“North with the Spring” #13: Riches of the Southern Forests

A male Prothonotary Warbler in a swamp forest at Louisiana’s Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

A male Prothonotary Warbler in a swamp forest at Louisiana’s Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

By Bruce Beehler

May 5, 2015 Blog #13 of my North with the Spring journey:

After my second visit to Texas’s High Island and the Bolivar Peninsula, I headed back to Louisiana to the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge. This is where Cornell’s James Tanner studied a population of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the late 1930s, and I wanted to visit the McGill Bend of the Tensas (pronounced “Ten-saw”), a 7,000-acre tract of mature bottomland forest. This time I would be there during peak migration.

Accompanied by the refuge forester, we made our way there on an all-terrain vehicle—quite an experience for me, plowing through deep mud and thigh-deep blackwater into what is probably one of the wildest forest patches in the the South. Although dominated by oaks — overcup, cherrybark, water, nuttall, and willow — the forest also has many other types of trees, including American and cedarbark elm; sweet gum; green ash; sassafras; hackberry; honey and black locust; and persimmon.

I explored McGill Bend Forest with Nathan Renick, forester for Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana. Tensas is home to one of the wildest patches of forest in the South. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

I explored McGill Bend Forest with Nathan Renick, forester for Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Birdsong came from every direction—Pileated Woodpecker; Prothonotary, Swainson, and Kentucky Warbler; Summer Tanager; Great Crested Flycatcher; Carolina Wren; Tufted Titmouse; and many others.

Back in the Bottoms

Mature bottomland forest has been significantly reduced in the lower Mississippi over the past 150 years. The last of the virgin stands were cut in the late 1930s. Good bottomland forest is probably less than 1 percent of its original extent—having been replaced by rows of milo, rice, cotton, and other crops. To spend a whole morning in this huge tract of big forest took me back in time.

Pine Capital of Arkansas

About two hours north of Tensas lies Crossett, Arkansas. I visited Crossett to do some environmental education work in partnership with my corporate sponsor, Georgia-Pacific. I saw flooded bottoms with cypress, upland stands of pine, and everything in between — including a loblolly pine 62 inches in diameter and more than 130 feet tall. There are not many trees like that left in Arkansas!

While touring the diverse forest ecosystems around Crossett, Ark., with wildlife biologist Bobby Maddrey and forester Don Sisson, both of Georgia-Pacific, we saw a giant loblolly pine. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

While touring the diverse forest ecosystems around Crossett, Ark., with wildlife biologist Bobby Maddrey and forester Don Sisson, both of Georgia-Pacific, we saw a giant loblolly pine. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Much of the landscape in Crossett is planted pine monoculture to feed the Georgia-Pacific mill that makes paper products. It’s a very distinct landscape from what I encountered at Tensas.

Crossett’s pine monoculture was very different from the bottomland forest I saw in the Tensas. Row crops now line the prime bottomland that once had forest with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Crossett’s pine monoculture was very different from the bottomland forest I saw in the Tensas. Row crops now line the prime bottomland that once had forest with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Little Woodpecker of the Pines

Just west of Crossett, where the Saline and Ouachita Rivers pass through the landscape, the bottoms are flooded in spring. High waters inundated part of my campground and many of the roads of my next destination, Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge.

I came to spend time with a colony of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. The woodpeckers are scattered through the old pine savannas of the refuge, which manages its pine stands for the birds through periodic burns of the understory to keep the forest open.

The near-threatened Red-cockaded Woodpecker, pictured here in Arkansas’s Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge, is a habitat specialist that depends on open pine forest. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker, pictured here in Arkansas’s Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge, depends on open pine forest. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

This sort of habitat management is common for a wide range of rare species, including the little Red-cockaded, a habitat specialist listed as near-threatened. But there is hope: Thanks to fire management across the woodpecker’s range, its prospects are brightening.


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #12: Songbird Invasion on the Gulf Coast

Seeing the Golden-winged Warbler was particularly special because it is the emblem for my journey. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Seeing the Golden-winged Warbler was particularly special because it is the emblem for my journey. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

By Bruce Beehler

27 April 2015, Blog #12 of my North with the Spring journey:

The real-time arrival of songbird migrants coming north across the Gulf was something I very much wanted to see during this journey. So after my travels to Mississippi, Louisiana, and Caddo Lake, I returned to High Island. And I got my chance to see the songbirds – including the Golden-winged Warbler – fill a tiny patch of woods along the Texas coast.

Flocks of Indigo Buntings invaded High Island after crossing the Gulf on their northern migration. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Flocks of Indigo Buntings invaded High Island after crossing the Gulf on their northern migration. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

These little woodlots are precious to migrating birds, who have flown more than 600 miles across the Gulf of Mexico: hummingbirds, warblers, vireos, catbirds, orioles, grosbeaks, thrushes, and more.

Haven for Migrants

Boy Scout Woods, operated by the Houston Audubon Society on High Island, provided a first encounter: dozens of Tennessee Warblers flocking to feed on the nectar of red bottlebrush shrubs on the roadside. These canopy-dwelling forest warblers were at eye level and only a few steps away from me. With them in the flowers were Indigo Buntings and orioles.

A Baltimore Oriole on High Island. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

A Baltimore Oriole on High Island. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

The parking lot at Smith Oaks, another Houston Audubon operation, featured mulberry trees that filled with groups of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Summer Tanagers, feeding lustily while my camera clicked over and over. Male grosbeaks, in all their finery, jostled for prime feeding perches, while birders goggled in amazement. In one afternoon, I must have seen more than 75 Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and more than 50 Summer Tanagers.

To the amazement of birders, dozens of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks jostled in the mulberry trees. Video by Don DesJardin.

Flood of Songbirds

Sabine Woods, a conservation property of the Texas Ornithological Society about 20 miles east of High Island, provided the first major songbird invasion. Normally, the migrants come in the afternoon. We arrived before the birds, and by 4 PM they were flooding into the shade of the live oaks: small groups of Painted Buntings, flocks of Indigo Buntings, dozens of Northern Waterthrushes foraging in the pools of water, scores of Swainson’s Thrushes hiding in the shady understory, and too many Ovenbirds to count.

Shaded by live oaks, a Painted Bunting arrives at Sabine Woods. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Shaded by live oaks, a Painted Bunting arrives at Sabine Woods. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Two male Golden-winged Warblers arrived, plus a singleton female. By a small, shaded wetland, a Cerulean Warbler foraged close to the ground, its bright blue back gleaming in an afternoon beam of sunlight that penetrated the canopy. Everywhere were birds: Bay-breasted Warbler, Philadelphia Vireo, Black-throated Green Warbler, and more.

Bay-breasted Warblers were among the many species of migratory songbirds that flocked to Sabine Woods after crossing the Gulf. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Bay-breasted Warblers were among the many species of migratory songbirds that flocked to Sabine Woods after crossing the Gulf. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

The wisdom of the local bird organizations to purchase and manage these precious places is profound. Conservation of these small woodlots—islands of safe habitat surrounded by marshland and rice fields—are first-stop lifesavers to famished and exhausted migrant birds.

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Black-throated Green Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Philadelphia Vireo, and Tennessee Warbler were some of the many species at High Island. Photos by Bruce Beehler.


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #11: A 100-day Journey Full of Surprises

Northern Parula is one of the many neotropical migratory bird species you can spot at Caddo Lake State Park. Photo by Greg Lavaty.

Northern Parula is one of the many neotropical migratory bird species you can spot at Caddo Lake State Park. Photo by Greg Lavaty.

By Bruce Beehler

20 April 2015, Blog #11 of my North with the Spring journey:

On Sunday, April 19, I got up at 5:30 a.m. at Caddo Lake State Park to head to Nacogdoches, Tex., where I had plans to meet up with a group of ornithologists. From there, Texas’s state ornithologist would take us birding south of town. Caddo Lake where I was staying is a great place to spot all types of birds including migratory species.

An Unexpected Twist

A half-hour into my trip, the car’s engine oil light registered “High.” I turned around and slowly brought the car into a Chevron station. A quick look under the hood showed the engine had no oil and no water. (Why? We will never know). I filled up both. An employee strolled out of the Chevron store and started naming things that might be wrong with my car—people in country towns in Texas know cars like I know migrant wood warblers—and called a local mechanic. He gave the car the once-over, flushed the radiator system, and I was good to go…or so I thought.

By this point I had missed the bird walk. I headed back to Caddo Lake. Four miles in, the engine stopped, and I drifted the dead beast onto the grass beside the road. I called the Chevron station, and a wrecker came to pick up the car and deliver it to a Nissan dealership 25 miles away in Longview.

Due to car troubles, I missed the birding trip near Nacogdoches. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Due to car troubles, I missed the birding trip near Nacogdoches. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Everything is closed on Sundays in Texas, even the car dealers and rental car companies. But the driver found an open Avis desk at the tiny regional airport in neighboring Kilgore. They had a single car available to rent: a Ford Explorer, which could hold all my stuff. By late afternoon, I was back at my campsite in Caddo Lake, wondering what happened to my car.

Re-reading “North with the Spring” and books by other naturalists back at camp is an absolute pleasure. Photo courtesy of Bruce Beehler.

Re-reading North with the Spring and books by other naturalists back at camp is an absolute pleasure. Photo by Aditi Desai.

The Replacement

Tuesday morning, I learned the engine was shot. I needed a replacement car. At the Nissan dealership, as an employee prepared to show me a new Nissan Xterra, I noticed a used one in the parking lot, with an elderly gentleman locking its door. I asked if that was his car. It was his wife’s, he answered, but she would be trading it in for a new sedan within the hour.

Luckily I was able to purchase a new car to continue on my journey. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Luckily, I was able to purchase a new car to continue on my journey. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

By early evening, I was on the road in my 2007 Xterra, with the North with the Spring insignia on the door panels. Next stop: High Island, Tex. Hopefully, this time I’ll get even more opportunities to see neotropical migratory species coming in from across the Gulf.


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #10: Caddo Lake’s Hidden Treasures

Many species of songbirds including Yellow-throated Warbler visit the Caddo Lake area. Photo by Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock

Many species of songbirds including Yellow-throated Warbler visit the Caddo Lake area. Photo by Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock.

By Bruce Beehler

18 April 2015, Blog #10 of my North with the Spring journey:

Caddo Lake is a dammed section of Big Bayou Creek, which flows into the Red River and is part of the Mississippi drainage basin. I visited because I was entranced by the thought of kayaking through the cypress forests – festooned with hanging gray tangles of Spanish moss – that fringe the lake. And the backwater passages through these drowned forests are otherworldly.

Cypress trees and water so muddy it looks black give Texas’s Caddo Lake an otherworldly feel. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Cypress trees and water so muddy it looks black give Texas’s Caddo Lake an otherworldly feel. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

The Caddo Lake area is rich with protected lands and waters, and it is a wonderful place for an ornithologist to spend time. The uplands are either piney woods or hardwood forests, and the bottoms are cypress. Each habitat supports its own suite of breeding neotropical migrant songbirds.

Caddo Lake offers a variety of habitats that draw migratory songbirds like this Yellow-breasted Chat. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Caddo Lake offers a variety of habitats that draw migratory songbirds like this Yellow-breasted Chat. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

A Forest Teeming with Birds

One afternoon I hiked through a lovely patch of old-growth oak forest with Vanessa Nease, a research biologist for the Caddo Lake Wildlife Management Area. Ames Spring Basin is her favorite patch of hardwood glen forest in the area. Protected in several deep ravines leading down to the lake, it featured towering oaks, ashes, sweet gum, and hickory. The understory included wildflowers, ferns, and canebrake.

Vanessa Nease, a research biologist, in the old-growth forest known as Ames Spring Basin. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Vanessa Nease, a research biologist, in the old-growth forest known as Ames Spring Basin. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Forest reserves like these support breeding populations of a wide range of neotropical migrant songbirds. We saw Northern Parula, Red-eyed Vireo, Black-and-white Warbler, and Summer Tanager in our afternoon hike. Setting aside this tract of old growth forest makes a huge difference for our migrants, and we should strive to save every last stand of old growth. These are places where the more sensitive species can nest without being located by the Brown-headed Cowbirds—wily and persistent nest parasites that lay their eggs in the nests of warblers and vireos and thrushes.

Watery Wonderland

The next day I paddled my kayak through Carter’s Shute of the Caddo Lake WMA, which follows a marked trail through the stands of cypress. I got there before sunrise as mist was spreading across the still and black waters. I eased my kayak into the water and entered a wonderland.

As the sun rose, birds started singing—first Northern Cardinal and Carolina Wren, and then Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Prothonotary Warbler, Northern Parula, and Yellow-throated Warbler. Great Egrets foraged all around me. An Anhinga soared overhead. A Red-shouldered Hawk cried out in the distance. Then a Pileated Woodpecker drummed on a distant hollow trunk.

A symphony for the eyes and ears as a diverse array of bird species such as this Blue-gray Gnatcatcher gather in waters of Cado Lake WMA. Photo by Greg Homel.

A symphony for the eyes and ears as a diverse array of bird species such as this Blue-gray Gnatcatcher gather in waters of Caddo Lake WMA. Photo by Greg Homel.

I explored a side channel on the way back and there was a Barred Owl perched low on the cypress stub in the water. I quietly drifted closer as it mutely watched me in my kayak. I snapped pictures until I was too close for my long lens. Magic!

Barred Owls are among the many creatures that live among the stands of cypress. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Barred Owls are among the many creatures that live among the stands of cypress. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

I saw not another soul on my two-hour circuit. It was utterly peaceful. This is the true and lasting value of wilderness. We can never let down our guard on behalf of these special places. They are invaluable resources that make living worthwhile, and help us recharge our souls.


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #9: Beyond Birds

A Milk Snake in Caddo Lake, Tex., where reptiles and amphibians are abundant. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

A Milk Snake in Caddo Lake, Tex., where reptiles and amphibians are abundant. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

By Bruce Beehler

20 April 2015, Blog #9 of my North with the Spring journey:

Caddo Lake, in northeast Texas, is famous for its paddlefish and stands of bald cypress. I went there to check out the local protected areas: a state park, state wildlife management area, and a national wildlife refuge. I was happily surprised to learn that a field herpetology class from West Texas A&M University was also visiting.

Students from West Texas A&M University encountered this Green Tree Frog while doing a survey of reptiles and amphibians at Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Students from West Texas A&M University encountered this American Green Tree Frog while doing a survey of reptiles and amphibians at Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

In the Field

The field group was led by Richard Kazmaier, and included seven smart, energetic students. This was the fourth year students had conducted herp surveys in the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge, an area remarkably rich in frogs, snakes, turtles, and lizards. With the students’ help, I was able to get close looks at quite a few.

I saw a species of hog-nosed snake. It was a real treat! Photo by Bruce Beehler.

I saw a species of hog-nosed snake. It was a real treat! Photo by Bruce Beehler.

I had hoped to see an Alligator Snapping Turtle. In 2014, Kazmaier’s group netted a hundred-pounder. This year, none. That was the sole disappointment of my visit. But there was another creature I wanted to spend time with — the Water Moccasin — and in that I was not disappointed. With the students’ help, I photographed a mature individual.

This adult Water Moccasin was not too aggressive. Photo by Bruce Beehler

This adult Water Moccasin was not too aggressive. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Haven for Snakes, Frogs, and Turtles

Among the other special creatures I saw: Milk Snake, Rough Green Snake, Diamond-backed Water Snake, Rough Earth Snake, Green Tree Frog, Gray Tree Frog, Spring Peeper, Red-eared Slider Turtle, Stinkpot Turtle, and Mississippi Green Water Snake.

A juvenile Red-eared Slider Turtle in Caddo Lake, Tex. Photo by Bruce Beehler

A juvenile Red-eared Slider Turtle in Caddo Lake, Texas. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Wonders of Nature

Birders tend to spend little time thinking about the herpetofauna—reptiles and amphibians—of a particular region. But these animals are an amazing part of Nature’s creation.

Rough Green Snakes, like this one in Texas, search for insects in vegetation. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Rough Green Snakes, like this one in Texas, search for insects in vegetation. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

In this part of the world, though, herps do not fare well. Turtles get hit by cars when crossing the road, and every snake that enters someone’s backyard meets a hasty end. People do not give herps a break, and that’s a shame. They are wonders of nature!


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #8: Land of Audubon

Fulvous Whistling-Ducks flush in Louisiana. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Fulvous Whistling-Ducks flush in Louisiana. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

By Bruce Beehler

12 April 2015, Blog #8 of my North with the Spring journey:

From the south coast of Louisiana, I drove north to West Feliciana Parish to visit forests managed by Georgia-Pacific Corporation. In this region, I could combine history with ornithology: visiting historic Civil War battlements from the 1863 Siege of Port Hudson and the site where John James Audubon painted 32 of his Birds of America plates.

I met with two Georgia-Pacific representatives to tour the company’s forest reserve. The southern sector of their site is now lush oak forest on the east bank of the Mississippi River: prime habitat for migrant songbirds.

The day we toured the woodland, the faunal highlight, though, was a pair of very large and brightly patterned Eastern Box Turtles that hung out in the trail leading to the Confederate earthworks.

An Eastern Box Turtle at a forest reserve in Port Hudson, La. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

An Eastern Box Turtle at a forest reserve in Port Hudson, La. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Singing for the Ghosts

Summer Tanagers and Hooded Warblers were noisy in spite of the thick fog. Of course, resident Carolina Wrens and Northern Cardinals also were common here, and small White-throated Sparrow flocks worked the edges of the dark thickets.

It was cool and damp and even though some birds were singing, one could feel the ghosts of fierce conflict that took place here.

Despite the fog, Hooded Warblers were noisy. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Despite the fog, Hooded Warblers were noisy. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Audubon’s Inspiration

The following morning, I bicycled over to Oakley Plantation, just south of St. Francisville. The drive to the 1799 plantation house is hemmed in by giant loblolly pines and oaks—misty and majestic.

The woods were filled with singing birds: Hooded, Kentucky, and Pine Warblers; Summer Tanagers, Great Crested Flycatchers, and the flutelike notes of the Wood Thrush. Red-headed and Pileated Woodpeckers called out from the mists.

Audubon painted many of his famous Birds of America plates, including the Swallow-tailed Kite and the Pine Warbler, at Oakley Plantation in St. Francisville, La. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Audubon painted many of his famous Birds of America plates, including the Swallow-tailed Kite and the Pine Warbler, at Oakley Plantation in St. Francisville, La. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Along the Pearl River

My next stop was in central Mississippi, at more than 2,000 woodland and wetland acres that Georgia-Pacific manages under the Wildlife Habitat Council’s Wildlife at Work program.

Here I watched Anhingas soaring over the wetlands, a rookery of Great Egrets, and abundant Indigo Buntings. Alligators patrolled some of the freshwater ponds. To the east of the property flowed the Pearl River, whose watershed harbored Ivory-billed Woodpeckers into the 20th century. I have a soft spot for these Ivory-billed sites!

Anhingas, with their black and white

Anhingas, with their black and white “piano key” feathers, are always a joy to see. Photo by Jill Nightingale/Shutterstock.


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #7: Migration Heating Up in Louisiana

The woods were filled with Summer Tanagers. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

The woods were filled with Summer Tanagers. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

By Bruce Beehler

12 April 2015, Blog #7 of my North with the Spring journey:

A Stunning Coastal Wetland

A few days back, I drove 300 miles from Mad Island, Texas, up around the curve of the Gulf Coast to Grand Chenier, Louisiana—site of Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, a stunning coastal wetland.

My host was refuge ornithologist Samantha Collins, who graciously made the resources of the refuge available for my visit.

The refuge oversees use of the nearby private Nunez Woods, which acts as a critical stop-over habitat for migratory songbirds arriving from their perilous journey north across the Gulf of Mexico.

Nunez Woods is a chenier oak woodland about a mile north of the Gulf. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Nunez Woods is a chenier oak woodland about a mile north of the Gulf. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Conserving the Phenomena of Migration

I met with the banding team from Professor Frank Moore’s lab at the University of Southern Mississippi. Banding birds can help us better understand migration and inform conservation measures to protect birds from such threats as habitat loss.

Keegan Tranquillo, Shawn Sullivan, and Lauren Granger manage 30 mist-nets strategically set in the interior of the chenier woodland to band and monitor songbird migrants. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Keegan Tranquillo, Shawn Sullivan, and Lauren Granger manage 30 mist-nets strategically set in the interior of the chenier woodland to band and monitor songbird migrants. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

A Spectacle of Colorful Birds

I arrived just as things were starting to heat up. Moore’s team trapped more than 120 birds in the morning hours, before heavy rains closed the operation.

We were witnessing the start of the high season for songbird migration. I observed more than 40 species in a spectacle of songs and color as birds moved around the woods.

Unstable weather forced the birds down into our little chenier woodland. If the weather had been fair with southerly winds, many of these birds probably would have continued flying north. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Unstable weather forced the birds down into our little chenier woodland. If the weather had been fair with southerly winds, many of these birds probably would have continued flying north. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Songbirds Traveling North

Hooded and Kentucky Warblers joined small feeding flocks with Wood and Swainson’s Thrushes. A single adult male Cerulean Warbler spent several hours in a patch of oaks near the woodland edge. And the nets produced another half-dozen species of warblers, including the hard-to-see Worm-eating Warbler.

The team banded this Swainson’s Warbler during a morning filled with many migratory bird species. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

The team banded this Swainson’s Warbler during a morning filled with many migratory bird species. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Trees Bearing Blue Fruit

The most remarkable phenomenon of all was the blue-and-brown flock of Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks.

The shimmering blue of the male buntings and the richer, darker blue of the grosbeaks created a remarkable sight: like blue fruit scattered through the branches. This was the first time I had seen these two iconic blue birds associating with each other.

There were more than 50 Indigo Buntings and at least a dozen Blue Grosbeaks. I followed this colorful flock for almost an hour. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

There were more than 50 Indigo Buntings and at least a dozen Blue Grosbeaks. I followed this colorful flock for almost an hour. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Acadian Flycatchers, and scores of White-eyed Vireos made the woods vibrate with birdlife. In spring, each day brings new surprises.

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak was just one of many delights I saw at Nunez Woods. Photo by Jane Gulbrand/Shutterstock.

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak was just one of many delights I saw at Nunez Woods. Photo by Jane Gulbrand/Shutterstock.

 


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.