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 

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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

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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.

Osprey

Osprey

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)

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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

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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…

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