Heart of Louisiana: The Rookery

When you're in the business of selling natural beauty for landscaping, it makes sense that you want to protect the environment.  And that's what Michael Richard did with his large wholesale nursery operation at Jefferson Island.

30 years ago, Richard made an investment in recycling the runoff from his Live Oak Gardens nursery. That keeps the fertilizer-tainted water from spoiling nearby Lake Peigneur.

"The phosphates cause an algae bloom, and algae is destructive to the water and it hurts the fish," says Richard.

All of the irrigation water goes into a series of ponds where it's purified for reuse.  Richard built tree-cover islands in the middle of his ponds with the idea of attracting birds to nest here.

When these ponds were first built, the birds hardly seemed to notice.  It took more than 25 years before these trees became a prime nesting spot for a dozen species of birds.  And the birds arrived overnight.

"I come to work one morning and the trees are covered with birds, thousands of birds," Richard recalls. "We estimate about 5,000 birds.  The trees looked like, literally, a cotton field when ready to harvest.  I couldn't believe my eyes."

Richard believes the birds came from Lake Martin, another nesting area about 20 miles away which saw an instant drop in its nesting birds.

At these small man-made islands, the birds are protected from predators.

"The main predators are raccoons and snakes as far as I can tell, and the alligators patrol the water, waiting, sitting in wait, or lying in wait for someone to try to cross the water," Richard says.

As the evening sun slips behind the trees, there is a constant stream of birds returning to the roost.  They come from all directions, filling nearly every branch of the cypress and pine trees.  There are several varieties of egrets and herons and other wading birds.  In late summer, some of the ibis are still caring for their newly hatched offspring.  And the trees are filled with adolescent roseate spoonbills that haven't yet developed the brilliant pink feathers of their parents.

"The locals call it the Cajun flamingo, and we have the best color, the best plumage color anywhere in the United States," says Richard.

He has spent a life-time developing and preserving the beauty of this area, including nearby Rip Van Winkle Gardens.  And now there is an impressive rookery that he anxious to share with visitors

"It's too great a little treasure here to keep for one's self," he tells us.  "It needs to be shared."

Sometimes, when you try to do things the right way, nature has a way of saying thanks.

The peak nesting time is in late spring to early summer, though you can still see thousands of birds every evening at Rip Van Winkle Gardens on Jefferson Island.