How could you not be hooked?” That moment of truth came to avid bird-watcher Joelle Finley in the Bonnet Carré Spillway back in the 1970s on her first serious outing with the Crescent Bird Club. “Someone said ‘look up in the tree – it’s a Rose Breasted Gros-beak!’ and that was it for me,” she says.
Bird-watcher Joelle Finley
New Orleans is a bird-watcher’s paradise with both locals and tourists engaged in this increasingly popular hobby. Besides its welcoming habitats for both water and land birds, the city is conveniently located on the Mississippi Flyway, a major migration route for huge flocks moving seasonally North and South.
“Birding is the easiest way to get in contact with nature,” Finley says. “You never stop birding. Anything that flies by always catches your eye.” Birders drive, hike and boat to get to the best vantage points to view their subjects but, as Finley herself does, birders can watch in their own backyards. “I will have humming bird feeders, I plant my yard for hummingbirds and butterflies,” she says.
The Crescent Bird Club, formed in the late 1960s, still schedules local birding trips and Finley has indulged herself with birding abroad, recently returning from a trip up the Amazon with binoculars and camera in tow.
An early serious birder in Louisiana was John James Audubon, who hunted, observed and painted many species for his “Birds of America” series in the state. For a comprehensive overview of the topic, Louisiana birders have long relied on George H. Lowrey, Jr.’s Louisiana Birds, first published in 1955. A new work is currently being prepared by three ornithologists affiliated with Louisiana State University: James Van Remson, Donna Dittman Broussard and Steve Cardiff. A feature of the Lowrey book were the graphs showing occurrences of individual species in the state, and these are slated to be updated. “The graphs are what is taking the time,” Finley explains about the long wait for the new volume.
There are some 461 species of birds that have been seen in Louisiana – this would include birds living here full time, birds that migrate through the state and birds that might just happen to be here, perhaps blown off their usual traveling route by a storm.
One of the pleasures of birding is keeping a count of species you have seen. In fact, the American Birding Association issues a list report where birders can give their personal statistics. Curtis Sorrells of Jefferson Parish noted this year that he has personally seen 412 out of a possible 461 Louisiana birds.
In 2004, David Muth, chief of Resource Management for the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, took part in a contest to record the largest number of species sightings in Orleans Parish. Muth himself is one of about 10 people who can claim to have seen over 400 of the Louisiana species. In the Orleans Parish contest, “I ended up with 283 species, I think Phillip Wallace had 279. Our combined list was 289,” Muth notes. “The best bird we had was a Red-necked Grebe on Lake Pontchartrain out at Little Woods. Second best was a MacGillivray’s Warbler – a first record for Orleans Parish but it has been seen elsewhere in the state.”
Louisiana birding opportunities come with the seasons and those migrations passing the state can cover long distances. It was John James Audubon himself who realized that birds were migrating across the Gulf of Mexico. After, or before, such a long flight, the birds will stop to rest. And, they can be buffeted by winds as weather fronts pass and force them to take shelter. “You will see fall migrants from mid-July to the beginning of December,” Muth says. “In the fall you see the largest number of birds. You will definitely see better plumage in the spring. Then, they come through in a shorter period so you tend to see more birds on a given day.”
Hawks migrate through both fall and spring. “Occasionally, when the weather is right at Cameron you can see broad winged hawks in spectacular numbers, 20,000 or 30,000 when a front pushes through in late October,” Muth says.
At the end of every year the National Audubon Society holds a “Christmas Bird Count.” Teams of birders pick a geographic area and within that circle, take one day to count birds. The results give an idea of the health of the bird population and give an idea of what species are losing numbers.
The best-known extinct bird in this part of Louisiana is the Ivory Billed Woodpecker (although there’s a reported hearing of the call of one in the Pearl River Swamp in recent years). Another species once nearing extinction is the Whooping Crane – the two best-known cranes locally were Crip and Josephine, onetime residents of the Audubon Zoo.
According to David Muth, “Whooping Cranes are doing quite well.” There is a captive flock in Florida and a wild migrating flock. In Louisiana, there was once a non-migrating population of the cranes at White Lake in southwestern Louisiana. That was the original home of Crip and Josephine. Today, Muth says, “There’s actually a movement to re-introduce them into Louisiana, to create a wild flock.” This flock would also be non-migrating.
Hurricane Katrina not only lowered New Orleans’ human population, familiar backyard birds lost two-thirds of their numbers in the flooded areas. Dr. Peter Yauckey, geographer at the University of New Orleans, has been keeping a census of birds in Lakeview and Gentilly since the 1990s.
As Yaukey explains, “I undertook a project to figure out what habitats migratory birds use but I also collected data on common resident backyard birds. So, I had this data on house sparrows and starlings, mockingbirds and cardinals and so on. Most people don’t actively count those species.” After the storm, in October of 2005, he counted again. Two-thirds of his birds were gone (as were two-thirds of the squirrels).
Since then, Yaukey has continued in his original area and has begun counting in eastern New Orleans and the 9th Ward. Numbers are still low and there have been changes in various species.
“Starlings and Mourning Doves are the two species showing clearest evidence of recovery. Cardinals are doing very poorly. Mockingbirds are doing a little better; so are Bluejays,” Yaukey explains. Other changes include more brushy and overgrown areas where there used to be houses (which means more suitable bird habitat) and a decline in the number of house cats (less predation on Mockingbird nests).
In addition, Yaukey is involved in a study of changes in birds since Katrina along the coast from East Texas through Mississippi. Birders Dan Purrington and Tom Sherry from Tulane University, along with Chris Brantley and Martin Guidry are participating. “There was a pretty strong signature on resident land birds all along the Gulf Coast in the winter immediately following the storms, with lots of birds whose counts were toward the bottom of the previous records,” Yaukey says.
Birds are persistent. Hurricanes may change the landscape, and storms may decrease their numbers but New Orleans’ birds, like its people, are determined to find a way home.
The Louisiana Ornithological Society Web site, www.losbird.org, can connect you to more birding information.