March 10, 2021
Two weeks ago, Jacqueline and I took a road trip to New Orleans, and of course, birding was one of the major objectives. Of the three major stops on our way down there (Chattanooga, Birmingham, and Tuscaloosa), I only had one notable bird encounter -- two or three Eastern Towhees calling in the empty lots adjacent to Rickwood Field in Birmingham. At the rest stops along I-59 in Alabama and Mississippi, we saw plenty of American Robins, along with some probable Cedar Waxwings and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Just after 3:00 PM on Monday February 22, we crossed into Louisiana. I tried to find one of the birding hot spots listed in my Reader's Digest book Where the Birds Are (2007), Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), but soon decided it was too difficult to reach. About 20 minutes later we arrived at the second such hot spot that I had prioritized in that book...
Big Branch Marsh NWR is located on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, about 25 miles north-northeast of downtown New Orleans. After locating the Boy Scout trail head located in a stand of tall pine trees, Jacqueline and I went for a walk along the boardwalk. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are known to nest in that area, and I found a nest hole surrounded by oozing pine sap, matching the description of that species' nest hole. I didn't have much time to search, but things soon got interesting, as I saw multiple Brown-headed Nuthatches and Pine Warblers in the tree tops. Up ahead on the boardwalk, Jacqueline then called out that a pink bird was in the water: indeed, it was a Roseate Spoonbill! After that we saw Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Little Blue Herons, and Snowy Egrets. It was almost too dazzling to behold, a lot like some of the places I had visited in Florida four years earlier. On our way out of Big Branch Marsh, we saw several Orange-crowned Warblers in the bushes -- my first definite sighting of that species -- as well as Yellow-rumped Warblers. One photo I took which I thought was an Orange-crowned Warbler (on the right in the montage below) is probably a Common Yellowthroat, based on the pink legs and a hint of a "face mask." In any event, it was quite a spectacular start to our adventure in Louisiana!
The next day was devoted to exploring New Orleans, but we came across a surprising number of interesting birds in various neighborhoods. While having breakfast at Cafe Du Monde I heard and then saw a Yellow-rumped Warbler very close by. They are quite abundant in Louisiana during the winter, I found. While walking along the Mississippi River late in the morning, Jacqueline and I saw several Brown Pelicans fly past, just a few feet above the water. High above, a flock of American White Pelicans (40+) passed by in tight formation. The former are year-round residents, and the latter winter along the Gulf coast before returning to their breeding grounds on lakes across the northern plains. There's a good reason that Louisiana is called "The Pelican State"! To my surprise, there were several dozen Lesser Scaup on the river, as well as a few Double-crested Cormorants. In the afternoon, we took the St. Charles Avenue streetcar about four miles west to Audubon Park, across from Tulane and Loyola Universities. There we saw a Great Egret, a White Ibis, a pair of Northern Shovelers, and many Yellow-rumped Warblers, American Robins, etc., etc.
The plan on Wednesday was to explore the swampy bayou country that surrounds New Orleans, but unfortunately the skies had turned cloudy, and the birds seemed correspondingly less abundant. In the morning we headed southwest from New Orleans to the Barataria Preserve at the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park. It was true "bayou" country, with almost all the houses raised 5' - 10' feet above the ground to guard against flooding from hurricanes. Eventually we found the trail head, behind some local school buildings. There is a one-mile boardwalk (similar to Augusta Springs) that provides an excellent view of swamp ecology, and we saw lots of huge yellow snails, turtles, lizards ("Green Anoles"), and three alligators! Yellow-rumped Warblers were all around, once again, but not until the end did we see other species. Those included Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Eastern Phoebes, Swamp Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds, Pileated Woodpeckers, as well as a Great Egret and a Little Blue Heron.
Later we drove back through the city toward the northeast, and after a few odd turns found the Bayou Sauvage NWR, about 15 miles to the northeast. I had high hopes, but almost all of the birds were what we had seen before: Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Great Egret, a Little Blue Heron, and many Red-winged Blackbirds and American Robins. The one notable novelty there was a Caspian Tern hunting over a bayou. I originally thought it was a Common Tern, and then a Forster's Tern, but the thick reddish bill is indicative.
In the late afternoon we headed east into Mississippi, where we saw the Gulf of Mexico for the first time. There were many Brown Pelicans, Laughing Gulls, and other gulls I could not identify on the beaches and fishing piers as the sun sank in the west. For the rest of our drive back to Virginia (via Montgomery, Atlanta, and Spartanburg, SC) we really didn't stop for long enough to look for birds. At the Virginia welcome center along I-77 on Friday morning we saw a number of Common Grackles and American Robins, but not much else.
Many of the birds in the above montages, and even more, can be seen in separate photographs on the Wild Birds chronological (2021) page. It is intended to better accommodate the larger standard-sized bird photos -- 600 x 450 pixels, rather than 480 x 360 pixels, which used to be my standard size for bird photos. The increase in size reflects the improved power and quality of the new Canon PowerShot SX70 camera that I recently bought to replace the SX50 model of the same line that I had used for eight years. For the first three weeks of February, I hardly did any birding at all, since the old camera ceased to function on January 31. I hope the new camera is as durable as the old one was. So far I am very satisfied with the quality of the new camera, but there are still some things I need to learn about it.