Oxygen levels in the lake were up, helping to bolster fisheries. The buttonbush and cypress trees where the birds typically build their nests also appeared healthier than they had in years.
In March, at the very start of the nesting season, Martin noted almost 200 more roseate spoonbills at the lake compared to the same time in 2005. An early population of great egrets and blue herons also looked encouraging. Sightseers, including many photographers, were already frequenting Lake Martin, settling in along Rookery Road to watch the birds begin to build their nests and lay eggs.
"The birds were all there, people were out taking pictures, everything was looking great," Martin says. "I was expecting this to be a record year, and then all of a sudden the birds disappeared overnight."
On the night of March 17, an estimated 2,000 birds, some of which had already begun nesting and laying eggs, fled Lake Martin. Usually a spectacle of wading birds such as egrets, herons and roseate spoonbills this time of year, the rookery is now eerily calm. Residents and regular visitors to Lake Martin have seen the number of birds continue to drop, and some have seen crows eating abandoned eggs.
"People are very shocked," says Charlie Bush, a professional photographer in Houma who frequents Lake Martin. "I guess my feeling is if it had been a gradual thing and we started noticing a few disappearing here and there, it'd be much more explainable than waking up one morning and they're gone."
Bush says he has witnessed "a huge decrease in the number of birds. You wouldn't even know there's a rookery there ' they're just all gone."
Speculation has run rampant as to what caused the birds' sudden exodus. On an online forum called Labird at virtualbirder.com, the conjecture ranges from low water levels in the lake caused by the recent drought to a possible influx of bird predators such as raccoons or possums to an increase in human disturbance.
Tommy Michot, avian ecologist with the National Wetlands Research Center, says the numbers of nesting birds at Lake Martin have been on a decline over the past decade. The rookery peaked around 1993, with some 40,000 nesting birds. Numbers have since tapered off gradually, down to about 9,000 birds nesting last year. Michot says this type of fluctuation is natural, but the sudden drastic drop in numbers this year indicates some type of unnatural disturbance.
"It's not unusual for a colony to change location," he says. "But for a whole bunch of birds to just abandon nests is pretty rare. There must have been some reason."
A March 27 flyover conducted by the Wetlands Center estimated less than 1,000 birds were nesting at the lake.
Michot doubts natural predators would have caused the birds to flee, since bird colonies are typically attuned to predator danger at a site before they begin nesting. "Human disturbance is the only thing I can think of," he says. Martin says two photographs are the only evidence that has surfaced from a recent Wildlife and Fisheries investigation. One captured a boater trespassing in the rookery, and the other shows a raccoon up in one of the rookery's cypress trees.
Phil Bowman, assistant secretary of the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, says after receiving several complaints, the department has stepped up enforcement of a law that prohibits boat traffic in the rookery from February through August during nesting season. "From what I've been told, we have gotten the disturbance issue under control," he says.
Martin says The Nature Conservancy is encouraged that the recent incident may provoke tighter enforcement of the rules at Lake Martin. Wildlife and Fisheries first began prohibiting boat traffic in the Lake Martin rookery in 2001. Martin is aware of several boats that entered the rookery, but is unaware of anyone ever being ticketed for it by Wildlife and Fisheries. The Nature Conservancy recently discovered that boat trails had been cut into the rookery.
"There's a lot of people concerned that we need to do more enforcement," Martin says.
Keith Ouchley, director for The Nature Conservancy in Louisiana, which owns the 10,000-acre Lake Martin and Cypress Island Preserve, says some smaller rookeries along the coast have also failed this year. "It could be a general food failure along the coast due to the hurricanes," he says. "That's been one of the hypotheses that's been put out there."
Martin says that it is hard to gauge what the total loss would be if the rookery doesn't recover.
The Nature Conservancy has estimated more than 50,000 people visit Lake Martin throughout the bird-nesting season, with an average of 3,000 cars driving up the gravel road alongside the lake each weekend. The lake's four boat tour operators take out an average of 150-200 customers a day through the nesting season.
Renowned for its easy roadside access to one of the largest bird nesting sites in the country, the cypress swamp and lake off Hwy. 31 between Breaux Bridge and St. Martinville attracts birders and nature photographers from around the world.
"It's the best place to photograph roseate spoonbills in the United States," Bush says. In light of the sudden absence of birds this year, Bush had to scale back the photography workshops he typically conducts at Lake Martin. Arthur Morris, an acclaimed bird photographer located in Indian Lake Estates, Fla., says he cancelled two photography workshops to Lake Martin this year and is hesitant about planning any future trips.
"What's to say whatever happened this year won't keep happening?" he asks. His workshops would have brought 25 people into stay in Lafayette for four nights.
Word of the rookery's sudden collapse has spread fast. Jacques Privat, who lives about a mile from the lake, says hardly a day goes by when someone doesn't ask him what happened at the rookery. "I'm amazed at how many people I run into who ask me about the disappearance of these birds," he says. "People in St. Martinville, who live miles and miles away, people from Lafayette. A lot of people noticed what happened."
At The Nature Conservancy, Martin says, "Lake Martin is so important to so many people. Virtually the day these birds left we were getting calls from people asking what happened."
Last week, at a book-release party at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse for The Nature of Things at Lake Martin, a result of five years of work from photographer and nature writer Nancy Camel, the festivities were dampened by the concern over the rookery's health.
At one point, Martin wryly noted, "I hope this book launch is not a requiem for the rookery." Ouchley addressed the crowd prior to the book signing about concern over the absence of birds at the rookery, reaffirming The Nature Conservancy's commitment to preserving Lake Martin. Plans are already under way to open a new information center out at Lake Martin next year, which many hope will also help to direct traffic and monitor activity at the lake.
Martin still estimates some 800 birds are nesting at Lake Martin. "That certainly qualifies it as a rookery," he says. "But it's not the spectacular scene that it was in years past. We're hoping it's just a fluctuation, and by making a few changes and more enforcement and maybe more water, that next year maybe it'll rebound."
Will $400 be enough for the re-election campaign of LPSB's Hunter Beasley to overcome two years of holding our school system hostage and hurting the education of our children all because of a personal dislike of the superintendent?
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said Friday he expects his playing status in Detroit to be decided by coach Sean Payton on Sunday, shortly before the game.
Lawmakers have sidestepped a decision on whether they accept claims from Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration that the state closed last year's books with a nearly $179 million surplus.
Coming off the high of a fourth quarter comeback against Tampa Bay and a helpful bye week, linebacker Junior Galette sees a real turnaround coming for New Orleans' struggling defense.
Former President Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party's most popular surrogate this fall, is heading to Louisiana early next week for a campaign rally with U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu.
Time and again you hear people say DA Mike Harson is unbeatable because he's doled out political favors over the past 20 years. But a new lawsuit could end that speculation.
Cat 4 storm heads for Bermuda; travel ban called counter-productive; comet approaches Mars and more national and international news for Friday, October 17, 2014.
Friday's Blogs from the Bog!
After the season's signature win (so far), here are some helpful tips for Cajun Nation during the conference stretch.
Did the state close last year's books with a surplus or a deficit?
Practicing without limitations on Wednesday, running back Mark Ingram looked ready to return to a New Orleans offense that once again ranks among the NFL's best when the Saints play at Detroit on Sunday.
It’s been decided: Superintendents of Louisiana’s public school system will retain the controversial powers granted by Act 1 of the 2012 session.
Louisiana Treasurer John Kennedy has a bone to pick with the Jindal administration, which recently — surprise! — announced that the state ended the most recent budget year with a $178.5 million dollar surplus.
The messaging battle, however, isn't tied to individual campaign accounts. Third-party groups have poured millions of dollars into advertising.
With her political future in jeopardy, Sen. Mary Landrieu is turning to a natural constituent base in her re-election bid.
Terrance Broadway threw for a touchdown and rushed for 113 yards to lead Louisiana-Lafayette to a 34-10 victory over Texas State on Tuesday night.
Aligned with the party of an unpopular president, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu sought to keep her distance from the Obama administration, against claims from her chief Republican challenger Bill Cassidy that a vote to re-elect the Democratic incumbent was a vote for Barack Obama.
Seven people in Louisiana and two others in Mississippi have been arrested in connection with an international online sales scam.
Despite the hype and potential misinformation to have spread in the wake of Mark Cockerham’s recent departure from the LPSB, his candidacy for reelection is still on — now with the backing of the Chamber's Empower PAC.
No, seriously, the state says today cops nabbed seven people suspected of being “members and affiliates of Romanian organized crime.” In Lafayette.
LSU’s all-time leading rusher and three-time Super Bowl champion Kevin Faulk, UL Lafayette great and Super Bowl quarterback Jake Delhomme and coaching legend Yvette Girouard will be enshrined next summer.
Severe storms that moved across Louisiana caused widespread damage and power outages.
A dispute over the Common Core education standards won't sideline Louisiana's application for up to $15 million in federal grant money for pre-kindergarten programs, Gov. Bobby Jindal decided Monday.
The three main contenders in Louisiana's U.S. Senate race are squaring off in a TV debate for the first time, with only three weeks to go until Election Day.
A state judge signed an order Monday temporarily blocking ash from the incineration of a Texas Ebola victim's belongings to be disposed of at a southwest Louisiana site.