Delta Dispatches Podcast – Wildlife
Each week, Delta Dispatches, the weekly podcast from Restore the Mississippi River Delta, looks at one component of coastal restoration in Louisiana. This week, Jacques Hebert has two guests to talk about how wildlife plays an integral role in restoration.
From LSU, Jacques talks with Dr. Andy Nyman, a wetland wildlife scientist about how wildlife is in Louisiana is different than neighboring states. Later in the show, Dr. Eric Johnson from Audubon Louisiana is here to discuss the variety of bird species that depend on Louisiana’s coast.
Below is a transcript of this week’s Delta Dispatches podcast. Listen to the full recording here or subscribe to our feed in iTunes and Google Play.
Jacques: Hello, this is Jacques Hebert and you’re listening to Delta Dispatches. We’re discussing Louisiana’s coast, its people, wildlife, and jobs and why restoring it matters. I have to say I’m a little sad not to have my partner in crime, Simone Maloz, but she’s busy up in our Nation’s Capital, building support for coastal restoration here in Louisiana. So, she’s doing a good thing but I’m flying solo today. That’s alright, because we’ve got two great guests on the show. We’re going to be discussing Louisiana’s coast and the wildlife that depend on it. We’re going to have Dr. Eric Johnson later in the show talking about the variety of bird species that depend on Louisiana’s coast. He is the director of bird conservation with Audubon Louisiana.
First up, we have Dr. Andy Nyman, a wetland wildlife scientist with Louisiana State University. We’re real excited to have him on the show. Welcome to the show, Andy.
Andy: Thank you for having me.
Jacques: It’s great to talk to you today. I’m curious, apart from our Louisiana LSU Tigers, which we know are far superior, how does the wildlife in Louisiana compared to most places?
Andy: The wildlife in Louisiana is superior. We just have a whole lot more of it than most other coastal states do. You look at Texas and Mississippi, they’ve got alligators, they’ve got oysters but not like we’ve got them.
Jacques: What about the wildlife that depend on our coast. Does our coast in Louisiana, support a unique quality and quantity of wildlife?
Andy: The thing to me that is unique about it, is the quantity of wildlife here. The species that we have here do occur other places but they don’t occur in other places as much as they occur here. Some of these are year round residents but others are migrating through and using us only part of the year. Whether you’re resident or migrant, we’ve just got a whole lot more room for those animals in coastal Louisiana than you do in other gulf states.
Jacques: That’s right. For folks who have maybe been out to some of the barrier islands and other more remote places of the coast, you just get out there, particularly during migratory and nesting season and you just see so many birds and that’s just one example. It really is amazing to see that quantity.
In talking about the coast, people often refer to it as this blanket, monolithic zone, but in fact I’ve learned that Louisiana’s coast is very dynamic and diverse and it supports an extensive biodiversity of Flora and Fauna. Can you talk a little bit about some of those different coastal habitats and how they’re important for different types of wildlife?
Andy: Yeah, it’s true. Every acre, almost, has its own history, its own challenges and its own opportunities and its own wildlife. We can’t talk about every single acre and what makes them unique, so I want to kind of lump them into two big classes.
First of all, just so you know, the fresh water marshes, these are the ones that are dominated by things you’ll see growing in ditches around South Louisiana or South of the US: cattails and bullwhips and water lilies. Everything else we’ll just call non-fresh. On the Atlantic coast, they would call that salt marsh. Here in the Gulf coast we kind of break that non-fresh stuff into intermediate brackish and salt. It’s all got a bunch of spartina grasses dominating it for the most part. You could break it down just to fresh and salt or fresh intermediate brackish and salt.
What’s good about using those plant communities to classify the marshes, is the wildlife pretty much follow those plant communities. On a really broad scale, you can predict if you’re in a fresh marsh you’ll see whole lot more alligators than if you’re in a brackish marsh. If you’re in a salt marsh, you’re not going to see any alligators nesting there. That’s one of the broadest ways to classify. Just recognizing the salinity of the water determines the vegetation and the wildlife that you’re going to find there.
Jacques: Talking a little bit about the gradient of salinities and what we often refer to as estuaries, which is from that fresh water habitat to brackish or intermediate to salt water, what are some of those dynamics within the estuary that support different types of wildlife and provide different habitat? Do some wildlife solely rely on fresh water habitat? Can you talk a little bit about that process and how an estuary supports wildlife in Louisiana?
Andy: There are a few species who can use the entire gradient. You look at your Great Blue Heron or the Egrets and Ibis. You’ll find them from fresh to salt marsh, but the caring capacity for those animals is higher in the fresh marshes. You going to find more Egrets per acre of fresh marsh than you will in salt marsh. A lot of them can’t handle that range. Alligators won’t take that range. Mink won’t go to salt marsh. River Otter won’t go to salt marsh year round. Sometimes even the salt marshes in Louisiana get fresh and so you can have alligators coming out into areas that later in year are going to be too salty for alligators. Same thing for the River Otter. Again, whether we’re talking about the year round use or just partly used, there are more wildlife in the fresher marshes than in the salty marshes.
Jacques: I know you’ve spent, obviously your career and a lot of your time in our coastal area and I was talking to one of your colleagues earlier who mentioned that you spent a lot of time on the Bird’s Foot Delta. Have you seen the coast in some of these habitats, whether it’s fresh water or salt water, change in the time that you’ve been studying it?
Andy: Oh yeah. Good grief. I did, way back in the 1980s I did my Master’s over at Marsh Island Wildlife Refuge, which is South West of Morgan City and there I got to see marshes and then I visited them again 10 years later with a grad student. We actually measured them. By that time I was a professor and had my own grad student. We actually measured the erosion. It’s a very gradual erosion that happens in these interior marsh ponds that are really too shallow for most people to ever get to. You have to get to them by airboat. So I’ve seen that kind of break up.
From a dissertation I watched hundreds of acres turned open water over just a few months. You set up a study, you come back and it’s just all sunk down. We call it the “collapse.” Then you mentioned the Bird’s Foot, I worked there before I went to grad school. I’ve been going back again just for the past 10 years. There it’s different. I get to watch areas turn from open water back into marsh again because the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is using the run US Fish and Wildlife Service or using the river, taking advantage of the capability down there to let it build new wetlands, even as the large landscape around them degrades. I’ve gotten to see it all. I’ve seen the break up and I’ve seen the building.
Jacques: I’m sure it’s difficult to see such drastic changes, particularly the break up part of it. We’re going to talk a little bit about the building. But, in terms of how this land loss affects wildlife species, what are the species in Louisiana that threatened by our continued and ongoing land loss crisis?
Andy: Some of them are migratory. Eric will probably talk a lot about the migratory birds that use it They’ll breed up in North Dakota or Canada or even Antarctic. They’re born up there. They migrate on down through here, go to Central South America then back again and either on the way back or once they get there they find a mate and repeat the process. So, we’ve got those species use our marshes. If our marshes aren’t here for those species, we’re afraid that they’re going to be fewer of those species. Not every one of those species is limited by the amount of migratory habitat. They might be limited by breeding habitat up north or wintering habitat. Our marshes are critical for them.
There’s no doubt that our resident species who depend upon our marsh are definitely threatened. The alligators are big, in the field we call it a charismatic megaphone: it’s big, everyone knows about it. People might get a little tired of alligators and think they’re kind of silly but that’s a huge, literally that’s a huge animal, and it is import ecologically and it’s important for money. That’s another one that depends upon our marshes and we’ll lose it as we lose coastal Louisiana.
Jacques: We’re going to talk a little bit about the alligators come back and also I want to talk to you a little bit more about some of the solutions and signs of hope.
You’re listening to Delta Dispatches and we’ll be back shortly after the break.
Jacques: And we’re back. You’re listening to Delta Dispatches. This is Jacque Hebert and I’m here with Dr. Andy Nyman. Dr. Nyman is a professor of wetland wildlife ecology with LSU’s School of Renewable Natural Resources.
So, Andy, before the break, we were talking a little bit about some of the challenges that our wildlife face with the ongoing land loss crisis in Louisiana. I want to hit on one point, in particular, which is in the Coastal Master Plan and the state of Louisiana often talks about which is the future without action. What happens if nothing is done. Can you talk a little bit about some of the impacts that you expect our wildlife to experience if we don’t take this seriously and advance some large scale restoration projects in the master plan?
Andy: Sure. I think it’s real easy to picture that. If you go to Texas or Florida. They’ve got alligators and they’ve got Oysters, but they don’t have them like we do. Without serious efforts to manage the resources we have, then we’re going to end up looking a lot like that. Except that we’ll have this long river sticking out going all the way out to the edge of the continental shelf and there will be nothing but levies and ships going up and down it. There’ll be no marshes around it. The coast line everywhere else will back up quite a bit. We’ll have that little tiny band of fresh water. Little tiny estuaries, just like they do in Texas and Florida. That’s our future if we don’t do anything.
Jacques: We’ve talked about this on this show before, and certainly anyone that’s familiar with the ongoing coastal debate, is aware that there is some opposition to sediment diversions. Mainly from those concerned about what the effects will be to Oysters and other fisheries. Is the status quo of what we have, sustainable into the future?
Andy: No. What we have is not sustainable. With no action, we’re going to end up like our neighboring states. Maybe the way to think about it is if we don’t do anything, we’re going to end up, I don’t know, we’ll say we’ll end up with 20% of the seafood we have now. If we build diversions, to get to that 20%, will take a very long time, decades. If we do diversions, we’re going to real quickly get to maybe 40%. We’re going to end up at a higher level, but we’re going to take that cut fast.
That’s the challenge or the heartache with diversions. Diversions take a long time to build land, but right away, they push out the marine species and the oysters are going to take a lot of hell from us to move. We’ve got to put the hard bottom where the ceiling is going to be right, right away. That’s what the problem is. Some people are saying, it’s just too much of a pill to pay upfront, I’d rather end up worse off 50 years from now because I don’t have to be as bad in the next 10 years. That’s not my opinion, but I think that’s one way of looking at it.
Jacques: It is a difficult debate in terms of weighing the short term impacts versus long term. One of the things we talk about often is, it’s not just affects to wildlife, it’s affects to people. It’s affects to economies and jobs, as you lose that wetland buffer and more places become vulnerable to storms and storm surge. It is certainly something that our organizations have worked on a lot and folks can go on our website mississippiriverdelta.org to kind of learn a little bit more.
Moving on to some of the signs of hope. In terms of we can do, what we have in terms of avoiding that future without action, can you talk a little bit about some of the specific projects that can help protect Louisiana’s wildlife for the long term?
Andy: A lot of people want to talk about constructing marshes. You go out and mine sediments from one place, that’s under water and then you stack those sediments up someplace else to build a wetland. We can do that across our coast. It’s very expensive, however. So expensive that we can’t afford to build our way out of this problem we have. The funds are just too limited.
We can also try to undo some of the damages we’ve done by some of the increases in flooding stress we’ve created on our landscape. Some of the increases in salinity stress. A lot of people refer to that as hydrologic restoration. That’s something that we can do, coast wide. But, the river diversions are extremely important because they’re the cheapest in the long run. They will keep building wetlands for decades, 10, 15, 100 years. We pay the cost upfront and they just keep building and building. With the constructive wetland, we build it today and it’s never getting any bigger at all. The diversions, they’re only useful next to the river, within five miles or 10 miles or so of the river, but they are the biggest bang for the buck. Comparing diversions to constructive wetlands, constructive wetlands is like paying someone else to change the oil in your car. If you had enough money, yeah, you’d do it all the time. We don’t have that much money and we need to let the river build our wetlands for us. It’s a whole lot cheaper than using a lot of heavy equipment to build our wetlands.
Jacques: We talked about that on a prior show, when we were diving into diversions and the master plan. In the current 2017 master plan, I think the state has identified 18 billion dollars-worth of marsh creation projects. They are doing that, but they also have diversions in there, I think around 6 billion. You’re right, that it is important that the diversion are constructed also to support investments in levies and support investment in these other projects that are ongoing. Andy, I do know you were part of a group of scientists from across coastal Louisiana that convened over a course of a year to provide recommendations on how sediment diversion could be operated. I think when you all convened, you were hoping to look at how do you maximize the land building through a sediment diversion while considering other impacts to the ecosystem. Can you talk a little bit about what that process was like and some of the recommendations that you all made?
Andy: It was absolutely fascinating. We met once a month and at each monthly meeting, we pretended as though the only thing we need to do with the river was, whatever the focus of that month’s meeting was. One meeting, it’s like, the only thing we’re going to worry about is if we want to ensure navigation in the river. In another meeting, the only thing we want to ensure is land building of new wetlands. Another meeting was, we want to focus on preserving existing wetlands. Another one was all about fish and oysters. Another was about fisherman. It was really cool to spend an entire day focusing on how we manage the river for this one particular aspect of our society.
In the end, we made some recommendations and we said that if land building was the only thing that mattered, we’d leave the diversion open 365 days a year. But, it’s not the only thing that matters. This is a part of our culture and our economy and we can’t take the shock of putting all the changes out there right away.
So, we’ve recommended some tradeoffs, but we still think we can get a large majority of the building capacity to the river, in the winter and early spring and then later by mid to late spring focus in on the rising part of the river. There isn’t one just spring flood of the river, you get peaks. Each peak, when the river’s rising, it’s actually gouging it’s channel a little deeper to accommodate that flow and to get more sediment. That first half of that peak is the one we want to put out of the river. Once that peak gets to the diversion structure, go ahead and shut the diversion structure and let that water continue on down the navigation channel. So, yeah, it’s going to slow land building but it’s also going to make it easier on our economy to adapt to the new salinity conditions and the marshes.
Jacques: For folks that are interested in reading the group’s recommendations and that report, you can go on our website, mississippiriverdelta.org/diversionopsreport and read their recommendations in full there. I think, like you were saying, one of the diversions was that you operate on the peak or rising limb of the river and carry that sediment through the diversion at that point. Also, since it’s in the winter, it won’t have as much impact on some of the fisheries that are in the basin, is that correct?
Andy: You got it, yes.
Jacques: I actually, I worked with Andy and some of the scientists on that report, just in terms of getting it out to the public. I think there’s been a lot that you’ve learned from the Atchafalaya Basin from the Bird’s Foot Delta. Do you see, when you go out there, really distinct differences between areas that are gaining land and maybe areas where we’re losing land?
Andy: It’s night and day. That’s one of the most wonderful things about doing coastal wetland research. I go to coastal wetlands from Texas to Southwest Louisiana Rockefeller Refuge to being all through. So, I’ll see it all and they’re different worlds. They’re entirely different worlds. That’s the thing, we’re losing wetlands but we’re not losing them equally. I talked about the fresh and non-fresh marshes, we’re losing the fresh marshes than the non-fresh marshes.
Jacques: We’re going to have to have you back on soon, Dr. Nyman to talk more. But, thank you so much for being on. How are our LSU Tigers going to do this year?
Andy: This is the year.
Jacques: Thank you so much, have a great day.
Jacques: We’re back. You’re listening to Delta Dispatchers, where we’re discussing Louisiana’s coast, it’s people, wildlife and jobs and why restoring it matters. Today we’re talking about wildlife and some might think the LSU Tigers are the most important wildlife in Louisiana and to back that up, we have another LSU Tiger on the line, Dr. Eric Johnson. Director of bird conservation with Audubon Louisiana.
How’s it going, Eric?
Eric: I’m well. How are you, Jacques?
Jacques: I’m doing well. So, Eric and I actually worked together for Audubon Louisiana. And, Eric, I know you grew up in Pittsburgh but you spend more time in our coastal wetlands and marshes and beaches than probably most in Louisiana. How did you make that transition from Pennsylvania to coastal Louisiana?
Eric: Well, first of all, go Tigers. It was a very interesting transition, having grown up in a pretty land locked place. But, I ate my first po’boy just a few weeks after I arrived here and I’ve been hooked ever since. The wetlands here are spectacular, extensive, full of life. It’s a really, really exceptional place to be studying birds and to go bird watching.
Jacques: Like Dr. Nyman said in the prior segment, in terms of the quantity, it’s really like few other places.
So, Eric, you work for Audubon Louisiana as do I, which is the state office of the National Audubon Society. For those who may not be familiar with us or who may think we’re the zoo or aquarium, can you tell us a little bit about what Audubon Louisiana does here?
Eric: Yeah, right. So, at Audubon Louisiana, we use birds as a lens for informing conservation initiatives. We see birds as part of a much bigger, larger ecosystem and where birds thrive, people prosper. Our economies are inherently linked with the productive wildlife and their habitats. So, birds are a really good barometer or good indicator of how our coastal wetlands are doing.
Jacques: For that reason Audubon Louisiana and Eric and myself and others that work for our organization are deeply involved in the fight to restore Louisiana’s coast for people and for birds. Eric, why is Louisiana’s coast so important to so many bird species?
Eric: The Mississippi Delta system and its estuaries are just so extensive, it’s the last stop the birds see as they’re migrating South to Central and South America in the fall. Of course, right now, is spring migration. It’s really picking up right now, so a lot of those birds are coming back across the Gulf of Mexico or around the Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana is the first land that they see as they cross. A hundred, million migratory birds and nesting and wintering birds use the state of Louisiana at some point in their life cycle each year. From the estuaries to the bottomland hardwood forest, to the coastal cheniers, all of these different habitats provide a home or a refuge for different kinds of birds.
Jacques: That’s something that I didn’t fully know, myself, before I started in this role and a lot of people don’t know that. Even to the smallest hummingbird, they make a non-stop journey across the Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana. Like you said, the first place they see when they come back and last place that they leave.
Eric: Can you imagine that little bird that weighs just a couple of pennies, can cross a 500, 600-mile single flight that takes 18 hours from land over water, back to land.
Jacques: It’s a remarkable and I mean, no wonder that people and others can be so fascinated by these species.
So, in terms of the land loss crisis and the effect that it’s having on our birds. Since I started this job I’ve seen Cat Island, which was badly oiled from the Deep Horizons Bill and also an important rookery for Brown Pelicans, it almost has completely disappeared. What are some of the effects, the other effects that we’re seeing from Louisiana’s land lost crisis, on birds in particular?
Eric: Most obviously, when you lose land, when you lose habitat, you lose the number of birds that the landscape can support. If marsh converts to open water, the birds that depend on marsh, like Clapper Rails, Seaside Sparrows, and even Forster’s terns and things like that, will no longer have habitat in which to raise their young in which to forage. So that can have large consequences on bird populations across the region. The oil spill, obviously, was devastating for many reasons but in addition to that short term impact of birds getting coated in oil, the long term erosive factors that it exasperated can be really detrimental. So, you mentioned Cat Island as an island that has disappeared, that is actually a microcosm of what’s happening across the entire coast. As our barrier islands are threatened with sea level rise and erosive forces, we have to rebuild them to make sure that there is habitat remaining for different kinds of birds.
Jacques: Are we starting to see declines in certain species as a result of coastal land loss?
Eric: Well, in some cases, it’s actually really hard to know. So we don’t have a lot of good long term data sets for things like marsh birds, in Louisiana. Obviously it stands to reason that if the habitats are disappearing these populations are disappearing as well. Things like Curlew Island and Stake Island, back off the Chandeleur Islands, once supported the largest turn colony in the United States. So about 65,000 pairs of sandwich turns and royal turns used to nest on those islands and since then, those islands have largely washed away. Much like Cat Island. Those birds, those nesting birds, those kinds of numbers haven’t shown up in other places. Where bird biologists do regular studies across the Gulf of Mexico. So, it stands to reason that the loss of those islands have really impacted those bird populations. A lot of these sea birds, pelicans, royal turns, things like that that nest on these offshore islands, even the brown pelican that’s doing really well today, only nest in large numbers on a handful of islands. They’re still very vulnerable to coastal erosion and land loss.
Jacques: In terms of some of the critical restoration projects that really will help with bird habitat and helping to either restore or maintain bird species populations, what are some of those projects and how are they important to birds?
Eric: The most important thing we need to think about is how to restore the ecosystem. We can do that in various ways. Marsh restoration projects and hydrologic restoration projects go a long way in patching up different parts of the landscape and bringing it back. Diversions, obviously, sort of rebuilding that connectivity of the river back to its estuaries and creating the systems and putting the systems back in place. I know you and Andy talked about that some, as well. Those sort of large scale restoration projects will really have long term benefits to all kinds of different birds and their populations. We also need the restoration of these barrier islands and some of the nesting islands offshore. So, now that some of the NRDA dollars are being put into restoration, islands like Queen Bess Island are on the slate for being restored. Of course, Queen Bess Island and Barataria Bay supports some of the most spectacular colonies of Brown Pelicans and Reddish Egrets and Royal Terns and things like that. Those kinds of projects all, collectively, are going to be really important for ensuring that we have sustainable bird populations.
Jacques: Right. For those who may not know, NRDA is the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and it is being administered with funds from the BP oil spill settlement to restore habitat and species that were injured by the oil spill.
So, Eric, I know the Coastal Protection Restoration Authority recently completed its largest restoration project to date, the Caminada Headland Restoration, which is approximately the 13 miles of beaches and dunes from Bel Pass Outlet out by Bayou Lafourche all the way the end of Elmer’s Island. And, I know you wrote recently about the importance of barrier island restoration to birds, but also how important it is to monitor and manage these projects after restoration, correct? Can you talk a little bit about why that’s important and some of the work you’ve done to that end?
Eric: Yeah, sure, yeah. The Caminada Headland Project is just massive. It’s been a really impressive thing to witness. It’s a little bit of a complicated story, but there’s birds that nest on these beaches that are, what I consider, early successional species. They thrive on habitat that’s been recently disturbed through a storm event or an over wash event and it scours the vegetation away and creates this open, sandy area.
A restoration project like Caminada Headland mimics that sort of process in many ways. It has this open, new sand. It can be very attractive to things like Lee’s Terns. The challenge with projects like that, though, in a typical situation, a hurricane would’ve also sort of lowered the mammal predator population. So, things like coyotes and raccoons. A restoration project doesn’t do that. So, it can sort of serve as this potential problem where nesting birds will come and want to use the island or that beach, but there are so many predators around it can actually be harmful to these birds. So it’s really important to understand those sort of dynamics so we can go in to these restoration projects afterwards and manage them appropriately to maximize their value for nesting birds.
Jacques: One thing you taught me, I didn’t realize, but apparently coyotes are good swimmers and can swim out to those barrier islands. Not good for birds. In terms of the work that you and your team do on coastal stewardship, I know you work in Grand Isle, you work at Holly Beach, to protect beaches for nesting birds and educate the public. It’s starting to get warmer, people might be heading out to the beach soon. Do you have any messages for people that are going out to beaches on how they can protect the species that are necessary for bird nests?
Eric: Yeah, so, these birds that nest on beaches, they rely on camouflage to hide their eggs and their chicks so it actually takes about two months from these birds to lay their egg until the chicks are able to fly. Those eggs and chicks can be really vulnerable to disturbance. The parents need to be nearby to incubate them, to protect them from predators. So, if we’re too close to those nesting areas, it can really have impacts on those birds.
One of the things we do, is we work with local communities and we work with land owners in the area to put up protective signage. To let people know there are nesting birds in the area. If you’re out on the beach this summer and you happen to see these signs indicating that they’re nesting birds, you may not see the birds because they can be hard to find sometimes, but I can promise you that they’re in there and staying outside of those protected areas will really help those birds survive. It’s perfectly normal to be able to share the beach with birds and have a place for them to nest and a place for us to recreate. So, it actually worked out really well.
Jacques: Great, and we’re going to talk with Eric when we’re back, right after the break.
Eric: We’re back. You’re listening to Delta Dispatchers. This is Jacques Hebert and I’m here with Dr. Eric Johnson, director of bird conservation for Audubon Louisiana.
So, Eric, I know today was a really big day for Audubon. You guys captured, or recaptured, a Prothonotary Warbler that you had tagged last year. Can you talk a little bit about why this is exciting and what the program aims to do?
Jacques: Yeah, this is extremely exciting. We deployed 22 geolocators, and what a geolocator is, is a small device that we attach to a bird that records light levels and if we can retrieve that unit off the bird a year later, the light data will give us latitude and longitude information. We can determine sunrise and sunset and therefore figure our latitude and longitude on any given day of the year where the bird was. So, it gives us sort of a history of where that bird went to. So, Prothonotary Warblers are birds that breed in our bottomland hardwood forests. Louisiana supports about 25% of the world nesting population of this species. But, we don’t know a lot about where they go for the winter. The geolocators are providing that information for us. To start getting these birds back, that we tagged last year, is just super exciting. This is sort of new information that ornithologists haven’t ever know before. So, it’s very exciting.
Eric: It’s really cool to see images of the birds. You put, what looks almost like a backpack on them, tiny backpack, it doesn’t affect their flying ability, correct?
Jacques: Right, right. Yeah, the birds themselves only weigh about the equivalent of five pennies. So, very, very lightweight and the geolocator weighs less than three percent of the birds body weight. So we attach it to the birds, like you said, a lot like a backpack. It actually has a couple of straps that wraps around the birds leg and then the geolocator itself, sort of rests on the lower back of the bird, much like if we were carrying a backpack.
Eric: If you want to check out that program and learn more about it, you can go to la.audubon.org to kind of see and learn more about the Prothonotary Warbler program and help support it. It’s a really important program to understand how Louisiana’s habitat is important to these species and also where else is important. So, Eric, I know Audubon Louisiana is a property owner and we have first-hand experience with land loss and hurricanes with our Paul J Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary in Vermilion Parrish. Can you give our listeners a little bit of overview of the sanctuary and why it’s so important to us at Audubon, but also to a wide variety of bird species?
Jacques: Sure. So, the Rainey Sanctuary in Vermilion Parrish is about 26 thousand acres of marsh. The only way to get actually to it, is by boat. There are no roads to the sanctuary. It’s Audubon’s oldest and largest sanctuary in our network. It goes back to 1924, when it was donated to the Audubon society. It’s really important to birds. More than 200 species of birds have been recorded there, including the endangered and reintroduced Whooping Crane. We have several Whooping Cranes winter at our sanctuary for a couple of years. But, also other endangered species like Piping Plovers use the beaches. Then, of course the marshes are home to a whole variety of different kinds of wildlife, including birds. The sanctuary is embedded within the larger Chenier Plane which is considered a globally important bird area because of the importance of the habitat to different species of birds of conservation concern. It’s a really important place for Waterfowl, for marsh birds and, like I said, Whooping Cranes and Piping Plovers.
Eric: Speaking of Whooping Cranes, I know that the first Whooping Crane was born in the wild, in Louisiana last year since the 1930s I think was the last time. And the mother of the chick spent some time at Rainey. Could you talk a little bit about the program that Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries executed and what they’re trying to do in terms of bringing back this important species?
Jacques: So, the Whooping Crane is a critically endangered bird. There’s only about 600 in the world and only about 300 in the wild. So, there’s been a really active captive rearing program to try to reintroduce the birds back into the wild. In 2011, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, after many years of research and working with different universities and professors to study the ecology of these birds and to study what kind of food resources might be available to them in Louisiana, began a reintroduction program here in Louisiana. So, currently there are about 40 free roaming Whooping Cranes around Southwest Louisiana that have been reintroduced. About a dozen or a couple dozen every year, get reintroduced into Louisiana. Not all of them survive, but now five, six years into the program, they’re actually starting to see these birds get old enough where they’re mating with each other, they’re building nests and, like you said, last year even the very first chick raised, in over 70 years in Louisiana, was hatched. It’s a really exciting time to see these birds coming back to the state.
Eric: It must be an exciting time to have your job as well. I’m curious, in addition to kind of managing our Rainey sanctuary as a bird sanctuary, we actually execute some restoration out there to provide a model for other land owners. Can you talk a little bit about some of the restoration projects that we’ve done at Rainey and how we kind of use it as a living laboratory of coastal restoration?
Jacques: We lost about a thousand acres of habitat of marsh to erosion after hurricanes Rita and Ike. We’ve been fighting, ever since then, to try to bring back that marsh and prevent more of it from disappearing. Just like elsewhere in the coast, land loss is a big issue at our sanctuary. We’ve spear headed a number of different projects. We’ve experimented with small dredge technology, that even a single person could use to rebuild marsh. So, we’ve been experimenting with that kind of technology.
We partnered with the Bertucci Company to use a slightly larger dredge that builds us 15 acres of marsh in about four weeks. That was a really exciting project that was funded through a grant by the National Fish and Wildlife Federation. We work with neighboring land owners, the Rainey Conservation Alliance, where we sort of ignore the property boundaries and propose restoration projects through CWPPRA and other funding sources to restore the hydrology back into the marsh or to reintroduce fresh water back into these marshes and to do different kinds of marsh restoration projects.
We take these different experimental approaches. We’ve experimented with different terrace designs. A terrace is just sort of a piled up mound of soil, but sort of in a long linear line or in different configurations to slow down water and let submerge of aquatic vegetation come back. There’s lots of different ways we can kind of experiment with different kinds of restoration tools to restore the functioning ecosystem.
Eric: That’s great. Eric, we’re almost out of time but I have to ask you, I know Audubon has a lot of programs for and volunteer opportunities, whether you’re looking to go out on a beach, like you mentioned and kind of help protect bird habitat. Whether you’re looking to be a citizen scientist in your own backyard. So, where can people go to learn more and sign up?
Jacques: People can always visit our website, which is easy to remember, it’s la.audubon.org and you can learn about our Prothonotary Warbler project, our beach nesting bird stewardship project, some of our restoration projects and we’re always interested in getting volunteers helping us check bird boxes, to help us steward nesting birds on the beach, to help us conduct bird monitoring surveys. So, lots of different ways that people can help and get involved.
Eric: That’s great, and, Eric, thank you so much for being on the show, I really appreciate it. Again, you can go to la.audubon.org to learn more and help support the work that our organization is doing. So, that’s pretty much our show for today. Next week, I hope you all survived today without Simone, but next week Simone will be back and she and I will be talking to some folks about New Orleans and why New Orleans is a coastal city and why people should care in New Orleans about what happens on the coast. So, thank you so much for listening.