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.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

It Begins

Or rather, it begins again. This morning out on the river at 6:00 there was that soft fluttering of wings that tells us of the first emergence of mayflies. It is always impressive to see the movement along the river bank after an early morning hatch. It’s like the air is alive with birds and mayflies. Everything is out to make an easy meal of the soft-bodied insects. I counted 24 species of birds feeding on the mayflies this morning, and I counted this in about one hour. Some birds were moving about in the shrubbery and snatching some of the slower insects off of the leaves and branches. This is behavior that you would expect – birdlike behavior. But the amazing thing to watch was the number of birds that turned into “flycatchers”. The real flycatchers like the Great Crested were doing their normal aerial acrobatics, of course, but seeing things like crows, mockingbirds, cardinals and orioles do it seems so unusual. I guess a free and easy meal dictates different behaviors. Some of the regular river patrol was there too. The Mississippi Kite and Barn Swallows cruise and just gather breakfast with little effort. As a matter of fact, I watched and timed one kite catching 23 mayflies in one minute. Each insect was almost delicately plucked out of the air and eaten casually from the foot that caught it. In an hour, let’s see, that’s 1380 mayflies I believe. Sometimes you see 20 or more kites doing this at the same time and it’s spectacular, or impressive anyway. The Barn Swallows just cruise the bank along the shrubbery and catch the mayflies without any seeming exertion, almost like flying along with their mouths open.

And then there are the opportunistic ones. Foremost among this group are the Prothonotary Warblers, of which there are many right now. On the dock there are spiders that make nightly webs along the eves of the roof. These webs hang down eight or ten inches. The mayflies get caught in the webs in far greater numbers than the spiders can use. The warblers have found this and they pick the insects out of the webs.

The Orchard Orioles have a twist of their own. The catch the mayfly and then hold it down with a foot while they delicately pluck off the wings before eating the rest. Only these orioles seem to do this, as if the wings aren’t edible.

The mayflies are a cycle signal. It’s another sign of the turning of the wheel…life goes on.

And it ends for some things. The black cherry tree that hosted 34 species of birds this spring has finally been stripped of every one of the cherries that it produced this year. And there were many cherries, many thousands of cherries. Birds constantly landed in the tree and raided the limbs for the juicy black fruit. Sometimes the Pileated Woodpeckers would land on branches too small to support them and the resulting fluttering, thrashing and clambering around was almost humorous. Actually, it was humorous. They wouldn’t abandon the cherries even if they had trouble reaching them. It’s nice to get so much entertainment so cheaply. That seems to happen a lot around here, on the river.

It was the year Elena found out about the black cherries. I did so want her to like them, but you can never predict. At three years old she is finding out about a lot of things for the first time. I picked a handful and put a few in my mouth and tried to act like they were sooo good. She took one and put it in her mouth and looked thoughtful. I waited. She broke the skin and tasted the sweet/sour juice. And asked for more and I breathed again, and showed her how to pick them off of the tree herself. She almost mastered the seed-spitting ritual this year, but not quite. That’s OK. She likes them, that’s good enough. Like I said – cheap entertainment, but maybe the best in some ways.

The river is at 14.0 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge. It will fall slowly to 13.8 feet by next Wednesday (it was there two weeks ago and then rose a foot). The Mississippi and Ohio are both falling slowly. All that water in Iowa and Wisconsin may disappear before we see it; at least most of it may disappear.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

River Messages

This morning the river had more things to say. It always does say things, of course. Today perhaps it just was easier to hear. There have been changes. This morning the water is brownish/ reddish and filled with swirling clouds of silt, and rising. Yesterday the water was greenish and clearing (clearing by our standards at least). I say by our standards because when I mention clear water in the Atchafalaya River, my friends from elsewhere always smile and make some remark about “Clear? Clear? That?”. They are used to water from mountain sources, or sandy sources, water that you can see down two feet, sometimes much more. Our water is not like that. It carries sediment from runoff and deposits it wherever the current decides to rest for a bit. At best you would have to say our clearest water is murky by California standards. And that is OK. It really is. By life support standards, our water is very much the mistress of waters. I don’t have the numbers that would show it, but I think we get more life per liter in the Mississippi drainage than places that have clearer, prettier, water. It just seems that mud goes with a primitive life force that packs a maximum amount of power into the waters that are colored by the sediments. That power produces life in huge abundance. If that is the measure of beauty in water, then our water is very pretty indeed.

As a reminder of this fertility, this morning the river shrimp appear from nowhere and flood the traps set out for them. All of a sudden they are there. They were there (somewhere in the river) all along of course, but for some reason the water gets muddy, especially red muddy, and wow, out come the shrimp moving in hordes. My friend Ray Bauer’s graduate students will set out traps today and they should have no trouble getting the shrimp they need to continue the river shrimp studies they are doing.

And why is the river muddy, and rising, all of a sudden? It rained yesterday, yes, but that’s not the real reason. The real message is that something has happened far up the Mississippi, something big enough to change the river dynamics all the way down here. That something is related to the very large floods that are taking place on the upper Mississippi. The message is that it is a big thing that has happened up there. For us, at least, it is fortunate that the equivalent floods are not taking place on the Ohio instead of, or in addition to, the Mississippi. If that were so, and building on waters that have not fully receded from the high spring waters we had, we would need to be looking for higher ground. As it is, we will get a rise from it and that isn’t usual for June.

The river is at 13.2 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge right now, rising to 13.7 in about five days. The Ohio isn’t rising much at all. But the upper Mississippi is flooding Iowa. What happens down here as a result of the flooding will illustrate the effect of the upper Mississippi compared to the Ohio. It will be interesting to see how much of a rise we get. Stay tuned. We shall see.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Hard Trip

Following is an account of an incident that took place in 1929 in the Atchafalaya Basin. It is a true story that is from an interview recorded in 1973. I believe it illustrates the kind of life people led in the swamp in houseboat communities back in those days . The terms “he” and “she” and “JD” are used instead of names.

He: That man [his father-in-law] lived 12 years, 12 long years there…his campboat in that Williams Canal.

JD: At the end of Williams Canal [Blaise's Canal on the map at left]?

He: In Williams Canal. …what you call Williams Canal.

JD: Now, yall moved around didn’t you, I mean the houseboats….

She: No, most moved but we stayed there…

He: Aw, we’d go to Morgan City for sickness, something like that but come right back there.

JD: And yall fished the whole time you were there?

He: The whole time, me and the old lady and the kids, by ourself there.

JD: That was the only campboat there?

She: The only one there.

He: The only campboat…matter of fact, I didn’t have a campboat then. I had one, but was a small campboat. [seems to remember something that happened in the little campboat] My uncle…my uncle, me and him had a fight, when we lived in Little Pigeon, and we stayed about five years we didn’t speak.

She: Five…yeah, long time, I know.

He: And that’s where he made friends, when he come there one day, we was livin by ourself there. Never forget that, he come in sit down. We had a side door in that camp. He sit down there and come talk to me. That’s where we made friends, right there.

JD: Yall made friends again.

He: It was one of my best friends, too.

JD: No kidding.

He: Was good friends after that.

She: He’d run his lines, and he’d stop every day, every day. Stop to see how we were.

[Now the cause of the five-year estrangement with his uncle:]

He: We had a fight there in Little Pigeon when I was first married with her.

JD: Can you talk about what your fight was about, or is that private?

She: No, about fishin….

He: Fishing, yeah. Fishing, yeah, he kept…claim I had stole some of his fish. Was line fishin. That didn’t work. And I had my father-in-law that was fishin with me, at least I was fishin with him, let’s put it that way.

JD: OK, you were the young fella [laughs].

He: And he [the uncle] come and attack on me at my camp. When he hit me he knocked me overboard. When I got outta there we got hooked up [tangled fighting]. And [the father-in-law] come there and separate us, and then he went to whip ass. It was a big coulou! We stayed not talking about five years I guess. Caused her to lose her first baby.

JD: Caused her to lose her first baby? Is that right?

[She was about 16 years old at the time]

He: Had to hook my camp and tow it to Fourmile Bayou, the quickest place I could get to a doctor.

JD: [incredulous] That’s all the way down to Lake Verret!

[It is about 35 miles from Little Bayou Pigeon to Fourmile Bayou where they waited for the doctor, and another 10 miles from Fourmile Bayou to Bayou Boeuf where the doctor was, near Morgan City]

She: Went all the way down there.

He: Fourmile Bayou, yeah, from Little Pigeon!!

JD: That’s a long trip! About 10 hours.

He: Yes sir, tow that camp down there with a two-horse Lockwood, too. And, uh, went to tell some boys to go to Bayou Boeuf to get the doctor. He was in Bayou Boeuf, they had to cross Lake Palourde to go get him, he come tend to her. That’s the trouble he [his uncle] had put me in.

JD: And you lost the baby?

She: Yeah.

JD: Your first one. Boy that must have scared you.

He: I don’t remember how far he [the baby] was gone [developed].

She: Scared! I must have been about…about six weeks.

He: Not too far, but still she had a…she had to get the doctor to [tend to it]

She: I like to bled to death. That was rough.

JD: [Whistles] Where did you lose it? While you were still at uh, at uh….

She: I lost the baby comin back home, the doctor said I was all right. You see, he thought I had done lost the baby. But I hadn’t. I lost it comin back home [to Little Bayou Pigeon]. So if that would a happen today…we could a went back on the doctor.

He: Would’a sued him.

JD: Course in those days….

He: In those days, a doctor … you know, we didn’t think about suing nobody anyway.

JD: Nobody thought about that.

He: Uhuh. But he was the only family doctor we had. When I used to live on Fourmile Bayou he was my family doctor.

JD: And how far away was he? You say Lake Palourde, how far away was he you think?

He: He was livin in Bayou Boeuf.

She: He was a long ways.

He: He was a long ways from Fourmile Bayou. I say long ways, it take about a [pause] an hour and a half in a slow boat. We had slow boat then. They had to go get him and bring him at my house tied at Fourmile Bayou, and bring him back.

JD: Inboards, yeah. It would take an hour and a half each way?

[the 2-horse Lockwood Ash inboard engine would travel 5 to 8 mph]

He: Oh, yeah!

JD: Well, let me understand. Let me go back a little bit with some of this. The kind of thing like yall talk about, like the fight you had, like what you had…you know, how he acted , unfortunately what it caused, like that…the trip yall had to make? That’s the kind of stuff nobody remembers anymore. And a lot of people have an interest in how you lived back then.

He: Well I kind of forgot about it myself, ‘till you brought it up.

So, five years later the uncle came into the side door of the houseboat on Williams Canal and began a conversation. The estrangement between uncle and nephew was resolved and they became good friends from then on, fishing together and sharing resources when it was possible. The wife had five more children, all raised on a houseboat.

Life was different. The distances were more meaningful because the means to cross them were so much slower. It was why neighbors who could treat the more common health issues were so much respected. But when something was truly life threatening, like the miscarriage described above, a medical doctor was sought even though the distances would take ten to twelve hours to traverse. In this case, it was fortunate that the situation was not worsened by the mistake the doctor made. Still, think of a 20-year-old young man alone in the huge Atchafalaya Basin with a 16-year-old wife who for all he knew was dying. Alone on that boat on the return trip to Bayou Pigeon, with no hope of medical assistance, they faced the crisis together. And with that kind of experience to build on they lived another 50 years of marriage, sharing the courage of their lives with those around them.

The river is at 14.7 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling slowly for a few days to 14.3 feet. However, the Ohio is rising at a strong clip right now, more than 2 feet per day, and that might be enough to reverse the fall and bring back some more water. The annual low water may be later than June.

Rise and Shine, Jim