Bird watchers look for a rare birds during a recent Yellow Rails and Rice Festival. (Doris Maricle / American Press)
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 24, 2012 7:21 PM
THORNWELL — Bird watchers will descend on rural Jefferson Davis Parish this weekend with hopes of catching a glimpse of an elusive chicken-like marsh bird during the Fourth Annual Yellow Rails and Rice Festival. Already, organizers are making plans for next year’s event, which will continue the tradition of bringing together bird watchers and other environmentalists with area rice farmers.
“The popularity of the festival hinges on a unique way of seeing yellow rails, but those visiting also take home fond memories of Louisiana’s abundance of birds, the farming countryside, varied habitats and, of course, the area’s food — not to mention the opportunity to ride on a combine,” said Donna Dittmann of the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science.
Nearly 130 bird watchers, naturalists and photographers from as far away as Poland, Canada and Alaska registered for this year’s event. Many of them are returning festival attendees, Dittmann said.
“We reached our cap earlier than anticipated and have hopeful participants on our waiting list,” Dittmann said. “An attendance limit was necessary due to increasing numbers of participants and uncertainties of harvest conditions — weather, rice and number of participating farmers. It’s a balancing act.”
Festival organizers want to accommodate as many visitors as possible, but at the same time maintain a participation level that does not exceed its ability to provide a personal experience, she said.
“Each year we get return participants who enjoy the festival and Louisiana enough to make a subsequent visit,” she said, noting that a few out-of-state visitors have attended every year after discovering what Louisiana has to offer.
Last year, 137 people — from 29 states, the District of Columbia, Canada and Great Britain — participated.
“It brings visitors to Jefferson Davis Parish, to Louisiana, and allows them to discover how much this area has to offer,” she said.
The group will gather on the parish’s back roads and rice fields on scheduled tours throughout the weekend in hopes of catching a glimpse of the secretive yellow rail and other Louisiana bird species.
The festival is like no other, Dittmann said.
“Its primary goal is to provide participants a unique venue to view yellow rails while at the same time bringing birders and farmers together to realize the conservation value to birds of the area’s working wetland,” she said. “Jefferson Davis Parish is a fantastic place for birds and birding.”
The Hampton Inn and Suites and the Grand Marais, both in Jennings, will serve as the festival bases. Rice-harvesting activities are centered around Thornwell.
Field trips are scheduled for Friday and Saturday mornings to allow participants to explore the area while they wait for the rice to dry and the day’s harvesting to begin, Dittmann said.
There will be all-day trips Saturday to the Cameron Parish coast and north to Long Leaf pine woods to look for other Louisiana birds.
New this year is a workshop to learn about how and why birds are banded; to learn about bird plumage; and how to identify a bird’s age when in the hand. Also new are boat tours to White Lake Wetland Conservation Area and scenic Lacassine Bayou.
The festival was the brainchild of two couples who believed that bird watchers would travel to rice country to see the elusive yellow rail, which is a common inhabitant in the rice-growing region during late fall and winter.
Yellow rails are easily seen when they are flushed from rice fields by combines during normal harvest activities, Dittmann said.
Most people learn about the festival by word of mouth from attendees who take home their tales of seeing yellow rails and learning about rice, she said. In the past three years, participation has continued to rise, Dittmann said.
Because participation has grown beyond festival capacity, attendance was capped at 125 this year. That means the festival will not allow walk-in registration as in the past unless there are last-minute cancellations.
For more on information on next year’s festival, contact Dittmann at email@example.com.