The Mississippi Gulf Coast Birding Trail - Napoleon by the Pearl
- by Ellis Anderson
photography by P. Chris Christofferson and Ellis Anderson
Getting up early when you’re going to work is one thing. Rising before dawn when you’re heading out on an expedition is another experience completely.
Kid energy surged through me on this April morning as I raced the sun's rising to leave. Thankfully, my sensible adult part – although not fully awake - somehow remembered to double-check the items I’d be taking along: Camera, extra battery, hat, wading boots and a fully charged I-phone. I dressed in long, light nylon pants with lots of pockets and a light cotton long sleeve shirt I borrowed from my husband’s closet.
Beach to Bayou
She also gifted me with a nifty fluorescent orange vest. While it wasn’t hunting season, we didn’t want to be mistaken for wild boars by anyone else we might come across while trekking through the Hancock County wetlands. The two of us would be stalking birds, armed with cameras rather than guns. As another safety precaution, we'd also told our husbands where we were going, so in case we went missing for a few days, they might come and look for us.
We were headed to Napoleon (or Napoleonville, as it’s called on the Mississippi Gulf Coast Birding Trail map), the site of a centuries-old historic community on the east bank of the Pearl River. Its residents were resettled when Stennis Space Center was constructed in the 1960s, so now it’s officially “extinct.”
But 14,000 years or so before this place was named after a French emperor, Native American civilizations made this magical land their home, hunting camels and tigers and mastadons. Later cultures built earthworks and mounds that have survived thousands of years.
The incredible pine forests that sheltered eons of animals and humans – ones that must have rivaled the west coast redwoods - did not survive. They were completely razed by short-sighted lumber barons in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.
“Completely” is not hyperbole in this case. To my knowledge, there’s not a stand of them remaining on the entire Mississippi coast (e-mail me if you know of one!). Yet the landscape near the Pearl still oozes with a primordial atmosphere. One wouldn’t be awfully surprised if a bison came lumbering through the underbrush.
Good thing. While we didn’t succeed in getting any spectacular photos of birds, we both reveled in having a good excuse to go tromping around in the woods, immersing ourselves in the natural world and for that morning at least, becoming just two more creatures in a forest swarming with life. The stress of our everyday lives melted away. We found ourselves in a different world, one where deadlines and obligations became meaningless.
Here’s a quick run-down on what to expect at Napoleon if you’d like to take your own birding expedition.
Head north on Hwy 607, past the 1-10 Exit 2 interchange, toward the Stennis Space Center complex gate. You’ll see a brown sign pointing to the Napoleon turnoff, turn left there. Eventually, you’ll come to sign pointing to another turn-off to your right, onto a gravel/dirt road. The times I’ve been out there, the road has been in pretty good condition, so most cars ought to be able to handle it with ease.
Once you’re on the shell road, the first offshoot to the right leads to the old Napoleon Cemetery, a picturesque spot with oaks, Spanish moss and worn tombstones – and some new ones too.
The morning we explored, the fog was just beginning to lift, but the combination of mist and a historic cemetery tempted us both. Chris and I slipped through the graveyard, a sense of reverence shrouding us both when we walked through the gate. Miles from any other human, we still spoke in whispers, absorbing the mystical atmosphere.
The cemetery road is just a short stub, so we followed it back out and turned toward the Pearl River boat launch. We passed several small ponds marked with bird signage. They’re evidently related to abandoned gravel pits hidden by the woods.
There’s a well-maintained fishing pier on the banks of the Pearl and a boat launch that’s popular with local fishermen. After exploring the area and taking several photographs, we left the car in the shelled lot and headed back up the road. Just a stone’s throw away, between the river and the ponds, is one of the most picture perfect swamps we’d ever seen. It hummed with sound and drew us back irresistibly.
Our bird-photography score for the day may have been exceedingly low, yet we were finally rewarded with the sight of a prothonotary warbler. Although I recognized it from photographs, it was the first live one I’d ever seen. At once, I understand the thrill of bird-watching. Before this trip, I would have rated the excitement of the hobby as being slightly above the level of glacier racing. The yellow bird flited from limb to limb before us and refused to pose for our cameras, but that didn't dampen our joy.
The things that did model for our cameras were the showy jungle-like flora of the area. Chris ended up snagging the Awesome Shot of the Day, capturing the image of a bee gathering nectar from a splendid white bloom. I couldn't identify either the plant nor the insect. It didn't seem to matter.
Our morning ended when I was impaled in the thumb by a rusty fishhook while pushing myself up from a pond bank. Yet, even the possibility of tetanus had me dragging my heels, reluctant for our adventure to end. We added one item to carry in the car for future expeditions: a first aid kit.
Leaving near noon, we were still besotted by the swamp experience. On the way home, we detoured and checked out the trail-head of the Possum Walk Heritage Trail in Logtown and the Ansley birding site, scouting them out for future expeditions – and for future editions of the Cleaver.
Read the first article in this series about the Mississippi Coastal Birding Trail in Hancock County.
Tips for beginning bird-watchers