Early on October 31st, I was off to Jennings, Louisiana to attend the 10th Annual Yellow Rails and Rice Festival a first stop on a Southern swing that would also include birding in Alabama and Mississippi. There was no way this would not be a great trip – lots of birds with the very hard to see Yellow Rail almost guaranteed, interesting folks, new experiences, good food, completely new territory and great fun. My early morning flight took me to Dallas where I would change planes and fly into Baton Rouge, Louisiana and then a 90 mile drive to Jennings. There wouldn’t be time for any birding that first day, but I took it as good omen when a Pileated Woodpecker flew directly across the highway in front of me as I neared the turnoff to Jennings.
In the planning stages for this trip, I had great communication with LSU Ornithologist Donna Dittman the coordinator for the Festival and one of its founders 10 years ago. I was impressed with all the details she provided including numerous personal touches when I explained my 50/50/50 project to her. She also got me in touch with Bob Reed, a gentleman and retired Army Colonel from Alabama who had attended the festival annually and not only could help me at the festival but also would be a source of information for the Alabama leg of my trip. Bob indeed was helpful and I met him and his wife Pat and friend Mary Frances for dinner that first night at Mike’s Seafood Restaurant and Steakhouse in Jennings. Going “native”, I had the Crawfish Platter which included fried crawfish, crawfish pie, crawfish au gratin and crawfish etouffee. A half portion would have been more than sufficient. It would not be my only overindulgence of the trip.
After dinner we returned to the Festival Headquarters at the Hampton Inn for an orientation. There could be no better example of the rewards from the 50/50/50 project than this evening where in addition to fun talks with Bob et al, I reconnected with birding friend Mel Senac from San Diego, met up with neighbor Ann Marie Wood who I bird with often in Washington State and taking nothing away from those intersections, I also got the chance to talk with Donna, with another LSU ornithologist, Steve Cardiff, the Festival’s field trip coordinator, and best of all to visit with several rice farmers. As you might expect, this was a first of a kind experience. An afterword will share some information about the world of rice.
While the main attraction of this trip was the Yellow Rail, this was a very birdy area – thankfully so, because the key to seeing the rails is the harvesting of the rice fields where Yellow, Virginia and King Rails and Soras hang out, and harvesting can only occur when the fields are relatively dry. The rain that fell on the night of the 31st meant that harvesting was unlikely the next day, so I chose that day to head off for some birding on my own – figuring I would get my 50 species in a day for Louisiana out of the way and then have the entire next day available for the rails.
Then trouble struck…
My plan was to bird the area around Lake Arthur and the Lacassine NWR. I was unprepared for the numbers of birds that I found. Frankly it far outdid the Everglades. I came across two Roseate Spoonbills very close to the highway and pulled over to take a photo. Uh-oh… An error message informed me that my lens and camera were not communicating.
“Err 01 Communications between the camera and lens is faulty. Clean the lens contacts.”
I removed the lens and cleaned the contacts. I turned the camera off and back on. I took out the battery and waited a couple of minutes and reinserted it. I carefully wiped all of the connection points again. Nothing worked. I was camera-less and extremely unhappy as a major purpose of the trip was to get Life photos of several ABA species including of course the Yellow Rail – this being probably the best place to be able to do so.
Even though this was a 7 day trip and I needed my scope, I had managed to pack everything into a single carry-on bag and my backpack. But this had left no room for a back up point and shoot camera. Big problem! There was nothing I could do so I kept on birding reminding myself that mental pictures were good as well. However, mental pictures are not readily copied onto a blog page, so I will settle for my words and pictures borrowed from some of my other birding trips.
No photos aside the birding was tremendous. In addition to the two Roseate Spoonbills, one field had a Great Blue Heron, a Great Egret, 4 Snowy Egrets, 10 White Ibis and hundreds of “Dark Ibis”. This area is at the western end of the range of Glossy Ibis and the eastern edge of the range for White Faced Ibis with the latter being far, far more numerous. The two species also hybridize, so Ebird wants birders to enter observations as Glossy/White Faced Ibis even though the probability is high that the bird is a White Faced. Especially in breeding plumage there are some notable differences including the amount of white around the eye and a slight difference in coloring of the wing feathers and the legs. In really good light and with a close up view, the eye of a Glossy Ibis “usually” appears red while that of the White Faced appears brown. I had excellent close scope views of about 50 of the birds observed and at least one had a very red eye, so I reported 1 of each species and then “X” Glossy/White Faced Ibis being certain that each of those numbers was inaccurate.
Glossy Ibis – (Photo from Everglades NP – April 27, 2017) Note how white does NOT surround the eye
White Faced Ibis – (Photo from Sprague Lake, Washington) Note how white surrounds the eye.
A second field a bit further south had even more Ibis and easily 1000 Long Billed Dowitchers in addition to several other shorebird species and lots of Blue Winged Teal and other ducks. This was one of the very areas where I had many waterfowl on the entire trip and this included flocks of both Greater White Fronted and Snow Geese. There were Ross’s Geese around, but I never found the large flock of Snow Geese with whom others had reported them. Continuing into the refuge area, highlights included some juvenile Purple Gallinules (along with American Coots and Common Gallinules), Crested Caracaras, several Gull Billed Terns, Black Bellied Whistling Ducks, a number of Loggerhead Shrikes and one pond with more than 800 Ring Necked Ducks.
I had spent about 3.5 hours birding and had more than 50 species for the day so that was no longer a concern. So far all of the birding had essentially been in flooded fields, pools and ponds and I wanted to try a different habitat. This took me to a big tree area on Streeter Road near the Lacassine NWR Headquarters. In less than 30 minutes I added more than a dozen passerine species including three very good ones: a Barred Owl, a Yellow Billed Cuckoo and a juvenile White Tailed Kite. The Owl was calling – asking – “Who cooks for you?”. The Cuckoo flew out from behind me and came right over my head before disappearing down the road. The real prize was the Kite. I got a quick glance in a field behind the first line of trees and being completely surprised thought it might be a Mississippi Kite not knowing that White Tailed Kites were even a possibility – albeit a rare one. With a second look before it flew away, what caught my attention was a slight cinnamon wash on the bird’s breast, and then I noticed the black “wrists” under the wings. I had never seen a juvenile White Tailed Kite before and was not familiar with the identity- insuring cinnamon wash.
Juvenile White Tailed Kite (photo from Cornell)
It was now about 2:00 p.m. and there was a festival dinner starting at 5:30 p.m. I headed back to the hotel traveling through the Thornwell Warehouse Area (“TWA”) where we would be meeting for the rice harvesting and rails the next day (hopefully) just to be familiar with it. A tractor was working one of the fields and there were more than 1000 birds foraging for insects and whatever else the tractor was kicking up. Mostly Red Winged Blackbirds, Great and Boat Tailed Grackles, Barn Swallows and White Ibis.
Before getting back to the Hampton Inn, I went to a nearby Walmart and bought a fairly cheap point and shoot camera hoping to maybe get some pictures the next day. I then met up with Bob, Pat and Mary Frances and we were off to a Jambalaya dinner and some down home music. More visiting with birders from all over and with the rice farmers including especially Kevin Berken whose rice fields we would be visiting and who was providing rides on his combine during the harvesting – truly a unique experience.
Me with Kevin Berken
Me with Pat Reed, Donna Dittman and Steve Cardiff
On the way to the dinner, we saw a Cooper’s Hawk and on the way back, Bob Reed said he often had a Great Horned Owl along the road we were travelling. Not 20 seconds later, we saw one atop a telephone pole. Had Bob conjured it in? These species brought my count for the day to 72 species. So the 50 species in a day part of the mission was definitely accomplished. But I wanted to include a Yellow Rail in my 50 Louisiana species, so with the expertise I had picked up in this first day of birding, I decided to get an early start on November 2nd and repeat my travels from the day before – taking less time and getting me to the Thornwell Rice Fields by 10:30 a.m. the proposed meeting time for the rice harvesting and rail viewing.
I retraced the first part of my birding steps from the day before but did not have time to do the full Lacassine loop and thus missed a number of ducks and some other species but still had seen 45 species by the time I got to the assembly area for the rice harvesting at the Thornwell Warehouse Area around 10:30. The bad news was that due to some mechanical problems with the combine, the harvesting would be delayed. The good news is that there were lots of birds to be seen in a couple of fields near the warehouses. I quickly added a dozen new species for the day including three gull species (Ring Billed, Laughing and Franklin’s) – having seen none the day before. So I already again had more than 50 species for the day and now just wanted those rails.
Just as this area has both Glossy and White Faced Ibis which can be difficult to tell apart, the same is true for Boat Tailed and Great Tailed Grackles. There are size and voice differences and, for Gulf Coast birds, the eye color is different as well, with the Great Tailed having a pale/yellow eye while the eye of the Boat Tailed is brown. The Boat Tailed is smaller but I found that very hard to tell when looking at a single specimen. Fortunately we had a great display on a telephone wire with both species adjacent to each other in good light. Size and eye color differences were pretty clear. My back up camera was up to this task as the birds were still and close.
Boat Tailed (left) and Great Tailed (right) Grackles
We trudged out to the fields that would be harvested and with the combine repaired it was “go time”. There were four approaches to viewing rails. One was the chance to join Kevin and a spotter on the combine itself. As it moved through the fields, with luck some rails would be flushed and with more luck, you would get a good but quick view, and with even more luck some of the rails would be Yellow Rails. A second approach was to wait by the mist nets that were set up to hopefully catch fleeing rails so they could be banded. The third approach was to walk out into the fields and follow the combine hoping to see the rails as they were flushed. Finally, and not until later in the day, a fourth approach was to ride on one of the ATV’s that would follow the combine. This was less stable than the walking approach but it covered a lot more ground. Over the three hours spent at the Thornwell Rice fields I tried all four approaches.
The Combine in Action
Forgetting the rails, it was awesome to see the combine in action. A very sophisticated machine, it cut the rice stalks, separated the grains from the chaff – spitting out the latter behind and collecting the grains in a large bin which was periodically offloaded to another vehicle that would take the rice to the storage area. This process was repeated over and over. Kevin harvested at least four fields while I was there. I may be underestimating but I think each field was at least 10 acres. The combine took maybe 40 minutes per field including getting festival participants on and off for their rides. Harvesting by hand would have taken MANY, MANY man hours for each field. Maybe that is why a new combine costs just under $500,000!!!
Bob Reed on the Combine
The Action End of the Combine with the ATV Watching
Since I had a high number (determined by time of registration), it was unlikely that I would get a chance to ride the combine that day. In any event I had heard that the best views and only real photo ops were from the ground following the combine – catching a flight shot. With several others, I trudged into the muddy field (high boots were a necessity) and waited. It did not take long for birds to fly out from the approaching combine. At first there was a Sora, then another. A couple of sparrows flew out – most likely Savannahs and then – the magic moment – a small rail with obvious white secondaries – zoomed out to the right of the combine and maybe 40 yards from us. The Yellow Rail flew low and disappeared quickly into the next field. If I had my good camera with me I think I would have gotten a photo. IF… but the camera I had was not up to the task – too hard and too long to focus and too hard to find with the viewfinder instead of an eyepiece. A second Yellow Rail flew out a couple of moments later – an even better but also quick view. No photo…sigh…The photo below is what I saw and is from the Festival sources.
Yellow Rail in Flight
I had already resigned myself to not getting a photo but it was still a low point – balanced by the sighting of my first Yellow Rail since one at Anahuac Refuge in Texas the old “rail buggy” days – more than 40 years ago – April 1978. My only chance for a photo would be if one was captured by the banding operation. Unfortunately that did not happen this day. I remained at the fields for another 2.5 hours. I was able to get a ride on the combine and had many trips on the ATV’s. The combine was great fun. Even though it is comfortable, air conditioned and does have music (I think), it has to be hard to harvest for the 10 to 12 hour stints that Kevin told me he routinely does daily from July into October and then less regularly later. But it does flush rails. On my trip we flushed maybe a dozen rails – 2 Virginias, 6 or more Soras and 4 Yellows. I saw lots more rails from the ground and on the ATV rides which I especially enjoyed. With a good camera…maybe some photos.
It was great to see the banding operation as well – even though no Yellow Rail was captured. It was mostly Soras, a couple of Virginias, Savannah Sparrows and at least one Nelson’s Sparrow. This was the first time I have watched banding. Very careful and very meticulous including measuring, weighing and checking for parasites or diseases. Some banding photos are below.
Netting and Banding a Sora
A number of King Rail observations were reported by the Festival but I did not see any and neither did anyone else I talked to. Maybe it was the next day. Although King Rail shows up on my ABA Life List, I have not actually seen one – or at least seen one since it was split off as a species separate from Clapper Rail. I had hoped for a view and a photo. A bird I did see but did not get the photo I hoped for was a Sedge Wren. I heard a couple and had a buried and quick look at another – no photo was possible with my substitute gear. I did not keep exact count but estimate that I saw 6 or 7 Virginia Rails, maybe as many as 8 or 9 Yellow Rails and more than 20 Soras – a pretty awesome day. And it really was great fun and definitely a unique experience!!
My day list was now up to 64 species. There was time to head back to Streeter Road where I had had such good birding the day before. I was hoping to again see the White Tailed Kite. No Kite, but heard the Barred Owl again and added 6 species for the day – 70 in all. Back to the hotel and a much smaller dinner than the two previous nights.
The original plan had been to bird some more the next day in Louisiana going on one of the field trips or returning to the rice fields and then head off to Mississippi for my “next state”. That would have been a 260 mile drive. I could have birded in the morning and then headed off. But that was changed by two events: the camera problem and the need to switch Alabama and Mississippi scheduling because of the availability of folks I was going to meet. I had located a good camera store in Mobile Alabama that might be able to fix my problem or if not rent me a usable lens. And Mobile was also where I would be birding the next day with Larry Gardella. It was only another 32 miles but I wanted to get to the camera store earlier rather than later – AND without my camera, photos from more birding in Louisiana were unlikely. So it was going to be Plan B – leave after breakfast for Mobile – and that story will be told in my next blog post.
Rice and Rice Farmers – and Crawfish, Too
A big part of the reason to attend this festival was the opportunity to see the collaboration and cooperation between the rice farming and birding communities. Like many (most?) urban based birders, I have little direct contact with or knowledge of farming and farmers. Add to that the enormous differences between Western Washington and states in the Deep South, and this was an opportunity to get out of my so called box and experience a very different place and way of life. This is one of the great appeals of my 50 birds in 50 states on 50 days project. It takes me to new places and brings new people into my world view.
Rice is an important crop in Louisiana, joining California and Arkansas as the three leading rice producing states in the U.S. More than 50% of the Louisiana production is exported. Top international markets for U.S. rice include: Mexico, Haiti, Central America, Canada, Colombia, Peru, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, the European Union, Ghana, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Mexico, Central and South America are the most important markets for Louisiana. As I traveled through the state I saw many areas which seemed to have poor soil. I had a lengthy discussion about growing conditions including soils with the rice farmers at the festival orientation and learned that the soil is shallow but sits on a clay pan that allows the water to remain in the fields – a necessity for rice. It is also conducive to what has become a somewhat parallel industry – farming for crayfish (crawfish). They occur naturally in many of the fields and are now cultivated as a cash crop – an important adjunct to rice farming which is not a high return crop.
Louisiana is the largest domestic producer of crawfish, a delicacy whose peak season runs from Mardi Gras to Easter. Per the LSU AgCenter about 1,600 Louisiana farmers produce 130-150 million pounds of crawfish per year with a combined value to producers of over $172 million.
Crawfish – In the Wild and On the Table
In addition to needing the land, rice cultivation is expensive with the need for seed, fertilizers, chemicals, expensive machinery and the gasoline to run the combines and other machinery. As stated earlier, combines are incredibly productive but also incredibly expensive to acquire, maintain and operate. Continuous attention is needed for the planting, growth, harvesting and sale of the product. Risks from weather, storms, flooding, and disease are not insignificant. The farmers I met were hard working and dedicated to this industry. Often several generations of their families had been rice farmers before them.
There is a continuing effort to improve yields and protein values of the Louisiana rice with most production being of the long grain variety – higher value and generally more appealing for cooking.
I will not elaborate here – saving it for a later writing about my 50/50/50 experiences, but the majority of people I met were Republican and conservative even if not fond of Donald Trump’s personal qualities. I navigated cultural and political conversations carefully, but had valuable ones. One of the biggest problems in our country is the absence of intersection and discussion with “others” who I do not believe have to be “enemies”. As I said – no elaboration here – more later.