Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Photographing Birds in Louisiana

“Don’t worry if the feathers are blown.”  The voice over my shoulder belonged to our friend Marie.  In front of us, in the brilliant sun, were scores of great egrets, their feathers a blinding white.  We were looking out over a rookery where egrets gather to practice their rites of spring.  Marie, a professional photographer, was referring to overexposure so great that all detail would be lost.  Though I’d heard the term only once before, I knew I was in for it:  those egrets were white, and the sun was high in a cloudless sky.

I’d already had several encounters with white feathers and bright light, trying to photograph cattle egret searching for insects on the levee.  Every time we passed, the light was wrong.  Then, one late afternoon, perfection.  Except for one thing:  as we pulled atop the levee, two joggers appeared, and the egrets scattered.  I’d wondered where (and whether) anyone jogged down here.  Now I knew.

The egret rookery is located on Avery Island, part of the McIlhenny compound, where Tabasco Sauce has been made for generations.  In addition to the unlikely juxtaposition of egrets and hot sauce, Avery Island isn’t an island, but a salt dome.  The salt mined here is used to make Tabasco Sauce.

On arrival, we drove along a roadway through the meticulously tended grounds, stopping to walk among live oaks and camellias in full bloom.  We came to a pond in which two alligators swam and a third lounged on a bank.  Nearby, a lone great egret stalked fish, perhaps taking a break from the frenetic nest building occurring down the road.

We could hear the rookery, which consists of several platforms set in a marshy pond, long before we saw it.  For such graceful birds, egrets make the least graceful of sounds:  coarse caws, croaks, and gravelly burps seem to make up their vocal repertoire, in marked contrast to their sinuous elegance when fishing or in flight.

From the observation deck, we watched as they soared away and back again, gathering and delivering twigs to their mates.  Conversation between the pairs was constant and raucous.  Between bouts of nest-building, they courted, their spring plumage, silky feathers called aigrettes, lifting in the wind.

In the late 1800s, aigrettes used in the hat trade brought egrets to the edge of extinction.  As described by environmental historian Jennifer Price in "Hats Off to Audubon":
America's hat craze was in full swing.  In the 1880s trendy bonnets were piled high with feathers, birds, fruit, flowers, furs, even mice and small reptiles.  Birds were by far the most popular accessory:  Women sported egret plumes, owl heads, sparrow wings, and whole hummingbirds; a single hat could feature all that, plus four or five warblers.  The booming feather trade was decimating the gull, tern, heron, and egret rookeries up and down the Atlantic Coast.  In south Florida, plume hunters would nearly destroy the great and snowy egret populations in their quest for the birds' long, soft dorsal spring mating feathers.
The Audubon Society was founded in response.  Ned McIlhenny, the son of Tabasco’s founder, played his part, too.  He rescued eight egrets from the plume hunters and gave them safe haven.  Since then, egrets have nested at Avery Island every year.

As we stood on the observation deck, our friends pointed overhead.  A lone pink-feathered bird circled high above us:  a roseate spoonbill.  We saw only one at Avery Island, but we learned there was another rookery at Lake Martin, near Breaux Bridge, where roseate spoonbills could be found in abundance.  Our friends offered to take us there, but the hour was late, and it seemed one thing more than was sensible to try and do.

As our time in the Atchafalaya Basin waned, I kept thinking about those spoonbills.  That rookery was so near, how could we resist?

On our last day, we made our way to Lake Martin.  A mimeographed pamphlet we’d found was our only guide.  We drove down a wide dirt road, counting out miles in tenths, until we spotted incontrovertible evidence that we’d arrived:  from the back window of a parked car, two arms held out a birding scope.

We followed the direction of the scope and saw clumps of pink dotting the trees.  Spoonbills.  Probably too far to get many photographs, but certainly not too far to stop and look.

Unlike Avery Island, Lake Martin’s rookery is rough and wild.  We stepped out of the car and stood at the road’s edge.  Almost at our feet, a moorhen paddled in a marshy ditch.

 A pie-billed grebe bobbed up from an underwater fishing expedition.  Overhead, a great egret sailed across the road in search of twigs.

Spoonbills flew from tree to tree, flaunting their pink feathers and preposterous beaks.

Little blue herons, now old hat to us, preened in the branches.  Further off, we could just make out a green heron in a thicket of twigs.

As we watched, an occasional birder pulled over to look, but by and large cars and pick-ups whizzed past, kicking up dust.  It was hard to fathom how anyone could fail to stop.  This was a wonderland at the road’s edge, and we found it difficult to leave.

But leave we had to, so leave we did.  We stowed our cameras and closed the car door.  As if to bid us a good journey, a spoonbill sailed by, right over our heads.

This is the third of four posts about New Orleans and South Louisiana. To read the first post, about New Orleans, click here.  To read the second post, about the Atchafalaya Basin, click here.  To read the last post, about (more) good eats and good music, click here.


  1. You are so right about nature being noisy. And when it isn't been noisy it's being messy with dropping leaves all over and raining oakapples and acorns and so forth.

    That's an interesting story about the aigrettes. I am happy to know that.

    Nice photos btw. And a quite lovely account of a great trip.

    But as for birds - with some notable exceptions e.g. spoonbills - they seem remarkably like the birds of Dutchess County. Or Central Park for that matter. But I suppose that is what birds do: fly about and get around.

  2. Another very beautifully expressed and illustrated post. A journey to the Atchafalaya Basin without a long-haul flight (for me)..How do u pronouce that?? Thanks for the joys from the natural world...Even here in the City (of London)we now have little egrets down on the local river. And Spoonbills have been visiting Cley,North Norfolk. Certainly the bird-world seems to be becoming more international, multi-cultural. But, as you say, people zoom past and many never see it. Like much, it isn't until you start on "the track" that you start to realise its value and breadth.Having retired recently, I was wondering what to do with my time. I too was zooming here and there on that search. Then the local wildlife group emerged with Spring and showed me how much more I had right here in my local neighbourhood. Birds, butterflies,centuries old ant hills that looked simply like tussocky grass, wild flowers and herbs like Garlic Mustard one can eat.Ladybirds that fly across thousands of miles to be here.Learning more shows how much there is to know and enjoy.IT is endless. So I understand your pleasure and so enjoy the posts. I am relieved, however, that we do not have alligators locally (well, yet) and that hats with (dead?)mice on have not become retro chic!(yet).

  3. The photos of the dancing egrets busily building their nest are simply gorgeous. The timing of your itinerary could not have been more perfect as concerns the springtime birding potential.

    The roseate spoonbill pic beautifully shows off the beauty of its pink plumage. A splendid bird, indeed.

    Your capture of the three cattle egrets strolling atop the levee in search of bugs has to be a favorite.

    This post has thoroughly pleased this long time birder. Thanks for the lovely collection of photos.

  4. Another entertaining and informative post about Louisiana - thank you RA!

    I did not know that Tabasco was made with salt from that region, nor did I know about the origins of the Audubon Society - very interesting. Imagine putting those beautiful creatures on hat, and then actually wearing it. Bizarre!

    Your photographs are beautiful, as usual. That spoonbill is very unusual - the beak reminds me of the duck billed platypus.

  5. Thank you for this post - I love seeing your photographs. I am not a birdwatcher, but am beginning to understand the appeal, by reading your accounts of birding. I may find myself at the John James Audubon Center just down the road from me soon.

    You must have a marvelous photographic scrapbook of your Louisiana trip - thanks for sharing.

  6. Thank you for all these great comments!

    J: Such a card you are! Of course, you're the one that has to stop every two feet while I take yet another snap of the exact same thing . . .

    Hamsterfree: Thanks for your lovely account of what you've been finding in your own "back yard." Interesting to think of spoonbills in Norfolk, as the climate is so very different from Louisiana.

    cybersr: Thanks for tipping me off to the aigrettes--sent me off on such an interesting trail, as you can see.

    C-A: Yes, the platypus--hadn't thought of that. Wonder if there's any relation? Glad you enjoyed the "fun facts" aspect--I had a lot of fun finding those things out, which I hadn't know before, either.

    WOS: Oh, I'm curious to know what Audubon Center is near to you. As for the scrapbook--as we've noted before, there is this issue about digital vs. film. I see in my future a need for more hard drive!

  7. AH THANK YOU for this literary *CANDY*. I am ENVIOUS of your travels in Louisiana, perhaps a bit nostalgic for a happier time in my life...

  8. Thanks for stopping by again, JeNNy--I still chuckle about your vignette on the swamp post and suspect you have many more tales to tell of your time in Louisiana!


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