South La. birders focus binoculars on wood storks

Eyes gazed skyward and heads whipped around at the sight of birds in flight as members of the Baton Rouge Audubon Society searched for wood storks Saturday at the Sherburne Wildlife Management Area South Farm Complex within the Atchafalaya Basin.

More than a dozen early rising participants squinted through fog as they tried to discern if the white dots nearly 100 yards away perched in densely vegetated ponds were wood storks or other wading birds. The group was careful to approach slowly and not to get too close, which would have spooked the birds.

With the help of binoculars, Baton Rouge Audubon Society field trip coordinator Dan Mooney, of Plaquemine, confirmed the birds contained the telltale signs of a wood stork.

“There are five wood storks next to some white ibis,” Mooney said with enthusiasm.

And with those words, the birdwatchers hurriedly grabbed their cameras or peered through their own binoculars to confirm for themselves it was the birds they had gathered to see. Several “oohs” and “aahs” ensued as the birders admired the storks’ plumage and dark facial coloration.

BRAS participates in the wood stork and wading bird event each year hosted by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to offer birdwatching enthusiasts the chance to view the wood stork, which was once listed as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Other birds like the beautifully pink-colored roseate spoonbill, great blue heron or several species of egret are often present and seen on such excursions, as well.

Willis and Betsy Trammell said they were intrigued enough after reading about the event online to travel two hours from Alexandria. The couple woke up before sunrise and drove through dense fog to get there, hoping a few wood storks would show up before the rain began.

“We don’t belong to the Audubon Society, but we were just interested to come see the wood stork,” Betsy Trammell said.

Alan Gallagher also traveled to catch a glimpse of wood storks. Gallagher is staying near New Orleans before traveling to Japan and had heard about the event from the Orleans Audubon Society. The experienced birder has been enjoying experiencing nature while traveling across the country throughout his lifetime.

“It’s an excuse to be out,” Gallagher said of birding. “Everything is fascinating from the birds to all the other animals.”

The allure of witnessing a wood stork in Louisiana is that the birds don’t call the state home for very long — just a few months out the year. Their seasonal migrations north from Mexico put them in the Baton Rouge area around July and August to feed on easy prey like crawfish and other fish that subsist in shallow pools of water.

“They are touch feeders,” said BRAS President Jane Patterson. “They put their beak in the shallow water and feel for food.”

The shallow water of the rich Louisiana wetlands is actually what attracts the birds to the area, Patterson said. They need shallow water to feed.

“The birds are here for easy pickings,” she said.

State and federal authorities draw down water levels within the controlled, leveed ponds of South Farm each year at this time. The process promotes vegetation growth for wintering waterfowl, creating an ideal feeding habitat for birds like the wood stork that visit the area.

Audubon Society members like Patterson and Mooney both expressed that witnessing the wood storks is a treat not only because of their short, seasonal migrations, but because they were on a path toward extinction at the turn of the 20th century.

“The birds have rebounded since the early 1900s,” Patterson said. “Their feathers were popular for the millinery trade when people wanted them for hats. The birds were killed just for their colorful feathers.”

The wood stork numbers dwindled until the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, something the National Audubon Society had advocated for, put the birds under federal protection.

Patterson noted Louisiana once again became a highly coveted area for the wood storks due to the abundance of shallow crawfish and rice ponds — prime habitat for wading birds.

“Louisiana has perfect habitat for the wood storks,” Patterson said.