Article by Charles Paxton
Photos by Charles & Kimmie Paxton
While this article may be of most interest to people residing in or visiting the northeastern region of Louisiana, it may cause you to look again at your own local parks as great venues for ecotourism wherever you may be. Think parks, think nature walks and wildlife photography, or just a good old mental and physical health boost! Some readers may remember that Louisiana Master Naturalists Northeast visited Kiroli for a restoration ecology field trip with ULM Professor Joydeep Bhattacharjee. That was a great workshop.
Anyway, on Sunday, September 26th, Louisiana Master Naturalists Northeast gathered again in Kiroli Park for a Nature Walk and Talk event to coincide with our third quarter board meeting. It proved an excellent venue! In the first five minutes of chatting with our friends at the muster point surrounded by lofty Short-leaf Pines (Pinus echinata), we saw a magnificent Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) alight in a tall pine, and after a short while posing regally, it flapped off, no doubt on a quest for one of the plump resident squirrels.
Our walk revealed many points of interest. As we set off through mature woodland we were immediately aware of a bird wave. American Robins (Turdus migratorius) were hopping about in the undergrowth, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) was higher in a tree canopy calling across an area of open woodland where Red Spider Lilies (Lycoris radiata) raised their crimson heads on long green, leafless stalks and then we came upon a fine old hollow stump. There, our keen-eyed herpetologist revealed the lovely fox-brown form of a female Fowler’s Toad. She had inflated her pear-shaped form defensively, but had nothing worse to fear from us than a series of photographic exposures. Further along the trail, with an excited cry, our herpetologist saw something that my wife and I had been longing to see! Bird’s Nest Fungi! They were like tiny, quirky looking brown cup-cake papers with three or more shiny grey ‘eggs’ nestled inside.
We were ecstatic and inspected them closely. Kimmie and I photographed them while the rest of the party eventually continued on into the deciduous woodland where they saw a Western Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis proximus) hunting in a ravine below their suspension bridge.
When we caught up with them we enjoyed looking for wildlife there too. The Ribbon Snake had moved off, but we saw a young Southern Broadbanded Watersnake (Nerodia fasciata confluens) floating gracefully in a pool and some intriguing food prints of a mustelid, possibly an American Mink (Neogale vison) and Common Raccoons (Procyon lotor) in the river sand.
We hurried back for our meeting and a very interesting talk about the West Monroe Park System by Stuart Hodnett, Parks and Recreation Director for West Monroe.
He explained that there are eight parks in the city, they also manage the planting instalation in the roundabouts used to get to Kiroli Park, but they aren’t responsible for the road signage. To get to Kiroli, when approaching from Arkansas Road go through the first roundabout (enter at 6, leave at 12 0’clock) and take the first right turn off the second roundabout (enter at 6, leave at 3 0’clock).
Kiroli Park is “a gem” and a big one, formerly a scout camp, it covers 150 acres, with 2 ponds, wetlands and woodlands and a richly varied topography of hills and valleys. There is a lot of wildlife and the large ornamental fishing pond is stocked annually, once in January with 500 lbs of trout and then again in late February and mid March with 1000 lbs of catfish provided by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries! That morning Stuart saw a flock of about 30 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis) there!
Smiles Park is within Kiroli and has been open for ten years now and is a popular play area for kids, they also have a Dog Park for large and small dogs and 3.6 miles of trails. They are constructing new Mountain Bike Trails in partnership with the local police department — an outer one about 3.5 miles long and then an inner one that will zig-zag and together they’ll comprise 6.5 miles of mountain bike trail through high quality environment with new signage where they cross the footpaths. They hope to have this ready by November 1st! Wow!!
They hold regular events every year at Kiroli. The Celtic Festival with 2000-3000 people, great live music and about 60 vendors, also Family Date Night on Oct. 30th is a Halloween treat with a movie, spooky trail and games. It’s a fun place, but can be very peaceful and calming, there’s a super sense of clear vertical space between the elegant pines and who doesn’t love the smell of warm pine straw?
One caveat is to avoid the park when thunderstorms are likely. They’ve been cleaning up after two hurricanes, several lightning strikes (eight between July and August this year) and a microburst with 70 mph winds, also a deep freeze! So there’s never a dull moment! But Stewart explained he has a great team to work with, including Horticulturist, Hayley Martin. She’s got 8,000 plants in the greenhouse now that will be ready for next Spring! Altogether they’ll plant about 16,000 tulips. Usually they plant about 5,000 at Kiroli and 2,000 at City Hall. They’ll plant Red Spider Lilies and daffodils on the hill at Restoration Park. There are some erosion issues at the Dog Park, they put a splash-pad in there, so they will do some fund-raisers for Dog Park. They tore down the conservatory because it had become dilapidated, and they’re planning to make a Japanese Zen garden with all native plants, clean out the waterfalls and streams and make the gazebo look good. They’ll do some fund-raising for that. They just got tin rooves for the 9 shelters that can cope with acidic pine straw. They will also refurbish Kiroli lodge and make real fire places. They will work on the rentable Pavilions too.
Restoration Park is about 48 acres in size. LMN-NE visited for a restoration ecology field trip with ULM Professor Joydeep Bhattacharjee. It was formerly an open cast gravel pit and then used as a garbage dump. It was bought by the city in 1989 and though it is being cleaned up you can see there is still old machinery and other stuff among the trees. It seems symbolic of nature growing back and gradually over-growing the junk from the past. It has 1.3 miles of trails and is great for birding too. It’s notable for its beautiful ponds and beaver dams. Stuart likes it especially because it is very popular with out of town visitors. Several trees fell there in the recent hurricanes. I’ve stayed in a hotel there, right by the park and it is a wonderfully accessible wild-space! Discover the wonderful wildlife of Restoration Park in West Monroe, Louisiana.
Lazarre Park extends to 90 acres and is a point, surrounded by the Ouachita River on three sides, it also has a pond, so its great for birding. Stuart cleaned the place up and beefed up police patrols, there are plans to lay tracks there and people enjoy disc-golf, bass fishing tournaments and the annual River Rat Challenge. Camping with permission is allowed behind the Pavillion! He’d like to open up the back part and make it a camp ground because it is so beautiful. The river rises in spring but drops again by mid-may.
Lazarre Park is also a site of scientific significance with turtles laying above its beaches. Turtle nests can too often be predated by Common Raccoons and Red Foxes. This site doesn’t suffer raccoon predation so much, but it’s thought that Red Foxes will take eggs if they can. Recently Professor Carr of University of Louisiana Monroe’s (ULM) Biology Department and his students conducted a public release of freshwater turtle hatchlings there on the sands beside a shallow bay. He says it was a great success and Carr’s project was strongly backed by The Mayor. The released turtles were raised in the ULM Biology department’s incubators from egg clutches unearthed at Lazarre Park to prevent their predation. This year has been wetter than most due to the La Ninja phenomenon. Professor Carr stresses the importance of Lazarre Park as great turtle habitat and turtle nursery. He says that the timing of the rain just after laying may have helped obscure the mothers’ tracks this year and may have resulted in a better than normal reproduction rate for this location! Isn’t it great to hear some good news? Two of the species he released are of conservation concern — The Smooth Softshells and endemic Ouachita Map turtles. He also released Mississippi Map Turtles. It was a super event enjoyed by local and visiting families and Louisiana Master Naturalists Northeast. Watch the turtle release on YouTube, (be advised YouTube sets cookies).
Next he talked about ‘Gator Park on Mitchell Street, saying it is a small but beautiful community park of 3 acres that’s on the way to Lazarre Park, with wonderful, old Live Oaks. They planted Crepe Myrtles there four years ago and they’ve just refurbished it and put in new Play equipment there for the residents, and they love it.
Facen Park was another small community park behind Golden Pier Seafood, on Benson and North 6th St. Though just a small community play park (approx. 1/2 acre)
Bryan Smith Park is off Lee St. Again, it is a small community park, it is distinguished in having one of those old carousels along with the swing sets. So anyone interested in indulging in some playful nostalgia, take note!
Alley Park is another small but distinctive park, it was a road at one time. It’s managed very capably by Adrian Wells and they hold a lot of concerts and events there, now there’s a shade structure and a stage and they hold an outdoor market there sometimes, the Mayor has been very supportive of all this and it features regularly on the local news.
The Riverbend Community Health Park was sponsored by some local businesses and the school board and is smaller still at 1/4 acre, it lies between the Community Center on South 5th and the Riverbend Elementary School and it has a popular walking track.
The new Highland Park Trails is where the old golf course was, it is under construction and will also open this November. It may have a pavilion, and 1.13 miles of trails through a wetland area. On each side of North 7th there’ll be retail space and between there’ll be a central park with ponds and native plantings with 2 big double bridges. People will be able to drive through part of it but it’ll be mostly for pedestrians.
Then Stuart dropped the good news bombshell! News of plans to connect all the parks together with a cycling path!! That sounds great, our greenspaces will become more accessible.
In the Q & A session he talked briefly about the planned Indoor Sports Complex on the Frontage Road. It’ll be an open court sectioned off with curtains, suitable for basketball, volleyball, pickleball etc. They’ll hold cheer-leader competitions and any kind of tournaments you can do indoors, there’ll also be a huge meeting room to accommodate 90+ people and it will have its own cafeteria.
So it looks as if there are some great green and recreation spaces in our area and from November there’ll be even more options!