Friday promised to be a beautiful spring day, as my husband, Leon, and I left Baton Rouge for the Rockefeller State Wildlife Refuge, which straddles the border between Cameron and Vermilion parishes. We turned off the I-10 highway at the Rayne exit (about 12 miles west of Lafayette) and headed south toward Kaplan, Forked Island, and then Pecan Island (5 miles short of reaching the Gulf of Mexico). Meanwhile, we quickly learned that Rayne purports to be the "frog capital of the world." There must also be some pretty good artists there because many of the downtown buildings were covered with over thirty murals depicting frog themes. Not far below Rayne, we found Kaplan, the "capital" of Louisiana's rice country. Fields, many of which are used to raise crawfish commercially, were either already flooded or were being prepared for flooding. As we went though Kaplan we couldn't help but notice the large Liberty Rice Mill. Subsequently, we crossed the Intracoastal Waterway, headed for the coast, and at Pecan Island turned west to reach the refuge destination.
The Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, located in eastern Cameron and western Vermilion parishes, was donated to the State in 1919 by the John D. Rockefeller Foundation and has been managed by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. When transferred to Louisiana, it contained approximately 86,000 acres of marsh, but, over time, beach erosion has taken a heavy toll. Recent surveys indicate there are only about 76,000 acres left. This wildlife haven borders the Gulf of Mexico for 26.5 miles and extends six miles inland, where it is bounded to the north by the east-west aligned Grand Chenier (French, of course, for a "large place of oak trees") ridge, which a few thousand years ago was the beach along the coast.
This sanctuary is one of the more biologically diverse wildlife areas in the nation. It is in the heart of the area where the migratory bird Mississippi Flyway empties into South Louisiana; the refuge is a safe wintering ground for about 160,000 waterfowl each year. In addition to ducks, geese, and coots, numerous shore and wading birds either migrate through or stay for the winter in our coastal marshes.
Its staff facilitates wetlands related research of graduate students, conservation organizations, and other governmental agencies. Almost anything imaginable having to do with the management of alligators, bald eagles, or brown pelicans is done at the Rockefeller. The management of marsh ecosystems and waterfowl habitats and restoration of endangered species are also important ongoing projects. While we saw lots of waterfowl, we also observed numerous alligators - napping, scurrying from the levees into nearby waters, or drifting lazily - including the great granddaddy of them all, 50-year old, 15-foot long "Jimmy," who now resides alone in his concrete pool site dubbed the "Alligator Hilton."
Wildlife Agent, Mary Hebert, welcomed us to the refuge and after a brief orientation took us on an extensive tour in a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Our guide par excellence explained many of the research projects taking place there. The refuge is crisscrossed by a system of levees built to protect the land, control salt water intrusion, and provide feeding and resting areas for waterfowl. She pointed out that in the winter months several presently verdant pastures are flooded with water to provide shallow feeding areas for the welcomed avian visitors.
From the high levee tops, which are gravel roads, one is allowed wonderful elevated views of the surrounding brackish marsh. Located on all the levees are numerous "slide over" tracks that permit the gators to easily get from one body of water to the next. Often when I paused to photograph, I heard an alligator hit the water. I just had to believe that they were more afraid of me than I was of them, but in case I was wrong, I kept safe distance from them!
One of our stops was at a fenced area formerly used as a holding pen for alligator research. No longer used for that purpose, it has become a rookery that attracts numerous nesting snowy egrets. After Mary departed, we headed out and found an ideal spot to watch the sunset. We, along with many of the resident Canada Geese, ducks, coots, and alligators, enjoyed the blazing sky at the end another perfect day in the wetlands.