NESTING PARADISE

Pass-a-Loutre Bird Enhancement Project Has Created An Island Where Water Birds Can Raise Their Young

story by Trey Iles, LDWF Public Information

photos by Joel Courtney, LDWF Public Information

The smell isn’t enticing. But the spectacle of colonial seabirds nesting in early June on an island in Pass-a-Loutre’s East Bay is a beautiful sight said Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Biologist Manager Vaughan McDonald.

On what was open water in the summer of 2016, this newly-created island on the Pass-a-Loutre Wildlife Management Area is filling a critical need on the Mississippi River Bird Foot Delta. It provides habitat for an array of water birds, some of which have few places to nest in Louisiana. It benefits some species of greatest conservation need as identified in the Louisiana Wildlife Action Plan such as the Wilson’s plover and black skimmers. And it will create wintering habitat for the federally listed piping plover.

“Most of the birds that are congregating in the middle of the island are Caspian terns and Forster’s terns,’’ McDonald said. “It’s estimated that there are less than 1,000 breeding individuals of Caspian terns in Louisiana. So it’s a good thing to see them here.’’

The Pass-a-Loutre Bird Enhancement Project, which created the two-acre island, is a cooperative endeavor between Ducks Unlimited, LDWF and Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. Ducks Unlimited secured a grant through the North American Wetland Conservation Act, or NAWCA which is administered through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that helped fund the $1.15 million project.

The island was created by the cleanout of an existing crevasse on South Pass which yielded more than 150,000 cubic yards of sediment for the island’s creation.

“This type of island nesting habitat is so critical to the Gulf coast,’’ said Mike Carloss, Ducks Unlimited’s Director of Conservation Programs. “One of the main things that makes this island so attractive to nesting waterbirds is that it is predator free. It’s separated from the mainland by a substantial distance and it’s obvious, as in this case, the birds pick up on that quickly. Many of the important nesting islands along the coast of Louisiana have been lost or degraded and this unique and important habitat is in short supply.”

“The greatest benefits of the island are primarily for nesting colonial seabirds but also potentially for the native mottled duck. The focus for DU (Ducks Unlimited) is waterfowl, but we’re a conservation organization. In this case, we’re enhancing open water habitat by providing fresh water flow and sediment to create better wetlands and enhance growth of submerged aquatic vegetation primarily for waterfowl with the added benefits of a bird nesting island.’’

The purpose of the project is two-fold. Creation of the island was one of the primary objectives. But by cleaning out the existing crevasse, which had partially silted in, its land building efficiency will be restored. That will allow creation or enhancement of 1,500 acres of tidal marsh and shallow water wetlands. It also will aid public access to tidal marshes by restoring navigation for outboard boats.

“By opening the crevasse, sediment will be diverted to help build splays,’’ said McDonald, noting that splays are land built in shallow bays from sediment carried there by a distributary channel formed from a breach in the banks of the river. “Splays create the shallow open water habitat for waterfowl. We have to do something beneficial with the sediment dredged from the crevasse, so we used it to create this nesting island.’’

The project started in the summer of 2016 and the island was completed at the end of February. The crevasse is located about a half-mile to three-quarters of a mile to the east of the island site. The sediment was dredged then pumped to the island site through pipes.

Carloss said he took a trip to the island in late March. And though no nesting had begun, he did notice birds loafing, which consists of them resting or preening in a safe environment.

The birds began nesting shortly after that. The nesting season runs into the middle of June, McDonald said.

“We pretty much expected birds to be nesting here,’’ McDonald said. “But I’m not sure we expected this many birds, this soon. Once the nesting season is over, they come over here to loaf, or they will go to the barrier island beaches along the coast.’’

The creation of the island is another benefit from Pass-a-Loutre WMA crevasses. Though LDWF staff pioneered this restoration technique more than 55 years ago, it was a three-crevasse project begun in June of 1986 that brought to light how much land could be built for little money.

The Louisiana Crevasse Project formed approximately 760 acres of land. It was done for a cost of only $88,060. That translates to $115.87 per acre in 1986 or $252.44 per acre today.

The once open water bays and ponds where these projects were created now host a mosaic of habitats, including tidal mudflats, emergent fresh marsh and woody vegetation. It has provided estuary habitat for larval marine fisheries, freshwater fish, a variety of migratory and resident birds, nesting habitat for alligators and habitat for terrestrial mammals such as white-tailed deer and rabbit.

The newly created island is another benefit from the crevasses.

“The great thing is that this project not only benefits those nesting birds but also other species, including fish,’’ Carloss said. “Submerged aquatic vegetation and delta splays create great food for waterfowl but also provide ideal fishery habitat and therefore an enhanced food resource for fish eating birds like the nesting colonial seabirds. This in turn provides enhanced recreational opportunities for hunters, fishermen and bird watchers. It’s all interconnected.’’

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