Making the Most of Massachusetts with Mike

This was a quick trip with the priority being Thanksgiving with my son Alex, daughter Miya, son-in-law Lester and most importantly my grandson Griffin.  Late November may not be the ideal time for birding in Massachusetts, but I had an extra day and I had an excellent co-conspirator.  With the superb care and guidance from Mike Resch I was able to find 59 species on a cold and windy day – and I now had met the 50/50/50 goal in my 21st state.  The species count did not include the wonderful Thanksgiving Turkey.

My first interface with Mike Resch was in October 2016.  He was coming out to Washington from Massachusetts to work on his “project” – observing at least 50% of the species recorded in each state.  So for example, the list of birds ever observed in Washington stands at 521 (including some that have only been observed once and many that have not been observed for many years).  Mike’s goal (obsession?) is thus to have observed at least 261 species in the State.  Not terribly hard if you live here, but requiring many days over more than one season at the very least.  And after Washington – there would still be ANOTHER 49 STATES!!! Yikes… Mike had reached his goal in Washington but then Neah Bay started producing several new species for the State and he was no longer over 50%.  Time to visit Neah Bay.  He had seen some of my posts about visits there and contacted me for some advice.  He had a great visit but added to and solved his problem at the same time when he found the first record of a Prothonotary Warbler for the State on November 5, 2016.  Dan and Brad Waggoner were there that day and also got looks and a gorgeous photo. (As an aside, Brad found another Prothonotary Warbler at Neah Bay at a different location this October!!)

Prothonotary Warbler – Neah Bay – November 5, 2016 – found by Mike Resch – Photo by Brad Waggoner

Prothonotary Warbler

Later that month I was in Massachusetts (again for Thanksgiving) and I joined Mike for some birding on November 26th with our two targets being a Tufted Duck and a Pink Footed Goose, the latter of which would have been an ABA Lifer.  We succeeded in finding the duck but the goose eluded us.  I was not aware of it until I did some research for this post, but we actually had 50 species that day.  The Pink Footed Goose had turned up later in the day so I returned to Artichoke Reservoir and found it with the aid of another birder the next morning.  I took no photos on that trip at all but since this post will be light on photos, I am including my ABA Pink Footed Goose photo from British Columbia last year.

Pink Footed Goose – with Melissa Hafting – March 10, 2017 – Blenkinsop–Lohbrunner Road

Hoping to “officially” add Massachusetts to my “completed list” for the 50/50/50 project, I contacted Mike and he graciously agreed to help with my quest.  Back to his “project”.  Whether it is a Big Day, a Big Year or some crazy quest like his or mine, good research, good information, good logistical planning and good luck are very important.  Working with others in our birding community is not only the best way to assure success, it is also the best way to really enjoy the experience.  My little project pales greatly compared to Mike’s – just incredibly impressive for him to have accomplished what he has.  Since a main purpose of my project is to interact with interesting people along the way, I very much wanted Massachusetts to be with him.  More details about that when I write up my 50/50/50 adventure somewhere other than just on a blog post.  Another benefit of working with him was that he did all the work – planning out where we would go and even doing a scouting trip to be sure the itinerary would work.

This being Massachusetts, rather than meeting at a Starbucks, we met at Duncan Donuts.  I saw MANY on my visit and do not recall seeing a single Starbucks although I know there are some there.  And, oh yes, as you can see there was snow on the ground.  This was to be my only “winter” trip trying for 50 species and this was the only time there was some snow.  Of bigger concern were the frozen ponds that may have hampered our success finding some ducks and shorebirds.

Dunkin Donuts

I had seen six species on the way to our rendezvous – only 44 more to go.  Our first stop was at Joppa Park in Newburyport where we had 16 species with the best being a singing Eastern Phoebe (late), a flyover flock of Snow Buntings and a flock of Long Tailed Ducks on the water.  Mike said we could not count the two Penguin statues nearby.  We moved on to Parker River NWR, a great area where Mike and I had birded two years earlier.  At several spots within the refuge over 2.5 hours we found 50 species even though ducks were relatively scarce and we had no shorebirds at all.  Some more Long Tailed Ducks and hundreds of Scoters.  We clearly identified some of all three Scoter species: White Winged, Surf and Black with the latter being the most numerous at least for closer birds.

Black Scoters

Black Scoter Flock

There was a light dusting of snow – made it prettier and did not deter ground feeders.  We had small groups of American Tree Sparrows, Dark Eyed Juncoes (Slate Colored) and Snow Buntings.  We had a single Ipswich type Savannah Sparrow and a couple of White Throated and Song Sparrows.  The Tree Sparrows were by far the most numerous I wasn’t taking many photos (and had only my point and shoot camera) but here are a few.


American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

Dark Eyed Junco (Slate Colored)


A photo I wish I could have gotten was of a small flock of Lapland Longspurs that flew overhead with their chirping flight calls.  With the snow on the ground, it felt like I was in the Okanogan in Washington which in the winter is where thee can be huge flocks of Horned Larks, smaller flocks of Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs mixed in.  It is also a good place to find Tree Sparrows.  All of these species were found this day – “Okanogan East”.  Having crossed the 50 species threshold with time to spare, we headed to Rockport hoping for some alcids.

At Andrews Point at Rockport we immediately found a flock of Common Eiders (my first for the year) and had a flyby Northern Gannet (another FOY).  We saw more Long Tailed Ducks, Harlequin Ducks and again many Black Scoters.  A single alcid appeared right below us.  We got a fleeting look before it dove and … disappeared.  The field mark that caught our attention was a line on its face curving down from and behind the eye.  We both immediately concluded it was a winter plumage Common Murre.  If so it would have been the first on the coast this year.  After further reflection later, Mike was pretty sure that it was instead a juvenile Razorbill – more likely at the time and place.  The juveniles can have a similar line behind the eye.  I changed the report but am now having second and third thoughts as I was pretty sure I had checked the bill initially hoping for a Thick Billed Murre which is an extreme rarity in Washington as opposed to the abundant Common Murres.  I did not remember it as a large bill which I associate with Razorbills.  Of course in Washington, we never have Razorbills.  I have only seen them in summer in Maine.  I wish we had photos to study.

Common Eider

Common Eider

Long Tailed Duck

Long Tailed Duck

We had both an adult and a juvenile Northern Gannet.  I got flight photos but they are terrible so I am including one from Maine in the summer of 2015.  Gannets are closely related to the Boobies and certainly look like them to me.  This has been by far my best year for this group as I have previously seen Masked, Brown, Red Footed, and Nazca Boobies and am happy to add the Gannet to the list.

Northern Gannet – Maine – June 2015

Northern Gannet

We continued on to a couple of other places in the Rockport/Gloucester area without finding any more alcids or adding new species.  We were at 57 species for the day and it was time to head home for Thanksgiving preparations.  I added a Turkey Vulture and a Western Grebe on the way home (making one more waterfront stop hoping for something new).  Birding with Mike had been great fun and very educational as he recounted stories of Massachusetts and some of his other states.

Mike also provided another great bonus.  He has created an interactive map that he uses to graphically display where he has seen various species across North America.  He kindly provided me a copy that I have adapted to keep track of my progress as I try for all 50 states.  Massachusetts is state number 21 and I have plans for 2 or 3 more in 2018 before a big push in 2019.  This map shows the progress.  Thanks Mike.

Interactive Map as of November 23

I cannot resist adding one more photo to this post.  My grandson just became 9 months old.  He and his mom have been out with me on walks near their home in Newton, MA where I have seen some nice birds.  After Thanksgiving on one such walk I added three more species for this Massachusetts trip.  I look forward to the day when Griffin will know some of the birds we see and hope he will enjoy the time together.  In the meantime, I can at least make sure he has the right “birder look”.


Mississippi – My First Visit to a Casino and then Local Birding at Its Best

Prequel – The Beau Rivage Casino

Although I pass them many times on my way to favorite birding spots near tribal lands I have never visited any of the many casinos in Washington.  I have never been to Las Vegas.  I have never even been to Atlantic City.  I do remember a visit to a “casino of sorts” in Ocean City, Maryland.  I was maybe 10.  We played bingo.  The only reason I knew of casinos in Mississippi was because of the publicity following the recent Supreme Court decision that made sports betting no longer illegal if approved by the states.  In August of this year, sports betting became legal in Mississippi. The Beau Rivage Casino was one of the first two casinos in the state to accept sports wagers.  Part of my 50/50/50 adventure is being open to new things and exploring local experiences.  I had checked into my hotel in Moss Point, Mississippi.  It was less than 30 miles to Biloxi.  Heck I had to eat dinner anyway.

It was Monday evening and not yet 6 p.m. when I arrived at the massive parking structure for the Casino/Resort.  It wasn’t full, but definitely not empty either.  At least I did not have to pay for parking.  I negotiated my way to the elevators and figured out how to get to the…well it was not clear what I was getting into.  Definitely something very large and very expensive.  It was an opulent combination of high end shopping arcade, hotel, conference center, restaurants, bars and gaming casino.  I was in birding gear and even so to some degree compared to some there I was over dressed.  Hmmm…

The Beau Rivage Entry 


I guess I should have known better, but when I took a few photos with my phone, I was almost immediately descended upon by two security types – well dressed but no question who they were.  It was politely and very clearly explained that no photography was allowed – for the privacy of the clientele.  Judging by some of the odd couples I saw, I quickly understood at least part of the message.  I did not erase any photos and in fact had an ok conversation with one of the gentlemen about the sports betting.  Yes business had picked up with the sports wagering.  Six p.m. was indeed a slow time.  If I waited a couple of hours, it would get quite busy.  Since there were already many hundreds of people standing at various gaming tables and sitting at game consoles that were flashing boldly their electronic colors and sounds and were completely indecipherable to me, I could only imagine.  At least the worst of my nightmares did not materialize, even though I did not go to the smoke free area, the area I was in was almost entirely smoke free.

I value my funds too dearly to have tried any of the machines and I certainly was not up for poker, keno, roulette or whatever other games were being played at the tables.  I sat alone at a table at a sports bar with 30 giant screens and had a relatively decent and only slightly overpriced barbecue sandwich.  I was probably the only person there alone and definitely the only one without an alcoholic beverage. It is stretching it a bit to say I had a “casino/gambling experience” but I had a taste and decided that was enough before indigestion followed.  Back to my hotel and to my own gaming/habits for the next day – birds.

A Small Part of the Gaming Area – Definitely Not the High Rollers Club Section


Back to the Birding

Especially over the past 7 years, much of my birding has focused on listing and chasing.  The majority of that has been in Washington State and even much of that has been “local” in the sense at least that it has been in areas relatively closest to my home in Snohomish County.  In the last few years, I have worked on expanding my ABA lists – observations and photos and that has taken me to many of the bird meccas throughout the U.S. with multiple trips to bird rich areas of Texas, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, California and Maine.  When I first thought up my 50/50/50 project, a major objective was to get me to more places that were not the hot areas and also to have many intersections with traditional local birding and local birders.  Since there had to be 50 species in a single day in each of the states, I still had to find places that were “birdy”, but research told me that with good planning and good help that should be possible in every state – although timing was important and for example Wyoming in February might not be a good idea.

                Getting Connected

My experience birding in Mississippi with Brian Johnston is as good an example as I can imagine of how local birding with local birders is rewarding and productive and definitely fun.  Getting in touch with Brian is a good example of networking in today’s birding world.  I started by researching places in Coastal Mississippi through Ebird that looked good for getting my 50 species in early November.  Among other spots, Ebird took me to Grand Bay Estuarine Research Reserve.  One of the best lists for the area had been submitted by Mark Woodrey.  Ebird does not provide background or contact information for those of us submitting checklists (thankfully probably), but when I researched this hotspot, Mark appeared as one of the top Ebirders for the location – now what?  I found a website for the reserve and it certainly looked like a great place.  But a special permit is needed for access – and the area seemed to be dedicated primarily for conservation, research and education.  I explored to see if maybe my visit would coincide with a program and in that process found an email address for Mark Woodrey.  I also learned that Mark is a big time academic at Mississippi State University and is much involved with research at the Reserve.

Brian Johnston at Buffett Beach in Pascagoula – Yes, Jimmy Buffett

Brian Johnston

With fingers crossed I sent him an email explaining my project and upcoming visit and asked for any help.  His return email was super and supportive.  The timing did not work for him but he had copied several people on that email and I got unsolicited contacts from several people including Brian Johnston who said he birded around Pascagoula, Mississippi and would be happy to help.  I didn’t know if Brian was maybe a student and when I called him, he was so enthusiastic I thought that might be the case.  It turned out that Brian is retired and is just very young at heart and spirit and an enthusiastic birder.  I have been fortunate to have met GREAT folks as I have gone from state to state.  And even as here, when there was no prior connection and getting together took several steps, my experience has been positive and very rewarding.  Our community of birders is a wonderful place.

Brian did some scouting the day before I arrived and had great plans for birding around Pascagoula to get our birds.  I think he took as much ownership of the project as I had and I knew I was in good hands.  We got off to an early start and there really are birds almost everywhere as we picked up seven species in the first few minutes traveling to our first real destination: Fish Crow, Boat Tailed Grackle, House Sparrow, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Mourning and Eurasian Collared Doves.  Nothing exciting but it was reassuring to have a good start on numbers right away.  Our first real stop was a little oasis in the middle of an industrial area.  Again nothing special, but we added another 23 species including my first Brown Thrasher and shockingly my only American Robin for my three state trip.  We also had several Palm Warblers and a Blue Gray Gnatcatcher.  Less than a mile away, we hit the water at a boat launch and quickly added 8 more species including both adult and immature Little Blue Herons – one white, one blue – in addition to my first Spotted Sandpiper for the 3 states.  We also had a fabulous fly over by an Osprey.  I had seen several in my birding in Alabama and Louisiana, but this really is a favorite bird – perhaps because I have enjoyed them so much when they compete with me for trout on some of my flyfishing trips.



It was barely 8:00 a.m. and we were at 37 species.  This is the magic of birding.  We had not been anywhere that would have been thought of as bird rich.  There were no extensive mudflats or water fowl-rich ponds or frankly much of a forest habitat, but birds are everywhere.  You just have to look for them.  (Local assistance helps.)

Our next stop did take us to a “bird” area – the Pascagoula – Scranton Nature Center – not far from where we had been but a spot that had been preserved for its habitat.  Not including the domestic Muscovy Ducks which came begging for handouts as soon as they saw us, we added another 8 species including a “Snake Bird” or Anhinga – a southern specialty.

Muscovy Duck (Not Countable Here – Yet)


Anhinga (Brian’s Photo)

Barely another mile away we hit the beach on the Gulf Coast.  We spent more time here than we had spent at all of the other places combined.  We had 38 species including 16 new for the day and two more new for my trip:  Yellow Crowned Night Heron and American Oystercatcher.

Yellow Crowned Night Heron

Yellow Crowned Night Heron 1

We had now traveled only about 7 miles from my hotel at Moss Point and had spent about 3.5 hours birding.  We were over 60 species for the morning.  There would be more – starting with an Eastern Screech Owl that Brian knew about at the Pascagoula Greenwood Cemetery.  Brian was the first to hear its bouncing call, but I was very happy to finally get on it a couple of minutes later.  Any checklist with any owl is a great checklist.  Another bird there that I really appreciated was a good view and decent photo of a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker.  I had seen them in both Alabama and Louisiana but we get them only extremely rarely in Washington.  To me they are not as appealing as the Red Breasted, Red Naped and Williamson’s Sapsuckers we do have in Washington, but I was very happy to get the photo.

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker

YB Sapsucker1

There was one more species that Brian very much wanted me to have on my day list.  As shown in the chart below, Mississippi has a very small population of Sandhill Cranes.

Crane Population

In an area just west of the Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWR it barely took us 10 minutes to find two cranes.  We also added 4 shorebird species for the day:  Greater Yellowlegs, Killdeer, Dunlin and a Wilson’s Snipe.  (As an aside, looking back on the three state trip over 6 days of birding, I am surprised to see that the cumulative list includes 24 shorebird species.  By comparison, in all of November in 2017 in the entire state of Washington, only 25 shorebird species were reported.)

Sandhill Crane (Banded)

Mississippi Sandhill Crane

We made one more stop that did not add anything new for the day and wrapped things up around 1:30 p.m. with 68 species for the day.  We had traveled barely 20 miles, most of which was to get the Sandhill Cranes.  Had I been on my own, I doubt that I would have picked many or maybe even any of these spots for a birding trip.  I certainly would not have expected to get my targeted 50 species in places such as these.  And that is what made this trip especially valuable – the reminder that there really are birds everywhere and time spent locally to really know a place is incredibly rewarding.  Brian knew every nook and cranny of his Pascagoula area.  When we first met, he was very self deprecating describing himself as just an average birder at best.  Hardly the case.  I don’t think we missed anything.

I was tired and glad to get back to the hotel.  But the day was not done.  I got a call from Brian who had returned to Tillman Street where we had started the day.  He had found a yellowish Kingbird and wanted me to know.  He thought it might be too yellow for a Western Kingbird which are common in Washington but not so much in Jackson County, Mississippi.  I certainly did not “need” it for the day.  But I really appreciated Brian’s commitment and decided to give it a try.   A good decision.  It took a bit to find the Kingbird as it was down the road past a locked a gate.  If I had not known to look for it I am sure I would not have found it.  I had great scope views and could confirm the white outer edges of the tail so it was a Western.  Then I had a great “bonus”.  Just as I was getting back into my car a larger than Robin sized bird flew over me and perched in trees across the road.  Sadly I had not brought my camera with me, but I was able to get a very poor photo with my phone – sufficient to confirm the identification as a Yellow Billed Cuckoo – species 70 for the day.  I called Brain and he was able to return later and also saw the Cuckoo.  At least I added something to the day – well in addition to my stellar personality LOL!

It had been a long week with too little sleep and I was definitely tired.  One of the birds that had first taken me to explore Grand Bay NERR which started my networking and then the connection with Brian was a Henslow’s Sparrow which appeared on the list there in November.  It would be an ABA Life Bird and thus of course would be nice.  I had missed it in Illinois – too late and was perhaps a bit too early for the best time here.  Before returning to the airport in Mobile to fly home (and returning the rental car and the rental lens) I considered going to the area and giving it a shot.  But I checked on Ebird and found that none had been reported in Mississippi over the past week so guess I will just have to wait.

As I am finishing this post, I just got a notification from the Mississippi listserv that Brian has found a Groove Billed Ani at Tillman Road this afternoon (November 15th) .  I think one had been seen there in October as well. It would not be an ABA Life Bird – but an ABA Life Photo.  Someday…

Reflecting and Birding in Alabama

In a completely honest acknowledgement, Alabama has never been filed in the “positive” drawer in my mind’s filing system.  For many of us who grew up in the 1960’s and particularly in the North, there has been a negative association formed by politics, race, religion and even language.  George Wallace and certain money seeking evangelists were about as negative memories as I have from that era.  If someone mentioned Alabama to me, my first thoughts were of those memories and then probably football – and that was it.  Certainly birds, birding and birders would not come to mind.  Is any of that fair?  At most only in part and re-examining my feelings, thoughts, impressions and biases in many areas has been an important part of my 50/50/50 undertaking.  Using birds, birders and birding as points of entry, I wanted to explore personal experiences not ones from the media or past personalities or even history.  Visit the actual places.  Meet real people.  Listen, look and engage.  Maybe grow…

The original plan was to bird Mississippi after Louisiana then finish the trip in Alabama – flying back to Seattle from Mobile.  As described in my previous blog post, two things changed that.  The most important was that it had taken some time to connect with local birders in Alabama and when I did, I hit a home run (two actually) but scheduling only worked with an earlier visit.  Since reversing order also worked with my Mississippi connection, that was no problem.  The second matter was that malfunctioning camera.  There was what appeared to be an excellent camera store in Mobile, Alabama and nowhere else close, so I wanted to get to the store to see if there was a solution – either a repair or a rental lens.  It was a long drive from Jennings, LA to Mobile, and that precluded more birding in Louisiana but without a functioning camera that was less of a loss than it might otherwise have been.

This is probably a good place to talk about some of the non-birding aspects of my travel undertaking.  In addition to new experiences, I am trying to gain some new perspectives and life approaches.  In any planning or project, the ability to adapt and to be flexible is important.  Stuff happens.  Sometimes completely unforeseeable but sometimes at least somewhat foreseeable if lessons are learned from earlier experiences.  Either way the ability to find solutions is invaluable.  They may not be perfect but if they improve what comes next, then that is a big plus.  AND being able to accept less than perfect but still really good is, well – really good!  There have been times when I have not been as good at that as I would like.  I am trying to improve.  The camera issue is a good example.

First, since photos are an important part of my birding, maybe this will once and for all get me to ALWAYS bring a back up camera with me.  My Canon SX60 is not nearly as good as my SLR set up, but until only three years ago, it and its predecessors were all I had and they enabled me to get serviceable and sometimes even quite good photos.  My SLR had died on my big trip to Arizona last year and had not one of the birders allowed my to use his SX50 I would have had no photos.  I should have learned the lesson – I didn’t.  Stubborn, stupid, overly optimistic?  Maybe all of them, but the reality is that stuff happens.  I need to be a better Boy Scout – and “Be Prepared”.  I WILL NEVER GO ON ONE OF THESE TRIPS WITHOUT A BACK-UP!!!!!

Even though the lens’s sudden inability to communicate with the camera body was inexplicable and definitely maddening – it was a fact.  Now what?  Research solutions online.  Use common sense.  Contact friends with some technical expertise.  I had done all of that and nothing worked.  OK look at plan B – trade birding time with a visit to that camera store in Mobile and see if that would solve it – or if not maybe they could rent me a lens.  It would not make up for the missed photo of a Yellow Rail but maybe it would allow me to get a photo of a Clapper Rail or a Seaside Sparrow – both important to me.  And as I often write in my blog posts, sometimes when a goal or target is not hit, there is a consolation prize that might be pretty darn good as well.

As it happened Calagaz Photo Supply was fairly close to the hotel where I was going to be staying in Mobile.  I could visit the store, check into the hotel and if I was lucky even do some birding on my own.  My visit to Calagaz was unplanned but was one of the best parts of my trip.  Bottom line is that they could not resolve the camera problem, but they did rent me a reasonably priced telephoto lens.  So that was good, but what was really good was the interaction with the folks there.  Calagaz is a small, privately owned camera and photo supply store.  It is not some big national company with a phone tree help line or a call center.  The people there are invested in personal service and care deeply about photography.  We talked about photography and my birding and then shared pictures, mine and Dori’s, taken over the years.  I think they felt almost as bad about my missed photos in Louisiana as I did.  I would gladly recommend them to anyone.


The lens I rented was a Tamron 150-600 mm zoom for Canon.  It is a heavy lens and I knew I would need to get used to it especially for hand held photos which mine would be.  So after checking in at the hotel, I headed south to Dauphin Island – where I would return many times over the next few days.  I birded on the causeway to the Island, at the Airport and a couple of forested spots – providing a variety of conditions to check the lens.  Probably due to my unsteady hand with the heavier and longer lens, I found that my photos were not as crisp as I would have liked.  This required shooting at a faster shutter speed which in turn required some adjustment of the ASA.  Not perfect – but acceptable.  In about 3 hours of birding I was able to find 38 species – so I was confident I would get my 50 the next day with expert help.

Birding friend Chazz Hesselein who now lives in (near?) Tacoma and used to live and  bird in Alabama had told me that the Dauphin Island Airport was an excellent spot for Clapper Rails.  I did not see one on this visit but heard at least 3 so knew I would be trying for a photo on another trip.  At the pond there, however, I did find both a Tricolored Heron and a Reddish Egret – less common than the other waders in the area.

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

Feeling very good about the birding and photo opportunities for the next day, I returned to my hotel and contacted Larry Gardella who I would be meeting the next morning to finalize arrangements.  This was Saturday night and the next morning would be the shift back from Daylight to Standard time.  Theoretically this meant losing an hour of sleep, but my sleep pattern is so chaotic when I travel that I had been getting up by 4:00 a.m. anyhow.  Without going into details, I was up even earlier AFTER adjusting for the time switch.  Plenty of time to meet Larry at Gate 4 of the Blakeley Island Mud Lakes hotspot.  This is a restricted access area, but we had taken care of the details to get permission to enter the property and were birding in sunlight by 6:45 a.m.

Larry is a top Alabama birder and in fact has the highest species list for this location – 166 species.  Interestingly good friend Chazz is number 2 at 163 even though he has not lived there for many years.  In addition to knowing the area and its birds very well, Larry was fascinating because he has seemingly been everywhere.  He is fortunate to have a spouse that not only supports his birding but also participates and contributes in her own right.  They have been all over the world and it was particularly kind of Larry to take time to help me this day as they were heading off to Hawaii in a day or two – vacationing with birding on all the islands.

Blakeley Island Mud Lakes are a complex of disposal ponds that host a wide array of shorebirds and waterfowl.  A former industrial waste treatment site, the waters in these dredge material management ponds are currently used for the disposal of dredge materials by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Alabama State Port Authority.  Although Larry said we missed some expected species we did pretty well with a final list of 51 species (including some Common Grackles and Starlings that I had seen just before arriving at the Ponds).  This included 10 shorebird species, 4 ducks,  5 waders and 7 raptors.  Included in this latter group was a Golden Eagle – a very rare bird here and in the area and one that quite pleased Larry,  My terrible long distance photos were confirming but not more.

Even though I had seen many earlier in Louisiana, I was particularly pleased to see and photograph a group of Black Bellied Whistling Ducks – some of my favorites.  In the same pond there were at least 70 American Avocets and 30 Black Necked Stilts.

Black Bellied Whistling Duck

Black Bellied Whistling Duck1

American Avocets (with One Black Necked Stilt)

Avocets and Stilts

This is another area where Glossy and White Faced Ibis overlap with the former being more common.  We had sufficiently good scope views of three to clearly see their brown eyes and ID them as Glossy Ibis.  I just barely had my 50 species for the day.  Larry wanted to visit another spot for some insurance species and also because a Harris’s Hawk was being seen there. Harris’s Hawks are often kept by falconers and it is possible that this bird is an escapee, but it was first seen last year – migrated away and then returned this year.  As it turned out I did not have to worry about whether to count it or not since we were not able to locate it at the Chickasaw Ponds , but we added 9 new species for the day removing any question on hitting 50.

Larry is a Christmas Bird Count Regional Editor, a mostly retired attorney (Legal Services Alabama) and a transplant from the northeast.  Our discussions were mostly about birds and I would welcome an opportunity to talk about Alabama with him.  He likes being there and certainly enjoys the birding.  I am sure I could learn a lot from him on all of those subjects.  I also hope to hear about his Hawaii visit.

I thanked Larry again for putting up with me for the morning and helping me find 50 birds in Alabama.  But the day was still young and I decided to return to Dauphin Island and try to find a photogenic Clapper Rail as well as to add to the species for the day.  I also remembered a restaurant along the way that advertised the best “Po’ Boys” and figured I had to have at least one on my visit.  As I said in my previous post there would be more than one overindulgence on the trip and this was another one – a shrimp Po’ Boy – which is essentially just a sandwich on a baguette type roll – maybe with some sauce.  It was good – why not I like bread and shrimp, but one was enough.

The map below shows the area birded that day – only about 40 miles from Chickasaw to Dauphin Island, mostly through rural countryside.  But before going to the Island I made a detour to Grand Bay Savannah to the west – almost to the Mississippi state line.  Henslow’s Sparrows were a possibility there as well as Clapper Rails and some passerines.  The last 5 miles of road were gravel, red clay and water.  I almost turned back thinking my GPS had to be wrong, but eventually I got to the boardwalk which led out to some reds  after going through a woody area.  No sparrows and no rails but I picked up 6 new passerine species for the day including the only Brown Headed Nuthatches I had seen on the trip so far.


Then I headed to Dauphin Island passing through Bayou la Batre – more exotic sounding than it appeared.  Along the way I passed by the only cotton field that I saw on my entire trip.  Maybe it is from the “land of cotton” reference in the Dixieland song or memories of colonial and Civil War history, but I had expected cotton fields every where.  Maybe they are just farther north.

Cotton Field


Dauphin Island has some wooded areas, some bays and a long sandy beach.  It has been hit very hard by hurricanes in the past 20 years.  Some homes have been rebuilt and others not.  The birding is certainly excellent.  My first stop again was the airport. The Tricolored Heron was back and was joined by a Snowy Egret, two Semipalmated Plovers  and a Willet.  An Osprey flew overhead and I heard the rattle of a Kingfisher.  I had not even gotten out of the car and here were new birds.  WAIT – what was that??  A dark form was next to the grass in one of the channels.  OMG it was a Clapper Rail.  I did not dare get out of the car.  I rolled down the window (unfortunately it was on the passenger side) and took a picture – it was my ABA Life picture of a Clapper Rail!!  Not going to win any prizes but no question about the identification.  This alone justified renting that lens.

Clapper Rail – First ABA Photo 

Clapper Rail3

Unfortunately the Clapper was moving further into the channel and it quickly disappeared.  But I had my photo and I was quite happy.  I explored some other spots on the Island and birded for a awhile at the Audubon Bird Sanctuary which produced a really good bird and my best encounter with an alligator.  It was about 5 feet long and was close but fortunately in the lake/pond at the center of the sanctuary and I was on a platform just above it.

Alligator – Audubon Sanctuary – Dauphin Island


The really good bird got me very excited at first because I just knew it was a warbler and still in bright plumage but I was not sure which warbler it was.  I got a series of photos that helped with the identification and was able to ID it as a male Pine Warbler.  They are not rare at this time at this location, but I later found out that bright ones are very unusual.  Something rarer would have been even better, but it was a great way to end the day – species #77.

Pine Warbler – Audubon Sanctuary – Dauphin Island

Pine Warble1  Pine Warbler2

When I asked about the most “Mobile” thing to do while in town, several options were mentioned including some grand homes but the one that came up most was a visit to the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park.  A summary of the Battleship’s history and that of the park is provided by the park as follows:

From its humble beginnings on February 1, 1940 as the keel was laid at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia, Battleship USS ALABAMA (BB-60) has had a remarkable career.  She began her World War II adventures in the North Atlantic in 1943, then later that year, went to the South Pacific seas.  She ended up in Mobile, Alabama as a National Historic Landmark and memorial to millions.

Home to a crew of 2,500 courageous Americans, this 45,000 ton gentle giant’s WWII adventure culminated with BB-60 leading the American Fleet into Tokyo Bay on September 5, 1945.  Nine Battle Stars for meritorious service were awarded the “Mighty A” during her brief three year tenure as the “Heroine of the Pacific”.

Most American warships end their useful life after wartime, but ALABAMA was destined to live another day. In May 1962, the Federal Government announced that BB-60 and others would be scrapped, but a forward-looking group of Mobilians and other Alabamians saw a bright future in the aging warship.  They envisioned the ALABAMA as the anchor attraction of a Veterans Memorial Park to be located in Mobile.  That impossible dream came true on January 9, 1965 when USS ALABAMA Battleship Memorial Park opened to the public.

More than fifteen million visitors later and a statewide economic impact approaching one billion dollars, the Park is easily the most recognizable symbol of the State of Alabama.”

A more detailed history can be found at:

The Battleship USS Alabama

Related image


I took a short tour – similar to a tour I took of the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier in San Diego last year.  Although I stood fervently against the Vietnam War and believe that most military undertakings in the last 50 years have been misguided and wasteful of resources and lives, it is impossible to visit a ship like this or the USS Midway and see the photos and films of the War in the Pacific in WWII and not appreciate the sacrifices of the men and women who fought in them and the sad need for such sacrifice.  There is a much closer connection to the military in the South than in many other areas of the country.  It is a cultural factor.  Seeing this historical ship helped me understand that – whatever I may think of current conditions.

My usual procedure when I am traveling is to exchange the mini SD card from my camera and the one in my tablet to review photos.  I knew from this experience the previous night that the photos with the rented lens were not super crisp and photos from this day were about the same – and I had to take most of the blame myself just not being steady with the large lens.  I vowed to do better the next morning.  I joined Emma Rhodes – Coastal Assistant Biologist at Birmingham Audubon – at Pelican Island on Dauphin Island who graciously allowed me to join her on her coastal bird survey that morning.  We were also joined by Orin Robinson, a graduate student at Cornell and a native of the area.  I was by far the least talented birder in this group as had been the case with Larry Gardella the day before.

With Emma Rhodes and Orin Robinson at Pelican Island


We had excellent weather and excellent birds – 32 species in all including 13 shorebird species, 8 gulls and terns and 4 waders.  The highlights were the Snowy and Piping Plovers, some Red Knots and an incredible fly-by stream of over 3000 Double Crested Cormorants – more than any of us had seen at one time – ever.

Snowy Plovers

Snowy Plover1

Snowy Plover r

Red Knot

Red Knot r1

There were hundreds of terns – primarily Royal but also some Sandwich Terns and many Black Skimmers.

Sandwich Terns (Yellow Tip on Bill Visible)

Sandwich Terns

Black Skimmers

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2018-11-07 17.06.48

It was a beautiful beach with very white sand which was good for the many crabs we saw skittering back into their holes and also great background for close up Dunlin and Short Billed Dowitcher photo ops.  We also found a single Marbled Godwit which was a life bird for Orin – a real treat for the day.

Crab on the Beach




Short Billed Dowitcher

Short Billed Dowitcher1

We hiked back about 1.4 miles to the car and headed over to the Airport – by now very familiar to me.  We heard a number of Clapper Rails but never got a visual.  Same with Sedge Wren.  Emma was most interested in a Nelson’s Sparrow and tried to lure one out with playback.  There was no response, but when we tried Seaside Sparrow we got fleeting looks at one and then a second bird that responded with quick inquiries before disappearing in the dense grass.  Emma did not have tall boots so we did not follow it into the swamp to try for a photo.  (I filed this away for future reference.)

A rare Varied Thrush had been reported in a woodlot on the Island.  We gave it our best shot but were unable to locate this bird that I can find regularly at Yost Park about a quarter mile from my home.  We ended the day with 42 species seen.  Had I not already had a great day with Larry the day before, I could easily have gotten over 50 species again with short visits to a couple of different habitats, but that was no longer important.  It had been a really great morning with two outstanding ornithologists/ birders with yet another great Dauphin Island experience.  Two more were ahead.

After a thank you and goodbye to Emma and Orin, I returned to the Airport bolstered by the quick view of the Seaside Sparrow earlier.  Just as I was putting on the rubber boots I had used at the Yellow Rails and Rice Festival and to head out into the muck, I saw movement in a small channel next to the grass.  There was only about 5 seconds before it disappeared, but I now had a second photo of a Clapper Rail.

Clapper Rail

Clapper Rail1


I plodded out hoping it would reappear – but not this time.  I switched gears and thought “sparrow”.  This turned out to be one of the best and worst moments of my trip.  When I got out about as far as I could go in the area where Emma had called out one an hour earlier, I played the various songs and calls for Seaside Sparrow.  A minute or so later in what may have been a delayed response, a very dark sparrow flew in very close.  My inexperienced brain played a trick on me.  I had noted so many dark Savannah Sparrows in the Louisiana rice fields that I initially processed it as another one.  Too late I remembered that Seaside Sparrows are also very dark and in fact larger than Savannahs.  This was a relatively large sparrow.  Just as my poor brain put two and two together, the bird that had been in the open (sort of) disappeared.  I spent another half hour trying for a repeat performance.  There was another brief appearance of what I am sure was the same bird, but this time no perching and it was 20 yards further away.  No photo.

Disappointed I headed off to Mississippi for my next adventure.  That will be covered in my next blog post, and this is where I am going to go out of chronological order and share my last visit to Dauphin Island, after Mississippi, on the morning before my flight home from Mobile.  And now my brain was thinking only Seaside Sparrow.  Before heading into the grass, I noticed some movement out on the airport runway.  It was a distant Red Fox – always a welcome observation and I took it as a good omen.

Red Fox

Red Fox2

Back into the mud – to the same spot where a Seaside Sparrow had made a brief appearance before.  It took about 20 minutes, but finally a large dark sparrow made an appearance hiding in the grass about 10 yards.  Maybe if I had my own lens set up I might have been able to focus through the layers of grass – maybe…  I did the best I could and then got a tail end photo as it flew into some closer reeds and then disappeared.  Barely ID quality photos but the yellow “supraloral” is discernible and given all of the previous failed attempts, these photos – my first of this species – will have to do.  Someday I will get better ones – but these made me very happy.

Seaside Sparrow

Seaside Sparrow 3r

Seaside Sparrow 2

Seaside Sparrow

Pleased with the morning but with time to kill, I revisited Pelican Island and walked the same loop covered earlier with Emma and Orin.  Similar birds as seen with them but without the giant Cormorant fly over.  If you get the impression I really liked Dauphin Island, you are correct.


It was time to return the lens to Calagaz, return the car to Hertz and head home.  It would be a long wait at the airport, but the long week of early mornings and not enough sleep had taken its toll.  If it were possible to take an earlier flight, I probably would have paid the premium and taken it.  No such option.  I did some reading, edited some photos and actually dozed off for an hour or so.  It had been an excellent visit.  Altogether I had seen 100 species in Alabama.  I had added two ABA Life photos bringing me to 693 species photographed.  I had hoped for photos of Sedge Wren and both Yellow Rail and King Rail, but given the camera woes I was pleased with the two new photos I did get – the glass is not half empty; it is half full – actually way more than half.

Some reflections: (to be added later)





Yellows Rails and Rice

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

Glossy Ibis

White Faced Ibis – (Photo from Sprague Lake, Washington) Note how white surrounds the eye.

White Faced Ibis in Pond

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)

White Tailed Kite

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

Great Tailed and Boat Tailed Grackles.jpg

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

Yellow Rail

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

img_3704.jpg IMG_3719.JPG

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

Image result for Crayfish  Related image

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.