I’m staring at a swampy green stretch of Lake Martin when suddenly the crust of aquatic plants parts and a pair of yellow eyes rises from the depths.
I holler for my friend Gretchen, who has wandered across the road and is busily photographing an egret.
This is better. Way better.
She races over, and as we watch, a 4-foot alligator emerges from the muck, then slides ever-so-slowly alongside the road, one eyeball directed our way. Which is fine, until it makes a 90-degree turn and heads straight toward us.
We do what we have to do — we flee, running back to our car, 100 yards down the road. Once the doors have swung shut, we enjoy a good laugh. Then we roll forward in the safety of our car for another look.
Here at the Cypress Island Preserve, a 9,500-acre chunk of Nature Conservancy property just outside Breaux Bridge, La., a 15-minute detour off Interstate 10, this kind of stuff happens all the time.
We’ve visited in April, when nesting waterbirds take center stage. But in the hot summer months, gators bigger then grown men glide through the water and mosey onto the paved road that parallels the lake. Sometimes, we’re told, they loll there happily, enjoying a bake in the sun.
When we first arrived today, we parked and took a quick amble down the quarter-mile wheelchair-accessible boardwalk across from the visitors center, peering into the marshy, cypress-spiked water. We saw lots of mystical-looking green vegetation in what brochures describe as a cypress tupelo swamp, but no gators.
Next we wandered further down the paved road and hiked a short ways along the Levee Trail, a shady 2.5-mile path that skirts the west side of Lake Martin. Again, no gators, but lots of murky thickets.
Finally we backtracked, hopping into our car and heading out the way we came in, along Rookery Road. There we pulled off to the side, rolled down our windows — and gaped.
The preserve is home to one of the largest waterbird rookeries in North America. If you visit in spring like we did, you’ll see (and hear!) thousands of nesting birds. We watched clouds of snowy egrets feeding their babies in trees a few hundred yards away and marveled when the occasional cotton candy-colored roseate spoonbill flapped past.
The birds start trickling in in late January — great egrets first, then little blue herons, cattle egrets, snowy egrets and those pink roseate spoonbills. The best viewing is from March to June; by July the huge flocks have mostly dispersed and all attention turns to the gators.
Be sure to pick up a bird checklist at the visitors center so you can keep track of which birds you spot. More than 200 species come to this naturally formed lake, from the belted kingfishers to great horned owls. Occasionally a brown pelican or magnificent frigatebird gets blown off course during a tropical storm and lands here, too.
The preserve represents a sliver of what this whole area once looked like — teeming with wildlife, hidden behind a curtain of old-growth forest.
It’s a marvel, and particularly amazing considering most folks headed east from Austin to Louisiana and beyond blast right past it. It’s definitely worth the stop.
If you go: The Cypress Island Preserve is located at 1264 Prairie Highway, St. Martinville (337-342-2475; nature.org/louisiana). Open daily during daylight hours.