GRAND ISLE, LA (WVUE) - Earlier, as the sun was setting on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and Central America, millions of small song birds were taking flight on a nonstop crossing of the Gulf of Mexico. Wave after wave of migrating birds struggle through storms and the strong headwinds of a late-season cold front, passing offshore drilling platforms and shrimp trawlers before finally reaching land at Grand Isle.
"In the peak of bird migration, which is about late April, about 2.5 million birds a day are passing through South Louisiana on the way to their breeding grounds," said Erik Johnson with the Louisiana Audubon Society.
On a day like this, Grand Isle experiences a "fall-out" of birds that fill the few dozen acres of thick coastal forests.
"They've been just flying nonstop for 18 hours," Johnson said. "So they land here on Grand Isle. It's a beautiful day today, lots of insects out, and they just pack on as much food as they can so that they can re-accumulate the energy they need to continue that journey northward."
Johnson leads a team of volunteers who are catching and banding the traveling birds. Neighborhood school kids look on in amazement, watching the brightly colored tropical birds as they are banded, weighed and inspected before being released back into the wild
"We want to understand the long-term survivorship of birds, and we can use banded birds to help us understand pathways of migration," Johnson said.
Groves of oak trees were called cheniers by the early French settlers. And they
provide an oasis - a sort of full-service rest stop for the migrating birds. Grand Isle's trees are alive with the sounds of countless birds that are well-camouflaged in thick clusters of leaves.
"It's the only surviving inhabited barrier," said Jean Landry with the Nature Conservancy. "Islands with the hackberries and the live oaks. Here on Grand Isle we have some live oaks that are almost 500 years old."
The conservancy owns and manages all of the undeveloped forested land on Grand Isle.
"It protects the homes, it protects the wildlife, it protects our businesses. These trees
hold this island together," Landry said.
After their spring migration north, the birds return in the fall to this last stop before crossing the Gulf for their winter homes in the tropics. And during those migrations, you can walk the old trails through the Grand Isle forest and surround yourself with the sights and sounds of these small, colorful birds.
You can experience the spring bird migration this weekend, April 17-19).