YELLOW RAILS & RICE FESTIVAL 2009
Could we pull this off? The inaugural festival was held during two consecutive weekends in 2009: 31 Oct-1 Nov based at the LSU Ag Center in Jennings; and 6-7 Nov, based in Thornwell at the Thornwell Warehouse Association. Harvesting Friday and Saturday of the first weekend was rained out - but nearly all participants who signed up were able to participate on an impromptu rain make-up Sunday.” The second weekend had wonderful weather. All participants were treated to views of Yellow Rails as well as about 150 other bird species recorded in the area during the festival. Success - on to a more formalized festival format...
YELLOW RAILS & RICE FESTIVAL 2010
The 2nd Yellow Rails and Rice Festival was held on 4-7 November 2010. It had online registration, socials, and morning and all-day field trips. On the opening Thursday it was windy! We didn’t get as early a start as planned because the fields were still wet from rain storms the previous two days. But, as soon as we got to the fields we started to see Yellow Rails flushed by the combine - one set of fields tallied over 100 Yellows during 5 hours of observation! Friday afforded absolutely beautiful weather- we could not have asked for better - another amazing day in the fields. Yellows still outnumbered other rail species with a minimum of 125. With participants from 23 states, our little festival really took off! Many festival participants opted for trips to the coast and pineywoods on Saturday after getting their fill of Yellow Rails. Despite combine mechanical problems, all of the participants on Saturday were still able to ride and see Yellow Rails - along with some other treats.
YELLOW RAILS & RICE FESTIVAL 2011
On the heals of successful second festival, the 3rd Annual Yellow Rails and Rice Festival was held on 26-30 October 2011, shifted one week earlier so that is did not overlap with the beginning of the Louisiana's Youth Waterfowl Hunt. Thursday morning started off foggy, so harvesting was delayed. Meanwhile we organized groups that departed to two different field harvest sites. No less than 100 Yellow Rails were observed although the field sites varied greatly in rail densities. A strong cold front moved through during the evening and into the morning - wet fields resulted in cancellation of Friday’s harvesting activities. In the first test of our newly devised weather contingency plan, we scrambled sending groups to bird locally or farther afield to the coast. With rail densities high at one site we returned to see if we could flush rails on foot from the field edge; we were successful in flushing one Yellow, much to the delight of a group visiting Louisiana for just that one day! Saturday’s weather was simply gorgeous and we were back to the fields. With the assistance of Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, we initiated bird (rail) banding at the festival, which was a huge hit and allowed participants to get up close and personal with the rails, including Yellows. After a slow start, we ended up counting at least 50 Yellow Rails.
YELLOW RAILS & RICE FESTIVAL 2012
The 4th Annual Yellow Rails and Rice Festival was held on 24-28 October 2012. New for 2012 were pre-festival tours to LSU Museum of Natural Science and White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area. Participants reported they enjoyed both of those offerings - for White Lake the weather was hot and balmy. Following our opening reception Thursday morning at the Grand Marais, we headed to the rice fields for our first try for Yellow Rails. Thursday’s weather was hot, humid, and uncomfortable. We split into two groups, and unlike previous years, neither field site yielded large numbers of Yellow Rails: 2 at one site, 8-10 at the other - an order of magnitude fewer than the previous two years! Thursday’s Field Day ended up an exercise in patience. Evening activities included the jambalaya supper, sunset tour, and reception in Jennings at the Tupper Museum. Friday morning trips were hampered by dense fog and wet the rice, which delayed harvest activities until the early afternoon. While waiting for the rice to dry, the day was on hold as a front approached. Once harvesting started, we focused our activities at one field site as the front was moving through and rain threatened; it drizzled a tiny bit, but not enough to interrupt harvest activities. The temps dropped during the afternoon - and it even got a bit chilly. Yellow Rail numbers remained low, but most participants saw birds flush either from the field or while on the combine. And, the banding group was able to catch a Yellow, so participants were able to see a Yellow Rail up close. Friday evening most participants opted to attend the YRARF Rice Gala at the Grand Marais. Saturday’s weather was brisk and breezy. All-day trips headed off early to the coast and pineywoods, and most other participants went back to the rail fields. Saturday was dusty, but at least a few more Yellow Rails made a showing. After a slow start, we ended up counting at least 50 Yellow Rails for the three days - way low compared to previous festival weekends. The festival concluded with the closing reception at the Zigler Museum.
YELLOW RAILS & RICE FESTIVAL 2013
The 5th Annual Yellow Rails and Rice Festival was held 23-27 October 2013. Participants, who traveled to Louisiana from far and wide for the opportunity to see a Yellow Rail, were not disappointed. And this year, the weather cooperated. Yellow Rail numbers were higher than compared to 2012, but still low compared to 2010 and 2011. Wednesday afternoon ‘Beat the Crowds’ group tallied about 10 to kick off Yellow Rail season. Thursday and Friday we estimated 20-25 each day, and Saturday about the same but there seemed to be rails flushing everywhere - and there were amazing numbers of Soras! All participants had one or more opportunities to ride onboard the massive rice harvester - for some, riding on a combine was just as exciting as viewing the elusive Yellow Rail. In addition to Yellow Rail, a cumulative total of about 200 species of birds were tallied over the course of the festival during rice harvesting/rail viewing activities and on the additional field trips. Field trips visited other Louisiana habitats, such as longleaf pineywoods and coastal habitats to search for regional specialties, which allows participants to maximize the diversity of birds encountered during their short visit. As in previous years, participants enjoyed Louisiana’s spectacular abundance and diversity of birds – many participants vowed to return next year and bring their friends. As in the past, participants also had the opportunity to meet with representatives of Louisiana’s ornithological, university, birding, conservation, agriculture, and tourism communities and enjoy Louisiana’s culture, cuisine, and hospitality. Including two post-festival tour groups, YRARF 2013 hosted 140 participants representing 27 US states and DC, plus Australia, Canada, and Peru. Taking into account our superb corps of dozens of volunteers, over 200 persons were involved in the 2013 event! This year’s invited guest was EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe, who also got to see Yellow Rails from aboard a combine.
YELLOW RAILS & RICE FESTIVAL 2014
The 6th Annual Yellow Rails and Rice Festival 2014 was held 30 Oct-2 Nov. Although there was a passage of a cold front during the festival, the weather cooperated so that no field days were canceled during YRARF 2014. Fields are always variable with regards to numbers and species composition of rails observed during harvest operations. Rice fields are not created equally with regard to presence and numbers of Yellow Rails. Yellows tend to favor fields with moist ground and no standing water. Wetter fields are preferred by Soras and Virginia Rails, and King Rails are typically found only in the wettest fields. Wednesday's Beat the Crowds field day hit the jackpot and had an amazing concentration of rails in one field complex with over 100 YELLOW RAILS flushed! Yellow Rails were much less numerous on other festival days averaging only 10-20 seen per day. Soras and Virginia Rails were plentiful in those wetter fields. Usually the least common of the rice field rails, a few King Rails were seen in wettest fields. Local morning field trips as well as trips farther afield to the pineywoods and Cameron Coast were fun and successful. In 2014, the Louisiana Legislature designated the community of Thornwell as “The Yellow Rail Capital of the World” - a well-deserving title!
YELLOW RAILS & RICE FESTIVAL 2015
The 7th Annual YRARF occurred following flooding rains during the week before the festival but fortunately by “Beat the Crowds “ Wednesday, the area dried out - just in time for the kickoff of YRARF 2015. "Beat the Crowds" field trip started with volume: hundreds of Greater White-fronted Geese, thousands of dark ibis, hundreds of shorebirds and tens of thousands of blackbirds. Highlights included American Avocet, Gull-billed Tern, Eastern Screech-Owl, Great Horned Owl, Peregrine Falcon, Vermilion Flycatcher, Cave Swallow, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Bronzed Cowbird. During the afternoon rice harvesting, we tallied about 35 YELLOW RAILS, 5-10 King Rails, and 50-100 each of Sora and Virginia rails. Sparrows, The Wednesday Pineywoods trip had cooperative Bachman's Sparrow, Brown-headed Nuthatches, and other species typical of longleaf pine savannah. And, new this year, we added a Bird Banding Workshop hosted by Audubon Louisiana. Also added was a pre-festival Cameron coast trip, which had a Groove-billed Ani, an assortment of arriving winterers, late fall migrants, and coastal resident species, including Clapper Rail, Snowy and Piping plovers, Franklin's Gull, Common Ground-Dove, Western Kingbird, and Nelson's and Seaside sparrows.The official beginning of YRARF on Thursday tallied about 30-35 YELLOW RAILS, possibly as many as 10 King Rails, about 100 Soras, and about 25 Virginia Rails. Other highlights included several American Bitterns, a Harlan's-like dark morph Red-tailed Hawk, Cave Swallow, and at least one Le Conte's Sparrow. Friday morning field trips visited the Crowley sewer ponds and Falcon Rice Mill, Cameron Prairie NWR, the Thornwell area and a pontoon boat trip on Lacassine Bayou. Noteworthy species included as Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Wood Stork, American Avocet, Wilson's Phalarope, Crested Caracara, Peregrine Falcon, Vermilion Flycatcher, Cave Swallow, Sprague's Pipit, Lark Sparrow, and Yellow-headed Blackbird, not to mention massive concentrations of many species such as geese, ducks, ibis, shorebirds and blackbirds. Friday afternoon in the ricefields was underwhelming with regard to Yellow Rails with only about 5 reported during rice harvesting - and bad weather approached. The fields were filled with Soras, including an amazing 48 captured for banding by the Banding Workshop crew, smaller numbers of Virginia Rails (a couple banded), and at least a couple of King Rails. Other interesting species seen in the vicinity of the harvest site included Snow and Ross's geese, American Bittern, several Bald Eagles, and a few LeConte's Sparrows. Saturday’s stormy conditions caused major disruptions to all regularly scheduled activities. The field day was canceled because due to the weather there was no harvesting. The Pineywoods trip and Lacassine Bayou Pontoon boat tours were also cancelled. Cameron Coast and local AM trips did ‘go’ but rain relatively light and intermittent until late morning became heavy and steady for the remainder of the day. Sunday’s coast trip went well with most of the expected species found.
YELLOW RAILS & RICE FESTIVAL 2016
The 8th Annual YRARF 2016 did not lose any days as a result of wet weather. It was a hot and humid event - temperatures were in the mid- to upper 80s! As we walked in the incredibly dry fields there was no clue that Louisiana had just suffered through the Great Flood of August 2016. The festival kicked off with pre-festival Pineywoods, “Beat the Crowds,” and the Falcon Rice Mill trips on Wednesday. The Pineywoods trip found typical species of the longleaf pine savannah. The Crowley sewer ponds and Falcon Rice Mill was fun and informative. Morning birding with Beat the Crowds was productive. Following a yummy lunch at the Regatta Restaurant in Lake Arthur, Beat the Crowds headed to the fields. It was dry and DUSTY: dust was a ’10,’ on the scale of 1 to 10. We nonetheless tallied about 30 YELLOW RAILS, 2 Virginia’s, and one King Rail (but NO Soras). Although rail numbers were low compared to some years, we had some exceptional views of Yellows, which froze right at our feet in the dry dirt and rice stubble = cell phone photos.The official start of YRARF opened with booths at the Hampton Inn, followed by our Welcome Orientation at Mike’s, then off to the fields. After assembling the entire group field side, the combine suffered mechanical failure that postponed the harvesting by about two hours. With a replacement combine onsite, patience paid off and Thursday also tallied at least 30 YELLOW RAILS, several Soras and Virginia’s, and one King. The Banding Workshop was able to band seven Yellows and deploy nanotags on five of those. While waiting for the rice fields to dry on Friday morning, participants either repeated the Crowley-Falcon Rice Mill trip, went with leaders around the Thornwell area, or ventured forth on their own. Friday afternoon in the rice fields was hot, but perhaps not quite as dusty as Wednesday. The rail tally was another 20-25 Yellows, with a few Virginia’s Soras, and Kings and additional individuals caught for banding. With no events scheduled for Friday evening, a spontaneous late afternoon facilitator-led field trip to Lacassine NWR Pool Unit was able to add additional species to the festival list. On Saturday, satisfied with Yellow Rails, most participants headed off to the Cameron Coast or Pineywoods leaving only a few folks for the AM trip to the Roanoke-Thornwell area and ricefields. Saturday’s fields were a little bit wetter - but the combine flushed fewer rails in general. It wasn’t until the last 30 minutes of harvesting that Yellows were flushed - with four spotted, and two captured and banded. There were several Virginia’s and Soras, plus one cooperative King - the last rail flushed. The Pineywoods trip scored a Henslow’s Sparrow but missed Bachman’s Sparrow and Brown-headed Nuthatch! Participants on the Cameron Coast trip had a great time and were able to find some migrants in the cheniers, explore coastal beaches, and were able to see most of the expected coastal species plus, got a bonus stake-out Greater Kiskadee in Sulphur. Sunday’s coast trip also went well and found most of the expected species.
YELLOW RAILS & RICE FESTIVAL 2017
The 9th Annual YRARF 2017 started with rain. The three pre-festival trips dodged or were drenched by rain squalls. Rainfall initially predicted to be tenths of inches exceeded multiple inches with at least four falling on Thornwell ! No harvesting occurred so Beat The Crowds missed their rice harvest field time. Despite the weather, most participants appeared to enjoy these pre-festival trips. The opening of YRARF on Thursday followed heavy rains on Wednesday - conditions were humid and overcast and it was not until the late afternoon when skies became sunny that we were able to cut rice for a couple of hours. Rain-flooded fields moved rails out of rice fields with higher water levels but we still managed to score all four regular species: Sora, Virginia, King and, of course the star of the festival, Yellow Rail - with exceptional looks at one Yellow that flushed towards the participants to be caught and banded. With the weather contingency plan in motion the first-ever Coastal Rail Trip was moved to Thursday evening and successfully flushed a BLACK RAIL - the first ever observed and banded during the YRARF. Friday morning trips searched locally for rice field specialties, plus there was a tour of Crowley WTP and the nearby Falcon Rice Mill. At the harvest site we were treated to 12 Yellow Rails, as well as 6 Kings, 11 Virginias, and 18 Soras. While waiting for the harvest to begin, a Ruff found near the harvest site entertained participants. By Saturday, Yellow Rails had been seen by almost everyone. Many participants opted for all day field trips to the Coast or Pineywoods, which meant relatively few people at the harvest site...even the Coordinator got her turn on the combine (and saw four Yellow Rails flush from the exterior landing)! The banding workshop was in full swing and caught additional Yellow Rails, other rails, and even some Tree Swallows. The 2017 finale was the Cameron Coast trip on Sunday.
YELLOW RAILS & RICE FESTIVAL 2018
Anniversary milestone: the 10th Annual! Yellow Rails and Rice Festival got off to a great start on the opening Wednesday, 31 October. Official festival field trips visited the Lacassine NWR Pool Unit, Thornwell ricefields, Kisatchie NF pineywoods, Crowley Wastewater Treatment, and several other locations in SW LA. Many other festival participants struck out on their own and explored areas as far away as the Cameron Parish coast. The Day 1 cumulative species total was already up to 132 as of this evening. At the Beat the Crowds field trip rice harvesting/rail viewing site near Thornwell, harvesting had to be suspended for about an hour due to a rain shower. Fortunately, the rice dried out enough to resume cutting. Soras and Virginia Rails were plentiful, but we had to work hard for the 6-8 Yellow Rails. Also of interest were several Cave Swallows. Other Beat the Crowd highlights from the morning at Lacassine Pool included Black-bellied and Fulvous whistling-ducks, Ross’s Geese, Purple Gallinules, American Avocets, Semipalmated Plover, Stilt Sandpipers, Gull-billed Terns, Bald Eagles, Crested Caracara, Vermilion Flycatcher, as well as impressive numbers of some other species of waterfowl, large waders, and shorebirds. The pineywoods field trip successfully located Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and some other pineywoods specialties. Unfortunately, Bachman’s and Henslow’s sparrows were no shows. Highlights from the Crowley WTP were one Fulvous Whistling-Duck among large numbers of Black-bellieds, a late/inland Ruddy Turnstone, and a late Bank Swallow. Heavy rains Wednesday night and persisting overcast prevented rice harvesting on what is normally our busiest “rail day.” After the Welcome Orientation at Mike’s Seafood Restaurant, festival coordinators improvised guided “local” field trips to the Thornwell area, NW of Welsh (Turf Grass/Landfill roads area), Lacassine Pool, and Sweet Lake/Cameron Prairie NWR. Despite the cool and windy conditions and muddy roads, all trips were successful in finding plenty of interesting birds. Many other participants freelanced on their own. Highlights included Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, Purple Gallinules, American Avocets, Stilt Sandpipers, Gull-billed Terns, Glossy Ibis, Bald Eagles, and a Magnolia Warbler at Lacassine Pool, King Rails, American Bitterns, and Say’s Phoebe at Sweet Lake/Cameron Prairie, and Franklin’s Gulls, Crested Caracaras, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds at multiple locations. Wonderful food and entertainment at Myer’s Landing topped off a productive day. On Friday, the local AM trip focused on staked-out LeConte’s Sparrows near Myer’s Landing where the group was able to flush about seven, several of which were coaxed into perching for good views. There were also several cooperative Sedge Wrens in the LeConte’s field. A “quick bathroom stop” at Myer’s Landing included sightings of Ross’s Goose, White-winged Dove, Franklin’s Gull (aggregation of three tight flocks of about 200, 100, 40 moving SW), Bald Eagle, Crested Caracara, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Eastern Bluebird, and Pine Warbler. At the rice harvest site during the afternoon, participants were treated to at least 10 more Yellow Rails (two captured and banded), at least one King Rail, and numerous Soras and Virginia Rails. Other noteworthy species included Bald Eagle, Swainson’s Hawk, and Cave Swallow. Participants and leaders were able to share the day’s experiences and some great food at the Welsh Museum social, where the final bird sighting of the day was a couple of Barn Owls perched on the top of a cell tower next to the museum buildings. Saturday’s all-day field trips to the Kisatchie NF pineywoods and Cameron Parish coast, an AM local trip, and another round of rice harvesting and rail viewing near Thornwell. The pineywoods trip successfully located Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Bachman’s Sparrow, Brown-headed Nuthatch and bonus Red-breasted Nuthatch, with many additional species observed after the group departed the pineywoods and birded back towards the Thornwell area. Mentionables from a windy Cameron trip included scope views of an Eastern Whip-poor-will, Snowy and Piping Plovers, Whimbrel, an incredible movement of 3000 or so Franklin’s Gulls, and late Nashville and Magnolia warblers and Painted Bunting. Those on the Sunday Cameron trip were also treated to a multitude of species.
CANCELED DUE TO COVID19 PANDEMIC
YELLOW RAILS & RICE FESTIVAL 2019
We lost Wednesday Beat the Crowds and the Coastal Black Rail Survey due to a cold front and were prepared for a Halloween “trick” to be played on us again Thursday by the continuing unsettled weather. Instead, Thursday turned out to be a day of treats as the skies gradually cleared and strong north winds helped dry ripe rice waiting to be harvested. While we waited participants freelanced or joined local field trips to Lacassine Pool and the general Thornwell area. We were able to commence harvest viewing at 2 PM. It was our first festival with two combines simultaneously harvesting two adjacent fields and then tag-teaming on another two larger fields. Despite the late start, the additional combine allowed more than half of our participants to be able to ride on a combine and/or the ATV on Day 1. And the rails put on a spectacular show. Logistics at the site make rail counting difficult, but the festival coordinators are proposing crude estimates of 12 King Rails, 100 Virginia Rails, 500 Soras, and 75 YELLOW RAILS. The windy conditions prohibited the use of mist nets, but the YRARF Bird Banding Team still managed to hand-net a number of Soras and Yellow Rails and deployed at least two nano-tags on the Yellow Rails. The rescheduled Black Rail survey crew banded four Black Rails. On Friday, cool temperatures were exception as were the numbers of rails at the harvest site - “Fabulous Friday.” Two combines and the ATV. Yellow Rails tallied only 25 or so. King Rails were scarcer with approximately 15 observed. Soras and Virginia’s were incredible. We conservatively estimated 1000 Soras and 200 Virginias. Other goodies at the harvest site: 4 Franklin’s Gulls, American Bittern, vast numbers of ibis, Bald Eagle, Swainson’s Hawk, Harlan’s Hawk, at least 5 Crested Caracaras, 2 Peregrine Falcons, and a few Cave Swallows. The banding crew caught 64 Soras (!), 5 Virginia’s but only one Yellow. Their coastal Black Rail trip caught two more Blacks plus a recap of one caught the previous day, and one each of Yellow and Virginia. Saturday had beautiful weather and more great birding. Yellow Rail numbers were down again from the previous two days, with 20 or so estimated. The incredible numbers of Soras continued - certainly, hundreds were seen, possibly 1000 or more. Good numbers of Virginia Rails were also present, with 20+ King Rails. The bird-banding crew had their hands full with many Soras captured plus at least two Yellow Rails, a King, and miscellaneous other species in the nets The harvest site sported the usual tremendous numbers of herons, ibis, and grackles feasting in the freshly harvested and plowed fields. The local AM field trip focused on finding wish list species, including Vermilion Flycatchers (4 found near Potter X Marceaux roads near Thornwell) and Barn Owls (about 10 seen at private property near Thornwell). Also of interest were Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, several Cave Swallows, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Vesper Sparrow. The Pineywoods field trip was successful in locating Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and had a bonus Say’s Phoebe at Cormier Village (Road) on the way back to Jennings. The Cameron Coast trip did very well. By far the best find were two very rare (in Louisiana) Golden Eagles soaring near Willow Island. Another rarity was a Say’s Phoebe, also at Willow Island (originally found on 26 October). We will have to wait for a full report, but at least a few of the other species of interest to participants included Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Clapper Rail, American Oystercatcher, White-tailed Kite, Seaside and Nelson’s sparrows, and Black-and-white Warbler. The Saturday evening social at the Welsh Museum gave everyone the chance to celebrate today as well as the success of the entire festival.
YELLOW RAILS & RICE FESTIVAL 2020 - another victim of Covid19
In 2021 we offered a scaled back event with Covid19 in consideration - two days, fewer participants, and no socials except for our opening reception held at the Jefferson Davis Visitor's Center/Gator Chateau. Our opening reception was planned to be outside under a canopy, but inclement weather notably gale force winds forced us inside. It turned out to be a nice venue - with most folks were masked-up (Louisiana had already dropped mask mandates for most venues). Thursday's field day was delayed to 3 PM due to rain received the previous day when a strong cold front went through. And, boy was it a windy afternoon! No banding with mist nets at the field site, but the banding crew was successful catching two Yellows by hand (nets)! We had two combines working the same field set. About 25 Yellows were flushed by the combines. The Thursday Black Rail trip unfortunately yielded no Black Rails – but the coast had endured three major hurricanes since the last YRARF Black Rail surveys in 2019 so these trips were definitely “exploratory.” Friday’s rice harvesting started early around 10 AM and, although still very windy, the banding crew still could not deploy mist nets. With one combine disabled, we were down to a single combine, but a longer day yielded another 21 Yellow Rails (three caught and banded!). Although not officially offered as part of YRARF 2021, we opted for a Saturday lagniappe session to make up for the shortened Thursday harvest and to accommodate those who just couldn’t get enough of the rice fields and rails, as well as allow the bander to set up mist nets. A noon start under much calmer conditions and still with one combine produced another 21 Yellow Rails (5 banded). And what ended up as the grand finale of the festival - Saturday’s Coastal Black Rail Trip did not disappoint with THREE Black Rails detected and two captured and banded! Those participating in 2021 Coastal Black Rail night trips wanted us to re-emphasize that it really is a strenuous but well worth the effort if you are able to slog through the uneven terrain of the saltmarsh in the dark.