National Park Nature Walks, Episode 9: Inside a Migratory Bird’s Sanctuary

Today, we head to the Louisiana coast.

In today’s episode it’s early April and we’ve made our way to Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge along the Gulf Coast of central Louisiana. Each spring, the Gulf Coast is a welcome sight to billions of migratory birds after making the non-stop, perilous journey north across the water from Mexico. 

Exhausted and starving, these birds head for the first land they encounter. Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge is one of those places. We’ll start our day next to the coast sitting in a vast salt marsh where we’ll listen to resident and migratory birds sing to the rhythm of the crashing waves. 

We’ll then make a mucky trek inland to a brackish marsh where we’ll bury ourselves amongst the cattails and listen to scores of waterbirds as they refuel before continuing their journey north. Let’s go for a walk!

We’re next to the coast on a humid, salty morning. The sun has barely crested the horizon, but looks massive nonetheless. Listen to the power of the waves crashing behind us. In front of us and to our sides is miles of salt marsh. The only thing breaking up the horizon are the heat waves already forming in the warm air.

The salt marsh we’re standing in is made up mostly of smooth cordgrass. Cordgrass is a hip high, dark green grass that thrives in saline environments like this. Though there isn’t much plant diversity, there’s a lot of other life out here. These Seaside Sparrows we’re currently hearing are the most obvious example. You can hear one particularly close male off to our left and numerous others in the distance.

Seaside Sparrows only live in marshes like this in Louisiana. That means without these wetlands, they don’t exist. Unfortunately the refuge has lost nearly 15,000 acres of salt marsh due to heavy and rapid coastal erosion. Refuge managers are hard at work trying to stop additional erosion and to restore lost marshes. 

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the fragility and beauty of this landscape and the work being doing to protect it.

Huh, I hear Willets. 

There.

Willets are a medium size, gray shorebird. Some live on the Gulf Coast year-round while others stop here temporarily to rest after crossing the Gulf, and then will continue north and west to the Rocky Mountains and Upper Great Plains. Judging by how fast those songs were, these Willets are here to stay.

Did you hear that? It was a Clapper Rail. It’s a very secretive marsh bird, like the Sora we heard in Yellowstone. Clapper Rails live most of their lives on the ground, running through the cordgrass, staying well out of sight. We might hear them again though.

Huh, a Marsh Wren. 

Listen to that bubbly song.

Hear the Willets again?

A Seaside Sparrow just landed in front of us. What a great look!

There’s another Clapper Rail.

I really appreciate the rhythm of the sparrows singing and waves crashing together. It’s so soothing.

Well, are you ready for a bit of an adventure? We need to make our way inland to the brackish marshes, but there’s a lot of muck between us. Be extra careful to hold on to your boots.

So we’ve made our way inland a bit to a brackish marsh. It’s called brackish because it doesn’t have strictly fresh or salt water, but a mixture of the two. Less saltwater means more plants can grow here, which you can clearly see the difference. Let’s settle down into these cattails and check out what lives here.

So much more life. The first thing I hear is a Least Bittern. Hear that low, rhythmic “coo-coo-coo-coo”? This is very small heron that lives hidden in cattails and reeds. This one we’re listening to is only here resting before continuing north to settle somewhere across the eastern half of the country.

Huh.

Common Gallinules! (***laughing***)

What a crazy sound!

I can see one just out in front of us swimming. Look at its massive bright red and yellow beak. They love marshes and ponds like this with lots of floating vegetation. I’m sure we’ll hear and see more today.

And right on cue there’s another calling.

Listen to all of the birds in the distance. They’re hard to single out, but I can hear Red-winged Blackbirds, Boat-tailed Grackles, several species of ducks, and a few shorebirds. Hopefully I’ll be able to point a few out to you.

Hear those metallic whistles?

There!

Those are from a Green-winged Teal. It’s a tiny duck with a green and brown head. They winter down here in these marshes before heading up to the very northern part of the country into Canada and Alaska.

Here’s our gallinule again.

Woah! That harsh call, right there, was from another heron, a Green Heron. Like the Least Bittern, they live in marshes and other types of wetlands, but Green Herons aren’t nearly as secretive. Look for them along the shores on overhanging branches and fallen trees.

There’s a classic wetland sound.

There! 

You probably already know this one. It’s a Red-winged Blackbird. Such a common bird, but a beautiful song that you can’t miss.

You can still hear the waves out on the coast. It’s pretty amazing how far that sound can travel. Unfortunately you can also hear some traffic on the highway a few miles away. Noise pollution is really hard to avoid no matter where you are.

There’s a flock of Black-necked Stilts. 

Hear them?

There.

This might be the most elegant looking bird out there. They’re a somewhat tall and slender shorebird with a black back, neck, and head, an all white underbelly, and bright pink legs. It’s absolutely stunning!

The gallinules are swimming really close by. (***whisper***)

What a wild sound. (***laughing***)

Here’s a new one.

That ringing call was from another shorebird, a Lesser Yellowlegs. Built similarly to the Black-necked Stilt, but with a brown mottled body and bright yellow legs. This bird will travel all the way to the northern boreal forests or Arctic tundra to breed.

That low, strained groan is another call from the Least Bittern.  

Remember our Seaside Sparrow on the coast? That was its distant cousin the Swamp Sparrow we just heard. Again, like many of these birds, this Swamp Sparrow will soon be on the move north to its breeding grounds.

Well, we started the day with a sparrow, so let’s end it with a sparrow. I hope you had a good time. I’ll see you on our next National Park Nature Walk.



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