A few weeks ago, I was standing on Rutherford Beach in southwest Louisiana on a picture-perfect day—clear, blue skies, the sun shining, and 70 dedicated volunteers arriving bright and early for our biggest beach cleanup yet. However, a very different scene was playing out here in Cameron Parish six months ago. Just a couple of months after Hurricane Laura made landfall in late August, Hurricane Delta devastated the area once more with a back-to-back assault on southwest Louisiana’s fragile coastline. After the storm surge receded, the beach was found littered with huge amounts of debris, from giant tires and wood pilings to a metal cattle gate that was once on someone’s property nearby.

Rutherford Beach is one of only a handful of beaches available to nesting birds like migratory Least Terns and Wilson’s Plovers. With nesting season quickly approaching this spring, we had to get this beach in shape so that their tiny, cotton ball-sized chicks have a safe, unobstructed home to grow up in this summer. That’s why Audubon organized a coastal cleanup earlier this month with support from several of our partners in Cameron Parish.

With the help of volunteers from all over the state, we combed 6 miles of beach and 285 acres of coastal dunes, filling a 30-yard dumpster with thousands of pounds of trash. We found glass containers, tires, crab traps, paper products, marine rope, plastic buckets, infrastructure debris, clothing, and other windblown home goods following the 2020 hurricane season.

Cameron Parish President and Police Juror for District 5, Scott Trahan, removes large debris from Rutherford Beach with the help of his tractor. Katie Barnes/Audubon Louisiana

Thanks to a generous grant from Restore America’s Estuaries Caring for Our Coast program, this cleanup was much bigger than those we have organized in years past. This additional support also gave us an opportunity to support the local economy in Cameron Parish. We purchased the majority of our supplies from the businesses nearby, including Brown’s Market that have played an essential role in helping southwest Louisiana residents rebuild after these storms. We worked closely with local community leaders to provide recovery through cleanup activities, and we are grateful for the logistical support provided by the Cameron Parish Police Jury, Cameron Parish Port Commission, and leaders at Fenstermaker, a local environmental and engineering consulting firm that had recently completed a breakwater construction project to combat coastal erosion at Rutherford Beach. These partners were instrumental in transporting debris and shuttling volunteers along the beach on event day, and came together to support the effort to enhance coastal dune habitat ahead of nesting season.

Location of Rutherford Beach in southwest Louisiana, along with the paths of hurricanes Laura and Delta. Lindsay Nakashima/Audubon Louisiana

Beach cleanups are important, because it means that birds will have to face one less challenge when they arrive this spring to lay their eggs. In addition to coastal erosion, increased storm intensity, and sea-level rise, these vulnerable species also face the dangers of people driving on beaches. Each year, Audubon staff and volunteers put up signs and fencing around bird nests on the beach, to protect them from humans who might inadvertently disturb them in addition to the threats of predators like coyotes. Audubon continues to work with our partners in Cameron Parish to engage the local community about the importance of protecting our coastal dune habitats for people and wildlife.

As we spring into warmer weather, we are anxiously welcoming home our well-traveled beach-nesting birds as they begin to look for suitable nesting areas. Our enthusiastic volunteers have already re-sighted the returning Wilson’s Plovers sporting colored identification bands around their legs within the last few weeks, and those numbers will only increase as we move into the month of April. Audubon’s Coastal Stewardship Program has begun protection and monitoring efforts across the Gulf Coast, and we look forward to working with our communities to be good land stewards and ensure a healthy ecosystem for all.

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