I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know a blue jay from a bluebird, but experts and amateurs alike are welcome at the Grand Isle Migratory Bird Festival…at least that’s what my husband, Paul, told me while packing us up for a two-hour drive to Grand Isle. I was quite doubtful that our three-year-old would be welcome among groups of whispering, tip-toeing bird watchers, but I plugged in the portable DVD player and took out the map for the drive.

Pelicans skimming the ocean.

There are two important things to know before you even get to Grand Isle: going one mile too fast will earn you a speeding ticket in Golden Meadow and the new, white bridge leading to the island is a toll bridge with no toll booth. Once you conquer these two obstacles, you emerge on a decent-sized island known for its fishing, birding and, of course, proximity to oil.

We picked up some poboys at the elevated deli near the beginning of the island and carried them over to the beach for a picnic lunch. The wind whipped in our face, blowing sand and our napkins across the parking lot, but Charles was oblivious while he marched off with bucket and shovel in hand. The beach here is not the fine white sand you find in Florida, but rather crushed shells packed tight into a solid surface. We soon found out there are other perks, though, as a dolphin playfully danced through the ocean right in front of us while dozens of brown pelicans skimmed the surface of the water searching for food.

Charles on his first fishing trip

Finishing off lunch, we drove to the far end of the island to Grand Isle State Park. The park was free for the birding festival, but the beach was closed due to large amounts of tar balls showing up at the water’s edge. As we walked the length of the fishing pier, we gazed longingly at the finer, silky sand that was off-limits to visitors. Several weekend vacationers were manning fishing poles at the end of the T-shaped pier, and in the 20 minutes we watched, they pulled in four catfish and an enormous sting ray. Charles even got to guard a fishing pole while one kid left to drop his latest catch in the ice chest.

Birdwatchers in the Grilleta Tract

On to the birding festival, we parked our car at the Nature Conservancy trail head marking the entrance to the Grilleta Tract. One of the last remaining stands of maritime forest on the island, it’s a prime location for a phenomenon known as a “fallout.” When thousands of exhausted, migrating birds fly into a thunderstorm, they are forced to fall out of the sky and seek refuge in the island’s trees. Our arrival didn’t coincide with a storm, but we still saw hundreds of birds — and dozens of onlookers — along the trail. We were oblivious to what we were looking at, but made a good showing by hiding behind our camera and binoculars. We almost got away with it until a serious birdwatcher carrying an actual telescope asked us what we were taking photos of, and Paul answered, “the trees.”

View from the golf cart

The trail ended at the backyard of Bobby Santini, who welcomed us onto his property to view his pictures of birds and taste the berries from his mulberry tree. This is where our second goof occurred when the “roosters” I pointed out to Charles went inside their coop to lay some eggs. At that point, I figured we could give up our act. Charles’ sudden interest in Mr. Bobby’s golf cart had him taking the toddler and Paul for a ride, while I sat on the porch swing with August, who flirted away with Mrs. Santini. It turned out the native Grand Islanders lived in a 213-year-old house — the oldest on the island — and it had survived both hurricanes Betsy and Katrina.

The golf ride revealed a great playground just a few streets away, and the kids and I stopped over to explore it while Paul went back for the car. Later, back on the main road searching for a dinner spot, we found a cute souvenir shop where Charles landed a pirate’s hat and Paul picked up some shells. The shop owner’s recommendation then led us to Sarah’s Restaurant where we pigged out on fried fish and potato salad, and Charles scared the other patrons with his rendition of a pirate. After a long day, I rewarded myself with a daiquiri for the ride home as we drove back out onto the thin road surrounded by endless wetlands on either side.

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