Monday, March 31, 2008

April BirdFest


by Anne Butler

2008 BirdFest Poster by Murrell Butler
In St. Francisville, Louisiana, just north of Baton Rouge on the Mississippi
River, this spring marks the seventh annual Audubon Country BirdFest. The weekend of April 4, 5 and 6 brings birders and outdoor enthusiasts 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 and several choices of destinations. Birding In The Hills, planned for Saturday, offers two distinctly different routes; the Bluebird Route covers Oakhill and Hollywood Plantations, while the Redbird Route visits Beechwood Plantation and Woodhill Farm. Oak Hill, home of wildlife artist Murrell Butler, 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; warblers, orioles, tanagers, yellow-billed cuckoos, Eastern king birds, bluebirds, woodducks,
herons and ibises. Hollywood has 300 acres of woods and rolling fields, as well
as a picturesque lake for ducks and geese. Beechwood is traversed by Alexander Creek where Audubon often painted, and includes the historic cemetery where the artist's 1821 pupil Eliza Pirrie rests in peace. Woodhill Farm, originally part of Wakefield Plantation, has fields and pond with heirloom plants and plenty of birdlife.

Birding at the Plantations
Other field trips feature spectacular wilderness areas like The Nature Conservancy's Mary Ann Brown Preserve (Friday afternoon) with its mature beech-magnolia forest and lots of nesting bluebirds, and Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge (Friday afternoon, Saturday morning and afternoon, and Sunday morning). One of the largest tracts of virgin wetland forest along the Mississippi not protected by levees from cyclical flooding, the wildlife refuge is sometimes inundated by 15 to 20 feet of water in the spring, providing ideal habitat for huge populations of wintering waterfowl, and it also harbors the world's largest Bald Cypress tree, believed to be more than 1000 years old. Lifejackets and canoes are provided for the Cat Island trip, and participants are expected to paddle their own canoes for about 2 hours.

Egret at the St. Francisville Ferry Landing by ptWalsh
Other trips feature the Audubon State Historic Site for guided tours through the 200-year-old three-story main house and outbuildings plus trail walks (all 3 days), a Mississippi River Road Walk along this important migratory
corridor (all 3 days), and Wyoming Plantation (Saturday morning and afternoon) for excellent birding in a diversity of habitats right at the edge of downtown St. Francisville. On Sunday morning the gardens of Afton Villa host birders through yet another type of spectacular landscaped setting.

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 a yellow Prothonotary Warbler on a brilliant blue Louisiana iris.

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. The Feliciana
Nature Society sponsors a number of events each year in furtherance
of its goals to enhance community awareness, education and understanding
of the area's natural resources, but it is the Audubon Country BirdFest that most spectacularly showcases the Felicianas' abundant birdlife, unspoiled natural habitat areas and unique history.

Cat Island canoe trip
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.

Field trips and rotating tours are scheduled Friday, Saturday, and Sunday morning. On Friday evening, the opening social takes place at Audubon State Historic Site beginning at 6 p.m. with a talk by the Baton Rouge Advocate's Danny Heitman, a gifted writer whose new book, A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House, which comes out this month, concentrates on the artist's stay in the Felicianas and its supreme importance in his artistic career. A wine and cheese reception follows, as well as a tour of the Oakley House, which is especially lovely by candlelight.

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 Detailed online information is available at the very comprehensive website; 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.

Oakley House birding class.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. April also marks the immensely popular springtime Angola Prison Rodeo, combining the wildest show in the south with a huge selection of inmate-made arts and crafts (see for tickets). For online coverage of tourist facilities and attractions in the St. Francisville area, see,, or; or telephone (225) 635-3873 or 635-6330.