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 the Pearl River exit to the Honey Island exit (Exit 5-B), just past the bridge over the West Pearl River.

After you leave the interstate, 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. Po-boy Road, the gravel road to the north is also interesting, and is especially good for Swainson's Warbler.
Pearl River Wildlife Management Area Map & Information | http://www.wlf.louisiana.gov/wma/2789

Other areas of interest in the vicinity include the Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge, accessed from Pearl River turnaround (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. In the spring and summer time, a colony of nesting egrets and herons. 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. The island near this bend is covered with nesting Cattle Egrets and Little Blue Herons. On the eastern shore of the lake are pairs of nesting White Ibis as well as more Cattle Egrets and Little Blue Herons. 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. From this gate, it is an easy walk to the trail.

The gravel road dead ends at the trail head to a short boardwalk around the north rim of the lake. The half-mile looping trail meanders through cypress swamp and bottomland hardwood forest. Prothonotary Warblers, Northern Parulas, Yellow-throated Warblers, White-eyed Vireos, Red-eyed Vireos, Carolina Wrens and Northern Cardinals are birds you are likely to encounter along the trail. The end of the boardwalk is across from a small group of nesting egrets and herons. The rookery remains active through at least the month of July. Please be respectful of the nesting birds: do not approach the island in a boat or attempt to walk to the nests near the end of the boardwalk. Barn Swallows and Rough-winged Swallows can sometimes be seen flying over the lake in spring and summer. Recently, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks have been investigating the nest boxes.
Note: Although portions of the boardwalk were damaged and are currently closed, the site is still worth birding. (Posted: 5/12/2017)

If you are especially adventuresome, rather than heading back west on I-59 after passing under the bridge, take the narrow gravel "Honey Island Road." This goes 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.
Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge Map & Information | http://www.fws.gov/boguechitto/

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