For the estimated 85 million Americans who enjoy observing or photographing wild birds, a local wealth of opportunity is available at the Barataria Preserve, one of six sites that make up the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.
“Right now is a great time to come down to Barataria,” said Julie Whitbeck, Ph.D., ecologist at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. “All the migratory songbirds are coming up from spending their winter in the tropics.”
Migration time is such a big deal for bird watchers, in fact, that it even has its own day: International Migratory Bird Day, which falls this year on Saturday.
On this day, Barataria Preserve will host a Beginners Bird Walk. Anyone age 10 and up is invited to come down to the park at 8 a.m. and enjoy a free two-hour walk where they will learn how to find and identify birds by sight and sound, along with how to use the new eBird kiosk.
The 23,000-acre national park’s visitors center is home to New Orleans’ first eBird Info Center — an electronic kiosk that allows amateur bird watchers to submit and map their own bird sightings, or just learn more about birds and enjoy audio and video recordings.
Funded in part by the Gulf Coast Network Inventory and Monitoring program, the eBird Info Center, or kiosk, is a touch-screen computer that serves a variety of functions. A bird watcher, with just a touch of the screen, can access a list of all the birds that have been seen recently in the park, along with information on exactly when and where. Bird watchers can then repay the favor by returning and tracking the birds they see.
More than just a fun, interactive activity, Whitbeck said the tracking also serves an important scientific purpose.
“There are at least one of these kiosks in every state — throughout national parks and forests, or situated within wildlife refuges,” Whitbeck said. “They are basically virtual electronic bird books, but they also enable ordinary folks to contribute to bird monitoring, which helps us expand our eyes and ears.”
Monitoring in the Gulf Coast is crucial, as the area serves as a key bird habitat for approximately 205 species of birds throughout the year, especially during migration.
“They have just flown hundreds of miles across the Gulf, so they are tired and hungry when they get here,” Whitbeck said. “They need to tank up here in order to make it to their next stop. That’s why it’s so important to conserve this habitat.”
Tracking migratory numbers and species of birds, along with the times of the migrations, all helps to provide vital information.
“If there have been environmental impacts in the Caribbean or north of us, we’ll be able to detect that,” Whitbeck said.
Barataria Preserve received its kiosk last spring, and Supervisory Park Ranger Aleutia Scott said Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is excited to soon add kiosks to two more locations.
“There will be one at the Chalmette Battlefield Visitors Center probably by the end of May,” Scott said. “Chalmette is another great birding site. We’ll also be adding one soon to the French Quarter Visitors Center.”
The more eBird kiosks, the greater the opportunity for what Whitbeck called “citizen science.”
“We have mystified science for so long. We think of scientists as people that wear lab coats and hang out in universities or in rain forests somewhere, but things like this remind us of the importance of ‘citizen science.’ It empowers all of us to realize that we can all be scientists. Our observations are just as valid as a specialist, so we should all be keeping our eyes and ears open.”
Space is limited for the free May 10 Barataria Preserve Beginners Bird Walk. To make a reservation, call (504) 689-3690 ext. 10.
The Barataria Preserve Visitors center is at 6588 Barataria Blvd., Marrero. It is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.