Monday, December 26, 2011

Birds flock to New Orleans

Louisiana's Christmas Bird Count is full of surprises

Ashley Crawford, The Times-Picayune 
What does a Green-tailed Towhee, Great Kiskadee and Say's Phoebe have in common? They are rare birds in Louisiana circles and have been spotted during the ongoing Audubon Christmas Bird Count.
burrowing-owl.JPGView full sizeThe burrowing owl is a western bird that is rarely found along Louisiana’s coast in the winter, so Grand Isle Christmas Bird Count participants were excited to see it.
Bird lovers across the nation are taking part in the annual census this holiday season, a census that seeks to identify and collect data on species types and population trends for scientific research.
In its 112th year, the Christmas Bird Count runs through Jan. 5. Each tally takes place in a 24-hour span and all bird sightings within a 7 ½-mile radius are recorded, according to David Muth, state director for the National Wildlife Federation's Mississippi River Delta Restoration Coalition.
In Louisiana, there are 28 count circles, including one in New Orleans.
Melanie Driscoll, director of Bird Conservation for the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi Flyway for the National Audubon Society, said the Christmas counts allow for fun incentives such as trying to discover and observe rarities in the field.
"The fun for birders is in seeing rare and endangered birds," she said. "It's a neat way to go out and pursue a hobby and a passion."
Last year, Louisiana boasted the highest number of species in the nation, Driscoll said.
"You get to see amazing spectacles here, spectacles like water birds, and we take pride in our nature here," she added.
The counts are not only fun for birders, but they also provide a valuable index of information for scientists.
bird-watchers.JPGDavid Muth and Melanie Driscoll count Roseate Spoonbills and a flock of sandpipers and other shorebirds.
Data collected during the Christmas counts are housed in the Audubon database and will be used for analysis and scientific research, said Erik Johnson, Audubon's conservation biologist for the Gulf Coast and Mississippi Flyway.
The counts also provide useful habitat information for Audubon's bird preservation program, Important Bird Areas, Driscoll said.
"It's always a thrill seeing exciting species and identifying important bird areas, one of the key conservation programs," she said.
So far, this year's Louisiana count has been full of surprises.
"This has been an amazing winter, full of rarities," Johnson said. "So many exciting birds have been found."
Johnson said that one rare bird he has observed is the Green-tailed Towhee. It is easily recognized by its gray chest and bright green upperparts and is typically found in the West.
"It hasn't been spotted in Louisiana for about 15 years," he said.
Another rare find was the Great Kiskadee. Known for its distinct voice, this tropical bird is usually found in Texas.
"That's what's so great about the Christmas Bird Count," Muth said. "You'll see patterns and trends and be able to compare them from past years."
Johnson and Muth attributed the rare sightings to droughts in other parts of the country and population changes.
But the yearly ornithological census is not just for experts and experienced bird watchers.
Novices are always welcome to join count circles and no experience is necessary, Driscoll said.
"There are always opportunities for people to enjoy and learn without fully knowing," she said. "It's really a great way to just get out and enjoy the outdoors and learn a little more about birds."
To participate, beginners can simply observe and count birds in their own backyards.
Johnson said the best way to attract birds is to put out feeders and take note of the different birds that come by. Information gathered can then be turned in to local count compilers.
"The count really provides valuable knowledge," Driscoll said. "It is good for not only the birds, but also for people."
To learn more about the count, or to get involved, visit Audubon's website at
Ashley Crawford can be reached at or 504.826.3784.

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