Eagle Expo celebration should remind us to take care of habitat

The 9th Annual Eagle Expo is being held through Saturday with events taking place in the Tri-City area. The coastal region and close proximity to the Atchafalaya Basin has made Morgan City the epicenter of the bald eagles recovery.

By John K. Flores

Though the event hails itself as the Eagle Expo, the ninth annual celebration this weekend (through Saturday) is really about birds in general. With a strong list of guest lecturers and presenters again this year, attendees will be treated to all things avian.
There is no doubt the Atchafalaya Basin and coastal region surrounding Morgan City is the epicenter and ground zero for the recovery of bald eagles. But the region is also critical habitat to literally 100s of species of birds that migrate, nest and winter here as well.
In fact, all of coastal Louisiana is critical habitat. So much so, a group of 32 benefactors of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology visited southwest coastal Louisiana this month to learn more about our state’s coastal wetland loss and take the opportunity to see thousands of waterfowl that winter here. Few states can provide this fortuity. Louisiana is indisputably a mecca for birdwatchers.
Executive Director of the Cornell Lab, John Fitzpatrick, was one of the attendees who made the trip. For 42 years, Fitzpatrick has been involved in the recovery of the Florida scrub jay but today mainly focuses on and directs citizen science monitoring bird populations via the Internet.
The Florida scrub jay’s numbers, like numerous other species, have declined as a reaction of human land use, according to Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick said, “No question about the fact that there are certain groups of birds that are declining very rapidly as a consequence of human land use basically. There are groups I would say that are under more rapid decline, or the biggest pressure. One group in kind of the overall terrestrial habitat is the grassland birds, birds that basically live in prairie systems, whether they’re expansive prairies like the Midwest or isolated prairies like here in Louisiana. The eastern meadowlark, which is a common bird here — it’s 30 percent of what it was in the 1960s and it’s on a steady decline.”
Fitzpatrick claims what the decline of certain species of birds signals is the fact the environment of grassland communities and open country communities aren’t being taken care of.
During a photography trip to the panhandle of Texas a year ago, I specifically went to take pictures of the lesser prairie chicken, a grassland bird under siege from habitat loss. My thought was, how many more years would this once abundant game bird grace the prairie?
What was interesting, our host Dick Wilberforce pointed out, that it wasn’t just cattle grazing, farming and oilfield operations that were harming the prairie chicken when it came to land use. But, also green energy in the form of windmills.
The prairie chicken’s biggest enemies are raptors. Wilberforce said the windmill farms are noisy but also their rotating vanes make the upland birds nervous since eagles and hawks attack them from the air. As a result, the birds move from their traditional nesting sites to marginal habitat away from the green energy farms.
Where Louisiana is concerned, our immediate issue is land loss as a result of human land use. Sweet Lake Oil & Gas Co. Field Operations Manager Doug Miller gave a lunch presentation to the Cornell group explaining the history of land loss in Louisiana.
Fitzpatrick said, “This, broadly speaking — Mississippi Delta region — is the Amazon of North America. It’s a major system of rich productivity. And to lose square miles a day of this habitat to ocean basically, it seems we’re losing habitat and losing opportunity for these things (birds) to survive. There are things that migrate down and spend the winter here, and there are things that are about to use this land as they come back from South America and land here — and move north that need good habitats out there to be able to survive. And as we lose habitats, we’re going to lose birds.”
Where Bald Eagles give us reason to celebrate this weekend, having overcome the ravages of DDT, water pollution, loss of habitat and being shot as competitors by fishermen, there are numerous other species on the brink. The Florida scrub jay, Kirtland’s warbler and ivory-billed woodpecker, to name a few, have been and are still struggling among others. And in the case of ivory-billed, it may be extinct.
Fitzpatrick said, “Whether ivory-billed woodpeckers exist or not, the fact is we need to be managing our landscapes as if it does. Because, even if it never comes back, even if it is in fact lost, or the last few individuals aren’t able to make babies anymore, what we can do is learn from that mistake and manage these places as if it were there. There are other things out there. And all of these things depend on that system. What it was telling us is that there is a whole system that was going bad.”
The Atchafalaya Basin is the largest tract of wetland swamp in the United States. And, besides a significant bald eagle population, it also has one of the highest concentrations of neotropic songbirds in North America.
Nowhere on the continent can nature lovers and birdwatchers find the sheer numbers of wintering waterfowl that Louisiana has at this time of year or imagine the number of migrants that will arrive from central and south America in the coming months to call our state home for the summer.
And along with the eagles at the expo this week, that should be celebrated and a reminder to us to take care of the habitat we’re blessed with in the Sportsman’s Paradise.

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