December 2, 2010

Barataria Preserve, Jean Lafitte National Historic Park, Louisiana

Jean Lafitte National Historic Park is sort of a catch-all national park for Louisiana designed to protect a diverse set of natural and cultural histories of the bayou country. It contains the French Quarter Visitor Center in New Orleans, the Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette, plus the Wetlands Acadian Center in Thibodeaux and the Prairie Acadian Center in Eunice to interpret the Cajun and Creole cultural histories of the region, and the Calmette Battlefield where the 1815 Battle of New Orleans sealed the end of the War of 1812 with a resounding American victory with the help of 1,000 pirates lead by Jean Lafitte.

One of the units, just south of New Orleans is the 23,000 acre Barataria Preserve. It preserves bald cypress swamps, live oak/palmetto stands, open sawgrass marshes, and freshwater and brackish lakes. There is a 2-mile long boardwalk trail that leaves from the visitor center that gives you a cross-section of most of these ecosystems and provides opportunities for great wildlife viewing and getting a closeup glimpse of the wetland ecosystems of South Louisiana.

Great Egrets are amazing hunters. We watched this one catch about 5 fish in row.

Almost everywhere we looked along the boardwalk trail, we found something wandering around, hunting, or sunning. And this wasn't even the heat of the summer, but rather a 60 degree day in November.

You need to keep a good eye out for the camoflauged creatures in the forest, such as this juvenile white ibis foraging for frogs, small fish, and insects on the wet forest floor.

Two more juvenile white ibis foraging amongst the cypress knees

Bald-cypress "knees" are a unique aspect of the cypress-tupelo swamps. These features do not grow up into new trees the way suckers might sprout from the roots of aspen trees. Their exact mechanisms and functions are not completely understood yet. But, it is thought that they are there to provide oxygen to the roots of the trees.

Cypress "knees"
The water level is down after an usually dry fall

While it is true that plants do photosynthesis by taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen through the stomata (openings) of their leaves. What a lot of people do not realize is that the other cells of a plant do respiration by absorbing oxygen to break down the sugars that are made by the leaves. For most trees, getting oxygen to the roots is not a problem, because it is found in the spaces between the soil particles. But, if you live in a flooded, acidic, silty soil like in swamps, there is little to no oxygen available. So, these knees are a way to get above the water to access oxygen. When you look closely at the knees, you notice the tops are pink and lack the thick bark protective layer. This allows oxygen to diffuse directly into the soft cambium layers to move oxygen to the roots.

A odd old-growth cypress left behind for an unknown reason

Despite the difficulties of working and living in the swamps, virtually the entire state of Louisiana was clear-cut in the 19th century because bald-cypress was very much in demand. Louisiana was the largest timber producer of any state in that century! It's strong, nice smelling, and rot-resistant wood made for excellent building materials. Today, almost all cypress you see is 2nd or 3rd growth.

A green anole lizard similar to those sold at pet-shops.
It is a native species and can change colors.

Many of the trees in the Barataria Preserve have the tell-tale signs of damage from Hurricane Katrina. But, you have to know what you are looking for. That is because the bald-cypress have flexible branches and survived it quite well. However, virtually every large tupelo losts its top and just has scattered lower branches with leaves on it. Other trees also fell and the forest floor is littered with logs. Thus, the canopy is surprisingly open. That being said, most of the trees such as the live oaks and sweet gums simply resprouted new branches and it is hard to tell anything happened to them.

The reds of a young sweet gum in autumn foliage

Unfortunately, the beauty of Louisiana's wetlands and swamps is rapidly disappearing. The combination of the lack of new-land growing silt, drainage canals, and oil/gas drilling and pipelines is sucking the life out of Louisiana and shrinking the state by thousands of acres every year.

A beautiful stretch of spanish moss covered live oaks and palmettos

The Baratarian Preserve is trying to close up the various canals that were dug in it, but plowing the levee materials back into the canals and allowing the marsh to take over once again. This will hopefully allow the marshes and swamps to redevelop and to protect it from future storm surges of Hurricanes that love to head right up the open water canals.

An old oil/gas pipeline canal cutting through the preserve

I spoke to a couple of park rangers at the visitor center about the loss of land in Louisiana and what is being done to stop it. This is a problem that has been known about for decades, so you would expect there to be some plan in the works to stop it. His answer "Our park will be under the ocean in 50 years, that is just a fact".

This marsh is usually underwater, but the dry autumn has exposed it as a muddy field.

My conversation with this ranger, plus additional information about the disappearance of Louisiana's coastline at over 33 football fields per day will be the focus of the next post.

Admiring the beautiful palmetto understory
Barataria preserve is a great way for visitors of New Orleans to get an upclose look at the wetland ecosystems of Louisiana just 10 miles from the French Quarter.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Being born in New Orleans and raised within 5 miles of the Barataria Preserve, I thank you for taking the time for a very thoughtful account of your visit. What you say is very true on all accounts.

My only suggestion is to point out that it is the "Chalmette" Battlefield, not Calmette.