Caddo Lake count: Birds of the Piney Woods
DUNCANVILLE, TEXAS — Saturday, Jason Pike and I took part in the 14th annual Caddo Lake Warm-up Winter Bird Count, a joint effort of the Northeast Texas Field Ornithologists and the Shreveport-based Bird Study Group. The count is always held on the first Saturday of December, so it isn’t a Christmas Bird Count, but it is conducted in the same way, with teams birding territories inside a 15-mile circle.
This circle straddles the Texas-Louisiana border and surrounds Caddo Lake. Caddo is the only naturally formed lake in the entire state of Texas, but it has been dammed and regulated by humans for the last century or so. It’s a beautiful and eerie maze of sloughs, bayous, bald cypress swamps, and marshes in the heart of the Piney Woods forests. This is the sixth year that Jason and I have done the count together (2001-05, 2007).
We begin the day on Big Cypress Bayou at Caddo Lake State Park. Flickers’ yelps carry over the mirror-like bayou, and a Fish Crow flies overhead, honking. We strain to see tiny passerines at the top of big old trees: Golden-crowned Kinglet, Pine Warbler, Brown Creeper, Red-breasted Nuthatch. Goldfinches dangle from high-up sweetgum balls; juncos feed among the cypress knees.
Dense shrouds of spanish moss grizzle the naked cypresses. The trees have shed their feathery branchlets, and their small brown cones are mature.
Swamp forest around the slough intergrades with mixed pine-hardwood forest as the ground slopes upward. Winter and Carolina wrens; White-breasted, Red-breasted, and Brown-headed Nuthatches; both kinglets; waxwings; Pine and Yellow-rumped warblers; Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers; and Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, and Pileated Woodpeckers were among the morning’s birds.
Most of the area Jason and I cover is wooded, so we struggle to find open-country species like Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, and meadowlarks. This year, we found two red-tails and a Loggerhead Shrike, but we missed kestrels and meadowlarks. The area is also very rural. I don’t recall ever seeing a House Sparrow on our route, and the 12 starlings that we saw this year were more than we usually get — we’ve missed them entirely some years.
We also have very little open water, so we rarely get many waterfowl. This year we had 20 Wood Ducks, two Mallards, and 50 flyover Snow Geese (which was actually a good find). We couldn’t find a coot to save our lives.
Here’s what Caddo Lake looks like on a map:
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But here’s what it looks like in reality:
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You can see that there is very little open water on the Texas side of the lake; it’s mostly swamp.
Sadly, the complex Caddo ecosystem is vulnerable and deteriorating. One of many concerns is invasive exotics like water hyacinth, giant salvinia, and nutrias. It’s not a new story, really. The Caddo Indians who inhabited these lands were driven out long ago by invaders from far away. A few of their descendants still survive in Oklahoma, but their language — the language from which the word “Texas” is derived — is almost extinct.
All of the green stuff in the water is water hyacinth, an invasive exotic from South America. It seems like we see more of it each year that we do the count.
There is a joy and comfort in getting to know a place and its birds — in expecting a Winter Wren on a certain stretch of road (yes, again), Inca Doves in Karnack (none) or Uncertain (three), Savannah Sparrows at the corner (yes) and chippies in the field (never fails). And of course, there are often surprises too — a woodcock sitting out in the sun, a very late Snowy Egret, or hundreds of Rusty Blackbirds flocking at dusk. This year, there were no woodcocks, snowies, or rusties, but we did have an Osprey overhead at the state park. Ospreys have been recorded on seven of the 14 counts so far. But we did even better than that — we found a bird that was not only new for the count but even for the Caddo Lake bird list:
As we finished a picnic lunch at Crip’s Camp, I noticed something brown against the cattails. It swayed gently in the breeze, like a clump of dead grass. “Too bad,” I thought. “Would have made a nice bittern.” I raised my binocs anyway — and gasped out loud. It was a bittern!
I’m not sure why bitterns haven’t been recorded at Caddo before. I guess it’s a combination of their secretive ways and the fact that habitat isn’t plentiful in the region. This bird hung out near a tiny patch of cattails, snapping up small fish. Through Jason’s scope, I marveled at its intricately patterned feathers and astonishingly deceptive swaying motions when the breeze blew.
And a closing shot. I found this white morph White-throated Sparrow feasting on American Beautyberry fruits.