Seeing every bird in Louisiana is a 'Big Year'

Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Male Scarlet Tanger appears
in his brilliant breeding plumage
Several years ago I acquired a book entitled "To See Every Bird on Earth" [Dan Koeppel, 2005, Hudson Street Press, New York, NY]. Dan Koeppel wrote the book about his father Richard's obsession to travel the world searching for birds and he found over 7,000 of the worlds 9,600+ species.

I started birding late in life in 1998 at when I was 52. Thanks to mentors like Donna Dittmann, Steve Cardiff, Bill Fontenot, Mike Musumeche, Dave Patton, and Van Remsen, I have managed to record, to my satisfaction, over 380 of the state's 479 species. At first, it was easy to add new state birds to the 200 or so species I count from preceding years. Now, it is difficult to add new birds to my Louisiana list. In 2014, I added only one species, Lucy's Warbler, at Grand Isle in December.

There is a small cadre of dedicated Louisiana birders whose personal state lists have reached 400+ with the "record" being over 420 species.They have birded in the state for decades.

Dan Koeppel's book about his father's birding is a most interesting read. It includes a history of the listing phenomenon and delves into the development of nature/birding tours. Koeppel points out that some birders take birding tours and "tick", the British term for recording birds, whatever the tour leader(s) notes as having been found. However, I have never met such birders and I believe that practice to be rare.

Will I see all the birds on the Louisiana list? Of course not, and at my age of 69, it's highly unlikely I will reach 400 state birds. But, in the course of my active state birding adventures, I've met many avid birders whose skills range from novice to expert and benefited from all of those interactions. An active novice will often hear a bird that he/she cannot identify but that I do not hear and bring it to my attention. Likewise, two or more sets of eyes find more birds than one set. Through time, meeting and birding with experts including but not limited to Phillip Wallace, Nancy Newfield, Roger Breedlove, Hubert Hervey, Danny Dobbs, Melvin Webber, John Dillon, David Muth, John Sevenair, Rosemary Seidler, Charlie Lyon, Marty Floyd, Marty Guidry, Terry Davis, Curt Sorrells, Mac Myers, and Paul Conover has been a great pleasure. And, then there is the younger cadre of state birders!

Thanks to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, the birding community now has a fascinating tool for finding, recording, and listing birds. The e-bird website conveniently records ones bird lists and provides contributors with their personal lists on weekly, monthly and annual lists. One can check out the Explore Data section and learn what birds are being found and where they are being found. Two e-bird options advise readers about rare and/or out of season birds and, if requested, birds still needed on one's life list for a specific location. Where are you in terms of other state birders who contribute to e-bird? Just check out e-bird's Top 100 for Louisiana. Or, one can also access the numbers registered for Top 100 for our "counties".

The American Birding Association (ABA) has a Listing Central option. Birders can check out the number of birds recorded by various contributors in each state and county (parish in Louisiana). However, ABA does not provide bird lists, only the total number. ABA also provides access to all state bird listservs including Louisiana's LABIRD which makes it possible to find out what is happening in states adjacent and nearby to Louisiana on a real time basis.

I find listing to be a great recreational activity because I get to move all about my local area and the state seeking birds. Listing can cause some considerable controversy, however. Two examples are Canada Goose and Monk Parakeet. The wild populations of Canada Goose have pretty much ceased to come to Louisiana but the so-called "giant" Canada Goose is well established in feral populations, often found around parks and golf courses but also free flying about the countryside. The Monk Parakeet has been established in the New Orleans area for well over half a century and weathered serious hurricanes. But, it has yet to be added to the Louisiana state list despite a detailed scientific report published in the Journal of Louisiana Ornithology.

How are rare birds monitored in Louisiana? The Louisiana Ornithological Society established the Louisiana Bird Records Committee. Those finding rare birds are encouraged to submit documentation - called a long form - with details about rare birds. As far as out-of-season birds are concerned, the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Sciences maintains files of "3x5 cards" which are reports of out-of-season birds. These can now be submitted electronically. These cards need to be submitted for long form birds as well!

Every birding year starts anew on January 1st. Because I am retired, reasonably healthy and have the resources to travel about the state, I have been able to record over 300 year birds for the past several years. This is a goal that can be met by learning where hard-to-find birds are generally located and when they are there. But, it requires a good bit of routine birding and concentration on migration hotspots during spring and fall migration. And, attention to e-bird and LABIRD is a must.

Most avid birders do at least one "big year" in their careers. My Louisiana big year, inspired by the 2001 big year Natural Conservancy birdathon by Charles Lyon and Mark Swan, was completed in 2012. It served as a land acquisition fund raiser for Baton Rouge Audubon Society. I managed 346 year birds putting me at Charlie's and Mark's level and a bit below 350+ recorded the previous year by D. Bosler and J. Bosler. I can assure the reader that it is a lot easier to get to 300 than it is to get to the 340 level.

Over the past five years, the number of birds reported annually for Louisiana on e-bird have ranged from 367 to 370. So, it's clear that any lists over 300 represent a lot of effort.

Can't do a state big year? Consider doing a yard, neighborhood, or parish big year.

What birds will I find in Louisiana in 2015? One, new to my e-bird list, has been a drake Eurasian Wigeon on 2 January at Pintail Loop at Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge. What else will I find? Don't really know but it will be exciting to find out. Good birding to you as well.