Migration season on the state's southwest coast draws soaring―and sightseeing―visitors to a tranquil world of water and sky.
They don't make a sound. They just appear as a burst of pink. But in this flat world of tan grasses and steel-gray water, a wave of roseate spoonbills against a bright blue sky sets off visual alarms as arresting as lightning flashes. You could be looking the other way, perhaps searching a sunny marsh bank for the 9-foot alligator that hangs out around here. Then, without knowing why, you'll turn just in time to see blurs of pink feathers crossing the horizon like flying cotton candy.
Spoonbills live year-round in southwest Louisiana's string of three national wildlife refuges: Lacassine, Cameron Prairie, and Sabine. Together, these refuges spread across more than 184,000 acres south of Lake Charles. Other permanent inhabitants include red-tailed hawks, great blue herons, snowy egrets, and alligators. Hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese also winter here.
Beginning in February, warblers, kingfishers, and other spring migratory characters show up, increasing wildlife-to-human ratios to astronomical proportions. A drive across Lacassine Pool or a walk along Sabine's 1.5-mile Marsh Trail this time of year will make you feel more grounded than ever. Except for you, everything that moves seems to take wing, soaring in solitary flight or exploding skyward in boisterous flocks.
Meandering bayous connect open pools and marshy wetland forests in terrain more suited to wings and fins than wheels and feet. Fortunately, well-maintained gravel roads and trails let people experience this watery world.
Lacassine wildlife biologist Wayne Syron agrees to take a few visitors onto the pool in an airboat. The craft skims the water's surface, parting the marsh grasses and lily clusters like a motorized, down-South Moses. Wayne explains that more than 200 species either live here full-time or pass through during spring and fall migrations. He points to a beaverlike brown body swimming smoothly through the water near a bank.
"That's a nutria," Wayne says. "Mr. McIlhenny of Tabasco hot sauce fame brought them from South America to his privately owned Avery Island. He only brought six, but a hurricane unleashed them into the wetlands, and now they're everywhere." (Nutrias are indeed native to South America. But the McIlhenny family says that E.A. McIlhenny actually purchased his nutrias from a Louisiana fur farmer several generations ago and released them into the wild himself, not realizing the threat their enthusiastic grazing would pose to coastal wetlands.)
A drive outside the refuges promises other stunning discoveries. Heading south from Cameron Prairie or Sabine along the Creole Nature Trail (Louisiana Highway 27) offers a rare chance to trace the progression from freshwater wetland to brackish tidal zone to the broad, gently curved Gulf of Mexico shoreline. The horizon frames an expanse of grasses and clumps of forest broken by still pools and tidal creeks. It looks like Kansas, flooded.
Jarring reminders of hurricanes do mar the landscape: an abandoned house knocked far off its foundation, a roof from some other building, a refrigerator, a car poking vertically from the soft mud.
Nevertheless, the people remain hospitable. At roadside drive-throughs and delis that billow smoke from brick chimneys, locals delight in introducing a couple of "foreigners" to Cajun staples: barbecue, fresh fish, boudin, and cracklins.
The newcomers peel fresh crawfish under a warm sun. Looking around, they see nothing but water, marsh, and a sky filled with roseate spoonbills, snowy egrets, and white ibis. They decide they might want to turn their own spring migration into an annual event as well.