As part of the 70th annual Louisiana Outdoor Writers (LOWA) conference, we visited the Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge near Franklin. After piling into our vehicles, we traveled to the NWR headquarters where US Fish and Wildlife ranger Brian Pembert and volunteer Donovan Garcia greeted us with fresh coffee, maps, and lots of vital information about the refuge. Garcia, who volunteers through “Friends of the Bayou Teche NWR“, shared a brief history of the area, including how the refuge came to be. In addition to giving oral history lessons, he also leads kayak trips through the section of the refuge accessible only by paddle craft.
Bayou Teche NWR’s 9,028 acres provide prime habitat for Louisiana black bears, a protected species and other indigenous wildlife like white tail deer and raccoons. In order to promote research and restoration of the Louisiana black bear, the NWR works with other government agencies and the Black Bear Conservation Coalition. Another goal of the refuge is to provide the highest quality migratory bird habitat possible for waterfowl and neo-tropical songbirds. Garcia told us the fateful story of the black bear cub pictured below. Nearby Highway 90, dotted with restaurants and fast-food chains, runs through many miles of black bear habitat. As a result, the bears are attracted to those food aromas, and as Garcia put it, “Black bear cubs get an envie for a Big Mac just like you do! Only problem is, they don’t always make it across the highway safely.”
The refuge, divided into three distinct locations at Franklin, Centerville, and Garden City, offers primitive hiking trails, mowed walking trails, and paddle trips. Opportunities for public use include bird watching, wildlife observation, boating, and photography. While the refuge is home to wildlife like deer, raccoons, and black bear, we might have been just a little too noisy for their liking. As you may know, outdoor journalists are an inquisitive bunch, and as such, our questions and chatter disrupted any chance we had of sneaking up on an unsuspecting black bear.
We started our journey at the Centerville Unit just outside the town at the end of Stinson Road. A lush green trail beckoned to us, a hint of the early-morning cool lingered in the shadows. I walked alone at first, ahead of the others, quietly with camera in hand, getting a feel for the energy of this forest. A place rife with abundant flora of varying types, some of which many of us had never before seen. For me, the first such plant was the native Illinois Bundleflower, (Desmanthus illinoensis), pictured below. I soon learned that deer, rodents, and birds forage on the bundles, eating the seeds in late summer and early fall.
At our second stop, the Garden City Unit Boardwalk, we left the scorching sun of mid-morning and entered a heavenly tupelo-cypress swamp. The swamp enchanted us with a wide variety of aquatic plants, bushes, and of course, spiders. Even though I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the swamp, I don’t know the names of every plant, and missed a jewel by passing it off as a weed. Retired deer expert, Dave Mooreland, pointed out this wild orchid, Habenaria repens, or “Water-spider Orchid”, one of two wild native Louisiana orchids.
Pickerel weed, (Pontederia cordata), abounds in this swamp; its purple spikes stand two to three feet tall. Another Louisiana native aquatic, pickerel weed serves as a food source for deer, muskrats, and waterfowl. Ducks and muskrats eat the seeds, while deer and geese consume the leaves. Additionally, the leaves, sometimes growing to 10 inches, provide protective cover for fish, reptiles, turtles, and small mammals like raccoons.
Buttonbush, (Cephalanthus occidentalis), another important plant to the swamp, provides cover for frogs, salamanders, and insects. Songbirds often build their nests in the buttonbush, while the globose, white flowers provide nectar for honeybees and butterflies. In late August, the flowers die, leaving behind ball-like fruits that produces seeds–food for ducks, geese, and shorebirds, while deer munch on the leaves and twigs.
Lastly, the Palmetto Trail of the Garden City Unit features dense trees and underbrush, perfect habitat for black bear and white-tail deer. The forest runs parallel to creek beds, lined with Nyssa Aquatica, or Water Tupelo trees. Known in the south as a favored honey tree, the trunks of tupelo are often used by wood carvers in duck decoys. Also along this trail, I learned yet one more plant new to me. Green Dragon Fruit, (Arisaema dracontium), produces green berries that provide fodder for wild turkey after the berries ripen and turn red later in the fall.
The Franklin Unit of the Teche NWR features three paddle trails: the Alligator Canal, the Black Bear Canal, and the Wood Duck Canal. Each canal forms a loop of approximately six miles. Depending on the wind conditions of the day and the experience of the paddler, one might be able to paddle two of the canals in one day. We didn’t get to visit this unit, but I plan to enlist the services of Garcia once the weather cools down and paddle at least one of the canals. Can you guess which one I will choose first?
If you live anywhere near the Bayou Teche NWR, it is well worth the drive to visit. If you can only visit one unit, I highly recommend the Garden City Boardwalk trail. And if you time it just right, you might catch a glimpse of migratory songbirds making their way north later this month.
Until next time, I remain your