The Coastal Prairie Important Bird Area (IBA) is named after the formerly predominant habitat type, which was approximately 2.5 million acres of coastal or Cajun prairie. This relatively flat, moist landscape west of the Atchafalaya River and north of the coastal marshes is underlain by an impermeable layer of clay. The native prairie was burned frequently by lightening strikes, and so remained a grassland relatively free of woody vegetation which was initially exploited for grazing cattle, and which came to be converted for uses such as agriculture, oil and gas exploration, and residential and commercial development. While only about 1% of the original prairie area remains in remnant patches, often along railroad right-of-ways, efforts by several agencies and organizations are underway to restore native prairie in Louisiana.

The Coastal Prairie IBA is comprised primarily of private lands, but it also contains part of Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). More than half of this nearly two and a half million acre site is used for agricultural purposes, particularly rice cultivation. Crawfish are often farmed in rice fields in Louisiana, providing ample food as well as water and cover for many birds. Several suites of birds, including shorebirds, wading birds, waterfowl, and blackbirds and their allies, utilize this site. Habitats in the Coastal Prairie IBA include remnants of the once dominant habitat type, coastal prairie, as well as fresh marsh, forests, and active and fallow rice fields. The lands of Cameron Prairie NWR were previously utilized as rice fields. This IBA is at the convergence of two major flyways, the Central and Mississippi flyways.

Ornithological Summary

This IBA is a great location to find a variety of birds, including near threatened Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Loggerhead Shrike, identified as a Bird of Conservation Concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, Wood Stork, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill and White-faced Ibis are all waders utilizing the site. Shorebirds such as King, Virginia and Yellow Rail, Whimbrel, Stilt Sandpiper, and Long-billed Dowitcher forage in the rice fields. Raptors like Northern Harrier, Short-eared Owls, and Red-tailed Hawk use this site as well, foraging primarily on rodents that eat grain in the fields. Waterfowl includes Greater White-fronted Goose, Northern Pintail, and Green-winged Teal. Mottled Ducks may nest in these fields. Wintering grassland birds, including Le Conte?s and near threatened Henslow?s Sparrow, are fairly secretive. Sora and Purple Gallinule are also present.

Conservation Issues

There is quite a range of threats currently facing Coastal Prairie IBA, many in relation to rice. As the price and demand for rice falls, many farmers are cultivating other crops, particularly sugarcane. Other than hosting large roosts of blackbirds and their allies, sugarcane is a virtual desert for birds. Other farmers are converting their rice to dry rice, which requires less water and thus is less attractive to many waterbirds. The use of stripper headers during rice harvesting is occurring more frequently, leaving considerably less rice waste in the field as forage for birds. Agricultural run-off can create quite a problem by polluting the waters with chemicals. Habitat fragmentation via the conversion of crops, development of pipelines, road or utilities is another concern. The Chinese tallow tree, an invasive species, can out-compete native plants. In prairie-type habitats, trees both fragment the landscape and provide perch sites for the parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird, which is more common in areas with cattle. Grazing is another problem. Urban development is encroaching upon habitat.

Coastal prairie is one of the most threatened habitats in Louisiana. Multi-group efforts are underway to restore native coastal prairie in this IBA, but are slow due to small supply of native seeds and changes in hydrology throughout the site. Restoration efforts to date have been largely experimental (small-scale) but successful, and have involved groups such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service and National Wetlands Research Center, the Cajun Prairie Habitat Preservation Society, and the Louisiana Native Plant Society. However, a new initiative by The Nature Conservancy of Louisiana, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the State of Louisiana, and local universities is planned to help local farmers restore up to 28,000 acres of native prairie through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP).

Ownership

Land ownership is primarily private. Cameron Prairie NWR is owned and managed by the USFWS.

Habitat

The terrain is generally low, flat and inundated with standing water, hence, much of this land in this IBA is used to cultivate rice. Fresh marsh, coastal prairie, mature hardwood uplands, beech-magnolia forest, and old rice fields which have been converted into moist soil units are other habitat types available. Baldcypress-tupelo forests may be found in the site?s bottomlands, and willows in disturbed sites. Upland sites often have live oak. Common understory species include poison ivy, dogwood, privet, mulberry, elderberry, trumpet vine and honeysuckle.

Land Use

Public uses for this IBA include boating, hiking, fishing, hunting, camping, picnicking, auto-touring, wildlife observation and photography, bird-watching, horseback riding, and mountain biking. Over half of this site is currently used for agricultural purposes, primarily as rice fields. The rice is often rotated with crawfish, soybean and sugarcane. Some agricultural land is being restored to wildlife habitat through voluntary government programs like Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). Grazing occurs on this IBA. Land management practices by Cameron Prairie NWR include moist soil management techniques and constructing water control structures and levees. Oil and gas production is present within the IBA.

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