FOR THE BIRDS
White Lake WCA’s Birding and Nature Trail Offers The Chance To See Countless Avian Species
story by Trey Iles, LDWF Public Information
Rob Dobbs was like a kid at Christmas that day at the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area (WCA) Birding and Nature Trail. Dobbs, now the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Non-game Ornithologist, was assigned the trail during an Audubon Christmas Bird Count, a bird census conducted throughout North America from Dec. 14 - Jan. 5 each year.
Though the area he was given that day, which encompassed part of a 7.5-mile radius circle, was much larger than the trail, he ended up spending half his time there.
“I got here early and I kept seeing these flights of birds,’’ Dobbs said. “Thousands of geese, thousands of ibis. Walking these canal banks with the marsh on one side and trees on the other, I turned up a couple of rarities. I found a northern waterthrush, a species that typically winters in the Caribbean, in Mexico and farther south. Chickadees and other birds that you associate with more inland areas, more contiguous forest areas, were in good numbers in the small wooded part of the trail. I logged 70 species that day (at the trail).’’
What Dobbs encountered that winter day is the rule at the White Lake WCA Birding and Nature Trail not the exception. The 30-acre area, located at the northern end of White Lake WCA in Vermilion Parish in southwest Louisiana, is a birder’s paradise. It is one of the state’s, arguably the nation’s, top areas in which to view a large array of birds, be they migrant or non-migrant species.
The reason is the multiple kinds of habitat available, Dobbs said. There’s something for just about any kind of bird. And being only 25 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, it’s a great stopover for incoming or outgoing migratory species.
“There is a lot of freshwater marsh, there is woody vegetation associated with the canal banks and the edges of the marsh,’’ Dobbs said. “There’s a really nice woodlot that supports woodland birds at the front of the trail. And on the south side of the trail, it provides great views of some agricultural areas, which can be fantastic for waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, raptors and other open-country birds like blackbirds.’’
Fruiting shrubs and small trees, like yaupon and deciduous holly, are common along the trail and provide forage for many birds that feast on them in the fall and winter.
“Fruit is an important food resource for many species of migratory songbirds during fall migration,’’ Dobbs said. “Particularly flycatchers, vireos and thrushes. And a number of these migrants, like the hermit thrush and gray catbird, will overwinter and continue to eat fruit over the winter period.’’
The trail certainly isn’t the only area of Louisiana that is hospitable for many bird species. Most of the state’s coastal areas provide similar habitat and forage opportunities. But what makes White Lake WCA unique is the accessibility of the trail and how easy it is to navigate.
White Lake WCA is a 71,000-plus acre property managed by LDWF. There are some public access areas but, as a conservation area, it is not completely open to the public like LDWF’s Wildlife Management Areas. But the birding trail is available, usually from sun up to sun down every day during the year.
“We work hard to maintain the walking portion of the trails,’’ said LDWF Biologist Manager Schuyler Dartez, who works at White Lake WCA and oversees the trail. “Those trails provide access to marsh property and tree lined areas. We have a nice birding trail tower toward the back of the trail that provides an elevated view of nearby farmland, freshwater marsh habitat and the trail itself.
“The trail sits on fringe habitat. You have cropland, freshwater marsh and transitional habitats that attract so many bird species. And the trail provides a good diversity of habitat to walk around.’’
When to go, What to see
The trail is open year round but Dartez and Dobbs say it’s best visited during the cooler months of the year. Though open during the summer, you probably won’t encounter the large number of species you’ll see in the fall, winter and spring. Plus you’ll battle biting, annoying insects and Louisiana’s infamous heat and humidity.
“The majority of folks like to come out in the early morning hours,’’ Dartez said. “It gives you the best time weather wise but also good views and great lighting for photography.’’
October through April is the best time to visit depending on what species you want to see moving through, Dobbs said. October begins the migration of land birds. In November through February migrating waterfowl along with wading birds, ibis, egrets and herons can be seen.
“Once you get into the spring, you’ll have migratory birds coming up from the south,’’ Dobbs said. “Again, the trees along here are fantastic because they provide a lot of habitat, especially in April, for migratory warblers and other songbirds that are appealing to many folks.
“This is also a great birding trail for listening, especially for marsh birds like rails, particularly sora, king rail, Virginia rail and other secretive marsh birds like American bittern.’’
The isolated pockets of trees surrounded by marsh tend to attract rare species as well, Dobbs said. During previous Christmas Bird Counts, the least flycatcher, a bird that typically winters in Central America, has occasionally been documented at White Lake WCA.
“A gray flycatcher, of which there are only three records of in the state, turned up (at the White Lake WCA Trail) during a Christmas Bird Count,’’ Dobbs said. “The great kiskadee is a bird that has slowly been expanding its range up from Texas and Mexico. One of the few places it has been documented to breed in Louisiana is here at White Lake WCA.’’
Dobbs said the earlier you can get out the better, especially during the middle and late part of winter.
“That’s when you will see a lot of birds flying over, a lot of commuting flocks,’’ Dobbs said. “These birds roost in certain areas and then they scatter across the landscape to feed in different areas. So here early in the morning you can see huge flights of ducks, geese, ibis, different sorts of blackbirds. Then if you can stay late the same thing may happen in the evening around dusk.’’
But birds aren’t the only wildlife you may spot at the trail. Alligators and snakes make their home near the trail as well as a herd of deer. Dartez cautions visitors to be aware of reptiles.
“Many people think a lot of what you’ll see is waterfowl and you’re going to see ducks and geese,’’ Dartez said. “But you’re also going to see river otters, rabbits and deer that utilize the property.
“It’s pretty cool to come out to an area with freshwater marsh yet you’re seeing upland species. You’re seeing deer in an area that’s a managed waterfowl unit.’’
Dartez said alligators will come out during the spring and sunbathe on the trails. They are, of course, on the property throughout the year. In the winter, however, they stay hunkered in brushed areas in the water.
“We have many species of reptiles present and we always tell people to stay a safe distance away from snakes and alligators,’’ Dartez said. “It’s also important that visitors to the trail not feed wildlife.’’
How to get there
The White Lake WCA Birding and Nature Trail is fairly easy to find. It’s less than an hour from Exit 76 on Interstate 10, south on Louisiana Highway 91, and about seven miles south of Gueydan. Once you arrive at White Lake WCA on the highway, you’re at the birding trail.
There is a gravel area right off the highway with an educational kiosk at the entry point of the trail with parking available. The kiosk has a map of the property and one of the trail.
Though the destination is a prime birding area, Dobbs said on the trip to White Lake WCA you might also encounter many bird species.
“Whichever way you come, there are a lot of working wetlands,’’ Dobbs said. “You may pass concentrations of ibis, herons and egrets at any time of year, and ducks and shorebirds as they’re passing through in the fall and spring, and through the winter.’’
For more information about the White Lake WCA Trail, go to www.wlf.louisiana.gov/birding-and-nature-trail
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