Starting in central Canada and stretching to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi Flyway is the name given to the route followed by birds migrating from their breeding grounds in North America to their wintering grounds in the south. The flyway includes Canada’s Mackenzie River which flows north through uninhabited forest and tundra into the Arctic Ocean, with tributaries reaching southwards, feeding into and out of a number of lakes, including the Great Slave Lake, Great Bear Lake and Lake Athabasca. As the name suggests, the Mississippi Flyway follows the route of the Mississippi River in the United States – North America’s largest river system. Originating in northern Minnesota, the slow-flowing river travels southwards for a distance of 2,530 miles, cutting through, or forming a border for, the states of Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee to before emptying into the Mississippi River Delta at the Gulf of Mexico.
According to Audubon, nearly half of the bird species and up to forty percent of the waterfowl of North America spend part of their lives in the Mississippi Flyway. With spectacular forests, grasslands and wetlands, the route provides good sources of food and water, with no mountainous areas to navigate along the entire route. The greatest elevation above sea level along the route is below 2,000 feet. The route is used by large numbers of geese, ducks, shorebirds, sparrows, blackbirds, thrushes and warblers, the majority of which cut across the Gulf of Mexico, providing excellent birding opportunities along the coasts of Louisiana and Texas.
Unfortunately, years of exploitation of natural resources by man has taken its toll on the environment, with waterways being diverted for irrigation having an impact on the habitat that birds and other wildlife rely on. A combination of dams, locks and levees have reduced the Mississippi to less than ten percent of its original floodplain with an estimated nineteen square miles of delta wetlands disappearing annually. Thanks to the efforts of Audubon, which has offices in Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, efforts to preserve habitats along the Mississippi Flyway are making a difference to the birds that make use of the route each year. Audubon is currently focusing intensive conservation efforts on twenty-seven bird species along the Mississippi Flyway, namely: Mottled Duck; Greater Prairie-Chicken; Brown Pelican; Little Blue Heron; Reddish Egret; Swallow-tailed Kite; Clapper Rail; Snowy Plover; Wilson’s Plover; Piping Plover; American Oystercatcher; Upland Sandpiper; Ruddy Turnstone; Red Knot; Sanderling; Western Sandpiper; Short-billed Dowitcher; Least Tern; Black Skimmer; Prothonotary Warbler; Swainson’s Warbler; Cerulean Warbler; Grasshopper Sparrow; Henslow’s Sparrow; Seaside Sparrow; Bobolink; and Eastern Meadowlark.
The American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) is the smallest member of the family Falconidae in North America. The American Kestrel can be identified by two distinct black streaks on each side of the head that contrast with the white throat and cheeks, and by a blue-gray patch encircling a rufous-colored spot on the top of the head. The males have a prominent rufous coloration on the back and tail. The Southeastern American Kestrel (F.s. paulus), which is one of two subspecies that occurs in the United States, is a local resident of Louisiana. It is approximately the size of a robin, and the female is larger than the male. The Southeastern American Kestrel (SAK) is often seen during the winter months in Louisiana perched on telephone lines located along fields and pastures.
The resident SAK is often confused during the winter with the migratory subspecies F.s. sparverius, although the resident species is smaller. The mean body mass of the SAK is approximately 22 percent lower in males and 26 percent lower in females, as compared to the migratory subspecies. It is very difficult to distinguish the two subspecies in the field. F.s. sparverius may look chunkier, but it takes someone who has spent long hours in the field watching kestrels to determine the difference between the two subspecies.
SAKs form strong pair bonds that tend to remain permanent. Displaying high site fidelity, pairs often remain on or near their nesting territories. SAK territories can range in size from 300 to 700 acres. In Louisiana, the SAK prefers open, park-like pine forest and open areas with scattered mature trees, which are needed for perch and nest sites. It is important that forest stands do not have a dense understory. The SAK prefers the same type of habitat preferred by the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker (RCW).
The SAK begins breeding courtship in late winter. The courtship includes aerial displays in which the male performs dives and a flutter-glide to advertise to the female. The SAK nests in cavities located in snags or living trees, usually excavated by woodpeckers. The Pileated Woodpecker often plays on important role in creating cavities suitable for nesting SAKs by enlarging the cavities of smaller woodpecker species. The SAK will also use nest boxes, when they are placed in suitable habitat. On Fort Polk, we usually find our first eggs in early April, and a full clutch usually consists of four to five eggs. The incubation period lasts 29 to 30 days. The young will fledge around the age of 30 days. The adults and young will forage together until dispersal, which occurs in the fall.
The SAK hunts from a perch, on the wing, and hovering. It is a generalized predator, feedings on rodents, insects, reptiles, amphibians, and small birds. The favorite food items on Fort Polk are lizards, including anoles, fence lizards, and skinks.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formerly considered the SAK a candidate subspecies for listing as threatened or endangered. It is no longer being considered a candidate for listing, but is considered a species of concern. The SAK is listed as threatened in Florida by the state’s game and fish commission. The SAK is a nonmigratory resident of the gulf coast states, now very rare over much of its former range. Current range includes east Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and the southern portions of the states of Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia. The ranges of the two subspecies overlap during the winter.
Habitat loss is the main factor in the population decline of SAK in parts of its range. Industrial forest lands provide open areas important for the SAK, but they do not provide mature trees for nests sites. When the timber matures, the timber stand is usually too dense to be suitable for the SAK. Lack of prescribed fire is also detrimental to the SAK, because it prefers open, park-like forest stands kept open by regular prescribed burning. Prescribed burning and placing nest boxes in suitable habitat are the quick and feasible ways to improve SAK habitat.
Contributed by: Kenneth Moore
Also by Kenneth Moore: Southeastern Kestrel Management on Fort Polk
The Hollywood film The Big Year presents what seems to be an exaggeration of the extremes birding enthusiasts will go to in boosting their number of sightings, particularly of rare birds, with camaraderie turning to cut-throat competition in the blink of an eye, or the twitch of a feathered tail. But the reality is that competitive birding, referred to as “twitching”, has reportedly become an obsession with some birders as they attempt to beat rivals at adding birds to their list. While this activity is very popular in the United States, according to those in the know, British twitchers are among the fiercest competitors in the world.
There are various definitions of “twitching” and descriptions of “twitchers”, but in general it refers to birding enthusiasts who are prepared to stop whatever they are doing immediately to follow up on reports of birds not yet on their list of sightings, or that they have not yet ticked off their list of birds they hope to see. The verb “twitching” is thought to be a reference to the nervous anticipation, stress and anxiety experienced by a birder in pursuit of his/her hobby which often includes traveling long distances and overcoming physical and other obstacles, with the single-minded goal of getting to see (or hear) an elusive bird. There are also varying rules as to when a twitcher can tick a bird off a list, with some saying that hearing the bird is enough and others insisting the seeing the bird should be the rule. Either way, twitchers are not required to provide photographic evidence of their sightings, so the system relies on honor among twitchers.
As with most serious hobbies, twitching has its own vocabulary, and when a twitcher fails to sight the bird he rushed off to see, he considers himself to have “dipped out”, and if his competitors managed to see the bird, he is likely to feel “gripped off”. Some twitchers have compiled a “life list” of birds they hope to see in their lifetime, while others set goals for a season, or specific time period such as 24-hours, which increases the competitive spirit.
Modern technology has aided twitchers immensely as information on rare bird sightings can be sent out immediately, with updates alerting twitchers to the bird’s whereabouts as they are en route to view it. Based in Norwich in the United Kingdom, Rare Bird Alert has been operating since 1991, with a team of experienced birders making information available to birders fifteen hours a day, every day of the year. Similar organizations exist in other countries where birders take their hobby seriously.
The 14th Annual Big “O” Birding Festival showcases the resident and migratory bird species in rural inland Florida March 11-15, 2015. Birders, photographers, and families will travel by bus, boat, swamp buggy, or carpool to area birding hotspots.
For more information visit www.bigobirdingfestival.com
Date: March 11-15, 2015
Location: Lake Okeechobee, La Belle, Florida, United States of America
The 4th annual Leelanau Birding Festival will take place on 28 May to 1 June 2014, celebrating more than 150 species of breeding birds, including two endangered species. The program includes 10 separate field trips led by experienced guides. For more information visit www.mibirdfest.com
Dates: 28 May – 1 June 2014
Venue: Lake Leelanau
Country: United States