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.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Sharks Are Back, and So Am I

            At least for this post anyway.  Yes, the sharks are back in the Atchafalaya Basin, and they are early this year.  I was down at Myette Point (St. Mary Parish) this past week and my friend Edward Couvillier is having his trotlined catfish cut in half by sharks already. And he is 40 miles from salt water.  I say already because most of the time the water level has to be pretty low (down to 4 feet or less) for sharks to begin their annual ascent of the Atchafalaya River.  This year the water gauge at Butte La Rose is still up at about 14 feet – very high for sharks.  Last year during the late-summer shark season I went out with Edward to see what was happening.  Sure enough, as he ran the trotline he began to find fish that were still on the hook, but only a dead head remained.  It makes you think of all those fish just caught with nowhere to go and then comes this mouth full of teeth and…

And then we came up to a fish head that was not showing that glassy eye that dead fish show, because it was still breathing.   Just a head, with the gills going in and out.  Now, up to now I had been thinking that these fish had been eaten the previous night.  I don’t know why I thought that, but somehow it seemed more in keeping with the shark demeanor for it to be hunting along in the darkness.  Yet, here was this live fish head at 8:00 a.m.  Picture the water below the boat, about 10 feet deep, with feeding sharks maybe a couple feet from you down below.  How big are they?  Who knows?  The biggest one I know of from near here was caught around  Henderson a couple years ago and it was a six footer. Even though there has never been a reported attack in the Basin, these are not small fish.

            On another shark tack, some of you know that I do a type of archaeology that involves identifying animal bone (non human) from Native American sites in Louisiana. The last site that I did an analysis for was one that is in what is now St. Mary Parish, near Patterson.  The bone from this site contained two shark teeth from the same species that we get in the river every year – the bull shark (Carcharhinus leucus).  And also within the bone sample was a single shark vertebra.  There was a hole drilled in the center of the vertebra, probably to allow a series of similar ones to be strung together like beads, perhaps as ornamentation of some kind. 

Anyway, these discoveries suggest that Native Americans in south Louisiana were making use of sharks in the lower Atchafalaya Basin 1400 years ago.  As a matter of fact, I would imagine they were much more aware of the sharks than we are today, even though the fish have been annual visitors to the waters of the Atchafalaya Basin ever since, and the number of people who might observe them has multiplied many times.  I guess we just don't need to know, so we don't.

             The river gauge at Butte La Rose reads 14.3 feet today, and will remain about 14 feet for at least the next seven days.  Very high water for this time of year, and the crawfishermen are loving it.  Amazing numbers of trucks and boat trailers at the Myettte Point landing, most of them from Catahoula it seems.
Rise and Shine, Jim


Thursday, September 01, 2011

Wildlife and Windy Rain

            Once again there is something weather- related to note.  I often wonder about the birds and other animals that find themselves exposed to weather events.  We humans see rain coming and we find a way to acquire shelter if we can.  I’m sure the birds do the same thing but whatever they find to hide under will not be complete protection most of the time.  Of interest today is the fact that we pretty much always have some advance notice of impending seriously bad weather.  Right now there is a system out in the Gulf of Mexico that is getting its act together for an assault on the Louisiana coast.  Right now it doesn’t seem  to be a big windy storm, but more of a smaller, rainy one.  Really rainy, they say.  Does the wildlife know this too?  Adding a few things to the usual accounts of the unusual prestorm  doings of ants, chickens, horses, etc, will not hurt the universe I believe.  So here is what I see along the river today.

Sunset tonight
            Sitting here at home on the Atchafalaya River and looking at the conditions in the back yard will bring thoughts of the kind of observation that might be possible due to the advance notice of bad weather.  The observations in this case would be the kind that notices behavior in the animals normally doing what they do and the behaviors that might not be so normal.  All this is purely speculative, of course, what the scientists call unreliable data.   First of all, the birds.  This is the easiest thing to note because the birds are so clearly visible.  But what birds are they and what are they doing this afternoon?  Down at the dock I see cattle egrets across the river.  There are about 30 of them and they are all standing on the riverbank just kind of passing time.  Once in a while there is a disagreement of some kind and a couple of them jump up in the air and then settle back down, standing calmly.  I don’t recall ever seeing a big flock of cattle egrets doing this along the river.  A few yes, but a flock, no.  There doesn’t seem to be any feeding behavior either.  They just stand there, looking around.  I wonder, are they preparing for surviving wind and constant wetness for several days in a row?  There is no escape except leaving the area, and is this what they are preparing to do?  It’s as though they are using a group meeting, or a big committee, to make a decision.  After about an hour, the whole flock took to the air and flew away low along the river.  Oddly, they flew toward the east, which is where this storm will probably come from.  Perhaps the committee needs a new chairman.

            Some birds are more susceptible to the bad weather in that they probably cannot fly away from the places to be hit by the, mostly because they are either too small or just don’t fly long distances.  I’m thinking of the resident species that just never leave home, such as the mockingbirds and some woodpeckers.  Looking out at the back yard there is a different behavior going on among and between these species.  The mockingbirds are chasing each other all over the place, and the red-bellied woodpeckers.  It is not the chasing that is unusual, but the extent of it, going on non-stop all over the back yard.  The cardinals join in it too.  Chickadees and titmice are just on the edges watching all the commotion.  These are birds that will all be wet probably beginning tomorrow and then perhaps for the next four or five days.  Are there behaviors that we can see that the birds might be doing in advance of the bad weather?  Surely the chasing is not a practice that will keep them dry, but might it not indicate a heightened state of nervous tension?  Or maybe the abnormal amount of activity signals something else not easily described. 

            There is a speckled kingsnake in the garage, in a container.  The snake is usually very docile and quiet, but today the snake is crawling all over the environment available to her.  Could be coincidence, probably is.

            The river is at 4.6 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge.  Left alone it would probably remain there without much change for the next week or so.  The Ohio and Mississippi are not supporting any immediate changes.  But if this weather, with “historic rainfall” predicted, does come in the next couple days , the river will notice and raise an eyebrow.  It could rise several feet and we would have to be ready to retie the dock each day.  Unlike the rivers in Vermont, etc., the Atchafalaya is a big river with a relatively small collecting basin.  So we will get the rain effect, but not a flash flood.  I know this because my magic crystal ball says so.

            Rise and Shine, Jim

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Back to Normal

            At least that’s what it feels like.  It’s hot and the grass is growing, and mosquitoes let us know they like the rain too.  We are seeing the first major hatch of mosquitoes in over two years, kind of unusual for our part of the swamp to go that long without them.

            Back- to- normal things include new grass.  Where the May high water left four to six inches of new soil in our yard, there is now an equivalent amount of new, very green, grass.  Mostly the new growth seems to be blue grass but the centipede variety will come in and outcompete it next year.  The barely noticeable burning ring will have to be dug up and reset, but the new soil is a modest gift from the river and moving the ring won’t take much effort.

That's our girl!
            I spent some time shoveling away the several feet (not so modest a gift) of mud/sand that annually covers the bottom several feet of the steps leading to the dock, and out popped a snake.  Our  granddaughter is back in the river swimming as often as she gets the chance and today she got to spend some quality time with the snake.  It is a glossy crawfish snake, harmless unless you are a crustacean, and the bluish eyes say it’s about to shed its skin, which made it even more docile than normal.

            Remember all that mud that was on the deck?  It is gone of course and in its place there are three new benches made from recovered lumber originally part of a Cajun swamper’s house in the Basin.  The wife was part of the Burns family saga in the Atchafalaya during the last century.  So, the benches are sort of a recalling of a real swamp life, lived by real swamp people.

            And the water is low enough now to begin fishing with a rod and reel.  Today I caught some catfish, an eel, two garfish, a buffalo and some gaspergou.  The gaspergou and catfish will probably end up in a courtboullion next weekend, and the buffalo will be turned loose since I have no use for cut bait before I get the trotline out. The eel was cut up to bait the shrimp traps and the garfish were too small to do anything with. 

  If you spend enough time looking out over water you see things come up and make the break from that environment to ours.  Logs rise to the top and sink again, nutria appear and swim and then disappear for their own reasons.  Fish do the same thing as the nutria, except in reverse, sort of.  They come up into the air and then go back. You can look out over water and you will see evidence of fish doing this but usually it is too late to see them, you hear the disturbance and see the splash but not the fish.  Except occasionally. The river is filled with gar and buffalo right now and most of the time they cause the splash and swirl of waves.  Often I have thought that you would have little chance to actually see one of these fish as it breaks the surface, I mean, you would have to have your eyes on the exact spot when the fish came up.  But today it happened.  I was fishing and looking at the river and right in front of my eyes there arose this huge garfish.  I saw its head, and torso and tail as it came up -  broke the surface, breathed, rolled and then brought its tail up and slapped the water just like on the whale shows. Wow and wow.  A person who believed in such things might have thought there was some communication intended, but nah........…nah. 

            The river is at 8.0 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 7.5 by the end of next week.  Remember when it was at 23 feet just a little while ago? The Ohio and the Mississippi both show some rises up north, so they are not ready to give up their influence yet.  I can put in my trotline at 8.0 feet so it’s time to consider that.

            Rise and Shine, Jim

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

2011 High Water – Nineteen

Well, we are settling in, or resettling in, I guess. The water is down off of the deck and the six inches of mud on it has been brushed away. The river is becoming more calm by the day. Throughout this whole thing there has been a remarkable lack of debris in the channel. Commercial fishermen noted this to me yesterday, and I certainly agree. After predicting the huge amount of accumulated litter that would come down once the Morganza gates were opened, it didn’t happen. What did come down was much smaller than anticipated, the individual pieces I mean. Not the huge trees and floating islands of logs and tangled masses of smaller vegetation that I thought would come.

There is a strange item that came up yesterday during a visit to the southern end of Grand Lake. Talking with Edward Couvillier and Kevin, his son, is always an enlightening experience. Both commercial catfishermen, they use lines and hooks and fish the hard way, at least that's how it seems to me. The odd thing was that they caught a stingray yesterday out in the lake. The water is still high by anybody’s reckoning, and the stingrays should (my word) not be up in the freshwater yet, not until the water is very low and allowing some salt water to sneak into the usually fresh lower Atchafalaya Basin and Grand Lake. But they are coming up nevertheless. I wonder if the sharks will be early this year also, giving the fishermen headaches much earlier than usual. The closeup of the sting from the ray shows why it’s not a good idea to get punctured by one. Not only does it not come out easily, the mucous on it hurts, a LOT.

The river is at 17.8 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, continuing to fall slowly for the foreseeable future. The Missouri is flexing some muscle, but that shouldn’t affect us down here. The Mississippi and Ohio are both falling slowly all the way up, as they should be doing right now. At this slow rate of fall we may not get to the low water period for this cycle until August. Crawfishermen are not complaining, or at least not more than they usually do. Passing on the levee yesterday, I saw literally hundreds of trucks parked at the six or seven landings being used by the wild-crawfish fishermen right now. Looks good for them.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Thursday, June 09, 2011

2011 High Water – Eighteen

Night Visitors. There are night visitors in the back yard. Today Flurry the Cat and I discovered the evidence. Beings with cloven hooves are walking up and down the riverbank in the darkness. The water is still high in the swamp that extends out to Henderson and I guess some of the animals who live there prefer a drier place. I don’t mind the deer, but now I will be looking for the foliage in the yard to show signs of nibbling.

The river is at 19.5 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, continuing to fall slowly. The Ohio and Mississippi are both falling all the way up. No more water coming from them soon.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

2011 High Water - Seventeen

So the excitement begins to fade. We are no longer looking at a charging wild animal. Facing us now is something resembling a sleeping cat, calm and relaxed, becoming more and more relaxed as each day passes. Soon it will just be the river we knew before.

The markers we kept track of as the water rose are the same ones we now watch as the water recedes. It is easy to see the outside rail on the deck, at least it is easy to see now. It sits at about the 21 foot level, and the water is about ½ foot below it. At the river’s crest, the rail was under about two feet of water. The oak and cherry tree had water up past their trunks, and now it is retreating out toward the channel.

A thick coat of mud covers the ground where the water stood for several days. Grass will grow well there, the mud is rich in those things which cause plants to grow. But that richness does no good for the walkway and the deck floor, and I am clearing it off as the water reveals the mud. It is sobering to think that that same mud might have been covering the floor of our house instead of being harmlessly covering outside structures. Yes, a lot to be thankful for.

It is also sobering to hear of drastic responses to the near-miss that we had here in Butte La Rose. I say drastic because some of the reactions people have don’t seem to be merited by the degree of danger we actually suffered. We had a near-miss, not a full blown catastrophe, but some people are leaving the community forever because of an emotional response to the threat. One family has been here for 37 years, and they are now looking for a house to buy elsewhere, where the water cannot come. These are people who have been at the heart of the development of the community. They will be missed.

The river is at 20.4 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling slowly toward a summer low of perhaps four or five feet. The Ohio and Mississippi are not doing much. The Missouri will send some water to us, but not in the volume that caused the current crisis. It just doesn’t have the muscle that the Ohio does.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Thursday, June 02, 2011

2011 High Water – Sixteen

Well, we are back. Our evacuation lasted all of eight days, and thanks for that. We came back to an empty house. No food, no anything. Except, that the house is here and it doesn’t need repairs, and no flood insurance claim needs to be made. Looks like we won’t get to test the FEMA waters this time around. We even thought of one of those little white trailers as a potential long-term place to stay. But no, not this time. Hopefully not ever.

There was a snake in one of my shrimp traps when we got back, a water snake, no problem. It was very anxious to get out of the trap but I want to take a few pictures of it so it lives on with the shrimp and small fish as neighbors until tomorrow. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good place for a fish-eating snake to live.

The cats are back. They boarded with friends while we were gone. More generous people!

A call from a friend asked if I would like to fly over Butte La Rose and see what the water looked like from the air. Yes, I surely would. His name is Ken (no last names on the blog unless cleared first, my rule) and he has a two-seater that he built himself – literally. Nearly every, bolt, screw and instrument was done by him, from a kit. He has been building it for several years and recently finished. A bit disconcerting was the note on the dashboard from the FAA. It said passengers should be aware that the plane you were in was built by an amateur and you were basically on your own. But it went up, and it went down, and it did everything a plane is supposed to do, I think. It was a fun trip!

What did we see flying over the Atchafalaya River and the levee following it, and the Butte La Rose area? Well, nothing heavily dramatic. There simply is no evidence of the serious consequences you see on the news reporting from the cities along the Mississippi. The Atchafalaya just didn’t get to the levels that it would have taken to do serious damage on a wide scale. Some houses got flooded, to be sure, but those are mostly on an elevation not much different from the forest floor. The river bank didn’t flood. At 29 feet it would have gone over the bank for the first time in recorded history, I believe, but not at 23.5 feet. Perhaps some places on the river got flooded in 1973 when the crest was 27 feet, but not many.
Anyway, here are a few pics to show basically that Butte La Rose was not seriously impacted by the high water of 2011. The view along the levee shows the extent of the water relative to the houses on the high river bank. It didn’t reach them. Some docks got flooded, and maybe a few other structures that were down near the water. Our house is right in the middle of one of the pics. There is a rectangular floating dock out in the river, and our house is behind it, basically covered by trees. I never realized that we had the most forested property along the river in our area. Our house is barely visible. Another picture shows the Butte La Rose boat landing, near the general store. It too was not flooded out. The water came pretty much to the top of it, but that’s all. In the middle background of that picture you can see water between the river and the levee top. That water is covering the driveways of several people who cannot return home yet. The houses are fine, except for the driveways.

One picture shows the so-called pontoon bridge at the far end of the Butte La Rose road, as some call it (Herman Dupuis Road, to others). The bridge was held open for the last couple weeks but is scheduled to become passable again in the next few days. No flooding is apparent in this area either, but farther up this road is where some houses did take on water.

And that’s about the extent of it. Everyone was well warned that there was potential for very serious consequences and Butte La Rose was about as ready for it as a community can be. But, we are happy that this was an adventure we did not need to have.

The river is at 21.4 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 20.5 feet by June 8, and falling more thereafter. I saw a lot of sacks of crawfish piled in front of a wholesaler today. Perhaps we will get a late season this year.

Rise and Shine, Jim