Early Morning Birding in the Spillway


by:  George Payne 

Images and Story Copyrighted 2003



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The wind was blowing from the north with the vengeance of old man winter after a long summer's rest.  It was just before 10:00 am when we began our hunt, but already we felt tired and cold from all the walking we had done earlier. Despite our aches, we knew the time had come to begin the search for the elusive Leconte's sparrow. 

Extremely rare in Louisiana,  the Leconte's is an excellent find.  Spending most of its life in the Northern United States and Canada, this bird is a true globe trotter.  Luckily for us, a few birds will over winter just outside New Orleans in the Bonnie Carrie Spillway.  The Spillway, like most mid-twentieth century Army Core of Engineers projects was never made with the environment in mind. It was only designed for flood control.  But as luck would have it, this is one of the best migratory traps in the deep South.  With its peculiar position next to the Mississippi River, it is one of the few  grassy spots between New Orleans and Memphis.  Its a place where you never know what kind of bird you are going to see next.

Ron Stein

Of all the people who bird the Spillway, Ron Stein is probably one of the most famous.  An understudy of the great Dr. George Lowery, Ron birds the Spillway at least weekly.   On one trip about five years ago, Ron found the Leconte's.  Twice a year, he is gracious enough to take a group of birders and hunt for this rare species. 

The process for finding the Leconte's is simple.  Gather eight of your closest

Walking in a Line

 friends, and begin walking through grass about 6 to 10 inches tall.  Form a line as you walk  As you flush birds, try to ignore the savannah sparrows and look for a light colored bird with an awkward flight pattern.  The Leconte's is unmistakable when you see it fly. 

As you flush the bird, watch where it lands and  then have the group go to that spot while forming a circle.  Walk carefully as this bird will run across

Forming the Circle

the ground from the spot it lands.  You may flush the bird a second time, just watch where it lands and go through the ritual again.  Be cautious and try to not to repeat this process more than twice as doing so may place undue stress on the bird. 

Once you find  the bird in the center of your circle, you can photograph and everyone can get great looks. (Don't hold the bird their more than two or three minutes, as this will again stress the bird too much.)  Seeing the Leconte's is a rare winter treat and is something that should not be missed if you are birding New Orleans in November - February.  


The results are wonderful as you can see by an image from Bill Bergen.


Special Thanks to: 


Ron Stein, Master Birder of the Spillway

Crescent Bird Club, An excellent Birding Organization

Army Core of Engineers For Maintaining and Managing such a wonderful place. They truly do encourage bird watching in the spillway and they do an awesome job. 


Directions to Bonnie Carrie Spillway -- Take Interstate 10 from New Orleans West towards Baton Rouge.  Just outside Kenner, exit 310 South and take your first exit.  Head West on Airline Drive about seven to eight miles.  The Leconte's reside on the south side of the spillway next to the Mississippi River in grassy areas about 8 to 10 inches high.