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.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Gone for a Week

Yep, last week there were no postings to Riverlogue because we deserted south Louisiana with all its wonderful heat and humidity for a week in the Caribbean heat and humidity. The cruise was mainly to commemorate Carolyn’s transition from a career teaching and practicing nursing to a life of leisure doing other things – sure, right. We’ll see.

What would be the link between the Atchafalaya (and Riverlogue) and a cruise on the seas to the south? Why, that’s where the Atchafalaya water goes, of course. It kind of reminds you that all of this stuff we see out there is connected in a real way, including us. Atchafalaya water is Gulf water, is Caribbean water, is cloud water, is Atchafalaya water again, and on and on and on. Kind of makes you understand that you belong to something very big without making you feel very small. Like, all links in a chain are equally important, even though the chain is very long.

Anyway, the cruise went from Galveston to Key West to Grand Cayman to Cozumel and back to Galveston. The main feature on these ever popular aquatic excursions is always the food, and here is a picture to prove we indulged like all the rest of the passengers – but maybe a little less than some. The primary biologically notable thing was the commercial sea turtle farm on Grand Cayman. It was one of those “This can’t be real!” discoveries. It was begun in the 1960s and it produces green sea turtles for human consumption. Some of the original female turtles are still producing eggs on the man-made beach provided for nesting, and one weighs 575 pounds. The holding ponds are seething with these big animals. The pond to the left of Carolyn (above) gives some idea of how many there are. There are also rearing ponds that hold the two-year olds (I'm holding one), including the percentage of them that are released back to the ocean each year, and there are other ponds that hold the turtles that will be harvested. The latter appeared to be in the 30-40 pound range. Someone (a young man with a lady to impress) tried to handle one of the big turtles and just about got his arm broken by one of the big flippers. He did impress the security guards, not sure about the lady. It is said that the turtle (meat and eggs) is a strong aphrodesiac. Perhaps he really had the right idea. I had a cup of turtle soup - no noticeable effect. Hmm.

One more thing, Cancun is no longer open for Spring Break. After what happened to us last year, we tend to forget that other places had hurricanes too. The one that hit Cancun stayed over them for three days, not several hours like most of ours do, but three days of hurricane winds and rains. The place is basically destroyed, and isn't even open for cruise ships at all. For a place that depends on tourism for just about 100% of its income, that's a problem. If you are thinking of going to the Mexican Riviera East, go to Cozumel and ferry to Playa del Carmen, not Cancun.

All in all, a good trip. On the more local front, the river dropped a lot more than was predicted for last week. My boat ended up in the wrong place and wrecked the walkway to the dock. To fix this you have to get in the mud and crawl around. Not too bad, the water is cool. The pics show before and after fixing the problem.

Also, I left eight filled quart feeders for the hummers, knowing it wouldn’t be enough. And it wasn’t – all eight were empty when we got back. I’m looking at hummers at the window feeding on newly filled feeders now. There really is a lot of natural food, helped by the fact that we had almost no winter.

A mayfly hatch happened last night. That is such an impressive thing to see! Every single thing that eats insects is out catching a breakfast of mayflies this morning – swallows, kites, vireos, warblers, dragonflies and many others. Even Napoleon couldn’t resist chasing the insects. Wow, the sheer numbers reminds you of the shrimp migration in the river, millions of things to eat.

The river is at 5.7 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, and will stay there for at least five days. The Ohio and Mississippi are both falling at the headwaters. Glad to be home.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Bateau Building IV

Well, we did the fourth day of the apprenticeship project at Myette Point today. People look at the first couple of days and say that the boat is nearly built and how fast it was to do it. It is getting a lot closer, but it’s a long way from complete. It’s kind of like watching a house being built. One day there is nothing and the next day the framers do their thing and WOW, it looks like in a couple more days the house will be finished. But it isn’t, of course, the work is just getting started. Same with this boat.

Last time we stopped after building the stripping on the boat – the inside strip, the two top strips, and the rub rail strip on the outside of the gunnel. Today we began with the deck. We had to put in a support piece to rest the deck boards on at the front, and that got done first (top picture). After that the boards that formed the deck itself were cut and shaped and installed. As before, each board has to be angled and beveled to fit into its assigned space (left), and that ain’t easy, but the finished result sure is pretty. Some people say you should leave small spaces between the deck boards because they get wet often and have to have room to swell. You can see some small spaces but Edward is not sure he wants to leave them and may replace the deck boards, leaving no spaces, later.

Next we went to the back of the boat to finish shaping the stern board (transom). It had to be angled in to match the angle of the stripping on the tops of the gunnels, and then it had to be measured for the correct height to receive an outboard motor. It is already angled right for that, the angle at the back of the gunnels did that. The boat is designed to use a short-shaft motor and that means the stern board has to be 17 inches high where the motor is attached to it, including a ½ inch bottom in this case. To be right, the cavitation plate (big flat thing just above the wheel) on the motor has to be even with the bottom of the boat or the wheel will tend to catch air and do bad things – so to speak. So, 17 inches is what we want. To do this, the stern board is notched out to the right amount (below, before and after). I suppose you could do the same thing by just having the stern board straight across at the right height, but it sure looks better this way. Once that is done, the whole top of the stern board is sanded to create smooth corners and edges.

It turns out that the head block was not cut quite tall enough to suit what Edward wants it to be. And this provided an interesting situation in itself. It made an opportunity for Edward to demonstrate how to add a piece to the top of the head block and make it look like it belonged there, instead of being an add-on. He and Justin looked at it, and studied it, and cut and fitted and studied it some more, and finally nailed and glued it in place. The result is a piece that does look like it was designed that way in the first place. (left above)

I must have heard Edward say “It sure is pretty!” at least three times today. He would stand back and look, and say that. And it gives you a kind of warm feeling to hear that, because I must say that to myself twenty times a day, if not more. It is the wood color, and grain, and smell, and the curves that shape the graceful thing that is this boat. He was in a good mood and even took an opportunity to sit on Lena Mae’s lap, and I never saw that before!

When we finish with the day’s work, Edward always covers the boat with a tarp to keep the afternoon sun off of it. He says the wood could still crack if exposed to strong sun.

So that was day four. It was another really good day! The top of the boat is finished now. Next time we will turn it over and begin planing the bottom structures to be perfectly even where the plywood bottom will contact what we have just finished building. Edward says this could take most, if not all, of the next meeting. It will be about two weeks before we can get together to work on the boat again and do this.

I was fussed at for not getting this blog posted the same day we did the work last time, so here it is on the same day. Also, it was requested that I include more pictures so there are more in this posting but they are smaller. Click on them to get a bigger image.

I guess there is some rule about how much fun the universe can stand for you to have in one day, and I must have reached and passed my limit today. I always take the levee road from Butte La Rose to Myette Point if I can. On the way back from Myette Point today I had a tire blow out on the gravel road between Lake Fausse Point and Charenton. I think this may have been the first 90 degree day this spring, I know it felt that way. Getting under the truck and releasing the spare tire (whew! It had air!) and getting under the truck and setting the little jack under the axle, and getting the old tire off and the spare on, and having a kid pulling a boat stop to ask directions and then wave and say “have a good one” as he drove off without offering to help– all this put a little humility back in my day. I swear there is a conspiracy somewhere that makes a 17 inch truck tire weigh 15 pounds more every year. I’m putting 32 pounds of air in those tires and I may have to reduce that. Have to lighten them tires somehow. But I did see an eagle close to where I had the blowout, and that helped a little.

The river is at 7.9 on the Butte La Rose gauge, going to 7.3 by Wednesday. The Mississippi is falling all the way up, but the Ohio is rising a little. We are kind of in a holding pattern right now, it seems.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Bluebirds and Clean Waters

For some reason the bluebirds we have had in our nest boxes for the last five years didn’t choose to use them this year. Not yet, anyway. The boxes were used first by chickadees and then later on by prothonotary warblers. The latter are more aggressive than you might think, for warblers I mean. They may have actually ousted the bluebirds. Last year’s bluebirds were the subject of these pictures. I don’t know why I was surprised at the color of bluebird eggs – for some reason I didn’t expect them to be blue. It seemed too logical, but they are, and very blue at that. And the babies are blue from very early on in their lives. The parent looking through the nest box hole seems unintimidated by me or the camera.

I have been thinking about something I read in a recent National Geographic, and how it relates to living here on the Atchafalaya River. The article was written by someone who did one of those “Boy, I sure would like to have done that” things. In this case, she decided to travel the length of the Irrawaddy River in the country now known as Myanmar – historically Burma. The river begins in the mountains of Tibet and runs over 1300 miles to the Indian Ocean. It is the famous "Road to Mandalay" of Rudyard Kipling fame. She (Kira Salak) paddled the first 350 miles in a kayak and it is during that part of the voyage that she says something that caused me to pause a moment. She says “As I paddle, streams of barges overloaded with old-growth teak logs come at me like leviathans; it’s a wonder there are any trees left. The river, passing numerous towns becomes covered for miles with raw sewage”.

Now, two things come at you from this. One, that other places are still cutting old-growth timber, and will probably sell all of it, just as we did our cypress. And two, what a great thing we have here in Louisiana – a river clean and wonderfully not “covered for miles in raw sewage”. I look out the window and see the river in my back yard, and I know that I could drink the water from that river when it is in high flow and not be harmed by it. It is that clean. When we fished season after season during the ‘70s, we never took water from home to drink. We always drank right out of the lake (river) and didn’t think twice about it. Now that I know what I know about the lack of regulation during that time, maybe we should have thought twice, but we didn’t. Now I find myself being grateful for the water in the Atchafalaya, as well as the waters in almost all of this nation’s streams and lakes. It is a good place to live, this country, this place where “[the river] becomes covered for miles with raw sewage” does not happen. I believe we too often take this for granted. A little wake up call to stop and smell the roses, or take a dip in the river, is a good thing.

Said clean river is at 8.2 on the Butte La Rose gauge and will stay about the same for the next five days, and the Mississippi and Ohio are generally both falling slowly (small rise on the upper Ohio).

Rise and Shine, Jim

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Hummer Banding

There is something serene about a moon coming up over water. We are lucky in that our dock is placed to view the moonrise every month. This was last night.

Today was a big bird day for small birds. As promised, Dave Patton came out to the house to band ruby-throated hummingbirds. Also attending were Dugan Sabins and Jim Burke, both from Baton Rouge. We trapped and Dave banded 27 hummers, 15 females and 12 males. One of the females was previously banded in our yard in 2004 and was a return capture this morning. She was mature in 2004 and would now be at least three years old. Dave says all of the females appear to be nesting now and probably have eggs incubating, since there was no evidence of eggs about to be laid by the females we captured.

People ask how the birds are captured. You have to be really fast to catch them by hand, like this rufous hummer caught this winter. Ha, sure. Dave uses a wire cage with a trapdoor on one side. A small feeder is placed inside the trap and the birds enter to feed and the trapdoor is released – preventing their escape. Why do they go into the trap in the first place, instead of just avoiding this contraption? We keep dummy traps around some of our feeders so the birds get used to them and when Dave comes he just substitutes the real trap and that does the trick. This morning we trapped and banded steadily for about three hours.

The picture at right shows one of the birds we banded this morning returning to feed within an hour of being banded– an indication that there seems to be little trauma associated with handling them. Dave took this picture and you can see the band on the right leg - and the inset shows the number on the band. There is a small dab of temporary paint placed on their heads to indicate the ones we banded today. You can see this if the bird reenters the trap so it keeps you from retrapping them. It wears off pretty soon. We had a good time and it will be interesting to see if some of these birds return next year, considering all the things that could happen to them. I’m still amazed that they fly so far every year and can live to do it eight years or more!

Napoleon is recovered and is back to being his old energetic, inquisitive self again. Because he thinks we trap the hummingbirds just for his benefit, he spent the morning locked up in the shop while we did the banding. He is just too quick. By the time you notice he is about to do something, he has already done it. I felt sorry for him spending several hours in the shop all alone so I went and released him as soon as I could. Well I shouldn't have been concerned because instead of his being at the door meowing to get out, he was sound asleep on the seat of the John Deere lawn mower. And, he stayed there for another hour instead of coming outside. I think he was intending to teach me a lesson of some kind.

The river is at 8.2 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, and will stay about the same for the next five days. The Mississippi and Ohio are both rising moderately and that may keep the water where it is for another week or so. We are kind of in a holding pattern.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Egrets and Grizzlies

Sunrise on the river yesterday.

Yesterday afternoon I went over to the Henderson water control structure. This is just inside the levee about two miles below the pontoon bridge, or six miles below the town of Henderson. There has been considerable confusion over the rebuilding of this structure and I’m not sure what the current plan provides for. The purpose of the structure, I believe, is to allow retention of a certain minimum water level in the Henderson swamp during otherwise lowest water conditions in the Basin. Opening this structure during low water in the Basin results in the drying up of Henderson (except for the bayous and canals) that we all saw during the recent Hydrilla treatment periods. It’s pretty dramatic.

Anyway, at certain stages the water runs over the top of the structure in whitewater cascades that look very unAtchafalaya-ish. That is what is happening right now with the gauge at Butte La Rose reading between eight and nine feet. The picture shows the turbulence across the structure. Anytime you see this, the birds are always taking advantage of the fish, which are at a disadvantage because of the distraction of having to contend with the current. It seems so much like the scenes of the salmon rivers up north, and the grizzlies wading in the shallows catching the salmon. Here the snowy egrets and great egrets take the place of bears and harvest the small fishes like the bears do the salmon. I haven’t seen a bird pluck a fish out of the air yet, but almost. There is a concrete apron that borders the structure on both banks. From the bank along these two aprons to about three feet out the water runs fast but not with turbulence, more or less like a very fast, smooth slide. Fish are trying to run up these rapids in numbers you would have to see to believe, most frequently right along the edge of the aprons in this slick water. I’m not talking about all little fish either. So, the birds line up along this apron and watch the slick, fast water going by and when some small shad or whatever is spotted struggling up the current…snap, gone. The birds actually stand a couple inches deep, the fast water building up in little walls on the upcurrent side of their legs. This means that all these little and big fish struggling up pass within about 12 inches of the birds legs. A lot of the fish are bigger than the egrets. Most of the larger fish I saw were gars, mostly shortnosed and spotted. They are bunched up at the bottom of the turbulent water by the hundreds. Sometimes they get to going so fast in the fast water that they get the angle wrong and launch themselves several feet up the concrete apron – taking one or two egrets with them! The birds just squawk and the fish slide back into the water to be swept downstream for another try. I don’t know what is so attractive about being above the structure rather than below it. There is something, though. Not all the fish are gars. I was sitting on the apron on my side of the structure, watching the fun through binoculars, when a 20 (?) pound carp launched itself into the air and straight at me. It fell just short and splashed back into the water, but I guarantee you it got my attention.

The egrets constantly contend with each other for a place at the buffet table. They fight with their aigrette display rather than with more violent force. You really get to see the full extent of the gorgeous feathers that almost caused the extinction of both of these egret species. And the cause of the extensive hunting wasn’t just women’s fashions either, men were wearing the plumes too.

The river is at 8.6 on the Butte La Rose gauge, going to 7.9 by Saturday. The Mississippi and Ohio are both falling steadily all the way up, and we will continue the trend downward too.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Bateau Building III

Day three of the boat building apprenticeship program was last Saturday. It was interesting to see a change in the interest of the three apprentices. Previously, on each of the two days we met, they showed up sometime between 8:00 and 8:30, last Saturday they were ready before 8:00 and Edward called me on my cell phone at 8:01 to find out where I was (I was 100 feet up the road from his house and just about to arrive there). It was good to see that enthusiasm. I really believe the only reason they wait for me is because they know I have to videotape this whole project. Otherwise, they would be off and sawing without me.

But, they waited and we started on the boat where we stopped the previous Saturday. We had to begin by putting in the ribs in the front of the boat. The first picture shows Edward starting to supervise more and build less, which is what the master craftsman is supposed to do in an apprenticeship project. The main object for the work Saturday was to build the “stripping” along the top of the gunnels. This consists of four strips of cypress – one goes along the inside of the ribs (Larry is sanding the first one to make it even with the top of the rib and the gunnel), two go on top of the ribs (when finished this arrangement makes an open-bottomed box and is a great place for wasps to build nests), and one goes along the outside of the boat to act as a rub rail. This piece takes any punishment as the boat bumps or rubs against things and can be replaced easily if necessary. It is not glued. The head block and the stern board have to be notched to receive the two top strips. We also installed the timber that will support the deck. The last two pictures show all of the stripping installed.

It is good to work with these men (and women – Lena Mae makes a mean chicken/oyster gumbo). They are smart, competent and friendly – just as they were 35 years ago when they taught me to fish with them in the Basin. I do believe part of their generosity back then was due to their taking pity on me. Mostly they couldn’t believe any adult human being could know how to do so little that was really useful. I could teach electron microscopy but I couldn’t build a boat. I could analyze frog sounds on spectrographic equipment and travel all over South America to do it, but I couldn’t knit a net. I could catch bream with a fly rod, but I didn’t know how to set a trotline, much less how to catch enough of the right kinds of bait to bait it with. I guess if we’re lucky most of us reach a point where we come to realize how much we don’t know. The Basin people offered me that insight, and I have been grateful ever since.

The river is at 9.0 on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 8.5 by Saturday. The Mississippi and Ohio are both still falling so the only water we might get will be from the kind of local rains we have been getting over the past two weeks. Sure glad we are getting it, too.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Contrails and Ibises

A couple mornings ago I was out on the deck looking around and the sunrise looked like a good one for digitizing a memory. So I set the camera on the rail to steady it and then I noticed a contrail coming in high across the sun from left to right. It created one of those stark contrasts that you notice sometimes – the primitive and serenely beautiful against the modern and harshly technological. Still, it has beauty if it finds resonance in you, I guess. I took several pictures of this scene, and was still admiring it when I noticed, from over my right shoulder, a flock of ibises flying toward the sunrise. No, I thought, they can’t place themselves into this tableau and create yet a further contrast. But they did. Since I had the camera ready already, I just had to wait for them to fly into the sun. And they did. And the memory is created. So there it was - the sunrise, the birds and the jet plane – all together in the world we have inherited. It can be a very pretty place early in the morning.

The catfish is a small goujon (three pounds) I caught today on a rod and reel, with shrimp for bait. Funny how people think differently about the same thing depending on where they come from. To a Cajun, the goujon is just about the best thing that you can get from fresh water, except maybe crawfish. To people who live in neighboring states (and some much closer) a goujon is a trash fish to be discarded in favor of fried mullet. Mullet? To most Cajuns mullet is crab bait, certainly not fit for humans to eat. All that mud inside them, and they have a gizzard! Are both groups right? Or wrong? Are mullets good in Mississippi and bad here? And do goujons deserve a trash fish reputation in Mississippi but it’s “somebody make a red gravy” if you catch one here? It is probably true that the difference is with the people, not the fish, and the fish don’t care. Not only is the goujon not considered edible in other places, but in some states they are considered harmful to the more “desirable” game species. This is due to their extremely capable predatory habits. Look at the mouth on these things, it is big enough to wrap around almost anything up to almost half the goujon’s size. And it does. I have often seen 20-pound goujons swallow five or six pound catfish that were hooked on my trotline. Sometimes they can’t get the whole fish into their stomachs all at once so they digest what they can. They usually spit out the catfish when you pull them up to the top on the trotline and one half the fish will be digested down to the bare bones, and the other half is fresh-looking. Looks strange.

I have been fishing for the cats lately. Napoleon is sick with something that is making him lose his appetite for dry catfood, and even for the canned smelly stuff. But if i catch him a catfish or gou and fillet off the sidemeat, he gobbles it up. He has been to the vet and I spent more on him than I would have paid for him in the first place. But he has friends out there in Blogland, and they ask about him. So, I have to try to get him healthy again. As I say, he has friends.

The river is at 8.2 on the Butte La Rose gauge and it will stay near there for the next several days. The Mississippi and Ohio are both falling so the water we have will start to drop soon.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Frog Night

It was a loud night, two nights ago. It was one of those nights that would have had people out in their fountain-splashed patios trying to make the frogs shut up. And planning how to eliminate any froglets that might develop from the frenzy of sexual energy that is keeping hardworking people awake. I know people do get upset, but I hope not too often. The frogs and toads are only trying to keep up the work they were designed to do, just as we are.

So it was a loud night, and we have been waiting for it for almost three months. Waiting for it, because the Louisiana Amphibian Monitoring Program is trying to monitor the populations of frogs in Louisiana, together with many other states that are concerned about the same thing – declining amphibians worldwide. The volunteer surveyors do night surveys three times a year to put data together that will soon be able to describe what exists now in Louisiana – in terms of baseline numbers. Without that it would be impossible to tell if the numbers are going up, or down, over time. So, that’s why we welcome the loud nights, and why we hope not too many people object to them. One day these frogs could warn us of environmental issues before those issues become harmful to humans – much like the canaries do for coal miners, and if the frogs are declining they could be warning us already and we can't tell.

Friday night much of Louisiana received considerable rain. Here in Butte La Rose we got almost four inches in about three hours. That more than doubled what we had received since the beginning of the year, and together with the couple inches we got last week the frog frenzy was set to begin. And it did. Sunday night Dugan and I ran the Bayou Sorrel survey route and heard many thousands of frogs calling all over the woods, bayous, ditches and even roadside puddles. The survey considers a Code 3 chorus to be so many frogs that you can’t hear any individuals, just the wall of sound they make, and there were many Code 3’s Sunday night. It was awesome! But that’s not all. When I got home about 11:30 pm, the small, shallow borrow pits along the levee on highway 3177 had literally come alive. Certain species of frogs are “supposed” to breed in the winter months, and others in the spring and others in the summer. Well, they forgot about the dates and all came together in the same pools to breed at the same time – 11 species all calling together at once. Think what that would do to a backyard pool next to a bedroom window. Just for the fun of it I will list all the frogs that were calling from the little borrow pits: northern chorus frog; spring peeper; southern leopard frog (these are the three “winter” species); then, bronze frog (top); green treefrog; squirrel treefrog (above right); gray treefrog; Fowler’s toad; Gulf Coast toad (left); cricket frog; and narrowmouth toad. All of these together at high volume and high numbers. What a glorious thing to hear, although some folks might have wanted earplugs. Now, we will hope there is enough subsequent rain to sustain enough water in the borrow pits long enough for the tadpoles to mature and grow into next year’s frogs.

A short bird note: the first young yellow-billed cuckoo was out of the nest and looking to momma for food two days ago. That's sure wasting no time migrating here, building a nest, laying eggs, incubating them and raising young by May 1!

The river is at 7.9 on the Butte La Rose gauge and will stay there for several days. The Ohio and Mississippi are not doing anything to cause a rise any time soon. The manager of the hydroelectric plant told me this morning that the Mississippi river temperature is up to 68 degrees F, which means it warming up pretty fast. Warmer water is not what we want in rising water because it carries less oxygen and could do more harm than good if it gets back into the swamp. But, not much likelihood of that this year, it seems.

Rise and Shine, Jim