Archive for September, 2009

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GatorAlligator photograph courtesy of Stephanie Sorensen

The Alligator is scientifically named Alligator mississippiensis. While engaged in graduate field work at the University of Louisiana-Monroe, Stephanie Sorensen observed three of these awesome creatures on the north side of SIHWMA  at the large pond known locally as the Gravel Pit Pond .  For a panoramic view of the pond go to my Photo/Map page.  Having been to the Sicily Island Hills many times I was surprised to learn of the presence of alligators within the boundaries of the refuge. The alligators, as I learned from Lowery Moak Wildlife Biologist with the local LDWF office, are naturally occuring, having come up Big Creek from the Ouachita River.

Plethodon serratus

Southern RedBack Salamander photograph courtesy of Stephanie Sorensen

Plethodon serratus is considered rare and only two populations are known to exist within Louisiana. It is also known as the Southern Redback Salamander.

Blue Tail Skink

Five Lined Skink photograph courtesy of Stephanie Sorensen

The Blue Tail Skink or Five Lined Skink, a reptile, not an amphibian, shown in the above photograph, is also known by the scientific name Eumeces fasciatus.


Fowlers Toad photograph courtesy of Stephanie Sorensen

The amphibian called Fowlers Toad is scientifically named Bufo fowleri.

Dwarf salamanderDwarf Salamander photograph courtesy of Stephanie Sorensen

The  Dwarf Salamander is an amphibian also known as Eurycea quadridigitata.

Mud SnakeMud Snake photograph courtesy of Stephanie Sorensen

The Mud Snake is also known as Farancia abacura, a snake that I have never encountered. One of the reasons may be that according to Stephanie, these snakes  most often bury themselves in mud, which given their common name would be no surprise. This particular snake pictured above was captured in a trap as part of her thesis research. Stephanie also told me that mud snakes are generally docile and rather than biting you if they become alarmed, they poke you with the end of their tail. This same tough tail is used as burrowing tool

Eastern Garter SnakeEastern Garter Snake photograph by Stephanie Sorensen

One of my favorite snakes is scientifically known as Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis or the Eastern Garter Snake.

Southern Hognose SnakeEastern Hognose snake photograph courtesy of Stephanie Sorensen

Eastern Hognose snake  or Heterodon platirhinos, shown in full defensive mode.

Timber Rattler

Juvenile Copperhead photograph courtesy of Stephanie Sorensen

Juvenile Copperhead or Agkistrodon contortrix, a most elegant snake.

Eastern Box TurtleEastern Box Turtle photograph courtesy of Stephanie Sorensen

Eastern Box Turtle a reptile also known as Terrapene carolina is a most ubiquitous creature across the eastern portion of the United States.

More images and information on Amphibians and Reptiles to soon follow.


Camping in the Sicily Island Hills

Posted: September 28, 2009 in Homepage

The silence of the morning is replaced by a symphony of birds, as they orchestrate their movements in the thick canopy of trees at Sicily Island Hills. The deep, dark night sky, far from city lights, that dazzled you with a million beautiful stars is replaced by a brilliant sunrise.

A camp stove begins to take the edge off the chilly morning air and nearby campers awaken to begin their day anew. Off in the distance the piercing, maniacal screaming sound you hear may be the call of the Pileated Woodpecker, considered to be, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker not withstanding, Americas largest woodpecker. Later, the thundering sound of this majestic bird pounding its bill into trees announces its search for the insects its craves or the creation of a cavity for its nest. Many years ago, I was walking in the woods and  I watched a pair of these graceful woodpeckers chase each other up and around a large oak tree trunk. All of a sudden their chase took flight at eye level with me in their route. I dove for the ground and they never missed a beat. Every time I think about that chance encounter I smile. This is the scene as you begin your journey amidst the distinctive forest of Sicily Island Hills. One can observe nature in forests in other locations of Louisiana, but set against the backdrop of steep, deeply eroded hills with hiking trails leading to unexpected waterfalls, Sicily Island Hills is unparalleled.

The canvas of your odyssey will change with the seasons. Butterflies emerge from their chrysalis in search of a warm sunny spot. Fall foliage colors burst forth in late October and early November.  Numerous migratory birds such as hummingbirds and various warblers descend upon the area in spring and fall. Petite Ruby-crowned Kinglets visit in winter foraging for berries and seeds. Rock Falls and the other waterfalls of the area ebb and flow with periodic rains. Wildflowers fill woodlands with the luscious colors of Indian Pinks and  the edges of roads are painted with the bold colors of the daisy and goldenrod.

According to Lowery Moak  Region 4 Wildlife Biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the campgrounds on both the north and south sections of the Sicily Island Hills Wildlife Management Area are primitive and can only be occupied for 16 days consecutively. Refer to the WMA Map link at left to see the campground locations.

Whether you bring a car, a tent, a motor home or a truck with slide in camper  come prepared to be self contained with respect to all services, including bathroom, electricity and water.  This is primitive camping at its best.

Before venturing into the Sicily Island Hills it would be a good idea to scout out the road conditions.The roads in this area are maintained well, but keep in mind that due to heavy rains, even the most well maintained roads become rough and rutted at times. The family car may not be your best choice. A pick up truck would be ideal. While there may be room for a large motor home at the primitive camping area, getting your motor home to the camping area may prove to be challenging. The roads within the wildlife management area have an unpaved surface and in places there may be steep curves with loose gravel. Trees near the edges of the sometimes narrow roadway may also be problematic if your motor home is very large.

So use common sense when planning to camp at Sicily Island Hills. It is as remote as  any place you will find in Louisiana. That is part of the raw beauty of this place, but it  comes with the price of respecting its wildness. You may find at different times of the year that you are quite alone at the campground. At other times, especially during hunting season, you will find fellow campers quite numerous.

Cell phone service can be erratic within the Sicily Island Hills. If you do decide to camp there, be sure to let someone know when and where you plan to camp. Furthermore, let that same person know when you plan to return. Nature lovers that explore the great outdoors have been known to get lost or injured. Letting someone know your plans beforehand could be a lifesaver. Most importantly, let someone know of your safe return so that a search and rescue mission is not needlessly carried out. Refer to my Resources page for more information on the area.

Enjoying the outdoor experience comes with a great deal of responsibility. The rewards are immense to those who explore wisely.

Possession of a valid  fishing or hunting license or a Wild Louisiana Stamp is required when visiting a Louisiana state wildlife management area. For as little as $5.50 you can visit this or any of the many splendid wildlife management areas owned by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Remember to pack out what you take in so as not to spoil this beautiful place. With thoughtful visitors and wise management practices,  the Sicily Island Hills will provide many wonderful opportunities to intimately connect with the fauna and flora of this unique habitat for generations to come.

Got Wild Louisiana Stamp?

Posted: September 12, 2009 in Homepage

To borrow a ubiquitous (ad nauseum) but modified phrase, Got Wild Louisiana Stamp?

If you are going to a Louisiana Wildlife Management Area you must have a Wild Louisiana Stamp or a valid hunting or fishing license. Its the law. Your tiny yearly payment helps enhance your own experience at WMA’s as well as the enjoyment of countless others.

Its inexpensive, but does so much. How inexpensive? How about less than $6 ? Try going out on the town for that amount. You can’t. With a Wild Louisiana Stamp you pay $5.50 for admission to Sicily Island Hills or any WMA in Louisiana  for unlimited times all year. One flat fee. Many exciting experiences. Six dollars to see a waterfall, hike the hills, see and hear birds, occasion upon a deer or other wildlife.

If you are looking for bargains, it doesn’t get much better.

This information is current as of this date – 9/12/2009 . Check with your local office of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries  today for the latest prices and regulations.

Were it possible for me to design a garden on my own acreage within the Sicily Island Hills, it would be a garden for all the senses and a garden for memories. I would build my homestead along the eastern base of the Sicily Island Hills to catch the morning sunrise.  Amongst towering oaks and pines my house would have an open floor plan with glass walls so that I would feel as if I were part of the landscape, rather than apart from it. Screens would control privacy and the heat of summer sun.

In a large open field I would plant daffodils by the multiple tens of thousands for fond remembrances of  Herman Butler of Dubberly, Louisiana.


Next to a “Browns Red” Camellia  japonica  I would plant a Bletilla striata also known as  hardy terrestrial orchid,which would replicate my mother’s flower bed by the front door of the old homeplace.  I would plant Asparagus, Daylilies (Hemerocallis), a ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ Peony and keep a hive of bees to remind me of my father. Longleaf pine trees (Pinus palustris) along the road would be just like the view I had growing up as a kid on Sterlington Road.

Wild azaleas are a special treat in woodlands and the honeysuckle azalea (Rhododendron canescens) would be a perfect choice. My grandfather would pick bouquets of this azalea and give them to a little girl who would later become my mother.  An American Holly (Ilex opaca) would be planted along the drive near the house, just like the one at my grandmothers. To connect with my friends Robert and Frances Rhone I would plant several varieties of Magnolia, especially the grandiflora type. Seattle,Washington would inspire me to plant a Rhododendron and numerous  ferns. With respect to Rhododendrons growing in North Louisiana, when I was a much younger man, there was a Rhododendron growing on a Park Avenue property not far from J.W. Cunningham’s pharmacy. Dutch amaryllis ( Hippeastrum ) planted in fall and winter indoors would delight my ole buddy John Buis.  We could remember the good old days of  sitting at the kitchen table enjoying a laugh or two and  finishing up yet another large order to Langeveld Bulb Company.

Speaking of indoors, I couldn’t help but have some great indoor plants such as bromeliads and foliage plants to commemorate all those deliveries from the Featherston brothers of Claiborne Parish. One of my favorite indoor plants would be a fine specimen Schefflera (Schefflera actinophylla).A tall magnificent Schefflera grew outdoors in the landscaping at my buddy John’s place down at Melbourne, Florida. Something I have always wanted was a tall incredibly sized Ficus Benjamina, and with the care of Hu and Vista White I could finally keep one alive. I never said I was great at growing indoor plants, but I sure was good at selling them. Of course many of the indoor plants would be adorned with baskets from Ryan Rommel of Vast America. Perhaps Allen Dunn could help me re-create the beautiful ancient looking Bougainvillea bonsai that my father grew.

A garden of a hundred named varieities of azaleas would be just about right to honor Gerald Don Coker. In a woodland area I would plant Indian Pinks (Spigelia marilandica) to think of Beth Erwin and the Kalorama crew. A big splash of Fall Mums and Hardy Hibiscus ( Hibiscus moscheutos )would be a perfect tribute to Freeman Nursery of Simms, Texas. Gomphrena also known as Batchelor Buttons (not Centaurea) in a solitary planting and once again I would be thinking of Pittman Nursery of Magnolia, Arkansas. Large flowering Purslanes overflowing in containers would be in honor of my ole buddy Raymond Hoggatt.

A grove of Gingko biloba  trees, so golden in the Fall,  would take me back to the annual fall pilgrimage to Layton Castle on South Grand in Monroe. Another of my many favorite bulbs is the Red Spider Lily (Lycoris radiata). I wonder if the empty, grassy block on Riverside Drive in Monroe is still loaded with hundreds of spider lily blossoms each September?

With the huge plant world that R.Dale Thomas opened up to me there wouldn’t be enough native plants or wildflowers to represent his influence on my life. But by planting Gordonia (Gordonia lasianthus), Showy Evening Primrose  (Oenothera speciosa) and Titi (Cyrilla racemiflora) in strategic locations, I think even the premier botanist of the South would be impressed.

The hummingbird garden full of Cypress vine, Lions ear ( Leonotus leonurus), Malvaviscus or turk’s cap, Penstemons, Rose of Sharon (Althea), dozens of varieties of Salvias,  Swedish ivy baskets, and  Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans), to name a few, would amuse Bob Rickett. Gary Miller would smile at the sight of the yellow blossoms of thistle of niger (Guizotia abyssinica). I could see Gary there in the garden as we carried on another interesting conversation, as one of his beautiful wind chimes sang out in the distance. Neil Douglas would enjoy many visits to see the Evening Grosbeaks gorging themselves on black oil sunflower seeds in my bird feeders.

The butterfly garden would be a meadow resplendent with Asters, Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii), Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Lantanas,Thistles, and Zinnias.

Tiger Swallowtail Image provided with permission of Stephanie Sorensen

Photograph used with permission of Stephanie Sorensen

Not to forget the other stage of a butterfly, the larvae could feast on fennel and parsley plants plus other tasty treats.

George Peters of Shreveport would be represented by the numerous clay pots full of Hibiscus, Lantana, Pentas,  and other long blooming plants. The concrete bird bath and fountain would bring to mind all those trips to Lee’s Statuary in Minden.

Twelve different varieties of edible figs would cause me to pause to recall Tim Talbot of Franklin Parish, although a patch of sweet potatoes would probably cause him to crack a smile. Bamboo comes in many types, some with the tendencies of Kudzu. But a carefully chosen clumping bamboo makes a lovely sound as the breeze blows through it. I believe I would associate bamboo with Mimi Hunnicutt, for if I am correct, many years ago she was kind enough to give me a book on bamboo, when she knew I was researching it.

A planting of Mayhaws  (Craegatus opaca)  not far from the house and suddenly my thoughts are transported to East Feliciana parish to the property of Arnold and Lynn Baham.

If I could smile and greet visitors with the depth, sincerity, and warmth of the late John Griffin of Louisiana Tech, I think that would be the most delicious icing on the cake.

During my lifetime I have been blessed to know so many fine individuals, each one unique and wonderful in their own way. We have shared many different things but the one thing we all shared in one way or another, was a connection to the world of animals and plants.

Experiencing wildlife at Sicily Island Hills is always a special treat. To leave the city and noise behind is incredibly peaceful. I have enjoyed many days there listening to sounds of birds as they sing in the silence of the woods. Down the canyon from Rock Falls I have seen deer run downhill, across the stream, and then up the hill. Watching butterflies in summer drift from one wildflower to the next is common.  One day as I was driving on LA 8 a mile or so east of the southern entrance to the WMA, a flock of turkeys crossed the road.

Thank the Lord for the turkeys, for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Louisiana State Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.

As Larry Savage of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries told me,” Sicily Island Hills is certainly a unique WMA and the wild turkey restoration and management story on it is also somewhat unique for our state WMA system”.

The following is an excerpt from my correspondence with Larry Savage of the LDWF as he tells the story of turkeys at Sicily Island Hills:

The upland hardwood forest found on SIHWMA is wonderful turkey habitat and the restoration of wild turkeys was one of the first orders of business for LDWF following acquistion. In 1983, 29 wild-trapped turkeys from Fort Polk WMA (8 hens and 6 gobblers) and South Carolina (7 hens and 8 gobblers) were released in SIHWMA.

The combination of high quality habitat and excellent wild turkey stock (genetically) produced an immediate response from this small transplanted stock. Within just a few years, SIHWMA was supporting one of the highest density turkey populations in the state. When an obvious population surplus developed, the decision was made to use SIHWMA as a primary source of wild turkeys for restocking other suitable areas around the state, rather than opening a hunting season. From 1987 to 1996 over 300 turkeys were captured on SIHWMA and transported across the state (see attached map).

Turkey Map

Additionally, turkeys naturally dispersed from SIHWMA to help repopulate farmland woodlots to the east and Catahoula Parish to the west across the Ouachita River.

As LDWF’s turkey restocking program began winding down, the first spring gobbler season was held on SIHWMA in 1997. Hunters are chosen by lottery to control hunting pressure and provide hunters with a high-quality experience. A youth-only lottery hunt was instituted in 2007. SIHWMA averages about 165 turkey hunting efforts and 12 gobblers harvested per year.



From Joe Walters of Winnsboro, President of the Louisiana State Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federaton, I learned from a hunters standpoint that Sicily Island Hills is prime but  challenging place to hunt turkeys. He told me that he knows of some hunters who have tried as long as three years before bagging some of the older turkeys.

Joe also told me of Louisiana NWTF banquets held statewide that fund the many projects for which they are rightfully proud. Through their hard work in fund raising the Louisiana NWTF chapter was able in 2004 to give the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries a check for $28,000 to enable the LDWF to purchase 20 acres of private  land known as an inholding – that is land completely surrounded by the wildlife management area.

Through the cooperation of private landowners, groups like the Louisiana State Chapter of the National Turkey Federation and state agencies such as the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, great things are being accomplished to enhance and preserve places like the Sicily Island Hills.  My thanks to all these groups for their continued work to improve our recreational opportunities in Louisiana.

There isn’t currently a Sicily Island Hills-Russell Sage Trail yet, but there could be someday. Why would I bring up such an idea? Partly because I would love to see more hiking/horseback opportunities throughout Louisiana. And partly from correspondence I had with Larry Savage of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Larry and I were corresponding about wild turkey habitat at the time and not a proposed nature trail. A trail between Monroe and Sicily Island Hills became my idea later.

Look at the interactive map on my Geography page, that is what Larry recommended to me with regards to viewing the reforestation effort of the LDWF in the area NW of Sicily Island Hills WMA.  Due to a lot of hard work a 10,000 acre field was reforested from Boeuf River to the Ouachita River. Larry further stated that,” The reforestation of marginal farmland by LDWF and private landowners (CRP & WRP) has reduced forest fragmentation and will, in the near future, allow mobile wildlife species such as the Louisiana Black Bear and Wild Turkeys the capability of traveling a continuous forested corridor(60+ miles up Boeuf River and Bayou Lafourche) from SIHWMA to Russell Sage WMA north of I-20″.

I love maps and I look at lots of them. From looking at the Louisiana state highway map it had been readily apparent to me for sometime that with wildlife management areas stretching from east of Monroe to Sicily Island Hills wouldn’t that make an incredibly scenic nature trail?  Larry’s reference to the reforestation and continuous forested corridor only solidified my idea.

Look at the Louisiana state highway map. (The following  URL is an older map and is used here for example-NOT for driving purposes, hiking purposes, navigational purposes or any other purposes but only to show general locations) Copy and paste the following URL into your browser and you will see a detailed highway map of Louisiana.

From Sicily Island Hills going northwest there is the Boeuf River WMA which is enclosed roughly by the Ouachita and Boeuf Rivers. Of a historical note in this area is also the Duty Ferry.  In the northern portion of the WMA  is the Fort Necessity Recreational Area. By the time you reach the Hebert community you are out of the WMA. Now there is a gap as far as WMA’s and one could hike LA 133 to the next leg of your journey to the Ouachita WMA along Bayou LaFourche. As you exit Ouachita WMA you enter Russell Sage WMA also along Bayou LaFourche. The northern edge of Russell Sage ends a few miles north of US 80 near Wham Brake.  An added bonus to this trip would be to continue up LA 139 to LA 134 and then up LA 138 to Collinston and the Kalorama Nature Preserve. This portion of the trip amongst the huge corn and cotton farms is especially nice at sunrise. Kalorama is set in a forested area where the edge of the Bastrop Hills meet the Mississippi alluvial valley.The nature preserve, the property and its history are a story within itself.

There are few primitive camping areas in the wildlife management areas currently. For more information on these wildlife management areas including camping sites click on my link at left for Sicily Island Hills Page Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Once you are on the LDWF Sicily Island page look at the right page margin and click  Select a Wildlife Management Area to seek information on the other WMA’s I have mentioned in this article.

Now as I have said this is an idea and not a real trail. Access to some portions of this proposed trail may not exist either through topography or private property. At this time, I would not suggest hiking such a  route due to too many unknowns. Trespassing is a crime. Respect private property owners rights.

If you are really interested in hiking such a trail, I would instead contact your state representative. A trail of this distance would require a great deal of  funding for the state to even consider it. Would you be willing to pay a fee  for the privilege of hiking this trail? You at the very least would need a Louisiana Wild Stamp to access the wildlife management areas along the way as that is state law now. Would you be willing to volunteer once or more a year to help maintain the hiking trail? Signs must be maintained, trails cleared, weeds or wayward branches removed and of course trash must be dealt with.

But for all this effort and all this money spent what would be so great about a trail in Northeast Louisiana? Access to peace and quiet, leisure or family time might occur and not to mention the economic benefits. If this trail was for people and horses just think of the people who might use it and not just locals but people out of state. There might be opportunities for bed and breakfast accomodations to open in the area. Community stores (some might call” jot em downs”) might enjoy more business. May haw jelly or fruit and vegetables could be sold along the roads of the area as more people visit the general area. Wildflowers could be seen in their native setting. More camping areas might be considered.

I think it would be a great component of the quality of life in Northeast Louisiana.