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.

Brazos Bend, Take Three

November 29, 2014

Pilant Slough Trail.  Wheels turning on slightly damp fine gravel paths.  Watch out, I say to the little one, watch out for the rocks in the path.   Stay on one side of the trail, announce yourselves to the pedestrians, tread lightly, go quietly.

We step off the path for a moment.  Tiny ruby-crowned kinglet (#122) forages on upper branches.  We find things to marvel at; a big creepy bug, spider webs,  a little frog inside a split log, ammo cans with fun swag.  Forest opens up into a clearing, grass and weeds about waist high.  Eventually we cross a bridge and then we are approaching the wide path that loops around Elm Lake.


Along the islands in the middle of Elm Lake, gators are stretched out like old tires across the landscape.  People are out walking slowly along the path, stopping to point or take pictures of those ever-present mascots of this park.  Great flocks of black bellied whistling ducks make a racket along the shoreline next to them.  Common moorhens are standing in the water feeding.  American Coots are moving in between the islands.  A Pied-billed Grebe or two (#123) ducks its head into the water as we approach.  
wpid-wp-1417560924331.jpeg We make our way all around the lake.  The little one, who really isn’t all that little anymore, starts pretending like his legs were going to come off from so much pedaling.  How much further, he asks.  We’re almost there.  Around the parking lot, just around this watchtower, just past this bridge, just around this corner, and then we are climbing a small hill ascending to the Nature Center, where we left our car.  He is just dying, so we slow down, walk, park our bikes and go inside to see snakes and pet the baby alligators.

On the way home, we stop at the stop sign to the main road home.  A line of bikers are trying to turn left to go towards the park, and we aren’t in a particular hurry.  Jason is trying to get a visual on the red bird in the bushes, a Scarlet Tanager (#124).

In the end, it was less than three miles by bike, but felt like forever for an eight year old who needs more bike rides.  On the way home, still feeling adventurous, we try a new asian fusion place near our house, which suddenly is everyone’s favorite.  Maybe we can go again next weekend; for a ride, to the park, to Akashi.  This was the sweet spot for our holiday weekend.

Caprock Canyons State Park: Free Verse Style

_DSC0700Rising from a dream,

Noticing a sky full of stars,

I look over and Jason met my eye

We go outside to look,

my oldest son following silently

We all marveled at the detail

Of the galaxy above us

And go back to sleep in awe


Morning’s first light,

We sneak away for a daybreak drive

Blue Grosbeak male singing a song in a cedar

The female sits close, admiring

A whistle in nearby brush

reveals the Northern Bobwhite

Elusive little quail,

looking right at us just feet away


Trails stretch off invitingly in the distance

Red rock canyons rising up all around us

But we don’t have the time to explore it all

Just these things:

Bison shaking their shaggy heads

Rolling in big patches of warmed dirt

Their calves standing chest high in Lake Theo

Cooling off from a summer sun


We saw a ladybug that morning

On our way back up from swimming in the lake

The youngest wanted to keep it

“Wouldn’t it be great if ladybugs were immortal?”,  he asked

I try to imagine a world

Where ladybugs never die

All good things must come to an end, my son

And likewise, too soon, our time at Caprock Canyons


But this is how it ends:

With me, sitting in the morning sun

Watching prairie dogs cavort

Whistling alerts for kids on bikes

Freshly washed hair blowing in my face

Birds singing, a scissortail flying low

Searching for bugs

Bees, crickets, horseflies all humming a tune


A goodbye lullaby

For a park that won our heart


Galveston State Park

wpid-img_20140531_105545.jpgFor the second year in a row, we went down to Galveston to celebrate my youngest’s birthday at the end of May.  Yes, the seaweed was still bad.  This year, cold weather in early spring led to a bombardment of Sargassum seaweed on Galveston’s shores (as well as several other coastal towns).  This seaweed comes from the Sargasso Sea, where an intersection of four currents creates a gyre.  I guess this year the currents just took it all towards the Gulf of Mexico.

The kids didn’t let that slow them down.  They were still in the water, having fun as if it wasn’t even there.  I went in with them some, and it was a little irritating at times, but we lived with it.  The worst part was having to step through it to get back to the beach area.  There was one small spot that was cleared for foot traffic but sometimes it was not convenient to get to.

There were folks meeting us out here, and so we spent quite a few hours at the shore.  We always get tired of it before the kids do, though.  We had to get out of the sun in the late afternoon, though, so we headed into the state park headquarters/gift shop to find the geocache in there and let the birthday boy pick out some treasures.  After this, we went to the part of the state park on the other side of the road.  I thought I wanted to find some geocaches there, too, until we got swarmed by mosquitos.  We did finally find one and see some birds, too: Brown Pelican, Laughing Gull, Black Skimmer, Clapper Rail, and Willet (#90-94).

There was some irony in the fact that I wanted to have the party at Stewart Beach, to be closer to the hotel, but my mom was concerned it would be too packed due to its proximity to the Sandcastle Building Contest.  Well, the contest ended up being a wash (literally), as a storm came in and turned it all into a mud pit down in the East Beach parking lot, while we had nothing but sunny skies over there on the West End.  We did go to Stewart Beach the next morning, and us adults (who were all sun and beached out) sat under the shady umbrellas while the kids played in the seaweed water again.

We’ll try it again next year, I think, but maybe we’ll think about whether to have it at the same time as the Sandcastle contest, or maybe just stay on the West End closer to the state park.