Pearl River and the Honey Island Swamp
Pearl River and the Honey Island Swamp
The Honey Island Swamp offers some of the best and most accessible bottomland swamp birding in the area. To reach this area from New Orleans, take I-10 to the east past Slidell. After passing Slidell, watch for the major interchange at which I-10 splits off to the right toward the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I-59, the center fork, begins here and heads northward toward Picayune and Hattiesburg in Mississippi. Take I-59 north, past both Pearl River town exits. Then, immediately after crossing the West Pearl River, get into the right lane to take the the “Honey Island Swamp” exit (Exit 5-B).
After you leave the interstate, take a left at the T and follow the narrow paved road ahead (Old Hwy. 11) into the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area. The road proceeds for 2.5 miles to a washed out bridge at Indian Bayou. A Louisiana hunting or fishing license or a Wildlife Stamp is required to enter this area. (People under 16 or older than 60 are exempt. Licenses may be purchased on-line at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries website.) You must also fill out a day use card at the entrance.
There is very little traffic, and you can stop anywhere on the roadside. The birds are those typical of southern bottomland swamp habitat: Red-shouldered Hawk, Mississippi Kite, Pileated Woodpecker, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Barred Owl, Acadian Flycatcher, Great Crested Flycatcher, Wood Thrush, White-eyed and Red-eyed Vireo, Prothonotary Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Northern Parula, American Redstart, Swainson’s Warbler (not uncommon but very secretive; you must know its song!), Summer Tanager, Indigo Bunting, and so on. You may see an American Anhinga overhead. The specialty of this area is the Swallow-tailed Kite, which is present in small numbers from early April through August. If you’re lucky you may see one soaring over the trees.
Old Hwy. 11 is approximately 2.5 miles long, stretching from the entrance at I-59 Exit 5-B to the east end where the bridge is washed out. Each bridge along the way is a great place to look for Swallow-tailed Kites, Wood Ducks, Barred Owls, Prothonotary Warblers, alligators, and other wildlife. A swirl in a slough or roadside ditch might indicate playful River Otters. At the east end of Old Hwy. 11, park at the washed out bridge and find the foot trail down to the bayou.
Two gravel roads to the south are worth exploring, especially the westernmost, “Oil Well Road” which has a nature trail beginning about ¼ mile south of the pavement. The trail is about a ½ mile walk through bottomland forest, but includes a small area of beautiful cypress-tupelo swamp. This is a good place to look for Swainson’s Warbler, if you know the song. They are very easily called up by tape (please don’t overdo this). Oil Well Road is closed to vehicular traffic for part of the year, and this can make for some secluded birding. It is 3 miles long and heads mostly due south. It provides a fair chance of seeing Wild Turkey, and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons often nest along this road. Another gravel road is Indian Bayou Road near the east end of Old Hwy. 11, past bridge 9. It is 2.2 miles long and heads mostly due south, ending in several ATV trail heads. Poboy Road, the gravel road to the north is also interesting, and is especially good for Swainson’s Warbler.
Other areas of interest in the vicinity include the Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge, accessed from “Pearl River Turnaround” exit (Exit 11), about 6 miles north of the Honey Island exit on I-59. There is good habitat here for Painted and Indigo Buntings, Orchard Orioles, and for Yellow-breasted Chats. The open area to the south provides a good opportunity for scanning the sky for kites. You can go east to the bridge over the East Pearl River where Barn Swallows nest; Northern Rough-winged Swallows can often be seen here or over the gravel pits.
The James A. Schmidt Boardwalk and Trail is here. From the “Pearl River Turnaround” exit 11, take a right at the stop sign. Proceed south along the service road for about 1 mile, and take a left at the gravel road marked with refuge signs. When the gravel road turns to your left, you will see a small lake on your right. In the spring and summer time, there is a small colony of nesting Little Blue Herons and Cattle Egrets. The yellow gate on the service road is locked during April and May to keep boat traffic out of the lake during the nesting season.
If you are especially adventuresome, rather than heading back west on I-59 after passing under the bridge, take the narrow gravel “Honey Island Swamp Road.” Cliff Swallows and Barn Swallows nest under the bridge in the summertime. Honey Island Swamp Road traverses for several miles through bottomland, cypress swamp, and pinewoods. Approximately 4 miles from the interstate exit, watch for the Holmes Bayou trailhead and the parking area and kiosk on your left. The Holmes Bayou Trail is about 1 mile long and ends at Holmes Bayou. There are benches along the way, and the bank of Holmes Bayou is a good spot to sit and watch for birds. There is no exit, so you have to return to I-59.