Cruising the highways and back roads of Louisiana’s southwestern prairie region, birders will be rewarded by an overwhelming shorebird experience from March through May. Large numbers of shorebirds land in agricultural fields to refuel on their long migration to boreal and arctic nesting areas. Gone are the Whooping Cranes and prairie-chickens that inhabited the region before the encroachment of civilization, but the area still attracts impressive numbers of waders, waterfowl, raptors, and, especially, shorebirds.
Louisiana’s southwestern prairie region has been almost entirely converted to agriculture. Fortunately, rice and crawfish are among the primary crops, because both of these farming practices are relatively compatible with the original prairie ecology and seasonal water regimes. Louisiana birdwatchers refer to the entire area simply as “rice country” or “the rice fields.” Farmers are constantly adjusting water levels- flooding, draining, or maintaining impoundments. The crop rotation system also results in a variety of plowed dirt or mud fields and mowed, grazed, or fallow pastures. This diversity and abundance of wetland “microhabitats” in turn provides resting and foraging opportunities for an incredible array of migrating shorebirds.
Spring migration in rice country is signaled by the appearance of shorebird species that do not winter in Louisiana. First to arrive in the rice fields are American Golden-Plovers and Pectoral Sandpipers. These species spent their winter in South America. However, by late February and early March they begin to arrive in Louisiana and join our rice country wintering species: Black-necked Stilt, Black-bellied Plover, Greater and Lesser yellowlegs, Long-billed Dowitcher, Dunlin, Western and Least sandpipers, and Wilson’s Snipe. Other species arrive by mid-March: Semipalmated Plover, Buff-breasted, Solitary, Upland, and Stilt sandpipers, and Wilson’s Phalarope. Other late migrants include Semipalmated Sandpiper, which can be found by early April, and Hudsonian Godwit and White-rumped Sandpiper, starting in mid to late April. This later shorebird influx can also include more traditionally coastal species, including American Avocet, Willet, Spotted Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Short-billed Dowitcher, and the occasional Sanderling. Throughout the spring there is a continuous movement of birds arriving and departing. Killdeer and Black-necked Stilt are the only species that remain to nest inland from the coast.
Not only does shorebird species composition change throughout the spring but so does their individual appearance: the somber grays of winter still seen in early spring transform to more colorful breeding plumage by mid to late spring. American Golden-Plovers that arrive in March are still in their drab winter plumage; whereas most observed in late April are in stunning full breeding colors.
The WETLAND Birding Trail has four loops that traverse Louisiana’s prairie rice-growing region: Sabine Loop 1 and Creole Loop 2 (areas north of the Intracoastal Waterway), and Lacassine Loop 3 and Vermilion Loop 4. Because of the ever-changing condition of fields throughout the spring, an observer can’t be directed to a single field but instead has to “cruise” for areas with shorebirds. Both the Lacassine (Loop 3) and Vermilion (Loop 4) usually have consistently good fields in the vicinity of the highway. From these main loops it is recommended that you explore along less heavily traveled back roads for other good habitat.
Shorebirds can usually be first located in fields with the unaided eye or binoculars, but a spotting scope will improve your viewing enjoyment as well as help you correctly identify some of the more similar species. These routes are also excellent for other waterbirds and landbird migrants and a great place in general for birdwatching. Huge flocks of ibis and whistling-ducks also congregate during the spring. It is very important to remember to stay safe from traffic whether on a back or major road, respect the area’s residents, and do not trespass on private property.