Bonnet Carre Spillway, Reserve and Laplace
The Bonnet Carre Spillway is about ten miles west of New Orleans International Airport. This is a floodway which is occasionally used to relieve high water on the Mississippi River by diverting some of it to Lake Pontchartrain, and is the heart of the Reserve-Bonnet Carre Spillway Christmas Bird Count circle. The undeveloped land of the spillway is over ten square miles of fields, marsh, and weedy waste areas, with some woodlands. The area can be interesting at any time, and is especially so in winter.
Access to the spillway can be had either from US 61 (Airline Highway) or from River Road. River Road crosses the spillway just inside the floodgates, a few yards from the river. Dirt roads (which can get very muddy) wind through the portion of the spillway between River Road and US 61 to river road, and roads follow the guide levees of the spillway from US 61 to the lake. I-10 crosses the lake end of the spillway, but of course no stopping is possible.
The best shorebirding is generally at the river end of the spillway, on the exposed mudflats outside the gates during low water (summer, fall, and winter). This area can also be good for LeConte’s Sparrow and Sprague’s Pipit in winter. A surprising variety of birds–raptors, herons, egrets, ducks, and sparrows – can be found here on a good winter day. There is an interesting patch of woods on the river batture (that is, between the levee and the river), just upriver from the mouth of the spillway.
The lower half of the spillway is good for a variety of sparrows and other passerines (Palm Warblers in winter, for example) which prefer long grass, heavy weeds and brush, or shallow marsh. The 1500+ acres of open fields in the lower half are accessible by car, and can be very productive. Scanning for hunting raptors is recommended, too.
Extensive woods are located in the part of the spillway closest to the lake, north of US 61. They can be reached from the road on top of the east (south) guide levee, from the top of the west guide levee (note: sometimes muddy), and also from a road just outside the levee to the west. These swampy woods are especially interesting in winter.
Where the south levee ends at the lake, one can walk to the lake itself and scan it with a scope for possible scoters or Oldsquaws in winter. It is also possible to walk south (east) along the railroad tracks to view a portion of the fresh water marsh at Labranche. A Bald Eagle might be seen here in winter, or an Osprey in migration.
The cypress-tupelo swamp back of the marsh can be penetrated from US 61 on an oil company road leased by Exxon, which is about 6 miles above New Orleans International Airport. It can be walked as far as five miles into the swamp and is good in summer as well as winter. It is, of course, private, and access is only at the forbearance of Exxon and the landowner. No large group should enter without permission.
The Reserve-Bonnet Carre Spillway Christmas Count annually nudges 150 species. The count circle offers the best overall habitat south of Lake Pontchartrain for Chipping, Field, Vesper, Fox, and Lincoln’s Sparrows, as well as Dark-eyed Juncos, and Eastern Bluebirds. It also has some of the best habitat for Rusty Blackbirds.
RESERVE AND LAPLACE
Frenier Road: From I-10 take the Laplace exit and proceed north on US 51 about ½ mile. A gravel road takes off to the right and leads to Lake Pontchartrain. Once a very attractive drive, dumping has made it very unsightly. However, Winter Wrens and other goodies can frequently be summoned by squeaking. The only access to the swamp is from the railroad tracks or the camp at the east end of the road. The lake frequently has ducks, gulls, terns, etc. Ospreys can sometimes be found (in migration) perched on the dead cypress trees on the water’s edge to the right.
Peavine Road: This area is somewhat swampier, though it’s only a mile north of Frenier Road. Typical swamp birds can be found here. Walking the railroad tracks can be productive, but the best spot is located along the lakeshore at the end of the road to the left where the camps are situated. Drive to the last camp and proceed on foot along the trail which parallels the lakeshore. The tempering effect of the lake makes this an ideal spot for overwintering summer birds. There is good walking on the trail. Watch for snakes in spring or summer.
Oil Field Road: From US 51 a service road heads west along the north side of I-10 for about ½ mile. At its end an oil field road penetrates deep into the swamp (several miles). The walking conditions are good, and typical swamp birds may be seen. The land is leased by a hunting club and there is usually no trouble birding here. However, do not enter if a deer stand is erected along the road, and if hunters are on the road, ask the first one to ascertain whether a hunt is in progress. There should be no problem outside of hunting season.
Sewerage Pond (Reserve): Proceeding west from Laplace along US 61 (Airline Highway), a blinking light (DuPont Construction exit) indicates the outskirts of Reserve. A mile farther is a traffic light (LA 53). Approximately 100 yards before the signal, a shell road takes off to the right. There are residences here but the road is the property of the sewerage district. Unlock the gate and proceed to the sewerage pond. Stop short of the levee and proceed carefully on foot to the edge of the pond. In winter Hooded Mergansers and other diving ducks can usually be found, along with Pileated Woodpeckers, White Ibis, Rusty Blackbirds, Brown Creepers, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and many other swamp birds. Walking the perimeter of the levee can be interesting. Most of the ducks are found on the far end of the pond, especially the Hooded Mergansers. Forego birding if hunters are present.
Field/scrub (for ground-doves any time of the year): Proceed east on Airline Highway (US 61) to East 12th Street (opposite Navigational Canal). Drive to the railroad tracks and park. Walk westward on the tracks until a likely looking field is seen. Work these fields, especially the burned-over ones. A good effort will usually produce Common Ground-Doves. Sometimes these doves can be found searching for grit on East 12th Street between the two railroad tracks.