Let the symphony begin -- It's bird time
By: JOHN K. FLORES
From above the canopy of the bottomland hardwoods, rays of light stretch through the branches of the trees to the forest floor below. Much like a child yawning, pushing his arms through the air, the light ushers in a new day.
Kissing the leaves of the cottonwood, sycamore and overcup oaks, the sunlight spills onto briars, rubus and ferns that make up the hardwood’s carpet — creating brilliant hues of yellow and green.
Somewhere, a red-breasted woodpecker taps like a conductor. The chirping sound from insects gathered before daylight become quiet and suddenly the morning is filled with music provided by a choir of songbirds.
The surrounding woods, swamps and marshes that make up the Atchafalaya Basin are not only major thoroughfares for some migrating birds but also act as important wintering and breeding grounds for others. As certain species leave, others arrive, and early spring is the perfect time of year to enjoy watching these temporary visitors.
“It’s just a phenomenal place as far as bird densities and breeding,” said Michael Seymour, Non-game Avian biologist for the Louisiana Heritage Program — an arm of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “Data shows that it has one of the densest populations of songbirds in the entire U.S. During the early part of spring, you have wintering birds that are kind of hanging out later. Some waterfowl are leaving, and some waders that may have gone further south are coming in. I’ve seen birds, like gold finches that nest just north of us, stick around a pretty long time.”
There are over 3,000 species of birds that live in the neotropic region of Central and South America. Approximately 150 of those neotropic species migrate to North America each spring to their breeding grounds. Considering there are roughly 900 species of birds in North America, there is a significant number that make the Atchafalaya Basin their destination of choice.
What makes the Atchafalaya Basin so important and popular to these travelers is driven by the richness of the ecosystem in both habitat and food sources.
“In general, things go south to find food resources,” Seymour said. “Ducks, for instance, are forced south because the waters are freezing, and they’re trying to find open water to forage. For things like birds that you find in the woods, they’re searching out fruits, insects and other invertebrates. The insects up north are either going to be hibernating, so to speak, dead, or in a lifecycle where they are buried underneath several feet of snow. Obviously, we have mosquitoes — even in the winter here — so birds, like warblers and swallows, will eat those.”
Raptors, such as the Coopers and Sharp-shinned hawks, also migrate to the region in search of food sources. That food source is often the smaller birds they follow that make the region their temporary winter home. What’s more, Seymour admits that these birds are the ones he gets the most complaints about when they pick off small birds at residential backyard feeders. Unfortunately, raptors have to eat, too.
For neotropic songbirds that leave such a cornucopia in the basin and migrate south into Mexico and Central America, it is theorized this may be due to less competition for food resources or possibly a total change in diet, Seymour says. But, it is the basin’s habitat that causes them to return to breed each spring.
“The Atchafalaya Basin is still one of the largest continuous tracks of bottomland hardwood forest in the United States,” Seymour said. “One of the things I’ve learned is you can walk into the forest in the basin, and let’s say the trees look 30 years old. They are already 40 to 50 feet tall. That same forest, say in the northern U.S., would look like dwarfs by comparison basically and not all that impressive. But here, the soils are so good and the growing season so long it produces plants that do so well, where that leads to more insects and in turn leads to more birds. They’re coming back to the Atchafalaya Basin because it’s certainly and absolutely one of the richest places in the U.S., as far as productivity.”
The Atchafalaya Basin also serves as an excellent stage and important habitat for capturing and banding birds for the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship, or MAPS, program each year that the LDWF participates in. MAPS monitoring helps avian biologists by providing critical population and bird distribution estimates, which becomes vital information for conservation and management efforts.
Each spring through summer, Seymour and a group of technicians, typically graduate students, set up mist nets to capture and band birds in the basin. The nets are set up in pairs at three different sites, then opened and checked simultaneously after a prescribed time period to compare data. Additionally, the captures are completed in different timber harvests and natural areas
Unlike waterfowl, where biologists know the birds they are targeting to band, Seymour refers to his studies as captures because of the number he and his technicians release and don’t band.
“Some of the larger birds we catch, we don’t carry bands for, and so we just don’t band them,” Seymour said. “That’s why I say capture. Hummingbirds, you also need a special permit for. When they get caught, they’re released immediately, so they don’t get stressed out. But, we band around 2,800 captures each year.”
Besides waterfowl, most locals know and are familiar with common flocking winter birds, such as swallows and robins. But, other winter birds hanging around until spring include golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-rump warblers, myrtle warblers and blue gray gnatcatchers.
Neotropics arriving in the spring can be breathtaking. Novice birdwatchers will become speechless at the first glimpse through a pair of binoculars or camera lens of a prothonotary warbler, indigo or painted bunting.
Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge, Lake Martin Bird Sanctuary, Sherburne Wildlife Management Area, Bird City at Jungle Gardens on Avery Island and Jefferson Island are all places within close driving distance of St. Mary Parish.
Neotropical migrants move into and through the Atchafalaya Basin beginning in mid-March to mid-May. Wintering birds tend to leave between early April and early May. It’s during this period where good birders can generate daily lists of more than 125 birds that include migrant, wintering and residential birds. Checklists are available at www.birding.com.
With March and April the prime months to enjoy bird watching, the beauty of the basin rests at the doorsteps of St. Mary, where each spring brings a symphony and majestic display for all to see.
If you wish to make a comment or have an anecdote, recipe or story to share, contact John K. Flores at 985-395-5586 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.