pink to ruby-red) early in the fall season, providing a nice aesthetic touch within the areas in which it grows. Somewhere I remember a nature-writer opining that native fall-fruiting vines tend to color up early compared with most of the native trees with which they grow, producing a system of "colored flags" atop the trees to alert migrating birds of the presence of fruit. Neat, huh?
Very Neat, Bill! And Welcome Back to the Botanical Birder! – Carol Foil
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