Birding Atchafalaya Basin
Barreling eastward along Interstate 10 out of Lafayette, I find almost perfect ingredients for a successful spring birding trip in south Louisiana.
By Bill Fontenot
Each spring, hundreds of millions of northbound vireos, flycatchers, warblers, tanagers, grosbeaks, orioles and other neotropical songbirds course directly over Louisiana, traveling from their tropical wintering grounds to their temperate nesting grounds to our north. A substantial number of these birds will also settle into various breeding habitats throughout our own state. The cypress-tupelo swamps and bottomland hardwood forests of the vast Atchafalaya Basin (pronounced, “Uh-CHAFF-uh-lie-uh” by us locals) in south-central Louisiana is one of Louisiana's best places to witness this wondrous event.
Rain and northerly wind-shifts during these occasional spring cool fronts often temporarily halts this great airborne stream of migrating birds and puts them down at the first available forested sites, where they find shelter, rest, food and water. Once the front passes and the winds shift back to the south, most of the birds will again take to the air, en route to points north, but many will linger and others will stay. When frontal passages do occur, as is the case this morning, we can almost be assured of an excellent day of birding. On these occasions, day lists almost always total over 100 species and can include over 20 species of warblers alone!
One-third of the way across the 20-mile-wide Atchafalaya Basin, I've just taken the Whiskey Bay exit on I-10, and have headed north on LA 975, a 15-mile gravel road that parallels the east bank of the Whiskey Bay Pilot Channel northward through its confluence with the old Atchafalaya River. The wet woodlands on both sides of these waterways have been preserved and are split into three distinct management areas: the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Sherburne Wildlife Management Area, managed by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries – and along the west bank of the Atchafalaya River – the Indian Bayou Natural Area, managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
My first stop is unsigned, and known by local birders as “the water hole,” a rather small and inconspicuous spot of permanent water adjoining the east side of the road, and located exactly one-quarter of a mile north of LA 975's juncture with Interstate 10. Traffic noise from the nearby freeway is high, but even it cannot drown out the breeding songs of dozens of songbird species. From where I'm standing, I can hear the loud, “Purdy-Purdy-Purdy...tweet-tweet-tweet-TWEET-tweet” songs of at least three dozen northern cardinals, along with the equally strident, piercing, “sweet-sweet-sweet-sweet-SWEET!” songs of a half-dozen male prothonotary warblers. Three separate vireo species are also making their presence known, including the sing-song, monotonous calls of dozens of white-eyed and red-eyed vireos emanating from the forest mid-story, as well as the quieter, distinctly hoarser, “reaoo-reeyee?” calls of several yellow-throated vireos from higher up in the canopy.
All around the little water hole itself, several wood thrushes, blue-gray gnatcatchers, Carolina chickadees, and a lone Louisiana waterthrush are flitting in and out for their first drinks of the day. Up above, squadrons of great egrets, little blue herons, white ibis, along with “singles” of yellow-crowned night-herons, green herons and snowy egrets are making their morning commutes from local nesting rookeries to foraging areas deep in the swamp.
I've just made it past Des Ourses Swamp (French for “Swamp of the Bears”), no more than three miles north of “the water hole.” Bird traffic has been so heavy that I've been forced to make extended stops every half-mile or so–—a fairly normal pace here along LA 975, especially during the spring and early summer months—out of fear of missing something. The temperature's been heating up right along with the bird action, moving from a balmy 72F at dawn, to a current reading of about 88F. Overhead, eastbound clouds are quickly breaking up to reveal a pastel blue sky.
About a mile back, I watched an adult red-shouldered hawk hauling a three-foot, still-struggling, banded water snake to one of two fledgling hawklets, both perched patiently within the understory of a mixed grove of green ash and American sycamore. Predictably, at the tops of the sycamores, two or three American redstarts were scouting for appropriate nest locations. Sometimes referred to as “the butterflies of the warbler family,” redstarts have a habit of continuously flicking the feathers of their wings and tails outward, similar to the habit of a displaying butterfly. The robin-like song of a male summer tanager floated softly out from the top of a nearby ash. Within the short span of just under three miles, I've heard at least nine singing summer tanagers—amazing density for such a loner of a species.
Speaking of density, my daily total for prothonotary warbler is already up to 22, along with 26 red-eyed vireos, and 36(!) white-eyed vireos. I'm not sure if the heavy bead of sweat leaking right down between my eyes is due to the fast-heating swamp air or from the excitement of the chase.
Right on time, I've made it as far north as the intersection of LA 975 and Happy Town Road (actually a dirt lane that plunges due east off of 975 and through the swamp before it terminates at a boat landing just past Alabama Bayou). I say, right on time, because during the spring and summer months here, 11:30 a.m. is hands-down the best time of day and the juncture of LA 975 and Happy Town Road is the best place to see the elusive swallow-tailed kite, by far the most elegant—and most rare—of the Basin bird community. On the endangered species list in South Carolina, and listed as “threatened” in Texas, this graceful southeastern U.S. raptor seems to be holding its own in Louisiana.
Sure enough, not one but three kites are presently wheeling high above me, apparently engaged in some sort of acrobatic courtship ritual. With gentle dove-like faces and pure white bodies accented by jet-black wingtips and tails, these two-foot birds soar effortlessly on pointed four-foot wings just over the forest canopy for hours at a time, hunting for lizards, small arboreal snakes, cicadas, katydids and the like.
Wow. Barely half of the day has passed, and my day list is already pushing 80 species. Best birds have included three least bitterns, a bald eagle, 15 Mississippi kites, a merlin, and three ospreys – all headed north along the Atchafalaya – along with several each of Baltimore oriole, wood thrush, veery, and 10 additional warbler species: yellow-throated, American redstart, Swainson's, Tennessee, magnolia, hooded, Kentucky, yellow-breasted chat, common yellow-throat and worm-eating. In addition to prothonotary warbler, white and red-eyed vireo, other species seen in numbers of at least 75 individuals have included: great egret, snowy egret, white ibis, little blue heron, yellow-crowned night-heron, wood duck, blue-winged teal, red-bellied woodpecker and northern parula.
All in all, just another incredibly average day on the “Whiskey Trail.”