12 November 2017

Ragin' with the Cajuns

Happy November!

I've just recently returned from two back-to-back tours we ran in Louisiana.  I was helping Dan Lane, who lives in Baton Rouge, run these tours that he created several years ago.  The title of the tour, Yellow Rails and Crawfish Tails, gives a big hint about the focus on the tour!  Yes, one of the main objectives is to actually see YELLOW RAIL.... a tiny and secretive species that most people haven't seen.  And yes, there's plenty of Cajun seafood too if that's your thing.

This tour is actually quite short, one of the shortest I can think of that we run.  In fact, we get to stay in the same hotel for each of the nights which is a nice perk (instead of having to pack luggage up every day).  We meet for dinner on Day 1 and then Day 2, 3, and 4 are birding days.  We depart on Day 5.  So really, there's only 3 full days of birding involved!  However, for birding only 3 days, this tour really packs a punch in terms of specialties and number of species we find.  Enjoy.


This day we drive north a couple of hours from Lafayette to the pines of Kisatchie National Forest (the only national forest in Louisiana).  The pines here, which are mostly Longleaf Pine and Loblolly Pine, are actually quite nice and rather scenic if you stand back and look at the landscape:
One of our main targets there, which we had great luck with this year, is the RED-COCKADED WOODPECKER:
This is a pretty rare woodpecker overall and they've gone through serious declines in the last century due to fire suppression and over-cutting of pines.  Sadly, the total population might be fewer than 10,000 now.  Thankfully, both of our groups had good looks of these right off the bat!

Another species in the same habitat is the BROWN-HEADED NUTHATCH:
This is another southeastern specialty but one that's fairly common and certainly not endangered like the previous species!

Another main target in this habitat is the BACHMAN'S SPARROW.  Although they're fairly easy to see in the spring/summer when they're singing and defending territories, they become sneaky little buggers in the offseason.  I was shocked at how hard we had to work to get a glimpse but, in the end, we got everyone on one!  Whew.  Getting a nice photo of one?  Well, THAT was a challenge!

We came across a lot of other fun things during this day of birding like PILEATED WOODPECKER, YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER, PINE WARBLER, WINTER WREN, and even some daytime BARRED OWLS:
Although I'm probably a bit biased towards the fauna, the flora there is fascinating too!  Interspersed in the pine forests are some bogs that host a wealth of interesting plants like this carnivorous pitcher plant:


Another day of birding is spent heading west and then south to Cameron Parish (remember, they don't have counties in Louisiana... they're parishes instead).  This coastal parish is the birdiest parish in the state and a couple of visits shows why.

One of our first stops on this day is at Sabine National Wildlife Refuge.  Marsh birds abound and we encountered species like MARSH WREN, SWAMP SPARROW, NORTHERN HARRIER, NEOTROPIC CORMORANT, a variety of herons, and we even heard a LEAST BITTERN or two.  Keep an eye out overhead too; we had a late SWAINSON'S HAWK and this gorgeous flash of pink... a ROSEATE SPOONBILL:
It was here that I saw my only lifer of the trip... and it wasn't a bird.  It was this chunky cottontail called a SWAMP RABBIT:
Who knew?  A huge cottontail that is an excellent swimmer....

We also spent time in Holly Beach where we saw a variety of shorebirds along the Gulf Coast like PIPING, SEMIPALMATED, and BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS.  WILLETS, LONG-BILLED CURLEWS, MARBLED GODWITS, and RUDDY TURNSTONES were also around.  SANDERLINGS scampered along the sand beaches and AMERICAN AVOCETS joined the roosting tern flocks.  Overhead, we saw a variety of raptors including RED-TAILED HAWK, BROAD-WINGED HAWK, and even the super-cool CRESTED CARACARA:
East Jetty Beach, besides being a great place for a picnic lunch, is also a well-known birding hotspot.  The beach there was hosting a flock of several thousand BLACK SKIMMERS that swirled around in unison much to the delight of the birders:
We had some good spots near there for CLAPPER RAIL and some target sparrows too.  Many of our folks were especially eager to see NELSON'S SPARROWS and I'm happy to report that we got awesome looks both times!
There were many other highlights along the way including WHITE-TAILED KITES overhead, SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHERS perched on power lines, a GREEN HERON that sat quietly in the shadows, and a BRONZED COWBIRD foraging on a roadside:
We ended this day of birding by visiting Fruge Road.  What's on Fruge Road?  Well, a continuing pair of (somewhat lost) WHITE-TAILED HAWKS!  No, not White-tailed Kites... but hawks.  This species, which I had only seen in Texas, had been recently reported from this road.  What a perfect bonus... we swung through and saw these birds with our groups.  This area also proved to be good for SANDHILL CRANES and a flyover SPRAGUE'S PIPIT or two.

As luck would have it, there was another rarity just around the corner.  Just a day or two before we arrived, a COUCH'S KINGBIRD was found.  Sweet!  This was another species that I had only seen in Texas before.  We swung through this spot on both tours and found the bird both times.  Here's a picture from both encounters and, yes, it's essentially the same power line!


Our third option is, of course, the day when we target the rails (probably the main reason most join us on this tour).  We start the day by birding some of the roadside hedges looking for migrants and/or vagrants.  For example, one of the tours stirred up a singing WESTERN MEADOWLARK, a distant SAY'S PHOEBE, and this PRAIRIE WARBLER, a rare and quality find!
We spent some time birding the flooded fields in rice country as well which gave us a chance to study the multitude of geese including GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE, SNOW GEESE, and ROSS'S GEESE.  Here's all three species in this photo (although I was focusing on the tiny Ross's Goose in front and the larger Snow Goose in the background):
Do you see the differences?  The front Ross's has a tiny, triangular bill whereas the back Snow has a larger bill with a curved inner edge to it.  The overall difference in size of the birds is also readily apparent.

Another highlight in rice country came when we found a LECONTE'S SPARROW in one of the grassy fields.  This was another main target of folks so we were super stoked to be able to find one and to actually see it:
The key to this tour is joining up with the Rails and Rice Festival.  The organizers have brokered a relationship with some of the rice farmers which has turned into a really cool thing.  You see, the way to see these rails is to be in the fields as the combine slowly churns its way through, collecting the rice as it goes.  Here's the view of a combine harvesting:
The rails will flush, albeit reluctantly, from in front of the combine while the birders on the sidelines hopefully catch a glimpse of them as they fly off.  The combine driver is pretty sharp too; when he sees a Yellow Rail flush in front of him, he'll honk the horn to alert the birders.

When the combine is full of rice, it will pull up next to an open-topped semi, swing the unloading auger out, and unload:
At this festival, participants can even get to ride ON the rice combine which is a special treat.  I did so for quite a while and it was actually a lot of fun!  Oh, and yes, we all got to see YELLOW RAILS!  Here's a photo of one in flight:
On one of our days at the festival, there was a crew of researchers there to actually catch the rails.  They set up nets and, as the rice combine slowly worked its way towards the nets, we all watched as a whole variety of rails flushed right into their nets!  The researchers would hurry out, gather the bird out of the net, measure, band, and release them back into the fields.  In the process, we all got stupendous looks of these secretive species while the researchers were doing their thing.  For example, I had certainly never seen a KING RAIL, a master of skulk, this well before!
They caught several SORAS as well.  This little species of rail is one of our most widespread in North America:
And then there was one of the main stars of the show, the secretive YELLOW RAIL itself:
I can't emphasize enough how cool it was to see this species up close like this.  First of all, most birders have never seen a Yellow Rail.  Secondly, even the birders that have seen a Yellow Rail have almost certainly never seen one like this!

All in all, it was a fantastic time getting to see these rails as well as the other specialties in Louisiana.  It's a quick tour but a lot of fun!  Anyway, I'll end this post the same way as we ended our day of birding... sunset in rice country: