I Spy

Last week at work, I saw an unusual bird hanging out in the mid-foliage range in our little mini-forest that borders one side of the property.  It was striking in appearance, and of course I wanted to solve the mystery of what it was, since birds have been on my brain lately.  Without a field manual, I was reduced to googling bird websites and images until I found a bird that looked like what I saw.  

The image that matched the most was for a prothonotary warbler.  However, the websites I was reading about this bird on suggests that our area is not within the typical range for this one.  So I started to think I was chasing another “zebra” and investigating other similar looking warblers.

However, I did learn something interesting about this bird while I was snooping around online.  This little bird was central in a House of Un-American Activities trial as evidence of Alger Hiss being a spy.  Also, it helped a certain junior senator named Richard Nixon climb his way up the political ladder.

Apparently what needed to happen in the trial to help convict Alger Hiss was to link him to a man named Whittaker Chambers.  Nixon and his team were trying to prove a link between Hiss and the Communist Party.  Chambers had fingered Hiss as a spy for the Communist Party, but Hiss denied any involvement and any knowledge of Chambers.  Finally, after some days of back and forth involving cars and pseudonyms and whatnot, it was Hiss’s quick admission of his seeing the prothonotary warbler, and Chambers telling Nixon about the sighting the day before, that helped link them together.

After a second day review of birding websites, I found one that had an interactive map for different species with sightings colored in in various parts of the world.  For this species, there was a clear band of sightings going from Sugarland to Pasadena, of which my work is right in the middle, so I think after all, I too might have had an unusual sighting of this bird.

Maybe I shouldn’t run off and tell everyone about it, though.  After all, that evidence could be used against me in a court of law. 😉

Taking In Lake Texana

This past weekend, we went camping at Lake Texana State Park and had a great time.  This park is about two hours southwest of Houston, off of Hwy 59 in Granado.

We wouldn’t normally go camping back to back weekends, but this trip was a special one.  We had committed ourselves to helping with the boy scout troop of a co-worker of mine, members of which were working on their geocaching merit badge.  Some of the boys had not heard much about geocaching, and some needed help with certain items on the the requirement list.

Example of Lake Texana Geocaches

Our family of four helped out by giving an hour long introduction to geocaching, as well as loading the troop’s donated GPS units with the 17 caches in the park we wanted to find.  After the talk and explanation of how to use the units was over, we headed out on a hike with this troop to find some of the ones we loaded for them together, so we could give them helpful hints along the way.

There were about eleven boys in the troop, plus three adult leaders, myself and J, my two boys, and three of our dogs along for the trek.  We started on the Bobcat Tracks trail near the park headquarters, and headed north.  Eventually, we came to a turnoff for the Alligator Cove trail heading southeast, then hooked up with the southern end of the Texana Trail.  Caches we found along the way included:    Bobcat Track,   Matthew 7:7, Corner Post, Gimpy’s Cache, Big Man Pig Man, TxGCC11 Texana, Ha Ha Charade You Are, Head Down a Pig Bin, and R U A Texa”CAN”.  It was a lot of fun watching new people get all enthusiastic about the game.

Before the last cache, my co-worker had to turn the younger boys further on down the path to complete a five mile hike requirement.  My little boy and some of the dogs were worn out, and so we stopped here for the day, after 2.5 miles and about two hours worth of hiking around.

After this, we went back to the campsite.  The boys and I wandered down to the waters edge and looked at animal tracks, trying to figure out the stories of the wildlife who passed this way. On our walks to the bathroom, we got to see some of this wildlife for ourselves: a few armadillos and white tailed deer.

The lake had shrank considerably since last time J was here (this was our first time here).  He asked a ranger, who said the lake was at 30% capacity, following this year’s drought.  Normally, the waters would have been up to the platform edging of our campsite, but now we had more than 500 feet of marshgrass and sand to explore. A short time later, we grilled hamburgers, played Uno, and roasted marshmellows over the flames of the camp stove J gave me for Christmas (burn ban was in effect, so sadly, no campfire) for our s’mores. After a couple of s’mores and Sasquatch sighting stories, the boys were ready to lay down in their tent for the night, and I in ours.  A barred owl or two called in the night as we nestled in our sleeping bags for the night.

The morning arrived wet with dew and mist.  Birds came fluttering around the campsite, making little bird tweets, calls, and coos.  We cooked a warm breakfast of bacon, spam, , warmed tortillas and eggs while a brave cardinal fluttered close by, watching.  A Carolina Wren sang a morning song for us in the brush. J spied a Forster’s Tern dive into the waters for a fish and awed.

My favorite part of the weekend, the part I keep replaying in my head, happened after breakfast.  The boys and I went down to one of the fishing piers, hoping we could drop a line in there (no such luck), and as we started to walk up the pier, a huge bird, which had been perched on the pier railing, took off and flew right past us, then swooped down into the marsh grass below for a kill.  It was a beautiful specimen of a red shouldered hawk, a dark red along the body, with sharp black and white striped wings.

We had seen a great number of hawks on the way in to the camp, and we are still not sure what kind they were.  Road hawks, maybe, red tails or coopers hawks possibly, and one we stopped to take a long look at I am almost certain was a ferruginous hawk, but this was the most amazing of all of them.  My only regret is that J didn’t get to see it, as he is the one who would appreciate it even more than I did.  I was being annoyed for petty reasons and had not invited him, necessarily, to join the boys and I down at the pier.  Because of my petty selfishness, he missed out on an experience that certainly would have burned in his memory the way it has in mine, and for that I am sorry.

I was also sorry that we didn’t bring rain gear with us when we went on another geocaching hike a short time later.  We found a few more caches, but more than half a mile from the trailhead, it began pouring down rain.  Our idea of letting the tents dry out in the morning sun proved to be futile, as we ended up having to pack wet gear in a hurry to get home.

What I am not sorry about, though, is insisting we go on this campout, even though it meant missing an annual geocaching party that J and I have not missed in the several years we have been caching.  I am also not sorry we went to this park – for Lake Texana is full of natural wonder, birding pleasures, awesome geocaches, and now, fond memories.

W.G Jones Forest: “An Urban Wilderness”

Today we went hiking at W.G. Jones Forest Recreation Area.  This park is located off 1488, just east of I-45, north of the The Woodlands, Texas.  It offers 1722 acres of multi-use trails for hiking, biking, or horseback riding.

Today we were on foot, with our GPS in hand, looking for geocaches.  In the past year, about fifty new caches have been hidden out this way, mostly in this series of caches hidden by LogDawgs named for presidents.  We found five of these today, and a couple of others in the park that were not part of the series, one of which has been on my “radar” for a long time.

This last one I mention, “Woodpeckers Retreat”, was a tough one to get to, but not a tough one to find.  It required about 350 ft of “bushwacking” – the term for going off the trail and having to force your own way through to an area past overgrowth.  On our way back to the trail after finding this cache, J was a little ahead of me and I was trying to keep an eye on his moving figure in the woods ahead of me when something large and brown flew past me.  I watched it briefly, then caught up with him, where he was standing with his binoculars out, trying to get a good look.  We didn’t get a picture, and it is hard to say for sure because we never got a good look at its face, but I think at this point (after wasting an hour or more googling owls tonight) that it was an Eastern Screech Owl.

This weekend, the weather in Texas finally turned from the scorching hot drought conditions to something akin to fall, with cooler temps and a nice good wind, brought in from Tropical Storm Lee.  Unfortunately, when you combine the drought conditions with a strong wind, you get wildfires.  And Texas has gone wildfire-crazy this weekend.  We are ON FIRE down here!  The eastern side of the state has been hit hard.  The past two days, firefighters have been battling blazes in Bastrop, where a 16 mile long fire is sweeping in a southernly direction from the state parks down.  Little fires have been cropping up in Magnolia, just east of where we were today, and there was a controlled burn going on north of us, in the Lake Conroe area.  This forest we were in today, in fact, had several controlled burns recently.  We saw the evidence of that.  Mostly, though, we felt the evidence of all these fires, past and current.  The air was warm and a little hard to breathe in, feeling heavy in our chests.

Today we were getting our “nature therapy”. I’ve been reading this book, Last Child in the Woods, about the importance of nature in the lives of children, and in all of humanity, really.  I spent a little time discussing that book today, and the restorative effects of a walk in the woods.  I am preaching to the choir, though; my partner here is the one who states on his Facebook page that “Nature is my Church”.  I thought about that a little, today, too; how when I go to church, I feel like my soul is wiped clean, but when I spend time in nature, it is like my mind is wiped clean.  Maybe that is what he means – that feeling – or maybe it is the feeling of awe at the complexity of God’s creations.

Today, the wind was spectacular.  It was whipping the tops of the trees around, creating this glorious, relaxing music that needs no musical accompaniment or vocal melody.  When I was looking at our mystery bird through the binoculars, I was watching it whip this big tree around in the background, green leaves flying in a complicated dance.  I never can record it to share it with others, but here is a picture of the scenery, so imagine for yourself the sound, feel, and sight of the wind making these trees dance.

Yay for the smell and feel of fall in the air.  Boo for wildfires and drought.  The pond at the front of the park, where I usually see people fishing, is all dried up and cracked.  But the weather is turning crisper, and hopefully we will see some rain down here soon, and camping season is coming right around the corner, and I am very excited for the chance to go on long hikes, bike rides, caching adventures, and camp out weekends with my wonderful partner and young sons.

TEXAS HILL COUNTRY HEAVEN part 1

Now time for a more recent adventure

We had one weekend left until the children came back from vacation with their father, and we had opted to sneak out of town for one last romantic adventure until we were a family of four, and not just the two of us.  The weekend was wide open – I was cruising getaway airfares, contemplating different destinations – but we were also considering making a geocaching event south of San Antonio, so we had concentrated some attempts in that general direction.  We also had some ideas about returning to Lost Maples State Park.  We had been there last summer during this great road trip I have slowly been writing about, and promised ourselves we would go back.  We were also very interested in finding a dog-friendly destination, as the dogs had been cooped up a lot lately.

He asked me if I had “that list of cabins near Lost Maples” that he had sent me at some undetermined time last year, even though he was unsure if he sent it via email or during a chat session.  I had no idea what he was talking about, but was obsessively googling pet-friendly cabins near San Antonio and Lost Maples, and I found the website of something that sounded just like what we were interested in.  I sent it to him over chat, and he says, “oh, you found it!”.  Coincidence?  Or some kind of hidden meaning…whatever it was, I decided to go with it, and that is how we ended up at FoxFire Cabins for the weekend.

After a long drive the night before after work, in which we saw at least two dozen whitetail deer along the backroads, we ate our breakfast, then hurried out for a morning hike in Lost Maples State Park.  FoxFire is just one mile down the road from the park , so it was a short drive, but we had to do it almost twice because I forgot our Texas Parks and Wildlife Department passport.  See, we’ve been working on this little geocaching challenge they got going on, where if you find the special cache hidden in each of the state parks, and prove it by marking your card with the special marker in each cache, and answer a question about an indigenous animal from the parks by using a clue card in each one, and then send the passport in when you have found ten of the twelve in each region, you can get a nifty coin and bragging rights.  We finished the Houston region a few weeks back, and didn’t want to miss the chance to work on the Hill Country region.

The hike to this particular cache in Lost Maples was about two miles round trip.  Along the way, we had to cross several streams, which we remembered last year as being much higher.  This area of Texas has been hit very hard with this year’s drought.  We saw evidence of this all over the region.  This park had more water than any of the other parks we saw, though.  When we got to the “ponds” section, there was enough water in the pond to go swimming in, if you didn’t mind a marshy entrance.  We saw little trickles of water along the creek banks.

After we found the cache, we sat for a while on a bench near the ponds and watched the birds with the binoculars.  There were several very large cardinals, males and females, flitting about.  Two birds lingered in the branches above us, and were very curious and unafraid, even with our three dogs near our sides.  They came within a few feet of us, watching us quizzically from the ground or branches right above us.  After much discussion and comparison later, we determined that these were olive-sided flycatchers.

After this pause for reflection, we walked back to the truck, then drove back to the cabin for lunch and brief lounging before getting back in the vehicle for more exploring.  I will have to write about those adventures later, though.  I have the cold nose of a dog nudging me to go for a walk, and my baby to snuggle, before my kids get home in a couple of hours.  I hope to post more regularly soon about not only this trip, but the ones that came before it, and the ones that will come after.