By Tom Adkinson, Special to Nashville Tennessean / USA TODAY NETWORK — TENNESSEE 

In times B.C. (that’s Before Casinos), it was the natural world that drew visitors to Mississippi’s three coastal counties. Slot machines’ flashing lights and ringing bells are alluring these days, but Mother Nature offers golden sunsets over the Mississippi Sound, chirping birds and lapping waves to entertain you outdoors.

It’s surprisingly easy to have a stare-down with an alligator, float on a “singing river” and spot one of the rarest birds in North America, the Mississippi sandhill crane, just minutes from the casino floor. There are only 129 of the long-legged birds, and I saw six in one morning. That means I saw almost five percent of the world’s population — better odds than winning at a blackjack table, I’ll bet.

Interstate 10 and U.S. 90 slice through Jackson, Harrison and Hancock counties, sometimes right along the Gulf of Mexico and sometimes just a bit inland, with casino-studded Biloxi almost in the middle.

To the uninitiated, it’s a stretch of pine trees and bridges over murky water between Mobile and New Orleans. To the observant and curious, it’s a great destination for an outdoors autumn adventure, when summer’s heat is gone and the humidity is down a bit. You can paddle, pedal, walk or float into a natural environment and return home with a jackpot of unexpected stories and photos.

A good starting point is the Pascagoula River Audubon Center at Moss Point. It is key to learning about the 82-mile-long Pascagoula River, which the Nature Conservancy labels the largest (by volume) undammed river in the 48 contiguous states. Local lore calls it the “Singing River” because some visitors still hear the long-ago chants of the Pascagoula Indian tribe on quiet nights.

The Nature Conservancy spearheaded an effort to preserve the river’s surrounding habitat with the 1974 acquisition of 35,000 acres that have grown to 70,000.

Of the 400 bird species in Mississippi, 375 are here, and there are two excellent water-level ways to scout for them — along with alligators, otters and sun-seeking turtles. One is a kayak tour on Rhodes Bayou if you want some exercise, and the other is a two-hour swamp and marsh tour aboard Capt. Benny McCoy’s 20-passenger pontoon boat, where no exertion is required.

A big lesson here is the value of the sawgrass marsh. It is a nursery for shrimp and crabs, some of which end up on our dinner plates, along with sturgeon, eels, alligators and scores of other aquatic and semi-aquatic species.

Mark LaSalle, executive director of the Audubon Center, whose Cajun storytelling heritage was on full display, narrated my two-hour trip with Capt. McCoy.

“The best mother on the river is the female alligator protecting her nest,” LaSalle declared as we watched a gator peer at us through the marsh.

Capt. Kathy Wilkinson of Eco-Tours of South Mississippi in Gautier offers even longer Pascagoula River tours (two hours, four hours and full-day excursions into cypress swamps, salt marshes and even the barrier islands) and arranges marsh and swamp kayak trips. She also has a swamp cabin for six if you want an overnight experience.

You can further your wetlands education nearby at the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, a fancy name for 18,000 acres devoted to studying estuaries. Its public facility has LEED gold certification and is full of eye-opening scientific displays about the value of coastal environments.

Among its programs are kayak tours (registration required) and occasional “meet the scientist” breakfasts. A 1,000-foot-long boardwalk offers a nice tour into the wetlands.

One of America’s great species recovery stories is told at the 19,000-acre Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge in Gautier, the first refuge created for an endangered species. That was in 1975, when only about 35 of the non-migratory cranes were alive. They remain endangered, but hard work has brought the population to 129 birds.

Tours, such as one I took with wildlife biologist Scott Hereford, increase your odds of seeing some of the 5-foot-tall birds. They nest in mounds about a yard across, and hatchlings can grow to 4 feet tall in three months. An observation deck and two short trails are at the visitor center.

The refuge’s wet pine savanna habitat, the last of its kind in the U.S., makes it appealing to other birds such as yellow rails, redheaded woodpeckers, Henslow’s sparrows, LeConte’s sparrows (one of North America’s smallest sparrow species) and northern harriers. Also, this is home to 12 carnivorous plants such as sundews, butterworts, bladderworts and four types of pitcher plants.

A popular open water trip on the Ship Island Excursion Ferry to Fort Massachusetts, a leftover from the Civil War, is unable to operate until next spring because Hurricane Nate damaged the pier on Ship Island. In the meanwhile, the ferry company offers two-hour dolphin tours on Saturdays and Sundays. The ferry’s base is in Gulfport.

Chartering a fishing boat is yet another way to enjoy the coastal Mississippi outdoors and to try your luck with hook and line instead of with cards and dice.

Capt. Steve Perrigin in Ocean Springs specializes in inshore light tackle fishing for spotted sea trout, white trout, redfish, flounder and black drum at his Strictly Fishin’ charter operation. His four-hour trip is especially good for first-timers and young anglers. Perrigin also offers eco-sightseeing tours into the bayous and out to the barrier islands. Seeing porpoises always is a prospect.

Power your own excursion along the 15.5 miles of the Live Oaks Bicycle Route. It connects Ocean Springs with the Davis Bayou Area of Gulf Islands National Seashore. Start at the historic L&N Train Depot and follow green and white signs. Tri-Hard Sports is on the route and has a fleet of rental bikes, both classic beach cruiser and geared bikes.

The flashing lights of Biloxi’s casinos always are nearby, but one of the best light shows anywhere is a golden sunset over the Mississippi Sound after a day of exploring the coastal Mississippi outdoors.

Finding small lodging

When you want lodging other than at a bustling casino hotel, the coast has many alternatives. Here are a few.

Oak Crest Mansion Inn in Pass Christian is a B&B on 12 magnolia-adorned acres. www.OakCrestMansion.com

Almanett Hotel & Bistro in Gulfport is a six-suite, full-service hotel with a three-bedroom bungalow nearby. www.TheAlmanett.com

Front Beach Cottages in Ocean Springs are a set of four fishing shacks converted into vacation lodging. www.FrontBeachCottages.com

Bay Town Inn in Bay St. Louis is across from a marina and near several restaurants. www.BayTownInn.com

Hotel Whiskey in Pass Christian is an 11-room boutique property with its own steakhouse restaurant. www.HotelWhiskey.biz

Travel resources

Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast is the convention and visitors bureau for Mississippi’s three coastal counties.

Pascagoula River Audubon Center is open 9 a.m-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday. Admission is $8; $5 for children 12 and under. Pascagoulariver.audubon.org

Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve visitor center is open 9 a.m-3 p.m. Monday-Friday. Admission is free. www.GrandBayNERR.org

Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge visitor center is open 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Refuge open daylight hours. fws.gov/refuge/mississippi_sandhill_crane

Boat tour information is at www.EcoToursOfSouthMississippi.com for Capt. Kathy Wilkinson and at www.MSShipIsland.com for the Ship Island Ferry.

Fishing trip information for Capt. Steve Perrigin is at www.StrictlyFishin.com.

Bicycle rental information for the Live Oaks Bicycle Route is at www.TriHardSports.net.

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