Houston Arboretum Hike

HA.1Sunday morning, we joined some geocaching friends at the Houston Arboretum for a little hike and social opportunity.  I thought maybe we would see some birds and take some pictures, but we did little of those things.  I saw a hawk which I actually think was a Broad-winged Hawk in retrospect.  There was a little cluster of birds in a tree that I suspected were Cedar waxwings, because they had the little crown going, but their breasts were a golden color from underneath.  I had a little discussion with amberita13 about whether or not that was an accurate ID, because she thought they would be gone by now.  I did see some birding reports over the past week of people who were still seeing them, and fendmar seemed to agree that the atypical weather patterns this year might have kept them around longer than usual.
HA.2 There were actually a lot of cool little spots along the trails to spend some quiet time observing nature, like the slick backed turtles sunning themselves on logs on the pond, or the multitude of butterflies that floated around us as we walked.  ha.3 We walked for about an hour and a half.  We kind of had the place to ourselves, because technically the Arboretum was reserved for a private event, but they allowed us to come in from nine to eleven.  We found a few caches as a group.  It was fun how we all went together at first, but then there was a debate on whether to pursue a high terrain cache or a low one, so our group split.  We went to the high terrain one.  After this, we happened to find our group again at the next cache, even though the groups went different directions on the trail.  Lucky for them, because they were stuck not finding the cache, but then our group made the save.  We all took some group photos and everyone was just really enjoying each other, the weather, and the location.   I want to say we walked along all except the orange outer loop on this map.  The Discovery Room and other facets inside the building look like they will be very appealing to the children, on a day when the arboretum is truly open.  Maybe next weekend?  There was also a patch of wildflowers near Memorial Park that I want to get pictures of the kids in.  I picked up a schedule of events, and posted many of them over to the left here in the side column.  I want to go back and spend more time there with the kids.  It was truly an awesome place where wilderness meets civilization.  ha.5

Bikes, Birds, and Behavior Obs

Lately I’ve been reading about hunting, to explore this new interest my son has.  Something struck me that I never really thought about before; just like how in birding it is not enough to just know how to identify your species but one should also know its habits, hunting is more than just aiming a weapon at an animal and taking it down.  I was aware that stalking and hiding was important in the hunting paradigm, but it is the observation of the relationship between the animal and its environment that is critical in being efficient in the hunt.  You have to know where and when that animal might head to water, or what and when it eats, how it spends its day, what its mating rituals are like.   Knowing these things about deer, for instance, might reduce the amount of time a hunter has to sit in a stand waiting for that big buck to stroll along.

This thought process helped me realize that although I might be an animal behaviorist by trade, many people are animal behaviorists in their own right.  If we just counted just the hunters and birders, that would be about 60 million people in the US, according to the USFWS National Survey.  That many people become special experts in the wild animals they are trying to track down, observe, and capture with a camera or a gun.

I was curious about the migratory habits and changes in animal population from season to season and year to year around my own little area.  I decided to do a little behavior observation via bicycle and make some notes that I will then compare season to season or year to year.  Like a hunter who goes to visit his deer lease ahead of hunting season to get a feel for how the animals utilize their land, I wanted to see if I could get a feel for what the habits were of the wild birds here near Seven Meadows and Cinco Ranch.

This is what we observed at our different stops along a nine mile local bike route:

  • Seventh Heaven Duck Pond:     Lesser Yellow Legs 1, Muscovy Ducks 7, Grackel 2, Mourning Dove 2.  Usually there are about 32 Muscovies in this pond, so this observation confirmed my hypothesis that the ducks had been wandering away.  I think the reason why has to do with food resources, but I am not sure it doesn’t have to do with mating as well.  I am fairly certain it has nothing to do with migration, since I am assuming this is a year round non-migratory domestic species.  I have never seen the Lesser Yellow Legs there, so I am thinking this is a temporary migrant.
  • Little Bridge/Pocket Park:  Little Blue Heron 1, Muscovy 5.  Two of the Muscovies were mating, which seemed like a traumatic process for the female.  The male was biting her neck and pushing her under water for a considerable amount of time.  When they were finished, she got out and shook the water out of her feathers, and later we saw them foraging together, so I guess it wasn’t too terrible for her.  “That’s just nature!”, we said before we took off.mating muscovies
  • Oasis:  this is the pocket park in my neighborhood where I described seeing the flock of Cedar Waxwings earlier this year.  Today, all we saw were two blue jays.
  • “A” Bridge:  we thought we would see a lot of action here, but it was surprisingly devoid of birds.  We heard, but didn’t see at first, a couple of grackels, doves, and mockingbirds.  As we watched, a blue jay appeared, and then we spied three grackels across the water.  An unidentified bird flew off with something in its mouth.  There was a nice patch of bluebonnets here.  As we passed them, we approached a larger part of the pond that appeared to have three new kinds of ducks in it, so I got excited for a minute and realized these were the three that I have seen driving by before and have been wanting to identify.  Then J pointed out that they sat really still for ducks, and when we looked with the binoculars, we were able to confirm that his suspicion was correct – they were only decoys!  Why, I wondered, and he thought it was to attract other birds/ducks to the pond.
  • Cinco Park Nature Trail Big Pond (or Little Lake):  there was a lot of activity here.  There is an island in the middle (where a cache is – we have taken the canoe out to it before) where 2, then one more so 3, Great Blue Herons stood.  In front of them, a group of four ducks were swimming leisurely.  One was an American Coot, but the other three were too far away for us to firmly identify.  We think they were Gadwalls.  Three White Ibis hunted the opposite shoreline for food, and a Great Egret stood nearby them.  Another of these large Egrets stood at the shoreline on the same side as us.  Four Muscovies also hunted for food close to the shore near us, near a tiny cove area sheltered by a small tree.  Four cormorants dove for fish to the left of us in the water, and two vultures circled the sky closer and closer to us, until we finally decided maybe they thought we were standing still long enough to be dying animals, so we biked off.cinco lake

The other night, we were watching Cosmos and Neil deGrasse Tyson was talking about early humans, how they learned to match the weather and star patterns to the migratory patterns of animals to help them be more successful in the hunt.  That is what I am trying to do, only the intention of my hunt is simple knowledge.

All The Things We Didn’t Do

It was one of those moments that is so typical of us, and yet so frustrating.  He was on his tiptoes, and I was leaning over from a picnic bench, trying to make sure I didn’t fall down.  We were peering into the windows of an empty cabin.  A curtain fluttered from the breeze of the fan, a breeze that could have come from our sighs.  These were sighs of regret over the choices not taken.

This should have been our weekend.  This should have been our spot.  BuescherStateParkCabin

We imagined the kind of fun we would have had, walking out from the cabin in an early morning to see if we would get a bite on a line from the stocked lake.  Pictured the kind of peace we would have had, chilling on the porch.  Thought about all the dollars we would have saved, if we had just done the things we wanted to do.

We made our reservations for Buescher State Park back in December.  I should have called it in, but I was confused about the difference between the cabins and premium screened shelters, and how each one is reserved in the system.  We had known since two years ago, when we came up here to hike one day, that we wanted to come back and reserve Cabin #3, but instead I had reserved us a premium screened shelter, which looks like this below:

mini-cabinThis weekend, the weekend of the Texas Challenge in Bastrop, we came up to the park, claimed our campsite, got our keys, and then never came back, until this minute, the minute of regret, as we were leaving town two days later.  We had coughed up our $62 (after coupons) that we ended up spending on the reservation as a “donation” to the state parks.  We had also managed to spend another $225 we didn’t intend to on two nights at a hotel.

Why, you ask?  Because, this is what we do.  Most of the time, we are really great for each other, but sometimes we do these things; I overplan, he procrastinates, we forget to communicate, we let timelines slide, we go with the flow so much that we end up missing out on things we meant to do.  We ended up doing so many things this weekend that we never did the things we meant to do, like set up our campsite, relax in nature, look at the birds, drop a line in the lake, take a hike on the trail. We would have loved to take a bike ride from Fishermans to Ferry Park in downtown Bastrop.  All weekend we drove back and forth in front of The Roadhouse cafe near Bastrop State Park, and never once did we sit down in there and have some hot sandwiches, fried pickles, and iced tea.  I would have liked to get some pictures of those gorgeous wildflowers blooming all along HIghway 71, maybe stick the kids in there and be like a real Texan.

What we did instead is spend an ungodly amount of hours sitting at MayFair Park in Bastrop, in between going to geocaching event after geocaching event.  Four events in twenty four hours.  We spent hours planning, scheming and texting our team.  We talked to lots of friends and teammates, exchanged travel bugs, spent too much money at Buccees, too much time at La Hacienda.  We (or rather he) gave a water-bottle bath in the parking lot to one dirty little boy, who spent most of an afternoon rolling around in a dirtpile.  We drove around to seven different locations to grab codes off doors to log the Lab Caches specifically put out for this event.  We bought some more rocks for son and I’s rock collection, spent too much money again buying pecan treats and gifts at the Berdoll Pecan Company, checked out some bronze statues at a foundry, took a tour of a facility that bottles rain water and turns it into drinking water (and then tasted it – quite good!).  We spit off a bridge and got a certificate for being an official SOB (member of the Society of Bridge Spitters).  He taught the boys how to play shuffleboard.  We bought a couple more bottles of mead and one bottle of a sweet table wine being offered as a sample at Cripple Creek wines.

Through all of this, we were just too tired each night to set up camp in the dark.  If we had the cabin, it would have been all right – we could have just thrown our sleeping bags over the bunk bed style cots that are already set up in there.

We had no idea what the screened shelter we had rented even looked like until Sunday afternoon, when we stopped by to return the keys to it.  The rangers had already called us, wondering what the heck ever happened.  We peeked inside it, then inside the cabins.  It turns out the floor was so neat and spotless that we probably could have just thrown the sleeping bags down on it and been all right, saved ourselves a few hundred bucks.  It would only have taken us mere minutes to set up, yet we were too busy to ever even stop to look.

It reminded me of other times, like when we arrived midday at the campsite we had rented for the night before and never claimed in the Redwood Forest, only to discover it was the best campsite ever, and really not that much farther down the road than the place we ended up sleeping at.  So much for all my planning and dreaming.

For now, all we can do is sigh, shrug, and commit ourselves to coming back another day; another day to do all the things we didn’t do.

I am going to make it April, before those wildflowers have all hidden their heads for the summer.  This time, I am calling the reservation line, and nailing down that Cabin #3.  I hope you are reading a completely different blog entry this time next month.

Paul D. Rushing Park

This morning, we contemplated the choices for adventure for the day, and chose to take the new bikes out to a local park to do some geocaching and look for more birds.  Originally I thought to try to get back out to WG Jones and finish the Presidential Series before it is all archived (one last back piece to go), but there was a threat of rain and J didn’t relish the thought of the long drive out there.

Paul Rushing Park is only about 20-30 minutes away, and has had significant improvements since the last time I was there (back in like 2008  – a whole lifetime ago).  This park boasts 232 acres, with cricket fields and softball fields.  There is also a dog park, with sections for large and small dogs.  The most exciting improvement has been a hike-and-bike path that goes around a little chain of lakes, encompassing 100 acres of the park.  This path has multiple overlooks with bird blinds and benches to while away time looking at the multitude of ducks that flock to this park.

paul rushing parkEarly last summer, chefkimmo and TXSunflower hid about fifty caches in and around the park, and we decided we would find some of these today.  J and I have been riding our new bikes around the neighborhood at night, but this is the first time we have taken the youngest out on a group biking adventure since he started riding without training wheels last year.

My son really wasn’t too crazy about riding in the grass, preferring to stay on the path and getting a little bit nervous about us not being on it. J let him find a cache on his own with the GPS and that seemed to keep him interested for a while.  Although he was a good helper with geocaching, he lost interest after a while and started to ask to go home. Plus, we were getting hungry.  Therefore, we ended up just finding the caches on the eastern-most side of the park, saving the rest for another day.

We were out there for about two or three hours, and saw several interesting birds.  There were also many more birds I failed to identify, in the interest of time.  Some of the caches were really hard to find, and required me to participate equally in the search.

Likewise, some of the birds were really hard to identify.  I think I am getting better but I have a long way to go before I could call myself a birder.  After some research, I determined that the ducks that I saw out on the water today included American Coots and a few Gadwall, Wigeon, and possibly a Blue Winged Teal pair.  The birding checklist for the park suggests Pied Billed Grebes should have been more abundant than the coots, so maybe I was also seeing those, although I didn’t specifically notice them, so I am not counting that species.  I am going to have to go back.  I did see some white geese, which from the list I would have to say were the Great White-Fronted Geese.  The most exciting bird find was in the smaller pond by the back left corner – a Long-Billed Dowitcher.  We also saw a group of nutria back there, most likely a mom and her babies.

As we made our way through the chain of lakes, past the softball fields and dog park, down the road again, and back to the first parking area near the cricket fields to find the caches in that first section before heading out, I saw a flock of birds feeding in the field that included Brewer’s Blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds.  I think I saw one Red Winged Blackbird in that group, too, which was a little odd.

We also flushed a lot of sparrows out of the grass as we rode, most likely Savannah and Field Sparrows (already counted for this year), and most likely meadowlarks as well, although I didn’t specifically see them.  Those are commonly reported for this time of year there.

On the way home, we stopped at the Katy Rock Shop, which was a really nice little shop, and a fun place for the little one and I to find some treasures for our collection.  Our rock collection drives J nuts, but it is something the little one is interested in.  His dad lives near a place where there is a lot of natural rocks that are great for collecting, and we came home with many of these during our visits up there and have them in a little decorative basket.  Today, he helped me chose a purple agate from Brazil for my collection, and he chose a pyrite cube from Spain, as well as polished stones of golddust, amethyst, and opalite.  Then we went out for burgers and shakes at our favorite “greasy spoon”, Sam’s Deli Diner.

On the way home, we spied what initially appeared to be vultures up on some bare branches, but something seemed different and J turned around for us to get a better look.  Sure enough, they were different…not actually vultures at all but a pair of Crested CaraCaras.

This reminded me of a story from last week, when I was in South Florida.   There was this professor I was really interested in talking to, and my friend thought she was doing me a favor by pointing out to him that I was also interested in birds.  I knew from his conversation earlier that he was an ACTUAL birder, and not a novice like me, so I had not wanted to bring up this point of confluence, because I felt I would just embarrass myself.  He asked me if I had seen the CaraCara earlier that day on the drive in, and he was so excited about it.  It was a huge deal, and I had learned that week that it was also a huge deal to this guy from Missouri.  I didn’t know how to say, without seeming like a braggart, that oh, we see those all the time around where I live!  Not really ALL the time, but they are pretty common birds and I really just did not understand why these guys were freaking out about them until later, when I looked at their range in the bird book.  Here, and there  – that is pretty much it!  See the map:


We also stopped at a light long enough for me to observe that the doves in the trees were not the white-winged and mourning doves that are so common in our neighborhood, but were in fact the eurasian collared doves.  That brings our identified species up to 73 for the year, about 11% of Texas’s reported 638 total species.  Long way to go, but it has been winter and we haven’t necessarily gone out of our way to find birds.  Plus, we aren’t that good at it yet.  The good news is that spring migration is coming, and so we should be seeing more birds very soon.

Paul Rushing Park is located at 9114 Katy Hockley Rd, Katy, TX