October 26 – 28: This year’s Yellow Rail Rice Festival was held in Jennings, LA, located 92 miles west of Baton Rouge, and approximately half way between New Orleans and Houston. It offers perhaps the best opportunity in North America to view the secretive Yellow Rail, a bird that spends the winter in southern grassy fields, including the rice fields of southern Lousiana. As the giant rice combines harvest the bountiful crop, numerous birds are flushed ahead of the advancing machines. These include not only Yellow Rails, but also Virginia Rails (20+ counted) and Sora, and sparrows including Savannah, Swamp, and even the ever elusive LeConte’s. There were fewer Yellow Rails this year than were seen during the past two years’ festivals, and this year Yellows were also considerably outnumbered by Virgina Rails and Sora. Unlike in past years, no King Rails at all were counted.
Besides the main attraction of the rails, the festival offers side trips for other southern specialties. A Saturday AM trip ninety minutes north to the pine woods of Kisatchie National Forest, LA, was productive of Bachman’s Sparrow and Brown-headed Nuthatch, but the caravan did not arrive at the site until mid-morning and, not surprisingly from my own experience in Florida, no Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers, actually the main target species of the outing, were seen. As a rule, these Woodpeckers leave their nesting trees shortly after sunrise and do not return until the late afternoon, so one is well advised to arrive at the chosen site at first light.
Other good photo ops on the trip included Sedge Wren, Crested Caracara, and White-faced Ibis. The festival was the venue for a joyous mini-reunion for me with Bob Mustell and Dave Whiteley, two endearing friends from this past spring’s Alaska trip to Nome and Gambell.