St. Catherine Creek Refuge hosts bird watching enthusiasts

Published 12:01 am Sunday, August 21, 2011

Virginia Reynolds scopes out dozens of wading birds at the St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge Saturday morning as part of the refuge’s “Shore and Wading Bird Day.” (Eric Shelton | The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — Eight outdoor enthusiasts loaded their cars in Memphis, Tenn., Friday and drove the Natchez Trace down to Natchez to join a group of local nature-lovers Saturday morning at the St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge.

The phenomenon that brought these people together was the appearance of thousands of wading birds coming to roost at the refuge.

“(We come because) the area is so beautiful, and the sheer number of birds” Theresa Graham, a bird-watcher from Memphis, said. “The wildlife refuge has types of birds, like spoonbills, in the numbers and varieties we don’t typically see in west Tennessee.”

Email newsletter signup

Graham came down with a group from the Memphis Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. It was her fourth trip to the refuge for the bird-watching event, she said.

Graham said the group also enjoys touring antebellum homes in town, and the hospitality they receive from the locals.

Another bird-watcher from Memphis, Dick Preston, said he has been to 55 different countries to see birds, but he always enjoys coming back to Natchez.

“We come looking for large birds,” he said. “When they come in at night you really see a spectacle. You see big gaudy birds, and can get close to them. It’s a good experience for kids and the casual birder.”

Preston said he enjoys seeing the spoonbills because of their unique, spatula-like bill and pink coloring.

The birders said the highlight of the event comes at dusk when thousands of birds fly in to roost.

“(Saturday night) will be the high point,” Graham said. “Seeing all the birds coming in at the same time.”

The large variety of species provided an opportunity for a couple of birders to check a species off their lifetime check list.

Graham and Grosse Tete, La., native Billy Kleinpeter both feasted their eyes on an avocet, which is a long-legged wading bird with a long, thin upcurved bill, for the first time Saturday.

“It felt good,” Kleinpeter said. “I’m not a list-keeper, the ones I’ve got are in my head.”

Kleinpeter said he just started birding approximately five years ago, and was not nearly as experienced as some of the birders he was with Saturday.

“These people are experts,” he said. “They know what they are looking at. I came into the hobby late. My previous hobby was scuba diving, and it’s the same thing for birds. There are so many things to look and see if we ever pay attention.”

Graham said she was excited to see a new species, even after 24 years of birding.

“It’s awesome,” she said. “You get to a point that you’ve been birding as long as I have, and the new species you see kind of tapers out unless you take international trips.”

The event also drew local birders to the refuge like Natchez-resident Bill McGehee.

McGehee said he has been bird watching for 40 years, and the opportunities he found in Natchez were one of the reasons he moved here.

“This is just a beautiful spot, and it’s one of the reasons why I moved to Natchez,” McGehee said. “I wanted to be close to a wildlife refuge. I really can’t think of a better place. St. Catherine is about as good as it gets when it comes to birds.”

Refuge manager Bob Strader said he was pleased with the turnout for the event.

“They are good birders, and they work together well,” he said. “The birds have been really good too.”