by Gary Koehler

An alarm goes off not just before dawn but during mid-afternoon. Eli Haydel is at the wheel of his white Suburban when he reaches over and flips on the air conditioner. The temperature has surged to 81 degrees. The balmy weather is somewhat unusual in mid-December even for here, along Southwest Louisiana's Gulf Coast.

"They'd better start getting some weather up north soon," Haydel says. "Or there aren't going to be many ducks down here this year. It's been too warm. Way too warm."

Waterfowl surveys recently conducted by the state wildlife agency prove Haydel to be right on the money. Number crunchers have determined that only half as many ducks frequented Louisiana this fall when compared to average census figures posted during the same time period over the past three years. The totals will not improve as the season wears on.

Louisiana typically winters half of the ducks in the Mississippi Flyway, and 75 percent of those are found in the coastal zone. Duck hunting has long been a way of life here. So, when unusual weather patterns occur, many Louisiana waterfowlers are disappointed when normal concentrations of ducks and geese fail to materialize in their hunting area.

"Some people don't understand how important the weather is," Haydel says. "Not just here, but all the way up to Canada. Weather moves birds. And if the weather stays like this, we are not going to be seeing the numbers we're used to."

But never mind that. In the morning, we are bound for the marsh. This is opening weekend of the 2001-2002 season's second split. Eli, patriarch of Haydel's Game Calls, and I will be joined by two of his sons, Rod and Kelly.

Mosquitoes figure to be rampant. And Kelly passes on a report of spotting two alligators in the marsh en route to the blind. Little ones, so goes the story. Hunter, a blocky five-year-old black Lab, shrugs off the news with a twitch of his thick neck.

"As far as ducks go, we haven't been seeing many," Eli says as we settle into his unique fiberglass blind setup, wherein each person is sequestered in an individual compartment. "So, I really don't know what to expect this morning."

Rain looms as a definite possibility. Thunder booms far off in the distance. The sky is gray, limiting visibility. And so we sit, squinting into the gloom, looking for signs of birds on the wing. Scattered gunfire erupts as the morning awakens.

A single gadwall arrives out of the darkness. I fumble with the Browning Gold, entangle the barrel in the matted grass comprising the blind's front cover, snap two shots, and miss. Dang blind is camouflaged too well. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. Someone at the other end of the row of compartments snickers. Another groans. Kelly, showing respect to a visiting elder, is silent. But he's smiling. Pintails are up next, three of them. Two drakes fall to the Haydel triumvirate. Let them sort out who knocked down which. I'm still trying to figure out how to get a clear shot. Incredibly, no one else seems to share my dilemma.

"Where did all the pintails come from?" Rod asks no one in particular as we watch flocks of sprig trade high over the marsh.

"New ducks, maybe," Kelly replies, hopefully.

If the birds are indeed newcomers, they have found something to their liking in this portion of the Big Pasture Marsh. Perhaps it is the duck-calling lesson that the Haydels deliver-no charge. They all sound slightly different: Eli is the most laid back, Rod favors finesse, and Kelly is the most aggressive. Together, they team up to provide a convincing clinic on how to sound like a duck. My calls remain hidden away in the bottom of the blind bag because there is no sense ruining a good thing. My contributions would be like injecting rap music into a symphony.

The morning turns into a waiting game. No huge flocks hover over the decoys. But small groups are lured into range. Gadwall, pintails, mallards, and teal drop by. We watch white-fronted geese and great flocks of snow geese flying in all directions. Patience is the name of this game.

"Sometimes guys get too traditional out here," Eli says. "A lot of them, usually by 9 o'clock, figure they are going to do all that they are going to do and go in.

"The thing is, if you stay, you don't have to worry so much about others shooting and messing you up," he adds. "How many times have you been working birds only to have somebody close by shoot and flare them? I hate when that happens, because depending on where the wind is coming from, it can really mess you up. Staying a little later, you don't have that problem very often."

Haydel knows his stuff. He has been hunting the coastal marsh for three decades. And he has seen firsthand the changes that the marsh has undergone. The habitat loss has been extraordinary. Eli, his sons, and other dedicated waterfowlers are happy to learn that Ducks Unlimited is involved with efforts to restore the marshland they hold dear.

Ducks Unlimited members, staff, volunteers and partners have united to help prevent the precious Louisiana coast from eroding at an alarming rate. In coastal marshes one to two feet deep, individuals on hands and knees are planting smooth cordgrass on newly constructed terraces that will help reduce wave and wind action to restore these important wetlands. Step by step, planting one plug of grass at a time, people are making a difference in Louisiana's diminishing Gulf Coast wetlands.

About three-fourths of our nation's annual wetland losses take place in Louisiana. More than 1,500 square miles of marsh have been lost over the past seven decades. The coastal marshes are breaking up and vanishing into open water at a rate of 25 to 35 square miles a year.

These losses are staggering because of the important role coastal marshes play relative to waterfowl and other wildlife species. The shallow marshes and associated mudflats along the coast supply critical habitat to about 900 species of wildlife, including many that are threatened or endangered.

But this critical wetland habitat is continuing to seriously degrade. The natural compaction of deltaic deposits is causing coastal marsh bottoms to subside, making them deeper, a situation that is exacerbated by rising sea levels. Coastal marshes have been further deteriorating since man-made navigation channels changed the natural water flow patterns of the landscape, allowing saltwater to intrude into areas of the marsh where vegetation is less tolerant of high salinity. When this happens, the stressed vegetation dies, and organic soils are washed away, creating large areas of shallow, open water and broken marsh. These open water areas are characterized by relatively unproductive turbid water void of any submersed aquatic vegetation. Marshes adjacent to these large open water areas are currently experiencing severe erosion caused by wind-generated waves.

Ducks Unlimited and its partners are constructing duck-wing-shaped terraces 1,000 feet long and 40 feet wide and built to the height of two feet above the water to help reduce wave action from further damaging and eroding the Gulf Coast marshes.

Ducks Unlimited is working with government agencies, corporations, foundations, and private landowners through its various programs to conserve habitat on about 70,000 acres across 14 parishes in south Louisiana to help save critical wetlands. Partners in the Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Terracing Project include: Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Cameron Parish Police Jury, U.S. Geological Survey, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Miami Corporation, and Sweetlake Land and Oil. About 80 percent of Louisiana's coastal wetlands are under private ownership, and the value of landowner participation in these types of projects is critical to their success.

Approximately 27 linear miles of terraces are being constructed in interior open-water areas on both public and private lands. About 84,000 feet of terraces were completed by the end of May this year, and about 50,000 feet of new terraces were planted with cordgrass. With about 60 percent of the work already done, the entire project may be completed by the time you read this issue.

"This terracing project is one component of the large-scale restoration effort (LDNR's Coast 2050) currently under way in coastal Louisiana," says Chad Courville, Ducks Unlimited project biologist. "These terraces will complement the work already completed through programs such as the Breaux Act, Water Resources Development Act, and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources Act 6 projects. Strong partnerships, such as the one demonstrated here, and new partnerships will result in a positive future for Louisiana's wetlands and the waterfowl that frequent the Gulf Coast."

The morning is winding down. We start wrapping things up shortly before noon. Eleven ducks are in the bag, and all but one is a drake. It takes four hours, but I finally solve the riddle of the grass mats. The reward is a mottled duck, a cousin of the mallard, common along the Gulf Coast but seldom found elsewhere.

"You take that duck home with you," Eli says, "and you're going to confuse a lot of people when they try to identify it."

And a word need not be said about those lucky birds that flew away unscathed, all benefiting from a blind camouflaged too well.