Waders, Warblers and those who Watch
Shhh,” she says suddenly. It’s early March and wildlife photographer Nancy Camel is at Lake Martin, surrounded by the woods and waters of Cypress Island Preserve in St. Martin Parish. That’s not news; she’s there most any time, with her giant lens trained on something moving in all that greenery. The big news, she’ll tell you after she gets the shot, is it’s spring again and, come hell or hurricanes’ high water, the show goes on. Despite their unprecedented and unexplained evacuation in the midst of last spring’s nest-building, the wading birds of Lake Martin are back again in force, dressed to the nines in spring plumage and performing their rites and rituals of the season.
The birdwatchers are also on schedule, following Louisiana’s ibises, egrets and herons as eagerly as birds follow crawfish. At Lake Martin alone, some 20,000 pairs of wading birds will meet, court and mate this year, with upwards of 50,000 shameless voyeurs – hundreds every day – watching their every move. In fact, the 50,000 will be reinforced this year by field-tripping members of the American Birding Association gathering in Lafayette for their annual convention. It’s the first time a city this size has hosted the giant and prestigious organization, but then, what other mid-size city in the country is so utterly surrounded by world-class birding opportunities?
“Lake Martin’s going to hook the Association folks just like it did me,” says photographer Camel, once a camera-wielding soccer mom for whom the challenge of “capturing motion” led to her earliest interest in nature photography. Abruptly in 1999, she traded a too-stressful and too-indoor executive position for a profession in wildlife photography. “First I headed west, thinking that all nature photography was done in Montana,” she recalls with a wry smile, “but then I had a chance to train right here at Lake Martin with Arthur Morris, a master wildlife photographer, and the moment I saw my first roseate spoonbill I was in love.” Since then she’s done for Lake Martin what Julia Sims has done for Manchac Swamp, what Clyde Lockwood and Greg Guirard have done for the Atchafalaya: She has devoted countless days and hours to a vigil that has produced enough magical images to properly convey the array of bird, animal and plant life that makes Lake Martin such a perfect microcosm of Louisiana outdoors. You can find those photographs – and lively verbal descriptions of courtship dances, nest-building techniques, shared male-female duties of nest-guarding and food-gathering – in The Nature of Things at Lake Martin, 128 big pages of beauty, newly published by Acadian House in Lafayette.
Many national and international visitors are willing to journey to Louisiana for just a brief glimpse of these avian rites of spring (or the great waterfowl migrations of winter,) but with just a few short drives, those of us living here can enjoy the entire nesting season. March and April bring peak activity in the coastal parishes, followed in late April and May by the lure of easy expeditions through our central and northern parishes, along the Red, Tensas, Ouachita and Mississippi valleys, to enjoy woodlands filled with nesting songbirds and great moss-draped lakes filled with hawks, owls, eagles and, even that far inland, a surprising number of wading birds.
Here’s a tiny sampling of what awaits you around the state, and remember our credo: take maps, take cameras and take back roads. Add binoculars and insect repellent, and take a Wildlife Stamp (from your outfitter or sporting goods store) for visiting the National Wildlife Refuges. Regional and state birding checklists can be found at Louisiana Ornithological Society and Audubon Society Web sites, and many state and national forests, refuges and wildlife management areas provide their own. A booklet with good maps and suggested birding-tour routes, the Office of Tourism’s America’s Wetland Birding Trail of the Louisiana Gulf Coast, is available free at state welcome centers or by calling (800) 99-GUMBO – a second edition available later this year will expand coverage to the entire state.
To find photographer/author Camel’s paradise, drive five miles down Bayou Teche from Breaux Bridge on La. 31 and take the Lake Martin Road southwest to the Cypress Island Preserve. There you’ll find half of Lake Martin ringed by Rookery Road and the other half ringed by a 2.8-mile levee-top hiking trail. Halfway along that trail, Midway Peninsula Park juts into the lake, providing sweeping views of the cypress-studded waters and also serving as a starting point for good trails (maintained by the Louisiana Nature Conservancy) through varying terrains and habitats.
If you try your luck at the National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) along the Creole Nature Trail (Southwest Louisiana’s famous marshland drive through Calcasieu and Cameron parishes,) you might see “Refuge Complex” information officer Diane Borden-Billiot at the Lacassine NWR’s famed roseate spoonbill hideaway called Lacassine Pool. That’s probably the most productive spot still accessible since Hurricane Rita, she says, although other walkable spots can be found here and there – such as some levee-tops at Cameron Prairie NWR’s Pintail Drive. NWR boat ramps aren’t open, but you can access the refuges by boat from peripheral points such as Johnson Bayou, Black Bayou and Saline Lake. Clean up of the marsh’s unimaginable mounds of hazardous materials and other debris from flattened coastal towns has been miraculously fast, and 2008 promises many rebuilt facilities and much greater access.
Our oldest bird sanctuary, Bird City at Avery Island, was developed by Edward Avery McIlhenny, born on that salt dome “island” in 1872. He created Jungle Gardens and Bird City as an animal and wading bird preserve and as a repository for the exotic plants gathered on his far-flung scientific expeditions. His rookeries saved the heron and snowy egret (once in demand by the fashion industry for their plumage) from extinction and he authored three Louisiana nature classics: Bird City in 1934, Life History of an Alligator in 1935 and Autobiography of an Egret in 1939.
Michael and Kim Seymour of Baton Rouge, who’ve just spied a Mississippi kite from their favorite spot in the Atchafalaya NWR (which shares a big parcel of Atchafalaya beauty with Louisiana’s Sherburne Wildlife Management Area,) are taking a break to swap opinions with some out-of-staters (who’ve stopped to see the spoonbills and wood storks at Sherburne’s popular South Farm area) about why they do what they do. “Lot’s of hikers evolve into birders just because it adds interest to those long walks,” says Michael Seymour, “but the big incentive is that people are realizing their need for the outdoors. These places are refuges for us as much as for the birds.” Sherburne certainly serves that purpose for nearby Baton Rouge and Lafayette. Thanks to the levee road that leads south to it from U.S. 190 at Krotz Springs or north from the Whiskey Bay exit off Interstate-10, it’s possibly the deepest glimpse folks can get into the Atchafalaya’s interior without a boat.
Speaking of urban-accessible, Frank Bonifay’s incredible Alligator Bayou preserve is just below Baton Rouge (take the Highland-Perkins exit) but actually located on the “Isle of Orleans” by virtue of being on the west bank of Bayou Manchac. The 1,500-acre parcel of primordial Mississippi-overflow swampland is in the process of being saved by this 52-year-old retiree (the word always makes him laugh since he’s “working harder now than ever.”) It is ideal for rookeries, with crawfish to feed the birds and ‘gators to dine on furry critters that like to feast on the fowl. There’s also a historic Cajun-cabin museum, a chance of glimpsing giant snapping turtles and even more wildlife along the trails and waterways than the Web site (alligatorbayou.com) can hold.
HILLTOPS, RIVER BOTTOMS
Of Louisiana’s so-called “Florida Parishes” (east of the Mississippi and above lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain,) St. Tammany and Washington fared worst from Hurricane Katrina with the pileated woodpecker and other endangered species losing vital breeding grounds (perhaps 70 percent of the trees) and recuperation will be slow. However, in the Feliciana Parishes to the west, descendants of 32 of the birds that made John James Audubon famous are still nesting happily along Thompson’s Creek and in the treetops and hardwood bottoms around what is now the Audubon State Historic Site (five miles south and east of St. Francisville via U.S. 61 and La. 965.) There you’ll see original-edition Audubon prints and the room occupied during summer and fall of 1821 by the artist in this 200-year-old Oakley House, surrounded by 100 woody acres complete with nature trails and an Interpretive Center that displays artifacts such as Audubon’s paint box, glasses and army-style cot. You can find other birding opportunities hereabouts, all very familiar to Audubon, and the nearest is a Nature Conservancy property called the Mary Brown Nature Preserve, four miles east of Oakley on La. 965.
By late April nesting has begun in earnest in the upland parishes and will last through May and into June. You can choose between wooded hill country terrain and bottomland swamps that range from cypress to tupelo/hardwood, and you’ll even find trails through large parish and city parks such as West Monroe’s Kiroli Park and Bossier’s Cypress/Black Bayou Recreation Area.
The five huge divisions of Kisatchie National Forest scattered about Central and North Louisiana, and the State Arboretum and State Forest just south of Alexandria, all boast great trails and observation spots. The varieties of size, shape and color of all those males, females and hatchlings make the descriptions and color photos of a good “store-bought” field guide essential if you’re serious about identification.
In the northernmost tier of parishes, the terrain and habitat range from the great Tensas River NWR on the east, to a string of giant forest-lined reservoirs like Claiborne and D’Arbonne across the middle and, to the west, a mysterious and beautiful series of swamps, bayous and cypress lakes left to us by, shall we say, the vagaries of prehistoric Red River-related hydrologies.
Little Blue Heron
If in a quiet moment you’ve ever formed a mental picture of a perfect Louisiana cypress swamp, the image you conjured, whether you know it or not, was of stunning, moss-draped Caddo Lake – that wet and wild wilderness that forms the Louisiana-Texas state line in that region. Even without a boat you can spend hours observing swamp life from the comfort of your trusty folding chair at the 40-acre Williamson Park on La. 1 in Oil City or dandy little Horace Downs Park on the Crouch Dam Road near Mooringsport.
For the best introduction to this area, circle north of Shreveport on Loop 220 and take La. 173 north to Blanchard, where a left turn at the Post Office will lead you three miles west on the Blanchard-Furrh Road to the Jacobs Memorial Nature Park. It is 160 acres of pine, oak and hickory habitat with a good interpretive center and five miles of nature trails that crisscross forests, meadows and creek bottoms. Naturalist Larry Raymond says enthusiasts come from far and wide to spot a white-breasted nuthatch and that it’s absolutely the best spot for seeing a Louisiana water thrush. While looking for those, however, don’t be annoyed by the distraction of all those Acadian flycatchers, northern perula warblers, ruby-throated hummingbirds, pileated woodpeckers, tanagers, vireos …
Meanwhile, Nancy Camel is back at Lake Martin, camera and tripod set for whatever wonders might appear. However, she’s really here to relax and review some thoughts about her presentation to the American Birding Association: The abundance of the wading birds she loves, the geologic significance of the little refuge wedged between the “Cajun prairies” and the Teche ridge, even the special quality of green that spring brings to Lake Martin. Then, inevitably, something imperceptible to the rest of us moves out there and, the convention and speech instantly forgotten, she’s back at the camera again.
Rookery Bookery: You can find Nancy Camel’s irresistible The Nature of Things at Lake Martin at most any bookshop or order directly from the publisher at acadianhouse.com. Better still, those attending the American Birding Association’s Lafayette convention will find the author manning a sales booth.
Indoor Wildlife: The Louisiana Natural History Museum at Louisiana State University has always offered awesome exhibits of indigenous bird, animal and insect life; now it’s become a center for amassing invaluable nesting-ground inventories as well as a compilation center for future Louisiana bird atlases and other publications. How long since you’ve visited? Best “Rockers”: The Back Porch Band of Natchitoches has released Sandy River, a CD of old favorite Irish, Scottish and English songs that you might just remember. Bill Bryant of Northwestern State University, whose armadillo cartoons appeared in Louisiana Life until he’d “drawn” most of the humor out of those “possums on the half-shell,” says you can order the CD or book the group by calling (318) 352-5417.