Birdwatcher’s efforts a fundraiser for BR Audubon Society
In late July, an email sent Jay Huner to a rural road in the middle of Jefferson Davis Parish to battle mosquitoes and wait for a little brown bird.
A vagrant — the bird-watching community’s name for a bird that doesn’t belong in an area — from Europe and Asia called a ruff had stopped in a field there, and Huner wanted to see every bird he could.
“If you didn’t know what it was, it just looked like a medium-size brown bird,” he said. “It’s a shore bird, a sandpiper-type bird. When they’re not in breeding color, they really look weird ... they just blend into the landscape.”
He drove from his home near Alexandria, got there early and waited along the roadside, and the ruff became bird No. 333 that Huner saw in the state in 2012 — more than the retired professor had ever seen in one year. He said he hopes to reach 340 or 350 in the next few months.
“I am in uncharted territory,” Huner said.
This is Jay’s Big Year, a push to see as many birds in the state during a calendar year as possible and raise funds for the Baton Rouge Audubon Society. For every bird he documents, donors give an amount they pledge, often a dollar or two.
Any money raised will benefit a fund for the Audubon Society to acquire wetlands property for conservation and birdwatching in the capital area. New property would supplement the Baton Rouge Audubon Society’s Peveto Woods, a 40-acre chenier landscape in Cameron Parish, where birdwatchers from around the country go to see birds stop during their migration from the Yucatan Peninsula.
While important for conservation reasons, Peveto Woods remains a three-hour drive from Baton Rouge. The BRAS wants something closer to home, said society President Jane Patterson.
“We’d like to find someplace along the Mississippi River that could be representative of places around here,” Patterson said. “The river is used as a landmark for migrating birds. It is a natural occurrence that they use the Mississippi as a guidepost for their route.”
“Big years” are informal competitions among birders, who set a boundary — a county, state, country or continent — and set out to see how many different birds they can spot in a year.
Huner’s big year attempt is extraordinary, said Erik Johnson, a conservation biologist with the National Audubon Society and a board member of the Baton Rouge Audubon Society.
“What Jay is doing is really exceptional,” Johnson said. “It takes a lot of effort and a lot of time and a lot of commitment. It’s not the kind of thing you do on a weekend.”
For the past two years, Huner has spotted 300 birds in Louisiana, which is a high number for most committed birdwatchers in the state, Johnson said. Getting above that number often depends on how many vagrants pass through the state.
Louisiana’s state record is often quoted as 354, Johnson said.
Birders on the lookout for rare species and vagrants will spread the word after they spot one using email and an online bulletin board, called LABIRD, run by the Museum of Natural Science at LSU.
“We have enough people who are watching and looking for vagrants that if somebody finds a vagrant and I’m close enough to get to it, then that’s an addition to the list,” he said.
A big year wouldn’t be possible if Huner were not retired. He can leave Boyce, near Alexandria, and drive anywhere to find a bird he has not seen.
“What you’re able to find is based upon entirely your ability to move around,” he said. “I’m retired, so within reason if something’s found in Shreveport, then I can drive to Shreveport and go see it. If you’ve got a regular job, and your boss isn’t very forgiving for just jumping in the car and going someplace, that’s just one you’ll miss.”
Birdwatching became a hobby for the Baton Rouge-raised Huner after a long career in aquaculture at Southern University and University of Louisiana at Lafayette. For 17 years, he directed the Crawfish Research Center at ULL.
He started birdwatching in the late 1990s when crawfish farmers complained that a growing number of wading birds — egrets, ibises and herons — were damaging their crops.
When Huner began to research the birds’ impact, he wanted experienced birdwatchers to come identify the species, but he had trouble getting them to participate on a regular basis.
“So I got a good bird guide and started learning the birds,” he said.
Huner quickly realized how important these “working wetlands” were to the birds. Louisiana, he found, was the only area in the country where the population of wading birds was growing, largely because of the crawfish farms and other aquaculture ponds.
“You put something out there that provides the food and the habitat that the birds use,” he said, “Why would you be surprised they come to it?”
Now his life bird list for North America has reached 670, with 375 seen in Louisiana since he started birding.
Johnson compares birdwatching and other outdoor activities to “gateway drugs.”
“Most bird-watchers are not the kind of people who are necessarily scientists and are deeply engaged in science,” he said. “It gives a lot of people a window into the world around us. It helps them understand the habitats for all wildlife, not just birds.”
For Huner, this year’s highlights have been two vagrants that found their way to the state. Maybe a dozen people in the past 70 to 80 years have seen red crossbills fly into Louisiana, Huner said, when one sojourned in St. Francisville for three to four days this year. Its odd overlapping bill allows it to eat the seeds from pine cones.
Another bird rarely seen here, the lark bunting, stopped at an area affectionately called “Mount Trashmore” near Jennings — a large trash dump. A “huge sparrow” with a large bill, Huner said, the lark bunting had ventured off course from its home region of the Great Plains. Venturing into the mosquitoes and deer flies to track birds may not sound exciting for some.
Huner compares his intense interest in birds to LSU an New Orleans Saints football fans who know the rosters down to the practice squad.
After seeing many of the same birds year after year, what keeps him going?
“It’s like hunting or fishing. You’re going out looking for what’s there,” he said.
“You never know when the rare one’s going to be there.”
Advocate staff writer Kyle Peveto is a distant relative of the namesakes of Peveto Woods but has no connection to the property.