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


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