BY mark h. hunter
Special to The Advocate
July 22, 2012
RAMAH — Off in the distance at the edge of the forest, some rarely seen white wood storks and roseate spoonbills strode majestically among more commonly seen white-faced ibises, great blue and little blue herons, white egrets and even some black turkey vultures as they hunted crawfish and fish stranded in a shallow wetland pond.
Overhead, an extremely rare swallow-tailed kite silently swept over the crowd of bird-watchers on the upper deck of an observation tower Saturday morning, eliciting “ooohs” and “aaahs” and the clicks of a dozen cameras tracking the birds in flight.
The diversity and abundance of bird life on display at the South Farms area of the Sherburne Wildlife Management Area, 25 miles west of Baton Rouge and a few miles north of Interstate 10, was due, in part, to an annual effort by Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Department and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel to draw down — then later refill — some shallow wetlands areas in preparation for the fall’s big waterfowl migrations.
At least 50 bird lovers from across Louisiana traveled to the viewing area as part of the sixth annual Wood Stork and Wading Bird Event sponsored by the two government agencies with the cooperation and expertise of the Audubon Society.
A spectacular sunrise and a cool breeze greeted the bird observers, many of whom were carrying cameras with big lenses, binoculars and spotting scopes mounted on tripods.
“That makes my day,” declared Ellie Avegno, of Baton Rouge, as a pair of large, pink-hued roseate spoonbills flapped up out of the shallow pond to reach roosting spots toward the top of nearby cypress trees among a cluster of storks and egrets already perched there.
“I go birding as often as I can,” Avegno said.
Her binoculars were slung over a white T-shirt with the message, “Egrets? I’ve had a few,” emblazoned on it.
“I got captured with all the horror on the news yesterday (of the mass shooting at a Batman movie premiere in Aurora, Colo.) and wanted to get away from it all by coming out here and just look at birds,” Avegno said.
“This is very therapeutic.”
Jackie Edds, of Baton Rouge, was wearing a pendant made from a small chunk of woolly mammoth ivory with a fine-lined egret delicately carved into it by her husband, Ken.
“I like to see the birds,” she said. Any favorites? “I like them all, especially the storks,” she answered with a big smile.
Laurie McDuff said she and her daughter, Kate, drove over from Baton Rouge for the viewing.
“I love this. I go birding every chance I get,” Laurie McDuff said. “Its always peaceful and quiet out here and the weather today is really nice.”
Kate McDuff said she is moving to St. Louis soon to attend graduate school and was spending Saturday with her mother.
“I like being out here in nature,” Kate McDuff said.
“It’s beautiful; it really is. It’s more pleasant than I expected.”
Krista Roche, the McDuffs’ neighbor, is a serious birder and artist whose bird paintings are displayed in the Elizabethan Gallery.
“Mostly, I’ve been photographing the landscape. The light is incredible,” Roche said about an hour after sunrise.
Carol Behrmann, who described herself as an “avid amateur” photographer from Baton Rouge, said she was having as much fun shooting close-ups of purple flowers and clouds of dragonflies as she was the large birds off in the distance.
“This is a beautiful area,” Behrmann said.
“I got a wonderful photo of a kingfisher.”
Tony Vidrine, Mississippi Alluvial Valley region manager for Wildlife and Fisheries, said the annual event is held to heighten the public’s awareness of the locality and to publicize the year-round opportunities for viewing wildlife.
The observation tower used by the bird-watchers, built by the Audubon Society along with the state and federal agencies, was located out in the middle of Sherburne’s sprawling wetlands specifically to provide 360-degree observation of ponds and distant forests.
One of the officials commented that the tower was underwater this time last year due to Mississippi River flood water flowing through the Atchafalaya Basin toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Jane Patterson, president of the Audubon Society’s Baton Rouge chapter, was manning two spotting scopes on the top deck of the two-story observation tower.
“The wood storks are special because there is a very small breeding population in North America, and they are only in Georgia and Florida,” Patterson said.
“These are actually birds that come from Mexico all the way up around the Gulf. This is not a migration but a post-breeding dispersal — and they love our crawfish ponds.
“One year we only had four” storks, Patterson said, adding that two years ago, “there were more than 2,500 storks here among all the other wading shorebirds.
“Louisiana is a great birding place,” Patterson said. “This is a wonderful, public place for anyone to come and see the birds.”
The swallowtail kite sighting was extra special, Patterson agreed, because “they are an endangered and threatened species.
When we count them, we count them in the singles.”
Park Ranger Brian Osberghaus, of the Corps of Engineers, said, “We advertised this as a wood stork event, but there are more than one species to see.
We’re quite pleased with the turnout. With the weather we’ve been having, we weren’t sure how many people would attend.”