Herp Success!

photos & report by Charles Paxton

The Earth Day morning walk at Black Bayou Lake NWR went very well despite being a bit windy on the lake. We saw a nice lot of herps!

About 35 hikers came out. We were interviewed by a KNOE journalist. BBLNWR volunteer Jim opened up the education center and showed off the Louisiana Pine Snakes and the ‘gator, turtles and an unusual Corn Snake native to north Louisiana and southern Arkansas. Professor Emeritus John Carr of ULM was a massive help.

Leopard Frog (Lithobates sphenocephalus) and an egg mass in the lower left.

The Scouts were delightfully perky and sparky, full of questions and observations. Amy Ouchley kindly read out a special Earth Day letter from Swamper* to us and we all loved it!

Among us we saw at least 2 sliders (turtles), 2 bronze frogs, 8 broadbanded watersnakes, multiple skinks and anoles, a leopard frog, a cricket frog, a rough green snake and a cottonmouth viper.  Kimmie Paxton saw and photographed mating prothonotary warblers. Her pictures are amazing!!

Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus)

We heard bullfrogs, bronze frogs, leopard frogs and green treefrogs. We weren’t bothered by mosquitos.  I shot stills and videos of the herps. Some of my shots are ‘my bests’ too: bronze frog and rough green snake. The conditions were excellent!

All in all, it was a great trip!

The Mollicy Unit

“Did you say 19,000 acres?”

I had to interrupt Kelby Ouchley to confirm the number. Having been raised in Iowa where farming is huge, I had never heard of a 19,000 acre field. Preposterous! But that’s not the only preposterous fact in the story of the Mollicy Unit.

Here it is, as told to LMN-NE and guests by Kelby and Keith Ouchley, architects of the largest restoration project of its kind in the U.S.

Standing on a levee fragment, Keith Ouchley explains the levee breach and some of the geologic and hydrologic aspects of restoring the flood plain to its natural purpose without further negatively affecting the Ouachita River.

Beginning in 1969, some folks bitten by the soybean craze with BIG dollar signs in their eyes began investing millions and millions in converting a 3×12 mile floodplain (aka swamp) of the Ouachita River into a 19,000 acre field. They built miles and miles of levee to keep out the river, thereby creating a huge basin that filled with water every heavy rain. So they built massive pumps to pump the water–now full of soil and agricultural chemicals–back into the Ouachita River, creating a sediment plume that extended downriver for miles.

Of course, they had begun by bulldozing thousands of trees–bottomland hardwoods–into huge windrows and burning them. And they scraped the entire 19,000 acres as flat as they could, destroying all of the natural plumbing–streams, bayous, sloughs–by moving dirt.

It didn’t work. It was a waste of money and natural resources, especially trees, that killed a prodigious amount of wildlife, polluted the river for years, and threatened everyone downstream–especially Monroe, La., our home–with much greater potential for flooding due to the loss of the floodplain. Preposterous.

Then along came the Ouchley brothers. Kelby was a refuge manager for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Keith was director of the Louisiana Nature Conservancy. They formed an unstoppable partnership. Twenty years later, all 19,000 acres form the Mollicy Unit of the Upper Ouachita National Wildlife Refuge.

Kelby Ouchley explains that, in Louisiana, one foot of elevation makes a difference in which native trees species were planted in this, the first section of the Mollicy Unit to be reforested.

We stood on this day in 2021 in the shade of bottomland hardwoods–nuttall oak, green ash, and more–that were among the first planted when the restoration effort began. We also visited an observation tower near the north end of the project, from which we could see the Ouachita River meandering by a few miles to the west. Between us and the river, the restored floodplain is dotted with saplings that will survive and thrive with the river’s annual and natural temporary incursions.

The west bank of the Ouachita River is visible from the observation tower near the east edge of the Mollicy Unit. The area between the tower and the river is flood plain, reforested and dotted again with sloughs that hold water between seasonal floodings.

We stood on a remnant of the levee system and learned about the lengthy planning and careful process of opening five strategically placed half-mile wide breaches that allow the river and the floodplain to give life to each other as they are intended to do.

But this story would not be complete without mentioning that after the restoration process had begun, the river and its floodplain did not wait patiently for human minds and hands to complete the work. In 2009, the Ouachita River was seriously threatening Monroe when it began to overtop the 30-foot Mollicy levee. That night, the river blew a 100-foot hole in the levee and reclaimed its floodplain, putting a halt to reforestation for a time. In Monroe, the river level fell 6 inches in 24 hours.

Today, the work continues. The natural plumbing of the area is being restored to the extent possible. Mollicy Bayou was one of those natural features completely filled in and leveled off by the bulldozers. Now it flows again, from the east side of the unit all the way into the Ouachita River on the west, using the exact same footprint, including meanderings and bank slopes, that it had before its desecration.

Mollicy Bayou today, following intense study of its footprint as revealed in aerial photos before it was bulldozed.

Wildlife is returning. We saw tracks and scat. The skilled birder in our ranks recorded 26 birds of 11 species, among them 2 bald eagles. Creation has an amazing capacity for healing when humans stop abusing and offer instead a helping hand.

Who would have thought such a reversal possible? Preposterous.

The Mollicy Unit and the Upper Ouachita NWR are a few miles due north of Monroe and they extend northward to within a few miles of the Arkansas border. The Mollicy Unit is to the east of the Ouachita River, while the bulk of the UONWR lies to the west of the river.

Now is a good time to visit. It is dry, but it will flood again–exactly as it is intended to do. Please be a gracious visitor. Go. Drink in the healing that is happening all around you. Take nothing but peace. Leave nothing but footprints.

La Birding Trails

The Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism has embarked upon the task of reviewing and updating all Louisiana Birding Trails. Amy Wise, Public Relations and Media Coordinator at the Monroe–West Monroe Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, contacted our Board Member & Treasurer Charles Paxton last week with information on how we can help.

What a terrific project! She can use our help in more than one way. Three Ouachita Parish sites have already been suggested to her: Black Bayou Lake NWR, Kiroli Park and Lazarre Park. Amy needs to know what birds can be seen at these locations and when.

I have mentioned to Amy the Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea) at Black Bayou Lake and at some point will send her this, my best photo ever of a PW.

In addition, if you know of additional sites she should consider, she would be pleased to hear from you. Of course, sites with public access are best, as the state will put birding trail information online so that people can access it and walk the trails on their own.

The list of information needed to propose a site is a bit daunting, but Amy emphasizes that if we don’t know it all, we should still send her what we can and she will do some research to try to fill in blanks. Charles sent a letter to our current members last week detailing the information needed, but again, please do not hesitate to send information to Amy because you can’t answer every question.

We, collectively or individually, can also propose a site. The state has set up a website specifically for this purpose. Amy is most interested in Ouachita Parish because she works for the Convention & Visitors Bureau. We can propose sites anywhere. Of course, we know the Gulf Coast is hot birding territory, but wouldn’t it be terrific to draw birders to northeast Louisiana?

I personally intend to check out Lazarre Park. I’m also wondering about Chemin a Haut way up in the northeast corner of the state. Is it good for birding? And how about Chenault Park in the southeast corner of Monroe? Poverty Point, both the reservoir and the heritage site? And I’m wondering if the Molicy Unit should also be proposed, although we all know access can be tricky.

You can contact Amy via email <awise@monroe-westmonroe.org> or by telephone: 318.387.5691. If you want to get started on your own proposed trail, here’s a link to the website: Louisiana Birding Trails Update.

Happy birding, all!

It was fun, really!

I was sweating so profusely that I couldn’t keep my glasses on my face. But it wasn’t a problem. The privet I was pulling out of the sandbar was easy to distinguish from the native ferns also growing there.

And there was something deeply gratifying–even fun–about whacking invasive plants!

Carey King, one of Saturday’s work crew, stands on a sandbar in Tunica Hills WMA with a loess bluff behind him. Photo by Amber King.

The work day I participated in this past Saturday was organized by Dan Strecker as a project of the Louisiana Native Plant Society, Capital Area chapter. The target of his project and the place we put in our sweat equity Saturday is Tunica Hills WMA, a place that stands out in my mind as one of our most beautiful WMAs.

Dan is also a Master Naturalist and began his work in habitat restoration a few years ago with the Greater Baton Rouge chapter of Louisiana Master Naturalists. The project he started for LMNGBR is now run by Karen Pinsonat, the statewide winner of our recent Rendezvous 2021 Scavenger Hunt.

Tunica Hills is extraordinary in my eyes because of its ridges and deep ravines, many of them featuring a stream at the bottom. The sandbar I worked Saturday was at the bottom of a ravine on Trail A. The stream was dry on this day, but the sandbar was well-shaded. In addition to pulling privet, I cut trifoliate orange–several big clumps of it–with a big lopper, then Dan came along with his spray bottle and treated the cut stems with a chemical that will kill the roots.

Two reasons I find Tunica Hills special: It’s the only place I’ve ever photographed Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) and this particular species of Trillium (Trillium foetidissimum). (Photos by BJK from 2019.)

People who know me best might be surprised to learn that I took not a single photo! I was too focused on the work and throwing all my energy into whacking invasives.

So… the Northeast chapter of Louisiana Master Naturalists Board of Directors met on zoom yesterday evening and we will organize to do something like this in our corner of the state. The places I know of that all have invasive species issues include Camp Hardtner (near Pollock), Kiroli Park and Restoration Park in West Monroe, and Black Bayou Lake NWR.

Of course, there are protocols for removing invasive species properly and safely. We will learn them and follow them. If you’re interested in joining this good work, let us know. It’s cathartic!

Worth the Wait!

So today turned out to be the perfect day for the Trillium Walk! Sometimes frustrating delays are for the better.

In fact, the trillium have also been delayed by the weather. We found lots of them, but the plants are still small and most had not yet formed a flower bud. Nevertheless, we found a few open flowers to appreciate. I’d say two weeks from today would be a perfect day to go back to see lots of flowers!

This trillium grew right next to the sunny side of a tree, so it came through the cold weather relatively unscathed.

Cranefly orchid leaves were also in abundance. I marked about 5 spots and didn’t even find some of the spots I have seen previous years. The leaves are easy to identify, but by the time they bloom in August, the leaves are gone and flower spikes are slender and pale. Hunter orange trail tape hanging nearby is a big help finding them!

A duskywing for sure, but E. juvenalis or E. horatius?

Other highlights of the day include my first butterfly of the season, a duskywing of the Erynnis genus. I assumed it was a Horace’s, but iNat prefers E. juvenalis, so I posted it at the genus level. We’ll see what the experts say.

A barge makes a sharp turn on the bend in the Ouachita River below the Courtman Overlook on the ridge that runs the length of the Charles Allen Nature Preserve.

Near the end of our hike, we paused at the Courtman Overlook to admire the view and rest for a minute before heading back to our vehicles. Suddenly someone noticed a barge coming down the river–a very large barge coming down the river. The Ouachita River makes a sharp bend right at the overlook. We watched in amazement as the captain maneuvered the barge, turning it in a much shorter distance than you would think possible in order to stay in the channel, which runs close to the opposite bank. I should have video taped it!

Finally, a shout out to the town of Columbia, which owns this wonderful Preserve and wants people to come enjoy it and learn. They gave us a great welcome.