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Down on the Bayou Boardwalk: Bellingrath’s beautiful Fowl River estuary

Boat Dock on Fowl River
The Bellingrath Home and boat dock on Fowl River.
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Interpretive panel on the boardwalk.

By Dr. Bill Barrick, Executive Director

In honor of National Estuaries Week (Sept. 17-24), I wanted to take the opportunity to discuss the Fowl River estuary, an important part of the Gardens from its earliest days as a fishing camp at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1996, we added the Dwight Harrigan/ExxonMobil Ecological Bayou Boardwalk on the bayou on the Bellingrath property, which gave our visitors a completely new experience.

Several years ago, through an additional grant from the ExxonMobil Foundation, we installed 14 different panels interpreting the Fowl River ecology. Children use the information on these panels when they take part in our Scavenger Hunts to learn more about the wildlife and plants along the river.

Bluebird box in the natural area at the entrance on Bellingrath Road.
Bluebird box in the natural area at the entrance on Bellingrath Road.

A couple of years ago, we worked with three young Boy Scouts on their Eagle Scout badge to add wood duck boxes and hacking towers for osprey nests  in the bayou, along with bluebird boxes in the naturally forested area at the entrance to the Gardens on Bellingrath Road.

The Fowl River estuary

Overall, the Fowl River is part of a drowned river valley estuary 31 miles long and 23 miles wide, encompassing over 250,000 square acres, or 413 square miles. This shallow estuary, with average depths of less than 10 feet, provides a vast transition area between the freshwater wetlands of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta to the north and the marine environments of the Gulf of Mexico to the south.

By definition, an estuary is a partially enclosed body of water formed where fresh water from rivers and streams flows into the ocean, mixing with salt water. Although influenced by tides, estuaries are protected from the full force of ocean waves, winds and storms by the fingers of land that define their seaward edges.

The Bayou Boardwalk on Fowl River.
The Bayou Boardwalk on Fowl River.

These sheltered tidal waters support unique communities of plants and animals adapted for life between fresh and salt water. Estuaries are critical for the survival of thousands of species, including fish, mammals, birds and invertebrates, which depend upon them for food, water, cover and places to raise young.

Nationally, in addition to providing recreational and scientific opportunities, estuaries are also the habitat for more than 75 percent of the American commercial fishery and up to 80 percent of the recreational fishery.

There has been a lot of study on the Fowl River watershed, and fortunately, the Fowl River is one of the cleanest rivers in the state of Alabama.  At Bellingrath, we recently completed the sale of some wetlands acreage across the river with the Fish and Wildlife Service to tie this land up in perpetuity to add to the wetlands.

Fowl River estuary, viewed from the Bayou Boardwalk, with osprey platform at right.
Fowl River estuary, viewed from the Bayou Boardwalk, with osprey platform at right.

Caring for the environment

We use environmentally friendly best practices in our daily operations in our continuing effort to be good stewards of our land holdings and operate the Gardens in an eco-friendly manner. By no means can we manage this garden without the use of pesticides, but we can do this responsibly by adhering to guidelines that protect our visitors as well as employees.

We limit the use of insecticides; primarily, these are used in our greenhouse operations rather than in the Gardens. We do use fungicides, and at times during azalea season we spray for petal blight to extend the season. Herbicides are used to control invasives, such as Cogon Grass.

The irrigation system along the Exit Path.
The irrigation system along the Exit Path.

We also strive for the most efficient use of water. We irrigate the Gardens from deep wells, which use a tremendous amount of water, but we redid the irrigation systems a few years ago to change a good bit of the distribution system in shrub and changeable heads to mist nozzles, leading to less waste and more efficient delivery of water.

Public gardens are generally not thought of as environmental organizations. That is understandable, particularly when gardens such as Bellingrath are first and foremost historic gardens. There is also great merit in preserving almost 1,000 acres of land in a “green state” rather than urban development.

Our goal at Bellingrath Gardens and Home is to continue our environmentally sound practices in our operations in order to insure a minimal impact on the environment, particularly on the Fowl River estuary.

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