Nature in New Orleans: Fontainebleau State Park
Text and Photographs by Lana Gramlich
New Orleans usually conjures thoughts of Mardi Gras, the French Quarter and jazz. As a local nature photographer, I think more about moss-draped live oaks, alligator-friendly bayous and the uncontrollable explosion of nature that only hot, humid climes can provide. Situated on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain in Mandeville, Louisiana, one of my favorite places to shoot is Fontainebleau State Park.
About a 50 minute drive from downtown New Orleans,Fontainebleau State Park sprawls over 2,800 acres. The park is open daily and you’d be hard pressed to find a better bargain than the $2 day use fee (camping is available at different rates). Bernard de Marigny de Mandeville developed the area as a sugar plantation until 1852, making Fontainebleau a historical site, but it’s also an interesting convergence of various ecosystems that offer a wide range of natural subject matter.
Sand is uncommon in swampy, southeastern Louisiana, but Fontainebleau has a small beach area. Part of the beachfront is home to cypresses (our state tree,) whose oddly-shaped roots and “knees” are exposed by the sloshing of the waves. Waterfowl are frequently seen here: herons, egrets, pelicans, cormorants, gulls, etc. The sun sets into Lake Pontchartrain every evening, offering lovely reflections of colorful skies. The moon sets here, as well, but you may need to camp overnight to see it.
Not far from the beach are huge, ancient, live oak trees–a dramatic subject, particularly when cloaked in thick, Louisiana fog. Other trees include slash pines, ironwood, sweet gum, red maples, yaupon holly, beautyberries, magnolias and more.
Six miles of nature trails offer excellent birding and access to native plants, animals and insects, with interpretive signs to help with identification. Over 400 species make Fontainebleau State Park their home, including snakes, lizards, gray foxes, armadillos, raccoons,
My favorite feature, however, is the marsh boardwalk. Damaged by Hurricane Isaac in 2012, repairs are now underway. The marsh offers wonderful views of native grasses and aquatic life–from minnows and blue crabs to water snakes and alligators–and the boardwalk has seating so you can stay a while. Designated a “birding hotspot” by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the marsh is rarely without birds. Winter migrants include massive flotillas of various ducks and coots (the bald eagle’s favorite food). Northern harriers, Caspian terns and barn swallows are frequent hunters here. Sunsets and moonsets are visible from this vantage point, as well.
In addition to all of this bounty, Fontainebleau State Park is just a mile down the road from Northlake Nature Center, but that’s another story…