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.

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


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