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Search and Serendipity | A birder's blog. "Bird by bird, I've come to know the earth" –Neruda

Painted Redstart in Ocean Springs, Mississippi!

2012 January 20
by David J. Ringer

On Jan. 5, Nancy Madden found a Painted Redstart just east of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, on the Jackson County Christmas Bird Count. The bird has been seen every day since. I was in Mississippi today for an event at the Pascagoula River Audubon Center, and what was I going to do, just drive right past the bird without stopping? Ha.

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The famous and spectacular Belle Fontaine Painted Redstart (Myioborus pictus), Mississippi’s second record! The only other record for the state is a sight record from Oct. 5, 1987, by Judy Toups and several others.

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The bird is spending most of its time in a couple of live oaks within sight of the Gulf of Mexico. (I wonder how many other eBird checklists include both Painted Redstart and Brown Pelican?)

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It turns out that the redstart is sticking close to one particular tree because a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is maintaining a series of sap wells in some of the limbs (note small holes visible here). The redstart is feeding from the wells.

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It is also catching insects frequently (this fly, for example). Perhaps the sap wells are attracting more insects? In any case, it seems to be a pretty good deal for the redstart.

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The bird’s genus name, Myioborus, means fly-devourer.

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Marsha Kazal, who led us to the bird today, points up to the redstart tree. I wondered how many other Painted Redstarts in history had been seen by observers in heels — not the usual attire for reaching their montane homes!

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My buddy Moz was entertained by my multitasking. Photo © Mozart Mark Dedeaux

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Cajun country Christmas Bird Count highlights in pictures

2011 December 19
by David J. Ringer

It’s Christmas Bird Count time again! I did my first CBC back in 2000 and have been hooked ever since, taking part in counts in Missouri, Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana over the years.

This weekend, I did three consecutive counts in remote southwest Louisiana: the Lacassine NWR-Thornwell, Sabine NWR, and Sweet Lake-Cameron Prairie NWR counts. These were all new counts for me. I had a blast and saw somewhere north of 130 species on the three counts combined. Caracaras, a White-tailed Kite, owls, shorebirds, and a thousand Sandhill Cranes were some of the highlights. Here are some more, in pictures:

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This immature or female Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) vogued on a cable over a canal.

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Friday was foggy, wet, and windy as a cold front pushed slowly through Louisiana. Despite low water levels, Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge held thousands of ducks and geese. This shot shows a distant flock of Green-winged Teal and Northern Pintail in the air. Start counting!

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Some Common Yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas) overwinter in the Southeast. Secretive skulkers in reeds and brush, they’re easiest to find this time of year by listening for their husky chip notes in suitable habitat.

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Big pink bird! Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) are definitely one of the joys of birding in Louisiana.

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Saturday dawned clear and chilly. Spectacular flights of American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) consistently wowed us. Thousands of geese and other waterbirds moved overhead throughout the day as well.

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At one point, more than 600 white pelicans streamed past us from east to west out over the Gulf of Mexico. They moved in long, undulating lines that were hypnotizing to watch.

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Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) — including this immature — showed off too but in smaller numbers than their northern cousins.

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A fast, powerful falcon with broad-based wings — must be a Merlin (Falco columbarius) silhouetted in the morning glare. I love me a good Merlin flyby!

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The beach held densely packed groups of loafing gulls and terns. This shot shows four gull species — first-cycle Herring at the top left corner, second-cycle Lesser Black-backed at the top right, Laughing with their heads tucked resting, and a Ring-billed alone in front — and two species of tern, the large Royal and the smaller Forster’s.

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Fields and dry rice paddies north of the coast were jammed with sparrows, including this Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum). We had nine Grasshopper Sparrows on one day — and a whopping 1,700 Savannah Sparrows!

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Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) from all across North America winter in huge numbers in south Louisiana, resulting in a spectacle not only in the sheer number of birds but in the variety of plumages and morphs represented. This is a fairly heavily marked immature bird.

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And this, by contrast, is a very pale immature Krider’s type red-tail showing an extensively white head and tail and mostly white underparts with buffy tones. Krider’s is a pale population from the northern prairies of North America but intergrades extensively with the darker eastern red-tails. They’re always very striking and a lot of fun to watch.

Next count coming up on Wednesday! With any luck, I’ll get in six different counts this year.

Wintering Black-chinned Hummingbird in Louisiana

2011 November 13
by David J. Ringer
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This immature male Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri) was hanging in a lush patch of turk’s cap (or wax mallow, Malvaviscus) on Grand Isle, Louisiana, yesterday. He’s either a late migrant or a wintering bird; Black-chinned Hummingbird is one of the western species that winters in low numbers across southern Louisiana.

Identification of dark juvenile Parasitic Jaeger offshore of Louisiana

2011 October 2
by David J. Ringer

We encountered a dark juvenile jaeger on last weekend’s Mississippi Canyon pelagic birding trip out of Venice, Louisiana. The bird was far offshore, near the edge of the canyon. We identified it as a possible Parasitic Jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus) in the field, but of course, identification of jaegers is very complex, and as photographs made the rounds over the last week, they sparked quite a bit of discussion. I’ve pulled together several images of the bird here, thanks to four generous photographers. Images belong to them and are used with permission.

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Zac Loman got a great shot of the bird on the water. It’s a very dark individual, lacking much of the streaking and barring typical of lighter and intermediate birds. Its outer primaries show no pale tips. The undertail is barred with brown and a pale orange-buff/cinnamon color. Parasitic Jaegers that are this dark look very similar to dark juvenile Pomarine Jaegers (though can Pomarines this dark show orange/cinnamon tones?). Note that structurally, the bird looks small headed with a slender neck and a fairly slim bill.

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Much discussion centered on two features: the bird’s greater under primary coverts and its central rectrices (tail feathers). Interpretation is highly contingent on the quality of the photographs; for example, in this distant shot by Erik Johnson, the bird appears to show pale-based coverts — creating a “double flash” on the underwing — and blunt-tipped central rectrices, both of which support an identification as Pomarine Jaeger.

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In this shot by Dave Patton, the central rectrices also look blunt.

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But this Dave Patton shot shows the greater under primary coverts more clearly, and they do not appear to be extensively pale-based. Instead, they seem fairly heavily barred, though this shot has some motion blur on the wing. Note that juvenile Parasitic Jaegers can show barring on these coverts (see this striking example). But juvenile Pomarines can show extensively pale bases to these coverts, perhaps with faint smudging but contrasting strongly with the median under primary coverts and barred and dark only on the outer portion (see here and here).

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Here’s another look at the underwing in this shot by Justin Bosler.

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And this money shot, also by Justin, shows the underwing again but is also the best shot I’ve seen of the bird’s central rectrices, which appear at this angle and in reasonably sharp focus to be pretty sharply pointed. What’s also visible in this shot, and in some others on this page, is that the bird’s feet are black only for about half of their length. (See large size.)

Putting it all together, then, I believe that if I’m interpreting the images correctly, the combination of pointed central rectrices, barred greater under primary coverts, a smaller head and finer bill, and half-black feet all point toward an ID of Parasitic Jaeger. Parasitic Jaeger is on the Louisiana Bird Record Committee’s review list. Below are some additional images, and I welcome comments, questions, and alternative or supporting interpretations.

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Showing small cinnamon tips on scapulars and greater coverts on the upperwing. © Justin Bosler

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Another look at the upper surface of the wings. © Dave Patton

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© Dave Patton

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Central rectrices look pointed in this shot by Erik Johnson. I think this supports the sharper image by Justin Bosler above; this image alone might be a tough sell.

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Harassing a Bridled Tern (Onychoprion anaethetus). © Erik Johnson

Pelagic birding in the Gulf of Mexico: Mississippi Canyon in September

2011 October 1

Last weekend, I joined 18 other birders from Louisiana and Mississippi on pelagic trip from Venice, La., organized by Justin and Devin Bosler. Our destination was the Mississippi Canyon, a deep gash in the continental shelf edge about 40 miles south of Grand Isle, La.

Pelagic birding in the Gulf of Mexico is famously less productive than off our Pacific and Atlantic coasts. However, the Mississippi River Delta’s long, finger-like projections out across the continental shelf and the deep underwater Mississippi Canyon lie close enough together to offer day-tripping birders one of the best shots at true deep-water pelagic birds anywhere on the northern gulf.

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Sure enough, about three and a half hours after an early-morning departure from Venice, we had reached deep blue water at the edge of the canyon and there came upon our first tubenose of the day: a Cory’s Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea). Cory’s Shearwater is a large shearwater (in fact, its species name refers to albatrosses) that breeds on islands in the Mediterranean Sea and North Atlantic Ocean.

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We were trying to see and photograph the underside of this bird’s primaries to try to see whether it looked like an Atlantic or Mediterranean bird, but it never got far enough off the water to offer a glimpse. Both subspecies have been documented in the Gulf of Mexico. This individual is in molt; note worn, brownish outer primaries and the crisper, grayer inner primaries growing in. It’s molting secondaries too. Birds like this are thought to be immature birds too young to breed that wander the oceans until they are sexually mature.

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Our second shearwater of the day was an unfortunate Audubon’s Shearwater (Puffinus lherminieri) that was under attack by several Magnificent Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens).

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The shearwater kept diving underwater in an apparent attempt to escape the frigatebirds’ relentless pursuit.

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This shot shows the dark undertail coverts and relatively long rectrices that separate Audubon’s Shearwater from the much rarer (in these waters) Manx Shearwater.

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In the slow, sunny hours between bird sightings, other marine life kept us intrigued — especially the flying fish. These extraordinary fish launch themselves from the water into the air and beat their lower caudal (tail) fins rapidly across the surface of the water to provide thrust while spreading their huge pectoral and pelvic fins, which create lift and allow the fish to soar for several hundred feet across the surface of the water.

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Jellyfish, sea turtles, a shark, and cetaceans also caught our attention. You can see a video clip of bowriding bottlenose dolphins on my Facebook page.

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We encountered a few pelagic Bridled Terns (Onychoprion anaethetus), including one group of about 15 birds that were calling back and forth.

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We were rarely out of sight of Magnificent Frigatebirds — which is fine by me!

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As we left deep water, we arrived at a long line of floating wrack and sargassum, which brings with it an entire ecosystem of fish, sea turtles, and yes, birds. Black Terns (Chlidonias niger) swarmed over schools of fish. Black Terns were absent over the blue water, replaced by Bridled Terns, but over the continental shelf and along the sargassum line, they were present by the thousands.

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Frigatebirds don’t harass only smaller birds; they go after each other as well. This young bird had what looked like an eel, and a nearby adult female wanted it.

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Her dive forced the young bird to drop its prey.

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Ahhh. But good luck keeping it.

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On the rock jetties at the mouth of Tiger Pass, an entrance into the Mississippi River, we had a couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls among Herring Gulls and large numbers of Laughing Gulls and Brown Pelicans.

You can also check out Erik Johnson’s account of the day, and I’ll be doing a second post about a certain young jaeger we encountered.

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