Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Birding Opportunities Abound in Coastal Louisiana

This Region Is Home to Alligators, Eagles and Bears … Oh, My!

Louisiana Coast, March 10, 2016 – Part of the appeal of a visit to coastal Louisiana is the fact that its geography and climate make it a haven for a wide variety of animals – countless birds, plenty of alligators and even a special type of black bear. Visitors to the region have the opportunity to spot many rare species up close, and the 11 parishes that belong to the Louisiana Tourism Coastal Coalition (LTCC) feature dozens of parks, swamps and sanctuaries that are home to animals that are often difficult to find anywhere else.

Though the Louisiana black bear can't be found anywhere else, its population has been steadily growing around the state. Today the U.S. Department of the Interior officially removed the large, shy creature from the endangered species list because two of the state's three formerly independent bear populations have begun to intermingle, resulting in … baby bears and a bit of a population boom! At one time there were as few as 80 of these animals in existence, but these days there may be as many as 1,000 black bears in Louisiana.

The timing of this announcement comes just one month before the Louisiana black bear is the guest of honor at the annual Bayou Teche Black Bear Festival. Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge, which is located near the town of Franklin, was created specifically to provide a habitat for these bears. Since Louisiana black bears don't truly hibernate, it's possible to catch a glimpse of them any time of year at the refuge; they do tend to be reclusive, though, so a sighting can't be guaranteed! This year's festival, which will be held April 15 and 16 in downtown Franklin, will include guided paddling trips into the refuge, educational seminars, children's activities and – as any good Louisiana festival must have – delicious food.

Bayou Teche is also home to another animal that was removed from the endangered species list back in 2007, thanks to laws prohibiting the use of DDT and other harmful pesticides were put into place. Year round, but especially between October and March, American bald eagles can be seen throughout Louisiana. These days there are nearly 300 active eagle nests in the state, with about 250 of them being found between the towns of Morgan City in St. Mary Parish and Houma in Terrebonne Parish, right along the coast. On a water-based tour of the famed Atchafalaya Basin, which is the largest overflow swamp in the United States, it's possible for guests to see and learn about bald eagles and up to 170 other bird species.

A bird that's much less easy to spot but that beckons to birdwatchers the world over is the rare red-cockaded woodpecker. Measuring about 7 inches long and boasting a wingspan of nearly 15 inches, this species has a black cap and white cheek patches; the male has a small red streak, which is called a "cockade," on each side of his cap. This species of woodpecker doesn't migrate, so it nests in mature pine trees in coastal Louisiana all year long. This tiny bird and seven other species of woodpecker can be spotted in St. Tammany Parish, where visitors are most likely to see them in such bird-friendly areas as Big Branch Marsh, Pearl River, Abita Flatwoods Preserve, and the Northlake Nature Center, which hosts the Great Louisiana Bird Fest every April (this year's dates are April 15-17).

If we're really sinking our teeth into the topic of fascinating animals, however, let's agree that no trip to Louisiana is truly complete without at least one encounter with an alligator. In the town of Gibson in Terrebonne Parish, it's possible to visit Greenwood Gator Farm, where the Domangue family raises alligators from hatchlings to the 12-foot-long variety. All year round, guests can learn about the life cycle of the American alligator and hold baby gators. Those visitors who stop by in the summertime might even have the opportunity to hold an alligator egg as it hatches. In neighboring St. Mary Parish, guests might be able to spot a gator when they pick up maps and information at the Cajun Coast Welcome and Interpretative Center in Morgan City. A female gator who's been dubbed "Cayenne" built a nest just a few feet from the building's back walkway and laid 16 eggs last fall; just a few weeks ago, an 18-inch alligator was spotted in a swamp right near the building, and locals think that based on the animal's size and visible banding, it's entirely possible this young alligator could be one of Cayenne's offspring.

Those are just a few of the dozens of opportunities to explore the wild side of coastal Louisiana. Other locales that are ideal for nature encounters include the following:
  • Grosse Savanne Eco Tours in Southwest Louisiana's Calcasieu Parish takes guests through saltwater, freshwater and cypress marshes to educate them about the abundance of wildlife in the area. It's not uncommon for guests to see an alligator – or two or three or four – on one of these expeditions. More than 400 species of bird are also at home here, making this one of the top 10 birding destinations in the country.

  • Jungle Gardens on Avery Island in Iberia parish has its own "Bird City." The gardens were created by Edward "Monsieur Ned" McIlhenny, whose father invented Tabasco sauce and whose descendants continue to make that world-famous condiment right down the street from the gardens. The 170-acre facility was developed as a way to protect the snowy egret from extinction. The gardens offer guided birding tours by appointment, and the new Tabasco factory tour includes a nature conservancy exhibit to highlight local wildlife – including alligators, bears and deer.

  • There are three wildlife sanctuaries in Plaquemines Parish, two of which can only be accessed by boat. The Delta National Wildlife Refuge and Pass-a-Loutre Wildlife Management Area are both on the Mississippi Flyway, the main route for bird migration into and out of North America. It's possible to embark on a photo safari at either location. and

  • The town of Gueydan and the other southern areas of Vermilion Parish are well known for their birding. A prime location is the two-mile birding and nature trail at White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area. This area is very close to the parish's whooping crane "home base," where a non-migratory flock of rare cranes has made its home and can occasionally be glimpsed by human visitors. These magnificent birds are only found in North America, and it's estimated that only about 600 remain today.

Collectively known as the Louisiana Tourism Coastal Coalition (LTCC), the coastal parishes of Louisiana promote natural, recreational and cultural experiences to residents of and visitors to these parishes. The LTCC is also an advocate for the sustainable development of coastal communities and protection of the area's fragile wetlands. For more information, visit