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, February 05, 2007

Birds and Beavers

Well, some are winter visitors and some are more permanent than that. The cardinals in the picture have been feeding all morning and now spend the middle of the day loafing in the trees around the feeder. They may be full of sunflower seeds, but they seem to like to keep the source in view.

The other picture at the feeder shows some of the goldfinches that are here right now. I count 49 on the ground and 23 on the feeder (click to expand the view). They, and the cardinals and chickadees and titmice are consuming about ten pounds of seeds each day. The trees, like swamp maple, are starting to bud out and this natural food might be attractive to them soon. There is a pine siskin feeding with the goldfinches. The siskins visit our yard about one year out of every two, on average, so it’s always good to see one.

Dugan and Chip and I were doing a bird survey for the Louisiana Winter Bird Atlas this past Saturday. We did pretty well on total species (69) for one day and had some high numbers too for a few species. It’s always energizing to see a bald eagle sitting in a cypress tree - that white head and tail against the brown winter landscape – and we did see one near Butte La Rose.

Of interest on the bird survey was a non-bird. As we traveled down the levee road from Henderson, we saw a brown furry blob on the grassy shoulder. I pulled over and there was a beaver, freshly killed by some vehicle. Because I’m always interested in material I can use for my bone-reference collection, I stopped and took a look. Usually these serendipitous events involving road kill include the smells related to some level of decomposition. Not this time. The beaver had so recently met its end that it was still warm. I had had the opportunity to handle a whole beaver once before, but I had forgotten how big they really are! This animal was BIG; estimated weight was 60 pounds. I weigh about 200 and you can see that this guy was at least 30% of me.

People who visit the swamp to experience the range of wildlife available to be seen do tend to appreciate the occasional beaver. But otherwise, beavers have a pretty negative reputation around here. You almost never hear praise for the value of having a beaver population in the vicinity, especially if the speaker interacts with the river or swamp environment in some way that includes some type of land management activity. Beavers just seem to do things that run counter to the desires of people. They build dams in the Basin between lakes that otherwise would flow from one lake to the other and eventually out into a bayou. They cut trees that fall and get in the way of boats. They gnaw wood that is meant to support boat docks and other manmade structures. They cut trotlines tied to trees on the bank, necessitating the use of twenty feet of wire to attach the line to the bank. They find hoopnets and either cut the anchor lines or get into the nets and gnaw giant holes in the webbing (can’t hardly blame them for that). As commercial line fishermen, we used to use willow poles to support shrimp bushes in the Basin. These days, you can put out 50 shrimp bushes on willow poles and when you come back next day all the poles will be cut at the water line and your bushes will be gone for good. That is a lot of wasted work. We used the willow saplings because they grow long and slender and are plentiful, the beavers use them because willow bark is a primary food. Other species of trees were tried with mixed results until we discovered that the beavers don’t like Chinese tallow wood (EJ Daigle told me this). This may be one of the very few good things about importing the Chinese tallow tree into the U.S., aside from providing about the only really striking fall colors that we have here.

As for me, a beaver or two is visible most nights when I go down to the river to see what kinds of animals are out and doing what they do. Seeing the river at night is kind of like watching one scene of a stage play. You see Act One of the play as a daytime scene, and then down comes the curtain, and when the curtain rises on Act Two – it sets the scene in darkness. The beaver is a player in Act Two.

The river is at 15.6 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge right now, falling to 13.5 feet by Friday. The Ohio and Mississippi are both falling hard all the way up, so this loss of two feet of water on the Atchafalaya this week will be followed by more losses next week. Not good news for the crawfishermen who are putting out traps right now in areas flooded only by two or three feet of water. This isn’t the sustained rise we hoped for.

Rise and Shine, Jim


Blogger M. Kircus said...

Hey Jim, need some more tallow trees? We Texans are actually getting monoculture woods of NOTHING but tallow trees. One of my volunteer jobs is to cut them down and paint the stumps with poison and then replant native trees. They are pests on are coastal prairies as well as in swamps and upland areas.

Marilyn Kircus
Houston, TX

February 08, 2007 11:59 AM  
Blogger jim said...

Marilyn, how well I know it. But maybe a silver lining is sometimes a little tarnished. Thanks for the comment. Jim

February 08, 2007 7:24 PM  
Blogger Andrew Taylor said...

we have a great number of beaver up here in AK too. Nothing quite like canoeing next to an angry beaver. Or a loon for that matter. My wife and I had to stop midlake one time to let a moose go by and that lake is 110'deep.
I have been wondering if the nutria population was affected much by Katrina?

February 12, 2007 12:05 AM  
Blogger jim said...

Wow! And people down here think alligators are a problem. Ha. Next to your angry beavers, loons and swimming moose our alligators seem kind of tame.

I don't know what the hurricanes did to the nutria population. Knowing those animals, I would imagine they will find something to take advantage of even in the wake of a hurricane. Thanks Andrew, Jim

February 12, 2007 7:42 PM  
Blogger J.E. said...

Hi Jim,

I have been enjoying your posts for awhile now. I have a very special appreciation and respect for your neck of the woods because both my parents were born/raised in LA. I lived in Franklin for a few short years as a very young child. After living in other places through the years, I now live in Nebraska . . it's a good place too. I just got in from the blustery outdoors in which I shoveled two or so inches of freshly fallen snow that had covered an initial layer of ice. The wind and slight continuing snowfall tell me I could have to do it all over again in the morning prior to my commute to work. It's cold . . 17 . . not counting the wind chill factor . . burrr!! It's hard for me to imagine that such different conditions exist only ~16 hours away (by way of car). Makes me want to play hooky from work to go see beavers and cardinals and gators . . and green grass. However, there's something very special too about a newly fallen snow . . about winter . . about another wonderful season that will soon be dormant again.

Nevertheless, viewing your posts this time of year makes me really anticipate spring time. I couldn't imagine getting to spend an entire day outdoors right now here, counting 69 different species of birds . . much less being able to observe a couple of dozen cardinals sprinkled with goldfinches feeding in my front yard. What a beautiful picture!! We have beavers . . but I'm not sure they're THAT big. Squirrels can sometimes become quite a nemesis around here. They can be such crafty little critters in their strive for survival. In a few weeks, we will have a deluge (deluge means about half a million or so) of great sand hill cranes that converge yearly here along the Platte River for a good rest before their final push way north to their breeding grounds. It's pretty fascinating! Along with spring time, I'm once again, anticipating their arrival.

Keep up the postings so that I can feel spring-time through your words and see it through your photos . . it's nice seeing green. J.E.

February 12, 2007 10:26 PM  
Blogger jim said...

Your very wonderful description of cold conditions in Nebraska makes me really appreciate the green grass and cardinals, etc., that I see around me here. You are fortunate to get to see all those cranes, we have to go to Texas to see them in significant numbers. Thanks for the comment, your writing is a pleasure to read.

February 14, 2007 9:10 AM  

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