If you find yourself traveling to, say, Dallas via I-20 and coming up on the US165 exit to Monroe, LA, I would heartily recommend a side trip to Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Lo and I wanted to find an interesting place to explore and do some bird watching. We had washed out with two previous spots (Tara Wildlife outside of Vicksburg and Rowlett Creek Preserve in Dallas). So when the wonderfully kind people at the Louisiana Welcome Center recommended this place (plus burying us with tons of literature and emailing us a 249 page bird listing) we were anxious to check it out. It was 2PM and in the mid-80’s…humidity was not too bad, especially given what we had expected in Louisiana. We checked in at the visitor center, picked up a map and talked “best spots” with the lady at the gift shop so we wouldn’t waste time figuring out where we should go…mid-afternoon is not the optimum time to be bird watching. There are ten miles of trails at the refuge but we focused on the mile and a half near the visitor center…that half mile was a pier boardwalk that extended out into the lake itself. The trails, not surprisingly, were flat, flat, flat. The largest “elevation gain” was about 5 feet, occurring in the middle of the pier which I suspect was to allow boats to pass underneath.
We started off on the “Nature Trail” which wound through a flood plain of stunted trees. Since I was only able to identify a couple (post oak and bald cypress), the periodic signs identifying different tree species were both extremely helpful and appreciated. Perhaps my favorite was the “horse apple” (osage orange) because of the crazy alien-looking fruit. Most of this area was dry but it had obviously been flooded from time to time. In the heavy brush we were able to see cardinals, Carolina wrens, tufted titmice and blue jays…pretty unspectacular. Spiders (I’m guessing mostly golden-silk spiders) were apparently having a national convention here as countless webs reflected sunlight like mirrors all through the woods. (A side note: there were almost no bugs…an issue that we were both amazed about and thankful for. Great job spiders!)
As we drew nearer to the lake, the dry land turned saturated and then to marsh with the same tea-colored water that I’ve seen in the Okeefenokee. The trail broke out onto the lake which was studded with dead, dying or maybe just needle-less cypress trees (I hadn’t realized that bald cypress trees are deciduous). The lake surface near the edge of the saw grass was covered with mostly brown dead “lily pads” each about 2 to 3 feet in diameter…I guess it was late in the season. We spent about an hour on the pier and spotted great blue herons, great egrets, an anhinga (a new species for me)….and two alligators! We also noted signs out on the lake that designated a canoe/boat trail or perhaps it merely identified the passage to the boat launch…given the trees, lily pads and reedy shore line, I’m sure it could be really confusing to know which way to go.
We left the pier at the boat launch and reentered the forest. The trail passed an amphitheater tucked away at the edge of the woods and eventually made its way back to the visitor center and the nearby “Conservation Learning Center.” We decided to drive over and check out an observation tower which the map showed as being right on the edge of the lake. What we found was an elevated and covered platform about 30 feet above the cypress forest floor…there was no lake anywhere in sight. Lots of trees and brush as far as you could see, but no water. I wondered if northern Louisiana is under the same drought conditions as Texas… but what I found on-line suggested otherwise. Maybe it was just the dry time of year.
Perhaps the most interesting issue for me was one of perspective. On the observation tower, you looked out over the canopy of an apparent impenetrable forest. However, when we retreated from the platform, we could easily see deep into the woods under that canopy, making out individual trees and their accompanying “knees” on the forest floor. A case of not seeing the forest for the trees…or the trees for the forest…depending on your vantage point or inclination…
As it turned out, bird watching was pretty disappointing…we see more birds and more varied species at our backyard feeder. To be fair, however, we had mostly ourselves to blame, given the time of day we chose to be there. What we did come away with was an appreciation for an environment totally different from what we’ve become accustomed. We’ve promised ourselves to return and visit early in the morning or just before sunset…and perhaps during a different season…with high expectations and nine more miles of trail to explore.