Sand Creek Farm

20160514-_DSC2500Over the weekend, we visited Sand Creek Farm with the Hike It Baby Houston group.  This was a fun day trip (that was supposed to be a camping trip, but more on that later) that taught us some things and gave us some neat experiences that I wanted to share with you.

20160514-_DSC2550Sand Creek Farm is a medium sized natural dairy located in Cameron, Texas, west of Hearne off of a dirt road highway that branches off of 979.  The farm was started in 2005 by owners Ben and Alysha Godfrey, and they run it with the help of their five daughters.  They feed their cows on grass only, and produce raw milk, cheese and yogurt that you can buy from their store, as well as home grown meat and other yummy foods.

20160514-_DSC2518On the property, you will also find a companion business, Sustainable Farm Supply, an aquaponics facility that they run as well as teach classes at, so that others can learn how to run a similar business.  Aquaponics is a system of growing crops and fish using water that cycles through both areas, bringing nutrients from one to the other.  The plants are held by styrofoam boards with holes in them for their roots, which dangle in the water.

20160514-_DSC2472During our day here, we took a tour of the farm by riding in the wagon that Ben uses for this purpose, pulled by a team of draft horses.  We heard about their hay growing operation, and then visited the aquaponics nursery area.  It was very fascinating to hear about and see in action.  Kaleb’s favorite part was holding the caterpillars that were found on a dill plant that Ben was using to show an example of protected vs unprotected plants.  Sebastian’s favorite part was trying to pick up any miscellaneous objects from the floor of the nursery and stick them in his mouth.

This pony's name is Spotted Bear
This pony’s name is Spotted Bear

After visiting the nursery, we paid a visit to the dairy and listened to Ben explain the process of making cheese and the virtues of raw milk.  We stepped into the milking parlor and heard an explanation of that process, then walked back into the general store to have samples of the cheese and yogurt, as well as purchase dairy and meat items if one desired.

Most of the time we were on the farm, we spent near the canopy tents that were erected for our group to have a place for the babies to play.  Several blankets were spread out with toys on them, and nearby was a hole with dirt and digging toys for the kids to go to town in.  A bubble machine blew pretty much continuously, and one of the farmers daughters rode her pony about and occasionally got off to allow the babies to take pictures with her pony.  Sebastian really enjoyed his time here.  His favorite parts were the sand pit and chewing on the various bubble wands that were laid out for kids to blow bubbles with.

20160514-_DSC2562Jason had skipped the tour to set up our camping area in one of the pastures, but as the day wore on, it became apparent that it was going to storm.  So, then he spent another hour or so breaking down camp and putting the gear back in the truck.  We had decided during our sandwich lunch that perhaps it would be best to just call it a day trip and spend the night in our own beds, because we didn’t want to be caught out in that storm.  It turned out to be a decision for the best, because along the way home, Sebastian started acting very cranky, and refused food and milk when we got home, and it turned out that he was burning up with another fever (second one this week).

20160514-_DSC2537During the midday break, when the tours had stopped and everyone was either eating lunch, taking a nap, or wandering the farm, I took my own wander.  Initially Kaleb prompted me to do this, but he dropped out soon into it.  Sebastian was eager to get in the stroller, probably because he was tired.  He ended up sleeping for over an hour in there as I pushed the BOB over slightly bumpy pasture trails and roads to check out the pond, the horses, and then wander all the way to the end of the pasture roads.

20160514-_DSC2453It was so peaceful out there by myself, with Sebastian sleeping.  As much as I love my middle son, it was nice in a way that he had excused himself to sit with the other kids instead of walk, because we didn’t have to maintain a conversation and I was free to just enjoy the solitude of nature.  I had borrowed Jason’s camera and tried to capture the joy of tiny details that I found along  the way.  A gentle buzz in the background was the sound of bees stopping in the clover and other flowering plants.  I considered the knowledge that wild bees are disappearing across several states in the US, and was glad to see that were still plenty here in Cameron.  I contemplated a world without bees, and hope that never happens.

20160514-_DSC2437I marveled at all the butterflies that I saw stopping at the wildflowers along the path.  I found little ladybugs and aphids at work.  Little crickets jumped in the plants, and tiny moths fluttered about.  Even a dung beetle doing its job was fascinating to me.  20160514-_DSC2455An ecosystem is made of all these little things, and an imbalance in their little world would tip the scales for our big world.

There was a little section of woods in the back pasture, and I walked along the edges to hear the bird songs and see if I could capture any with the camera.  We need a better lens for that business, which means we need more money.  I suppose that one reason I am so driven at my jo20160514-_DSC2487b is to try to make money to have a better life, one that includes more camera lenses and road trips to explore this great big world.  I could hear wrens and cardinals, and I saw scissortails and brewers blackbirds out on the pasture.  Barn swallows were ubiquitous.  On the way back, a dickcissel sang from his perch at the top of the nearby trees.

20160514-_DSC2515This was a very relaxing hour or more that I spent by myself out there, but I started to feel dehydrated about the time that Jason and Kaleb drove up looking for us.  Thunder could be heard in the distance, and the storm was creeping closer.  We spent another couple of hours playing over by the baby area and taking some more pictures, like this rooster shot below:


We saw the men of the camp preparing for the evening’s fire pit, but we were starting to feel the wind rise and the first drops of rain.  We decided that instead of waiting for dinner, we should just get on the road if it started raining, which ended up happening around four thirty.  It rained hard the whole way home, soaking our bag that held the sleeping bags and pillows.  I am not sure how the rest of the group fared, and how many of them ended up staying through the night.

If you are interested in visiting the farm yourself, they are doing two family type tours coming up next weekend and next month (click imbedded link for more details).

See more pictures that I took below:

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Mother’s Day on the Katy Prairie

KP_Moms_day-7 For my Mother’s Day present this year, my husband gave me what most mothers probably secretly want (especially mothers of three boys):  solitude, peace and quiet, a break from the housework, and a chance to just be myself, by myself.

I had found an opportunity to participate in a nature workshop at one of the sites belonging to the Katy Prairie Conservancy, not normally open to the public (the Indiangrass Preserve).  The workshop was called the Wild West Tour: Photographing Wildflowers and Breeding Birds, and it was led by Glenn Olsen, a Master Naturalist.  Glenn has over twenty years experience identifying plants and birds, and he shared this knowledge with the group of a dozen or so nature enthusiasts who gathered at the preserve’s headquarters early this Sunday morning.
First we walked along the path to the large pond at the end of the path near the office, and Glenn pointed out all the different types of flowers that were blooming along the path’s edge.  I am not usually the one who gets to to operate my husband’s fancy camera, but since we had decided that we 1) didn’t want to fork over $50 per person for both of us to come, and opted to just pay one registration fee and 2) it would have defeated the purpose and taken away from the experience to have to trek the younger kids out with us, and 3) we are too cheap to hire a babysitter, that it made sense for me to just bring his Nikon.  I can’t exactly go to a photography workshop without a camera, but we procrastinated so long on making the decision that this was going to be my gift that we never made the time for him to give me a lesson on how to work the camera to get the shots I wanted.  At first I was a little frustrated, but I kind of figured it out after a little while of fooling around.  I got some shots I wanted (including the ones here in this post, and some more I didn’t post), but I also missed a lot of shots due to poor technique.
After we saw all the different types of the flowers along the path, we wandered behind the buildings to check out the nests of the barn swallows that were flitting about.  We saw the marks on leaves where monarch butterflies had been feeding on a “toothache” tree, and learned about which plants are best to encourage butterflies and bees.  Glenn pointed out which species were native, and which were invasive, and explained which type of butterfly or insect fed on several varieties as we made our way through the workshop.  His knowledge was also pretty extensive regarding the range of common bird species.
About halfway through our time, we divided up into three groups and got into cars to do a driving tour of the Katy Prairie.  We stopped at a couple of places along the roads, getting out to get shots of various plants that Glenn elaborated on.
Eventually we made our way to another KPC site, which I think was part of the Nelson Farm section.  Here, we saw more wildlife, including big bullfrogs that hopped vigorously into the big lake, huge snakes that slithered into the water out of our site, and more birds.  We got some pictures of the pair of Eastern Kingbirds that flitted about.   There was a Lesser Yellow Legs that kept flying by that I did not get a picture of, and then we were treated to the rare sighting of a Hudsonian’s Godwit that I also was not able to catch with a camera (but did catch with my binoculars).  In the distance, White Faced Ibis flew over the prairie in flocks, settling in the marshes together.  We saw pelicans, cormorants, coots, meadowlarks, herons and egrets, as well as the ubiquous Red Winged Blackbirds.
On the way back, there was a nice shot of a Crested Caracara perching on a fencepost, but the people in my car missed the best angle because Glenn had moved his car to allow his passengers to get the shot.  One of the guys in my car was mad about this the whole rest of the workshop, and I assured him that if he drove around these back roads long enough, he would find another to get a picture of.  Sure enough, on the way home, I had a clear shot of another, who had gotten mixed into a flock of vultures feeding off some cow feet that were mysteriously dumped in front of a pasture gate.
I learned a lot about photography and about nature on this expedition, but I also learned I have a lot left out there to learn about.  I also had a great time just being myself (not “Mom”), being completely absorbed in an experience, and spending some time embracing the outdoors.  I am going to look for more experiences like this in the future, both guided and unguided.


Here are some of my other photos from today (not all, believe it or not):
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High Island: Striking a Balance

High_Isalnd_Rookery-24Over the weekend, my family and I went out to visit the Houston Audubon’s sanctuaries in High Island, a town at the far eastern end of the Bolivar Peninsula.  In the spring, migratory birds traveling from Central and South America who are crossing the Gulf of Mexico in search of their spring breeding grounds sometimes end up stopping here on their journey, hungry and tired after their six hundred mile jaunt over the Gulf, to the delight of birders.  In cases of “fallout”, in which strong northern winds and rain slow the birds down, there may be a higher number of migrants that end up in these sanctuaries in the spring months, as they need to stop here to gain strength before flying further inland.

High_Isalnd_Rookery-25In addition to these neotropic migrants in the spring that attract birders to the area in the months of March-May, there is another attraction: the Rookery at Smith Oaks.  Back in the mid-nineties, land was donated to the Houston Audubon by Exxon, including an area where a pond had been dug out to supply water to High Island residents.  There is a u-shaped island in this pond that attracted waterfowl to build their nests, and remained even more enticing to them after hunting was outlawed in the area in 1994.  By 1995, there were 50 heron nests observed on the island, 332 observed in 1997, and by 2003, 1083 nests were observed.   In the hour before sunset, more birds appear as they flock to the island to have a safe place to spend the night.  Although there are alligators near the pond who sometimes prey on the birds, the general lack of predators (including human) means that the birds can raise their young in general peace.

High_Isalnd_Rookery-23I had been wanting to visit the Rookery over the past year or two, since learning about it, because my favorite bird (the Roseate Spoonbill) nests there.  Seeing all the pictures on birding pages on Facebook was giving me the itch to check it out, an itch that was so strong that I even had to forgo spending time with my best friend during this weekend when she really wanted to get out of town and escape reality for a little bit.  I had floated the idea past her of going to this in addition to the plans she was making, but it seemed like she was not that interested, and my husband wanted to go with me when I went, and we couldn’t figure out how to make that work.  Ultimately, I needed him to come with me because he is the one with the camera, a power that he is not quite willing to hand over yet.  He is the one who took all the photos in this post (although if he had rented a more powerful lens, like we talked about ahead of time but then he forgot about), we would have even more close-up photos of the action.

High_Isalnd_Rookery-9In my mind, we were going to spend a peaceful hour strolling slowly through the Boy Scout Woods section, taking pictures of multiple species of warblers, and then spend an hour watching the action at the Rookery and getting pictures of Spoonbills caring for their young.  I was thinking about the mosquitoes, we were prepared with several types of bug repellent, but I somehow was not thinking about how the rains of last week would have brought out killer swarms of these noxious pests.  Birding reports from High Island last weekend reported that the mossies were not that bad, but we’ve had some time for them to grow since.  Instead of an hour at Boy Scout Woods, we spent maybe thirty minutes, and most of that was a little frustrating for me because I asked Jason to lead, and he decided to take us on a venture that lead us deeper into the buggy parts because he wanted to explore the park boundaries, instead of taking us to the more birdy areas of the boardwalk.  At the Rookery, we spent a little closer to the time I wanted to spend, and maybe had less mosquitoes to deal with, but I still felt rushed to get through it and missed out on birding opportunities that I wanted to have.  For instance, there was a moment where I had stopped with some other birders to focus in on the fluttering in the forest, and we identified an American Redstart together, but then there were two other birds, one of which they identified as a Red-Eyed Vireo, a bird I don’t already have checked off my list this year, but my family was way up ahead of me on the trail, wanting me to hurry up to them so that they could get to the parking lot faster.

High_Isalnd_Rookery-13This was pretty much the story of our trip to High Island this year: my wanting to stop and identify all these amazing birds I was seeing, and Jason and the two younger boys being ahead of me on the trail going “mom, come on, bugs are biting, hurry up, let’s go”.  In the end, I feel like maybe I would have been better off borrowing a camera and going with a friend, and maybe next time, that is what I will do.  I am wrestling with how I feel about this, though.  In a way, I have a hard time dealing with the guilt if I leave Jason and the kids behind to go have an experience without them, especially one of this time length (it’s a two hour drive there, so at least four hours of driving alone, plus I easily could spend hours here).  On the other hand, I am now dealing with the guilt of having exposed my children to bugs, as I can see that there are easily a handful of mosquito bites on my baby, despite us covering him with baby-safe bug lotion, and I know my middle son got quite a few bites as well.

High_Isalnd_Rookery-30On the other hand, my kids did get exposed to a really cool experience.  It is possible that my middle son does not appreciate it now, and I am not sure of the youngest really absorbed it either, but it was sublimely enriching to be standing there on the observation deck listening to all those shorebirds amassing on the island at the Rookery.  The sound was intense: hundreds if not over a thousand cormorants, snowy and great egrets, spoonbills, and a few herons all talking in their various tones to each other and to their young.  There were moments of peace in nature: walking across a bridge in a shady section of forest, watching warblers above us, marveling at mushrooms, looking through the ponds to see if we could see alligators.

Sometimes the experiences we were having led to conflicting emotions.  At Purkey’s Pond in the Boy Scout Woods, watching the various birds who were coming to gather at the water, I had sat next to an older lady who was delighting High_Isalnd_Rookery-1at the sight of a Cedar Waxwing who was joining the Gray Catbirds and a lone Lincoln Sparrow.  I had directed my middle son to sit on the bench lower down and to the right, because he didn’t have binoculars and wasn’t looking at birds, and I didn’t want him to disturb that lady.  He kept coming back up to me, though, and asking “but why can’t I sit there?”, gesturing next to the lady, despite my having already explained this to him.  This is typical behavior from him and is so frustrating, because it ended up being more disturbing to the lady that actually allowing him to sit next to her.  This is an example of his social issues we still haven’t worked out that lead to much frustration on everyone’s part.

High_Isalnd_Rookery-7I want to BE that lady when I am older, but I am not sure I am going to make it that long.  I have had this feeling for some years that I am going to get sick and pass away before my children are grown, and I can’t tell if that is just some crazy pessimism, fear, paranoia or a premonition.  It drives me, though, to still commit to having the experiences I want to have, and having them now instead of waiting.  I would rather die saying to myself “well, at least we did get to High Island” instead of wishing we had gotten there, even if it ended up not being everything I wanted it to be. I wanted to see a hundred types of birds and I only saw about twenty, but you know, if you look at e-bird reports from other birders there, the species lists range from 2-63, with most reports being between 15-25, so I think I did all right.

High_Isalnd_Rookery-3In the end, maybe it was just enough, because as we drove away, heading through Anahuac Wildlife Refuge and stopping at Smith Point, my overwhelming feeling was happiness.  We climbed to the top of the observation tower at this spot that is famous for being a good place to watch raptors in the fall, and I felt such peace up there, watching the wind blow and the waves slowly make it to shore, and I feel like this will be an image I carry with me, like my husband says he has carried with him for years since hiding and maintaining a geocache out here.  I will never forget the way the shorebirds called to each other at the Rookery, and how exciting it felt to see some of those more exotic birds that I did find, like the Baltimore Oriole and Summer Tanager.  We had a great time exploring, even finding a fun new restaurant on the way home, and overall, it was a very positive experience that I hope we can draw from and experience again another year.

pond pano