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.


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.

Lower Calf Creek Falls

Location: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Boulder UT

Details:  moderate hike, 5-7 miles round trip, takes average of 3-4 hours for most people to complete.  Park at the Calf Creek Campground and follow the signs.  $3 use fee required.

Highlight:  you can swim in the water when you get there.  It’s cold, though!

We got to the trail head for this hike around 4 in the afternoon in the middle of the summer, which is not when I would ideally recommend starting this hike.  It was hot, over a hundred degrees, and there is very little shade along the hike.

We also brought 16 oz of water per person, plus an extra 16 oz bottle, but we probably should have/would recommend bringing more.

The trail is sandy a good bit of the way, and on the way back, we probably all did at least the first mile without shoes.  Here are the boys feeling particularly chummy on the way back:


I was busy looking at birds on the way back.  I kept seeing a kind of bird I had never seen before, and it took me a little while to see it clearly enough to identify it as the Spotted Towhee.  We also saw White Throated Swifts flying up and down the canyons, Pinyon Jays, Mountain Bluebirds, and Townsend’s Solitaire._DSC0832


I have to admit that even though this hike was my idea, I wasn’t having that much fun doing it, especially towards the end.  I am pretty sure there was some cussing going on under my breath.  My broken leg of last year plus some ongoing issues with my tendons have kept me from hiking more than short distances in the past year or so.  We haven’t hiked over five miles since February.  I think it was March when I ended up having to go back to re-start physical therapy.  I had just been cleared to start trying more difficult terrain again, and some parts of this trail were a challenge:  the sand, and some rocky areas that involved having to climb up or down or hold your balance on one leg.  Plus, it was hot.  Also, the skorts I was wearing seemed like a good idea because of their quick-drying capacity, but after I had gotten them wet and sandy, they were quite uncomfortable on the way back.  Another thing slowing me down was the fact that I was at this point coming down with that nasty cold that my son and then Jason had.  Lastly, I was concerned about time.  No one else had as good of a sense as I did about how long it was going to take to get to our next destination, and I knew this was going to put us way behind schedule. _DSC0841


People watching experiences from the trail that we still talk about:  seeing two girls running to the falls on our way back.  We were about halfway back to the parking lot from the falls, and they were coming back as we were loading up, which means they did like four miles of a run in the time it took us to go a mile or two.  Plus they had time in there to take a dip in the water.  Even more impressive was their shoewear; they were wearing barely-there sandals made up of just a strip of leather covering their soles, fastened with two ropes across the top of their feet.  We talked to them as they loaded up, remarking at how impressed we were with their speed, and they shrugged it off, saying it was just due to them being acclimated.  That’s not acclimation, that’s incredible fitness!_DSC0888
There was also a couple who showed up at the falls shortly after we did; young, fit, good looking, and in love. They took their clothes off and were swimming in their underwear, and the girl was wearing clothes skimpy enough to be a bit of a distraction for everyone. They seemed like they kept looking for a place to sneak away together, and there was a lot of public displays of affection. I wonder how my boys were processing that information. My youngest was super into the waterfall and swimming, and so I am not sure he noticed them much. My other son is a teenager, though, so I am sure he noticed that the girl was not wearing a bra underneath her wet, clingy shirt. Wouldn’t it be nice to be young again? Sometimes all we can do is miss our youth and sigh. Maybe someday she will have that same experience, and I wonder if she would be pleased or mortified to remember herself as a youthful, half-dressed waterfall beauty.
Am I glad we did it?  In the end, yes.  It was totally worth it.  Even though I didn’t have a great time doing it, I would actually do it again.  I would just prepare a little bit better – leave in the morning, pack more water, be in better health condition, and maybe not have such time pressure on my mind next time.

Brazos Bend Part II: It’s For the Birds

After staying up until midnight talking, drinking, and eating with our friends on New Year’s Eve, we headed off to our tent.  Despite the predictions of cold temperatures, it actually was not a bad night in our sleeping bags, and we felt quite rested in the morning.  I flipped us some oatmeal-banana-chocolate chip pancakes that I had found a recipe for on Pinterest while J broke down camp.  After all this, we had to drive back up to the headquarters to deal with some unresolved check in issues, and then finally we were ready for our actual goals for the day: work on finding some of the caches in the park we had not found, and record a list of bird species observed for the day.

I had decided that this year we were going to actually keep a species count of the birds we saw.  I would say that it was our Big Year, except that we have really never had a “Year” at all.  I would actually say that in fact, this is our “Baseline Year”.  From the moment we got up, I had been keeping a watch out with the binoculars, bird book in hand, checking off the ones that flitting about the campsite in my Brazos Bend birding checklist that I had downloaded and printed out before we left the house.

When we pulled up at Diane’s campsite to see if anyone else wanted to go caching with us, I still had those items in my hands.  We found Rod, and set off down the trail.  We spent two hours hiking about along the Bluestem and Bayou trails, attempting to make cache finds.  We ended up finding two out of the three we looked for, and I was able to drop off a travel bug I had been carrying for much too long.  I was interested to see how my ankle held up, since we want to do some distance hiking this year.  I was carrying a little bit of weight in my pack, but not a lot, and my ankle was a bit sore by the time we got back.  I hope this will not slow me down from hiking this year.  I probably should wear hiking boots and not sneakers when I go – it might help the stability of my ankle, although it is pain in my right heel after long walks that keeps me reaching for the sneakers and avoiding all other shoes.

brazosbend 6Our total bird species count for the day was 14.  We could have gotten a lot more if we had made it over to the lakes, since we only claimed one water bird species today.  There are 4, 987 acres in this park – there was a lot of land we did not cover.  We mostly saw birds at the campsites, and just a few different kinds along the trail.  My favorite species of the day was the Eastern Bluebird that I saw on our way to the last cache.  It was also during this sighting that I somehow lost the cover to the viewing glass of the binoculars, which J found understandably annoying.

These are the birds we saw today: Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Snowy Egret, Black and Turkey Vultures, Killdeer, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Northern Cardinal, Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Eastern Bluebird, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, and American Crow.  There were probably dozens more, but we are still novices at this birding thing.

These were, of course, the most common species seen today.  Go figure.  This only confirms my theory that we are making the world a very good place for vultures (or, if you read my previous post – maybe we can blame this on the coyotes).

BB 8 vultures