48 Hours of Birding (and Other Things): New Orleans

Laid-back birding in this urban gem gives "The Big Easy" a new meaning.

New Orleans is known for a lot of things—great food, mild debauchery, streetcars named “Desire”—but it has yet to land on the map of major birding destinations.

That’s a big mistake. The Gulf Coast city lies in a perfect spot for nearly year-round birding. In winter it provides safe harbor for songbirds that have fled northern climes. Open bodies of water, such as those in Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, host huge populations of wintering waterfowl. And in spring, neotropical beauties like warblers and orioles drop into the region, exhausted from their journey across the Gulf. Like tourists in the French Quarter, the birds greedily consume all the local fare they can find. Even a rookie birder can rack up a huge list, despite the city’s savory distractions. Spring in New Orleans does not disappoint—the birds are as accommodating as the crawfish and oysters are fresh. (A note on Mardi Gras: It usually happens in February, which is also a great time for birding. Most of the habitats remain unscathed during the festivities.)

Day 1

Beignets Before Birding; 8 a.m.

The classic, must-have breakfast in New Orleans is beignets and café au lait at Cafe du Monde in Jackson Square. But the beignets are as good or better at a place in City Park, which is also a great birding spot. The Morning Call Coffee Stand is a 140-year-old, sit-down cafe where there are no lines and where beignets and coffee cost you less than five dollars.

Cross the street and enter the New Orleans Museum of Art’s lovely sculpture garden, where birds basking in the tall trees and lush ponds will likely distract you from the art. Contine walking around the museum and find the Big Lake, a good place to check for herons, Anhingas, and White Ibises.

In the center of the park—north of Harrison Avenue and west of the traffic circle—is a woodlot called Couturie Forest. Known locally as a great migrant trap, these trees host warblers and other songbirds that have just traveled over the Gulf. Magnolia and Bay-breasted Warblers, along with many of their neotropical cousins, focus on gorging, while largely ignoring their human stalkers. Here’s your chance to get close and study up: learn your markings—say, your supercilium (eyebrow) from your auriculars (cheek)—and your different feather types.

Down in the Bayou; 12 p.m.

Before you head to your next stop on the edge of town, consider lunch in the nearby Mid-City neighborhood, an area that has rebounded since extensive flooding during Hurricane Katrina. Parkway Bakery and Tavern (538 Hagan Ave.) dates back to 1911 and is perhaps the oldest “Poor Boy” sandwich place in town. (But don’t call this blue-collar sandwich that; it’s known as a “po’boy” in most parts.)

All of Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge’s 24,000 acres lie within city limits, making it the nation’s largest urban wildlife refuge. Surrounded on three sides by open, brackish water, the refuge is a great chance to see waders, ducks, rails, and raptors. Route 90 will take you straight to the bayou’s best birding spots: the main visitors area on the left and the marsh observation deck on the right.

The visitors area features a long boardwalk through palmettos, marsh grasses, and a pond or two. Watch for Swamp Sparrows, Painted Buntings, and other scrub-loving lurkers. The observation deck is easily accessible from the parking lot. Tricolored Herons dart around the huge marsh, while Black-necked Stilts fly about and make a ruckus. Listen for the clacking King, Clapper, and Virginia Rails in nearby grasses. Ibises—White, Glossy, and White-faced—are common and sometimes fly over in long undulating lines.

Creole and a Stroll; 6 p.m.

New Orleans cuisine is a mashup of West African, French, Spanish, Italian, and other influences. While the city seems very relaxed about a lot of things—from the open-carry policies on alcohol to laissez-faire traffic laws—locals clearly take their food very seriously.

For an example of amazing Creole cooking in a casual setting, try Elizabeth’s in the Bywater neighborhood, a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River. Afterward, take a riverside stroll along Crescent Park. As the sun sets, cormorants, ibises, wading birds, and ducks crisscross the sky and head for their roosts. You can also stop in the French Quarter for dinner—say, for a muffuletta at Napoleon House—and walk along the river there.

Day 2

The Sweet Spot; 8 a.m.

Consider ditching the car for the morning to take the Charles Avenue streetcar west to Audubon Park. Many streetcars in the system are over 100 years old, and a ride is an essential NOLA experience. Breakfast at Tartine (more pastries!) or Coulis (pulled-pork eggs Benedict!) is a fine preamble to the great birding you’ll find in the park.

Audubon Park—named after John James Audubon, but not related to the National Audubon Society—was originally the nation’s first sugar plantation. Today, the area includes a zoo, a golf course, and a lagoon.

Just inside the park gates, steps away from the Charles Avenue streetcar line, lies the lagoon. It’s every birder’s dream. Surrounded by huge oak trees, it holds one of the region’s largest rookeries. The rookery might be relatively quiet in spring, but walk beside the banks and look for Fulvous and Black-bellied Whistling-ducks, Anhingas, and nearly every kind of heron and egret known in North America. Circle back through the park’s stands of live oaks and check for passerine migrants, like tanagers, grosbeaks, and buntings.

Don’t Feed The Alligators; 12 p.m.

Before you plunge into the deep swamp south of town, grab lunch on Magazine Street. District: Donuts, Sliders, & Brews has invented a new holy trinity in their gourmet sliders, fine coffee, and transcendental donuts. Farther down the street, Surrey’s Café & Juice Bar makes a bowl of shrimp and grits so good you might suffer short-term memory loss.  

If you can still remember how to drive, head south toward the Barataria Preserve, inside the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park. After Barataria Boulevard turns into Highway 45 and enters the park, a sign for the Coquille Trail appears on the right. This trail consists mostly of a boardwalk that cuts through a dense swamp teeming with birds and alligators. Water-loving songbirds such as Prothonotary Warblers and Acadian Flycatchers are common along this mile-long path, as are warnings to not feed the alligators. (Perhaps the region is too obsessed with sharing its food.)

Another mile down Highway 45 is the park’s visitor center and more trails on either side of the road. You could get lost (figuratively) in these parts, mesmerized by the flora and fauna. With its Spanish moss and eerie quiet, the place is kind of haunting, which is fitting since it may be lost to climate change one day.

So Much To Eat, So Little Time; 7 p.m.

Dinner and a drink in the French Quarter is one way to wind down after a sobering day of birding. Hunt down a famous seafood dish or two—charbroiled oysters, gumbo, crawfish étouffée—and stroll the river levee one last time. A drink at the historic Carousel Bar is a time-honored tradition, as is taking in some live music. Preservation Hall offers nightly jazz concerts and never disappoints.

New Orleans is the most unusual U.S. city. It’s the only place that offers a shabby-chic aesthetic, anarchic spirit, complicated history, and mindblowingly good food. It’s a must-visit destination on its own, but when you consider how easy the birding is, the city surpasses all expectations. Only a food coma could stand between you and the birds.