The rain had stopped, but heavy black clouds hugged the sky to the south as we entered Lacassine Pool, part of Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge. We had driven on roads that criss-crossed the rice fields of southern Louisiana where dowitchers stood in the sodden fields with their heads bobbing up and down like miniature oil rigs.
Fishermen lined the banks of the canals on either side of the road, while egrets and heron stalked their prey nearby, seemingly unperturbed. As we drove slowly, mosquitoes danced on the car windows. Red-winged Blackbirds and Boat-tailed Grackles squawked and guarded their territories as they perched on the still brown cattails and reeds. Tree and Barn Swallows swooped in and out over the marshes. Black and Turkey Vultures wafted on the thermals.
Only 15 miles from the gulf coast, the refuge was established in 1937 to provide habitat for wintering waterfowl and preserve the vanishing marshes. It comprises 34,760 acres, including 16,000 set aside where hunting and fishing are not allowed. A road loops through this section of marshes, swamps and open water where we drove to observe nesting wading birds. We were the only ones in this part of the refuge.
“Look, a Nutria,” Barbara exclaimed. The beaver-sized rodent resembled a gopher as it chomped on marsh grasses. The Great Egret sharing the area seemed oblivious to its munching neighbor. Nutria, originally imported for fur farms, were later released in the marshes of southern Louisiana. They have caused extensive damage to the fragile ecosystem from over-grazing.
Mottled Ducks swam calmly through the reeds. Amongst the bobbing coots were numerous moorhens, their red beaks gleaming as though they had been recently painted. “Stop the car,” I told Barbara, “and back up slightly, I think there is a gallinule in the bushes.” Sure enough, the purplish and green feathers and yellow legs of this colorful waterfowl stood out against the undergrowth.
My target birds were White Ibis and Roseate Spoonbill. I had seen both briefly in Mexico, but could not count them on my North American bird list. In a cluster of wading birds were all three Ibis – Glossy, White-faced and the White. Standing on its bright red legs, it jabbed its red beak into the mud to extract crustaceans. While we watched several more flew in and we could see their black wing-tips with each graceful wing beat.
“Look beyond them and past the bushes,” Barbara pointed. Sure enough, I could see the pink feathers of a Roseate Spoonbill. It swings its long spatula-like bill back and forth as it sieves through the water. I would see some later at the High Island rookery where I could clearly observe the bright and lighter pink feathers, along with the orange feathers of breeding plumage.
As the clouds cleared in the west and the sun dropped low on the horizon, the area was bathed in a golden hue. We headed out of the refuge towards Lake Charles. Suddenly an owl that had been perched on a power pole flew up and out over the fields. “I think that is your owl,” I yelled. Barbara who has 531 birds on her North American list was hoping to see a Short-eared Owl. There was no one else on the road, so we backed up and found a spot to stake it out, hoping it would fly over the fields again. After half an hour, we gave up and headed through the dusk back to the freeway to find a motel for the night. It had been a wonderful start to our birding adventure.