To kick off the New Year, Baton Rouge area bird enthusiasts celebrated their feathered friends with a joint nature walk and birding expedition Saturday.
More than two dozen bird lovers trekked to the Port Hudson State Historic Site in Jackson on a crisp and sunny January day to view some of the many different species that populate the park.
Marvin Steinback, an interpretive park ranger, led the event, which was the first to be held at Port Hudson to recognize National Bird Day. It coincides with a citizen scientist survey program known as the Christmas Bird Count, during which locals fan out and catalogue native bird populations to help professional scientists assess trends in the environment.
Though Steinback does not consider himself a bird expert, he said he hopes to enrich the local community by offering them the opportunity to experience nature and admire different bird species.
“This is a way for the average person to go out, get in nature, get a little exercise and just look at the beauty of these birds,” Steinback said.
About 30 bird enthusiasts gathered at the park museum with cameras, backpacks and binoculars in tow, ready for the expedition to get underway.
Dead leaves and pine needles crunched underfoot as the birders meandered through the trails, consulting checklists to note which species they had seen. Every now and then, Steinback suggested tips for beginners, like using eyes and ears before all else.
Much of birding, as the day revealed, comes down to patience.
Early on during the hike, the birders shared a quiet moment by a pond, all pausing to look and listen in the hope of catching sight of specific species, or hearing a telltale bird call.
As the minutes stretched on, some hikers gravitated to patches of sunlight for warmth, cameras and binoculars still poised.
“Watch the low shrubs,” Steinback advised.
Though many trees were barren from the winter months, brambles and bushes flanked by towering evergreens near the edges of the pond shielded the birds from view. Occasionally, flickering movement between the branches would reveal the hint of a wing or beak.
“You never know what you’re going to see,” Steinback added, as they continued their trek.
This watching and waiting in silent anticipation is what Steinback calls “practicing field craft,” and can be accomplished by birders of all ages and experience levels.
It was five-year-old Dean Johnson's first experience with birding. In his camouflage rubber boots and with two pairs of binoculars slung around his neck, he declared that he hoped to see “a red bird and a blue bird” during his hike.
Also a confessed beginner at birding, his mother, Brendia Ercolini, had just purchased binoculars that morning before the hike began. She said she hopes her son will develop “a passion, an interest or at least an appreciation for nature” from the trip.
Other hikers were more experienced.
One such hiker, Dustin Thomas, managed to capture a sharp photograph of a bird with his camera. Everyone huddled around to view the image and attempt to identify the species.
While bird identification can involve a number of steps, including tracking behavior and knowing the habitats different species prefer, trying to classify a bird via image can come down to parsing the differences between beak length, coloring pattern and size.
Steinback talked the group through the bird ID, and ultimately determined it to be a pine warbler.
While visual identification remains tricky, Steinback explained that sometimes a bird can be identified just by its call, even without glimpsing it. Woodpeckers, for instance, are often heard and not seen.
Cindy Thompson of Baton Rouge attended the hike with her husband, and identified most of the birds that morning through sound alone, among them a red-bellied woodpecker, chickadees and a Carolina wren.
A member of Louisiana Master Naturalists of Greater Baton Rouge, Thompson has been birding for several years, but doesn’t consider herself an expert.
“It felt like a good day to get out and learn something more,” Thompson said.
Carl Motsenbocker, a professor of horticulture and sustainable agriculture at LSU, also brought along his camera. He considers himself more of a photographer than a birder, but has learned to appreciate the beauty of birds from his travels with the university.
“This is a good opportunity for people to think about being out in nature, how birds are part of nature and how to interact with them in a non-destructive way,” he said.
Steinback's own passion for environmental education ties to his love of birds, which are “indicator species” that can provide insight into a changing ecosystem.
“We have this natural connection, but we’ve kind of lost the connection,” Steinback said. “This is an opportunity for us to start reconnecting back to nature.”
By the end of the hike, Steinback estimated the group saw a total of at least 80 birds. On Jan. 19, he will again lead another nature hike called ‘Beginners Bird Walk.’
“When you’re going out birding, you feel better about yourself,” he said. “It’s good for us, and it’s good for nature.”