December 12, 2013 – Marsh birds and Fires

Dredge and Rainey Report
Marsh Birds and Lighting Fires

December 12, 2013

Summary of accomplishments:

  • No dredging
  • Mist nets to catch birds along terraces
  • Testing airboat transects to count sparrows
  • Prescribed marsh burns
  • Whooping Cranes

This document can be downloaded as a pdf by clicking on the download button:

Tuesday, December 10, 2013 – Birding on the Christian Marsh Terraces

This week, the Audubon Louisiana Director of Bird Conservation, Erik Johnson, wanted to test some ideas for obtaining data on some of the marsh species that are more difficult to count. I drove down to meet Timmy and Erik at the boat ramp at 8:30 AM on a very cold, 37° morning. It was not only cold, but overcast and windy, making it feel even worse.

On arrival at the Sanctuary headquarters, it was determined to be even too windy for the airboat. Instead, we took a trip by mudboat to the terraces in Christian Marsh. Terraces are long, low, earthen ridges constructed of native material, and are a conservation tool used very effectively in this part of the country to break up wind fetch that causes erosion on the marsh edges bordering shallow open water. An excavator is brought in to scoop up the heavy clay of the bottom to create subaerial ridges about 3 feet above the average water level (See report from Oct 28, 2011). Conservation groups like the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana come out with volunteers to plant marsh grass around the edges, which increases marsh edge, creates more habitat, and helps to quiet the water so sediment drops out and submerged aquatic vegetation can grow (See report for Sept 6, 2013). The top of the terrace tends to stay unvegetated for a while providing resting and nesting areas for wildlife, and later develops a shrub habitat that provides even more of a wind buffer and for other wildlife uses.

We set up mist nets on two terraces, and then walked the marsh edge along the terrace to flush birds into the net. A mist net is made of very fine, black mesh that is hard to see, and is constructed to form pockets so that a bird flying into it will become trapped or tangled. The 1st terrace yielded 2 Common Yellowthroats, and the 2nd terrace yielded Swamp Sparrows, Common Yellowthroat, and a Common Gallinule. Erik banded them all. The gallinule is a larger bird that does not usually get caught in a mist net. When it was spotted flying toward the barrier, Erik took off running to grab it before it could escape.

Figure 1. A mist net is made of a fine mesh that is very hard to see and has loose pockets. Birds get tangled up when they fly into it.

Figure 2. Erik brings his portable banding station with him (left). Larger birds like the Common Gallinule (right) don't normally get tangled in the net, so Erik had to chase this one into it and tackle it.

Figure 3. Common Gallinule post-breeding has lost the bright red bill.

After a couple of passes, we left Christian Marsh to go to Pierson Ponds terrace where we had seen numerous sparrows previously. The bushes were full of birds on the levee when we arrived, and we had high hopes of catching many of them. We set up 2 nets on the terrace, and flushed birds twice by beating the bushes toward them. This effort yielded several Swamp Sparrows and a Marsh Wren, but missed several others that darted to the reeds around the nets.

Figure 4. Erik and Timmy set up the net (left), and walk to the end of the terrace to start beating the bushes on the way back (right).

Figure 5. A birder's Christmas tree, with each cloth bag holding a bird.


Each bird pulled from the net is placed in a small, cloth drawstring bag to wait their turn for Erik to record their data and put a band on them. The bags are usually hung somewhere safe so they don’t get stepped on or hurt. Since it was December, this convenient bush made me think of a birder’s Christmas tree, complete with live bird ornaments!

We headed back to the headquarters, but Erik wasn’t tired yet. After a brief break, he and I went over to the dredge site, but of course, this time there were very few birds.

The trail cam had been set up though, and what we found later was very interesting. The time stamp on the images it captured showed that a very large boar (wild pig) had been sunbathing in our clearing in front of the walkway around noon when a big male bobcat wandered past. Then, later the same day, the boar gets up and ambles off, one minute before we walk around the corner!

Figure 6. Trail cam images with time stamp show that a large boar left the area only one minute before we walked up!

With no birds at the marsh creation site, we decided to try the mudflats behind the terraces near HQ, but as we got close, we saw that Timmy had lit fires near the house. The area around the house is burned every year to protect it from unplanned natural fires later. Instead of going to the mud flat, went down the headquarters trail to watch the marsh burn and watch for any retreating wildlife.

Figure 7. With the wind in the right direction (away from the house), Timmy lit fires in the marsh. This will protect the house from natural fires later in the season.

As we returned to the house, we saw Timmy up on the new camp. He was relaxing with a smug look on his face. He had been given great news – 5 Whooping Cranes that were last seen in Dallas, Texas, were known to be in our area, either on Rainey or a neighbor’s property!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

With it being so very cold, we took our time getting up this morning with a big breakfast. When it warmed up a bit, around 8:00, Timmy fired up the airboat. Erik started training me to identifying marsh birds that were flushed by the airboat. We did several transects through the marsh and ponds to the east of the headquarters and flushed quite a few wading birds and waterfowl, as well as the small sparrows and marshbirds we were targeting.On the way back, Timmy started lighting fires in remote areas that had not been burned in a while. I got a little more confident identifying the blurs and darts that were marsh birds by the about the 7th transect.

Figure 8. The airboat transects flushed more than the sparrows and marsh birds we were looking for, such as large flocks of herons, white pelicans and ducks.

Figure 9. Timmy started lighting marsh fires on our way back. This will prevent natural fires from occurring during nesting season.

We broke for lunch, and decided to go to the south end of the property to look for the Whooping Cranes. Erik and I kept a sharp lookout all the way down, and saw a small plane apparently looking for the cranes too. We had not seen them by the time we got to our most southeastern point.

We headed along an east-west canal and spotted a large group of snow geese, so Timmy decided to see if we could get close for pictures. He picked a spot on the side of the canal and we went ashore to look.

No geese, but Erik, looking the other way, started waving to us. We crept down the levee and looked to the east to see 5 large shapes moving around in the marsh by the levee a good ¼ mile away. Whooping Cranes!!! The boat had gone right past them and they never stirred enough for us to see them over the levee. What luck! We had no need to get a closer look and didn’t want to spook them, so quietly returned to the boat; all of us elated with big smiles on our faces. They were indeed on Sanctuary property!

The area they had chosen was well away from most civilization, was not accessible to the public and ensured they would be relatively undisturbed. We have high expectations that they will choose to stay.

Figure 10. Five Whooping Cranes last seen in Texas decided to spend the winter on Sanctuary property. We didn’t want to spook them so got no closer than this.

Figure 11. Snow Geese flying high as we headed back to headquarters.



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,
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