Birding St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana

St. Tammany Parish is my home county and an underrated birding destination in Louisiana.  I questioned the need for writing this article, but I end up rehashing this same information in a series of emails, texts, and messages so many times that I thought its time has finally come.

Why Bother Going to St. Tammany Parish?
New Orleans itself is a solid birding destination with its urban migrant traps and extensive marsh habitat, but St. Tammany Parish includes several habitat types which host species that rarely or almost never are found in the New Orleans area as well as a few species hard to find anywhere else in the country.  The endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker is protected in Big Branch National Wildlife Refuge.  Spring migration can be rewarding in the live oaks along the lakefront, and although it’s not as spectacular as in coastal areas like Grand Isle and Cameron Parish, several species of warbler and vireo, including the elusive Swainson’s Warbler, stick around in the swamps and breed which makes them reliable to find through the summer.  In the winter, Lake Pontchartrain contains Horned Grebe, Common Loon, and Buffleheads while an assortment of other ducks may be found just inland in the extensive freshwater marshes.

Who is this Guide For?
This guide is mainly written for people that are not from southeast Louisiana.  New Orleans is a very popular tourist destination and almost every birding spot in this guide may be reached in less than an hour from New Orleans.  If you’re birding in the New Orleans area, St. Tammany Parish is a great place to spend a day.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker at Big Branch Marsh NWR. The refuge is a key management area for this species and nearly all the birds here are banded.

St. Tammany Parish is located on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and most New Orleans locals call it “the north shore”.  It is bordered by Mississippi to the east where the extensive Honey Island Swamp extends across the Pearl River basin.  It is bordered to the south by Lake Pontchartrain.  Extensive coastal marshes are found across the lakefront except where developed in the cities of Slidell and Mandeville. Heading north, the marshes give way to the now critically imperiled Gulf Coast Flatwoods and pine savannah habitats which host a number of unique animals and plants.  The parish is predominantly rural, but development into suburbs to support the New Orleans work force has increased rapidly in the decade since Hurricane Katrina.

Birding Areas
St. Tammany Parish has a large amount of undeveloped land set aside dedicated to public use and conservation.  There are three Wildlife Management Areas (St. Tammany, Lake Ramsay Savannah, and Pearl River), two National Wildlife Refuges (Bogue Chitto, and Big Branch Marsh), and two state parks (Fairview-Riverside, and Fountainebleu).  There are also private conservation areas that are open to the public thanks to the Nature Conservancy (Abita Creek Flatwoods Preserve, Lake Ramsay Preserve, and Talisheek Pine Wetlands Preserve), Northlake Nature Center, and public municipal areas such as the Mandeville lakefront.

eBird currently lists 26 birding hotspots in St. Tammany Parish.  This guide will provide a summary for birding selected areas with an emphasis on unusual, hard to find, or interesting species.  This list is ordered by the places I would recommend visiting birders to check out first, depending on target species or what kind of environments you like.  My top 5 (in no particular order) have large write-ups with small descriptions for other notable spots.

1. Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge – Boy Scout Road Boardwalk (Lacombe, LA)
Big Branch Marsh (BBM) is an easy choice for a top pick because it is a conservation area for the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker.  Although BBM is mostly inaccessible by car, the best place to visit to see woodpeckers is the Boy Scout Road boardwalk.  The boardwalk loop starts in a longleaf pine savannah and then crosses a fresh marsh before heading back, but if you’re up for a walk, the trail south of the boardwalk continues for several miles (one way, no loop) through similar habitat and ultimately ends up in a narrow coastal ridge forest that’s great for spring migrants.

In spring and summer, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are noisy and active and  I frequently see them in the parking area.  As you walk the boardwalk, look for pine trees with a white ring painted around them which indicates they’ve nested there in the past.  In fall and winter they can be difficult to locate but if you don’t see them, try a walk down the long trail and just keep your ears and eyes open.

Trees where Red-cockaded Woodpeckers have nested in the past are marked with white rings around their trunks. In spring and summer, you can look for these trees as a surefire way to find these birds.

Other birds here include the secretive but noisy King Rail on the marsh boardwalk.  Sedge Wrens are present in the same grasses during winter.  In the summer, Mottled Duck and the occasional Black-bellied Whistling Duck will be seen along with a few resident domestic type Mallards.  In the winter, other ducks are present, but not in large numbers.  Brown-headed Nuthatch, which do not occur in New Orleans, are seen and heard here commonly as is Eastern Towhee.  In fall and winter, (the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker leaves us for the summer) this is one of the few spots in southeast Louisiana where you can hit “Woodpecker Bingo”: seeing all eight resident species of Louisiana Woodpeckers in one day.

Brown-headed Nuthatch is not found in New Orleans but is incredibly common here. Once our group leader from the New Orleans birding club promised “If we don’t see a Brown-headed Nuthatch, I’ll buy everyone lunch”. No free lunch was had.

2. Pearl River Wildlife Management Area (Pearl River/Slidell, LA)
Pearl River WMA (PRWMA) is a 35,000+ acre tract of land located along the Louisiana/Mississippi border that includes huge, mostly inaccessible by car, contiguous tracts of bottomland hardwood and the Honey Island Swamp.  The main entrance is off I-59 and entrance requires either Louisiana hunting, fishing or LA wild stamp which may be purchased anywhere licenses are sold or may be purchased online immediately before entering.  I, personally, have never been asked to show any proof of documentation on a WMA during a birding trip, but better to be safe than sorry.

PRWMA is most visited for the large amount of breeding warblers between the months of May to August.  Prothonotary Warbler, Northern Parula, American Redstart, Hooded Warbler, and the elusive Swainson’s Warbler all breed in this area and are fairly common.  Other common summer residents include Great Crested Flycatcher, Acadian Flycatcher, Indigo Bunting, Painted Bunting, White-eyed Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Mississippi Kites, and Swallow-tailed Kite.  The dawn chorus on the main road in late spring (April-May) is simply breathtaking.

Acadian Flycatcher

Birding is best done from the roads and although the sparse localized traffic can be obnoxious (large, loud, fast driving trucks), I find the best method is to pull off where you can and walk the road.  If you choose to drive, getting out at each bridge can be a productive way to bird.  There are a few nature trails that are not well upkept or marked.  Mosquitoes can be ferocious off the road so bring bug spray.

Most people visit this area for Swainson’s Warblers which breed here.  The best way to find them is to learn their song and drive the road at idle speed and just listen for it.  When you hear one, get out and be patient and start looking.  They tend to perch low on roadsides and often just far enough off the road to prevent being seen.  Playing their song is a guaranteed way to lure them in, but this practice is considered stressful to the birds and most experts recommend not using playback in nesting areas.

Swainson’s Warbler is one of St. Tammany Parish’s specialties, because it nests in dense thickets of bottomland hardwood forest and is reliably found at Pearl River WMA.

3. Longleaf Pine Savannah habitat (multiple locations)
The imperiled longleaf pine savannah habitat which used to cover much of the Gulf Coast is now reduced to protected pockets across the parish.  Aside from BBNWR, the Nature Conservancy’s Abita Creek Flatwoods Preserve is easily the most accessible with a boardwalk through a carnivorous plant bog and miles of trails.  In Covington, the Lake Ramsay WMA and the Nature Conservancy’s Lake Ramsay Preserve are adjacent and include several miles of trails though they are not always the most upkept. Year round, these habitats are home to Pine Warbler, Eastern Towhee, Northern Bobwhite, and Brown-headed Nuthatch. In summer you can find Yellow-breasted Chat, Painted and Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeak, and Chuck-will’s Widow (at dusk/dawn and night).  Bachman’s Sparrow are present, but I haven’t observed them in this parish yet.  Winter is when these habitats really shine as wintering sparrow habitat.  Swamp, White-throated, Savannah, Chipping, and Song Sparrows are the most common with other uncommon sparrows including Vesper, White-crowned and Field.  The elusive Henslow’s Sparrow winters here and Lake Ramsay is a great place to see those birds.

Henslow’s Sparrow are very secretive and can require patience to see. I had to use playback to get this one to peek out at Lake Ramsay WMA.

4. Big Branch NWR – Lake Road (Lacombe, LA)
This tiny slice of Big Branch NWR is kind of a local secret.  Lake Road is a gravel road that runs through  the marsh directly to the shore of Lake Pontchartrain.  It’s a very popular destination of crabbing, fishing, and kayaking as well as being one of the easiest places to see marsh birds in the parish.  Disclaimer:  When there is a strong south wind or an unusually high tide, the entire road may become covered with water.

Lake Road looks boring enough, but it crosses a transition from upland pine forest, to fresh marsh, to brackish marsh, and ultimately ends at the Lake Pontchartrain shoreline. With this many habitat types in such a small area, it can be a very diverse visit.

Year round, you can find wading birds, Boat-tailed Grackle, Fish Crow, Marsh Wren, Clapper/King Rails, and the seasonal terns.  In spring and fall, shorebirds can sometimes be found at low tide on the tidal flats and in the puddles of the boat ramp parking area.  This is also a good spot to see migrating Cliff, Barn, and Northern Rough-winged Swallows that perch on the power lines in addition to the resident Purple Martins.  In summer, Least Bitterns can reliably be seen from the road if you get there early enough.  Bronzed Cowbirds can be found on camp lawns or on power lines.

Lake Road is one of the few easily accessible locations in southeast Louisiana to see Least Bitterns. They tend to be in the roadside marsh early in the day but once the large groups of fishermen and crabbers start showing up, you’re better off walking along the lakefront to see one.

In winter, Virginia Rail, Sora, and American Bittern can be found in the marsh while Tree Swallow, Osprey, Northern Harrier, and Bald Eagle might be seen soaring overhead.  A variety of ducks come and go on the marsh and sea-going species like Horned Grebe, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, and more uncommon species like Common Goldeneye, scoters, or Greater Scaup can be found on the lake.  The road ends at Lake Pontchartrain where you can find seasonal gulls and terns and Brown Pelican sitting on the pylons from old camps destroyed by hurricanes.  You can park at the end and walk east along the shoreline (you’ll probably want rubber boots) to get better chances of seeing whatever you missed along the road.

Virginia Rail can be common in winter along Lake Road although heavy traffic days reduce your chances of seeing them along the road.

5. Lake Pontchartrain shoreline (Mandeville, LA)
One of the best parts about birding in St. Tammany Parish is Lake Pontchartrain and the best places to access it are the Mandeville Lakefront Park and Sunset Point Fishing Pier.  Both locations are free to the public and located on an approximate 2-mile stretch of shoreline just east of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway bridge.  Sunset Point is the westernmost location and includes a grassy park area and fishing pier.  There is a scrubby undeveloped piece of property just before the park that can be good for birds as well as the road to the pier (Massena St) which is good to walk along in spring and fall for migrants.  Mandeville Lakefront Park runs along the entirety of Lakeshore Drive and has numerous opportunities for public parking.  The best birding location is the east end where Bayou Castine empties into Lake Pontchartrain.  There are jetties along the bayou along with a seawall that are usually full of gulls and terns.   The calm water between the seawall and the playground is great for sea ducks in winter as well as wading birds during low tide.

The best time to visit these areas is in winter.  Birds on the lake in winter include Common Loon, Horned Grebe, Lesser Scaup, Spotted Sandpiper, Royal Tern, Caspian Tern, Ring-billed Gull, Laughing Gull, and Herring Gull.  Uncommonly, you can see Red-breasted Merganser, scoters, Common Goldeneye, Greater Scaup, and Bonaparte’s Gulls.  I’ve seen Franklin’s Gull and an Iceland Gull on the jetties at the east end so this can be a decent spot to check for rare gulls.

Other Northshore Birding Spots
The locations I listed above are not necessarily always the best birding spots but more of a representative list of what I think makes St. Tammany Parish a good birding destination for an out-of-towner looking for things they can’t find in New Orleans.  The following locations are all birding hotspots in eBird and can be very productive although they may not necessarily offer you something you can’t find somewhere else in the New Orleans area.  I’ve listed them in my order of preference and will give them much shorter write-ups.

  • Fountainebleu State Park  – Mandeville, LA ($3 Entry Fee)
    Large state park with a lot of natural areas, miles of hiking trails, a short marsh boardwalk, and Lake Pontchartrain beach access.  Lots of different habitat include piney woods, shoreline, marsh, bottomland hardwood, and open lawn/park areas allow one to rack up a large species list in a single trip.
  • Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge – Pearl River, LA north to Bush, LA
    This huge National Wildlife Refuge typically covers the same environments as Pearl River WMA listed above only with much more limited access.  The southeastern corner of the refuge has a pull-in off I-59 with a short swamp boardwalk and some unkept hiking trails.  Best time to visit is to see breeding warblers in late spring to summer but the mosquitoes can be unbearable.  At Pearl River WMA, the same species are visible but you can retreat to your car more easily if necessary.
  • Harbor Center / Howze Beach Road – Slidell, LA
    An unusual hotspot.  The Harbor Center is a convention center surrounded by grassy and scrubby fields, lawn, and a few large impoundment lakes but the hotspot includes a lot of currently undeveloped or developing residential areas.  Least Tern and Common Nighthawk nest on the dirt roads in summer although development may soon change that.  In spring and fall, this is one of the most reliable spots for shorebirds in the parish although they’re typically incidental and nowhere near the concentration you’ll find by going out to south-central Louisiana (rice country).  In winter, the ponds can be full of ducks.  Raptors are easily visible soaring overhead or perched on construction equipment and buildings.
  • Northake Nature Center
    Northlake Nature Center should be a great spot for birds, but it just isn’t.  The habitat ranges from cypress swamp to bottomland and then to an overgrown pine forest that appears to need burning.  It’s located just north of Fountainebleu State Park and has free admission.  The trails near the entrance are beautiful as they take you across swamps and bottomland.  Northern Parula and Prothonotary Warbler are present in spring and summer.  In winter, the hotspot is at its best.  The back trails can be good for sparrows and other winter birds like Golden-crowned Kinglet.  Although Northlake Nature Center is a great walk and a great place to visit, it’s not very good for birds when you consider that Fountainebleu State Park across the street has more space and more varied habitats to see more birds.
  • Pearl River Wildlife Management Area White Kitchen Area
    This hotspot has a lake and a short boardwalk that takes you out onto a swampy/marshy part of the lake.  Yellow-crowned Night Herons are present in the summer along with Prothonotary Warblers but the boardwalk is so short, it’s typically not worth the visit unless you’re already in the area.