Monday, February 3, 2014

The Wren Sings On and Whooping Cranes Return to Make Music in the Louisiana Marsh

Singing wren by Burg Ransom
At my house in all seasons and weathers, the male Carolina wren sings.  His faithful singing inspires me.  I recently met some folks, who never stop singing their song they call the “gospel of crane.”  This is a song about bringing the rare, elegant whooping cranes back to the Louisiana landscape after they had been gone for 60 years.  The last one of Louisiana’s wild whooping cranes departed in a helicopter headed to Texas for relocation at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in March of 1950.  This story holds another song by deceased U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist John J. Lynch and his daughter, Mary Lynch Courville, who continues to sing her father’s song.   (I will write more about this remarkable lady and her history with whooping cranes in another blog).

In December of 2013 ten juvenile whooping cranes, draped in their intermingled rust-colored and white feathers, arrived at their new home  in the Louisiana wetlands at the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area (WLWCA) located in Vermillion Parish.  These cranes joined the ranks of the 33 surviving cranes from previous introductions by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF).  The first group of 10 young whooping cranes arrived in Louisiana on February 11, 2011.

In January I had the privilege of riding through the canals of the marsh to the impoundment at WLWCA, where the cranes are released, to see the results of years of work by many passionate conservationists.  Under a clear, blue winter sky with the wind whispering in the tall, feathery marsh grasses the omnivorous, young whooping cranes strolled through the marsh searching for Louisiana delicacies like crawfish, frogs, and snakes.  A lone, adult male from a previous release chaperoned the youngsters.  According to Sara Zimorski, the whooping crane biologist with LDWF, she will supplement their diet to keep them close to the impoundment, where they can forage in a fenced enclosure, for another two weeks and then they will be on their own.  Sara monitors and tracks the cranes with two kinds of radio transmitters attached to their legs.  They seem to be adapting well to the Louisiana rice/crawfish fields, she said.
Young whooping cranes in fenced enclosure by Amy Ouchley
January 31, 2014
the tall one is a decoy

The behavioral biology of whooping cranes is complex and fascinating.  Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), Austrian pioneer in the field of animal behavior and world-famous for his studies on imprinting in ducks and geese, gives this definition of “imprinting.”  “Imprinting is a developmental process by which behavior becomes attached to a particular object.”  Biologists learned from other crane projects that whooping cranes could sexually imprint or become attached to humans or sandhill cranes at an early age if they were exposed to them during hatching and rearing.  This situation can seriously impair mating and the reproduction of viable whooping crane offspring.

Zimorski says this.  “Whooping cranes are slow to reproduce.  Reproduction is where you hit the brick wall.  If you can’t get over it, then the project may not be successful.”  Reproductive age in whooping cranes is about 3 years old, and some of the Louisiana whooping cranes are now reaching that age.  Hopefully they will start reproducing more whooping cranes in the wild in the next few years.  The future of the Louisiana project depends on successful whooping crane reproduction in the wild.

It is important that all humans, who interact with whooping cranes, are dressed like a whooping crane and do not talk.  I will blog about “costume/isolation rearing” in the future.  Before we visited the crane area we learned that it was crucial that the young cranes did not see or hear us.  Two small fiberglass blinds on the levee provide a hidden viewing place about 75 yards from the cranes.

I can testify that a reverent silence prevailed among the group of Greater New Orleans Louisiana Master Naturalists, LDWF personnel, and educators, who visited the cranes this day.  As I stood in enthralled wonder inside a blind for a few minutes, the adult crane spread his huge, white wings and displayed the black tips and one of the young birds lifted up in a slow arc up into the blue sky.  As the lone crane flew with neck and legs outstretched over his cohorts, the whooping cranes sang out in high, ringing chortles to each other.  Time seemed to pause for me as I witnessed this miraculous event of a young whooping crane once again flying over the Louisiana marsh.

This morning hearing the wren’s song reminded me of the special moment that I heard whooping crane music in the Louisiana marsh.  Like the wren we must all be faithful to the singing of the songs that matter to us.  I want my grandchildren to hear the all of the songs of the natural world especially that of whooping cranes in Louisiana.  My newest tune is “gospel of crane.”

There is a lot more to learn about this fascinating project to reintroduce whooping cranes to the wilds of Louisiana.  For more information visit the LDWF’s website: 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Anything is Possible in 2014

Anole in Decomposing Tree

New Year’s Day – 2014

Now this is the way to start the year.  A 12 year old boy named John from New York City emailed me and wanted to interview me about Swamper, the swamp rabbit, and the bottomland hardwood ecosystem at Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge (BBLNWR).  He was visiting his grandmother in Monroe.  Thanks to the librarians of Ouachita Parish Library John had discovered “Swamper, Letters from a Louisiana Swamp Rabbit”, purchased the book at the BBLNWR gift shop, and read the book.  My friend Ann Smith, vice president of Friends of Black Bayou, directed him to me.  So I met John and his mother, Stacy, at the refuge this morning and we hiked and talked for 3 hours.  My encounter with this intelligent, curious boy, who lives across the street from Central Park in NYC and wanted to know everything about swamp rabbits and the swamp, was amazing.

John was preparing a science project for 6th grade science class and had prepared 10 questions for me. These were not the questions that I normally hear from this level student.  For example here are a few of his questions:  “What effect do natural disasters have on animals in this ecosystem?  What are the top level consumers here?  How do invasive species alter ecosystems?  What is Swamper’s role here?  Do you have distinct seasonal changes here at BBLNWR?”

When I meet someone who wants to look closely at a rotting log and then spies an anole tentatively poking his head out to catch some sun, observes small details like a dead beetle swaying in a web of spider silk, wants to learn how to “phish” up Carolina wrens and take their picture, and studies coots swimming in the lake to see what they are eating; my excitement and enthusiasm are barely contained.

It was a glorious day.  The blue sky was filled with drifting marshmallow clouds and the sun warmed our backs.  There were hundreds of coots making their quirky little noises and performing aquatic stunts in the lake.  The sapsuckers made an appearance after we had studied their precise lines of sap holes in the trees.  We examined the variety of lichens adorning the trees and I said, “it’s a symbiotic relationship between two kingdoms – Fungi and Plantae.”  John said, “Yes, it’s mutualism.”
We visited the cane patch and I showed John the wildlife trails in it and how the swamp rabbit bites the cane off at a 45 degree angle.  He soaked up everything I shared with him and could not wait to get back to NYC to tell his teacher and fellow students about this ecosystem.  This was a day to remember.  Swamper goes to NYC!  Anything is possible in 2014!

                                              John and Amy at Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Friday, June 7, 2013

Bioblitz #4: The Perfect Use of Technology

Swamp Rabbit Habitat - The Bottomland Hardwood Forest
by Amy Ouchley

I learned so much at Bioblitz at Jean LaFitte National Historical Park and Preserve in May, but one of my most valuable insights was to see how environmentally conscious people are using technology.  I shared my great experience with meeting one of the creators of Project Noah in Bioblitz #3.  Now I want to share two more wonderful online resources.

Inside the National Geographic tent I met another innovative environmental educator.  Her name is Marie Studer and she is the Learning and Education Director at Harvard University for an online resource called “Encyclopedia of Life” (  She gave me a quick overview of this resource and I think it is perfect for teachers. 

This comes from their flyer.  “The Encyclopedia of Life brings together information about all life on earth – text, images, video, sounds, maps, classifications and more – all freely available on-line. “

Of course when I got home I immediately went to the site, registered, and discovered that it was very easy to use.  There is a good tutorial at their home page.  I built my first collection and called it “Swamp Rabbit Habitat – The Bottomland Hardwood Forest.”  To build the collection all I had to do was type the name of an organism that I wanted in my collection and it would bring up the resources related to that organism, including text and photos.  I could add this information to my collection.  Now I can add more organisms to that collection or I can create a different collection.  I can see that this would be a good classroom tool for students to build collections of organisms around the school or anywhere else.

Next I used my collection to create a “Memory Game.”  I discovered that I had to register at this site also ( to access the tools.  According to Studer, I will be able to create Field Guides in July 2013.  I made my memory game public so if you want to play it, go to the site and register.

Another resource is called “The Great NATURE Project” and it is sponsored by National Geographic (NG) and will be September 21-29. NG invites you to share plants and animals from your world with the whole world.  Celebrate the amazing and diverse life on our planet and help NG achieve a Guinness World Records© title for the largest online photo album of animals.  Find out more and submit a photo at (  You can create a Great NATURE Project mission at Project Noah and you can start adding photos for this project now.  I have done this and you can follow me on the Project Noah site.

I hope you will visit these sites and find out how to use them to help document the biological diversity of our planet.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Bioblitz #3 - Project Noah

Me with Yasser Ansari, the creator of Project Noah at Bioblitz 2013

It happened like this.  Last Thursday night Kelby and I were eating crawfish at Bayou Barn in Crown Point at a Bioblitz gathering hosted by National Geographic.  Yes, that’s right.  National Geographic was feeding us crawfish.  A couple came to sit with us with plates of crawdads.  We looked up from our feeding frenzy long enough to notice they weren’t eating.  “Want us to show you how to do it?” we asked.  “Yes,” they said with a non-Louisiana accent.  We did.

I asked, “What do you do?”  The man said, “I create software to document wildlife sightings.”  I looked up and said off-the-cuff, “Do you know about Project Noah?”  The gorgeous girl, whose name was Ariana, said, “He created Project Noah.”  That halted my consumption.  The man sitting across from me had created one of the most phenomenal internet sites that I had ever come across and which I had joined last year.  His name is Yasser Ansari.
Project Noah is a site where you can post your pictures of any organism that you come across on a page called “My Noah.”  If you don’t know what it is, then someone will identify it.  People from all over the world are continually posting pictures and you can get updates on Facebook.  That’s not all.  You earn badges for your efforts.  For example I have earned four badges:  Tadpole, Earth Week 2012, Deep Roots, and Keep it Steady.  You can also join a variety of missions.

Project Noah also has an easy-to-use application for educators.  Here are the three steps: 
1.       Join www. Project

2.       Register as a teacher and access the education tools

3.       Set up your classroom and reconnect your students w/nature
Now your students can take pictures of what they see and post it on the site.  Think of the excitement generated as they see their collections grow. 
Later when I talked to Yasser in the National Geographic tent at Jean Lafitte National and Historical Park and Preserve, he told me about the challenges encountered to get Project Noah started.  “There were many people, who said it wouldn’t work,” he said.  Yasser is enthusiastic about the impact of using technology in such a positive way to help connect people with nature.  His enthusiasm is infectious.
If you are a nature observer who takes picture, check out  It will broaden your horizons and it’s fun.

          Nature waits for you.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Bioblitz #2 - Experiential Learning in the Swamp

The Calm before the Storm
USDA Entomologist Joe Ballenger in light blue shirt on left
At first it seemed chaotic. There were dozens of volunteer science experts in yellow shirts milling around and collecting gear intermingled with National Park rangers and National Geographic employees, who were doing their best to orient and direct us.  Meanwhile at the gate of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve busload after busload of students of all ages were arriving and heading toward us.  I thought to myself, “This is really going to happen.  I am going out in the swamp with inner city third graders to do a biodiversity survey and collect data.”  I was  not at all sure how it was going to work?????
Fortunately I paired up with an expert, a young entomologist with the USDA by the name of Joe Ballenger.  I found out three things about Joe right away (while we were gathering our collecting nets):  first he is passionate about insects and started looking for them immediately, second his knowledge about insects is vast and he likes to share it, and third and most importantly he had done this before.    I have led many nature hikes with all kinds of students, but never had I been directed to collect, identify, and count macroinvertebrates with third graders many of whom had never been in the swamp much less identified a macroinvertebrate.  I was grateful to be with Joe.
We headed down a muddy trail called the Plantation trail to Plot #12.  Plots were assigned to each group and we and the students were to survey in a 20 foot radius in our plot.  Here are the four collection methods we used:
1.       Look up!  Use aerial nets and wave over the tops of flowers and other plants.
2.       Look down!  Get on your hands and knees for leaf litter sorting.  Watch for poison ivy.
3.       Log busting!  Carefully break open a log and look for invertebrates in the rotten wood.  This was very productive.  We were careful to turn logs back over and put the bark back on to protect the habitat of the critters.
4.       Look all around!  Use sweep nets and beating sheets.
Here are 2 pages of our data collection sheets:
A Page from my Bioblitz Field Notebook

As you can see we had to identify what we collected to Family, which was fairly easy for me with Joe's help.
Amazingly these third graders embraced the activity wholeheartedly.  I kept saying, "We are National Geographic explorers.  We are doing real science."  The teachers had prepared them and they felt as if they were making a real contribution to science.  They waved nets, got down and dug in leaf litter, helped me bust logs and remove bark, and asked many questions.  "Look at this!  What's this?  Come see what I found!"  They picked up caterpillars, bessbug larvae, and looked at spiders.  They were hot and sweaty, but they experienced field biology on this day.

Joe at work teaching about a longhorn beetle
I think this day was a great day for kids in nature.  Many of these students had never visited the swamp or touched a caterpillar and who knows what kind of difference it will make for them in the long run.  It was a privilege to be  a part of this phenomenal event in Louisiana.
Amy in palmettos with third graders

Here is our own Allyn Rodriguez, National Park Service environmental educator, Louisiana Environmental Education Association Newsletter writer, and Bioblitz organizer extraordinaire.

Congratulations, Allyn, for an outstanding Bioblitz!

Quote from Joe:  "What's the use of being a scientist if you can't inspire the next generation to be scientist."
Amen & Amen

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Bioblitz #1

Bioblitz Gator

A major biological inventory and biodiversity festival will occur on May 17-18, 2013 at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.  The event termed “Bioblitz” combines the efforts of National Geographic and the National Park Service.  The two-day celebration of biodiversity centers on a 24-hour discovery of species.  Teams of scientists, students, and the general public will explore the park’s Barataria Preserve swamps, marshes, and forests to find as many species as possible.
According to their literature the goals of the Bioblitz are as follows:
·         Discover, count, map, and learn about the living creatures in the park including insects, fish, alligators, plants, microorganisms, and more.
·         Provide scientists and public an opportunity to do field work together.
·         Add to the park’s official species list.
·         Highlight the importance of protecting the biodiversity of this extraordinary national park located in and around New Orleans.
To learn more and see how you can participate, visit and
Children aged 8 and older accompanied by adults may participate in inventories, and younger kids can enjoy hands-on fun at the Biodiversity Festival at the Barataria Preseve.  All Bioblitz and festival parking will be at Bayou Segnette State Park (7777 Westbank Expressway, Westwego, LA).  Everyone going to Bioblitz will receive free park admission, free parking and free round-trip shuttle service to the preserve.  Handicapped-accessible shuttles will be available.
The free Biodiversity Festival will feature music, science demonstrations, hands-on activities provided by prominent science and environmental organizations, food and art.  The festival will take place from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.  “Explorers” of all ages can enjoy the festival, watch scientists at work and “graduate” from Biodiversity University by participating in activities.  No registration is required for the festival.
I will be there reading letters from “Swamper, Letters from a Louisiana Swamp Rabbit”, helping kids make a nature journal, and observing the fantastic south Louisiana ecosystem.
Look for some wonderful resources at
                                                           Nature waits for you. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013


Web of Light by Tammy Slocum

Nature is light.  Light is nature.  The two are inseparable.  When I saw the picture of this glowing spider web, it reminded me of something I had learned about light from educator Kathy Holt at Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Livingston, Louisiana.  I had gone down on a Math Science Partnership field experience with a group of teachers from north Louisiana.  Kathy was using bubbles to teach us about light waves and had asked us, “What causes the colors of a bubble?”  Now this was something I had never thought about and it’s great when someone pushes your brain in a new direction.

Kathy said that light waves, like ocean waves, have peaks and valleys (crest and troughs).  Red light has the longest wavelength and violet the shortest.  Remember “ROY G BIV” or the sequence of colors in the rainbow.

“All waves, including light, have a curious property:  If two waves combine, the waves can meet each other crest-to-crest, adding up and reinforcing the effect of each other, or they can meet crest-to-trough, canceling each other out so that they have no effect.  When they meet crest-to-trough, for every ‘up’ vibration in one wave, there is a corresponding ‘down’ vibration in the other wave.  This combination of equal ups and downs causes complete cancellation or interference.  Interference is responsible for the pearly luster of an abalone shell, the beautiful colors in some bird feathers and insect wings, and the flowing patches of color in an oil slick – and for the color of bubbles.”

So when I saw the picture of the spider web, I knew that interference was the cause of the colors emanating from the web.  It’s fun to merge two sciences like life science and physical science in your nature observation.  Thanks, Kathy!  I remembered!
                                                                       Nature waits for you.