“The birds are real, real thick in here this year,” says Bryan Champagne, the owner and one of three tour guides at Champagne’s Cajun Swamp Tours at Lake Martin, a roughly 2,000-acre swampland between Lafayette and Breaux Bridge.
Champagne, 49, has been guiding tours on Lake Martin for 16 years. The Breaux Bridge native said his business takes up to 50 people a day, sometimes more during the spring when the local festival season coincides with the nesting season.
“The birds start nesting mid-January,” he says. “They’ll nest probably until the end of August. The best time to see them, I would say, is February, March, April and May because it’s warming up. When you get to the summer, it gets so hot that the wildlife don’t like to move too much. You have to come out in the early morning or late afternoon.”
A protected rookery makes up the southernmost third of Lake Martin. It attracts more than 20,000 nesting pairs of herons, egrets, ibises, spoonbills and anhingas annually, according to Judith O’Neale, a Lafayette birder and treasurer of the Louisiana Ornithological Society.
On the cool, sunny Saturday, birdwatchers were queued along the gravel road that traverses the eastern edge of the lake. A row of tripods, spotting scopes and telephoto-lensed cameras made the water’s edge look more like an NFL sideline.
“I’m watching a roseate spoonbill,” says Joseph Welch, a 67-year-old who’s been birding since 1988.
The roseate spoonbill is a tall, stunning wader. Sometimes referred to as the Cajun flamingo, the spoonbill’s plumage is reddish-pink at its wings and tail, fading to a white torso and head. The pigment comes from the bird’s diet of crustaceans, Welch says, which it picks from the water with a shoehorn beak.
Although Welch prefers to bird on the stability of land, more adventurous avian oglers sometimes take to the water, seeking to get closer to their quarry.
“It allows you to get a different perspective of the birds and the nests that are not visible from the land,” explains O’Neale, 78, who has been birding for 44 years. “It shows you a different environment in relation to all the flora and fauna that survive in the water.”
LIVING ON THE WATER
Guy LeBlanc has been a guide for Champagne’s Cajun Swamp Tours since 2008. With the forearms of Popeye, and a taciturn confidence reminiscent of Charles Bronson, LeBlanc captains a tour that was both tranquil and informative.
“I did all my living on the water in the Atchafalaya Basin toward Morgan City and New Orleans,” the former professional bass fisherman says. “That’s how I know so much about all the plants and the birds and all that.”
LeBlanc’s tour leaves the dock at Champagne’s and heads due south toward the rookery. As the skiff meanders among the lake’s hardwoods, the engine barely hums above an idle.
“Look to the front right in that big clump of grass over there. That’s called the black-bellied whistling duck,” LeBlanc points out just before a pair goes airborne. “The black-bellied whistling duck and the wood duck are the only two ducks that can land in a tree and make their nest in a tree. All the other ducks have to land on the water and they make their nests in the vegetation. I don’t see no ’gators, yet, but I see a black-crowned night heron off on the left.” LeBlanc edges the boat closer to the stocky, blue-gray, much shorter relative of the stunning great blue herons that abound Lake Martin.
LeBlanc later has no trouble locating the lake’s alligators. More than 20 of them, ranging from 2-foot babies to 12-foot leviathans, were spotted during the two-hour tour. Although the alligators dine on the occasional bird, LeBlanc says they actually help protect the population by keeping egg-snatching predators like snakes and raccoons at bay.
“I was surprised by how many alligators we saw!” says Cynthia Weber, a 62-year-old Texan. “I’ve taken a tour in the Atchafalaya Swamp and only saw two or three.”
The Atchafalaya Swamp, located between Lafayette and Baton Rouge, is the largest swamp in the U.S. and the setting for History Channel’s “Swamp People.” Known by locals as “the Basin,” it is a nationally renowned wildlife refuge, but its 1.4 million acres make it a challenge to navigate.
“Lake Martin has most everything the Atchafalaya Swamp has as far as birdlife. It’s just smaller,” says Stacey Scarce, the curator of natural science at Lafayette’s Acadiana Park Nature
“The Basin’s just a lot more open water,” LeBlanc says. “Over here, it’s so small, it’s just confined. Over there, everything is scattered. You can go days without seeing nobody. Just don’t get lost!”
With 29 rookeries, the wooded wetlands of the Atchafalaya Basin serve as a refuge for more than 300 discrete bird species, including the endangered peregrine falcon, Bachman’s warbler and ivory-billed woodpecker, according to the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper’s website.
“There are more birds now than ever,” says Ernest Couret, a third-generation guide in the Basin for more than 24 years. “They come up from South America, like cormorants, spoonbills, wood storks, kingfishers – the list goes on and on. Bald eagles from the Great Lakes. Between here and Stevensville, there’s about 105 (bald eagle) nesting sites.”
QUICK TO THE RIGHT
Couret’s tour entered the immense swamp directly beneath Interstate 10’s 18.2-mile Atchafalaya Basin Bridge, near the tiny town of Butte la Rose. After cruising down the main canals for about 15 minutes, Couret steers the 14-foot aluminum, flat-bottomed skiff into a narrow channel. Like a teenage boy driving through town on a Friday night, the captain points out wildlife as the boat motors through the swamp.
“Y’all look quick to your right, way above that big log there!” Couret shouts over the revving of the boat’s 25-horsepower motor. “That’s an osprey!”
Couret explains that the Basin occupies prime real estate amid the Mississippi Flyway, which is a main bird migration route along the Mississippi River. Devoid of mountain ranges, it’s a popular path for transient fowl from as far north as the Arctic and as far south as Argentina.
“There’s a lake I can take you to in November, and in one afternoon, you might see close to 100 species,” he says.
But Couret withheld the location of his honey hole, citing competition among the increasing number of swamp tours in the area.
Couret, a lighthearted veteran who did three tours in Vietnam, recounts how his grandfather began an Atchafalaya hunting guide service out of his houseboat, until it was destroyed during the Great Flood of 1927. Couret’s father later guided fishing trips in the Basin, once leading Lorne Greene and Michael Landon from the television series “Bonanza.”
“My family,” he says, pausing for emphasis, “we’ve been at this a long time. Since 1890.”
“We didn’t know what to expect,” says Nora Hawkins, 31, from Kansas City, Mo., who took Couret’s tour. “We had seen the show ‘Swamp People,’ but it’s hard to tell what a place is like from a show.”
“I liked the quiet,” adds Hawkins’ 32-year-old husband, Anthony. “We hardly saw any other boats out there. I can imagine that if I lived around here, I’d own a boat.”
Having seen about 100 birds, four alligators and one water moccasin, visitors on Couret’s four-hour voyage returned to the landing, which was bustling with boat-towing pickups and the sounds of Interstate 10’s traffic overhead, an abrupt juxtaposition from the solitude of the Atchafalaya Swamp.
“The Atchafalaya is just so expansive that it was hard to see much wildlife,” says Sean Fowler, a 51-year-old Texan. “I know there’s a lot here because every time we stopped, I could hear them.”
Couret, though, seemed no less satisfied with the morning spent on the water.
“Heck with working for somebody!” he says. “You don’t get rich from doing this, but you sure get a lot of vitamin D.”