By Skipper Anding
Bienville NF is known for several things. One is the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker that lives here in colonies. Another is Harrell Prairie and it is known by wildflower enthusiasts. Bienville is known by horse-riders for the Shocaloe Trail, a 21 mile horse trail through the pine forest. There are signs on I-20 at Morton and Forest directing them to the National Forest Trail, which is north of Hwy 80 and runs between the towns just north of the interstate. Birders will enjoy the two recreation areas in the forest, Marathon and Shongelo which close around dusk.
Established in 1934, the forest was developed from cut-over land left over when the original forest was cleared. At one time you could see some of the original big trees at the "Bienville Pines Scenic Area". You still can see a few if you visit the Forest Work Area, east on Hwy 80 in Forest which was one end of the old trail. It's only open on week days and although the trail is closed, you can see a few very big pines around their parking lot. They were kind enough to allow me inside their shop to see a display showing a cross section of one of the big ones. It was bigger than I expected!
My dad tells me as a boy he enjoyed the big trees around McNair, MS northeast of Natchez. The trees were so big they shaded the ground and kept the underbrush down to the point that you could see a long way underneath the trees. He saw poplar logs so large that it took four oxen to haul one! This arthur made the reccomendation to the Bienville National Forest 10-year forest plan to have old-growth areas that were set aside where the trees could grow back to original size. Not only would the public enjoy visiting these, but wildlife would benefit as well.
Bienville NF contains 178,000 acres. Headquarters is the Ranger Station located about a mile or so south of Forest on Hwy 35, phone 601-469-3811. A short loop trail (10 or 15 minutes) starts on the left side of the Ranger Station and a brochure is available to describe the trail.
The brochure mentions the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. I haven't seen them at the Ranger Station, but in several other parts of the forest. Big pine trees provide just the habitat they like. If left to grow long enough, no forest management is necessary for them either. The main problem for them these days is the lack of older pines shading the ground and providing them with nest holes in living pines. Now, on to two fun places.
Shongelo Recreation Area
From I-20 at Forest, take Hwy 35 south for 18 miles and look on the left side of the road. This will be 5 miles north of Raleigh.
Shongelo is open from April 15 to October 15 each year. This is a real little jewel in the forest. In the south part of the forest the flat pine land gives way to hills and hardwoods. There is a 7 acre spring-fed lake and a beautiful nature trail that goes around it. You come to a deck high on the hill - stop and enjoy the view. Later the trail goes through a bottom filled with ferns. There is a swimming area, restrooms, and wonderful places to picnic on the hillside. There is a daily entrance fee of $3 per vehicle. Migration can be very good here. By the way, Shongelo comes from an Indian word meaning "place of cypress".
Marathon Recreation Area
From I-20 at Forest (Exit 88) - Go north a hundred yards and turn right at Wendy's. In a mile you will come to a tee. Turn right and go 9 miles on 501 (not marked). Turn left - this is Morton-Marathon Road and a small store will be just past where you turn. Go 3 miles ahead and the entrance is on the right.
Another way from I-20 is to go south on Hwy 35 for 7 miles like heading for Shongelo. Turn left at Homewood (church and 2 small stores). This is Morton-Marathon road. After 5 miles you stop for 501 and continue on 3 miles to the entrance on the right. This would be a short cut if you wanted to visit both recreation areas in one day.
Open all year, there is a daily entrance fee of $3 per vehicle. Marathon has a swimming area, picnic area, restrooms, and a camping area. A hiking trail goes around the 50 acre lake. From the picnic area, the trail crosses the dam of an old mill pond and then turns left along the edge of the main lake. The dam has water on both sides as the main lake comes right up to it. The trail will take you to the dam on the main lake and back around through the camping in about an hour. The pond was built by the Marathon Lumber Co. that cut the forest and sold it as barren land.
It is not unusual to see an Osprey over the lake, so keep an eye out. Eastern Kingbirds and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers like to hang around the trees near the water, especially along the long picnic area. Bob White Quail are expected along trails.
At Shongelo or Marathon expect Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Yellow-breasted Chat, Gray Catbird, E. Towhee, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Wood Thrush, Pileated Woodpecker, Summer Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, Carolina Wren, C. Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, N. Cardinal, E. Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Wood Thrush, Blue Jay, Red-bellied, Red-headed, Downey Woodpecker, White-eyed Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, E. Kingbird, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and E. Wood Pewee.
At dusk watch for Common Nighthawks and listen for Owls. After dark listen for Chuck-wills-widows, especially when the moon is shining bright. Listen for both Chucks and Whip-poor-wills during migration.
Harrell Prairie Botanical Area
Wild turkeys at the Harrell Prairie Photos S Anding
Wildflowers are at their best here in spring, but summer is quite nice too. This is the state's largest (maybe 80 aces) and least disturbed natural prairie. It is located about 3 miles down a forest road (gravel) on the east side of Forest. The gate to the road is usually locked except during hunting season. Arrangements can be made to visit the botanical area by calling the Ranger Station at 601-469-3811.
Expect sunflowers, purple coneflowers, rattlesnake master, butterfly weed, partridge pea, Black-eyed Susan, clovers, butterfly pea, primroses and many others. Wildflowers at the Harrell Prairie are shown below.
Jackson Audubon Society
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