So I went to New Orleans a few days ago, with a friend who needed to do some research for a book.
I won’t lie—90% of the trip was spent lounging around the French Quarter eating beignets and crawfish etouffe. (It’s a hard, hard life.) But we did get out of the city and over to a swamp tour, which took us through some bayous and a cypress swamp.
It looked about like you’d expect a bald cypress swamp to look in mid-November—mostly bald. There were some stands of arrowroot and invasive elephant ear, stretches of cattails and wild rice, and a couple of lazy alligators, but mostly it was deciduous trees and hazy gray Spanish moss.
Bald cypress are found in saturated soils all up and down the East Coast and the Gulf, so this wasn’t a completely unfamiliar sight, but we just don’t get this kind of swamp in North Carolina, where I’m located. Alligators are, while not impossible, at least unlikely. And there’s a very clear dividing line where the Spanish moss shows up, and I’m on the non-moss side of it.
What surprised me, though, weren’t the differences. What surprised me were the similarities.
Here I am, in the land of gators and crawfish and gumbo, and when I scanned around with my binoculars, I saw all the familiar birds of home.
Tufted titmice. Ruby-crowned kinglets. Great blue herons. The Pepperidge Farms Assorted Egret Sampler. (There is something inherently arrogantl about great egrets. Great egrets know that they are better than you. Great blue herons simply choose to ignore you, but every great egret I’ve ever seen has been all “Look at me. I’m a huge shockingly white egret. I’m AWESOME!” Eh, possibly I’m projecting.)
The ibises we wouldn’t get back home, but the downy woodpecker we certainly would. The red-bellied woodpecker is as common a garden bird as I’ve ever seen. (Our guide insisted on calling it a “red-headed woodpecker,” which is a totally different bird. And had some difficulty on the difference between American coots and common moorhens. These are possibly forgivable sins, but our guide also insisted that there were ivory-billed woodpeckers around, and he’d seen three last week. I did not attack him and throw him into the swamp because A) he was bigger than I was and B) I was not confident of my ability to steer the boat myself. But it was a near thing.)
I heard chickadees. I saw an Empidonax flycatcher (and no, I have no idea what kind it was—the ability to tell those apart is a rarefied skill, like identifying late Byzantine pottery shards or something.) There was the aforementioned coot. In fact, other than the ibises and the anhinga, not a single one of the birds was one I wouldn’t find within five miles of my house.
And of course, this shouldn’t surprise me. Garden birds are the supremely adaptable members of the clan, so they’re as likely to be found in swamps and forests as in my backyard. But it still felt strange to see all these common little garden birds everywhere in an unfamiliar landscape, as if I’d gone to a foreign country and seen all the people from my home town on the streets.
On the one hand, that’s a little disappointing—you go somewhere else, you want to see other birds! But at the same time, I felt a warm glow at knowing that so many of my small avian acquaintances are found in places so very different from here.
Which was almost enough to make up for not killing our guide over that whole ivory-billed woodpecker thing.
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