Last week, a girl at work asked a group of us what our goals were for 2017.  I told her a couple of short term work-type goals, but I didn’t get into my true goals of the year, since it wasn’t seemly for me to start dominating the conversation by listing my hobby goals.  However, I did spend a little bit of time yesterday comparing my goals for 2016 against reality, and considering what my goals for 2017 should be.

Wilson's Plover
Wilson’s Plover

These were my goals for last year: to increase my bird count (seen birds for the year) over previous years, with the goal to get to 200 species seen, to get to my 4000th geocache find, to spend more time hiking and camping with my friend, and to work on getting healthier.  I did get past my 4000th find (now at 4089).  The last two didn’t really happen; my friend and I did not go camping or hiking together after that first weekend of the year, and I am not necessarily more healthy.  Jason and I did go hiking and camping (some, not a lot), but my friend’s schedule never joined up with ours.

American Bittern
American Bittern

I decided to do the year end bird count yesterday.  I added up the birds I found by comparing notes in my journal against a digital ABA list to count.  I did get to a higher bird count than the past couple of years, with 144 birds seen.  Suddenly, though, I was struck with the urge to go out and find those last 56 to get to my goal of 200 for the year.

White-Tailed Kite
White-Tailed Kite

I made a list of what species I was missing that I was likely to find, given the area, and started making some kind of little mini-field guide for my family to help me find them.  Based on the list, it seemed that the most likely place for us to maximize the count would be Paul Rushing Park, in the Katy Prairie.  While I was working on this, my husband arranged for my oldest son to do a pressure washing job, which we needed to drive him to, that was sort of on the way out there.

White Crowned Sparrow
White Crowned Sparrow

Well, the toddler fell asleep in the car on the way out there, so by the time we got to the park, no one wanted to deal with waking him up.  Plus, it was the middle of the afternoon, not prime birding time.  I directed my husband to drive down a couple of little side areas that sometimes have birding action down them, but then he was going really slow and there was nothing out there to see.  When I let him know we should turn around because this was not panning out, we needed to try a different location, he would keep taking his time.  His reasoning was that he was just enjoying driving along those roads, that he was having a good time the way things were.  It was making me anxious, because I could feel time ticking down and we hadn’t seen anything new yet.  I couldn’t just enjoy the journey, because today I was on a mission. He stopped to take a picture of an egret in a canal and I almost lost it.  “Egrets!  We don’t have time for egrets!”

western-tanagerThen, my oldest son called, much earlier than we expected, and we had to go pick him up.  No new bird species seen,  no walk around Paul Rushing, a complete strike out.  I found myself wishing that I had a friend who would come out with me to the Prairie at dusk or early in the morning.  This family thing wasn’t really working, because we were having to balance too many sets of needs and wants.

Indigo Bunting
Indigo Bunting

My best girlfriends all live too far away, don’t call me that much, hardly have time for friendships because their lives are too busy, and none of them are really interested in the same things I am.  I recently met a girl in my neighborhood who said she was into birding, and seemed receptive to the idea of us going birding some time together, but I didn’t know her well enough to ask her to come with me, right now.  I think we will have to work into it slowly.

Yellow Rail
Yellow Rail

The next morning, I was trolling eBird hotspots in the Katy Prairie, comparing my list of target birds against bird counts at the different locations.  When I pulled up Paul Rushing Park, I saw that my friend Janey, whom I have much admiration for, was just at the park yesterday, finding some of those same birds I was after!  This reminded me that there are actually people in my life right now that I could make plans with who could help me pursue some of these hobby goals in 2017.

Semi-Palmated Sandpiper
Semi-Palmated Sandpiper

It made me start considering my casual friends a little more closely.  Instead of thinking about which of my close friends could I try to convince to come with me on outdoors adventures, which one of my casual or new friends could I invest more time with, who has the potential to be an outdoors companion?  There are a few women I have met through geocaching that might be willing to join me.

American Oystercatcher
American Oystercatcher

I asked my husband if he was okay with the idea of my spending a little time once a month or so pursuing my own interests with a friend instead and he was fine with that.  There is a lot of mom guilt to deal with in having your own interests that are easier without children, which I have spoke of before on here.  Some women would just suggest waiting until the kids are grown to have individual pursuits, and I think that is a noble idea, but it is hard for me to accept.  I worry that I won’t live long enough to get there.

Long Billed Curlew
Long Billed Curlew

I have spread my child-bearing years out over basically two generations, so that means it is like twenty years in between having my first infant and my last one being old enough to be a good outdoor companion.  I have been trying to straddle the difference by just taking my kids with me out to all the outdoor things, but birding is just not one of those things that is easy to do with a toddler.  I want to get better at it before I get older, so that when I am a grandmother, I will already be proficient enough to not get frustrated by it.  Some activities are better in your youth, and some are better with age – birding is in the latter category.


Around Thanksgiving, I made camping reservations for the spring.  Often what happens to us is we decide to go camping, and then realize that all the dates/places we wanted are already booked for the season, because apparently the rest of Texas plans ahead.  This way we were locked in, and my friend could work around it if she wanted to go.  She had suggested before that our spontaneous camping trips didn’t work for her, because she had to plan months ahead of time.  I made the reservations, then sent back the dates/locations with an invite to this friend, and also to a couple of other friends that I would love to spend more time in the outdoors with. I sent an invite to Janey to see if I could join her birding sometime, and now I am going to look over friends to see if I could set up more concrete plans with them.

Bronzed Cowbird
Bronzed Cowbird

So, based on this thought process, I guess you could say that my goals for next year is to find some outdoorsy friends to come with me to do some of the activities that are hard to do as a family, to make plans for camping and hiking in advance so that the friends I do have that want to go can work around that, to try to get over that 200 species bird count, to find more geocaches (I have half a mind to work on the Precinct 4 Challenge and maybe work on knocking out some counties we have not gotten yet for the County Challenge).  I think we will all be doing more biking and hiking as a family this year, since the youngest kids all got new bikes.  We have a plan to do longer hikes, even an overnight one, with the kids.  We are actually going to take a birding trip to the Rio Grande Valley in the spring, maybe even hitting some of the other known migration spots as well along the way.  We want to try out more state parks, starting next week.  All of these are too many goals to get into during a casual conversation with co-workers, but I hope maybe some of you reading this will be able to join me in them.

Fiorenza Park: Eagles, Reflections, Goals, and Pipe Dreams

Every morning during the week, I turn my car east on Westpark Tollway and join all the cars heading out of Katy. There is a time, usually coming over the hill past 1093,  that I hit a slowdown of this congested spot of tollway and find myself sitting still in bumper to bumper gridlock that carries me all the way to the Beltway.  Inevitably, I will look over to my left and see the sunflowers dancing on the grassy hill that marks the beginning of Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza Park.  The flowers seem to be beckoning me to come play.

If you are watching close, like I usually am (because there is nothing else to do), you will see the hillside disappear and a lake appear.  You might see the silvery flash of fish jumping in this lake and feel the delight of this in your heart.  Your eyes might be drawn to the two small islands, and perhaps you will wonder what those birds are that are clustered in a small flock on the islands.  You might contemplate what they are working on in the space between the highway and the lake (developing a new trail that will work itself around this side of the lake).  Perhaps, if you are like me, you might find yourself wishing that instead of going to work, you were actually on your way to that park instead, to see those things up close, to stop this rat race and just slow down a bit and soak up every bit of nature that place has to offer.

fiorenza-park-3When I found myself high on vacation days and needed to make a plan to use them or lose them, I decided that I was going to take a few days here and there to just give in to that feeling and go explore this park.  After all, there was a regular monthly bird walk that was scheduled here that I have been wanting to attend since my maternity leave last year (when I first discovered this information).  I felt very left out when I would get the email blasts with the list and pictures of the birds they saw.  I was especially excited when I saw that the group (led by a Houston Audubon employee, Mary Ann) was spotting Bald Eagles out there.  I wanted to see the Bald Eagle(s) for myself.

So today was one of those days.  It was perfect weather to join a group of (primarily older) adults on a walk about the park, marveling at each species representative.  I was the only one without a special fancy camera.  Next time (next month), I am going to bring Jason’s camera with me.  We did get to see the Bald Eagle.  Sometimes there has been up to five seen, but this one seems to be a permanent resident.  This is the only shot I got of her, with my cell phone:


After the group dispersed, I took a walk around the smaller section of this park a little further south to identify a vireo that I had seen while in the park a few weeks back with my kids playing Pokemon.  I had not thought to bring my binoculars that day.  I was delighted to note that it was a species of vireo I had not seen before (Blue-Headed), and after tallying up the species of the day, noted that my birding list for actually-seen birds this year is at a total of 130 species.

I was hoping to make this a year of birding trips, but then had to put that goal aside to cater to my middle son’s sports schedule in the spring, and then abandoned it completely in the heat of the summer.  However, I am only 5 species away from observing the most birds per year that I have recorded (in the few years I have been counting).  I am still 70 away from recording 200 for the year, which is one of my hobby goals, so I might have to plot a strategy for that in the next few months.  I also had set a hobby goal of getting 4000 geocache finds before my 41st birthday, and I completed that.  We have also been discovering a lot of parks in and around our area, which was one of my goals.

I recently reflected on the goals I had of planning a backpacking trip, in order to determine how serious I was about my dreams of hiking the AT or PCT one day.  I had to really question if my ideas of backpacking were actual goals, or just pipe dreams.  I am really not a fan of pipe dreams, to tell you the truth.  My best friend Jen said something this year about how I was “extremely goal-oriented”, and I hadn’t really thought about it like that before, but when I tried that label on, I found that it fit.  It irks me when people discuss their dreams as if they are things that will never really happen, because I feel like we create our own reality.  If you want to do a thing, you should make a plan to do that thing.  Work towards it in steps in you have to, but get it done.

I wanted to go spend some days at this park and see the eagle that lives there, so I made it happen.  I wanted to be an animal behaviorist, and I made it happen.  My job has given me the confidence to create plans and the persistence to see them through.  However, I still haven’t shed that baby weight, or even looked to see what kind of supplies we have for backpacking and planned a trip.  I suppose that today, doing a thing I wanted to do, made me consider more carefully how I was going to do the other things I say I want to do.  We will see how that plays out in the coming months.

High Island: Striking a Balance

High_Isalnd_Rookery-24Over the weekend, my family and I went out to visit the Houston Audubon’s sanctuaries in High Island, a town at the far eastern end of the Bolivar Peninsula.  In the spring, migratory birds traveling from Central and South America who are crossing the Gulf of Mexico in search of their spring breeding grounds sometimes end up stopping here on their journey, hungry and tired after their six hundred mile jaunt over the Gulf, to the delight of birders.  In cases of “fallout”, in which strong northern winds and rain slow the birds down, there may be a higher number of migrants that end up in these sanctuaries in the spring months, as they need to stop here to gain strength before flying further inland.

High_Isalnd_Rookery-25In addition to these neotropic migrants in the spring that attract birders to the area in the months of March-May, there is another attraction: the Rookery at Smith Oaks.  Back in the mid-nineties, land was donated to the Houston Audubon by Exxon, including an area where a pond had been dug out to supply water to High Island residents.  There is a u-shaped island in this pond that attracted waterfowl to build their nests, and remained even more enticing to them after hunting was outlawed in the area in 1994.  By 1995, there were 50 heron nests observed on the island, 332 observed in 1997, and by 2003, 1083 nests were observed.   In the hour before sunset, more birds appear as they flock to the island to have a safe place to spend the night.  Although there are alligators near the pond who sometimes prey on the birds, the general lack of predators (including human) means that the birds can raise their young in general peace.

High_Isalnd_Rookery-23I had been wanting to visit the Rookery over the past year or two, since learning about it, because my favorite bird (the Roseate Spoonbill) nests there.  Seeing all the pictures on birding pages on Facebook was giving me the itch to check it out, an itch that was so strong that I even had to forgo spending time with my best friend during this weekend when she really wanted to get out of town and escape reality for a little bit.  I had floated the idea past her of going to this in addition to the plans she was making, but it seemed like she was not that interested, and my husband wanted to go with me when I went, and we couldn’t figure out how to make that work.  Ultimately, I needed him to come with me because he is the one with the camera, a power that he is not quite willing to hand over yet.  He is the one who took all the photos in this post (although if he had rented a more powerful lens, like we talked about ahead of time but then he forgot about), we would have even more close-up photos of the action.

High_Isalnd_Rookery-9In my mind, we were going to spend a peaceful hour strolling slowly through the Boy Scout Woods section, taking pictures of multiple species of warblers, and then spend an hour watching the action at the Rookery and getting pictures of Spoonbills caring for their young.  I was thinking about the mosquitoes, we were prepared with several types of bug repellent, but I somehow was not thinking about how the rains of last week would have brought out killer swarms of these noxious pests.  Birding reports from High Island last weekend reported that the mossies were not that bad, but we’ve had some time for them to grow since.  Instead of an hour at Boy Scout Woods, we spent maybe thirty minutes, and most of that was a little frustrating for me because I asked Jason to lead, and he decided to take us on a venture that lead us deeper into the buggy parts because he wanted to explore the park boundaries, instead of taking us to the more birdy areas of the boardwalk.  At the Rookery, we spent a little closer to the time I wanted to spend, and maybe had less mosquitoes to deal with, but I still felt rushed to get through it and missed out on birding opportunities that I wanted to have.  For instance, there was a moment where I had stopped with some other birders to focus in on the fluttering in the forest, and we identified an American Redstart together, but then there were two other birds, one of which they identified as a Red-Eyed Vireo, a bird I don’t already have checked off my list this year, but my family was way up ahead of me on the trail, wanting me to hurry up to them so that they could get to the parking lot faster.

High_Isalnd_Rookery-13This was pretty much the story of our trip to High Island this year: my wanting to stop and identify all these amazing birds I was seeing, and Jason and the two younger boys being ahead of me on the trail going “mom, come on, bugs are biting, hurry up, let’s go”.  In the end, I feel like maybe I would have been better off borrowing a camera and going with a friend, and maybe next time, that is what I will do.  I am wrestling with how I feel about this, though.  In a way, I have a hard time dealing with the guilt if I leave Jason and the kids behind to go have an experience without them, especially one of this time length (it’s a two hour drive there, so at least four hours of driving alone, plus I easily could spend hours here).  On the other hand, I am now dealing with the guilt of having exposed my children to bugs, as I can see that there are easily a handful of mosquito bites on my baby, despite us covering him with baby-safe bug lotion, and I know my middle son got quite a few bites as well.

High_Isalnd_Rookery-30On the other hand, my kids did get exposed to a really cool experience.  It is possible that my middle son does not appreciate it now, and I am not sure of the youngest really absorbed it either, but it was sublimely enriching to be standing there on the observation deck listening to all those shorebirds amassing on the island at the Rookery.  The sound was intense: hundreds if not over a thousand cormorants, snowy and great egrets, spoonbills, and a few herons all talking in their various tones to each other and to their young.  There were moments of peace in nature: walking across a bridge in a shady section of forest, watching warblers above us, marveling at mushrooms, looking through the ponds to see if we could see alligators.

Sometimes the experiences we were having led to conflicting emotions.  At Purkey’s Pond in the Boy Scout Woods, watching the various birds who were coming to gather at the water, I had sat next to an older lady who was delighting High_Isalnd_Rookery-1at the sight of a Cedar Waxwing who was joining the Gray Catbirds and a lone Lincoln Sparrow.  I had directed my middle son to sit on the bench lower down and to the right, because he didn’t have binoculars and wasn’t looking at birds, and I didn’t want him to disturb that lady.  He kept coming back up to me, though, and asking “but why can’t I sit there?”, gesturing next to the lady, despite my having already explained this to him.  This is typical behavior from him and is so frustrating, because it ended up being more disturbing to the lady that actually allowing him to sit next to her.  This is an example of his social issues we still haven’t worked out that lead to much frustration on everyone’s part.

High_Isalnd_Rookery-7I want to BE that lady when I am older, but I am not sure I am going to make it that long.  I have had this feeling for some years that I am going to get sick and pass away before my children are grown, and I can’t tell if that is just some crazy pessimism, fear, paranoia or a premonition.  It drives me, though, to still commit to having the experiences I want to have, and having them now instead of waiting.  I would rather die saying to myself “well, at least we did get to High Island” instead of wishing we had gotten there, even if it ended up not being everything I wanted it to be. I wanted to see a hundred types of birds and I only saw about twenty, but you know, if you look at e-bird reports from other birders there, the species lists range from 2-63, with most reports being between 15-25, so I think I did all right.

High_Isalnd_Rookery-3In the end, maybe it was just enough, because as we drove away, heading through Anahuac Wildlife Refuge and stopping at Smith Point, my overwhelming feeling was happiness.  We climbed to the top of the observation tower at this spot that is famous for being a good place to watch raptors in the fall, and I felt such peace up there, watching the wind blow and the waves slowly make it to shore, and I feel like this will be an image I carry with me, like my husband says he has carried with him for years since hiding and maintaining a geocache out here.  I will never forget the way the shorebirds called to each other at the Rookery, and how exciting it felt to see some of those more exotic birds that I did find, like the Baltimore Oriole and Summer Tanager.  We had a great time exploring, even finding a fun new restaurant on the way home, and overall, it was a very positive experience that I hope we can draw from and experience again another year.

pond pano

Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge

20160409_072201The sun is rising over the Katy prairie, and a slightly chilly breeze greets the couple of dozen nature enthusiasts huddled in a group at the front of the parking lot for the visitor’s center.  The group is waiting for vans to come pick them up, vans that are driven by wildlife biologists who know where to take the groups to have the best chance of seeing the Attwater’s prairie chickens.

This time of the year is exciting because it is when the prairie chickens are engaging in their ritual courtship behaviors.  From February to May, the males try to attract a mate by “booming”, which is a process in which they inflate their air sacs and then deflate them (making the sound) while doing a little dance, sometimes charging at other males.  This courtship peaks in April, which is why the NWR hosts their “BoomingNBloomin” Festival annually around this time.

We were in attendance this year, getting up early on a Saturday morning to get out there within the one-to-two hour time period that the birds are the most active.  At the booming grounds, a viewing platform is temporarily placed to allow the groups to get up 20160409_080938higher to see.  Many birders have brought their long lens to shoot the birds with, while the biologists and other “guides” have set up scopes for p20160409_080932eople to get a better view.  There are two trucks with antennas on top that are picking up signals from the radio collars that the female birds are wearing.  This helps biologists track their breeding habits to help guide decisions on how to best help these birds.

Jason tried his hand at “digiscoping” in this picture below.  Digiscoping means to combine a scope with a digital camera/phone camera to enhance the digital image.  It takes a little bit of practice to make it work best.

WeIMG_20160409_080955 did get to see about a dozen of these endangered birds in the group that could be observed from the viewing platform, and then one lone chicken later, perched on a McCartney Rosebush, that was being quite the ham as we rode back in the van to the visitor center.  He seemed to be showing off for our group.  It was quite exciting to see so many birds considering that there are only about 90 or so of the birds left in the wild.  It is one of the most endangered bird species in North America.

Just around a hundred years ago, the Attwater’s prairie chicken census was around a million birds in a habitat that ranged from Louisiana to all of coastal 20160409_072216Texas.  Their habitat shrank significantly due to land use changes, such as development and urban sprawl, conversion of fields to rice and bermuda grass productions instead of grassland, overgrazing by cattle, and invasion of non-native species of plants.  From what I read on a poster at the festival, the population then further declined as a result of the movement of fire ants into their habitat.  Fire ants eat insects that the prairie chicken’s chicks need for subsistence.

During our van tour, we saw several wire enclosures with dark netting across the top.  These were acclimation pens to house captive-bred prairie chickens in before releasing them into the wild.  Several zoos are participating in conservation efforts through breeding programs to help bring these birds back, including the Houston Zoo.  We actually had one of the keepers in the van with us, who wanted to come out and see the end outcome.  The biologists have done some experimenting to find out the ideal amount of time to house the captive bred birds in these acclimation pens to let them get used to the prairie before releasing them, and the time period that results in the lowest mortality turns out to be fourteen days.  At the refuge, they also help the birds out by growing a rotation of crops that are helpful to the birds and allowing limited cattle grazing to help the land.  They also do controlled burns to get rid of invasive plants.

The Katy Prairie

As part of the annual festival’s activities, we also participated in a bir20160409_092458d walk after viewing these birds.  We had seen some huge white tailed hawks and little Northern Bobwhites from the van as we drove back, and during the walk we also saw Lincoln’s Sparrows, Barn Swallows, Purple Martins, and Upland Sandpipers (in addition to common birds that I don’t even record, like cardinals and mockingbirds).  One interesting fact that the biologist who conducted our walk pointed out is that the Upland Sandpiper is also an endangered bird.  He pointed out that more people go to a Texans football game than there are Upland Sandpipers20160409_092244 left in the wild.  Most of the population was wiped out by hunters after the passenger pigeons were disappearing, and the species has never been able to recover.We also saw some Black Necked Stilts and Scissor Tailed Flycatchers on the drive back.  This brings our species count for the year up to 92.

The walk was not all that “birdy”, but it was really nice to be outside walking about the prairie.  Many flowers were in bloom (which probably explains the “Bloomin” part of the festival name) and one of the men in our 20160409_092235group kept pointing out the names of them as we went.  It was interesting but my mind did not keep track of the information enough to recall it now.

The middle of our walk brought us to a horseshoe lake, and it was very peaceful out there.  The breeze was gentle and it was quiet.  I sat for a bit inside the bird blind, watching coots and grebes out on the water.  For a short time, I visited with my friend Allison that I know from geocaching, who was also at the festival and participating in the same timeline of activities as we were.  I got her phone number in hopes that we can plan an activity together, now that I know she also enjoys things like this.

20160409_094935Sebastian mostly slept in the stroller during this part, although he had been active earlier in the trip (practicing walking up and down the observation platform incline, and mooing at the cows in the nearby fields with me).  He woke up when the walk ended, as we reached the open bay of a maintenance building where the Friends of Attwater Prairie Chickens group had information displays and fund raising sales set up, as well as free refreshments.  We enjoyed talking to some older men that were a part of the group, after asking them about how to get to the Texas-Monthly famous Austin’s BBQ joint in Eagle Lake.

We stopped there on the way home and got enough BBQ for lunch and to have for dinner, and also found a geocache on the way home.  It was a very enjoyable morning out at the preserve, located about a 45 minute drive west of Katy.

Normally, the van tours to see the prairie chickens run once a month, and people can do a car tour route to look themselves.  The best time to view the chickens is around sunrise or in the hour after, like we did on our trip out there.  I would recommend planning to stay for a half-day and taking a walk out there as well, or planning trip around the festival, which is usually the second weekend in April.

Here is more information on the National Wildlife Refuge: