October 28, 2013 – Yellow Rails and Rice Festival

Dredge and Rainey Report
Yellow Rails and Rice Festival

October 28, 2013

Summary of accomplishments:

  • No dredging
  • First stay in the Guesthouse
  • Yellow Rails and Rice Festival in west Louisiana

This report can be downloaded in PDF file format by clicking the
Dredge and Rainey Report, October 28, 2013 Yellow Rails and Rice Festival hyperlink.

Wednesday, October 24, 2013 – first stay in the Guesthouse

I stayed in the guesthouse at Rainey for the first time. Timmy had come to Baton Rouge for an Audubon staff planning meeting, and there was a Rainey Conservation Alliance meeting at Avery Island the next day. I had arranged to stay at Rainey with Timmy, then Kevin and Nick, also attending the RCA meeting the next day, requested lodging as well. Since I was the odd gender out with only 2 bedrooms at the Headquarters, and I was comfortable anywhere at Rainey, it fell to me to occupy the guesthouse.

We got to the camp right at sundown. Timmy immediately dissembled the single bed in his room and we carried it over to the guesthouse and set it up. I unloaded my gear from the boat into the guesthouse. After an excellent Timmy-cooked supper, we worked on the Miradi conservation plan until 10:30.

I retreated to my cottage and made myself comfortable. However, I discovered the hard way that the hot water in the shower only lasts for 3 minutes! I was very fortunate that the night was warm. I finished up my cool shower, let the hot water heater recover, and later timed it. We definitely have to get a bigger hot water tank!! The room was quite comfortable and bug free, so future guests (probably me) will have a comfortable stay.

October 25-26, 2013 – Yellow Rails and Rice Festival

Thursday, October 25

Erik and I started the day at Avery Island, Louisiana for a meeting of the Rainey Conservation Alliance. It was running long, and Erik was needed for evening activities at the Yellow Rails and Rice Festival in Thornwell, LA. I tried to leave when he did so I could follow him, but forgot my computer in the meeting room and had to go back. I took the opportunity to change into field clothes before heading out again.

I made it to Thornwell, and found the field group in time to help clear trails and set up mist nets in the woods by a water tower. I then followed the group back to the Lodge at Thornwell where a pavilion was set up with a jambalaya dinner and music for the Festival participants. The Yellow Rails and Rice Festival included much more than I would do. There were all-day workshops and presentations, and so many more people than the group I would shadow. This was the 9th Festival so far, and occurs late every October. For more information and dates on the next one visit


I noticed a research friend of mine, Tommy Michot, and sat with him to eat when I found out that it was his band providing the music. It’s a very small world in south Louisiana! As the sun settled lower in the sky, we were treated to the soft calling of low flying ibis and geese as they flew just above the treetops on the way to their night-roost. It was a very eerie but magical experience. With some of the flocks, you could even hear the soft hiss of wind through their wings. After plenty of food and music, I settled into my roost as well, in an upper floor room of the Lodge,

Figure 1. A jambalaya dinner was waiting for us at the end of the day.

Figure 2. Seemingly endless flocks of ibis and geese streamed toward their night roosts.

Figure 3. Flocks of ibis and geese flew just above treetop level, so low that you could hear the wind through their wings.

Figure 4. Tommy Michot's band provided live Cajun music into the evening. The mosquitos finally chased everyone off.

Friday, October 26 – Yellow Rail and Rice Festival

As usual, I was up at 5:30 AM so quietly descended the stairs to the kitchen to make coffee. The rest of the group trickled in, and at 6:15 I went with banding group back to the water tower to work mist nets. After the first run, I got into the routine of recording for the banders, and got to see the birds close up as they were brought in and “processed.” Our most numerous catch were Cardinals, but we had a variety of other birds such as Carolina Wren, Indigo Bunting, Blue Jay, sparrows, etc. We closed the nets around 11:00 AM and took a lunch break in the nearby town of Lake Arthur.

Figure 5. Scott processing a Blue Jay and Erik is explaining the plumage of a sparrow.

After lunch we headed to the rice fields to set up mist nets for the field where the harvester would be working. We had 10 nets setup and tied to one another to make a long wall at a corner of the field. As the harvester worked the field, you could see birds flushing out of the grass around it. The ones that would flush usually fly low, and the few that flushed in the right direction we hoped would get caught in the net we had set up.

Even though the marsh birds here aren’t rare, they are extremely difficult to see. Several people at a time would ride on the harvester so that they could look down into the grass in front of the blades. Many marsh birds prefer to run through the grass rather than fly, so that perspective is the best one to see some of the shy species.

It was quite windy, and as the birds flushed over, around, under and sometimes through the net, some of the birds would hit the net and bounce out without getting tangled enough to be caught. When it looked like a bird was heading in the right direction, there was a rush of people running through rutted mud to try to catch the bird before it could get away again. It was more fun than I can describe! Each bird was its own reward for its captor, and there were squeals of “I got a Sora!” “I got a Virginia Rail!” “LeConte Sparrow, guys, I got a LeConte!” Very few Yellow Rails were caught, but I was one of the lucky ones and caught the second one of the day. It was like finding the Golden Egg at an Easter Egg hunt!

As the harvester made each round, the net crew had to pull the poles holding the nets out of the wet, sticky mud, make our way across the deeply rutted landscape to set it up again close to the next pass of the harvester. We kept the nets tied together to save time, and made our way across the field in a long line keeping the nets taught so they wouldn’t drag and pick up debris or get damaged. It was exhausting, but each one of us was eager to move the net and set it up as quickly as possible so we wouldn’t miss an opportunity or a bird.

Figure 6. Ten mist nets were set up bordering the rice field that was being harvested to catch low flying birds.

Figure 7. People took turns riding the harvester to watch the birds running in the grass. An American Bittern flushed (right) at the beginning of the run.

Figure 8. Soras were the most numerous bird captured (left) and Virginia Rails (right) were next.

Figure 9. Erik holds the yellow-rail I caught up for everyone's admiration.

Figure 10. The elusive Yellow Rail.

As the workshop attendees dispersed for the evening, the workshop crew headed toward dinner at the Regatta in Lake Arthur. Some of us then returned to the Lodge at Thornwell to recuperate and prepare for the next day.

Figure 11. Dinner was at Regatta in Lake Arthur for some of the people that made the workshop a success.

Saturday, October 26 – Yellow Rail and Rice Festival 2nd Day

Today was a repeat of yesterday. I was up at 5:30 to make coffee, and the banding crew headed to the mist nets at the water tower before dawn. The pros instructed the workshop attendees on how to extract birds from the nets, how to safely and gently handle them, and how to band, age and sex the various birds that came in. Someone provided sandwich makings for lunch today so no time was lost traveling to the next town.

Figure 12. The woodland bird processing station was set up on a levee between fields, with the nets in the woods to the right.

Figure 13. Erik and others taught the workshop attendees how to handle and collect the necessary data from each bird.

Once again, we headed to the rice fields after lunch. After yesterday’s excitement, everyone was eager to see the harvester head out like a ship into a fresh sea of grain. The net was the focus for most of the crowd, but other groups were on the harvester, walking the other side of the field, or being ferried around in a wagon pulled by a tractor to get close to the action without having to trundle through the muddy field. Steve Cardiff drove a group in a 4-wheeler, and everyone (including him) was surprised to watch him reach out and catch a rail as it flew past the vehicle.

Figure 14. The unharvested rice field was a sea of grain, literally.

Figure 15. The dedicated net crew, waiting patiently for the next pass of the harvester.

Moving the net today included moving across the levee and ditch to another field, and the undaunted net-crew hoisted their poles and moved like a train up and over without hesitation. Determination oozed from the bird-chasers, doing what we could to try to corral the elusive feathered creatures. It was sweaty, muddy, panting work, but we loved it!

Figure 16. Anticipation as the harvester approaches.

Figure 17. Successfully captured birds are brought to the processing station in little cloth bags (hanging in front of the camera top left) and are measured, weighed and admired.

At the end of the day, as the harvester finally trundled off to its mooring, a field full of exhausted but happy people congregated at the processing station to see the remaining results of their hard work. Each bird was extracted from its small cloth bag to the sound of “ooo’s,” “aahhh’s” and camera shutters. After being banded, documented, and utterly admired, each bird was released with our deepest gratitude for its participation.

Figure 18. Another successful day at the Yellow Rails and Rice Festival!

Figure 19. And of course, I had to get a picture of me holding a Yellow Rail!

Yellow Rails and Rice Festival:



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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