For the birds

Editor’s note: The People section is looking back at some of the people featured in past stories to see how they are doing now. The original story about Jay Huner ran on Sept. 23, 2012.

Once she started bird-watching, Jane Patterson couldn’t believe she never noticed an animal such as a white ibis in 25 years of living in Baton Rouge.

“This is not a dinky bird,” said Patterson, the president of the Baton Rouge Audubon Society. “This is a bird that stands 2 feet tall. How had I never noticed these were all around us? This was an aha moment for me.”

The new hobby sent Patterson out to observe birds and the world around them, connecting her to the environment in ways she had not previously experienced. She taught classes to children about birding and attended bird-banding demonstrations where she marked wild birds for studying — and held birds in her hands.

“That’s a rare thing,” Patterson said. “Holding a hummingbird and releasing a hummingbird, it feels like a living feather in your hand. You can barely feel the little heartbeat just twitching as it flies away.”

Patterson and other members of the Baton Rouge Audubon Society hope to build more of these “lifetime memories” for residents of the capital area. Through a series of fundraisers, society members are saving to buy property — or access to property — within an hour of Baton Rouge where they can expose area residents to birds and their environment.

Getting children and adults out to see birds is the best way to make them care about conservation, said Erik Johnson, vice president of the local Audubon Society and a conservation biologist with the National Audubon Society.

“They are a great way of connecting people to the environment,” he said. “No matter where you go, you can see birds, whether it is a Wal-Mart parking lot or the deepest, darkest jungles of Africa.”

Their fundraising was jump-started last year when Jay Huner, a retired professor of aquaculture at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, set out on a “big year” in Louisiana, a quest to see as many birds as possible in the state from January to December. Both a personal challenge and a chance to give back to the Baton Rouge Audubon Society, Huner asked donors to pledge money for every bird he saw. Most pledged about $1 per bird, Patterson said.

The 346 birds he saw last year set a personal record and raised between $10,000 and $12,000 for the local Audubon Society.

“I wasn’t so much proud as I was personally excited, because I was achieving something I set out to achieve: see more (birds) than I’d ever seen before,” Huner said by phone from his home in Boyce.

Huner drove thousands of miles, often leaving his home in the middle of the state to hurry and see a rare bird that had been spotted. A network of birders throughout Louisiana updated Internet message boards and email lists to spread the word when these rare birds were seen.

Two birds on Huner’s 2012 list were spotted in Louisiana for the first time last year. Both the dusky-capped flycatcher, a tiny yellow and black forest bird, and the mountain plover, a sandy brown and white shorebird, were spotted by birdwatchers who alerted Huner to their presence.

“In my lifetime it might not show up again. ... Will they ever be seen again in the state?” Huner asked. “One just never knows.”

The most difficult-to-find bird on Huner’s list, the white-tailed hawk, took Huner on four different two-hour trips to Iowa, La., to see the bird. Normally found in south Texas, the hawk was out of place along the Louisiana coast’s grasslands.

When Huner finally found it, he was driving and saw the bird going north in heavy winds.

“By the time I realized what it was, it spooked, and in the snap of a finger it must have been 400 to 500 yards to the south,” he said. “It got spooked by my movement and in the high winds it was long gone.”

Huner chose to raise funds for the Baton Rouge Audubon Society after growing up in the area, then attending LSU and working at Southern University early in his career. He said in July that he was appreciative of the society for the conservation and protection of Peveto Woods, a 40-acre patch of coastal chenier in Cameron Parish where birds stop on their migration from the Yucatan Peninsula.

Beloved among birders, the preservation of the Peveto Woods property near Johnson Bayou represents a huge accomplishment for the local Audubon Society. However, the travel time to it prevents local birders from using it often.

“It’s very important to birds, and it’s very important to our mission,” Patterson said. “It’s three and a half hours away. We would like to find a piece of property closer to home that we could have that same kind of (habitat conservation) that it is as important to birds as the Cameron coast is.”

Located along the Mississippi River flyway, Baton Rouge lies on a route that several species of birds use during their annual migration. Preserving property near the river or near Lake Maurepas would fit the society’s needs, Patterson said.

“Those kinds of places next to the river really concentrate birds, so if it could be managed, it could be a premier birding destination,” Johnson said.

The society has been looking for former industrial properties next to the Mississippi or within the river’s levee. Ideally the society would buy a plot around 50 acres in size, cut trails through it and preserve the property’s wildness.

Money raised by Huner’s big year has helped start the new property fund, while an insurance settlement from a house on the Peveto Woods property that Hurricane Rita destroyed has provided a “nest egg,” Patterson said. However, much more money needs to be raised.

Identifying a piece of property will likely help drive donors to give, Patterson said.

“The concept is still kind of abstract at this point,” she said. “If we can identify a piece of land that we want to purchase, that would help to solidify it.”

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