This blog originates on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, in Louisiana. It proposes to share the things that happen on and by the river as the seasons progress. As the river changes from quiet, warm, slow flow to rises of eighteen feet or more, there are changes in the lives of the birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles that use the river. And the mood of the river changes with the seasons. I propose to note and comment on these things.

My Photo
Location: Butte La Rose, Louisiana, United States

I transitioned a few years ago from a career as a water-pollution control biologist. I want to do this blog to stay in touch with a world outside my everyday surroundings, whatever they may be. I like open-minded company and the discussion of ideas. Photo by Brad Moon.

Friday, March 31, 2006

FEMA eels

Was at a meeting day before yesterday with some folks from USGS. One of them is very aware of the water dynamics of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya. His conclusion was that this might be the lowest high water he has seen in his 33 years of monitoring the rivers. Now as rational humans who will find a cause and effect for everything, who can we blame it on? I vote for FEMA, or communists. I know there are communists on the river because my shrimp traps keep getting eels in them and that just wouldn’t happen by itself. And FEMA’s failture to move those trailers out of Arkansas could be affecting the eels. After all, Arkansas and Louisiana are touching, aren’t they, so…

Well, onward. The first female rubythroats showed up day before yesterday. Anticipating the large populations that we have had in the past, some folks have asked to be notified if the hummer banding was going to happen. Dave tells me that he would like to do it, and has tentatively suggested the third or fourth weekend in April. I will get the word out when he can confirm a date. The native honeysuckle is a good way to keep the hummers around; local native-plant nurseries have them.

Many of us become familiar with the bird songs that we commonly hear in our yards. Even apartment dwellers learn 12 to 15 species if they listen around the parking lot, etc, honest. But, just when you think you have them all learned, a sound comes up that is familiar, sort of, but not something you identify with certainty. That happened to me yesterday. There was this thing that sounded like a western quail, a whip-poor-will and a pigeon, or some little piece of each of them. I spent what time I could looking for it visually, but no dice. I consulted references to no avail. Then, this morning I saw what it was. It was an Inca dove. This species has just shown up around the yard for the first time this winter but I had never heard one call. Now I have. It is a mournful two note, up down call that goes on monotonously. But, something new, and a welcome something new at that.

The osprey was back yesterday, and again today. It was eating a fish across the river yesterday, so I guess the eagle encounter, if it was the same osprey, didn’t make it leave the territory.

Orchard orioles are back yesterday. Here is another one that you just have to admire. This little oriole sitting on my hummer feeder four feet from me has crossed the whole Gulf of Mexico in the last week – probably in the last three days.

The river is at 11.4 on the Butte La Rose gauge, going to 9.4 by next Wednesday. There isn’t much to back it up on the Ohio or Mississippi. I’m beginning to wonder if this will be a “no crawfish” season for us, again. If our governor was named Marie Antoinette, faced with enraged commoners (us) at the loss of a dietary staple – crawfish – would she have said “let them eat choupique caviar”? And would that have cost her her political life? One may wonder.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Pileated Plus

I need to get a couple notes in here before I forget them. The eagle was back, sitting in the same tree that it went to after the osprey heist yesterday. This is the first time I have seen an eagle here two days in a row. Maybe this one is going to set up shop here because of the easy meals.

I got to watch an adult female pileated woodpecker feed for about 30 minutes, at close range. You could actually see it listening, or seeming to, before it tore into the dead tree it was feeding on. It would turn its head sideways and pause and then hammer at a certain spot. It would stop and pause again in the same pose, and hammer again. If it was a human, it would have been listening. I understand they can actually hear beetles moving inside the tree. Sure enough, when it left I went and examined the tree and each two or three inch-deep hole ended in an insect tunnel. These tunnels were about a half inch in diameter - pretty big grubs or beetles or whatever. The woodpecker also seemed to flick its tongue at the tree trunk over and over, as though it might be picking up something small off of the surface of the tree, but when I looked I couldn’t see any small insects or anything else that looked edible.

A big tug went by pushing three very big “rock” barges. It’s unusual to see that kind of traffic on this river, almost all of it goes through Whiskey Bay because that’s what it’s there for. This particular tow was here because there is a rock yard (remember when they were shell yards?) up near I10.

Several times a year you see a big buoy that has gone adrift and comes down the river. This is one that passed by in the current today. The iris is blooming now in the yard, it was a gift last year from friends who live on Bayou Manchac.

And grosbecs are calling in the early evening. Memories of them fifty years ago, and rice, and gravy, and some French bread and real butter – so they tell me, anyway.

The river is at 11.5 on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 9.4 by Sunday. The Ohio and Mississippi, the mother and father of waters, are relaxing in their beds and show no inclination to exert themselves as yet.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Monday, March 27, 2006

Eagles and Ospreys

More drama on the river today. I was sitting in a chair on the dock this morning, facing upstream. I noticed out of the corner of my right eye a bird flying upstream down the middle of the river – it came from behind me, me facing upstream and it flying upstream. I glanced to the side and it was an osprey, probably one of the two that have been patrolling the river lately. It was carrying a small fish, looked like a shad, but something was not right. You know how sometimes you see something ordinary but it doesn’t quite register as “right”? What I realized that was different was that the osprey was flying fast, I mean fast, instead of the usual lazy way they have of going along. I turned a little further to look downstream and there, about a hundred yards behind the osprey, also flying up the middle of the river was an adult bald eagle. And it too was moving fast. Both were only about 50 feet above the water. OK, so the eagle is chasing the osprey, but I thought there was no way the eagle could catch it, there being so much difference in their sizes – the heavier eagle is too cumbersome. The osprey was flying as fast as it could, I think, and the eagle caught it in about ten seconds. It closed the gap of 100 yards in ten seconds. I still don’t see how that could happen, but it did. Now the eagle started harassing the osprey which now was just doing acrobatics trying to avoid the larger bird. For a big animal, that eagle did some amazing aerial maneuvering, and it eventually caused the osprey to drop the fish which the eagle caught before it hit the water. Now the osprey started to harass the eagle, but it seemed not to be very enthusiastic about it. The eagle flew into the middle of a heavily vined tree right across the river from me – actually into the thickest brushy area of the tree. It would appear that the osprey generated at least enough respect so that the eagle had to try to make itself inaccessible. The osprey now went into that cheeping call that they make and started circling higher and higher, eventually going so high that you might have had trouble knowing it was an osprey, even with binoculars. And then it drifted away out of sight. Meanwhile, the eagle sat in the tree and ate the fish, and then flew off to the tallest tree about a mile down the river and just sat on an exposed limb for a long time. It was still there when I came back up to the house. From that perch, it could sure see any osprey flying along the river carrying a fish. I came back to the river about 5:30 this afternoon and looked around, and there across the river on a perch it often uses, was an osprey. I don’t know if it was the same one, but if so what might that mean? Maybe the highjacking that I saw happens all the time, and I do realize this behavior has been documented by other folks. I guess I was just surprised that the osprey came back, if it was the same one. Maybe the ospreys are so used to it, and so little harm comes to them from it, that they just keep on keeping on. Earlier I talked about seeing another similar encounter in exactly the same place last year, although that time the osprey literally seemed to place the fish in the eagles claws. Yep, our national symbol, ambushing for fun and profit. Whatever it takes, I guess.

The benches I made look OK to put around the yard. And the osprey in the upper picture (click on it) is kind of suggestive of an osprey, rather than a clear example. It’s not that I take this kind of picture on purpose, i.e. for artistic effect; it’s just that my camera isn’t good enough to zoom any closer.

The river is at 11.1 on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 9.8 by Saturday. The Ohio and Mississippi are still falling hard, and so will we next week! My friend Joel told me something interesting the other day about water in the Basin. He says that for every foot of water in a rise at Butte La Rose, they get about half of that at Charenton by the time it gets there. The water just spreads out as it goes south. I had wondered what the ratio would be, though. Thanks Joel.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Parade of Eels

Today was a woodwork day. I have been collecting scrap cypress lumber for the 301-year-old birdhouses and some of it is more useful and some less for birdhouse purposes. I like to use the old rough unplaned (undressed my father would have said) lumber, and it needs to have not been painted. But, thinking that using the planed, painted wood for SOME kind of purpose is better than ending up in a burn pile, I don’t turn any of it down. Today was a day to use some of that kind of wood, and from it I built three benches to place out in the yard for occasional use. They turned out pretty well, I think. Picture later.

Down at the river the drift continues to float by, rather rapidly these days. Kind of like watching a parade from a curbside seat -you never know what you’ll see on the next float (sorry). Lots of pretty big trees went by today, but nothing spectacular – like an abandoned (or unchaperoned) boat. I’ve caught several of these. If you just catch them and tie them up, someone usually comes by to claim them, and some aren’t even worth tying up.

Big eel day in the shrimp traps. One trap had five eels in it. That’s the most I have ever seen in one of my traps. The cats thought a meal was to be had but apparently mouthfuls of slime put an end to that idea. Even Napoleon gave up. I wonder what that slime does taste like? I kind of started to get disgusted just thinking about the slime, and then I rememebered that I like smothered okra.

The river is at 11.0 on the Butte La Rose gauge and it will go up another half foot by Wednesday, but that’s where it ends. The Ohio and Mississippi are both falling hard – two and three feet a day! Looks like a real roller coaster year for the water. My friend in Charenton who is actually running crawfish traps by pulling his boat through the woods may have to stop that soon. He was asking about coon traps the other day, seems the coons are eating his crawfish. Now, they don’t do that if the traps are under the water, I don’t believe.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Dark Night

I have a little story to tell about something that happened a long time ago. It takes a little setting up so bear with me a moment, please. It was a summer night in 1972. All of us were fishing at night because it was June and you had to fish at night to make a living. If you baited in the daytime the small fish would take all the bait and you would catch nothing. The only time larger fish would bite was at night, so we fished five nights a week, usually excluding Saturday and Sunday. This particular time, however, I needed to make a few extra dollars and so I chose to make a run on Saturday night, even though no one else would be out there on the lake (there usually would have been at least ten other boats to help if you had trouble). The landing we used was the second ramp at Myette Pt. If you go there now you only see a ramp going down the levee to the water, but then it was where we all kept our boats tied up. The fishing community was still living close by just across the levee. As I left the landing before sunset to catch bait, I noted that the water was pretty low in the canal that goes out to the lake. The canal is about 40 feet wide and stays pretty shallow in the summer. There was probably about two feet of water, so I had no trouble getting out of the canal into the lake. I had good luck that night. When I got to the lines there was already a good bunch of fish on them from the bait left on from the previous night. I ran and baited the thousand hooks and by the time I finished one more run, at about 2:30 in the morning, I looked at my wellbox and decided I had enough fish to get the extra money I needed. So I headed home. When I got back to the entrance of the mile-long canal that would take me back to the levee, surprise, surprise, the water had fallen about 18 inches and there was no water in the canal. I say no water but that’s not quite true, you know how these little mud-bottomed canals that get frequent outboard use always have a little channel right down the middle? The propellers of the outboards that run in low water make this little shallow ditch. So, I had a boat full of fish that I really needed, was a mile from my truck, and the canal had barely enough water to float the boat in the five-foot wide, five-inch-deep little ditch, but not enough to run the motor. I was going to have to get out, raise the motor, and pull the boat back up the canal with the rope over my shoulder. We always used knee boots to run our lines, but you can’t walk in that kind of mud with knee boots – they just keep wanting to stay where you just were. So, off came the boots and into the mud bare footed. The boat would just barely float, but it did, so up the canal we went. A little after I got overboard, my headlight started to go dim, but, no problem, because at that time there was a small light on a pole on the levee at the far end of the canal , about a half a mile away. By using the shine from the little light on the water I could see well enough to keep the boat inside the little ditch. So I turned my headlight off. Now, realize that this is Louisiana and we have a wonderful array of creatures that come out at night and feed on whatever they can find. My canal, normally 40 feet wide, was now five feet wide and five inches deep, and all the fish, shrimp, crabs, salamanders, frogs and other things that had been in the big canal were now crammed into the little ditch – with me. As I went up the ditch, pulling the boat, I could see lots of movement in the water ahead of me, but you expect that in Louisiana at night. Maybe it was 3:00 a.m. and I was tired and not thinking about much except getting to the levee, but it took me a long time to notice that things were bumping against my legs every now and then. I finally turned my headlight back on and looked down and realized I had stepped on a big watersnake and half-buried it in the mud and it was thrashing around trying to get out of the mud and was thumping against my leg. Now, I’m not particularly concerned about snakes, ordinarily. And I identified this as a harmless watersnake right away (like the one in the picture), but still… I turned around and put my light down the ditch behind the boat, looking back down the canal where I had come from and there, all down the ditch, you could see snakes buried in the mud with their heads in the air, thrashing around trying to get free of the mud. It was a comical and somewhat sobering sight. What to do? The snakes had come from all over that piece of swamp and were concentrated in the ditch where food was just about jumping into their mouths. And the ditch was the only place with water to float the boat and I couldn't just stop because I was somewhat worried that the water might continue to fall and pretty soon the ditch wouldn’t even float the boat. And if I got in the boat it wouldn’t float in the ditch at all. The only thing to do was keep going. So, I used my headlight and I got the paddle out of the boat, and the rest of the way to the levee I would lift the snakes out of the way if they wouldn’t move on their own. I don’t know how many I did that to, but it seemed like quite a few at the time. Once in a while there would be a moccasin and that did worry me. Not the ones I could see, but I kept imagining that not all of them would be where I could see them, and if I accidentally stepped on one of those and buried it in the mud it would defend itself, and with no warning. It’s interesting how time doesn’t have to have a set length, it can be very short in a dentist's waiting room or very long if you can’t see snakes in a ditch you have to walk through. I think that night it took about two weeks to drag that boat the rest of the way up that ditch. Well, I made it to the levee, finally, and got my fish unloaded and sold and went home. But I have wondered ever since how many moccasins did I almost step on, what would have happened if I had, and whether the money was worth it.

The river is at 9.5 at the Butte La Rose gauge, and will crest at 10.7 by Sunday. There is still a little more water to sustain this rise in Arkansas, but after that the Mississippi and Ohio are falling big time. So, it will fall again, and we wait.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Easy Rider and Hummingbirds

Short notes this time. Yes, yesterday and today a lot of river-related things make impressions on the memory. Each is worthy of its own posting, but if I don’t do these now I’ll probably forget them.

The hooded warblers have come from Mexico (or maybe Cuba) and have landed here as of yesterday. Last week’s strong southeast winds would have helped them get here, the strong north winds of the last two days definitely would not. Their calls are distinct and loud and come from across the river early in the morning. I shouldn’t confuse the song with Swainson’s warbler but I do, and have to be careful in deciding which is which. Luckily, both can be heard here at the same time, sometimes, and you can easily tell the difference then.

The pair of ospreys have been cruising the river for the past two days. One carried a fish yesterday with no hassles from the other one. Maybe these two are reproductively associated with less conflict resulting. I believe I like this picture because it has a not-quite-real feeling to it.

Had to remove the big tube feeders and put up smaller ones for the rest of this season. With the goldfinches gone, and the abundance of natural foods for the resident population of other seed-eaters, smaller feeders are in order.

The rufous and the buff-bellied hummingbirds are gone. Just think of them heading west, making stops in San Antonio, Albuquerque, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco and Portland before reaching a suitable summer home! Makes me want to “Head out on the highway - Lookin for adventure - And whatever comes our way”. Steppenwolf, Easy Rider and hummers, think about it.

What we have now is a very excitable group of sexed-up male ruby throats. They seem to be about as intensely colored right now as they ever get. And each feeder has been adopted by a single male who seems to hate anything that moves fast and is about his size. When the ladies arrive these aggressive guys will collect as many as they can within their territory and breed as often and in as nondiscriminatory a way as their energy permits.

The river is coming up, fast. I had to retie the dock four times in the last two days. That involves adjusting 11 ropes each time, and moving the shrimp traps. As usual, during a rise, there is a lot of drift now. Not too much really big stuff yet because the water did get to 11 feet late this winter and so the banks got washed at least that high up already.

The 14 yellow-crowned night herons show just about every stage of wing beat possible, from full downstroke to the top of the upstroke. This morning they just cruised down the river like this. What? You can't tell they're herons?

The river is at 8.2 right now, about the limit for the trotline with no anchors, but it should be ok to about 14 feet with the two anchors I have, provided the anchor bridles aren’t buried in the sand (effectively shortening them). The rise should be at 10.7 feet by Sunday and then slow down. The Mississippi is still coming up but the Ohio is flat to falling and so will we be by next week. Too bad for crawfish.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Monday, March 20, 2006


There is always SO much happening out there. This morning there was a confrontation between a blue jay and a red-bellied woodpecker in the back yard, near the main feeder. I don’t often see these two birds interact about anything; they don’t seem to have many day-to-day activities that cause their paths to cross, so to speak. But now the jay is building a nest (may have eggs in it already) about 30 feet from the feeder, and when the woodpecker came to the feeder on its daily routine, the jay attacked it. I mean, a feather flying, squawk making, tussle that took both birds down to the ground – can be a bad idea in our yard. But this time Napoleon wasn’t alerted. The jay actually made the woodpecker retreat to a nearby limb, where it truly looked stunned, or something like that. In other circumstances, that spear-like woodpecker beak is the weapon of ultimate intimidation around the feeder. Nothing else hangs around when the woodpecker wants to be there. I know that we humans know that red-bellied woodpeckers will raid nests and remove and eat eggs and nestlings of other birds, but apparently blue jays know it too. Does this come with the genes, or do they have to learn this experientially? If so, how many experiences does it take? Ironically, both of these birds will raid and consume other bird’s nestlings and eggs. Shoe on the other foot, comes to mind, if shoes apply here.

In like manner, this morning there was a great screeching and yelling by two red-shouldered hawks as they chased a couple of crows - could be the same two hawks that nested nearby last year. I suspect the same situation as the jay/woodpecker above – with the hawks taking issue with the crows hanging around a nesting area. Crows may be one of the most successful opportunists when it comes to food - anything, almost, goes. Again, the chase was not a casual drifting around through the trees, it was a very intense acrobatic swirling and swooping that resulted in the crows (yelling loudly all the time) leaving the area with the hawks, also yelling loudly, close (but no cigar) behind. Nobody got caught as far as I could see. I imagine hawks eat crow with few reservations.

Turtles are moving around. An eastern mud turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum) crossed the driveway and was detained for pictures, and the red-eared sliders are sunning on logs on the river –notice all the scars on the face when you see it up close and not-too-personal. Life ain’t easy down in the murky depths, I guess. Can’t always see what you are about to run into as you forage in the dark water, and some of those things bite back.

Alligator eyes are on the river at night, now. Small ones, so far. They won’t like the 40 degree nights we will have this week, but then again they won’t need to eat much then, either.

The river is at 5.8 now on the Butte La Rose gauge, going to 8.7 by Saturday. This looked good for a little while but the Ohio and Mississippi are leveling out and don’t seem to be able to sustain a good rise. Meantime, crawfish are $20 an order (four pounds) at some restaurants. Come on, they aren’t THAT good.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A Buzzard Tale, and Aphids

Interesting thing down at the river this morning. A single black vulture was across on the other bank working pretty hard to get an old, dried fish carcass to give up something for breakfast. It was standing on the carcass and pulling up on it with considerable force. It must have been a really dried up fish because the bird sure worked hard at it. The interesting thing was that there were also three crows on the ground around the buzzard, kind of like the scenes you see of Africa where the lesser scavengers try to move in on the main ones. But these crows had a technique I have never seen before. While two of them stood out in front of the vulture and dodged in and out, feinting, so to speak, the third one would go around behind and run in and pull the vulture’s tail. Honest! The first few times, the vulture would spin around and lunge at the crow, which was well out of reach by that time. Predictably, the two in front would grab the carcass and drag it away during the distraction but the vulture would turn and force them to jump back and up with a couple of wing flaps. After doing this two or three times, the vulture didn’t respond to the tail tweaking anymore, it just kept on worrying the carcass for more dried fish. The crows eventually gave up and flew off together down the bank. The vulture was still there when I came back up to the house. Looks like crows live up to their reputation as alert, intelligent birds, and teamwork is a tool they use. And vultures learn not to jump every time their tail is tweaked, teamwork or no.

It’s going to be a bad year for gardeners and a good one for aphids, if you go by what’s happening right now. The pictures show aphids both present and absent from a common weed in our yard, the sow-thistle (Sonchus sp.). These insects build up a population so fast it seems to happen overnight! My friends with the carefully planted and nurtured tomato plants had better be prepared. Sometimes I guess you have to resort to chemicals if the situation is bad enough, but I learned a trick from my father that is worth knowing, at least I think so. Aphids will try to avoid strong light if they can, and usually will try to stay under the leaves if possible in the brightest part of the day. The trick is to put pieces of aluminum foil under the plants. Apparently the foil reflects the light up toward the underside of the leaves and the aphids try to go around to the other side, where they meet even stronger light. Now, I don’t know why stronger light should bother them, but whenever I have done this, there are always a lot fewer aphids on my plants. And I don’t have to use chemicals when only a small number of aphids are on my tomatoes. So, it’s me and Reynolds Wrap this year, not me and Monsanto. I think I see lacewing eggs among the aphids, so maybe I’ll get some good pictures of lacewings (and ladybugs) eating aphids this year. The lacewing eggs are individually on little stalks, kind of like tiny parking meters stuck to the plant stem. I think you can actually see some on the plant that is bare of bugs, on the stem in the upper right corner, little parking meters.

The river is at 3.1 right now on the Butte La Rose gauge. Hard to believe. It didn’t get much lower than that when it was SUPPOSED to be low. But, water is on the way. It will be at 7.1 here by Monday – that’s a fast rise of 4 feet! The Ohio is still pumping up at the rate of about 2.5 feet/day and that will do the crawfishermen some good– get them traps ready.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


And then there was Annie. Annie is seven years old and is sort of a pseudograndchild. She is actually the grandchild of my closest friend from boyhood, Frank, who was my age, and died six years ago of leukemia. Anyway, Annie came down from Dallas to visit with her family and I think it’s fair to say we hit it off pretty well, almost like we had known each other for a long time – which we had not. When I learned that they were coming and that she wanted to do something down at the river, I baited the trotline at almost the last minute. I baited it at 10:00 am the day they came, instead of the night before as usual. The wind prevented baiting it the night before. So, I thought there might not be enough time for the fish to bite much before we had to run the line, but you make bouquets out of the flowers you can reach, right? When I suggested, around 4:00 pm that we might go down to the river, there was an enthusiastic yes from Annie. I thought “Well, that’s a nice thing to hear”. So we went down there with her mom, Melanie (sorry about the headless photo, Melanie), and got in the boat, with Napoleon of course. We put an extra paddle in the boat so that Annie could help if she wanted to. As we began to run the line, me not knowing what to expect, fish on the hooks started coming up. The sense of wonder on that little girl’s face was worth a lot to see! As the catfish would come up, sometimes two and three in a row, each one was met with a squeal and an announcement of how many we had caught so far! She was life itself in that boat. And then a gaspergou came up and she named it an “ordinary fish”, like, it’s what pictures of fish usually look like, I guess. Now there came up a whole series of these ordinary fish, including five-pounders, and then something different that looked like a snake – which she declared to be an eel. How does a seven year old know that? Her dad says she has had very limited fishing experience. As we went along the line, every so often she would bail out some of the water in the tub of fish, and replace it with fresh water from the river. As we neared the far end of the line she tallied what we had as 19 fish, or 20 if you count the eel, or 21 if you count the one we gave Napoleon, or 22 if you count the one we had to leave on the line because it swallowed the hook. Whatever it was, it was a lot considering the line had only been baited for about five hours, and in the daytime at that. We paddled back across the river and she helped with this. When we got back to the dock she helped me take the fish from the boat and put them into the live box hanging on the dock by handling some of the “ordinary fish”. If we had cleaned some of the fish, I feel sure she would have been up for trying that too.

How do you put a value on an experience like that – for her or for me? If I could bottle it I could sell it to grandfathers all over the world – or more likely give it away because it’s really not about economics. What seems unique is that when a child identifies with something you are doing, and that something is really a part of your “core”, she can almost validate your existence. It is that powerful. And then, for her, it’s harder to define the value, maybe. The memories of something pleasant, and exciting, yes, but where do the memories lead? And what lifelong patterns might be built using these memories as a foundation? And what a privilege it is to be able to share in whatever comes from fishing that trotline today! I hope she comes back.

Napoleon and his sumo trainer Alcibiades caught my eye today. Notice the ritual bowing to each other?

The river today is at 3.6 at the Butte La Rose gauge. The north wind last night blew out what water we had left! But here comes the cavalry, the Ohio and Mississippi are rising fast and substantially – three feet a day! Some of that water is already coming down the Mississippi and we will have a three-foot rise by this weekend. If the Ohio continues like this, we could have our first high water later this month. Looks good!

Rise and Shine, Jim

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Swallows Plus

The wind blew hard today from the southeast, and yesterday and the day before that. I wanted to bait the line today and couldn’t because of the wind. Friends are coming from Dallas tomorrow and their seven-year-old wanted to see how the trotline works. It won’t be as effective but I may bait it early in the morning if the wind dies enough tonight.

Good things happened today. There was a big flock of swallows over the river this morning – both barn swallows and tree swallows. The picture (click on it) barely captures a little of the swirling feather swarm as it does seemingly impossible things in the air. How many “G”s do those turns create? A flock of swallows is very good for the spirit. Many years ago (when I was fishing for a living in Grand Lake) one very late afternoon I was coming back up the lake after running lines all day. As I came up the lake with the setting sun in front of me, there was a lone dead cypress tree way out in the water – far from the bank. As the tree came between me and the sun, tree swallows began to descend onto the bare branches of this twenty foot tall tree. They very quickly filled every space on every limb on the tree so that, with the setting sun behind it, it looked in silhouette like a live tree with thick branches and leaves all over it. There must have been five thousand swallows, at least. Suddenly they all soared up at once, like smoke almost. The image has stayed sharp all these years. Odd how some small things seem to be able to create a memory that outlasts other, more momentous events.

AND, the prothonotary warblers showed up this morning in the yard. Carolyn and Elena (a birder at 11 months) saw the first one. I often hear them before seeing their bright yellow colors in the trees, and it was so this morning: sweet – sweet – sweet – sweet –sweet, an easy song to remember. The one I saw was hunting among the new boxwood leaves and it was finding caterpillars of some kind. It would catch one and beat it into submission on a branch before swallowing it. These guys will soon be competing with chickadees and bluebirds for housing in my nest boxes. The non-stop flight of these migrants from Yucatan and points south was no doubt aided by the strong southeast winds we have been having for several days. A cold front with north winds can dump many of these birds into the Gulf of Mexico, the effort to overcome the headwind being just too much after so long a flight. But it looks like most of them will make it this year. People wonder sometimes how birds get their peculiar-sounding names. This species is no exception. I find in The Birds of North America the following rationale: “The only member of the genus Protonotaria, the species was named for its plumage, which resembles the bright yellow robes of papal clerks (prothonotaries) in the Roman Catholic church.” How about that for looking in obtuse corners for a name for something?

The sweet magnolias are blooming. You know, that plant (or maybe sweet olive too) that no southern yard is complete without? As kids, we used to put one flower in each nostril and walk around like that all day because they smelled so good. I still put them in my shirt pocket for the perfume they have. The ones in the picture are somewhat the worse for wear because they suffered just such a fate – my shirt pocket all day. I like the contrast with last year’s wasp nest, it gives kind of a good thing/bad thing first impression, except that wasps aren’t really bad things.

The river is at 4.2 at the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 4.7 by Friday. The Mississippi and Ohio are both still rising a good bit. The rise on the Mississippi has reached Memphis, and we will get a bump in the level from that in a week. The weather in Ohio is wet, so more water may be coming soon.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Hummer Bulletin

The young female rufous hummer is still here, and the picture taken of her yesterday shows she is maturing into an adult. The orange spot in the center of her throat is supposed to indicate that, so the books say. Remember to click on the picture for an expanded view. She has been around all winter season but may leave soon for Oregon/Washington country – where she may breed for the first time. It will be interesting to see if she comes back next year, as the buff-bellied has for the last three years. It is still here, by the way, but is very wary and hard to photograph. This is kind of odd as some of my friends say this species is very easy-going around humans. Well, not this human.

The other picture is the first arrival (yesterday) of this year’s group of ruby-throated hummers. It is a full adult male, as the picture shows, and it looks unbanded. Anticipating more arrivals soon, I put out three 8-ounce feeders this morning. Last year we hosted at least 400 ruby-throats in late spring/early summer. When all these get here we have to shift to the really big feeders. Dave Patton has come out almost every year to band some of the ruby-throats and I hope he has time to do it again, several people have asked to be included this year in this interesting operation. We’ll see.

Same river news as yesterday. Starting to see some water in the Ohio and upper Mississippi. Need a good bunch of water, getting hungry for some crawfish.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Friday, March 10, 2006

Snagged Log

Ray came out this afternoon to take shrimp from his traps. The numbers are picking up in the traps. He checks to see what the reproductive stage is right now and in the near future will try to define the reproductive life history of the river shrimp. I am pleased to be a small part of his effort. He noted the temperature of the water, 14 degrees C., and that’s a good bit warmer than it has been. It was 9 degrees C. in February. I think the unusually low water and the slow current must be giving the water time to warm up, plus the fact that there just ain’t any snow melting up north to keep the water cold. Even at 14 degrees, you still don’t want to be in the river right now.

There was a log caught on the trotline this morning, and that’s always a challenge to remove without something bad happening to me or to the line. The log was about 25 feet long and two feet thick and was floating almost vertically in the river. The bottom three feet snagged on the line and there it was, just hung in the current. To remove the log from the line, here’s what has to happen. You move along the line to get as close as you can to where the log is caught. Sometimes you can even lift the log to the surface with the line, but not this time, it was too heavy. So, you tie a jug on a long line and tie that to the main line and release the main line. The jug now tells you where to pick up the line when you need to. Then you go to the line on the other side of the log and again move along it to get as close to the log as you can. So now you have the main line in your hand (actually tied securely to the boat) and you can look across the log to the float you tied on the other side. You throw your “drag” – a weight with hooks on it – over to the other side of the log and snag the line the jug is tied to, and then pull the jug over to you, pulling that line and tying that to the boat too. Then you do the dangerous part, you cut the main line. There is an awful lot of tension on the main line so when you cut it you don’t want to be surprised by one or more hooks flying past you, or hopefully they do fly past you. So now essentially you have both ends of the main line tied to the boat. You pull the one with the jug on it and it slips out from under the log and the log floats free down the river. You then tie the two ends of the main line together and it’s as good as new. Simple. I remember the first time I had to do this many years ago, and how I didn’t really know what to expect the moment I cut the main line. It worked and I felt very proud.

Notice the exuberant growth of the “Velcro plant” right now? It sticks to everything, and when the fruit ripens, it sticks to everything too. The top picture shows the plant. These little bristly balls often stick to my socks and Carolyn insists that I carefully remove them from my socks before they go to the washing machine. It seems they get transferred from my socks to her more delicate garments during washing and they only get noticed when she puts those delicate garments on. Also, lots of dewberries in the green stage right now, it should be a big year if we continue to get a shower now and then. The picture of the ripe one is from last year.

The river is at 4.7 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, going to 4.3 feet by Tuesday. We got a little water from the local rains this week. But look at the Ohio and upper Mississippi! Big rises on both of them! If those rises get supported by more rain up there, we could get some real water down here in a week or so.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


It was a very good day, today! Last year my friend Ray at ULL informed me that the state was offering grants to qualified applicants for the purpose of conducting apprenticeship programs. I applied for, and was awarded, one of the grants for a boatbuilding apprenticeship. Through this grant, money from the state Office of Cultural Development will pay for materials to build a 16-foot cypress bateau. The “Master” builder in this case is Edward Couvillier from Myette Point (near Franklin) and the apprentice is his son Kevin. Edward is one of the last people I know who can build a good-looking cypress bateau, all the rest of the boat builders from the Myette Point community having passed on. As I say, Edward will teach his son Kevin how to do it. We are at the materials acquisition stage right now, beginning with a trip today to get a piece of marine plywood for the boat bottom. It was very hard locating a piece of marine plywood sixteen feet long by four feet wide. The lumber yard in Raceland tells us that so few wooden boats are made now that they don’t sell enough to stock it regularly. They didn’t have a 16-foot piece so we had to cut an old, scarred, piece of plywood that was 20 feet long. The rest of the boat will be made of old heart cypress from a place in Morgan City. We will pick that up as soon as the wood Edward orders is planed.

In addition to finding the plywood, driving to Raceland with Edward in the passenger seat provided another wonderful opportunity to hear stories from someone who was born, raised, and had his family, almost all on houseboats in the Basin. That’s another LONG story. But today I placed a tape recorder on the armrest between the seats in my pickup and asked him to talk about some of his life in the Basin. I just let the recorder run. He talked about how even the swampers got lost in the fog sometimes, and how they dealt with that by watching the wake of their boat to make sure they didn’t turn without knowing it. Looking towards the rear, sometimes you could run into things. He talked about hunting and flipping a boat over in the main channel before daylight with himself and three other men it, all with ankle-fit hipboots on, and how they all survived with the loss of only one shotgun. He talked about more successful hunts where the numbers of French ducks were unbelievable. He talked about how you “boom” a raft of logs, sometimes with 100 logs in it, and how you keep the “sinkers” from sinking by suspending them from “floaters” using chain dogs. And how sometimes, maybe, some of the logs didn’t really belong to you. And how a Mr. Law was hired to paddle a pirogue through the swamps and arrest anyone illegally felling trees, but that you could avoid him. And sometimes when you picked moss your parents would let you swim in the bayou, but never otherwise. He talked about how sometimes the spirits of people about to die would visit you in the swamp.

Oh yes, it was a very good day, today, with my friend Edward. And, thankfully, it’s all on tape.

The immature rufous hummer is still here. The picture was taken yesterday. And sometimes you just have to imagine what goes on at the river, things walk across your dock and leave muddy prints. Was this really a great blue heron, or something else…?

The river is at 4.6 on the Butte La Rose gauge today, going to 4.1 by Tuesday. There is still nothing showing on the Ohio and Mississippi but it is raining up there, so maybe….

Rise and Shine, Jim

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Blue Cats or Channel Cats

I did run the line on Sunday after baiting it with shrimp on Saturday. It did pretty well – 12 blue cats, 4 channel cats, and 5 gous. So, that was 21 fish and 22 fish for the two consecutive days I baited it. Forty three fish is plenty enough to clean, for me at least. I cleaned them all yesterday afternoon and it took me 21/2 hours. Some of the catfish and most of the gous were too big to clean by hand and when you have to hang them it takes more time. But now the freezer is starting to look more respectable with about 50 catfish and 15 gous in it. With the beginning of a stockpile, I can begin to think about trading. One thing about the line, I baited with about a dozen small live fish and they were not touched in four days. This is odd because live bait usually catches something nice, like a ten pound goujon or something like that. This time – nothing. Come to think of it, it has been a while since I caught a goujon of any size. I have noticed over the past six years we have lived by the river that I seem to be catching fewer and fewer large fish as each year passes. I think I’m fishing the same way, so I don’t think that’s the problem. I know I’m not fishing them out because the river is way too big for me to influence the fish population in a serious way; there is a constant source of new fish from above and below. That’s a good feeling. When you fish the dead-end canals and small bayous, especially in the marsh, you can literally catch most of the fish in this limited water, and then you have to wait until more fish move in, or you have to move your lines to a different place.

Earlier I mentioned that the best way to tell the difference between blue and channel cats was to look at the anal fin (lower fin just ahead of the tail). The channel cat has a rounded edge on the fin and a blue cat has a straight edge. I didn’t have a picture of both together earlier, but yesterday I had both and I think this picture shows the difference.

The river is showing a constant line of small drift for the last four days. This is odd because there was none earlier in the week, and the water has been steadily falling. It’s a rule of thumb that drift occurs because of a rise, or a heavy local rain, but neither of these has happened. Among the drift is a frequent whiteness that stands out so that your eye is drawn to it - more than the usual number of willow limbs contrasting with the brown water because their bark has been removed by beavers somewhere upstream. Beavers chewed some of my wood at the river last night, not much but some. It was treated pine, the kind that has been removed from the market because of potential toxicity. Would the beavers spit it out?

The river is at 4.4 feet right now on the Butte La Rose gauge, and will fall to 4.0 by Sunday. The Mississippi and Ohio are both showing slight rises. That may be enough to hold what water we have left, when those small rises come down the Mississippi.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Long Distance

I ran the line yesterday and got some nice fish. It had eleven blue cats, four channel cats, four gaspergous and two eels. Included was one nice-sized blue cat (about five pounds, just right for thick fillets), one big gou about the same size, and the first male channel cat that is showing the change in head size that I believe is associated with spring breeding. Twenty two fish off of 100 hooks, not too bad. I don’t keep the eels because I don’t have a smoker to fix them up, and I have never been able to make them edible any other way. I baited the line with shrimp again; we’ll see what today brings when I run it.

Catching those eels made me think about them and some of the other animals that travel VERY long distances from every compass direction to arrive here in Butte La Rose (just for my benefit?). The eels I caught started out hatching from eggs laid in the Sargasso Sea, some thousand(s) of miles from here. No one apparently knows for sure how they traveled from that place in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to arrive in the Atchafalaya River, but it seems they did. Their parents stayed here for seven to ten or even up to 25 years before leaving for the ocean, and they spawned there, and died. The eels I caught and released yesterday will repeat the same story, when it is their time to tell it, if they can avoid trotlines and similar devices.

Other animals do these long distance voyages, of course, without the predetermined fatal ending in a faraway ocean. Think of the directions and distances some of the birds come from and travel to get here, and what they must see in their travels. I saw snow geese flying over yesterday. The very ones I saw will visit polar bears next month, and fuss with Arctic foxes over who owns the nest full of eggs. The rufous hummingbirds came from Oregon, maybe, or even further north, where they will breed and watch grizzly bears this summer. The buff-bellied hummers come from northern Mexico, and they will go back there soon to eat Mexican nectar and bugs. And, going the other direction, the ruby throated hummers are arriving now from Central America, many of them flying nonstop (except for an occasional oil platform) from Yucatan. And all this just to show up in our backyard? Just to provide an opportunity for us to wonder about, and imagine things we cannot do ourselves? Even with only our imaginations, we become part of it, I think. Because of them we become larger, and a part of something larger yet.

Ever wonder why ropes and things get untied when you know you tied them with a good knot? Well, Napoleon knows.

The river today is 4.7 on the Butte La Rose gauge, going to 3.8 by Friday. The Ohio and Mississippi are both falling. Bad news for early high water continues to get worse.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Friday, March 03, 2006

Chickadee Nest

Well, back from Texas. The new grandchild, Noah Evan, is just perfect.

In addition to his arrival on the train (earlier post), more and more evidence of the coming season presents itself. One of the things I noticed today is the half-built chickadee nest in one of my birdhouses. If you have them, you might check your birdhouses to see if you have an occupant yet. It’s a good idea to clean out any old nesting material from last year’s activity; it can harbor things not conducive to healthy young birds. If the birdhouse(s) you have can’t be cleaned out, you might consider getting some with a side that can be opened. The ones I make can be opened both from the side and the top. If you live anywhere near water, you might also host some prothonotary warblers (aka swamp canaries) pretty soon. They will also use the same houses and their nests look similar. The basic chickadee nest, at least in my yard, is made mostly of moss – not the Spanish kind – the green kind that grows close to the ground in damp places. It’s amazing how fast they can build a nest. It seems that you look one day and nothing is in the box, and in no time you look again and the box is full of nest material. I guess they can’t waste time with something as serious as extending their genes into another generation.

Another thing, I imagine all the goldfinches that were here up until a couple weeks ago are no longer raiding your feeders. Some of them are headed north, but some are taking advantage of the new growth on the trees. It would seem that they will prefer natural food if they can get it.

The buff-bellied hummingbird is still here. She will travel maybe a thousand miles pretty soon.

Well, it looks like we will not get a freeze this year. A lot of things that are considered “perennial” usually get killed back to the ground by at least one freeze every year. This year many of them did not do that, and they are starting growth on the old stems. This includes bananas. From past experience, I would expect that the bananas we have will produce fruit this year, on the old stalks from last year’s growth. Yum, they make good eating when fried in a little butter until golden brown.

I baited the trotline this afternoon. I had about ten small bream that got into the shrimp traps and I used them and put shrimp on the rest of the hooks. Looking forward to seeing what might be on tomorrow.

The river is at 5.3 on the Butte La Rose gauge. The Mississippi is falling all the way up, but the Ohio is starting to show a little water. Still a long way to go for a significant rise. Poor Basin crawfishermen. A friend paid 1.80/lb for live crawfish the other day. That’s too much for me.

Rise and Shine, Jim