Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Good News for Lake Martin

Before we get to the good news at Lake Martin, check out Anne's new book about Louisiana swamp tours, Louisiana Swamp Tours: The Definitive Guide. It is a must for anyone considering all of the swamp tour options available statewide.

I just got the news printed in a local St. Martin parish newspaper that the plan for water management at Lake Martin this fall, was to not drain the lake as usual! This is good news considering that the birds have been declining in population since the lake was first being drained in 2001!

An English couple doing a birding tour this week.

In fact based upon my inspection of the drain gate, the water is being raised higher than it has been all year!

I can't wait to see where the birds will start nesting in January this coming year. Maybe the Great Blue Herons will return to nest along Rookery Road the way they did before the lake was being drained each fall since 2001. Below are pictures of nests from last season, where the birds nested on trees that are growing in water year round near the lake.

It is common knowledge that wading birds nest in trees that grow in standing water year round. Specifically, Bald Cypress, Tupelo Gum, and Button Bush are the primary trees for nesting sites at Lake Martin.

I am not the only voice of opposition regarding mismanagement at Lake Martin. To read an article written by a birding photographer who witnessed the demise of the rookery, go here:

Unfortunately, at the time he wrote the article, Charles did not know me personally and we have since become acquainted through regular telephone conversations. His observation of several occasions of nesting birds departing overnight along with my personal witnessing of poaching of birds and a tour guide who did night tours in the rookery are suspect of too much human intrusion into the rookery. That being said, it was always my belief, untill recently, that the poaching of birds and alligators along with frogging and a swamp tour guide doing night tours in the rookery was the primary cause of the gradual decline in the population of birds in the rookery.

However, my observation of bird behavior has been very intense this year and that along with my lifetime knowledge of animal behavior has cause me to admit that water management and plant control(see photo below), has done more damage to the ecosystem at Lake Martin and more than anything has led to the decline in population of the birds nesting choices at the lake.

Cypress trees turning orange and the entire mat of floating aqautic plants suffer exposure to herbicide at Lake Martin Landing.

My relationship with Charles began and continues, because I talk to people and give my opinions and support to individuals who share in an interest of mutual concern regarding the management of Lake Martin. Although I feel I have failed to ever connect with employees of The Nature Conservancy, all my attempts made to cooperate and work with them at The Nature Conservancy were founded on my belief the we should all work together to protect the environment and the wild native inhabitants.

I may have issues with the micro-management of Lake Martin, but I do overall appreciate all that The Nature Conservancy does to acquire land and preserve it for the benefit of all wild inhabitants worldwide.

Their philosophy is simple: own the land to protect it from exploitaion and development. Judging from the difficulty they are having at Lake Martin, they need all the help they can get. I wish they would seek my help. I would like to work with them. When I have mentioned contributing my observations to the cause for the birds there, the response was usually to contribute financially, if I liked.

Hmmm...Let's think about this: Do the birds need my money?

Of course the Nature Conservancy doesn't need my money if they can afford to buy a TV advertisement during the Super Bowl!

Initially, I worked at Lake Martin, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries as an undercover informant to end the poaching of birds and alligators there. My undercover status prevented me from telling too much to anyone in The Nature Conservancy at Lake Martin in order to preserve my undercover activities. Thus they were unaware that I was on their side, and was not doing tours in Lake Martin to exploit the birds, but to protect them.

When I voluntarily stopped going into the rookery in 2002 and 2003, I warned The Nature Conservancy: they would be sorry, I was not in there anymore.

When I noticed that no one was stopping the Chump from doing swamp tours in the rookery, I began to go in again in 2004 to do research, because I was aware something was causing the nesting birds to abandon Lake Martin as the prime nesting site it once was.

At that point, I was unaware that the Chump(who I started in the business 10 years ago), was doing night tours in the rookery. My assumption was, poaching of birds and alligators(at night), as the primary cause of human intrusion and disturbance of the nesting birds in the rookery at Lake Martin.

When in December of 2004, after I observed the night tour activities I spoke to Richard Martin about plant control and someone doing night tours in the rookery, he advised me he was glad I was in the rookery again. My jaw almost hit the floor in awe. This was the first time I felt The Nature Conservancy expressed any appreciation to me for my efforts to fight for Lake Martin and it's defenseless wild inhabitants.

Although I have every fall for the last eight years, been dreading the expected annual drainage of this wonderful ecosystem, it looks hopeful that we can now see what happens if the lake water is left alone to manage and balance itself by allowing water to rise and fall according to climate fluctuations.

Human controlled and scheduled water management began after a rare drought caused a fish kill in the mid 1990's. Water management and plant control are proposed to improve water quality and help attract the nesting birds. Looks to me like the experiment failed.

The lake water was being lowered or drained to flush out bird droppings and a so called nutrient overload resulting from so many birds that once nested there defecating in the water. But since the water of the lake was being lowered and the toilet flushed so to speak, the bird population has been in a decline.

The irony of this situation is that the herbicide plant control activity also designed to improve water quality, was reducing the plant mass and decreasing the ecosystem's ability to absorb waterborne nutrients in the floating plant mass in the rookery.

The floating mat of plants and the submerged plants, have the ability to filter and absorb nutrients which leads to natural, rather than man made improved water quality management.

In essence the state and corporate management at Lake Martin was doing everything wrong in my opinion.

In a discussion regarding plant control at the lake, I was advised by the executive director of conservation for the Louisiana Nature Conservancy that fish cannot live under floating mats of plants. I won't mention his name, I think I have already caused him enough embarrassment.

Below is a photo of a baby fish living below a thick layer of Wolfia and lesser duckweed in the rookery, proof that fish can and do live under floating mats of plants. Not only do the roots of floating plants provide cover, there are krill in there too, which is food for baby fish.

I stopped to examine the submerged coontail(as seen below) in the rookery and flushed the little fish up on the mat of plants.

Not only are the roots of the duckweed family important habitat for small fry fish, krill, and crawfish, also the roots of trifolium grass, pennywort, aquatic bladderwort and frogbit as seen in the floating mat of plants below.

Below are pictures of living button bush and an intact floating mat of plants in the rookery. This image is a good reference of what was once continuous all the way around the lake before plant control turned three sides of Lake Martin into an aquatic desert.

Today, due to plant control overkill, the north, east and west sides of Lake Martin no longer have the button bush and accompanying floating mat of plants, as seen below.

At least for the time being, we have the water rising to near where it was in 2001 before the birds began to depart. And... for 2009 during the spring and summer growing season, I witnessed only two episodes of plant control around the lake until the end of October.

In October, plant control returned for the third time and sprayed a large area of water hyacinth on the north west corner of the lake. This not only deminishes the plant mass important for fish, fisherman and feeding the wading birds, we tour guides like to drive through the water hyacinth to dimonstrate how we fish for crawfish.

For the future... how can we restore the floating mat of plants on the north end?

Simple: transplant indigenous plants like frogbit and pennywort(like the clump I started below) and...
convince the plant control people to control themselves!

But based upon my observations they don't know an indigenous plant from a non-native invasive species. Consider this: government efficiency, like government intelligence are contradictory terms and should never be used together.

Well, at least we can hope and celebrate one victory at a time.

See you in the lake,


Friday, September 18, 2009

Lake Martin Water Is On The Rise

Before we get to the good news at Lake Martin, check out Anne's new book about Louisiana swamp tours, Louisiana Swamp Tours: The Definitive Guide. It is a must for anyone considering all of the options available statewide.

Many good things are happening at Lake Martin lately, which is a turn around from the environmentally tragic events there of the past decade.

1. The Nature Conservancy is constructing long needed and much awaited public restrooms at their new visitor center soon to open on the south side of the lake near the rookery. The walkway they built into the rookery earlier this year as seen below, leads right into the restrooms across the bayou.


2. The water levels appear to be on the rise as of this past weekend.
Let's hope they dont pull the plug and begin draining the lake this September, like they have for the last eight years. The nesting birds need the water!

I did a couple of swamp tours today and the tours, I loaded my boat on the trailer, and drove down to the south side of the rookery to inspect the drain gate(as seen below). What I expected to see this time of year, is not what I found. This control structure is adjustable, and used every fall now for the last 8 years to drain the swamp. I was pleasantly surprised to see more additions to the control structure planks, allowing more water to be trapped(rather than drained) and thus hopefully raising the water levels.

I don't like this photo because it looks like a solid metal top. Actually the top is constructed of an aluminum grate which was designed to allow water to rise up and drain into the top and also allows visual inspection and access of the operation of the 6" removable drain planks in the drain.

The reason the drain gate was designed and installed this way, with the top being constructed of grating, was to allow the water to come up to the top and drain through the grating. But, since being installed the water has never been allowed to rise that high.

The old spillway on the north side which was the high water control outlet prior to the one The Nature Conservancy installed on the south side, illustrates where the water was allowed to rise to. Since the new outlet has been installed on the south side, the old spillway is useless, except to gauge where the high water mark was 10 years ago.

Prior to The Nature Conservancy monkeying around with the water levels and installing this drain gate on their property, the water at Lake Martin was often about 18" higher than it has been for the last eight years. Since they have had the ability to drain and set the height of the spillway and thus control how high or low the water gets either way, the bird population has been in a constant state of adjustment.

When the water levels were 18" higher, the nesting bird population was at it's peak.

A couple of years ago, the nesting bird population was only about 5% of what it was at it's peak after 2000-2001. I don't know if low water levels are the primary cause of the disappearance of tens of thousands of pairs of wading birds who nested here for decades, but I do know that raising the planks on the outflow control structure and letting the water come up naturally from rain fall is the easiest and most cost effective experiment we could try to determine what attracted the birds to nest at Lake Martin in the first place.

Now having the drain gate installed on their property, The Nature Conservancy is in direct conflict with the vast majority of fisherman and duck hunters in the lake. I know, because I interview these people every chance I can get in Lake Martin Landing as I use the landing to launch my swamp tours.

Thus having the power to raise or lower water levels and with that, total control of the water levels on the entire lake area used by all recreational users, The Nature Conservancy has a lot of nerve in my opinion to propose that this lower water level benefits the birds and all the recreational users by improving water quality. For the entire time this control structure has been in place, The Nature Conservancy has kept the water at least 18" below normal and buried it's head in the swamp muck, in my opinion, regarding it's effect on the nesting birds. Not only have they kept the water about 18" below where it was most of the time prior to the birds gradually departing, beginning in 2001, they cause it to drain out and be about 3' below normal for about 4-6 months per year by removing planks in the control structure.

Before that, the water would come up to the high level on the old control structure on the north side every time we had a lot of rain(even with the top of the drain gate cover, which was set at the same elevation as the old spillway on the north side). During drought periods the water would naturally go down periodically due to evaporation exceding precipitation and according to fluctuations in the climate might at times be a lot higher during typical Louisiana monsoon produced flooding. Such was the case in June 2001 when Tropical Storm Allison dumped 40" of rain in 5 days and raised the water levels about 5 feet over the levels allowed to rise at present.

It appears The Nature Conservancy has modeled it's water management policies at Lake Martin in line with the seasonal variations of the water levels in the Atchafalaya Basin. Which is not very wise, in my opinion. But who is listening to me, I am just a dumb Coonass swamp tour guide with a high school education who has been in the rookery developing a close personal relationship with all the wild inhabitants, and thus in close proximity of these nesting birds here for over 20 years. My presence in the rookery as a swamp tour guide allowed me to observe bird nesting behavior and although my field work might be of significant contribution to understanding the great mysterious disappearance of the birds, no one has ever talked to me and asked for my opinions.

The nesting area of the wading birds at Lake Martin and in The Cypress Island Preserve is the primary public relations resource of The Nature Conservancy in it's preserve here, but the prerserve is being grossly mismanaged in my opinion.

One of the greatest short comings in mismangement at Lake Martin is due to The Nature Conservancy hiring outsiders to come here from New York or wherever and these employees are grossly out of touch with the culture not to mention the ecology.

Although I have reported my observations to Richard Martin, Cindy Brown and everyone else who were onsite managers after her, no one has ever attempted to contact me to ask for insight into the problems of poaching, destruction of habitat, water levels, water quality, etc.

I believe this is due to them percieving me as "the bad guy" for doing tours into the rookery.

I don't hate The Nature Conservancy, I hate what they are doing to Lake Martin. And what they are doing affects everyone using the lake, be it recreational boaters, fishermen, duck hunters, photographers, tourists, and most importantly, the wading birds who attempt to nest here every year!

Below is an image of me standing on top of the drain and gives a more accurate perspective of the drain size.

Hopefully the Wildlife and Fisheries and Nature Conservancy are realizing that the annual drainage of the water and thus lower water levels in the rookery are possible causes of the departure of the birds from the nesting areas in the Lake Martin Cypress Island Preserve.

This September, instead of pulling out panels and allowing the water levels to go down, someone has added a couple of panels to the top of the control structure and that is causing the water levels in Lake Martin to rise.

Could it be that a dumb, Cajun swamp tour guide with only a high school education is embarrassing these over paid, educated fools who manage Lake Martin, with his blog articles and affecting their present water management policies?

At any rate, considering the departure of the birds is possibly the result of the failure of past management activity, why not experiment with higher water levels for a change?

For eight or nine years now, The Nature Conservancy and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries have been conducting an experiment(in my opinion), hoping to improve the water quality at the lake by lowering the water levels in the fall season of every year. They then promise to pump the water back in and restore the water level before the birds begin to nest in the spring. But wait... I see Great Blue Herons staging nesting sites in the middle of January before the pumps were even turned on! The Nature Conservancy has by my observations, failed to give back to the lake the water that they took away the season before when they pulled the drain planks and drained it.

As you can see in the photo below, they did turn on the pump on the north side of the lake in February 2009 and helped raise the water level a little.

But not to where it was before they drained it.

In my opinion they failed to pump and return enough of the water to an acceptable level equal to what it was before they lowered it last fall. And not enough to flood the land under the grove of trees where the Great Blue Herons nested a decade ago before the water was being lowered. As seen in the photos below.

What I did not realize until I began closely observing the water management practices here this year is that the water levels are intentionally be kept about 18" below where it was when the birds population was at it's highest.

It is common knowledge that these wading birds nest in trees that grow in water year round because the water holds alligators and alligators protect the birds from predators that can swim and climb trees. These same predators will not swim in water with alligators because they will not survive if they do.

The Nature Conservancy claimed that it was OK to drain the lake and lower the water in the autumn season because it did not conflict or interfere with the nesting season in the spring. I disagree on that position because it is my belief that if it is not safe for the birds to roost there all year long, the birds will not nest there in the spring. And on that note, the ban on boat traffic in the rookery should in my opinion be year round, not just during the nesting season.

Furtheremore, the nesting season does not start in the spring, but at the beginning of winter when the Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets arrive in the second and third weeks of January and begin selecting nesting locations in the tops of tall cypress trees as seen in the photos below.

What is interesting and actually hard for me to believe, is that these birds are starting nests in January, while numerous swamp tour boats are in the nesting area daily and legal duck hunting is going on with excessive discharge of shotguns in the rookery every morning for several weeks before hunting season closes at the end of January. These tour boat and hunting activities appear to cause no disturbance of the birds plan to nest, based upon my observation of doing tours daily in the rookery for over 20 years.

Below is a photo of a large number and variety of wading birds in an area where water is present year round.

Along with the drainage of the water to lower the water levels, I also have issues with the application of herbicides and the killing off of hundreds of acres of button bush and the floating mats of plants on three sides of Lake Martin as seen below.

These photos illustrate that not only is the natural beauty being destroyed, we are systematically diminishing the food supply present in the floating mats of plants which feed the wading birds who nest here every winter and spring.

I am not only here at Lake Martin to share the natural beauty of our state with our visiting guests, I also have an obligation to protect the defenseless wild inhabitants of south Louisiana and educate the local and tourist public at large regarding the dangers of using 2-4-d, (a.k.a. Agent Orange) in our wilderness areas such as Lake Martin.

In the image below, you can see the hundreds of acres of button bush stumps which were killed by herbicide activity and are now dead reminders of the once plant rich feeding grounds that were part of the ecology at Lake Martin 10 years ago.

I showed Richard Martin of the Nature Conservancy this area in November last year and how much button bush had been killed along with the floating mats of plants. He agreed that plant control had been out of control in this area. And he then pointed out that we could not restore these important plants unless we drained the lake for a few years to allow the button bush to sprout on dry land.

Well Richard, how about the water. How hard will it be to restore the water levels to it's former abundant supply like it was when the birds were at it's peak 10 years ago?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Swamp Tours, Festivals and Fishing!

A few years ago, the Louisiana Office of Tourism, conducted a survey and interviewed tourists coming into Louisiana to find out what were the top three things that brought them to Louisiana. Food, music and swamp tours. Big surprize!

There is no better place to get all three at an affordable price than in and around Lafayette.

Above is a photo I took on a Louisiana Sunset Swamp Tour at Lake Martin.

There is always so much to do in south Louisiana, that sometimes it is a challenge just setting a realistic agenda. So as the summer winds down, if you are planning on coming to Louisiana this fall, I will begin forecasting some of my personal favorites and giving suggestions of where to be for fall activities. Such as Festivals Acadiens in Girard Park at Lafayette, in the month of October on the 9th, 10th, and 11th of 2009.

Where we dance in the dirt as seen above!

Everyone has a good time.

It's a family event and even the kids make their way to front of the stage.

Below are some photos of last years festival featuring my Cajun friend, Steve Riley on accordion, as seen below.

Another friend of mine, Cedric Watson, made his festival debut at last years gathering of the Cajuns and Creoles as seen below.

The night before, his band Bijeaux Creole, played the Blue Moon Saloon and Guest House as seen below.

And when it comes to food, of course there is plenty to eat at any festival, but most of our festivals are centered around the abundance and variety of agricultural foods and good times in the Cajun and Creole cultures.

In the wild side, we are blessed to be born in the greatest pantry of wild foods in North America and there are festivals and fishing rodeos to celebrate that too.

Bear in mind, the best Cajun food often contains farm raised livestock, wild game or fresh caught seafood and is always served at someone's house, not a restaurant.

So... consider that Cajuns and Creoles are often referred to as the friendliest people in the world, because we will invite you to our house and cook for you.

Don't be shy, make friends! We love to talk as much as cook and play music.

Without any special event in mind, we might invite you to indulge in the Speckle Trout fishing south Louisiana is famous for, to enjoy a day out on the open water and an evening of dining on trout.

As seen below, my friend Ed and I had a great morning at Southwest Pass near Vermillion Bay on the specks. We launched out of the Cypremore Point public landing.

When it was all said and done we shared a half an ice chest full of trout as seen below.

All credit needs to be given to my friend Ed for teaching me to fish trout.

He is not only, a master fisherman, he has a cool bay boat as seen below!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

It's Cool and it's Festival Season in Cajun Country!

But...Before we get to the festivals, check out Anne's new book.

Introduction to: Louisiana Swamp Tours: The Definitive Guide

Think if you've been on one swamp tour, you've seen them all? Think again. Louisiana has a huge diversity of swamps and wetlands, and the tours through these areas vary enormously according to focus---bird roosts, alligators, big cypress and tupelo gum trees, plenty of wildlife. Many of the guides have spent lifetimes learning the secrets of the swamps as professional fishermen, alligator hunters, trappers, guides, or lumbermen, and they share with passengers their love of the areas and their deep concerns over the fragility of the environments. Illustrated with dozens of fine nature images by award-winning photographer Henry Cancienne, this book contains everything you need to know about every swamp tour in the state.

Above is a link to Amazon so you can order Anne Butler's new book,
Louisiana Swamp Tours; The Definative Guide.

If you are coming to do a swamp tour in Cajun Country in September or October, looking for a bunch of fun people, good food, music, a dancefloor and a good time, you are in luck.

I was looking through the festivals guide to decide where I was going this weekend to shoot some video for my TV program. And wow, three festivals all in the same weekend. The Frog Festival in Rayne,(please note: the Frog Festival has been postponed until November) The Zydeco Festival in Plaisance, and the Shrimp Festival in Morgan City. I would love to do all three, but the Frog Festival is it.

The highlight of next month, no doubt is, Festvals Acadiens in Lafayette.

I will re-edit this in a day or two, put up photos and more links.

In the meantime...see you at the lake.