For the birds: Expert holds court at Horton Park

Friday, April 15, 2011
Bird watching expert Joe LaFleur points out different types of wrens in his favorite bird book, one of Peterson's field guides. Above right is the barred owl the group spotted while walking the Wilhoite Mill Trail at Henry Horton State Park.

A man who has developed a unique product to help birdwatchers was at Henry Horton State Park Saturday.

Joe LaFleur has been bird watching for 17 years, and for 15 of those he has been recording sound and video of birds. About 10 years ago, LaFleur started transforming hundreds of hours of footage into a series of DVDs that show birds one by one in their native habitat. Most importantly, each bird's picture is accompanied by the sounds it makes. The DVDs are indexed so the viewer can jump right to the bird they are interested in, or study a whole group. There are now 29 DVDs on sale at and various retail outlets, like the gift shop at the Inn at Henry Horton.

LaFleur has a bachelor's degree in wildlife biology and a master's degree in communications, an ideal combination for what has become both his work and his passion. He went hiking and camping with his family when he was growing up in Colorado, but wasn't in the least interested in birds until he took an undergraduate course in ornithology. For the course, the students had to buy a bird book and a pair of binoculars, and an outstanding professor "got me hooked," LaFleur said. He's now in the process of moving from Missouri to northern Georgia, to be closer to concentrations of people who want to go bird watching.

Saturday afternoon in the Inn at Henry Horton, LaFleur showed selections from his new DVD, "Better Birdwatching in Kentucky and Tennessee." For this DVD, LaFleur selected the top 150 birds.

"I made it easier for beginners," he said. "They want to know the most common birds, so I focused on the birds they're most likely to see."

Accompanied by the DVD, LaFleur pointed out some easy clues to identification. Wrens typically have three-note songs, while the titmouse has a two-note song.

The mockingbird, state bird of Tennessee, is harder to identify by sound because, as the name implies, it mimics many other birds. Black vultures and turkey vultures can both be seen around here, but an easy way to tell them apart when they are soaring high over woods and fields is by the length of the tail: the black vulture has a stubby tail, while the turkey vulture's is much longer.

After the presentation in the Inn, the small group ventured out into the unseasonably hot afternoon to walk the Wilhoite Mill Trail and discover if they could see and hear birds.

Even before leaving the parking area, the group heard and saw a downy woodpecker, a nuthatch and one of the most common birds, a cardinal.

Proceeding further into the woods near the Duck River, a barred owl suddenly flew across the trail, dropping a small prey animal as it went. The owl perched in a tree, then flew back across the trail and perched again, giving everyone a chance to observe it through binoculars and take pictures.

"I've never gotten that good a look at a barred owl," LaFleur exclaimed.

The rest of the walk was more typical for a hot afternoon: very few birds to be seen.

"That owl made the day," LaFleur said.

"You have a whole world out there waiting for you," he concluded, encouraging group members to continue bird watching. "There's nothing like the thrill of seeing a new species."

Back at the Inn, as the group prepared to disperse, LaFleur pointed out starlings, which were imported from Europe and released in New York City's Central Park in 1890. The original 60-100 starlings have multiplied to a population of 200 million and are among the worst nuisance birds in the country. Starlings travel in enormous flocks, posing a danger to air travel, disrupting farms and displacing native birds. They are equally at home in cities, where their corrosive droppings on structures cause hundreds of millions of dollars of damage. In 2008, the U.S. government poisoned, shot or trapped 1.7 million starlings.