Conservation and cuisine in the heart of Cajun country
We were birding the fields and wetlands in the shadow of the rusted Sabine Pass Lighthouse that guards the border of Texas and Louisiana.
The lighthouse sits at the end of a gravel-and-dirt road was alive on this April afternoon with Orchard Orioles and Summer Tanagers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos and other spring migrants arriving from the Gulf Coast. At the other end of road is a massive liquid natural gas refining facility, one of many changing the landscape of this fishing and farming community.
This is Cameron Parish, population 6,912, one the most vibrant bird habitats in America, every bit as lively but far less traveled than the Texas hotspots on the other side of the Sabine Pass. It’s a delicate balance in this part of the world, where the fuel that heats a global economy clashes with an historical way of life, where rising sea levels and loss of habitat hem in the birds from land and sea, and where dedicated conservationists are working overtime to preserve, protect and restore.
At last count, more than 470 species have been reported in Louisiana. During a weeklong stretch last April, a group of us spotted 183, pretty good work for a week! Much of our time was concentrated in the southwest parishes bordering Texas and the Gulf of Mexico, where 90 percent of Louisiana’s bird species have been seen.
There is boundless inspiration in Louisiana’s birds, a rich gumbo of shorebirds, neotropical migrants and breeding birds in habitats ranging from the Mississippi Delta to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. We heard booming calls from Prothonotary Warblers echoing from seemingly every Cypress tree in the Atchafalaya Swamp. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks draped the maritime forests of the Peveto Woods while a dozen or more Swainson’s Thrushes dotted the fields below. Common Nighthawks were easily found snoozing during the day.
That’s the bird gumbo. Then there’s the actual stuff, from the refined chicken and sausage version under the watchful gaze of the iconic dogs painted by George Rodrigue, to the saucy stew served up at Randol’s in Lafayette, where every night is a fais do do. There’s a lot to be said for Louisiana beer as well — not just the popular Abita brews but the really local stuff like the craft beers at the Screaming Eagle in Lake Charles.
Out birding during the daytime, we had great views of Hudsonian Godwits, Pectoral Sandpipers and other “grasspipers” in a farm field while a local fixing his truck looked at us like we were the rarities. There was a busy family unit of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers working the Longleaf Pines of the Kisatchie Forest, and Least Bitterns were seemingly everywhere, forgetting their shyness while hunting in full view in the wetlands of the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge.
These memories will ultimately blend into the gumbo, but the one that lingers on is that of Broussard Beach, an unspoiled stretch of rocky sand and woods touching the gulf in Louisiana’s westernmost parish.
It took a commitment to get there. The van ride to a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. The trek through an unfortunate patch of muck that sucked away at our sneakers and sandals. Bugs were all around us, looking for an opening to do their damage. And then, a long stretch of empty, unspoiled beach.
Broussard Beach is the territory of Katie Barnes, Audubon Louisiana’s Coastal Stewardship Manager, monitoring the health of Wilson’s Plovers, Least Terns and Common Nighthawks along this fragile stretch of coastline.
Cap pulled low over her brow to shield her from the summerlike sun, scope firmly balanced on her shoulder, she led us on a brisk walk down to a spit where forty American Avocets were dancing in the water near an audience consisting of eight species of terns — numbering more than 500 in total — along with 50 Brown Pelicans and a dozen Wilson’s Phalaropes.
On the way we passed some of the birds she shares this stretch of shoreline with, some nesting, some out for a walk on the beach. She knew many of them individually by sight. She knew their flight calls, their playful calls, their cries of alarm.
Katie is in her fourth year working with beach nesting birds along the Gulf of Mexico both in Louisiana and Alabama. She now works as part of Audubon Louisiana’s Coastal Stewardship Program, under the guidance of Director of Bird Conservation Erik Johnson.
The Coastal Stewardship Program focuses on the protection and monitoring of sensitive beach-nesting bird populations along more than 1,100 acres of coastal habitat including Cameron Parish and Grad Isle to the east. Beach-nesting birds are among the fastest group of declining birds in North America. Apart from human disturbance along our shorelines, their habitat is also rapidly disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico — over the last 80 years, about 1800 miles of coastal forests, marsh, beach, and barrier habitats have sunk into the sea.
“These birds must overcome a lot of challenges in order to be successful,” Katie tells us. “These include predator pressures, habitat loss, vehicle and ATV use on beaches, and annual weather and tidal regimes, to name a few. Each year comes with its own set of obstacles, but our protection and stewardship efforts play a critical role in their nesting success.”
Her favorite days in the field are spent alone, surrounded by birds. Among her personal favorites is T8 — Tator Tot — an adult female she banded at Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge on June 9, 2016. She has returned to her same breeding site for four consecutive seasons.
“I look forward to her arrival every year,” she says, “Last year she was the first Wilson’s Plover to greet me upon arriving at the site.”
Of her dogged determination to protect these small birds, she says: “These birds live on the edge of the earth, where they fearlessly defend their eggs and young from a wide variety of threats in the hot spring and summer months. Aside from being the world’s best parents, they serve as bioindicators of coastal ecosystem health.
“A shore without shorebirds is like an ocean without waves.”
The author thanks New Jersey Audubon Bird Programs Director Scott Barnes, Katie Barnes, Audubon Louisiana Coastal Stewardship Manager, David LaPuma and fellow birding enthusiast Rick Kauffeld for their contributions to this story, a form of which appeared in the winter 2019 issue of New Jersey Audubon magazine.