I don’t ordinarily share the entire story of a birding adventure, but yesterday was a special day in the bird-watching books, with a wonderful outcome!
On Thursday of last week, Louisiana birders started getting alerts, on a rare bird GroupMe, on our birding Facebook pages, eBird, and elsewhere that at least two red-legged honeycreepers had been spotted on Grand Isle, Louisiana. You might think, big deal, but in the birding world, it really is. These birds just are not found in the United States, or very rarely. If you look at their range here: https://ebird.org/species/relhon1, you’ll see that they are normally found in southern Mexico and Central and South America. So to have two of them here in Louisiana is a VERY. BIG. DEAL.
As the game of Telephone goes, reports varied. There were three birds. Four. No, just two. One adult male. No, that was misreported. Two for sure, probably three. Female and immature male, most likely. Regardless, Louisiana birders–and folks from other states–started paying attention and flocking (no pun intended!) to Grand Isle to spot this gorgeous bird. Photographs were taken, with at least two birds positively documented, and a third pretty certain. There were also reports of two in Florida and one in Texas.
On Friday, I texted a couple of birding friends. Are you going? One friend was going Saturday, the other not yet sure. There was no way I could go over the weekend. I was absolutely committed to friends and places, and Monday was the soonest I could get away. The second friend agreed to go on Monday.
It was a gamble, certainly; there was nothing to say these birds would still be in Grand Isle, which is a six-hour round-trip from Baton Rouge. But it’s a gamble I’ve taken before (another six-hour round-trip netted me a fork-tailed flycatcher!), so it was a go, with my birding buddy Lynn at the wheel and another birding friend, Bob, also along for the trip.
We left fairly early yesterday morning, heading into dense fog that didn’t begin to clear until we were nearly on the island. All eyes were peeled for whatever we could see along the road, fence posts, telephone wires/poles, tree branches, etc. We spotted a barred owl on a fence post right next to the road, but it was a narrow, windy, two-lane road with traffic, no shoulder, and no way to get turned around. Still, though, an auspicious start to the trip … a good omen!
The fog cleared to great temps and a pretty, if overcast day. We saw tons of kingfishers on wires along the road, and Lynn pulled over for me to get a shot. As we slowly drove down the road where the honeycreepers had been spotted, we saw a group of five or so birders already staked out. One had seen the birds first thing that morning, but no one else yet had. It had been later in the morning on Saturday when my other friend had seen them, so we were still hopeful we’d get a chance.
As we waited, we visited with the other birders, some of whose names I knew from various birding pages, so it was great to put faces with names. We wandered around to see what else we could see. There were two flycatchers at the honeycreeper spot, and every time one of them flew to catch a bug, which was frequently, my heart skipped a beat, thinking it was a honeycreeper.
At some point, I was by myself at the honeycreeper spot, as the other birders had walked down the road. I decided to take a couple of photos of the flycatcher. As I looked back at what I had just shot, I saw the silhouette of a curved bill on my screen and realized it was a honeycreeper! I frantically waved at the rest of the group, who hurried back down the road, and we all got some shots, although most were poorly lit from the overcast conditions. Success (kind of … for me getting a new life bird means getting a good photo, too, so I was hoping the sun would come out and I’d be able to get better pics)!
We decided that Lynn would back her truck down the road and we’d sit on the tailgate and eat our lunch across the road from a huge Turk’s Cap plant that was in full bloom where the honeycreepers had been spotted in the previous days. I stayed down at that end of the road while Lynn went to get her truck. Bob had wandered off to look at some water birds at the far end of the road.
All of a sudden, I saw Lynn standing next to her truck, beckoning furiously to me. I RAN down the road, with eight or so pounds of camera in one hand and clutching the top of my pants in the other, as they had decided they weren’t made for running and were doing their best to fall down. One of the birders had spotted the honeycreepers at the other end of the road. Then, magic happened! The sun came out and we could see these beautiful green birds in all their glory. One landed on a low branch where we could take good photos. Then it flew across the road and landed in a branch about six feet away from us. We snapped a ton of pictures and did a happy life-bird/good photo dance.
We saw these beauties again, but never that close and clear and in the shining sun. We also saw lots of other warblers, flycatchers, osprey, and hummingbirds, and I saw two butterfly species that I’d never seen before. A quick trip down to the boardwalk at another location found us a yellow-billed cuckoo and a very close osprey in a tree that let us all get good shots. I think we could all have stayed there all day, but we didn’t want to make the drive on that windy road in the dark.
On the way back, we were reminiscing about the day, as always with our birders’ eyes peeled, when Lynn and I simultaneously saw a bald eagle on the ground, just off the side of the road, eating what appeared to be a racoon. Lynn made a U-turn, and we sat in the truck and got shot after shot of that gorgeous bird as heavy traffic whizzed by us. I wonder how many of them were oblivious to that majestic bird just feet from their speeding tires?
It was a wonderful day of birding that started with an owl and ended with an eagle, and in between were the prettiest, fanciest-legged birds you can even imagine. I’m tired, and I’ve got some catching up to do from taking the day to go on an adventure, but the trip was well worth it and another reminder: Look up! And life is short, so always say yes to chasing after a rare bird!