Big Thicket National Preserve

20150523-_DSC1319Last Saturday found us in the visitor center for the Big Thicket National Forest, north of the town of Kountze.  We had stopped in briefly to get information on trails, and now we were back for a respite from the muggy humidity and the bugs after an hour long hike on the Kirby Nature Trail.  I sat in the darkened theater room to feed the baby, and the friendly park ranger who was working the front desk offered to start the movie for me.  We watched the fifteen minute film that offered some insight on what makes this preserve special.

One of the features of the park that make it unique is its diversity.  The Big Thicket is actually a collection of several tracts of land spread out over several counties and 84,500 acres.  It happens to sit right at the junction of several different ecosystems.  A hiker might be able to cross through nine different ecosystems throughout a visit in the park, from the pineywoods of east Texas to the hardwoods of the Mississippi, from savannah to desert.  Due to this intersection, visitors will be able to find a wider variety of species than in any other area of Texas: over three hundred species of migrating birds, a thousand flowering plants and shrubs (including four carnivorous species), one hundred species of trees, and many species of reptiles and amphibians, including all four venomous snakes of Texas, and this cute little skink here.

Buck Moth Caterpillar.  Apparently their little barbs are poisonous and leave a vicious little sting if touched.  20150523-_DSC1331

Fungus and flowers along the Pitcher Plant Trail20150523_153955










This is the Pitcher Plant – one of the four carnivorous plants.  It digests insects that fall into the liquid inside this tube, which contains enzymes that break them down.  These plants are easily viewed in the springtime from a short quarter mile walk along an easy walking path (that can be a little tricky to get to, at least the way we drove to it).


Given that this area of the world has been designated as the “biological crossroads of North America”, one should not be surprised that of all the strange insects, reptiles and flora and fauna of this preserve, there has been reports also of elusive hairy beasts – wood apes, aka “bigfoot” or “sasquatch”.  There have been at least fifteen reports of sightings in the counties composing the Big Thicket on the North American Wood Ape website, accounts so numerous that Bigfoot researchers have been known to take up residence in the area to keep watch. (This information was not relayed in the film we watched in the visitors center). The area was also home to most species of American mega-fauna before their extinction.

20150523_132526Stories of the people of the area that were included in the official film included that of the “Dog People”, a group of pioneer-types that lived completely off the land in this area in the mid-1900s, using their pack of dogs to assist them in hunting game in the forest to survive off of.  Also, groups of Native Americans, such as the Alabama-Coushatta, have called these woods home at some point.  The Dog People and other residents were slowly kind of forced of the forest, as it started to be exploited for its oil and gas reserves, as well as its lumber.  Eventually, though, there was enough push to get the land declared as one of the nation’s first National Preserves in 1974.  Due to its status as a preserve and not a national park, there is limited allowance for these resources to be utilized, but while retaining the area’s natural resources for the future.

20150523_131501 Another story that I came across later, not included in the film, was that of the Texas “Jayhawks”, a group of local men drafted to fight in the Civil War for the side of the Confederacy, who opposed that side’s viewpoint and hid out in the forest to avoid the war.  They were arrested at one point and held in nearby Woodville, but escaped in a scheme involving whiskey, fiddling, a loose board, and the dancing of a jig by one of the Jayhawks, which allowed the guards to be distracted long enough for all the prisoners to escape through the loose board one by one.  In the chaos that ensued after, the one who had been dancing the jig just walked away, free at last.  Later, a Confederate Captain named Kaiser decided to light a fire to the Jayhawk camp at Honey Island, trying to flush out the traitors.  It is believed that all the Jayhawks escaped, but the canebrake they lived in was permanently destroyed, and 3000 acres of forest burned up in what is now referred to as the “Kaiser Burnout”.  This is one of the ghost stories that is attributed to the mysterious “Light of Saratoga”, a ghostly light that appears and disappears at random times on Bragg Road in the town of Saratoga, sixteen miles west of Kountze.   Other explanations include ghost conquistadors looking for buried treasure, a decapitated railroad worker from a nearby accident, or an eternally lost hunter looking for a way out.  Or, perhaps, swamp gas or light reflection from cars on the nearby highway.

We had decided to take the scenic route from the visitors center to the Pitcher Plant Trail, and then may or may not have lost our way.  As we worked our way through a series of back roads, the roads eventually turned to dirt.  Occasional small houses were found along this road, or sometimes just signs with a person’s name marked on it indicating a lot or way to another property.  However, most of our drive we spent in complete wilderness, with no signs of human presence.  The preserve was on our left, and private property to our right.  I felt the presence of other life out there, though, and was half-expecting to see one of the “Dog People” in the silent woods around us, perhaps sight some unusual movement in the forest.  I didn’t see anything, though, besides a few birds not already on our list for the year.

It was a place that was enlightening and intriguing, though, and we did decide it was worth coming back to another time – just not often, as it is some two hours and change drive from our house.  There is much to explore out here.


Willow Waterhole

20150508_110419Last week, I flew the coop again.  I was waiting on a friend who didn’t appear, and I didn’t want to lose another day to my living room, so I loaded the stroller and left to explore a park that I had been reading about and hadn’t visited yet.

This time,  I decided my main objective was geocaching.  I have learned over the past couple of years that I have to decide what I am doing and not try to multi-task my outdoor time.  I always have this optimistic idea that I can exercise, look for caches, AND look for birds at the same time, but perhaps the idea that multi-tasking means you aren’t doing any one thing well is correct.  If I had been truly exercising, I would have been would been moving faster, and if I had been truly birding, I would have been moving slower.

20150508_102521When I got close to the park, I followed the signs to parking off Dryad, but in retrospect, I would have been more comfortable parking somewhere else.  There didn’t seem to be a legit parking spot, but rather a place where the gravel road just ended with enough room for a few cars.  This parking spot put me at the one pond that is the furthest south.  It appears from the map that there are three or four different pond areas in this park, which stretches east to west along Gasmer, crossing S Post Oak.  The park itself encompasses 280 acres in total, comprised of flood relief areas turned “greenspace” in recent years.  The concept of placing retention ponds behind Westbury High School, in the area I was parked in, was first originated in 1996, and came together between 1999 and 2001 under the auspices of the Willow Waterhole Greenspace Conservancy.

willow waterhole

I also immediately became aware of one issue with this park.  The location of the park lends itself to sketchy inhabitants, perhaps due to its inner city location.  There are nearby apartments near S Willow and S Post Oak with an opening in the fence that allows direct access to the park.  I actually think that it is great that apartment residents have this awesome nature park in their backyard, but I have to admit feeling some reservation about sharing the park with two lone fellows that I saw while out there.  Neither of the men that I saw were dressed as if they were out to enjoy a nature park.  One was dressed in urban thug and his shirt actually had the store tags hanging off of it, so I wasn’t sure if that was a style, an accident, or a recently stolen item.  The other was lingering suspiciously by a park bench near the parking area.  He had a bag in his hand, and also occasionally reached into the bushes to what appeared to be a backpack.  He would walk aimlessly a few feet in either direction, stand there, and then go back to his bench.  It made me feel uncomfortable and I wanted to keep my vehicle within view at all times.  There were some other mothers out here with strollers and young children, so I decided that if they didn’t let these suspicious folks ruin their good time, I wouldn’t either.  I did cut my visit short, though, and next time I go, I am taking Jason with me.

I am going to try to go with the family on a weekend when Houston Audubon folks are there doing their monthly bird survey, so I can learn from them and also have the company of others.  There are interesting features at this park and several caches hidden there to find (I found five while I was out there), so there are reasons to come back.

Here are some of the views from the park that I experienced while out there:


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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.