Thursday, June 19, 2014

By Anne Butler
woodpecker oakley house
Pileated-woodpecker at Audubon SHS
photo by ptWalsh
Calling St. Francisville “for the birds” is hardly derogatory. In St. Francisville, it’s ALL about the birds, and it always has been, even since artist-naturalist John James Audubon arrived in the summer of 1821 and was spellbound by the lush landscape and richness of the birdlife. He painted several dozen of his famous bird studies right in the St. Francisville area, and left such an indelible stamp on the area that everywhere you look, there’s some tribute to the artist: the wonderful new Audubon Library, shiny cable-stayed Audubon Bridge over the Mississippi River, cozy little Audubon CafĂ©, even the ever-popular Audubon Liquor Store.
 In fact, the first tour of historic homes, as announced in the April 22, 1934, issue of the Times-Picayune, was a Bird Fete planned by the women of West Feliciana to honor Audubon and his wife at Greenwood, home of the Frank Percys, with a presentation of scenes from his life, plus historic homes open “for inspection,” and a colonial ball. Noted historian and author Stanley C. Arthur of New Orleans was master of ceremonies, and Audubon relics, including portraits, prints and letters, were on exhibit at the local library, sponsored by the Drama-Library League. Its successor, the Audubon Pilgrimage, began in 1972 and for four decades has attracted visitors to St. Francisville to revel in the history.
The gifted writer Danny Heitman wrote a small gem of a book entitled A Summer of Birds cataloging Audubon’s time at Oakley Plantation near St. Francisville, and some of the area’s most popular special events have been birding-oriented. The Audubon Birdfest, a wonderful weekend of birding tours through the woodlands guided by experts, was put on hold after an expensive television camera went overboard with its operator while canoeing in the Cat Island Swamp, but the Hummingbird Festival continues to be popular.
Music at the Birdman
photo by ptWalsh
Especially appropriate in this area that harbors such a huge population of both resident and migratory birdlife, the event is sponsored yearly by the Feliciana Nature Society and highlights the unique hummingbird feeding and breeding habitat that entices ruby-throats to linger awhile in the months between late March and early September as they migrate between South/Central America and Canada. Hummingbird Festival weekend usually begins on Friday evening with an expert speaker and a wine and cheese reception in the spectacular 27-acre gardens of Rosedown State Historic Site.
On Saturday morning the festival continues at two private gardens, where vendors offer hummingbird-attractive plants and where hummingbird biologists Linda Beall and Nancy Newfield capture and band birds, giving visitors the rare opportunity to observe the tiny creatures up close as they are being weighed and measured. The banding sites are the homes of Carlisle Rogillio on Tunica Trace and artist Murrell Butler on Oak Hill Road, both of which usually attract dozens of hummingbirds.
The Hummingbird Festival has traditionally been held in July, but recent years have attracted fewer and fewer birds, so this year’s festival has been moved to the weekend of September 12 and 13, when there should be an abundance of migratory hummers on their way south for the winter. Hopefully the local weather will be more comfortable for festival attendees as well as the little birds.
And so St. Francisville’s Summer of Birds becomes its Summer of Arts, for after all Audubon’s Summer of Birds was all about art as well. The local umbrella arts agency, Arts For All, is hosting three July activities at Birdman Books & Coffee that promise to be creatively stimulating even in the sizzling summer heat. The fourth annual Songbird Music School, for ages 18 and up, on July 12 and 13, is a full weekend of classes in banjo, mandolin, guitar, voice, fiddle and dobro, providing small instructional classes as well as opportunities to play acoustic music together. Intended for beginners through seasoned performers, the instructional and collaborative workshops are designed to help musicians sharpen their skills or perhaps learn an entirely new instrument. Saturday sessions are geared to each participant’s skill level, leading to Sunday afternoon’s performance. For information on instructors, programs and registration, see  A Young Songbirds Music Camp for ages 10 to 18 follows July 14 to 18 at Birdman in the afternoons.
Walter Waters
Painting by Walter Waters
Also sponsored by Arts For All, beginning at 10 a.m. on July 19 in Parker Park, watercolor master and plein air painter Wyatt Waters will unfold his handmade wooden easel and work for a couple of hours on location right there in the center of historic downtown St. Francisville, giving observers an understanding of why he was the recipient of a Mississippi Governor’s Award for his body of work. This is free and open to the public. In the evening, he displays yet another talent, joining his artist-musician friend Lee Barber in concert at Birdman at 7 p.m., joined by percussionist Bruce Golden; there is a cover charge.
So visitors will just have to wait until September for the Hummingbird Festival, but in July there’s music and art at the quirky local venue known as the Birdman; how fitting is that!
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination.  A number of restored plantation homes are open for tours daily: Cottage Plantation, Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season, and spring is definitely the season for spectacular bloom. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer fascinating living-history demonstrations some weekends to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Sunday and Monday).
Hummingbird by ptWalsh
Hummingbird on Flower
photo by ptWalsh
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty shops, many in restored historic structures, and restaurants serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register historic district; there are also motel accommodations for bus groups.
For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society’s museum and tourist information center at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224 or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online visit, or (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).