Call of the Wild Calls Grad Student

Over three summers, doctoral student Paige Byerly took a 40-minute, one-way commute to work every few weeks – by boat.

Her office was a thin strip of marshy land in the Gulf of Mexico called Whiskey Island. Marsh wrens, clapper rails, seaside sparrows and other birds that nest on the tiny barrier island were her colleagues.

A National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, Byerly was conducting field work to gather data about bird species on the small barrier island in Terrebonne Bay, near Houma, Louisiana.

Her efforts are outlined in a recent cover story she cowrote for American Scientist magazine.

Little data exists about noncommercial inhabitants of the island and its surrounding waters. Byerly set out to change that.

Like the rest of barrier islands strung along the Louisiana coast, Whiskey Island is dying a slow death. It’s the victim of storms, subsidence, oil and gas pipeline dredging, and oil spills.

With its coastline, habitat essential to wildlife that lives and breeds on or near the island is vanishing, too. But without any “before” data, determining exactly how much is impossible.

“These studies represent an important shift in how this ecosystem will be studied and protected in the future,” Byerly explained. It represents an effort to assess current conditions and provide valuable data needed for future comparisons.

In 2010, offshore sediment was used to build up the bay side of Whiskey Island.

During her trips there, Byerly visited 25 points, listening for bird calls and logging sightings. She also left sound equipment on the island to record bird calls.

“We didn’t count birds, necessarily; we were looking at occupancy. The reason we have so many points is to see if birds are there or not and start to make a pattern over time,” she explained.

“We found that the restored site performed really well. It had a high bird diversity.”

Byerly is the lead author of “Renewed Hope for Coastal Marshes in Louisiana” in the March-April 2019 issue of American Scientist.

The article is co-authored by Bethann Garramon Merkle and Megan Hepner, researchers at the University of Wyoming and the University of California, San Diego, respectively.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of La Louisiane, The Magazine of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Photo: Paige Byerly conducts avian point count sampling at a reference marsh site on Raccoon Island, Isles Dernieres Barrier Island Wildlife Refuge, Louisiana (LUMCON/Virginia Schutte).

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