Brazos Bend State Park: Sunrise Birding #2

This day, the destination was Elm Lake.  Jason decided to come along (and bring his camera), which meant we were a little later than expected, but also that we could capture a little bit more of what we were seeing.  Janey was already counting birds when we got there, and I joined her at the wildlife viewing platform while Jason got Sebastian situated.  We all set out to look for the Vermillion Flycatcher, who did not show himself this morning, before turning to start around the lake on the eastern edge.

It ended up being a short and cold morning of birding halfway around the lake before Janey needed to leave.  It seemed like it was going to be a nice day, but a chilling wind picked up as we walked.  Mostly, the birds that we counted this morning were the usual suspects: cormorants, ibis, whistling ducks, herons, a pair and a trio of blue winged teal, egrets, coots, moorhens, grebes.  A fun find was an immature Little Blue Heron, who was actually white in its adolescent plumage.  New for my yearly list this morning were the tree swallows, a dozen or more of which were flying in slow circles around the lake. I also had not found a Tri-Colored Heron yet this year, so I was able to check that one off the list.

White Ibis
Double Crested Cormorants
Black Bellied Whistling Ducks
Pied Billed Grebe

After Janey left and it was just the three of us, Sebastian was unusually sleepy and wanted to be held.  Jason carried him in his arms while I carried our packs.  For quite a time, we sat on a bench in the sun at the Pilant Lake trail intersection, just watching and listening to nature.  A gator floated to the top of the water and then submerged again.  I took some pictures of a coot that was hanging about, and Jason taught me about how to use the histogram to determine color correction.

American Coot

I had wanted to go for a longer hike this morning, but since we had to carry a sleeping toddler, we decided to just head back to the car.  On the way around this western side of the lake, I started to see a little bit more birds.  I recognized a little call of a woodpecker, and looked around to find a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker feeding in the trees on the left side of the trail.

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker

Sometimes there are some good waterfowl to be found in New Horseshoe Lake where the Elm Lake Trail starts to curve back to the parking lot, but this day there were only three ibis in there.  As we walked back, I saw quite a bit of bird action in the trees along the path.  Almost everything I set my sights on turned out to be a Yellow Rumped Warbler, the bain of all local birders it seems, but I did catch a sight of something that looked different, and took a picture (since I now was the holder of the camera, since Jason’s arms were full of kid).  Looking at the picture when we got home, I thought maybe it was a kingbird, but Janey thought it was actually the female Vermilion Flycatcher.  This was close to where the male has been hanging out, so I guess that would make sense.

As we were loading up the car, I saw a big flash of grey feathers, and went over to investigate.  I was excited to catch sight of a big raptor in the trees, and slowly approached the tree to try to get a good shot.  This is the best shot I could get before it flew off, but it was enough to identify this as a Cooper’s Hawk (good sized one, in my opinion).

After this, Sebastian was now awake and wanted to play.  He asked us to take him to a playground, but the one at the park is not great, so we compromised on going to the Nature Center instead on the promise that he could see a baby alligator.  Lucky for us, there was a volunteer with a baby alligator already out for touching.  Sebastian was timid at first, but eventually touched the baby alligator, along with a great many other items in the nature center.

We explored bones, teeth, feathers, shells, nests, honeycombs, and marveled over pictures and specimens of wildlife and insects.  He went through the nature center about five times.  His favorite activity of the day was pressing the red button next to the carving of the owl, which played owl calls, and then turning to us and saying “doggy!”  Apparently some of the owl sounds are similar to dog barks to Sebastian.  We tried to get him to go on the volunteer-led Creekfield Nature Walk, but he was interested for all of about five minutes and then ran off back to the nature center.  After several attempts, we finally got him on to a trail to look for more birds.  I did manage to see a blue-headed vireo, a bird many folks on the bird walk in Kleb Woods that I went on Wednesday were seeing but I didn’t actually sight myself so therefore did not count.

We decided to leave the park because Jason was getting hungry and Sebastian’s antics were becoming intolerable to me.  I thought Jason was taking the less direct route home, and his agenda became slightly more clear to me when he explained he had a craving for a bbq baked potato, but he told me where he was going, he mispronounced it so that led to some confusion and then some debate on how to pronounce “Schulze’s”.  Turns out I was right, and I am putting that down on record because he hates to admit that and it doesn’t happen very often.  Best BBQ in Rosenberg, and on that, there is no debate between us.

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.