Dredging in some of the nearby bayous, plus flood control measures and stream alterations to improve navigation on the Mississippi River, have changed the natural water flow. Fragmentation of the woods and wetlands on Cypress Island disrupts the ability of native birds to breed successfully and threaten their survival.
The bird-watchers were there, same as every year. So what happened to the birds?
But in the spring of 2006, something ruffled their feathers. Thousands of nesting pairs suddenly flew away, abandoning eggs they had already laid, never to be hatched. Though trespassing is prohibited in the rookery’s waters during nesting season, from February 1 through July 31, rangers speculate boat traffic commotion may have been what scared off the birds in 2006. The Nature Conservancy has installed cameras to monitor the area and cordoned off the rookery during nesting season with thick metal cables.
Ornithologists let out a sigh of relief in 2007, then, when breeding season proceeded as normal. They were all back again—the white ibis, the American anhingas, the black crowned night herons, the great egrets, the cormorants, the roseate spoonbills, the little blue and the great blue herons. And beginning in the spring of 2009, bird-watchers should have a new board-walk walking trail and 20-foot (6m) viewing tower hidden among the cypress trees, so they can get an even closer glimpse of them without disturbing the nesting areas. (Formerly bird-watchers had to watch from the road and nearby shore.)
The preserve covers 9,500 acres (3,845 hectares), 2,800 acres (1,113 hectares) of which covers Lake Martin, a picturesque cypress-tupelo swamp hung with curtains of trailing Spanish moss. A levee has been built here to ensure that water levels stay high enough to support wildlife and recreation (it’s a very popular fishing lake). The rest is bottomland hardwood forest and live-oak forest, where songbirds like vireos and thrushes can be heard.
Lake Martin also has its share of alligators, up to 1,800 individuals, some as big as 10 feet (3m) long—in fact, it may be the best spot in Louisiana to see big alligators. They’re so prevalent, the 2.5-mile (4km) walking trail along the top of the levee is closed during alligator nesting season, June to October. The alligators lurk right around where the birds build their nests, hoping to snap up a drowned chick or two. But they actually improve matters for the birds, scaring off raccoons and beavers and opossums that might otherwise raid the nests. Whatever happened in 2006, you can’t blame the gators.