Lafayette trip report: 3

I closed out my field trips at the convention with a bang on Sunday, riding a van driven by Donna Dittmann and Steve Cardiff into Jeff Davis, Calcasieu, and Cameron Parishes west of town. We hit the farmland (much of it in rice) and refuge impoundments and saw a surprising variety of birds from various families, some of them I expected and some that I didn’t—American Coot (Fulica americana) (known locally as the “Ivory-Billed Gallinule”), the spectacularly-plumed Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus), shorebirds, waders, Dickcissel (Spiza americana), grackles, larids, and the “wow” bird of the trip, Northern Caracara (Caracara cheriway). We saw phalaropes doing their signature spinning; stilts on the nest; a mixed flock of cormorants, ibis, spoonbills, and egrets scaring up food; a nighthawk hunkered down on a fencepost; Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibia) actually hanging out with cattle. Donna pointed out some remnants of damage from Hurricane Rita, but we remained 30 miles inland or so, so we didn’t see the evidence that Amy Hooper witnessed on her field trip to the coast. The casualty of the trip was the tripod mount from my scope, which shattered (probably as a result of my abuse), but it’s all good, ’cause the mount never worked that well for me. I exceeded my best expectations for lifers for the whole convention, crashing through the 350-species milestone to end at #357.

looking for warblersWe spent the day before east of Lafayette in the Atchafalaya Basin. We scraped up some warblers and my target bird for the trip, Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris), on a walk led in part by Jim Delahoussaye, who lives along the river. (I first saw this bunting in a movie (maybe it was one of the Batman flicks), and when I saw this impossible-looking bird, colored with blocks of green and cherry red and electric blue, I figured that I must be looking at CGI effects.)

fire antsJim helped illustrate why you don’t want to step on the fire ant mounds.

on the bayouThen it was on to the water in a flotilla of three gas-powered flatboats. I didn’t see anything new here, though someone eared a Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora pinus). But, as my seatmate Dick put it, this part of the trip was “kinda touristy, but cool.” Our destination, such as it was, was a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nest. When boatman Jacques finally cut the engine, the stillness was so deep that we could hear the eagle vocalizing.

I got lucky and had great weather for the whole trip, in the sense that I wasn’t birding in the rain or in a 30-knot gale. The storms that blew through came on our off day. The hardcore among us took the frontal movement as a cue to hare off into Cameron Parish hoping for a fallout. And the mosquitoes behaved themselves!

On Friday, David Sibley presented on the confusions, delusions, and self-fulfilling expectations of field ID, and told some entertaining war stories, including one about the time that he identified a bit of red flagging tied to a barbed-wire fence as a Vermilion Flycatcher. My subtitle for the talk would be, “Why You May Not Want to Scramble Off to Delaware Every Time Someone Reports a Rarity on the Hotline.”

The highlight of Friday’s chalk talks was a short presentation by Keith Ouchley of the Nature Conservancy on the natural provinces of coastal Louisiana—the alluvial valley (a/k/a bottomland hardwood forest), the savannah-like longleaf pine forest, and the coastal prairies and marshes. Each has been transformed in its own way by agroforestry, as the tallgrass prairie has been converted to rice and sugar cane farming; the pine woods planted in faster-growing loblolly pine; and the alluvial region literally burned to make room for soybeans. We learned that Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis), a pine woods specialist, is responding to artificial nest cavities built into the trunks of trees.


A recent rule change by USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) is likely to reduce the number of small farms overseas that seek organic certification (and hence, at least attempt to follow organic practices), as Samuel Fromartz reports. An inspection system that relies on self-policing, applicable only to imports, has been the norm.

The new USDA certification ruling arose out of a case involving an unnamed Mexican grower group that failed to detect a farmer using a prohibited insecticide and prevent empty fertilizer bags being used for crop storage—both of which violate USDA organic regulations. NOP blamed the problem on inadequate internal controls of the self-policing system and decided to ban the practice everywhere.

Unfortunately, the only beneficiaries of the new enforcement are likely to be large plantations, who can afford the more costly inspection and certification process. If smallholdings are taken out of organic production, prices to consumers here in the States will rise.


Via Botany Photo of the Day comes word of the First Annual Blogger Bioblitz. In honor of National Wildlife Week, April 21 – 29, participants

… from across the country will choose a wild or not-so-wild area and find how many of each different species—plant, animal, fungi and anything in between—live in a certain area within a certain time.

Backpacker citizen science

Plans are underway to establish the Applalachian Trail Mega-Transect, “a long-term collaborative project to comprehensively monitor changes in the mountain and valley environments” the the famous trail from Maine to Georgia traverses.

“The Appalachian Trail’s 2,174 miles are the spine of the world’s longest publicly owned greenway, a protected home for thousands of special species and for the legacies of the eastern mountains. Downwind and downstream is perhaps one-third of the U.S. population. What happens to the Trail environment soon will happen to that environment,” notes [David N.] Startzell…. “We have a long history of engaging citizens for public benefit, and this seems an ideal way to provide many more opportunities to a broader spectrum of the public.”

Watching an invasion

David A. Fahrenthold updates the status of the local population of northern snakeheads in the Potomac River and its tributary creeks, where the fish is an alien species.

…Snakeheads are thriving. Virginia state scientists who use electric current to stun and capture fish in these creeks used to catch one snakehead every five hours. This year, they got 6.9 fish an hour, nearly 35 times more.

But the snakeheads don’t appear to have had a serious impact on the river’s largemouth or smallmouth bass, which are also top predators in the river. Scientists say they believe this might be because the snakeheads prefer shallower water or different prey.

Gary Duke

Laura Erickson remembers her Ph.D. advisor Gary Duke and explains her really interesting dissertation research.

While I was rehabbing birds in the late 80s and early 90s, I had started puzzling through why nighthawks have brown, messy, smelly droppings once a day, much different from normal bird droppings.

Shunning invasive procedures to get to the bottom of nighthawk digestion, Erickson and Duke radiographed three birds while barium-laced food traversed their entrails.

Why we put pepper in the bird feeder

Via Tangled Bank, Coturnix interprets research by Joshua Tewksbury and Gary Nabhan into the two-part evolutionary strategy of hot chili pepper plants: the fruits are brightly colored, soft, and sweet-smelling in order to attract birds, but unpleasantly spicy to repel mammals. The team fed peppers to birds (a species of thrasher, specifically), which passed the seeds in a viable state; but the seeds of peppers fed to packrats and cactus mice were usually partially digested.