Birding in City Park, New Orleans, Louisiana
City Park remains the best birding spot in New Orleans -- even after Hurricane Katrina
Published: April 25, 2008
|It is not a little ironic that New Orleans, known to hordes of tourists for the canopies of ancient live oaks that line so many of its streets, is nearly devoid of good birding localities -- a stark contrast with many other urban areas. |
The birds likely don't see it that way, and if you view the city from the air or Google Earth, it is clear that the Big Easy offers plenty of tree cover. And of course the city is surrounded by marsh, swamp, and coastal cheniers (ancient beachfront ridges) that offer excellent birding. But land that hasn't been built upon is in short supply, and topographical relief is rare, so it takes a lot of effort to find a birdable woodlot here or an interesting pond there. Except for urban hedges, the city has almost no undergrowth.
|New Orleans does have two major parks -- Audubon Park and City Park. Audubon is better known because of its zoo and golf course, but it has only a little habitat that isn't in use or nicely manicured. City Park is another matter. Centrally located near the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain, it covers an area of 1,300 acres and is the nation's eighth most-visited urban park. |
Golf courses, playing fields, and well-manicured picnic areas dominate, and the New Orleans Museum of Art and New Orleans Botanical Garden, located on the south side of the park, are big attractions. A whopping 11 million people visit annually, most of whom probably don't know that the birding is terrific.
An approximately 30-acre tract in the interior hums with birdlife. The Couturie Forest and Arboretum is heavily wooded, relatively wild, and full of brushy habitat suitable for sparrows and other seed-eating or ground-feeding birds. Its canopy consists mostly of live oaks and invasive Chinese tallows that attract warblers, vireos, and other migrants in spring and fall, and the forest is surrounded on three sides by sloughs or lagoons that may have Anhingas, egrets, night-herons, or Double-crested Cormorants on them.
Checklist of City Park birds
The forest has a checkered history. It has been often neglected, not infrequently abused by clearing or dumping of refuse, and more typically simply ignored as park managers concentrated on other things. On regular occasions, the banks of the lagoons are cleared, ostensibly to discourage alligators. (Indeed, a few of them live on the periphery of the forest.)
|280 reasons to visit|
It is a testimony to the wildness of the place that it provides a home for the occasional coyote and a small group of feral pigs, which are more often heard than seen. But birding opportunities have waxed and waned with the cycle of neglect and abuse, as undergrowth got out of hand, trails disappeared, or someone with a mowing machine and a lot of enthusiasm wiped out otherwise good habitat.
I have birded Couturie Forest through thick and thin for about 40 years. Depending on the season and the vagaries of weather, the birding might be spectacular or fairly bland, but rarely is it uninteresting. About 280 species of birds have been seen. Like any good hotspot, persistence is in the end rewarded. The list of regional or seasonal rarities is quite long.
Recently, however, the park and the forest in particular have faced great change, both man-made and from Hurricane Katrina. As everyone knows, Katrina devastated at least 60 percent of the city on August 29, 2005, when a storm surge from the lake caused the failure of two floodwalls on either side of the park. Up to eight feet of brackish water stood in the bowl that is New Orleans for nearly a month.
Scout Island, a great spot to bird located just across a lagoon from Couturie Forest, suffered considerable damage from Katrina's 115 mph winds, especially to its pine forest. The floodwaters ruined playgrounds, the golf courses, and the botanical garden, and they killed virtually all of the vegetation in the park other than the live oaks, which handle high water well and, due to their low, spreading aspect, are less vulnerable to high winds.
Read about 12 Important Bird Areas that were in Katrina's path.
Read about Katrina's impact on hummingbirds.
Read our August 2006 special report on Katrina's impact on birds in Mississippi.
|City Park's best birding|
Large natural area in the center of the park. Migrants pour through in spring and fall. Vagrants turn up in winter, and raptors nest in summer.
Adjacent to forest; enter on Harrison Ave. Songbirds in the woods and waders in lagoons.
Bayou St. John
Forms the entire eastern edge of the park. Good for waterfowl, loons, goldeneye, and grebes.
New Orleans Botanical Garden
Located on Victory Avenue. Admission: $6 for adults, $3 for children. Look for hummingbirds.
By car: From the French Quarter and Downtown, take Canal Street northwest to N. Carrolton Ave. and turn right. Drive about 1 mile to the park entrance at Esplanade Ave. Go straight on Wisner Blvd. for 1.1 mile. Turn left onto Harrison Ave., and drive a half-mile to the parking area on the right.
By streetcar: From Downtown, ride the 48-City Park/Museum Streetcar on the Canal Street line. Depart at Lelong/Esplanade and Carrollton Avenues and walk into City Park. It's about a 1.5-mile walk to Couturie Forest.
1 Palm Drive
New Orleans, Louisiana 70124-4608
504-482-4888 • email@example.com
|The forest was devastated, and the FEMA cleanup that followed finished the job. To be fair, much of the cleanup was necessary in order to remove fallen hackberries, slash pines, deciduous oaks, willows, and a lot of other dead trees and brush. |
For several months, the area was inaccessible or at least unbirdable. Many locals felt that we had seen the demise of the best birding site in New Orleans. But new growth began to appear in the spring and summer after Katrina, and it quickly became apparent that the forest not only had come back but also offered a much greater diversity of habitat types.
Thanks to the rapid invasion of brush into areas that previously had canopy and the benign neglect of overwhelmed park officials, the forest by fall 2006 had developed prime stopover habitat for neotropical migrants fattening up before their trans-gulf flights. Winter residents and the occasional vagrant benefited as well. Birding has been good and often spectacular ever since.
Volunteers from across the country helped restore Couturie as a place to experience the wildness of nature. They opened up wooded and brushy areas by creating and maintaining a system of trails that makes birding easier and less likely to send anyone allergic to ragweed and other pollen-rich plants reaching for the handkerchief. Several trails lead to the highest point in the city: an artificial hill known informally as "the Mountain" about 30 feet high in the middle of the forest. An observation deck is on top. Some of the best birding is on its slopes.
Last fall, the forest's very existence was threatened when a proposal was made to upgrade the still-devastated golf facilities into tournament-quality courses. The forest would have become a clubhouse or parking area. Nothing puts a gleam in the eye of a developer more quickly than a bit of wild, unmanicured, brushy land. But the plans aroused a huge public outcry and a passionate defense of green space, and the idea has been abandoned.
Those of us who live here bird the forest whenever we can, especially during migration and in winter. It is the local spot for a morning of birding.
But what does the park offer visiting birders? It's most exciting during spring and fall migration, when large numbers of songbird species, too numerous to list, pass through southern Louisiana toward or away from their wintering areas. Most eastern neotropical migrants have been recorded, including all warbler species except Kirtland's and Connecticut.
In the colder months, expect the unexpected: a warbler, a wayward flycatcher, or perhaps an immature bunting or oriole that has failed to migrate. Vermilion and Ash-throated Flycatchers, Western Kingbird, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Western Tanager, Clay-colored Sparrow, and other western species have been encountered.
And if you can deal with summer's heat and humidity, look for breeding Mississippi Kites and Cooper's Hawks. Red-shouldered Hawks are regular.
The presence of so many birds doesn't mean that City Park or its forest are out of the woods, so to speak. The park is seriously underfinanced, producing constant pressure to find more revenue-producing activities that may or may not be consistent with the park as a park, as green space. An obviously undeveloped area like the forest seems especially vulnerable.
Those of us who speak up for it also battle invasive species like the ubiquitous Chinese tallow and managers who want to eliminate undergrowth and mow grass. But the post-Katrina rebirth also gives us great reason for optimism. We expect the forest to provide a place where another generation of birders, naturalists, and the general public can get away from the straitjacket of urban life and enjoy the natural world.
Dan Purrington is a physicist at Tulane University, where he has taught for more than 40 years. He has birded southern Louisiana since 1966, was president of the Louisiana Ornithological Society from 1968 to 1970, and was a charter member of the LOS Bird Records Committee.