May 20, 2013 – May Update; Birds and no Dredging

Dredge and Rainey Report
Birds and No dredging

May 20, 2013

Summary of accomplishments:

  • Successful trip to the SW Pass Rookery
  • Bird banding along headquarters trail
  • Update to study area status map based on low water observations
  • Spartina patens and Scirpus olneyi are spreading well

Impediments: extreme low water in pond, Timmy unavailable

This report can be downloaded in PDF file format by clicking the Dredge and Rainey Report, May 20, 2013 Update hyperlink.

Summary:
Water level in the pond is still low, but does occasionally approach optimal for dredging. However, a spider bite kept Timmy from helping with anything dealing with mud for three weeks. The dredge is at the limit of the hose length in the canal, and any dredging would require his help in moving hoses and the dredge.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013 – low water assessment

I made it out to Rainey by 8:30 and stopped by the dredge site to check dredging conditions. As I suspected, the water was extremely low (-8” ML), exposing the mud substrate into Cell 1. This allowed me to assess the fill status of Cell 3, but would keep me from doing any pumping this week.

The marker poles showed that we are within 1.5 inches of marsh level in the lowest part of Cell 3 by the dock. Cell 2 has a lot of material deposited on the east side of the cell and it gradually deepens toward the northwest part of Cell 1. It is obvious that the fill has dewatered and compacted with the repeated exposure to air, so that some areas that were above marsh level are now just below it.

Figure 1. Water level is at 8" below marsh level, exposing the substrate in all of the cells. Cell 3 is on the left, Cell 2 (foreground) and Cell 4 (background) are on the right.

The marshgrass continues to spread and thicken throughout the area, spurred by plenty of rain, low salinity tides and lots of fresh, wet mud. There are several points where I always stop to take photos so that I can look back and document our progress. The amount of grass that has filled in Cell 5 is always astounding. I used the numerous photographs to update the status map, and it will continue to be altered as new information is documented.

Figure 2. Photo taken May 20, 2013 of the old canoe access into Cell 5 from Cell 3. Compare with next figure.

Figure 3. This was taken December 15, 2011, just after Cell 5 was filled.

Figure 4. This is a diagram of the estimated status of the marsh creation study cells. There has been some compaction and marsh growth since the last map. Yellow lines are walkways, white dots are marker poles, gray lines represent containment.

As I passed by the dredge leaving the site, I looked for bird nests but didn’t see any. At this time of year, I usually have to clear grackle nests from various nooks and crannies. The explanation was in front of me, as an Eastern Kingbird with a nest nearby had obviously claimed the dredge as his, and glared at me from his chosen perch on one of the safety lights. No bird would attempt to nest anywhere near a kingbird. I’ve seen them take feathers off of great horned owls. I think I was lucky that I couldn’t dredge today.

Figure 5. Southern dewberries ripen in May.

As a break from working on the apartment and other things, I took my boat down the canal to look for dewberries. Timmy had gone into town for business, and returned to help me collect enough for dessert tonight.

Toward evening, with the warm colors of the setting sun, we spotted one of our yard deer across the lake on the island, with a new fawn. Now I understand why we haven’t seen them lately!!

Figure 6. One of our yard deer with a new fawn on the island in the backyard lake.

 Wednesday, May 8, 2013 – SW Pass Rookery and bird banding

Today, the conditions would be right for a trip out to Southwest Pass, but we had to start early. I left headquarters early to get fuel and supplies, and to pick up Erik Johnson at the boat ramp at 7:30. There was spotty fog, heavy at some points, which made the trip in rather interesting.

Figure 7. Early, foggy morning and rush hour at Intracoastal City.

Back at headquarters, we offloaded Erik’s gear and onloaded supplies for our trip. The three of us headed out in the 17-ft Avocet. It’s about 25 miles from Rainey to SW Pass – roughly a 45-minute boat ride with the best of conditions. All of the marsh and land bordering the west side of SW Pass is part of the Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary.

Our goal was a remote island on an old oyster reef that has served as a rookery for as long as anyone can remember. Timmy was very familiar with the bathymetry and expertly guided us into the heart of the shallow oyster reefs that line SW Pass like submerged teeth. We had to keep watch for boats passing by so that their wakes would not beach us on the ragged bottom.

There is a series of subaerial shell shoals and islands of varying elevations that serve as loafing areas for White Pelicans, Brown Pelicans, Ruddy Turnstones, gulls, terns and Black Skimmers, and possible nesting sites for some of the terns and skimmers as well. We also spotted 2 pair of American Oystercatchers, one of which acted as though they had claimed a spot on a high ridge. This was a good find.

Figure 8. White and brown pelicans loafing on a low shell island.

Figure 9. A pair of American Oystercatchers that seemed to have claimed the high ground on this shell island.

Figure 10. Black skimmers loafing and perhaps nesting in the low growth of this rather high shell ridge.

Figure 11. Birds loafing on a low shell shoal in front of the rookery we had come to see.

The rookery we had come to see was a low shrub covered island on the top of an extensive, shallow oyster reef which prevented us from getting very close. I couldn’t identify the shrubs, but they appeared to be marsh elder (Iva frutescens) or sea myrtle (Baccharis halimifolia). A slow drive-by proved it to be mainly Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and Roseate Spoonbills that were nesting or preparing to nest.

Figure 12. The sky over the SW Pass rookery was filled with birds bringing sticks or food back to the island.

Figure 13. Great Egrets nested high, snowy egrets were nesting low and among the shrubs, and roseate spoonbills seemed to prefer the clumps of grass.

After thoroughly inspecting the rookery, we headed east into the location canals at the throat of SW Pass Cove, and found American Redstart, hummingbirds, Yellow Warbler, Barn Swallow, and others. We cruised by the experimental OysterBreaks that had been installed along our shoreline and made the turn into Vermilion Bay as the wind and waves started picking up. As we cruised close to shore, suddenly enormous flocks of shorebirds lifted from the interior of the marsh near Indian Point as a Peregrine Falcon made an appearance. Whimbrels and Willets, Ruddy Turnstone and sandpipers were everywhere. Thousands and thousands of birds swirled around and past us. We would never have known they were there had the peregrine not flushed them for us.

Figure 14. Shorebirds as far as you can see flushed by a Peregrine Falcon.

Figure 15. Study in Whimbrel loafing activities.

Figure 16. Willets to the left and a flock of Ruddy Turnstone to the right.

Once we were safely off the Bay, Timmy took us through Tom’s Bayou and Big Island Bayou to start our search for Green Heron nests. Timmy has been pushing for someone to band our birds to find out where they go and why we have such variation in population numbers from one year to the next. Erik identified them as under studied, managed to get interest and funding, and has ordered bands to at least begin a preliminary study.

Figure 17. The search for Green Heron nests yielded mostly eggs and a few chicks.

Back at the house, we ate lunch and then Timmy and Erik set up mist nets along the headquarter trail. We checked them about every hour and Erik banded whatever got caught. The first bird was a Black & White Warbler.

Figure 18. Timmy and Erik set up mist nets along our trail and banded whatever got caught - in this instance it was a Black & White Warbler.

Our day wasn’t through, and Erik and I left to look for more Green Heron nests on our way to the first evening marshbird survey route starting at the Pig Trap. We finally finished just as the sun was setting, and were pelted by a cloud of bugs on the way back to food and a shower. I was behind the console, but Erik had to ride with a towel over his head to keep them out of his eyes and mouth. This was one long day.

Thursday, May 9, 2013 – Marshbirds and spiders

5:15 AM wake-up call for the early morning marshbird survey and we were at the first point across from the headquarters at 5:45. Dawn broke at our third point on the survey, and we had to laugh when we could see the front of the boat – last night’s bug run was obvious, with juicy little green bugs stuck all over the windshield. The bottom of the food chain here is ever so healthy –no wonder there are so many fat frogs, fish and birds!

Back at the house, while I cooked breakfast, Timmy and Erik opened up the mist nets again. Timmy left to pick up some people planning vegetation plantings, but Erik (sometimes with me) checked the nets every hour or so, and he showed me how to disentangle the birds from the net and how to safely hold them. Erik would come back with a tiny pillow case or 4, each holding a captured piece of the sky. Then he would spread out his tools and recordbook, carefully extract a bird from a sack, measure it, weigh it, determine age and health, band it, photograph it and finally watch it fly away. Each bird accepted the process differently, from total acceptance to loud, angry resistance. There was even one oriole that tried to sing while hanging from the chair in his bag!

Figure 19. Birds that fly into the net are carefully extracted and placed into a small drawstring sack.

Figure 20. Each bird was inspected, sexed, aged, measured, banded and weighed.

Figure 21. Female (left) and male (right) Orchard Oriole.

Figure 22. Left to right: female Indigo Bunting, male Blue Grosbeak, male Common Yellowthroat.

While Erik and I ran the nets and banded birds (I did help), Timmy went to pick up Hilary (CRCL) and Kevin (McIlhenny Estate), then took them by airboat to the Coles Bayou project area to look at the terraces and work out the logistics for planting marsh grass later this month. When that was done, he returned them to the boat landing and went in to the boat yard to pick up a repaired gas tank for the Goose. This is important, because while re-installing the gas tank from inside the bilge of the boat, Timmy got bit by a spider on his hand. This tiny little incident resulted in 3 weeks of inconvenience (extreme understatement).

During this evening’s marshbird survey, at one of our points we were standing on a levee overlooking a broad expanse of marsh, when Erik noticed a set of eyes looking at him. With each bird call Erik broadcast, we saw a bit more of the creature’s head and ears. It was a buck with the beginning of a nice set of antlers in velvet. After a few more calls, it lowered its head and very quietly disappeared in the tall grass.

 

Figure 23. You never know what you might see in the remote areas of the coastal marshes. A buck was hidden in the tall grass.

Friday, May 10, 2013 – Rained out marshbird survey

I awoke at 5:00 am to the sound of heavy rain and a radar map on my phone with a rainbow of colors. I rolled over and slept til 6. There would be no marshbird survey today.

In fact, we had to hang around for a while before we could leave as the yard filled with rain and birds. We had a small flock of dark ibis grace us with their presence for a short while, and were pleasantly surprised when Erik told us one of them was a Glossy Ibis instead of the expected White-faced Ibis. He showed us how the area around the eye was different, with the White-faced looking pink surrounding the eye, and the Glossy with more of a blue area that didn’t quite reach around the eye.

Figure 24. A flock of White-faced Ibis with a Glossy Ibis at front-center. The eye stands out in a pinkish “face” of the White-faced, but is almost lost to the dark feathers behind the blue margins of the bill in the Glossy.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013 – Marshbird survey

Erik and I planned to meet at the dock this afternoon to run the morning route from last week that was rained out. I was approaching Abbeville when Timmy called on his way to the ER for his spider-bite (last Thursday). It had not improved over the weekend.

Since I was in Abbeville, I stopped by Winn Dixie for supplies and more food, and met Erik at the public landing around 3:30. We had an uneventful trip to the headquarters and unloaded our gear. We also put up the mist nets again.

Timmy returned with a bandaged hand. He needed to retrieve the airboat from Coles Bayou, so we loaded up in my boat for the run to the North Canal. Erik rode with him back to camp, and I stopped at the dredge site to check the water level in the pond, which was right at marsh level (0” ML). Two Roseate Spoonbills, a small group of Blue-winged Teal and a Black-necked Stilt were in the wet mud of Cell 3.

The mist net yielded an immature male painted bunting, a female yellowthroat and a mockingbird before it got dark and we closed the nets.

Figure 25. Roseate Spoonbills, Blue-winged Teal and Black-necked Stilt in Cell 3.

Figure 26. Immature male Painted Bunting (left) and immature male Orchard Oriole (right), both protesting capture.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013 – Marshbirds and Green Herons

 At 5:45 AM, Erik and I started the marshbird survey on the missed route at Goose Pond to Bob Gill. The early morning mosquitoes were horrendous. We finished around 8:30, then cruised the overhanging shrubs to look for green heron nests. Apparently, Green Herons favor bushes with thorns, of course; particularly Huisache [“wee-sach”] (Acacia smallii or A.farnesiana). We found our way through a meandering bayou into a cut-off location between the Bruner Canal and Bob Gil Canal and found another 5 nests. We took our time following the bank and looking into every shrub that looked likely to hold a nest.

Figure 27. Left - A perfect nest shrub has thorns and overhangs the water. Right - Erik very carefully inserting himself in a very thorny acacia bush to count eggs in a nest, while I carefully try not to jam him into it with the boat.

Figure 28. A safari through a meandering bayou led to a remote, blocked off location canal where we found another 5 nests.

There was an old natural gas platform begging us to explore it, and of course we did. Climbing up an overgrown landing and following a zigzagging walkway revealed a comfortable, elevated overlook of an extensive landscape. We also followed the canals down to the chenier landing with no nests, but we expected none because it was a high traffic area. Our total nest count is up to 38. Erik needed to leave, so we headed back to headquarters.

Figure 29. A derelict but safe structure led to an elevated platform perfect for overlooking the landscape.

 

May 15-17, 2013

Timmy was gone by the time we arrived – he was due in Lafayette for surgery on his finger. I took Erik back to the dock for 1:30, and returned to camp to work on the apartment all afternoon. For the next two days, in fact, I worked in the apartment caulking and trimming the shower, preparing and fitting baseboards, and all kinds of other boring things that needed to be done.

The water level in the pond was right at marsh level and optimal for dredging. However, with Timmy unavailable this week, it would be unwise for me to try to dredge alone. The next dredging session would require moving the hose, the dredge, and all the anchors – not a job to take on without backup. Finishing Cell 3, no matter the water level or conditions, would have to wait until Timmy was fully functional and mud-proof again.

Thursday night, after a long day of sweating in the un-airconditioned apartment, I was rewarded by a view of the new fawn.  The doe had finally brought her baby across from the island, and they were spending some of their time on our peninsula. As the sun sent low angle light from the west, they came across the backyard.

Figure 30. One of our yard-deer crossed the backyard trailed by her newest offspring.

Friday morning, I was blessed with a nice sunrise, good weather and the return of Timmy before I had to leave.

Figure 31. Sunrise for Friday, May 17, 2013.

 

 

Karen A Westphal and Timmy J Vincent, National Audubon Society
Audubon Louisiana and the Paul J Rainey Wildlife Refuge
6160 Perkins Road, Suite 215, Baton Rouge, LA 70808
225-768-0921x202 office, kwestphal@audubon.org
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