David Hancock Louisiana Report - March, 2013
Our Louisiana trip in review:
Wow wow wow -- what a wondrous trip, Mary & I were welcomed by all and there is so much to see in Louisiana.
The flight down was very exciting but relatively uneventful except the landing. The planes were on time and the only excitement was the New Orleans arrival --- in the middle of a thunder storm. Well not quite the middle but our “final approach” to landing was accompanied by thunder bolts dancing right beside the aircraft – within the airport perimeter. We were the last aircraft to land for nearly two hours. They got us off the plane but apparently the thunder cell moved directly over the airport and prevented other aircraft on final from landing. Furthermore the ground crews were not allowed to approach the grounded aircraft -- I suspect for danger of the aircraft or the workers being struck and blowing up. We had to wait two hours for the thunder cell to pass -- and our luggage to get off the plane! A small inconvenience for us but apparently we brought the next two weeks of sunny but chilly weather -- perfect getting around and birding days. Louisiana had six nights of freezing -- our Vancouver area - one!
This trip was thankfully a week after Mardi Gras as Mary and I don’t like noisy crowds. However we enjoyed New Orleans and a journey through Bourbon Street and some fine blues and Zydeco music in the French Quarter.
First, I wish to thank Carrie Stansbury of the Morgan City Eagle Expo Festival for bringing us down -- a great show. They annually put on an excellent lecture series, many boat tours to view eagles in the nearby bayous etc. and fine gatherings of eagleholics! But that was not even the beginning. I mentioned to Josephine that I would be pleased to talk about eagles or live streaming cams – particularly our North West and Harrison Mills, BC eagles -- to anyone who would listen. Well six additional presentations were arranged. Several of the conservation groups wanted to hear more specifics about connecting up their cams on everything from long-legged waders to eagles.
At a lecture to LSU graduate students I got asked to attend a further undergrad course - and explain how I got into the wildlife field. That route and journey, outside the tradition of working for government, an NGO as a researcher-professor or selling your soul as a private consultant sparked the professor to have me explain other routes to spreading the sustainable issues. It was great fun. All grads wanting entry to grad school or jobs in their field of interest really need related experience. But how do you get it? One key route for students is volunteering! Volunteer to assist a local, regional or larger park – help with teaching kids, directing traffic, speaking about birds or history – get out and show you are interested. Find a research project and offer lab or field assistance – get dirty and involved. Clean up at a bird rehab center – if you are good around birds you may get to directly handle them. Make a hobby of falconry, breeding birds or any aspect of history -- all can lead to priorities when it gets to summer jobs or even entry into grad school in related fields.
Bob Love, Director of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife, knew of my long term interest in whooping cranes and arranged a guided tour with several of the people responsible for establishing a non-migratory population of whoopers back to Louisiana. We got the story of how the whooper chicks were reared at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland and then the ¾ grown chicks were flown to the Gulf Coast where a large holding pen was ready for them. Here they finished their growth and socialization and final "soft" release to explore the region. Twenty-eight whooping cranes now roam the Louisiana lowlands and even visit adjacent states. A wonderful beginning but it will take decades of public education to ensure the continued existence of these beautiful birds.
Bob and his two top crane researchers accompanied me to a big reserve area east of Alexandria to see the largest resident group of seven whooping cranes. They are North America’s largest bird, truly an awesome experience for someone with more than 55 years of interest. The flock worked around the edges of flooded fields and then took flight and gave us the view of their majesty in the air. A flock of sandhill cranes also came by. The Louisiana whoopers are doing very well – particularly where crawfish are produced.
I was still in middle school when I started to rear pheasants, quail and pigeons. I found I could get free ads to sell my birds in the major avicultural journal by writing articles on rearing techniques so by high school I had a reputation for rearing birds. By grad school time in the mid 1960's I was rearing a lot of grouse and had the world's first center for breeding peregrine falcons - next door to Frank Beebe, my mentor, who raised peregrines the year before me. The conservation world was starting to worry about the loss of species, pesticides were raising their ugly head and conservation breeders were suggesting that whooping cranes should have the wild population supplemented by captive breeding efforts.
Ernie Kuyt of the Canadian Wildlife Service had proposed collecting one egg from each of the one, two or three wild crane nests and to captive rear these eggs. Yes there were only, on good years, two or three pairs of whooping cranes in the entire world that bred. These great white monarchs were restricted to nesting in a small northern Canadian area – Wood Buffalo National Park - and they then journeyed all the way to the Texas Gulf Coast where they spent the winter. Our group of private aviculturists and zoo keepers formed a group to support Ernie's proposal. Cranes species lay 2 eggs but throughout the world generally only rear 1 young per pair so the thought was that removing 1 egg might not deplete the wild population but additionally enable the development of a captive population.
Today, and I am guessing at this, probably over 75 percent of the wild flying whooping cranes have come from these captive breeding projects initiated over 50 years ago. The wild population with only one egg and chick to attend actually raised more young per pair than did those parents who had two eggs and two chicks to start with. Then on top of the slow wild population increases, the captive bred population has been incredibly successful. So it was wondrous for me to see this wild population of whooping cranes that originated from the public support of a group of aviculturists and zoo breeders – supporting a government Fish and Wildlife Service biologist with the courage to promote an a-traditional conservation method. So thanks Bob, Tandi, Tom and the Calcasieu Ranger group for making this highlight for me -- and I wish you good luck & weather to support all your hard work to keep this project going on its successful path.
Tours of the bayous around Morgan City are always great adventures. Seeing the nesting eagles, the many many egrets and waterfowl along with the abundance of the pesky nutria, is always exciting – and much more so with the right guides -- thanks Donna and Steve from LSU for all the local details. This year the variation in the seasonality of the eagles was dramatic. We saw 6 – 8 week old eaglets, some people reported 8 - 10 week old chicks in the adjacent bayou yet when we got 100 miles north near Alexandria in the Kisatchie National Forest Dick and Beck Crowell, Sara Simmonds and the Rangers showed us a nest on March 3rd that hatched its young 3 days earlier. Every area of the world needs a Dick and Sara and support network – to make our world more sustainable. This local group has jumped in to support the whoopers - and the protection of great swathes of habitat -- in their region. Maybe they will bring live streaming cams on board for their eagles -- and other species!
Following the talk in Alexandria Mary and I went on to Shreveport where we met, not just another keen group of naturalists, but got to meet Paul & Beverly Dickson and see their incredibly spectacularly designed aviaries, with multiple waterfalls, and filled with one of the world’s best breeding collections of waterfowl and other softbills. Paul even had stock that came from our Canadian breeding facilities. Paul is not just a conservation breeder of rare species but he has been a driver in getting 1000’s of acres of marshland habitat protected. Mary and I had breakfast in one of the huge flight cages with 200 birds flying back and forth -- very memorable.
A particular highlight for me was meeting a young graduate student, Nick Smith, presently working on a Masters degree at LSU on the topic of satellite tracking bald eagles captured in southern Louisiana around Morgan City. During his first season he has tracked 9 wild caught adult and sub-adult eagles. Following the nesting season and just as the extreme heat of summer descended upon the area, all 9 birds migrated out of the region. Incredibly, all these Louisiana eagles flew north – all the way to Canada! More surprisingly, one adult flew all the way to British Columbia’s interior Great Trench near McBride and then back to start another breeding cycle in Louisiana. Wow! Eagles do more awesome things -- well we are only beginning to learn what they really do – and their normal simply seems reliably unbelievable!
How do southern eagles effectively make a living moving into Canadian areas where the nesting season is still going on? The Canadian eagle territory owner must surely try to keep such transients moving along. Or do the northern US and Canadian territory eagles, who are being passed over by southern transients, know that these birds do not want to steal a nesting territory? Or is it the local territory defense that keeps the southern eagles moving? More marked and tracked birds will help yield answers. Nick – great work and please keep at it!
I could not help but throw into this great mix of our “not understanding”: How can we have 10,000 eagles at Harrison Mills, BC one week and almost none two weeks later when the salmon carcasses are eaten to depletion? Where do these 10,000 plus eagles and the other 50,000 from the other southern BC rivers go to when the salmon runs end or partially fail? Filling in 2 – 3 months at the local landfills is one way of waiting for the local herring and oolachin spawns – but surely a time of lean pickings for so many eagles! Are our eagles going over the Rockies, in the other direction and down the Mississippi – even to Louisiana? I suspect many try this route but we need some more tagged birds to prove this hypothesis.
Another incredible fact to emerge from Nick’s satellite tracking is that these southern eagles have a distinct nesting season in Louisiana followed by a migration period -- indeed quite an extensive flight all the way to Canada. This gives comfort to one of the questions often asked of me. When is it safe to enter an eagle’s nest to place cams? Eagles seldom attack people so that is not the safety issue. The concerns to me revolve around not disrupting the eagle’s sense of nest security. Most eagles do not readily accept seeing people invade their nest or the tree above or near the nest level. As most of our followers know I have to guarantee the private landowners, upon whose property I must pass to access their nest trees, that I will not do anything to disturb their eagles. The one issue in my mind is that I now have 43 cases where I or I know someone else who has entered an eagle nest and that in all 43 cases the eagles re-located to a new nearby nest tree for the next year – when the eagles saw someone enter their nest. I have no records of eagles renesting in nests the following year that eagles have seen people enter. I only put in cams when the adult eagles are off on migration.
If the nest was visited just before egg laying or during the incubation period then the nest was abandoned that season. The eagles generally would renest nearby. If young were present when the person entered the nest then the parent completed the rearing but built another nest the next year. The most recent case, and publicly obvious due to the worldwide web and news coverage, was our intrusion into the Sidney, BC nest to rescue the chick caught in fish line. The landowner had extracted the promise I would not disturb her nesting eagles. I agreed. But the situation changed. The eaglet would have died before the cams from a man-made intrusion – the fish line. The landowner, who had been following the web drama of the “discussions about a potential rescue”, knew what my call was about. She responded from France with the opening comment, “David, you have to rescue the chick!”.
The rescue was incredibly successful considering that 37 different press people were on hand to record the event -- or mishaps! What a time for things to go wrong! Before I was down from the tree in the crane bucket, the female eagle was back on the nest and feeding the young. However, two days later the parents started to build a new nest about 600 ft. away, while feeding and fledging their 3 young successfully. After migration they returned to nest in the new nest – not their previously successful nest that reared the 3 young – the one I entered during the rescue. So a good conclusion I draw from Nick’s satellite tracking is that Louisiana, like British Columbia, has its eagles leave the nest territory for a fall migration – leaving an opening for climbing the nest tree and inserting cams.
Another brief topic – but one of immense pleasure for us northerners -- is the constant shower of incredible “southern hospitality” -- that befalls our trips. We received some awesome food, from ‘etouffee’ to tasty red fish to smeachy bread pudding -- like mom used to make – but I used the word ‘befalls’ due to the extra notch my belt needed! Thank you all for the wonderful time.
David & Mary