The Cypress Island Nature Preserve at Lake Martin, just outside of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, is home to a swampy ecosystem that's full of wildlife and native plants. Unlike the deeper swamps of the Atchafalaya Basin, Lake Martin can be easily reached by car and much of the surrounding area can be explored on foot or in a canoe or kayak.
The preserve is currently owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy, who work to keep the lake clean and ecologically sound.
They also maintain a visitor's center and a boardwalk over the swamp at the South end of the lake.
Birds and Other Animals
Lake Martin is an official wildlife sanctuary and is home to a natural rookery where thousands of wild shorebirds and migratory songbirds build their nests each year. Among the hundreds of species nesting here are several varieties of heron and egret (including the great blue heron, little blue heron, green heron, black-crowned night heron, great egret, snowy egret, and more), neotropic and double-crested cormorants, anhingas, roseate spoonbills, and osprey. To see a complete list, download the full Lake Martin birds checklist (in PDF form).
Lake Martin is also home to a substantial nesting population of alligators. They can typically be spotted from Rookery Road, which runs right along the edge of the lake. They are naturally camouflaged, but it doesn't take long to get good at gator-spotting, and even if it doesn't come easily to you, you can usually find them by looking for stopped cars and folks with cameras and binoculars.
Alligators are not typically aggressive, but some of the hiking trails along the back side of the lake are closed off during nesting season, as nesting females can be the exception to this rule.
Feeding alligators is illegal, as is throwing things at them. Be a good visitor and just observe from afar, or risk both a hefty fine and a severe blow to your karma.
Other reptiles and amphibians, including a variety of snakes, turtles, lizards, and frogs, are also common in the lake and the surrounding brush, so be on the lookout. Again, none of these animals are aggressive, but snakes, in particular, are best viewed from far away.
Another commonly-sighted animal in Lake Martin is the nutria, or coypu. These large invasive rodents began populating the South Louisiana swamps in the 1930s when, as legend has it, they escaped from a fur production facility owned by the McIlhenny family (of Tabasco fame) during a hurricane.
They're not the most attractive swamp resident, and their aggressive burrowing and feeding has a detrimental effect on the Louisiana wetlands and poses yet another problem for already-difficult coastal restoration efforts. Various solutions have been proposed throughout the coastal region, including encouraging hunters to shoot nutria for food and fur, but they've yet to catch on as a source of food or fashion.
Exploring the Lake
Rookery Road, a dirt and gravel road, runs around a good portion of the lake, and a slow drive along the edge can yield good wildlife-spotting results. If you prefer to explore on foot, though, you can park your car alongside the edge of the road at any point, or at parking lots at both ends of Rookery Road and at the junction of Lake Martin Road and Rookery Road, near the boat launch.
Experienced paddlers can rent a kayak or a canoe from the boat launch at the end of Lake Martin Road and take a solo spin around the lake. If you prefer to paddle with a guided group, check the schedule at the local outdoor store, Pack and Paddle, who often host paddling excursions here and elsewhere.
If you'd like to see the lake from a boat, tours are available. Cajun Country Swamp Tours is a highly-recommended company that specializes in non-invasive boat tours, by appointment only. Guide Butch Guchereau and his son are naturalists who give a fascinating look at the lake and the wildlife that fills it, as well as tidbits about local history and Cajun culture.
Lake Martin is quite convenient by car to the many hotels, B&Bs and inns of both Breaux Bridge and Lafayette, but if you're a serious birder or nature enthusiast and would like to make a retreat of your visit, consider staying at the lovely Maison Madeleine, situated just a few steps from the lake.
It's an elegant yet rustic bed and breakfast from which you can view the gorgeous Lake Martin wildlife any time your heart desires.