Brazos Bend State Park: Sunrise Birding #1

Do you see the gator?

It was early in the morning on a Saturday, and the park wasn’t officially open yet.  My friend Janey and I are walking in that slow, quiet gait that birders develop along the southeast section of 40 Acre Lake, scanning the tree tops for signs of the Barred Owl that has been spotted out there.  I thought I saw the slow descent of a large bird above us, and soon we were rewarded with a visual sighting of this remarkable creature, much to our excitement.  It was a great start to a fun couple of hours filling a checklist with observed species.

We don’t own a great lens for birding and I wasn’t tracking our finds on E-bird, but simply recording the new species for my yearly list on GNotes.  Someday we’ll be able to invest in a good lens for the Nikon.  Janey has a great camera, though, and gets some amazing wildlife shots with it.  For the curious and to see some good shots, you can see Janey’s checklist here.  We found about 32 different species of birds.

The highlights, though, included these moments:  a couple of Carolina Wrens singing and posing on and around a dead log, the owl of course, the Anhinga, and the American Bittern that was just right there in the light of the morning, slowly catching several crawfish in the shallows.  We noticed the photographer first, a man who had gotten himself a sweet little spot along the bank to sit for focused shots, and then we watched this creature for a while.  Viewing it with binoculars, I could really see the detail on the intricate beauty of the feathers.

The American Bittern can be seen in the middle of this shot


We saw and heard a lot of bird action in the nearby wild rice, and after some back and forth, ID-ed a Common Yellow Throat.  On the way out, we stopped for a bit to try to figure out who we heard singing in the upper brush.  We saw a Gray Catbird, but this was not the one we were listening to.  Janey thought she saw a White Eyed Vireo but wasn’t sure when she had to leave for her volunteer training session.  I really wanted to know what it was to claim it for my finds list, so I prowled through the brush and then finally just sat on a bench for a while, and was rewarded by the bird coming right out into the open for me to get a good look and verify that it was, in fact, a White Eyed Vireo making that bright little song.

On the way home, I noticed that initially when I was driving, I was still scanning for birds, and it was distracting.  It made me think about this article a friend had posted on Facebook about developing situational awareness. In a way, birders are using situational awareness when they are out looking for birds.  You have to become more mindful of your surroundings than usual.  You become more in touch with your senses, more sensitive to the sounds and movements around you.

That is one of the skill sets that I have been building going on birding walks with the Audubon groups.  I used to walk through the woods and miss most of what was going on around me, because I wasn’t paying as much attention.  In order to find birds, your eye has to seek out the anomalies in the environment: the slight fluttering of wing, movement of little bodies from one branch to another behind the shrubs.  Then, when you leave the woods and start driving, you (or at least me) have to turn it off at some point, because it is hard to maintain that kind of focus on slight movements when you are going sixty miles an hour.

We tried teaching mindfulness in the workplace this past year, and I haven’t heard any feedback from others about how it worked for them, if they noticed anything different while practicing these techniques.  I do use this kind of mindful awareness to do aspects of my job, as it helps me notice more aspects of animal behavior.  It is calming to use that kind of focused awareness, and you also need to stay calm to be proficient at it.   In that situational awareness article, they actually talk about this, stating that when a person is not calm, they tend to develop tunnel vision and miss some details around them.

I feel much calmer after practicing this in the forest, which is why these kind of activities are good mental breaks for me.  I was very relaxed and happy driving away from the park.  I am going to continue more of this over the spring, maybe even next weekend with Janey, maybe even with Jason’s camera.  It helps me to be a better mother and wife when I have time to get into the woods, clear my mind, and really focus on the present, with the therapy of wing and wind.

Bastrop State Park: Lichen What We See

It’s a crisp February morning at Bastrop State Park, and our family is clustered around a park host named Ann with a dozen other explorers, listening to the story of the park’s recovery from the devastating fire of 2011.  It is Ann’s first day in the role of interpreting this story, and so she has assistance from the former park hosts, Joann and her husband.  She also has assistance from her children, an eleven year old named Charles and his younger sister.  She checks her handwritten notes a few times to make sure she is getting this story right, but seems to have it down.

The story starts at the park’s playground, with a display of images from the fire and explanations of how it started.  The rangers managed to save all the CCC structures except two scenic overlooks in the park, and two people lost their lives in a fire that ranged over a total of 34,356 acres.  During the walk, Ann explained to us the difference between primary and secondary succession, and why this was an example of secondary succession (not all of the soil was lost).

She pointed out lichen, and told us a clever little story to illustrate to us the symbiotic relationship between the two, something about algae being a great cook and fungus having an empty house and no one to cook for him, and together they built a beautiful relationship that grew a foundation, and that they were “lichen” each other.  Basically, what we learned is that lichen is important to the recovery of a forest, because over time, it breaks rock down which helps to form soil.  The lichen was a good sign that the ecosystem was returning, as was the appearance of insects, who were followed by birds as the first rungs of the ecosystem moving back into the burned forest.

We also saw the little saplings that were planted as part of the effort to replace the burned forest.  The goal was to plant two million trees, and by the end of this year, the park service will have reached the goal.  There have been hundreds of volunteer hours logged to reach that goal.  An interesting fact that I heard Ann talking about was that the Lost Pines were actually a particular type of Loblolly Pine, and that all the seeds, held inside the pine cones, were destroyed in the fire.  However, luckily, Texas A&M University had been studying the difference between the Lost Pines Loblolly Pine compared to those from the Northeast, and just happened to have some seeds that they were able to grow in a nursery and contribute to the replacement efforts for this forest.

Along the way, my sons talked to Ann and her son Charles, as well as some of the other hikers.  Charles seemed to really like my sons, and we were curious about their story, as we learned that Ann and her family were a full time RV family and home-schooled the kids.  They moved around every 4-6 months to different state parks and the parents volunteered at the park in exchange for reduced or free site rental.  They also had an RV repair business and sometimes her husband got part time jobs in the little nearby towns for supplemental income.  This was interesting to us because Jason’s dream is to live a life on the road, to be full time RVers.

At the end of the hike, we stopped to talk about a competing relationship between a pine and an oak tree, and then the leaders opened it up to questions.  I really wanted to know more about what the full time RV life was like.  Jason and I enjoy traveling together, but my dream was always to have a big ranch and lots of animals, and our dreams seem to compete with each other’s (although we aren’t any closer to either of them).  Joanne said you basically have to be best friends with your spouse, because you are sharing a very small area of space and often end up working with or near each other during park host volunteer jobs.  Ann talked a little bit more about what some of the volunteer jobs were like that were available, and how she and her husband needed to be best friends as they lived and worked in small spaces together.

I thought about this during and after our hike, what that would be like.  Jason and I had just come from a morning of sniping at each other, and truthfully we had been working more like that oak and pine than the algae and fungi.  I told him that really we were too busy being in competition for who was the biggest martyr in the relationship that we had forgotten that we needed to, or used to, or should have a more symbiotic type of relationship.  After all, we were the same two people who moved in together because he had an empty house and no one to cook for him.  Three kids and seven years, and we have to work a lot harder at happiness than we used to when it was new.  That is probably true for most everyone, though.  Nothing stays in the honeymoon stage.  So the question I pondered is, would less or more space make us better or worse together?

On the way home, we took a detour through La Grange to stop at Monument Hill State Historic Site, and we enjoyed winding our way through the neighborhood leading to and from.  The houses seemed to have so much space in the neighborhood, but yet still retained the community aspect.  Both of us were separately dreaming the same pipe dream- that maybe I could work at the primate facility in Bastrop, and we could live here.  We shared this thought, and both of us nodded at this mutual little dream we cooked up.  We had bright little dreams like this when we first got together while geocaching together and finding a nice little piece of property, and seeing us still dreaming them, I think maybe…maybe we still kinda lichen each other after all.

Mason Creek Birthday Walk

It’s Jason’s fortieth birthday, so I let him choose our weekend activity. He chose to take us hiking along Mason Creek, where the paved hike and bike ends at a trail that enters George Bush Park.  This is what is great about us – we share the same interests.  I would have chosen to go hiking today, too!

We were rewarded as soon as we got on to the trail with a sighting of something rare for the area.  A juvenile Brown Pelican was hanging out in the creek.  I remembered something about this, and checked my birding forums later to see if this is where I heard about this bird.  Five days ago, a birder on my forums had noted this guy around the same place.  Several folks riding bikes and walking dogs along the Hike and Bike stopped to take a good look at this interesting fellow.  At one point, he flew off low along the creek, and I marveled at his wingspan.

Mason Creek pelican

Jason wanted to share with me a nice section of the forest, just past the locked pipe fence and the water treatment plant, where he had enjoyed a nice walk the other day.  He thought it seemed rather birdy, but today (later in the day),  it was a little less so.  I did see some of the common birds of the area during our walk: herons, egrets, robins, cormorants, starlings, hawks, some house sparrows and an eastern phoebe.

mason creek leavesMostly, though, I was looking at the ground.  There were a lot of fall leaves on the trail, and I realized I was concentrated on feeling the trail under me, to avoid pain to my ankle that I injured so badly back four years ago now.  Last night I took a long walk with the dogs, and as is common when I do that, my ankle was sore this morning and I had a bit of a limp and was trying not to put any strain on it by having to absorb shock of stepping on covered tree roots.  Jason was surprised because he didn’t think this trail was bad at all, and it wasn’t really, but there were a few roots here and there lying under the leaves.  I also really enjoy watching Jason’s legs walking ahead of me on the trail.  His legs are one of his best assets, haha!

mason creek bridgeWatching the trail in front of me so intently did make me think about this conversation I had with my kids when we were camping in East Texas recently.  I was asking the boys what they think about when we are hiking.  I think it is interesting to consider what is going on in other people’s mind space, particularly since there is sometimes times where we are all just quietly walking along.  My middle son says that he either thinks about the video games that he plays or he is looking around at the scenery.  I asked him what drew his eyes when he looked around, but he didn’t want to elaborate on that.  My older son said he doesn’t think about anything – that his mind is blank during hikes.  Then he shared with me some insight on the “Nothing Box” that men have in their heads.  I can’t imagine this but I know men are different than women in this regard.  A Nothing Box?

mason creek fungi

I had shared with my boys what I think about.  In some ways, maybe my mind is doing what both of theirs are kind of doing, because when I hike, mostly I am looking around at the forest and just enjoying being present in the moment.  My eyes seek out unusual shapes and colors, though, and I feel a joy in discovering neat little places.  As in this picture above, my eye is most pleased by finding neat little fungi and tiny little plant life up against wood or stone piles.  I also keep my eyes out for heart shaped or colorful leaves, little mosses, neat little stones, things like that.  I mostly spend my time focusing on the three little feet in front of me, making sure I am not going to fall down or trip on something.  I wonder often as I hike about how I would feel about doing this daily for months, like on a long distance hike.  Would I spend the entire hike focusing on those three feet in front of me?  Would I get tired of looking for fun little aspects of nature to marvel over?

mason creek hill trail

I also look around for signs of wildlife.  In this case, today, I smelled feral hog at one point along the trail, saw prints of hog and deer, and then we saw this flattened down sections of dead grass that looked like the hogs had been there as well.  This section was on a part that was called the Hill Trail on our screens on our phone, but did not appear to be a trail anymore, or at least a trail we wanted to try going down today with a baby on the back and shorts on.  We heard some birds, mostly robins, but also hawks going at it above the trees across the creek.  We saw a turtle sitting on a rock in the creek, and heard a fish jump in a smaller branch of the creek as we walked past.  There was a man who had biked over, basket on his bike, and who was now fishing from the creek, and there was another man with two dogs, and those are the only people we encountered once we got into the forest section.

mason creek cache

We also found this fun geocache, behind us in the picture.  Under the face is a cap that you open to get the log out to sign.  We found another one on the bridge on the Hike and Bike near where we entered the path, behind the elementary school where we parked that has a great playground for little ones and a nice little track.  All in all, we walked close to three miles this day.  I think I would like to come back to that area often.  It is a nice little refuge from the world that is not far from our house.

Martin Creek Lake State Park

A spectral light shines through the mist at the end of the road.  It’s New Year’s weekend, and the campground is practically abandoned.  Dark shutters close off the ends of screened shelters sitting quiet in the night.  One could almost imagine spooky shadows rising out of them.  The spirit of the early settlers that passed through and lived in the area, in a settlement called Harmony Hill, seemed to be present in the dark and misty night.

martin-creek-power-plantA power plant hums in the distance, one of the few and constant sounds.  The plant lights shine up in the sky, looking like a city sitting on a hill overlooking the lake.  The constant noise interferes with the serenity of nature’s voices and one could lament the presence of the plant, but if it didn’t exist, neither would this park.  The land was donated to Texas State Parks by the plant in the late seventies to offset the environmental changes caused by it, to give nature a place to grow, to allow for a refuge for wildlife and a place for native plants to thrive.

bridgepowerplantThe discharge from the plant keeps the water in the lake warm, even during the winter, so this park is a favorite among anglers and casual fishermen.  The man and his son camping in the cottage next to us the first night appeared to be taking advantage of this, judging by their boat on a trailer behind their truck.  We saw quite a few boat trailers in our weekend here.

nutellapie2-copyDuring our weekend here, we worked at perfecting our technique at making meals and treats with our new fire irons: a double pie iron and a hamburger iron.  We have a long way to go before we are experts, but we learned a bit through trial and error.  The highlights were cherry pies made by my teenager on the last night, and some nutella/marshmellow puff pastry delights.  We mostly tried making different versions of calzones, some weak attempts at breakfast sandwiches (shredded hash browns as a base did not work well), hamburgers, and multiple types of desserts involving pie crusts, puff pastry, and buttered bread as bases.


We also did quite a bit of hiking.  Our first full day, we drove to Caddo Lake State Park (less than an hour away) and hiked about two or three miles along the Caddo Forest Trail (and various trail spurs).  We found some geocaches and this cool old shelter built by the CCC in the 1930s.  We stopped to check out the cypress trees along the bank, then walked back along the trail to our truck, driving back to the bank to eat our picnic lunch on a table under these trees, draped with silver Spanish moss.


In the afternoon, a few of us took a nap, and then we got up to play with our fire irons again.  The guys built a heck of a fire.  In the evening, the toddler went to sleep, and Jason and I traded off sleeping with him while the other (mostly Jason) entertained the teenager.  We had this idea that we were going to go to the Stargazing event there to ring in the New Year, but when it was time to go, we could not find it.  Aj and I drove all around the park, looking at the boat dock areas and any and all other areas we could see to try to find the campfire and ranger, but all we found were a few other families doing the same thing we were doing.  So we said Happy New Year at the cabin door, and went to sleep.


On the first, we joined quite a good sized group for the park’s First Day Hike, a slow ranger-led hike around the island.  We learned a bit about the park.  Afterwards, we were going to go to try to the black eyed peas and cornbread that the Dutch Oven cookers were giving a demo on, but we decided to head to town randomly to get snacks, and ended up at Dairy Queen.  I am not sure how that happened, except that we had gotten very hungry unexpectedly.

On the way back, we explored this Harmony Hill Cemetery just outside the park, where the early settlers are buried.  I found a geocache behind the cemetery fence, and we all marveled over the age of the graves and the stories, history that we read about on the headstones.


Then we took our own First Day Hike on the Harmony Hill Trail.  The day before, my oldest son carried the little one on his back wearing the Osprey, and this day, after letting the toddler “lead” us a bit, we let the ten year old carry him in the Osprey.


Those two have the rough-and-tumble kind of friendship, and we cracked up at the fact that as soon as Sebastian realized who was carrying him, he started head-butting his brother.  For quite a while, it went like this: Sebastian head-butt Kaleb, then cried “ow”, followed by Kaleb saying “ow!”, then another head-butt and the chorus of “ow!” starting over again, like a couple of stooges over there.

pinesEventually, Kaleb started whining (as is par for the course with him), and we came to a fork in the road.  We decided that Jason would take the little ones back, and the teenager and I would hike longer.  I was on a mission to get geocaches, of course, and we still had steam in the tank.  After this, we walked a bit and came to this arch of pines that was quite peaceful.  We had a great talk and found a cute little cache, then found our way back down the utility road to headquarters before meeting Jason along the road in the truck, coming to pick us up.

seedpodsAfter this, everyone wanted to take a nap except the toddler (who probably needed it the most), so I spent a couple of hours exploring the park with him, some parts with the stroller and some without.  He found sticks, leaves, seed pods, and little board bridges.  I found some birds (nineteen species), some beautiful little places, and peace.  We found our favorite campsites for future visits and sat for a while in the amphitheater, watching and listening to nature.


Later, it was more campfires and fire iron experiments, and early to bed. Before going to bed, though, we took the kids on a night hike.  We were looking for a “night cache”, which usually involves a starting set of coordinates, and then directions on how to follow a series of fire tacks.  We walked down the deserted park road in the mist.  The toddler fell asleep in the stroller along the way, and then had to be carried through the woods (we only brought the umbrella stroller) while the older kids had a good time leading the way, finding the fire tacks with their flashlights.  They got stuck at the end, missing the last set of red fire tacks that denoted the end of the trail, and then wouldn’t have found the cache without Jason’s nudge in the right direction.  It was a fun adventure.

In the morning, we planned to hike the other side of the park.  It was overcast and grey outside as I started breakfast over the camp stove.  As I cooked, though, the skies darkened, and a storm came in suddenly.   We had just enough time to grab all our items, including the breakfast that was just barely done, and seek refuge inside our “cottage” (a mini-cabin equipped with two sets of bunk beds, heat and a/c).  Each evening, I had played a card game with the older boys, and Kaleb wanted us to play those games again while we waited for the rain to stop, but the adults in the group wanted to get all the gear packed up (if nothing else, to keep the toddler from tripping on and/or getting into everything).


During this time, I went to shower, taking the risks of walking through the rain to get there.  As I undressed, I realized a huge stink-bug had attached to my pants.  I shook him off and kept a wary eye on him during subsequent activity.  As I was getting dressed again, he appeared to be coming right at me with agitation.  I moved down to another part of the bench, only to have him make headway towards me again.  I told my teenager about it when I got back, and he said, “why didn’t you just step on it and kill it?”  I expressed my chagrin about this, telling him that this was the stinkbug’s home and I was the interloper, and why should I kill it just for ending up in the wrong place?  He told me I had a messed up perspective, but I am not sure I am the one.


It was still raining, so we had to make a choice.  We didn’t have to leave for another few hours, and the ten year old was still insisting on a card game, but the teenager was telling us that if he had to spend any more time cooped up with us, one of us was going down.  The toddler was restless, as he was out of things to get into, and wanted to play in the rain and mud.  We wanted to go hiking and I also wanted to visit a friend who lived nearby, but we decided that the best thing to do was to hurry the gear out to the truck and get home as soon as possible.

edge-of-lakeSo away we left.  We all kind of laughed on the way out about how spooky the campground was, especially since we had eventually been the only ones staying on the Broken Bowl side we were on (a handful of campers on the Bee Tree loop/other side).  There was a metal drain cover near the bathrooms that was marked “Confined Space Entry”, and even though we realized it was an entrance for the septic system, we joked about what might be down in the Confined Space, and how the whole trip started to sort of feel like an Evil Dead movie plot.  I told the older boys we should each write our own story about it with fantasy elements, working in the various aspects, but they weren’t so interested in actually doing this when we got back home.

Still, I hope that the real trip becomes one of those family memories that they can hang on to later in life, a story they can tell about a time we spent together.