(03/16/23) BATON ROUGE, La. — There may be more happening in the Louisiana wetland ecosystem than can be seen or heard. Some of the most reclusive groups of birds in the marsh, known collectively as secretive marsh birds, may help inform how Louisiana's coast is rebuilt.
These elusive and cryptic birds stay concealed among the tall grasses and reeds along Louisiana's coastlines. These wetland birds are rarely spotted out in the open and, unlike songbirds, infrequently call.
Leah Moran and Aylett Lipford, graduate students in the LSU School of Renewable Natural Resources, are leading data collection in the field by conducting callback surveys at hundreds of points along Louisiana's coast.
They are studying five different species of marsh birds: the king rail, clapper rail, least bittern, common gallinule and the vibrant purple gallinule.
"The numbers that we get from these surveys will help the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries and national wildlife refuges to better manage and conserve these birds when a natural disaster happens or a manmade disaster, like an oil spill, occurs. Managers can see if these birds have been impacted or not," Moran said.
As one might predict, a bird that does not want to be seen or heard can be difficult to study, but knowing the population estimates of marsh birds may be informative for coastal restoration efforts.
Moran and Aylett, along with six additional technicians, split into pairs to visit locations spread throughout the southeastern coast of Louisiana.
Equipped with a GPS tracker, clipboard and a speaker, team members travel to a specific point in the marsh and play the call for each marsh bird. Once set up on a site, they passively listen for five minutes. Then they play each bird's call from the speaker and listen for a callback.
They note any calls they hear from the birds within a hundred-meter (about 109 yards) radius and track their proximity to the researcher. Researchers carefully listen to discern if the bird has changed locations or if a new bird is responding to the call.
"It's a fun experience. Sometimes there's gators bellowing or frogs, there's birds everywhere, not just marsh birds, but pelicans, gulls, terns and otters," Moran said. "You get to see all of it, and it's really cool. A lot of people don't see those areas unless they're crabbers or fishermen."
In the spring, the team begins collecting data from the callbacks, moving to a different location on Louisiana's coastline each week.
"We rent hunting and fishing lodges, or we stay at a research station, and we move every week," Moran said. "We'll wake up at three or four o'clock in the morning so we can start surveys 30 minutes before the sun rises. Sometimes our boat rides are five minutes and sometimes they are 45 minutes."
In just a few years, Moran and Lipford have seen a dramatic change in the landscape along the coast. After Hurricane Ida in 2021, vegetation was flooded out, and the marsh was broken up permanently.
One of the team's research points was lost. Lipford was shocked to return to the point in the spring and find open water where grasses and birds used to exist.
"I didn't really think even in three years I would see a huge change in the marsh, but after the storm, it wasn't there anymore. It was completely gone," Lipford said. "Going into a lot of the areas right after the storm was really sad because we had just spent a year out there. It wasn't just sad seeing the marsh. All the towns were destroyed, and some of the housing that we stayed at was also destroyed."
During the months that the team is collecting data, they are completely immersed in coastal communities.
"We have met a lot of neighbors and landowners and generations of families that live there. We've met commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen and everyone out there loves the marsh, and they love birds," Moran said. "They have a plethora of information as well. They can tell you firsthand how they've seen the marsh disappear because they're out there every day, and some of them have been out there every day for 30-plus years."
These coastal residents have helped Moran navigate the marsh and have even helped her with locating birds.
"I was having a hard time finding my purple gallinules and I told our airboat operator that. He said I know exactly where they are; I see them every day. And sure enough, we went there, and I caught five purple gallinules in one night," Moran said. "They may know them by a different name, but you describe them, and they'll tell you they've heard them out there all the time."
Moran, originally from Tennessee, explains that she wanted to pursue her doctorate at LSU because of the opportunities for coastal research in Louisiana and ongoing research in wetland ecology being conducted at LSU.
"The reason I really wanted to come to LSU is to study coastal marshes and wetlands. There's really no better place to do it than in Louisiana. We're losing marshes at a pretty staggering rate, so it's integral that we really see what we're losing, why we're losing it, and how we can save it," she said. "I think it's an honor to be a part of that in any small capacity, and I think it's important for future generations to do that."
Leah Moran, left, records details on the marsh during each site visit, noting vegetation, cloud coverage and noise in the area. As the callback survey begins, she will record the species of birds that respond and their locations. Photo by Annabelle Lang/LSU College of Agriculture
Leah Moran and Aylett Lipford, graduate students in the LSU School of Renewable Natural Resources, tag a purple gallinule with a GPS tracker to monitor its movement. Photo provided by Aylett Lipford.
Leah Morgan bogs through water chest-high at one of the marsh sites. Photo provided by Leah Moran.