Bird watchers flock to Morgan City

Dave’s Picks
February 16, 2012
Hot Sauces – Local happenings within the Tri-parishes
February 16, 2012

Most south Louisianans hear nature’s high-pitched chirp.

Few thrive on the source to such an extent that they equip binoculars and a checklist, transform backyards into sanctuaries, and study birds’ bone structure and migratory patterns to enhance their spying on the high-flying creatures.

Darlene Eschete, president of the Terrebonne Bird Club, has done so for six years.

“I love nature in itself, and I don’t mind being out there in the quiet alone,” Eschete said. “It’s serene to me, I can think about different things, and just being able to watch God’s creatures in their natural habitat, to me, it’s a privilege to be able to see them out there surviving.”

The Louisiana bird checklist, as crafted by the American Ornithologists’ Union, includes 471 species. The list for St. Mary Parish, which will host the seventh-annual Eagle Expo beginning Feb. 9, contains 238 species.

Eschete, a veteran birder, estimated she has checked between 300 and 400 birds off her life’s list, which expands beyond state borders.

Beginning birders should make sure they carry a “good set” of binoculars and a field guide for easy identification, she explained. Researching species and their migratory channels makes the hobby easier to appreciate, but the best way to get started may just be hanging bird feeders in the yard.

“Making your own backyard a haven for birds will attract birds to your yard, and you can start that way by identifying the different migratory birds that come through,” Eschete said.

The Bourg resident frequents bird trails on Grand Isle and is partial to Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge off Bayou Black Drive, but some of her vivid memories came at home.

Just this month, an orange-hued and black-winged Rufous Hummingbird made a pit stop in her yard.

The bird only visits the area while migrating, and that was the first time Eschete saw one in her surroundings. The rarity, however, barely compares to the striking sight of an eagle dining in her backyard bayou.

“One day I was carrying a wheelbarrow full of bricks, and here comes an eagle flying not 20 feet off the ground, circles around and swoops down and catches a fish in the bayou right in front of me,” Eschete said.

Eschete will participate in her sixth Eagle Expo this year in Morgan City.

In addition to a presentation on birds of prey, the expo offers participants guided tours into the Atchafalaya Basin, Bayou Black, Lake Verret, Turtle Bayou and Bayou Long in an effort to bring people into the habitat of wildlife, particularly the bald eagle.

Population of the eagle, placed on the threatened species list in 1985, has resurged in Louisiana and beyond since the use of DDT was stopped and a greater emphasis was placed on their preservation.

Fifty breeding pairs were counted in Louisiana in 1990. That number grew to 284 in 2006, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Eagles migrate to south Louisiana in October, build nests up to 12 feet in diameter and lay eggs by November, according to the LSU Ag Center. Most of the young leave the nest by March and most eagles leave the state before May.

Because the expo is held during the winter months, foliage has fallen from trees and participants are offered a less-obstructed vantage point of nesting areas. Tours also aim to guide participants past ospreys, hawks, egrets and the Belted Kingfisher.

C.C. Lockwood, a revered wildlife photographer based in Baton Rouge, will return to the expo for a fourth year and hold a photography workshop.

Broken into two segments on Feb. 10, Lockwood’s workshop begins with a lecture and ends with a boat trip into an eagle nest area to search for bald eagles, other wildlife and picturesque settings.

“Terrebonne, and the surrounding areas down there, is just chock full of birds in the winter, so it really gives them an opportunity to practice their bird photography,” Lockwood said. The birds are more familiar with the guides and boats used during the expo, which makes it easier for participants to get closer to the wildlife, he said.

During the lecture, Lockwood will give advice on the equipment (use a tripod, most good bird photographers carry a lens between 400 and 600 mm, he said), the benefits of stalking from camouflaged locations and photography technique.

“As far as technique, we talk about the shutter speed and aperture, how much of the picture you want in focus or out of focus to highlight the bird, stop action of the movement when it flies and things like that,” he said. “A lot of times, it’s just being in the right place at the right time, because you can’t really pose the bird.”

Although the Eagle Expo’s time and setting setting provide a great opportunity for bird watchers, birding extends well beyond one event.

Tourists’ commissions typically have a listing of public wildlife trails, and the Terrebonne Bird Club takes several field trips each year. The club membership fee is $5 per year, nominal in the mind of a nature enthusiast.

“There are some very colorful birds that come through here,” Eschete said. “A lot of people aren’t aware of them.”

Darlene Eschete, president of the Terrebonne Bird Club, gazes at
birds from her backyard.