New Orleans and Jean LaFitte
Days 7 & 8 March 24th and 25th
Since I haven’t posted anything for a few days, I’m sure you’re thinking – Oh they got to the French Quarter and are still recovering. But no – that’s not the case. The 2 days in New Orleans were filled with training sessions with the National Audubon Society and a field trip to Batavaria Swamp/Jean LaFitte National Historical Park and Preserve.
We were invited to attend the training sessions because of our past connections with Audubon, but also our upcoming biking adventure in 2013 when we will bring attention to the Mississippi River and the Gulf it flows into. They invited Audubon Chapter members all along the River to attend. We were the only ones from Minnesota who were able to make it. The goal of the workshop was to train and inspire volunteers to go back to their communities and clubs and share what they learned with their members, as well as their elected officials. The National Audubon Society with its new president, David Yarnold has reconfigured the organization under the Flyways of the U.S. The Mississippi River is one of the four. Its importance to migratory birds cannot be overstated.
At the same time we learned a great deal about the Restore Act, which is a bill that would take the money from BP (and their oil spill) and concentrate it in the places where it is most desperately needed. Without it, the money could be used for unrelated federal spending. The story of the river delta and the gulf is both fascinating and disturbing. We humans have really messed things up in terms of the ecology and health of this massive riverine system. And it began as soon as Europeans started to settle the region in the late 1600s. Once major cities were built on those original sites, the river had to be forcibly chained to the route we wanted. Controlling this river is a never ending task and one we will ultimately fail at, unless we make some significant changes to the current system of control.
One of the obvious challenges is getting people all along the flyway to care about this situation. The further you live from the Gulf, the less you understand and dare I say, care, about its future. But if you like to hunt waterfowl, or if you like to see loons on your lake, or if you like the bluebirds who come back to your yard every year, you have to care about the Gulf region, where all of these birds (and hundreds more) stop during migration or actually spend the winter months. There are other important economic reasons to care, for those who aren’t into birds. The Gulf is where roughly 40% of all the commercial seafood in the lower 48 states is produced. And more than 25% of the nation’s waterborne exports pass through Louisiana ports alone.
It was a good session and we met a lot of good, caring people who expressed a strong interest in our bike trip and a willingness to help and connect with us when we come through next year.
Saturday ended with dinner at a place called Arnauds in the French Quarter (yes, we did go there again). It is a fabulous old (1918) restaurant made up of 13 homes that have been cobbled together over the years to make an establishment that today could seat 1000 people at one time. The original owner’s daughter sold the place in 1978 and since then it has been upgraded and improved to become one of the most famous eateries in the Quarter. Our main server was a man from Australia who not only brought our food to us, but also gave a historic recounting of the hotel and the characters who once frequented it. Photographs of celebrities with the proprietors lined the walls in the hallways. The restaurant is as much a museum as a place to eat.
After dinner we decided to walk around a bit and found ourselves on Bourbon street, the wildest streets in the entire country, I think. After a few blocks an idea flashed in my mind and I told Mike, “This place is like the Midway of the State Fair from Hell.” Music blasted out of open doorways, where nearly naked women performed undulating invitations to the goggle eyed men that stumbled past. Garishly costumed street performers drew crowds and camera flashes. Tourists carried slopping plastic cups of beer, or other concoctions, and teenage girls squealed as rows of young men tossed strings of colored beads down on them from the balconies above. We’re not in Kansas anymore honey (or Minnesota for that matter). Talk about the Devil’s playground! We wove our way through the clusters of gawkers, hucksters and hawkers for a few blocks and then I said, “let’s get off this and onto some of the side streets.”
Mike had wanted to see Preservation Hall, the famous Jazz emporium. We found it, but it was closed for a private event. On the other of the streets of the Quarter there are interesting looking shops selling art, clothing and other intriguing merchandise, and I enjoyed window shopping. When you get away from the maelstrom of Bourbon St. you can also see and appreciate the very old architecture. This is the area that was first settled, because it is on the highest land – a bump really, but high enough to keep it dry during Hurricane Katrina. I tried to imagine what the insides of the homes were like – there’s no question that there is a romance to this town and why artists and performers are drawn here. But I also know that in the heat and humidity of summer it would be unbearably oppressive (at least for a couple of northerners like us).
We walked the six blocks back to our hotel at a reasonable hour and had cocktails in our room at a much more reasonable price.
Sunday morning, after a final gathering of attendees and closing comments by the Audubon staff, we boarded a tour bus for a field trip out to Batavaria Swamp/Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. It is located a few miles southwest of downtown New Orleans. One thing you can count on when you go to a National Park or Preserve is recycling bins. We are all too familiar with the difficulty of finding places that recycle once we leave Minnesota. I asked one of the Audubon staffers, David Ringer who lives in Baton Rouge about Louisiana’s system and he said they do have curbside, so I asked if I could give him ours. It’s crazy I know, but I just can’t in good conscience throw things away that I know can be recycled.
At Jean LaFitte were met by a former employee of the Park who would be our guide on the walk. He explained the geology and ecology of the Preserve to us in a clear and comprehensive way as we stopped at different viewpoints. We were delighted to hear and see Parula warblers and a prothonotary warbler – both do come to Minnesota, but are difficult to see. Our guide was able to call these species in very close and Mike got some fantastic photographs. Gorgeous birds – the parula is a mix of blue, yellow and rust, while the prothonotary has a deep, glowing yellow body with black wings and beady black eyes. Everyone was getting a sore neck craning them backwards to look at the birds overhead.
But our eyes were also drawn to the ground next to the paved trail and boardwalk where banded water snakes rested or slipped through the dark water. Several young (and small) alligators floated and basked among the thick vegetation. One of our group spotted some of the squirrel tree frogs we’d been hearing, clinging to the backsides of leaves next to the boardwalk. These little frogs are a bright chartruse green, and perfectly matched the leaves they clung to.
Red shouldered hawks, Carolina chickadees and wrens, tufted titmouse, red winged blackbirds, and cardinals completed our bird list. It wasn’t the abundance we’d hoped for, but it included some very special ones. The actual migration of the tropical songbirds has not happened yet because they are tied into the photoperiod and we’re still a bit too early for that.
We were pleased to see lots of people, including families with kids, from all ethnic backgrounds out on the trails. While we seemed to be the only ones using binoculars, we were still glad to know that people were taking advantage of this rich preserve and getting their bodies moving.
Then it was back on the bus and a ride back to the hotel, where we retrieved our car and left the city of New Orleans for Bay St. Louis where we would spend the next two nights.
The Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis was our next residence due to a very good Groupon deal. We’re not casino types at all, but I will allow myself to lose as much as $5.00 at the slot machines. One man in the elevator asked me with a smile on his face, “Have you had any luck?” I said, “No, but I only bet $5, max.” A look of belief on his face and a surprised chuckle was his response. I told him we just come to these places because we can get good deals on the rooms. From the room we could look down at one section of the Gulf and watch great egrets and double crested cormorants fly over the dark brown water, occasionally landing on a wooden post poking up above the surface.
As the sun was beginning to set we drove over to the water’s edge to look for some new birds. Mainly we saw the black headed Franklin gulls – Lots of them – sitting on the wooden docks that poked out from the sea wall. On the other side of the road were the signs of the hurricane’s passing. Lots with just a cement pad and grass growing up in the cracks, skeletal remains of trees, a plastic slide for a pool that no longer holds water. But there were also new homes that have obviously been built since Katrina. Beautiful homes of one or two stories that rest on concrete or brick stilts at least one or two stories high. These people have decided to tempt fate, but with more space beneath them for the sea to rush through. The Hollywood where we were staying had been completely rebuilt too.
In the distance in either direction as we looked across the water we could see oil refineries, with smoke or flames issuing from their stacks day and night. Not the kind of scenery I’d want to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to see from my fancy new house. We also spotted a pair of eared grebes floating on the quicksilver colored water. These are waterfowl that migrate north in the spring.
The sun went down coloring the sky a deep pink, edged with orange and Mike captured it with a couple of gulls silhouetted in flight. Perfect.