showcases St. Francisville's abundant birdlife
by Anne Butler
|Mississippi Kites over Cat Island NWR|
Oil Painting by Murrell Butler
Birding has been called the second fastest growing outdoor activity in the country, and the state of Louisiana, with its unspoiled forested areas, cypress swamps and coastal marshes, offers unparalleled birdwatching opportunities for enthusiasts throughout the year, especially during those periods when it provides a prime resting spot along migratory routes from cooler northern climes to more temperate winter homes in the southern tropics and then back again.
In St. Francisville, Louisiana, just north of Baton Rouge on the Mississippi River, this year marks the sixth annual Audubon Country BirdFest. The weekend of March 30, 31 and April 1 brings birders and outdoor enthusiasts in boots and binoculars to scenic West Feliciana Parish for an event perfectly suited to this part of Louisiana called Audubon Country. With habitat areas ranging from the hilly loessial bluffs and steep shady ravines of the uplands to the swampy river bottomlands with hardwood forests seasonally flooded by the Mississippi River in the absence of levees, the parish has had a rich and thriving bird population, both resident and migratory, ever since the famous artist-naturalist John James Audubon painted so many of his Birds of America studies there in 1821.
The popular Audubon Country BirdFest offers beginning and advanced birding, with transportation provided, through historic plantations and antebellum gardens with such evocative names as Hollywood and Ouida in the Weyanoke area, Beechwood and Woodhill Farm near Wakefield, Rosedown and Audubon (Oakley) State Historic Sites. Other field trips feature spectacular preserved wilderness areas like The Nature Conservancy’s Mary Ann Brown Preserve and the recently expanded Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge, a heartwarming example of private and governmental cooperation in conserving significant natural resources. Canoes and life jackets will be provided since the Mississippi River is "up," because Cat Island is one of the largest tracts of virgin wetland forest along the Mississippi not protected by levees from cyclical flooding. Sometimes inundated by 15 to 20 feet of water in the spring, the wildlife refuge provides ideal habitat for huge populations of wintering waterfowl and is home to the world’s largest Bald Cypress tree, believed to be between 800 and 1500 years old and an astounding 83 feet tall. Participants on the Cat Island trip are expected to
paddle their own canoes for about 2 hours.
|Bald eagle over Cat Island NWR |
photo by Patrick Walsh
Local wildlife artist Murrell Butler personally conducts the bird walks through his own property, Oak Hill, and as usual he has generously painted this year's fund-raising limited edition print of an exuberant pair of freewheeling swallow-tailed kites. Oak Hill has a wonderful diversity of bird habitats, from the steep slopes and deep hollows of the Tunica Hills to sandy creek bottoms, from Bayou Sara to the swampy Maynard Lake, from cleared cow pastures to deep dark woods, so participating birders usually spot dozens of different varieties on the property, including lots of spring birds…warblers, orioles, tanagers, yellow-billed cuckoos, Eastern king birds. There are Eastern bluebirds in nesting boxes, and always a pair of horned owls with young in an old hawk’s nest clearly visible through a telescope trained on a large pine tree. Around the pond and the lake, woodducks flash through the trees as they leave their nests in boxes and hollow trees, and herons and ibises fish in the shallows.
History and hiking, canoeing and conservation are all part of the BirdFest weekend put together by the Feliciana Nature Society, with activities geared to every age and interest level. Birding tours and field trips are led by recognized experts through areas rich in the flora and fauna for which West Feliciana is famous, including more than 175 species of resident and migratory birds. For novice birders or those not up to a strenuous field trip, some of the trips are rated for beginners, including one excursion that promises interesting sightings right in the middle of St. Francisville's oak-shaded National Register-listed Historic District overlooking the Mississippi River. In addition, Oakley has a full day of children’s nature programs and early 1800’s games planned for Friday.
The Audubon Country Birdfest pays tribute to the famed artist-naturalist John James Audubon, who arrived in St. Francisville by steamboat in 1821, penniless and with a string of failed business ventures behind him, but rich in talent and dreams, having set for himself the staggering task of painting all of the birds of the immense fledgling country. Hired to tutor the beautiful young daughter of Oakley Plantation, now preserved as Audubon State Historic Site, he was allowed his afternoons free to roam the woods, sketching and collecting specimens, painting a large number of his famous bird studies and cutting quite a dashing figure with his long flowing locks, frilly shirts and satin breeches. The bird walk through the Oakley grounds traverses much of the same territory the artist must have trod.
|Egrets in Cypress Swamp|
photo by Patrick Walsh
BirdFest headquarters are the St. Francisville Inn next to Parker Memorial Park, right in the heart of historic downtown St. Francisville; all tours and transportation originate there, and participants may register at headquarters or in advance (telephone 800-488-6502, mail P.O. Box 2866, St. Francisville, LA 70775, e-mail email@example.com). Detailed online information is available at the very comprehensive website www.audubonbirdfest.com; since each birding tour is limited to 20 participants, signing up in advance is a good idea. A large tally board recording bird sightings is located in the park, site of exhibits, artists, demonstrations, children's activities and nature-related vendors all day Saturday.
In the St. Francisville area, there are six antebellum plantations open for daily tours: Rosedown and Audubon State Historic Sites, The Myrtles, Greenwood, Butler Greenwood and The Cottage; Catalpa is open by reservation, and Afton Villa Gardens opens seasonally, with spring usually the peak of its blooming season. Picturesque 19th-century structures throughout downtown St. Francisville are filled with an eclectic selection of little shops, and reasonably priced meals are available in a nice array of restaurants. Some of the state's best Bed and Breakfasts offer overnight accommodations ranging from golf clubs and lakeside resorts to historic townhouses and country plantations; a modern motel has facilities to accommodate busloads. Recreational opportunities abound in the Tunica Hills, with excellent hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, golfing and horseback riding, in addition to the superb birdwatching. For online coverage of tourist facilities and attractions in the St. Francisville area, see, www.stfrancisville.net, or www.stfrancisvilleovernight.com; or telephone (225) 635-3873 or 635-6330.
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