Rest and Food for the Weary – Song Bird Fall-out

A slow storm inched its way across western Louisiana and west Texas the prior day, dropping buckets of rain. As I struggled to see the freeway in the driving rain, I thought about the neotropical migrants getting ready to make their way across the Gulf of Mexico that evening.

As we pulled into Peveto Woods Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary on the southwest Louisiana coast in Cameron Parish, we wondered whether warblers would be dropping in. A good day for birders means an exhausting trip for migrants.

We had left Lake Charles early that morning and birded our way to the coast, passing the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge that remained closed since the storm. Hurricane Rita wrecked havoc in this part of the state. Evidence was everywhere of the destruction caused when it slammed ashore.

Peveto Woods, developed and operated by the Baton Rouge Audubon Society, was established to save oak chenier habitat from further development. Cheniers, ridges along the coast, were formed by wave action, offshore currents, and the flow of the Mississippi River into the gulf. Live oak trees have established themselves at spots along these ridges and provide crucial food and cover for migrating song birds.

It was 10 a.m. when we located the preserve off a side road in the middle of beach house development, most of which were still boarded up. As we stepped from the car, we heard a melodic sound. Not a warbler, since they don’t sing during migration.

“I see it,” I motioned to barb. It looked like an Orchard Oriole, but quickly flew off. We followed it to make a positive ID.

While trees were leafed out, the sanctuary was rather desolate. Signage had been destroyed by the hurricane. Fortunately, some Louisiana birders arrived and showed us the path into the woods.

All of a sudden a bright blue song bird landed on a tree within view. I caught my breath – an Indigo Bunting, a bird that had eluded me. It was beautiful, but soon off to forage for insects.

A hackberry tree seemed to be a magnet for warblers and vireos arriving from their trip across the gulf. These tiny birds left the Yucatan Peninsula at dusk the night before and flew for 15 hours before reaching this patch of green on the Louisiana coast. For many of them, this was phase two of their journey north from their wintering grounds in Central and South America.

As if in procession, a Blue-winged Warbler, Northern Parula, and Blue-headed Vireo paused at this tree. Since our next stop was Sabine Woods on the upper Texas coast, we couldn’t wait around for other arrivals.

Sabine Woods, operated by the Texas Ornithological Society, is located just across the border from Louisiana. A bridge spanned the large inlet at the mouth of the Sabine River that runs along the border. It was necessary to drive up the narrow peninsula to Port Arthur and then backtrack south and west. Sabine Woods was in the direct path of Hurricane Rita, which completely defoliated the trees. The towering oak trees survived and were lush at our visit. Cars lined the highway at the entrance to the sanctuary in anticipation of a mini fall-out after the previous evening’s storm.

A boardwalk led through the central part of the sanctuary. We clustered with a group of birders at a look-out spot that spanned two small ponds. A willow hung over the water of a sunny one. Bird after bird visited that tree, as the birders – our binoculars constantly in position – called off their names: White-eyed Vireo, Tennessee Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Black-and-White Warbler, American Redstart, Summer Tanager. They were appearing so fast, I couldn’t focus on some of them fast enough. As I turned to peruse the shaded pond, a Louisiana Waterthrush popped out from behind the tangled roots.

Soon we heard about a Hooded Warbler hanging out in another location, so we headed off to find him – flitting about in the undergrowth. He would appear long enough to see his black hood and golden face, and then he would scamper in the bushes again. We had three good looks.

Wandering through the layers of paths, we spotted an Eastern Phoebe, a Brown Thrasher poking in leaf litter for grubs, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and an Eastern Kingbird.

The cheniers along the coast in both states provide rest and food for the weary birds. They feed and rest, then continue their journey north; with hundreds of miles left to travel until they arrive at their nesting sites in the northern United States and Canada.

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