MORGAN CITY — Flying away from its huge nest atop a cypress tree, the eagle swooped down, snagged a small fish from the cold water of Flat Lake, then brought breakfast back to its noisy, hungry babies.
“It’s the hunger call,” Bill Thompson III told amateur and professional bird watchers aboard the Cajun Jack II on a clear, blue, cold morning last week.
Capt. Scott Estay, pilot of the Cajun Jack, had cut off the engine of the 250-horsepower Suzuki outboard and let the boat quietly drift closer to the nest until the eaglets could be heard.
“That’s not something you hear every day,” said Thompson, a noted birding expert from Ohio who was the guide on the Friday morning tour.
Those aboard the Cajun Jack were treated to a tour to view and study the bird the U.S. chose as its symbol, the American bald eagle. Over the next two hours, 28 eagles were spotted flying high overhead, or cruising along at tree-level, or squatting in their nests, their white heads distinguishable among the gray bark and draping moss of the cypress trees.
The tour was part of the 11th annual Eagle Expo and More put on by the Cajun Coast Visitors & Convention Bureau. Filled with events from Thursday night through Saturday, this year the expo included a dinner presentation and a seminar by Thompson, who is co-publisher of “Bird Watcher’s Digest.” Other events included seminars and an eagle photography workshop, taught by C.C. Lockwood, that included a field trip along Bayou Black.
Carrie Stansbury, executive director of Cajun Coast, said the first Eagle Expo was held in early 2006, just after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Twenty-five people attended the inaugural event. By 2015, the number of attendees had grown to more than 200.
The first expo in 2006 came after a few years of preparation, and was supported by the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program. The expo takes advantage of all the eagles nesting in the trees from Morgan City to Houma. Stansbury said in that stretch of marsh and land, the estuary program has counted more than 250 active eagle nests.
She said the event’s attendees — most of them from Louisiana — run the gamut from avid bird watchers to novices. Of the avid birders, some follow many species while others focus on eagles.
Hunted vigorously in the United States from the early days of the country’s history, the American bald eagle was put on the endangered list in the late 1960s when the count of nesting pairs sank to 400 in the lower 48 states. The protection apparently helped those numbers climb: A more recent census counted 6,000 nesting pairs. In 2003, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service removed the endangered label and placed the eagle on its protected list, according to the estuary program.
Thompson told those aboard the Cajun Jack on Friday that an eagle takes advantage of its 7-foot wingspan and wind patterns that allow the bird to glide as it searches below for food. He said their white heads and tail feathers do not come into bloom until the bird reaches the age of 4 to 5 years.
The tour set off from the Russo Boat Launch, just off La. 70 near Flat Lake, and followed the cypress trees that ring the lake. The eagles build their nests in many of those trees where solid branches converge to provide a sturdy base. According to Thompson, eagle couples are monogamous, and will return to the same nests to raise babies year after year. Those nests, which have to be refortified some years, weigh hundreds of pounds or more.
Dawn Hebert, who is Capt. Estay’s mother and also wears the title of captain, said that this year’s Eagle Expo was the first without Cajun Jack’s Swamp Tours’ namesake — Lester Giordano Sr., who went by Cajun Jack in the last years of his life.
Hebert said he died Feb. 7, Super Bowl Sunday, at the age of 77. But for years he piloted the boat that introduced many to the beauty of the Atchafalaya Basin that encompasses the waterways and lakes around Morgan City.
“This is our first trip without him,” Estay said.