Big river birds make for great CBC

2009 December 23

VICKSBURG, MISS. — My imagination is stuck on a sandbar in the Mississippi River. And yes, that’s a good thing … but I’d better back up and explain how it got there.

Yesterday was the Eagle Lake Christmas Bird Count, and we lucked out, scoring the only day this week that wasn’t cold or rainy. Eagle Lake is an oxbow lake north of Vicksburg. It is a former channel of the Mississippi River, and the Mississippi-Louisiana state line still runs through it, though the river shifted its course to the west long ago.

Along with Reid Bishop, Cory Toyota, and Mark Bonta (author of Seven Names for the Bellbird), I was assigned to cover Eagle Lake, Chotard Lake (another oxbow lake to the north), and a small section of the Mississippi River by boat — a CBC first for me.


While I was waiting for the other guys and the boat, I drove along the mainline levee listening for owls before sunrise (five Great Horned and nine Barred!) and then birded my way back to the Eagle Lake boat ramp, picking up Rusty Blackbird, Vesper Sparrow, and Hooded Merganser along the way.

At the boat ramp, I found a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, which was to be the first of four our group had during the day. Apparently they’re wintering over in good numbers this year.




I also had a Spotted Sandpiper on a rock structure near the boat ramp.

We tallied thousands of Ruddy Ducks and Double-crested Cormorants, hundreds of Buffleheads, gobs of coots (yes, that’s an actual unit of measure), and dozens of Bonaparte’s Gulls on the lake, plus two Anhingas, five Common Moorhens, and two Common Yellowthroats. No loons, but I guess you can’t have everything.


We hauled out, drove up to Chotard, and boated to the southern end of the oxbow, where we entered a cutoff that took us all the way to the Mississippi River itself. Heading across the river, we counted flyby Bonaparte’s Gulls and crossed the wake of a small barge. And then, as we approached a sandbar, something amazing happened.


Three hundred American White Pelicans swirled up from the tip of the sandbar, circled around, and came back in for a landing, feet and wings splayed.

We landed as the pelicans settled back down near the Ring-billed Gulls and Forster’s Terns, and then Mark saw them. Something different. Something really exciting — the kind of thing that you always hope for on a Christmas Bird Count.


Black-bellied Plovers! Five of them! I managed a record shot of three before they all moved over to an inaccessible spot, flashing black axillaries and white rumps as they flew. This species is a common winter resident on the Gulf Coast, but as far as I can tell, winter records this far inland are very scarce.


Mark Bonta counted Canada Geese on the other side of the sandbar…


…while Cory and Reid did, er, whatever it is that chemists do.


I kept drinking in the spectacle of all those pelicans, and the Forster’s Terns riding on driftwood down the mighty, swiftly moving river. And I kept thinking about the plovers — about the excitement our announcement would generate that night, yes, but also about their incredible journey and the life they were drawing from this wild, magnificent place with hardly a thought or a glance from man.


Related posts:

  1. Two Roseate Spoonbills on Vicksburg CBC!
  2. Vicksburg CBC: Exciting waterbirds abound
  3. Touring the Mississippi River delta
  4. Springfield CBC highlights
  5. Wood Storks, etc. at Mississippi River Nature Weekend
One Response
  1. December 24, 2009

    I’ve seen a lot of BG gnatcatchers here in Dallas this year as well. Maybe I’ve been blind before now, but they seem more abundant this winter than in winters past.

    Congratulations on the plovers! Great find indeed.

    Thanks for a good laugh with the “whatever it is that chemists do” remark. Too funny!

    And you went birding with Mark Bonta? Brother to Dave Bonta? Part of the Bonta clan of naturalists and linguistic legends and authors and all that jazz? Very cool. Very cool indeed.

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