When I moved to Louisiana, I didn’t realize that the Gulf Coast was such a central region for bird migration. The first time I went bird watching in New Orleans, I went to Couturie Forest—the arboretum along Harrison Avenue in City Park—on a “Birding Walk” in late April, when Spring Migration is in full effect. I didn’t know much about bird migration at the time. I knew it was a week after my 30th birthday and I was depressed and on a self-improvement kick when I stumbled upon an advertisement for the walk. I bought a $10 pair of binoculars from an army surplus store and showed up at 8 a.m. to the designated meeting place.
I was expecting to see birds I was familiar with, like Cardinals and Chickadees; and I did. I mean, they were there, but that’s not what the tour was about. The migratory birds singing and flitting about with them made the woods as colorful as a 98-count box of crayons. Also conspicuous along Couturie was a flock of birders, all recognizable by a pair of binoculars. About two or three weeks later, I returned to those same woods and wandered around the paths for hours without seeing any of the bright birds I had seen before. But even more strange was that there were no birders either.
It took a few more years of meeting people who could walk me through bird watching to understand where, when, and how to see birds as they travel through Louisiana. Below is much of what I learned from them. Consider this an abridged primer to excite existing or potential birders to get out and see these feathered wonders. It will cover the types of birds found in Louisiana throughout the fall and winter months, and suggest places to see them, ways to identify them, and explain a little more about their remarkable journey to, from, and through Louisiana.
In the fall months, bird migration across the globe generally occurs from points north to points south along evolutionarily-set paths throughout the continents. One of these paths lies directly over wetlands that line the Louisiana/Mississippi coast and the landforms that lie slightly inland. Bird species that fly on this path over the Gulf come from as far north as the Arctic Circle and as far south as the tip of South America (and almost all points in between) to breed, winter, or pass through. Migratory birds are generally at home in the southern portion of the route during winter, then travel to breed and nest in the northernmost points of their migratory route during the summer. Between these destinations, many need water, food, and shelter to sustain them on their journey. All of the migratory species of birds on this Gulf Coast avian freeway can rely on Louisiana for one reason or another.
Along the Gulf Coast, birds such as the Red Knot travel from the southern tip of Antarctica to the Arctic Circle, a cycle crooned about by birders as equatable to a “journey to the moon and back” throughout a bird’s lifetime. In contrast, other birds travel from one end of the Gulf of Mexico to the other, a relatively shorter distance, though still rife with peril. With hollow bones, super muscles, and perfectly-keeled feathers, these birds are game for it. Even the smallest of birds, which can weigh mere ounces, can persevere. Many birds make the 500 mile trip across the Gulf and then continue to their final destination, often another couple hundred miles, without stopping. Other birds winter in Louisiana, their home, and during late fall return from their northern breeding areas.
FALL BIRDING ALONG THE GULF STATES
Birding in the fall is generally more challenging than birding in the spring. You wouldn’t need the entire 98-count crayon box to paint a picture of fall migration; you’d need more like a 24-pack of muted greens, browns, yellows, and grays, with a few red and blue crayons mixed in. While fall plumage doesn’t make the Louisiana landscape as colorful as in spring, it is a great time to better understand bird behavior. In the spring, birds that pass through are so bright and varied that their plumage alone—especially the male’s—might easily distinguish one bird from another. In the fall, they have duller, shabbier feathers and so we must really observe birds to identify them. Their basic shape, habitat, foraging habits, beak size, and calls are all clues to help you name the bird you’re looking at. And even if you can’t name that bird, the time you spend watching it can be just as enjoyable as knowing what it is.
Along the Gulf Coast, birds such as the Red Knot travel from the southern tip of Antarctica to the Arctic Circle, a cycle crooned about by birders as equatable to a “journey to the moon and back”
Below are some groups of birds that fly through Louisiana in the fall. Some have summered here and are leaving for their southerly homes. Of these birds, some of the same species might have summered further north in their range and are also migrating back in greater numbers passing through. Others left home to breed up north in the spring and return to Louisiana and other regions nearby in the fall and winter. Some hatched this summer, and are arriving for the first time. Others simply fly through, using Louisiana as a rest-stop. Weather conditions are crucial to this decision—while the airwaves are full of birds throughout migration, many birds find good weather patterns and go to, through, or from Louisiana without stopping, which can be unfortunate, depending on how you look at it. Joelle Finley, Vice-president of Orleans Audubon Society, is often quoted among birders with her adage, “If it’s bad for birders, it’s good for the birds!” especially on a slow day of birding during migration.
Below is a list of birds you will hopefully be lucky enough to see this fall migration; it is an abridged list, with attempts to note favorite fall migrants and later winter residents.
BIRDS OF PREY
Late fall brings hawks and falcons to Louisiana to fly alongside bigger birds of prey that live here year-round, like Bald Eagles and Ospreys. Examples are Northern Harriers, American Kestrels, and Peregrine Falcons. Northern Harriers are identifiable by their low flight pattern; they cruise around fields and marshes, just inches away from their prey. American Kestrels are smaller than hawks and are often seen perching on telephone wires. They have this neat hovering thing that they do right before they pounce. Peregrine Falcons are fast as lightning; they favor the coast, but often move into cityscapes during the winter months. The best places to watch birds of prey are areas with lots of fields and marshes. You’ll likely see these birds in motion, so learning how they look in flight and what their hunting patterns are like is a great start.
Spot them at: Chalmette Battlefield, Plaquemines Parish along Highway 23 (During any season, you can go to the Bonnet Carre Spillway to see Bald Eagles.)
DUCKS AND WATERFOWL
Everyone knows a duck—they like to live on still water like ponds and bayous. Swans, geese, and grebes are other types of waterfowl that can be spotted in Louisiana. While some waterfowl live in Louisiana year-round, others come through only later in the fall and winter. Canada Geese, for instance, come through in large flocks, and are big, scary, and frankly quite mean. Blue-winged Teal and Ring-necked Ducks have puzzling names until they take flight and their markings show. Some ducks, however, are unmistakable: one of my favorites is the Ruddy Duck, which has a spiky tail (and a blue beak during spring). Waterfowl, hunted for centuries, tend to avoid people, so while very prominent in migration, they’re also very shy of us predators (except for Canada Geese). I’m going to talk about birdwatching groups to get involved with at the end, but a quick note about it here: if you want to see ducks and their waterfowl allies, look for advertised bird-watching groups during late fall and winter. Many people bring along and share their scopes, which have a large range of magnification and allow for long-distance bird watching. Scopes can cost thousands of dollars, so handle with care! And be very careful waterfowl watching during hunting season.
Spot them at: Audubon Park and Golf Course, Bayou Sauvage, and country clubs or planned communities around New Orleans and beyond, which often include duck-friendly ponds. (Using Google Maps is a great way to scout these areas out aerially, but again, be wary if it’s a Wildlife Management Area that allows hunting.)
Flycatchers include many species. These birds stand still on branches and have a generally upright shape. Of all the passerine species—which is a fancy category lumping together all birds that perch in tree branches—flycatchers have an unvaried call. In fact, some species look so much alike that they are distinguished from each other by these notes alone. Look for these birds near the edges of trees, bushes, fences, and on telephone wires, especially between the edges of forests and swamps or shrubby habitat and open landscape. Most of these birds migrate through Louisiana beginning in late August to October. Eastern Phoebes and Least Flycatchers are common, and often stick around for winter—the former pumps their tail while on a wire or tree branch.
Spot them at: Chalmette Battlefield, Jean Lafitte Barataria Preserve, and Diamond Park in Port Sulphur.
One bonus species of flycatcher is a breathtaking bird called the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. It has a white body, peach-colored belly, black wings and long, black tail feathers. It looks like a pretty normal bird while sitting on a wire, but when it flies, its tail feathers expand into a V shape, and it shows a little spot of red under the wing. I audibly gasped when I first saw this bird—it’s majestic and perfect and I love it. It’s not discussed with the above flycatchers because its migratory range is normally a little west of Louisiana. For some reason, groups of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers have found a home in Plaquemines Parish for a few years now, so let’s hope that trend continues! Look for them during periods of time that you seek beauty, grace, and joy in your life.
Spot them at: Diamond Park in Port Sulphur and along Highway 23 in Plaquemines Parish
KINGLETS & WOOD WARBLERS
Kinglets and warblers are one of the smallest groups of passerines that come through Louisiana. Only slightly bigger than hummingbirds, kinglets are the next smallest birds, and warblers the next size up. (Note: kinglets were at one point considered warblers, but are now not, for reasons I do not know, but I have still included them here because they’re round and small). Warblers (and kinglets) have tiny beaks, a variety of cheeps and songs, and even during the fall it is common to notice birds with a distinctive plumage that allows for easy identification. Warblers tend to dart through bushes and trees chasing small insects; they are difficult to spot because they move fast and under cover. One technique to view hidden birds is to start shushing like an angry librarian: “Shh, Shh, Shh Shh Shh.” This sound emulates an upset Carolina Wren when they hear a predator. Often, when birds here these “distress” calls, they respond by coming out of their leafy camouflage to look for the threat, letting you see their pretty feathers. Warblers begin migrating through Louisiana beginning in August, starting (predominantly) with Yellow Warblers. Numbers of warblers migrate through, or to/from Louisiana—upwards of 40 species can be counted in Louisiana during the early fall months. The bulk of fall warbler migration ends in October, and then the kinglet/warbler population begins to thin out to just a few species that winter here: Yellow-rumped, Palm, Pine, Orange-crowned, and Wilson’s Warblers; and Yellow Crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.
Spot them at: Couturie Forest and Scout Island in City Park, Joe Brown Park in New Orleans East, Chalmette Battlefield (concentrate on live oaks and woody habitats), and Woodlands Trail & Park in Belle Chasse.
Sparrows are little brown birds (LBBs) that can be very difficult to tell apart. White-throated Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows winter in Louisiana in fall and winter and they each have splashes of yellow marking their faces. Savannah Sparrows feed on the ground, while White-throated Sparrows are found in trees and brush. Other sparrows winter in Louisiana, and each one prefers different habitats. In general, these other sparrows like grassy areas, which can include salty or freshwater marshes. They tend to hide, only popping up for brief moments, also obscuring birdwatching. Remember the bird shushing technique for viewing these birds. If you are detail-oriented, like squinting at discrete markings, memorizing bird calls, and standing in tall grass, these are a great group of birds for you. Pro tip: watch out for chiggers.
Spot them at: Chalmette Battlefield, Jean Lafitte Barataria Preserve, and various habitats with tall, grassy fields and marsh.
Wading birds are so cool. Evolution has shaped wading birds into unique, often bizarre-looking creatures. Wading birds source food from mud flats, crawfish fields, and inundated areas, requiring them to have long beaks, legs, and creative feeding patterns. Their beaks can be straight, long and curled, or even shaped like a spoon. Some feed with their beaks in the water, like American White Ibises, Wood Storks, and Roseate Spoonbills. One type that hunts in a group are American Avocets; they move in sync with each other, grazing their beaks through the water in semi-circular motion. If you’re a beak or leg person, look up these birds.
Spot them at: Bayou Sauvage, Bonnet Carre Spillway, Grand Isle (areas across from the beach), and Sherburne Wildlife Management Area.
Migratory birds are magnificent, but so are birds who find permanent homes in Louisiana. We see these birds every day, whether we’re aware of them or not. House Sparrows, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, American Crows, Northern Mockingbirds, Killdeer, and Cattle Egrets are hardy birds that have found a way to live alongside us. So even if you aren’t able to travel to see birds in their preferred habitats, you can still go bird watching every day. Plus, getting to know resident birds will help you identify migratory ones. For example, you think you know a Northern Cardinal? Can you distinguish their song from that of a Carolina Wren? Or their “chips” from their relative, the Blue Grosbeak? Knowing the tendencies of these birds can make you a better birder all around.
Spot them at: Parks, construction sites, and in live oaks.
Although birds rule the sky, many species are under threat. The north-to-south journey for all migratory species is a harrowing one. Regardless of flight prowess or the length of travel, not every migratory bird reliant on Louisiana survives against predators, adverse weather conditions, and hundreds of miles of open water across the Gulf of Mexico. Bad weather conditions will tax even the fittest birds; without water or food stops over their Gulf Coast journey, many birds may falter. As an example, during the spring migration, my bird-savvy friend Mark Meunier and a few other birders were watching shorebirds on Grand Isle when they saw a Swainson’s Thrush (slightly smaller than its cousin, the American Robin) fly from the open water and land on the beach. Exhausted and dehydrated from its journey, the thrush collapsed and remained on the beach unprotected and unconscious. The birders weren’t the only ones watching the Thrush’s distress: a lurking snow crab emerged from the sand and side-stepped over to this wheezing, immobile bird, looking to feed. The bird watchers intervened. They scared the crab away and found fresh water to revive the casualty. The bird, rejuvenated by the drink, darted away while the crab scuttled back into the shadows of the sand.
Although this tale is heartwarming, it is not indicative of human-bird relationship. Human intervention generally dooms birds more than it saves them. Humans can manage to make the migration itself more dangerous than it already is. Lights from off-shore oil rigs, ships, and shore-line cities can confuse and disorient migratory birds; often birds circle light sources looking for land, only to find themselves dangerously off-course from their final destination, and exhausted from expending excess energy.
The populations of many species of birds present in North America have greatly diminished since European colonization, and those reliant on the Gulf Coast are no exception. Some species were over-hunted for food in the 18th century, while others were nearly annihilated for feathers for the hat trade in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And while some species have repopulated, some have not. David Muth, Louisiana State Director of the Gulf Restoration Program at the National Wildlife Federation, illustrates how urbanization is affecting the Gulf Coast landscape. In a lecture to Louisiana Master Naturalists, he read a page from James Audubon’s diary dated 1821, in which Audubon describes seeing 48,000 American Golden Plovers hunted in one day along the New Orleans coastline. In contrast, Muth, also an avid birder, has seen less than 100 American Golden Plovers total around New Orleans proper in his 40 years of observation. And although American Golden Plovers still annually migrate through Louisiana, eBird.org (a burgeoning online database of voluntary bird citations) suggests that when these birds stop through Louisiana, they are generally counted in numbers under ten, with a few spikes of observations numbering between 20 and 60 over the past 30 years—a pale contrast to numbers near 50,000 in Audubon’s days of bird watching.
Data from the Louisiana coastline has been pivotal in describing threats to migratory birds. In a follow-up interview, David Muth explained that in addition to personal and historical accounts of bird decline, scientific studies based in Louisiana have used data such as radar to track numbers of birds passing through. Because birds generally migrate at night, select data generated by weather radar stations like those erected across the Gulf of Mexico during the 1950s can be used to compare the flights of migratory birds during the spring. According to Muth, studies conducted by Dr. Sidney Gauthreaux compare radar patterns of springtime bird flights from the ‘60s to those from a few years ago and provide “hard data on how many birds were passing over the Louisiana coast.” Muth explains, “[Gauthreaux] found a general decline in the total number of birds crossing the Gulf… Then, when you compare that data to long-term breeding bird survey data for the eastern United States from the area where these birds would be coming from, it matches the trends for most of the forest interior and for grassland birds.” It’s important to mention that not every species of bird (migratory or not) is negatively impacted by the habitat change. In fact, some birds fancy the conditions that accompany human development. However, birds reliant on fields, prairies, and grasslands have increasingly less land to roam, as the adaptation of farming methods throughout the 20th century has clear cut areas, eradicating many nesting spots. Birds reliant on deep woods and forest to breed also simply have less habitat to support them.
Although humans have posed a serious threat to certain species’ survival, birds are powerful, and extraordinarily adaptive. Bird species that exist today succeeded their relatives, the dinosaurs, through even the Ice Age, creating remarkable diversity in the survivors. And although certain bird species are declining in population, there has been a considerable conservation effort under the vanguard of environmentalists, scientist, and yep, bird watchers, to mitigate this decline. Even with this bit of hope comes the hand-wringing prediction of extreme coastal erosion, for which Louisiana and the larger Gulf Coast are becoming dire centerfolds. So, if you’ve ever thought to yourself that birding is a thing for retirement age, you might not want to wait that long. There’s no time like fall in Louisiana to get started.
Be safe. There are plenty of dangers lurking in the wilds of Louisiana. There are venomous snakes out there; learn to identify them and know what to do if you get bitten. People, wild pigs, and alligators pose their own threats, too. Research what you need to do to be safe in whatever environment you’ll be birding in.
Get a pair of binoculars. You can try to bird with the naked eye, but most birds prefer that we stay at a distance, and are often too difficult to watch without equipment. Binoculars start at around $10 and climb from there to essentially however much you’re willing to spend. But remember that you do get what you pay for. My first pair had a magnification capacity of 10 x 25 and I felt like I was looking through a pinhole. To see long distance with a big enough range, it is recommended to start with numbers like 8 x 32 or 10 x 32. They run about $25 online, but are quite small. If you really want to invest in birding, buy something in the 8 x 42 to 10 x 42 range. Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a great breakdown of the optics best suited for bird watching. Once you get binoculars, use them sparingly and correctly. It’s common to try and find a bird with binoculars alone. Or to find a bird with your eye, then look at the binoculars, then try to find the bird again. This is likely to leave you disoriented and disappointed. First, identify a bird solo, then continue looking at it as you slowly bring the binoculars up to your eye, keeping the bird in view the whole time.
Get a field guide. Phone apps like Audubon Birds and Merlin Bird ID are great starters because they’re free. They both have filters that describe the birds, their calls, and their range—three key factors in proper identification. They also both have location trackers and can provide filters to indicate which birds should be in your area during that season. Books are great too; my favorite guides are Sibley’s and Peterson’s.
Get a map and learn your habitats. One important key to learning about birds is knowing where to find them, and understanding which kinds of birds might like the areas you choose to birdwatch in. Of course, this is a long process, and you’ll learn as you go, so be patient.
Don’t get frustrated. Even the most experienced birders often have a day of birding without seeing much of anything. It happens! For every good day of birding, there could be 10 bad, but with any outing comes experience; and with experience, the odds increase that tomorrow will be a better day.
The website birdlouisiana.com is a great place to find planned outings and social events (which usually include a presentation or guest lecture). These three groups are the most active in the GNO Area: Crescent Bird Club, Orleans Audubon Club (jjaudubon.net), and Louisiana Ornithology Society (losbird.org).
National Audubon Society (Note: not affiliated with the local Audubon Institute)
An organization that studies birds and specializes in outreach conservation initiatives, including volunteer opportunities. Visit audubon.org
Based out of Ithaca, New York. Research from Cornell generates a great amount of national and international data for birds and bird migration. The main website is birds.cornell.edu, but they also compile their research in the following websites:
Allaboutbirds.org: Great web-oriented guide for birds, including information about their range, habitat, and conservation status.
Birdcast.info: Generates week-to-week forecast for watching migration. Using a combination of weather patterns and radar of bird migration, it offers predictions of the best time to view birds on the ground, with regional considerations.
eBird.org: A compilation of work from both the National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab. It allows birders to list the birds they have seen in specific locations, and with this data, they have created amazing tools to better learn about birds in a practical way. Itching to see an Upland Sandpiper? Filter eBird for that species in your state, and it will give you past sightings with dates and locations. They also compile sightings throughout the nation in map form, therefore tracking migratory patterns of birds throughout the year.
A listserve that can be sent to your inbox, full of great tips from birders. Instructions on how to join can be found at lsu.edu/science/birdoffice/resources/labird.php
illustrations MELISSA GUION