Thursday, November 14, 2013

Rockin' and Rollin' in the home of the Blues, November 2

I started the day early at Thornwell looking for Sprague's Pipit on the airstrip along Aguillard Road.  Donna had told me that the combines would be working in the Thornwell area.  There was time for early morning birding, because cutting commences only after the rice has dried sufficiently.  I walked the short grass of the airstrip but found lots of Savannah Sparrows and some fly-by butter-butts, Yellow-rumped Warblers, showing their yellow butts going away.  There were two fly-over pipits, but they revealed their identity as American Pipits when they called.  Donna told me that we had permission to walk the airstrip.  There is a pond near the airstrip, loaded with American Avocets and Long-billed Dowitchers and waterfowl.  As I was walking the airstrip, Greater White-fronted Geese flew over me in large and small flocks.  I was thinking how cool this was.  Greater white-fronted Geese show up every year in Ohio, but are rare enough that they are a chase bird.  A Peregrine Falcon also flew over me as I walked the airstrip.

Soon Donna called me to tell me the exact location, just south of Thornwell and the close-by intersection of Aguillard and LA 582 on a farm road near some green tanks.  I drove out to the intersection of LA 582 to wait for their arrival in a white pick-up truck with kayak racks on the back.  Soon a white pick-up arrived followed by a van.  They entered the dirt road and stopped by the green tanks.  I drove over to join them.  This was apparently the group that Donna agreed to let me join when I first contacted her by email.  Soon Donna Dittman and Steve Cardiff arrived in their white pick-up with kayak racks on the back.  There are a lot of white pick-ups in Louisiana as well as in Texas.  White is a cooler color for a working or birding pick-up truck that gets parked out in the sun during the day.  Consequently, a white-pick-up is not really a good field mark to identify a specific truck to look for.  The kayak racks were the key field mark for the white pick-up truck that I was looking for.  The van included a group of birders from Massachusetts.  A woman with familiar face came over to introduce herself.  I had met Connie Schlotterbeck in March in Carlisle, MA near Boston when I got to see the Fieldfare.   It is a lot of fun meeting and then re-meeting birders as I travel around the country doing this Big Year.  Donna Dittman provided a bag full of goodies, including a poster of the Rice and Rail Festival, very good information about identifying rails in flight, necessary for rice harvest observations of rails, a bag of  bird friendly coffee and a bag of Louisiana rice.  I wish I had enough time to look through all of it before harvesting started. The tips on identifying the rails in flight are very good and very useful.  However, during the day, I learned them on the fly ( :>)  :>) pun intended)!  I signed my release form and was ready to go with my high boots on that I had used in Alaska and the dust mask provided in the package.  I was a gentleman and let three ladies go first riding on the combine with Donna.  An experienced person like Donna is required for safety reasons to ride with the rest of us first timers.  I had heard that one can see the rails well from the ground watching as the combine made its rounds.  I stood on an embankment near the green tanks to watch.  I had my scope and camera with me but soon found out that I had too much equipment.  I put my scope and tripod in the trunk of my rental car and kept my camera and my binoculars.  I could see rails flush near the combine, but most of them looked like Soras.  Soon it was my turn to get on the combine.  The first group had seen two Yellow Rails.  The first in an adjoining field that the farmer used as the entry point for the first field to be cut which was north of the green tanks and toward LA 582.  The second Yellow Rail was in the northeast corner of the first field to be cut.  By the time it was my turn to get on the combine, the Field Guides trip had arrived.   I got to sit in the "catbird" seat next to Richard, the farmer and driver.  There was less noise and dust inside.  I got to ask Richard a lot of questions about his farm and the combining.  However, there were some disadvantages to sitting inside to be discussed later.  We went around the field several times flushing lots of Soras, which were silvery gray and easily recognizable.  There were fewer Virginia Rails, which were smaller and darker with more red in the wing than the Soras, if the bill is not visible.  Of course, when the bill was visible on the flying Virginia Rails, the longer bill than for Sora was easily recognizable.  On the first pass around the field, a very large rail flushed, and was easily identified as a King Rail, converting my heard bird to a sight record for the year.  Way cool!  Now for a Yellow, short-hand for  Yellow Rails used by the farmers and birders.  On one pass, we had an American bittern stay in place for a very close look before it flushed quite close to the left of the combine!  Wow!  that was cool!  After about three passes, the combine stopped for additional birders to ride.  The Field Guides participants and one of the leaders had seen a Yellow Rail on the last pass just before the northeast corner.  I missed it!  Ouch!!  I started wondering if my eyes were failing me, and was a little chagrined that I could not see out to the left easily around the participants standing outside--but it was my choice to be inside, taking comfort in exchange for possibly missing a key bird!  However, I  found out later from one of the riders that the bird flew out to the left and back behind the combine.  There was no way that I could see this bird from inside.  The Field Guides group decided to break for lunch, and I stayed on the combine with Richard for multiple turns around the field and several stops to unload the rice.  Richard told me that he owned this equipment, unlike in some parts of the country were farmers hire an independent combiner to combine crops like wheat, corn and barley.  His farm was about 1780 acres, some apparently rented.  This was the second cutting of the rice crop.  The first in June-July harvests approximately four times more rice.  The stubble left in the fields after the first harvest grows back and yields the second harvest.  The combine holds about 80 barrels of rice with a barrel containing about 182 pounds of rice.  The trucks for unloading the combine hold about 80,000 pounds of rice. 
Unloading rice, standing rice and stubble
Unloading rice
Rice heads
We saw lots of Soras, a few Virginias but no Yellow!  Soon Richard stopped cutting and returned to the roadside near the truck.  There was a problem with the cutting  blade.  No oil.  While we waited for the oil delivery, Steve suggested a quick five minute run for Sprague's Pipit in a field south of Margeuax Road near LA 580, not far away.  This field had Sprague's Pipits last winter and may hold a few.  A few Sprague's Pipits had arrived in the area, according to Donna, but were still quite scattered.  The repairs took longer requiring a new oil filter, which had been torn when installed with an oil change just before starting the cutting today.   We had about an hour to look for Sprague's.  We walked the field on a farm owned by Richard's brother, because Donna and Steve knew him.  All other land is private and should not be entered without permission.
Sprague's Pipit field, beyond tire tracks in front of distant trees
We entered the field from LA 580 and walked west about 0.25 miles, flushing lots of Savannah Sparrows.  Savannah Sparrows do not fly very high and drop down into the grass after a relatively short flight.  I thought I saw two rather buffy birds that flew higher and back toward LA 580 as we headed west.  When we got close to the end of the field we swung north toward Margeaux Road on a leg west of and around the farm buildings hidden by the trees in the photo above.  Very soon Donna yelled and pointed skyward.  She had heard the distinctive flight call of the Sprague's Pipit as it flushed and flew up, up and circled back.  For me, this small bird was lost in the clear blue cloudless sky.  Steve picked it up.  Donna kept pointing at it as it circled and eventually I found it as it started to drop precipitously from very high.  I saw a small buffy bird with white under-tail coverts as it dropped.  The bright mid-day sun caught the white under-tail coverts and the buffy upper-parts and breast.  Donna located the landing spot and immediately called the Field Guides group who were headed back from lunch.  We waited until they arrived and walked out the long field to us to line up before we tried to find the bird in the grass on the ground.  When everyone was assembled in a line, we started walking slowly forward, scanning carefully to hopefully see the bird on the ground.  However, the Sprague's Pipit flushed about twenty to thirty feet in front of me, showing the white outer tail feathers, the buffy face and back as it flew up, up and away (like TWA!) until it became a tiny spec disappearing eventually in the distance to the west.  It did not call this time; however, I saw it well enough to identify it by sight and by its flight behavior.  Great bird and show!  Thanks Donna and Steve! 

By this time, the combine had been repaired.  Steve, Donna and I returned to the rice harvesting operation.  The Field Guides group stayed at the Sprague's Pipit field area to look for Le Conte's Sparrow in an adjoining field of higher grass.  When we arrived at the rice field, Richard had started cutting, but he stopped briefly in the field and motioned me to get on board.  By this time the uncut rice was getting smaller increasing the probability of seeing a Yellow.  On the first two circuits, we saw lots of Soras and a few Virginia Rails and one King Rail as they flushed in front of or to the side of the combine.  On the third or fourth circuit, Richard got excited and yelled there's a Yellow as a small dark rail flew up in front of the combine and then flew to the right landing out in the stubble.  As it spread its wings for landing, I could see the white in the secondary wing feathers.  Yes!  Yellow Rail!  Richard tooted the horn on the combine, which according to Steve is unusual for him.  Other combine drivers do it more readily when the sought after Yellow Rail is sighted.  Steve was outside in the field and noted where the Yellow Rail had landed.  I returned his thumbs up gesture!  By this time, the Field Guides tour group had arrived.  I got off the combine and let others get a ride.  I had lots of opportunity to enjoy riding the combine with Richard and seeing all the rails and particularly, my Big Year Yellow from that vantage point.  Everyone joined Steve to line up and walk through the stubble looking for the Yellow.  We walked right past or over it as it hid under the cut stalks laying on the stubble.  Steve walked again along the deeper tire tracks, picking up the thicker layer of cut stalks.  Eventually the Yellow Rail flew out, giving some in the  group a good view, and landed again  toward the edge of the field or back into the standing rice and disappeared again.  I joined the group and watched the remaining cutting in the first field and saw either the same or another Yellow flush from the last standing rice along with a group of about 6 to 10 Soras.  The Yellow Rail was smaller than the Soras, and the white in the wings was more readily visible from the ground on the Yellow.  I had brought some lunch with me and had no reason to leave.  This was too much fun with good company!  I decided to stay and continue to enjoy the rails and the experience.

Richard started cutting the second field, which was the first one that he entered to get access to the field just finished.  We knew that there was a Yellow Rail in this field, because Donna and the first three women had seen it there.  Steve asked if anyone wanted to join him in a five seater ATV with a  roof, to go the west edge of the field that Richard was cutting.  The sun was dropping by this time and the back-lighting from the west would be better for viewing.  I joined Steve.  The others stayed with Donna to get out in the field edge to get close views of the rails.  Steve and I saw lots of rails as the cutting continued.  On one circuit of cutting, Steve counted/estimated 40 Soras!  We saw several additional King Rails, one flew out towards us for a very close view.  We walked out in the field through relatively deep water to get a closer look, but no luck.  I saw about five King Rails well on this day to change the previous heard only records to sight records.  Flocks of White Ibis and Great and Snowy Egrets flew into the rice stubble to feed, taking advantage of the more open area with standing water.  Cattle Egrets followed the combine closely to grab food.  We also saw flocks of Greater White-fronted and Snow Geese flying over the area, as well as a small flock of about 25 Ross's Geese with a few larger Snow Geese mixed in with this group.  As the remaining standing rice got smaller, we started seeing the Yellow Rail flush with each pass.  Steve called Donna to tell them where to look.   The remaining group still trying to see or photograph rails got closer to the standing rice to wait for the Yellow.
Waiting for Yellow
On one of the last sweeps, the Yellow flew out of the standing rice, landed in the nearby stubble briefly giving great views to the group (see photo above) and then flew back into the rice or the nearby border.  Steve and I got great binocular views of this bird, showing the yellow face and under-parts, dark above and the white in the secondaries.  This was the best view of the day for me. Saved the best for last!  On our way back to the road on the ATV, a young Roseate Spoonbill landed in front of us for a photo.
Roseate Spoonbill
After the cutting of the second field was completed, we headed back to our vehicles parked at the nearby green tanks.  The farmers started heading to another area to cut or to the barn.  Richard told me that he would normally cut until about 10 pm, taking advantage of the good cutting weather.  As I packed up my gear, the sun was setting and mixed flocks of Greater White-fronted and Snow Geese flew by at close range.  The photos are not very good due to the decreasing light, but the blurriness shows the motion.  Quite a spectacle.
Greater White-fronted Geese and one Snow Goose 
What a great day of rockin' and rolln' with the birding and on the combine.  Sprague's Pipit and Yellow Rail are new for the year as noted before and increase the list to 692.

I had contacted Craig Mineo in River Ridge, LA near New Orleans.  Craig had reported on Louisiana Birds a male Calliope Hummingbird in his yard.  Craig agreed to allow me to come to his house to see the Calliope Hummingbird.  I am heading there tomorrow morning early, Sunday, November 3.   

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