It was almost 70 degrees when I slipped outside at 10 minutes past three on the morning of the solstice, the shortest day of the year. We had to make the most of whatever daylight we were going to get, and Grand Isle, Louisiana, was a long way away.
Grand Isle: the only inhabited barrier island in Louisiana. A narrow wisp of sand marking the gulf-most extent of an old and withered Mississippi River Delta lobe. The setting for some of Kate Chopin's most memorable scenes, the site of many horrors during BP's oil disaster, and a stage for all the life in between. And today, the hub of the Grand Isle Christmas Bird Count.
The count is a surreal one for those of us who grew up Christmas Bird Counting in 12-degree weather (or worse!), crunching through snow counting finches, nuthatches, and chickadees.
Butterflies, warblers, hummingbirds, gnatcatchers, and even occasional tanagers and flycatchers feed in the island's neighborhoods and live oak forests, especially near dense stands of festive-looking Turk's cap. By 11 a.m., Melanie Driscoll, David Muth, and I have tallied Rufous, Ruby-throated, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds and Orange-crowned, Palm, Yellow-rumped, Pine, Wilson's, and Nashville Warblers! By mid-afternoon, our count of Orange-crowned Warbler has exceeded 50.
Our best bird – a new one for the count – is a Least Flycatcher that has chosen to remain here while the rest of its species has retreated to Mexico and Central America.
And yet, not a single chickadee to be found, nor a Carolina Wren. Not a titmouse, not a nuthatch, not even a Downy Woodpecker. This is just a small island, after all, with little but marsh and open water for miles around, and though it provides an all-important oasis for migrant landbirds, it doesn't seem to offer enough sustenance for year-round forest residents, though there are Blue Jays, and a pair of Great Horned Owls.
We're also charged with counting birds in the bayside marshes where rails, Sedge Wrens, Marsh Wrens, and Seaside and Nelson's Sparrows skulk in dense grasses. Some patches of former marsh are filled in and built upon, offering habitat for little but starlings and the occasional mockingbird or phoebe.
Expanses of intact marsh and shallow open water offer rich feeding grounds for an assortment of shorebirds, wading birds, and raptors. We can't help but oo and ah over a flock of 28 Roseate Spoonbills.
One of the fun things about Christmas Bird Counts, of course, is the rare and unexpected birds that invariably turn up – this year in the form of a Burrowing Owl discovered at a construction site on the island and swiveling its head in all directions.
Our territory – Christmas Bird Count circles are divided into territories different teams are assigned to cover – did not include any gulf beach, but Melanie and I joined Audubon's Erik Johnson on the beach for the last few moments of daylight when our counting was done.
South winds and an exceptionally high tide sent waves roaring far up onto the beach, concentrating hundreds of Western Sandpipers, Sanderlings, and Dunlin in a small area of beach.
We picked seven Red Knots out of the crowd. Red Knots are extraordinary animals, able to undertake some of the longest migratory journeys in the avian world, yet teetering on the brink of disappearance due to a whole range of human activities.
Not unlike, in fact, the land on which we were standing, there on the fringe of the Mississippi River Delta, which – thanks to human shortsightedness – is one of the fastest disappearing landmasses on the planet. And if that weren't enough, oil had coated this very beach only months before and still lurks beneath the surface in places.
Is there cause for hope? Yes. You can't look at Red Knots or Sanderlings or Western Sandpipers and not believe that. Life is strong, and life finds away. And when we humans turn our wills toward making a difference, we very often can. The Christmas Bird Count tells success stories: the recovery of the Bald Eagle, the recovery of the Peregrine Falcon.
My thoughts wander as the sun sinks into a clammy evening haze. Colors start to look more like morning than night.
I choose hope.