January: Winter Snippets

Winter, baby!

Well, winter is slowly heading into spring, and it feels like we haven’t done much of anything around here. No camping weekends, no fun little trips, playing it close to home for the most part, and my itch to get out there and see the world is still needing to be scratched. However, looking at my birding journal, I see that the month of January was busier than it felt.

I don’t have any huge stories for you, my friend, but I have little snippets of what it was like over in our world over the past four weeks since the last big trip into the “wilderness” (aka camping trip).

Caching in Cullinan Park

Late afternoon on a Saturday a couple of weeks ago, my middle son and I were briefly exploring Cullinan Park as we bid our time before a party started. Because I am nosy, I sidled up to a couple that appeared to have something interesting in their sights on the pier. “Do you see the Ahinga?” the man asked me. Not yet, but he had me intrigued, because I hadn’t seen one since I started counting my bird sightings in earnest. “Over there by the Least Grebe”. Sure enough, it poked its head up out of the water. “They sometimes call them water turkeys,” he said as it swam underwater, a brown bulb with a thin graceful neck speeding through the water. I asked him about the Grebe, since I had assumed that this one before us was also a Pied-Billed like the one I had spotted near the observation deck, and he explained the differences to me. I walked away happy about learning something new in the short time we had been at the park. Plus, we had added another “smiley” to our list by finding a geocache in the park before entering the pier area.

Big brother helps a baby learn to walk at Paul Rushing Park

A small flock of Eastern Meadowlarks light down on a field of lavender flowers somewhere out on the Katy Prairie. Hawks check over their range from power pole vantage spots. We stop to watch about a dozen Sandhill Cranes lower their huge bodies like parachutists, slowing landing with long legs into a field where they join about a hundred others of their kind. Their rattling calls rumble across the field, clearly audible to us standing on the dirt gravel road outside the field. A pond in the middle of a cow field has me scrambling through the bird guide to ID the big variety of ducks I see out there, some possibly still a mystery to me. I think about asking the birders we pass looking out at the same pond as we drive past them on the way back, but we are not wanting to wake the baby up.
The next weekend, I come back out this way to spend some time at Paul Rushing Park with the kids. I point out a Lesser Yellow Legs doing a funny little walk through the marsh grass on the side of the trail, and of course the nine year old has to stalk and then give chase, a bit like our kitty cat. We are shocked at the size of the Nutria on the islands out in the middle of the park. The baby falls asleep in the stroller as we walk around the ponds, I marveling at the variety of birds out here as the nine year old alternates between whining about how long we have been gone, helping me find geocaches, and telling me about Minecraft.

Cold smiles at Fiorenza Park

The baby and I have an afternoon at Fiorenza Park on a day he was still recovering from a two week GI illness. He smiles a timid smile at me and tries to wrestle the binoculars out of my hand. No birds, mama, just me, he is saying, so I stop and settle instead to write down what I managed to see in fifteen minutes of so of walking by the back pond, and marvel at the list for the Ebird report filed by the local Audubon member sent out (and her picture that she attached of a Bald Eagle photobombing the typical pod of White Pelicans and swim of Cormorants that usually can be seen at this park in the winter. On her report, she lists 767 Cormorants seen on one day!)

The “little duck pond”

The dogs walk, sometimes with the kids and often next to the stroller, with me as I make the circuit around our duck ponds in the neighborhood, sometimes venturing a couple of neighborhoods over to Cross Creek Ranch to visit Polishing Pond and count what is living there lately. Winter ducks usually include coots, shovelers, and occasionally Gadwall.  We’ve put in many miles of walking this month around the neighborhood, local bayous, and ponds (and local school tracks, but don’t tell the dogs, because they aren’t allowed).

Our whole family walking along the seawall in Galveston a couple of weeks back with Hike It Baby, and my eye catches the flash of Ruddy Turnstones flying above the rocks along the shore and Sanderlings at the waters edge.  With all the birds recorded along our ventures to all the above places, the monthly total is at 55 species, six more than at this time last year, and some new to the list.   Other than Galveston, all the places above are less than a half hours drive from the house.  I am hoping the next few months are a lot more exciting, as we might be able to venture out further.

Kleb Woods

20150506_093808A generation or so ago, mothers were recommended to stay in for a “period of confinement” after their babies were born.  Well, I don’t deal well with captivity.  My forays into the world were initially limited to the immediate neighborhood, then surrounding neighborhoods, but by four weeks into this “period of confinement”, I was ready to explore further away from home. This is how, four weeks and some change after birth, Sebastian and I went out for our first foray into the wilderness.

In this case, it was a bit of urban wilderness on the west side of Tomball, a 99 acre park called Kleb Woods.  I sacrificed the last two hours of sleep that baby and I usually get after the older kids leave the house for school to drive about forty minutes away to this park.  Despite being a few minutes late, I managed to join up with a small group of dedicated bird enthusiasts participating in the weekly Wednesday bird walk.

I do not regret the lack of sleep, for I learned a lot in the few hours I spent out there.  Sure, the mosquitos were bad, but I had a net that went around the car seat portion of our super duper off-road stroller to keep them off the baby, and a can of Off! for me.  I think he was a little more protected than I was, because there were no bites on him afterwards, but my shoulders did have several (despite the spray and a shirt).  A small section of the trail had a thick coat of mud, and the others in the group mentioned that my stroller might not be able to hack it.  I just smiled and told them that we had the best stroller on the market for that kind of terrain, and in fact the BOB Revolution did handle that mud like a champ, not even slowing down the slightest.

20150506_093933That morning, I learned so much from listening to and observing the other birders as much as the birds we found.  While I was with the group, I recorded seventeen species of birds in my journal that were new for my list this year, mostly in the warbler family.  One of the ladies in the group, who seemed very skilled despite only birding for a year and a half (I think that is what she said), was able to pinpoint the various calls of different species and point them out for me, then describe what set them apart from other similar species.  It was watching how they found the birds visually and getting a feel for it myself that was most helpful to me.  I will find just a few birds on walks myself because I hadn’t gotten a feel for how to really watch, wait and find them like these people were doing.

20150506_093855We spent some time on this particular stretch of trail, which reminded me of a time out in this park with my other children.  I had taken them out to this park when my second child was about the same age as Sebastian was now, but the day had been hotter and I was a little less prepared, and I had gotten concerned that the children were overheating.  I  remember rapidly pushing the stroller back to the car with a sense of urgency, and making a promise to myself that I would not put my kids in that kind of a situation again, where I pushed us past reasonable limits for my own personal desires.  This day, one of the ladies commented that she wished she was Sebastian, being pushed around and protected by a mosquito net like that.  There was no risky element of natural danger at this time.  When Sebastian woke up and began indicating he was hungry, I asked a mother of home schooled children who had joined our group about the nature center in the park.  She told me how nice it was on the inside, and indicated it might be a good place to feed him (which is what I was steering the conversation towards).

Sebastian and I split from the group and spent some time checking out the nature center before I slipped into the education room to feed him.  Afterwards, I thought I might rejoin the group or perhaps find a few geocaches, but shortly after putting him back in the stroller and walking down the path, Sebastian told me, in his way, that he was still hungry and that stop had not been enough.  I found myself sitting on a bench on the side porch of the center, feeding him again, guarding his precious little noggin from mosquitos, and watching ruby throated hummingbirds chase each other away from the feeders outside.

We ended up running out of time, and then running down the trail, as the skies opened up right as I was leaving the center.  I haven’t bought a rain cover for this stroller yet, and despite a cover that comes up on the stroller itself and one on the car seat that is attached via an adapter, there is about a two inch gap to the outside world that opens up right where he sits.  I covered the gap with my stroller blanket and hoped he was not getting wet.  By the time we covered the third of a mile back to parking, I was soaked to the bone with a cool, refreshing rain, but luckily, he stayed completely dry.

That morning in the park brought my total for the year up to 92 species of birds seen, which was a good jump. The best moment of the morning was when we had all stopped for a while to watch some action in the bushes at the bend between the long open stretch in the photo above and the parking lot.  The other girls were identifying the birds we were seeing, but then I spied one that looked different.  “Oh, I see one with a black head and orange sides – which one is that?” I asked the lead girl.  “Oh, that is probably that Blackburnian Warbler we saw”.  I insisted this bird looked different, and she responded that I was probably just seeing him from a different angle.  I was firm that it was not the same bird, and described it to her again, and she said, “Well, do you think it was an American Redstart?” and showed me a picture.  I was sure that was it, but could tell she did not believe me.  A couple minutes later, one of the other ladies said, “Oh, I see it, it IS the Redstart!”  Then everyone got a good look, and the lead girl turned to me and said, “Congratulations, you found your first warbler!” and seemed genuinely happy for me.

It’s the little victories these days. I did feel like I gained a little confidence that morning.  However, I found a few birds later that I kind of wished she was still with me for, to confirm my identifications.  Mostly got from this walk is that I enjoyed the education I got from other people like this.  This was the first bird walk I had been on (where we actually found some birds).  After this, I found some information on a few more walks that I could go to over the next few weeks while I am home.  I am going to try to go back to this park for more walks.  I am thinking this will be a good outlet to feel a little more free from the stifling captivity of being a temporary stay at home mom, and I will get a good education to boot.

Baytown Nature Center

bnc 1This past Saturday, we drove an hour or so southeast to visit the Baytown Nature Center.  Our geocaching friends were having a brief flash mob down there, hosted by “Baytown Bert”, and we were curious about the two hour wilderness survival course hosted by the park (free with the $3 entry fee) afterwards.

Despite the unpredictable nature of the weather the past month, it ended up being a beautiful morning to spend outside.  I had been to this center once before, but Jason hadn’t, and we enjoyed exploring it with the kids.  The center boasts 450 acres of wetlands, hiking and biking trails, and is an official site on the Gulf Coast Birding Trail.  Some 200-300 species of birds visit the park during the year.  It is surrounded by three different bays, and within site of refineries and a well-known memorial of Texas Independence (see below pic).  Can you guess what memorial that is?bnc 4


After greeting our friends, my youngest went off to play on the playground, which was surprisingly appealing in its nature theme.  After this, he became engrossed in the survival class, led by Chrissie (spelling?), an employee of the park.  She engaged the class in exploring different uses for common items found in hiking packs.  After going through safety advice and suggestions at how to use these items in her pack, she broke the class up into small groups and presented them with an imaginary scenario in which they had to figure out how to survive with a specific list of items.  She had Kaleb in her group, and he was coming up with some good answers to her questions.  I thought it was so cute how into this class my eight year old was, but the older guys in our group were cold and ready to move on with our day, so I had to pull the youngest away from Chrissie and move him along to the next activity.

bnc 3After this, we stopped to find a handful of geocaches on the way out.  On the way to the first one, we saw a beautiful Osprey perched out on a pole along the bay.  He was particularly striking, with a splashy white and black face.  At the next cache stop, near the butterfly garden, we saw him again flying majestically through the air above us, searching for prey.  At another stop, as we looked out over the wetlands from a gazebo up on a hill, we heard him crying out, and then spotted him perched in a tree near the water.

We also watched a Royal Tern dive into the water in the bay in a search for food that fascinated us for a while.  I saw a Spotted Sandpiper bobbing by the water’s edge, its breast the solid white (no spots) that characterizes the winter plumage of this species.  Brown Pelicans flew above the water, and cormorants shared pier posts with Laughing Gulls.  We also observed brown headed cowbirds, common grackle, a Loggerhead Shrike, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, an d heard Red Winged Blackbirds.

We ended up with six cache finds in the park on our way out, with several left on the map unfound for a future return trip.  Lunch time hunger drove us out of the park, and we ended up stopping for greek food on the way home in downtown.  All of us really enjoyed the park (although the teenager spent most of the time listening to his music on his earbuds and just tuning us all out, which is so typical of these years).

This park fascinated me with its juxtaposition of the natural beauty up against the backdrop of oil refineries in the distance.  It reminded me a bit of how I used to think Houston was an ugly city, but I have actually learned to find the beauty in its natural places, and have gained appreciation of how both can exist over time.  Like Houston itself, Baytown Nature Center is a place worth a deeper look.

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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.