JENNINGS — Birdwatchers from all over the United States and the Netherlands are in Jeff Davis Parish and surrounding areas this week hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive yellow rail during the 11th annual Yellow Rails and Rice Festival.
The festival began Wednesday and continues through Sunday with birdwatching field trips, rice tours and more.
"The festival offers a unique opportunity for birdwatchers to see the yellow rail, a secretive and elusive marsh bird," festival coordinator Donna Dittman said.
Yellow rails winter along the Gulf Coast and migrate north to breed across the northern U.S. and Canada, she said. In fall, the species arrive back and occupy maturing second crop rice fields.
"When farmers harvest the ratoon (second) rice crop, yellow rails and other species can be seen as they flush to avoid the combine," she said. "After the rice fields are cut, rails likely relocate to other suitable habitat in the region."
Thornwell in rural Jeff Davis Parish has been named the "Yellow Rail Capital of the World."
"Jeff Davis Parish is a wonderful festival host," Dittman said. "Not only does the parish support exceptional numbers of birds in general, it seems to be the center of abundance for yellow rails in the Gulf Coast region."
In addition, Dittman said the area's people and culture provide visitors an enjoyable glimpse into the Louisiana lifestyle.
This year, more than 100 visitors from 29 U.S. states, D.C. and Puerto Rico and the Netherlands are expected to attend.
Noting the festival's attraction, Dittman said, "The yellow rail is a highly sought after species due to its elusive nature. This is one of few places where it is relatively easy to see."
Birders also have a great appreciation for the overall excellent diversity and abundance of birds, and they love the opportunity to ride on a harvest combine and to experience Louisiana cuisine and culture.
Visiting birdwatchers are interested in a variety of other southeastern speciality species. Of particular interest in the rice growing areas are king rail, sprague's pipit, sedge wren, Leconte's sparrow. Pineywoods specialities are red-cockaded woodpecker, brown-headed nuthatch,Bachman's sparrow and Henslow's sparrow.
Also on the coast, participants want to see clapper rail, piping and snowy plovers, seaside and Nelson's sparrows. Black rail has also been a big attraction, Dittman said.
The festival works with Audubon Louisiana to do actual marsh surveys to search for the species. Each year the registrants send a wish list of those species they most want to see during their visit.
In addition to birdwatching trips in the vicinity of rice fields, the longleaf pinewoods of Kisatchie National Forest and the Cameron coast, the festival also hosts two receptions - one at Myer's Landing and another one at the Welsh Museum - featuring Louisiana cuisine.
An additional black rail evening survey in Cameron Parish has been added this year.