Birding in the New Orleans Bayou

A few weekends ago Mubark and I took our first trip to New Orleans, Louisiana. I prepared for the trip as I usually do: researching eBird hot spots, reviewing birds in my Sibley guide that …

bayou with trees

A few weekends ago Mubark and I took our first trip to New Orleans, Louisiana. I prepared for the trip as I usually do: researching eBird hot spots, reviewing birds in my Sibley guide that I may see on the trip, and packing my camera and binoculars for the flight.

As we made our descent into the city, I saw extensive lush, green, and watery landscapes surely home to some birds.

Our first casual bird outing took us too Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. On our way there we made a few wrong turns, but you can’t go wrong bird-wise once you’re outside of New Orleans proper. Our first wrong turn led us down a quiet road flanked by big trees on one side and grassy fields on the other.

Mubark has a keen eye for driving and spotting birds. He noticed a large bird in a dead tree as we passed. We pulled over, grabbed my camera, and got as close as possible without spooking it. After a quick glance with my binoculars I recognized a familiar face, a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).

red tailed hawk perched looking to the left

Are those bald eagles? ????

We finally arrived at our destination, the Bayou Savage National Wildlife Refuge. Bayou Savage was established in 1990 and authorized under the Emergency Wetland Act in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan and is 25,000 acres of brackish marsh and forested lands.1 I found out about this place, like I do all my birding spots, on eBird. I jumped out of the car and looked skyward at dark specks with wings and white heads. “Are those Bald Eagles!?”, I exclaimed! Neither Mubark or I had seen them before, so we were excited.

far away anhingas soaring in a blue sky

This is roughly what we saw at first. Even with binoculars it was hard to be sure—they were soaring up so high. It may be obvious to some of you what they are, but we aren’t very familiar with Bald Eagles. ????

After snapping a few photos, I checked it out on my camera and new instantly it was something else. I consulted Merlin and discovered it was a large flock of ANHINGA (Anhinga anhinga). This was my second time seeing this bird, the first at Disney World in 2014.

flying anhinga

It’s Channelwood

At Bayou Sauvage, Ridge Trail has planked paths that snake through fields and meadows. Any Myst fans out there may be reminded of the Channelwood Age. A cacophony of sounds can be heard coming from all over. And every few feet brown lizards are sunbathing only to scurry away to the underside of the path when passed.

The path forked in various directions and we took the time to wander each one.

Far across the field, white birds bobbed up and down out of the tall grass. Forster’s Terns were identified through my mental note of its characteristics and some blurry photos.

Aside from the river, there wasn’t any water around that could be seen. Everything has been overgrown with tall grasses. A large portion of the walkways were closed for construction, preventing us from seeing the entirety of what Ridge Trail has to offer.

Laughing gulls and jazz music ????

We left the reserve and made our way to the French Quarter. There, on the edge of the Mississippi River floated our next destination—Steamboat Natchez.

sideview of the steamboat natchez

The Steamboat Natchez has been around since 1975 and is the only operating steamboat in the city.2 Our lunchtime jazz cruise departed and took us down and up the Mississippi. A disembodied voice boomed through the speakers and told historical tidbits about the city and its long history.

While the Natchez floated down the river, it was flanked by a dozen Laughing Gulls (Leucophaeus atricilla) riding the breeze and likely looking for handouts from passengers. Ever since moving to Texas, we have loved these birds for their signature comedic laugh.

Bayou, birds & boats

The following day brought our anticipated trip to the bayou for a swamp tour. Unlike the beautiful weather the day prior, this day brought cold weather, clouds, and the threat of rain. We arrived at Bayou Segnette ready to brave the weather and see what the swamp has to offer.

medusa skiing crocodiles rescuers gif

This is how I imagined my trip to the swamp would play out.

We boarded our tour boat and sat at the front on the cold steel benches. The only protection we had from the elements was the boat canopy, the sides were completely open. Our tour guide had a strong cajun accent and was very knowledgeable of the bayou (he was born and raised there). He steered the boat down a canal and toward the open waters of bayou. We passed a rocky jetty covered in cackling Laughing Gulls floated around the bend and emerged in the bayou surrounded by trees and vegetation.

A majority of the boat tour was a at leisurely pace with occasion stretches where he’d let the boat speed up. This was the least enjoyable part of the ride considering the cold, biting wind that resulted from the speed. I left my camera in the car for fear of rain, and enjoyed birding with my binoculars and the eBird app. Birding from a boat on a tour not designed for birders was a challenge to say the least. With no time to stop and linger, I moved from watching one bird to quickly searching for the next.

a map view with travel line of the swamp tour boat path in new orleans bayou
This was part of the tour route. Map created with eBird tracking data.

I spotted some easy-to-see large birds such as a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)and Great Egret (Ardea alba). Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) and Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) were constant figures in the sky during our voyage.

Croc the boat ????

I knew there were crocodiles in the swamp, but what I didn’t know is how likely it would be to see them.

We saw the ripples, then the small bubbly eyes that barely break the surface of the water. Drifting closer to the boat, the alligator spots a white marshmallow floating in the water.

The marshmallows get tossed out by the captain to lure the crocodiles closer. They seemed to be pretty habituated even before marshmallows were tossed. It concerned me a bit to be honest, because I can’t imagine the junk food is very good for them, and it may make them less afraid of humans.

If I were to go again

I would go during a warmer month, choose the earliest boat trip of the day, and take more time to bird along the river. Next time I go to New Orleans, I plan to look up the Orleans Audubon Society and attend one of their birding field trips.

  1. Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge | Bayou Sauvage Fact Sheet
  2. Steam Boat Natchez | Steam Boat Natchez History

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