May 22, 2012 – plant terraces, marshbird survey

Tuesday, May 22


Dawn was clear, promising a hot steamy day after last night’s storm.

The Christian Marsh grass planting had marsh grass leftover that the volunteers had not had time to plant last week, and Timmy didn’t want them to go to waste. At 7:30 we headed over to the area, cranked up the airboat and went to the targeted terrace.


First, we had to retrieve floating sacks of grass that had been liberated by the storm, and toss them up onto shore. Timmy used a dibble to make a hole, and I followed behind with the grass, pushing the roots into the hole and trying to step on it to pack it in. The slippery clay tried to accumulate on my boots instead of going into the hole, and I was soon walking with 10 pounds of clay on each foot. Timmy’s water shoes were doing the same, so he kicked his shoes off, and I would hand him a plant after he made the hole and he used his toes to squish it all together. That seemed to be more efficient and we made our way all the way around the long strip of mud. There were a group of least terns and gull-billed terns nesting on the center of the terrace, among the scattered fossilized oyster shells that had been dredged up with the clay.

Figure 4. Timmy planting grass on a Christian Figure 5. Least terns and gull-billed terns were Marsh terrace. nesting in the shells on the top of the terrace.

 After the last sack of grass was planted, we scraped the thick mud off our shoes, feet and tools and cleaned up as well as we could.

Timmy had set up our tent port-o-potty on one of the terraces for the volunteers to use during last week’s planting, and we feared that the storm may have carried it off. Back in the airboat, Timmy took a circuitous route around the terraces and through nearby trenasses (old pirogue trails used by trappers). The water was thick with healthy stands of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) called wigeon grass (Ruppia maritima) that is a major food source for waterfowl, and an important nursery habitat for crabs, shrimp and fish. The new terraces will help sustain this important habitat by reducing wind-driven waves that can uproot the SAVs. We flushed a number of marshbirds along the way, with the least bittern being the most numerous. They flash out of the grass and disappear so fast I’ve not been able to capture a good picture of one yet. The rear shot here was the best I’ve gotten so far!

Figure 6. Wigeon grass is an important habitat in the Figure 7. The best shot I have to date of a least inter-marsh ponds. bittern - from the rear of course!

 We found the tent-port-a-potty, and I wish I had taken a picture. The overnight storm had made a twisted mess of the poles, fabric and cords. Timmy got out to retrieve it and I stayed in the airboat to minimize mud transfer. A group from the McIlhenny estate, including Pete Lege’ and Kevin Horton, that had been planting grass with us pulled their boat alongside as we were packing it all up. Back at the Christian Marsh landing on the main canal, Timmy stayed with them to pull out all of the mud boats used for the grass planting, and to bring the airboat back to the headquarters.

I took the flat boat back to the house, and started cleaning up the poles and tent to assess the damage. The tent had a long rip in it, but I think I can fix it. Broussard Brothers stopped by while I was working, to measure the bulkhead for a quote to replace it. The bulkhead was put in sometime in the 1960s, and is starting to rot and fall apart. If it goes, the shoreline will erode rapidly to match the canal shore on either side, which means it would soon be under the house with the house in the canal.

Timmy was still occupied when I finished what I could do at the camp. I had not had time to visit the test site for several months, so loaded up the Avocet and headed over. I was surprised to see that the outer containment was completely missing. The tallow tree poles and a few of the plants Timmy had planted still marked the line, but all of the reeds had been liberated and dispersed. 

Figure 8. The roseaucane was completely missing from the outer containment.

 During our self-training at this site, we did not stay long enough to bring the mud up to marsh level, and apparently, even 3 inches below marsh level is too deep for the marshhay cordgrass (Spartina patens) and olneyi 3-square (Scirpus olneyi) to colonize. Only the spikerush and Bacopa were covering the mud, with very little colonization along the edges by the olneyi 3¬square. The smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) planted by the reeds next to the boardwalk, on the other hand, was flourishing and spreading through the containment even under the boardwalk. Even some of the roseaucane that was cut green was still growing in the containment. We do plan to return to this site when finished at the LSU study area, to fill it to marsh level and expand the area.

Figure 9. The test site a year after we moved to the study site. We did not stay to fill this cell when LSU was ready for us to move to the study cells, but we do plan to return.

Figure 9. The test site a year after we moved to the study site. We did not stay to fill this cell when LSU was ready for us to move to the study cells, but we do plan to return.

 From here, I headed out the canal and across Vermilion Bay to pick up Erik Johnson who was coming out this week to conduct the monthly marshbird survey. Just as I was leaving, I checked the radar and saw weather closing in. We managed to make it back just in time to miss the sky from becoming liquid. Once again, it rained and lighteninged and thundered. This time we counted six marsh fires on the State Refuge property.

It blew through in a couple of hours, and Timmy left in the flat boat to see if he could locate the burns. Erik and I headed out in the 17-ft boat, the Avocet, to mark some of the survey trails on our way to the start point. We had to pass through smoke drifting across the canal on our way past the Goose Pond.

The marshbird survey started at the “Pig Trap at 5:30, and we could see an enormous fire to the northeast. A night hawk was nesting on the ground in the midst of the grass, and we fought our way through a gauntlet of mosquitoes to start the first point of tonight’s survey. We finished up around 7:30, and returned to an excellent supper of shrimp stew prepared by Timmy. We watched the glow from 6 marsh fires through the night. The four southerly fires continued burning for the next 4 days.

Figure 10. A huge marsh fire could be seen from our first stop on the evening marsh bird survey, and a nighthawk nervously watched over its single egg.Figure 11. Multiple marsh fires on the neighboring State Refuge burned all night long (and for the next 4 days).

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