A Morning at Gulf Coast Bird Observatory

wpid-img_20150117_103924.jpgAs we walk along the trail heading north back towards the nature center, we heard bird calls that were louder than usual, and saw a couple of people threading their way through a side trail ahead where the noises were coming from.  As we came upon the intersection, I realized why the noises were so loud, especially given the human foot traffic – they were coming from a cell phone perched on a nearby post.  A fine black net was strung along the tree line here at the junction.

One lady was walking away, and shared some information with another lady walking up.  “There’s a hermit back  there,” she says.  That meant little to us, but the approaching lady knew exactly what it meant, and she walked a few strides and then bent down.  We could see now the fluttering of a bird caught in the net, and the lady began to untangle its fine little feet from the net to bring it over to the table set up in the pavilion here at the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory in Lake Jackson, to get measured and have a little band placed on its delicate legs to follow it from year to year.

I had actually seen this lady earlier in the day.  She was decked out in that look that certain older outdoorsy women get.  I wondered if I would ever look like that, but it did occur to me that women who dressed that way were usually either flying solo or in the company of other women (although I am not sure why).  She was wearing sunglasses and a broad-billed hat to shield her from the sun, and was carrying a pack with all sorts of supplies in it.  She had on comfortable long shorts made of the sort of material that wicked away sweat and dirt and hiking boots.  I decided right then and there that women like that were my idols.  I am sure she is probably a master naturalist.

Earlier, she had stopped for a moment to patiently educate my child wpid-20150117_110234.jpgwhen he had asked me why we couldn’t just capture the wild birds and keep them as pets.  Here in this moment, she stopped again, drawing the hermit thrush out from her hand to show my children and explain to us how to identify this species in the wild.  She gently showed us the red feathers at the tail and compared the ranges of this species to the other thrushes.

This moment, and others like it, is exactly why I dragged my family out of bed early on this Saturday and twisted their arms to come with me here. Although we got to the bird banding a little late (typical for us) and the crowd had dispersed a little, we did get to join back up with the group after the capture of this thrush to watch Robert Lookingbill measure and band the birds while his wife Kay wrote down their measurements and tested the crowd on field marks of the species they had.  We saw quite a few cardinals this day, but we also saw Carolina Chickadees and learned how to distinguish the Lincoln’s Sparrow from the Swamp or Chipping varieties. This is exactly what I was after.

wpid-img_20150117_103957.jpgIn between banding, we took a walk along the short trails they have at the center.  I think I also saw a Tufted Titmouse in addition to the other mentioned birds, but other than that, we heard the birds more than we saw them.  Although I have been listening to my birding audio CDs some, I have to admit it has not been nearly close to the amount of time I have spent listening to the Game of Thrones audio books lately, and I still have a long way before I have the sounds committed to memory.  I couldn’t identify anything by sound, although I bet that naturalist lady probably could.  Although the trail was not long, it was nice and I enjoyed the time in the forest.  I was excited about the thought of wpid-img_20150117_103944.jpggoing to nearby Maclean Park and doing some more exploring/hiking, but we started to realize we were going to run short on time, and I wanted to take the kids to the Center for Arts and Sciences Museum, which we visited after this. That museum is free and boasts a huge collection of shells and gems, as well as other interesting displays, and I would recommend it to anyone heading out to that area.

wpid-img_20150117_121406.jpgI also wanted to find some geocaches, but we only ended up finding one, on the nature trail near the museum.  Just that one little find managed to F%# me up a little, as I now have a nice “trail badge” e.i. scratch on my arm, and also I think I got bit by a spider.  Even though I was wearing pants, I have a spot on my shin that is red and blistered, and originally swelled up to a head like an ant bite, but now is just festering.  Just my luck!

Between all that we saw and didn’t see, learned and didn’t learn that day, there is plenty of incentive for me to come back this way another day, although I am not sure if my family is as excited about it as I am.  It was a long drive, and the kids were a little sad about missing so much gaming time that day (especially since we went directly from here to Jason’s family’s house for the rest of the day, and didn’t get home until late).  Sometimes it is hard to balance all our needs and desires, but the kids also have to get out more and step away from their screens to experience the world outside, so I don’t feel too bad about dragging them out here.

Nature’s Surprise

Most years, we try to go on a First Day Hike.  All fifty states have participating state parks that participate in this initiative to get people outdoors and active.  For us, it is a way to start the year doing something we love.

wpid-img_20150101_132003.jpgThis year, we decided on Huntsville State Park because 1) our friends were already there and 2) my sister offered to meet us out there because she was also interested in a hike, and we were interested in going by her place afterwards to see what kind of surplus baby items she might have.  This is the closest park to her house.

When we woke up, though, we started to question this decision.  Already a friend at the park was telling us it was supposed to rain all day, and she wasn’t planning on going hiking.  We packed up the rain gear and were trying to be optimistic, but the light rain started as we left Katy and only got more intense as we reached the park.

We weren’t going to let the rain stop us, but we also weren’t that motivated to get out in it once we got to the park.  We spent a couple of hours just hanging out under the awning of Diane’s camper – the four of us, Diane and her friend, and then Scott and Michelle, some old-time cachers from way back.  We had driven all this way and were hoping the rain would clear up.  I really wanted to see some birds and visit the forest, but it wasn’t looking good for the home team.  It also seemed like my sister and her kids weren’t prepared for inclement weather, so it was a real surprise to me when she actually texted me that they were in the park and ready to go hiking.  The rain actually cleared up, just barely drizzling as we made our way along the Dogwood Trail and then the Prairie Branch Loop.

wpid-wp-1420516697913.jpegIt actually turned out to be quite a nice little hike that we took.  We saw some interesting things in the woods, like little tiny mushrooms and crazy colored lichen.  I picked up a couple of pieces of moss, bark, and leaves along the way, thinking maybe about using them as pieces in a naturalist notebook or a little terrarium commemorating local flora and fauna.  I also saw a surprising number of birds, considewpid-wp-1420516713155.jpegring the weather.  This is a list of what I saw that day at the park: both black and turkey vultures drying out their wings on high perches, Carolina Chickadee, Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Mockingbird, American Crow, Eastern Phoebe, American Robin (a whole flock of them deep in the woods), Mallards, and a Pied Billed Grebe diving in the lake.

I ended up very pleased with the whole endeavor, and glad we took the time to go out there, despite the weather.

Over the weekend, I took two nice walks and a short bike ride that also yielded an unexpected bounty.  Saturday, I spent about an hour out on the Addicks Dam getting a little exercise and finding a few geocaches.  I thought at first that I was only going to see the “usual suspects”, but when I stepped out off the hike and bike, went across the dam, and got my feet a little wet in the low-lying area on the wild side, the birds got a little bit more interesting.  I spotted a whole little flock of Cedar Waxwings.  Savannah Sparrows flitted in and out, and I caught a couple of good sightings with the binoculars of a yellow rumped warbler and a blue-grey gnatcatcher.  I spent some time checking out one bird that I eventually decided was a female Eastern Bluebird, and spied another Eastern Phoebe.

Sunday, my son and I rode our bikes around the neighborhood feeding the local ducks.  There is a great flock of Muscovy Ducks in our neighborhood and I have no idea how the one pond supports all of them, but sometimes they do wander when food gets scarce.  This day was cold, and a great number of them were sitting still in the grass or had wandered far up the little creek to forage.  We saw probably all thirty of them that usually live out this way, plus the two white ducks and two buff colored ducks that live with a couple of Mallards at the upper end of the creek.  I was astonished to see a Belted Kingfisher flying around the upper pond as well.  I had never seen one of these before in our neighborhood, nor had I seen cormorants out here, but there were 1-2 of those in the upper pond as well, in addition to the typical Great and Snowy Egrets.

Later, I took the dogs to the dog park and for a walk around Polishing Pond in Cross Creek Ranch.  At first I was like, well the bird action is certainly boring here, because it seems like all there is are American Coots out in the pond.  I kept some record, though, of occasional glimpses of other waterfowl, only to discover at the end that I had also seen Gadwall, Redheads, Moorhens, and Northern Shovelers out in the water.  In addition, a delicate looking black and white bird turned out to be what I believe is an Eared Grebe, something I had never seen before.  I possibly also got a shot of the Glossy Ibis I saw out here a couple months ago, and potentially Black Ducks and Curlews, but I am going to wait to positively ID those before recording them.  Chipping Sparrows flitted around in the grass and landscaping along the curbside.

The hawks are out these days as well, and I have seen Red-Tailed and Red-shouldered perched up on street lights and power lines.  All in all, I recorded 29 species for this past week/holiday, which I don’t think is that bad at all, considering I really did not expect to see much except the usual.