#452-454 on Boxing Day

The New Orleans area Christmas Bird Counts were organized too late for me to participate–I’d already made my plane reservations so I could be available for the Orange County Counts–but my brother Tommy offered to take me out to Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge in St. Tammany Parish to look for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. This is an endangered species that depends on relatively rare stands of mature pine, much like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, only not quite as endangered/extinct yet.

Tommy told me that all we had to do was drive up to the parking lot, and we’d get one. yeah, right. It wasn’t quite that easy. However, we did find a Brown-headed Nuthatch in the parking lot so we got at least one life bird there, #452. We saw several of these throughout the day. Here’s one from a little later. Look on the left side of the tree near the top, above the Red-bellied Woodpecker:

Brown-headed nuthatch climbing down a dead tree

We had some maybe calls from a Red-cockaded Woodpecker, and found some holes that looked like they might be woodpecker nests, but not actual birds, so we tramped off down the boardwalk. Clapper Rails were calling from the marsh, but we never saw them. White Iis and Plegadis Ibis flew over frequently, as did American White Pelicans. We also saw one large perched raptor Tommy wanted to call an immature Bald Eagle, but I was a little more cautious. Still not certain what it was, but Red-tailed Hawks come in a lot of strange plumages. Good rule of thumb when you think you’ve found a rare bird: if it’s possible it might be a funky-looking common bird, it probably is.

At the end of the boardwalk we turned right and followed the path one and half miles or so out to Lake Pontchartrain. Tommy expect to find shorebirds here, but the mudflats were uncharacteristically empty. A few possible Lesser Yellowlegs were visible in the distance , and some herons and egrets; but overall the marshes were pretty quiet.

However on the way back we heard some tapping and some calls. Red-Cockaded Woodpecker!? Nope, Downy Woodpecker. Then we heard some more. This time? Nope, Red-bellied Woodpecker. But third time was the charm, and a little further on, we found this cooperative soul working some dead trees:

Woodpecker with white cheek and striped back climbing tree

#453, and the only clearly Red-cockaded Woodpecker we saw all day. We did, however, also pick up some Carolina Chickadees, a Pine Warbler, an American Kestrel, and an Osprey on the walk back. (The latter two we saw almost simultaneously: I was wondering how Tommy could confuse a Kestrel with an Osprey and he was wondering how I could mistake an Osprey for a Kestrel. Turns out we were both right.)

We left the refuge about 11:15 and drove back to New Orleans over I-10. I mentioned to Tommy that I’d love to see some Mottled Ducks, so we decided to drive through Irish Bayou and see if we could pick any up in Bayou Sauvage. We stopped at several likely locations, but no luck. Just usual Mallards, Scaup, Ruddy Ducks, Ring-necked Ducks, Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal, and such. At the final stop off highway 90, we thought we heard a Clapper Rail. so Tommy pulled out his iPod and started playing the Clapper Rail call to see if we could draw it out. Well what to our wondering eyes should appear but but a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer! No wait, that was yesterday; but what actually walked out was almost as surprising: a King Rail, #454:

Big bird at water's edge

That certainly capped off the day. It’s been a while since I managed three life birds in one day in my home state. Never did find the Mottled Ducks though. Oh well, there’s always next year.

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