National Audubon Society

3: Audubon Arks

"The future is not regulatory."

Former President Jimmy Carter

Accepting the Audubon Medal, 1995

Audubon's oldest wildlife sanctuary bears the name of one of the many colorful characters in the Society's long history. Paul J. Rainey was a high-living young man whose escapades made him notable even in the "Roaring Twenties." Among his dubious exploits were hunting African lions from horseback with hounds, and returning home from another trip with a live polar bear he had lassoed on the Arctic ice. Rainey also happened to own extensive marshes in southwestern Louisiana Those marshes provided a home for the Blue Goose, then considered a distinct species (rather than a color phase of the Snow Goose) and a rare one at that. When Rainey died of a heart attack at 46 in 1923, Audubon leaders persuaded his sister, Grace Rainey Roger, to give the land to the Society.

The Paul J. Rainey Sanctuary was a prize beginning for Audubon's system at a time when waterfowl of all kinds were under intense hunting pressure. The system grew steadily over the next several decades. It reached a crescendo of activity during the years 1966-86 when the sanctuaries were presided over by John "Frosty" Anderson.

Anderson was a specialist in waterfowl who had studied game management during its infancy as an academic discipline. Aldo Leopold, the father of game management, recommended Anderson for the manager position at Winous Point Shooting Club. The club, located on Lake Erie, is the oldest waterfowl hunting club in the U.S. (chartered in 1856). Anderson held the position for 15 years, where he carried out studies on aquatic vegetation and waterfowl feeding habits. Anderson helped Audubon acquire a number of prime wetlands for ducks and geese as its system expanded to 100 sanctuaries covering 150,000 acres.

canvasback

Canvasback female
by Tupper Blake

Rainey's 26,000 acres of brackish and freshwater marsh remain a rich feeding area for wintering waterfowl. Originally, natural current in the bayous had not been strong enough to erode and carry off marsh grasses. But the Intra-coastal Canal has speeded the flow of water and caused levels to fluctuate widely. Cajun staff countered those effects by building rock weirs to slow the currents and planting smooth cordgrass along the marsh's banks to protect them from erosion.

Ducks need all the help they can get. And if the private organizations don't do it today, who will? One of Audubon's newest ventures into wetlands protection is the Florence Gilmore Sanctuary on Great Salt Lake. Starting with 1,600 acres, acquired in 1996, the Society hopes eventually to preserve 20,000 acres of saline playas and wetlands on the lake's southeastern corner. Another goal is to restore fine waterfowl habitat on the delta of the Jordan River. With a grant of $1.4 million to acquire water rights and restore wetlands, this project is quickly building momentum.

On the Atlantic side Audubon goes on providing habitat in areas where waterfowl are finding it in short supply. Wildlife and development interests have experienced their familiar clash around Currituck Sound and the Outer Banks at the northern end of a long chain of barrier islands on the North Carolina coast. In 1978, the Society acquired 250 acres of barrier islands and 3,500 acres of freshwater and brackish marsh that had once belonged to the Pine Island Duck Club. The donor, Mr. Earl Slick, of Winston-Salem, wanted to insure that those special wetlands would be permanently protected.

Then Audubon traded oceanfront property for marsh and uplands on Currituck Sound that were of more value to waterfowl. The resulting 5,221 acres in the Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary now provide secure feeding and resting areas for birds while offering biologists some excellent opportunities for long-term scientific studies. The needs of people and wildlife do not always need to be at odds.

A great waterfowl haven on an ex-Superfund site only 50 miles north of New York City? That's Audubon's Constitution Marsh Sanctuary, located on the eastern shore of the Hudson River across from West Point. Its 270 acres of wetlands illustrate the many aspects of land management that make Audubon sanctuaries uniquely important to the health of waterfowl populations in North America. In all, 25 species of ducks, geese, and swans have been listed in the marsh.

Sanctuary manager James P. Rod calls this marsh "the supermarket on the Hudson." It is primarily a cattail marsh which has not been extensively invaded by that bane of so many nearby marshes -- Phragmites, or giant reed. In fall, the cattails die back and their remains feed tiny aquatic creatures, which in turn feed larger ones. Waterfowl food is abundant, with large beds of Wild Rice, Wild Celery, and Arrow Arum.

Constitution Marsh is the only large tidal wetland on the 100-mile stretch of river between Bear Mountain Bridge and Albany closed to waterfowl hunting. During the hunting season, its staff provides protection the old-fashioned way--with wardens on patrol. Consequently, the sanctuary is a significant migratory stopover and early winter refuge for several species, notably Black Ducks and Mallards. Wood Ducks are common nesters, with 1,000 present by September. Black Duck numbers range from 1,500 to 3,000 in fall.

It's a far cry from the sorry state of the marsh when Audubon took over its management. In 1969, Laurance Rockefeller and Lila Wallace bought the marsh and gave it to new York State with the stipulation that Audubon manage the property as a sanctuary. But cadmium, leaking from a battery factory nearby, had spread through the marsh like a stain. Both plants and animals suffered from cadmium poisoning. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the area a Superfund Site in 1983. With the closing of the factory, however, and with some tender care, the marsh recovered and New York State has named it a Critical Coastal Habitat.

duckling

Shoveler ducklings
by Tupper Blake

The marsh benefits not only ducks and geese but also local children. Rod has built a 300-foot boardwalk over the cattails and assembled a fleet of canoes. Classes from nearby schools get the full tour, with a lecture on how a tidal marsh serves as a nursery for all the creatures of the river.

Even cadmium has left a benign legacy at Constitution Marsh. A former owner of the battery plant agreed to pay for a new visitor center and establish a fund to cover the electricity bill and minor maintenance for the next 30 years.

"The center is fully heated," says Rod, "giving us at last a warm winter place to work like everyone else at Audubon."

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