Heart of Louisiana: Migratory birds

Published: Apr. 18, 2012 at 1:37 AM CDT|Updated: Jan. 30, 2013 at 10:39 AM CST
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Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge, La. -- If you have noticed a few more birds chirping in your neighborhood or out in the woods recently, there is a good reason for that.  We are in the midst of the annual northern migration of tropical songbirds.  And Louisiana is a big resting stop for many of those birds.

"There's a prothonotary warbler singing that sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet sound," says Melanie Driscoll, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society in Louisiana.  "It's a little yellow bird with blue-gray wings.  They used to call it the golden swamp canary."

In late spring, Louisiana's coastal forests are loaded with the sweet sounds of tropical songbirds.   They drop in by the millions.  It is a chance to rest and refuel on their migratory journeys that stretch from wintering grounds as far south as Argentina to breeding areas as far north as New England and Canada.

But spotting one of the tiny songbirds takes a keen eye and patience.

"Anytime you go birding, it's like fishing," Driscoll says.  "They don't call it catching, but it's always hunting.  I think that's what's so addictive for people about birding."

Driscoll is hooked on bird watching.  "You can see them courting each other, you can see them feeding young, and taking care of their mates and building nests, you can watch a lot of what they do," she tells us.

The trick is to find them.  They give up their identities and sometimes their location singing.  You watch for movement through the branches and treetops.  And with the help of binoculars or a long camera lens, you finally spot them.

We watched a pair of blue-gray gnatcatchers building a nest.  The birds return over and over, molding a nest into a tree branch.

"And then they start to bring in other materials like spider webs to hold it together, and for blue gray gnatcatchers they line the outside with lichen so that a nest just looks like part of a branch," says Driscoll.

A few trees away, an eastern tufted titmouse takes up residence in the cavity of a tree.  There is a yellow-throated warbler, and the colorful prothonotary warbler, posing just long enough to have their pictures taken.

Many of the migratory birds that stop in coastal Louisiana are exhausted when they arrive.  Usually, they have just finished one of the longest over water flights in North America.

"For those that choose to cross the Gulf of Mexico, when they leave land they have approximately 500 miles that they have to fly before they see land again," says Driscoll.

And for many, their first chance to land and get food is a forest near the Louisiana coast.  But the populations of migratory birds are declining.

"One o f the biggest factors for the most number of species in decline over the last 40 years probably has been habitat destruction," Driscoll notes.

In a way, Driscoll says, the birds are good indicators for humans of what we are doing to our environment and our own quality of life.

If you decide to try your skill at hunting these tiny migratory birds, be sure to bring a good pair of binoculars.  But most importantly, be patient, listen to the birds and look carefully and eventually you will discover their fascinating world.

Trees on Grand Isle are some of the first places where the migrating songbirds stop to rest.  That is where you will find the island's annual migratory bird celebration this Friday through Sunday.

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