Mother’s Day on the Katy Prairie

KP_Moms_day-7 For my Mother’s Day present this year, my husband gave me what most mothers probably secretly want (especially mothers of three boys):  solitude, peace and quiet, a break from the housework, and a chance to just be myself, by myself.

I had found an opportunity to participate in a nature workshop at one of the sites belonging to the Katy Prairie Conservancy, not normally open to the public (the Indiangrass Preserve).  The workshop was called the Wild West Tour: Photographing Wildflowers and Breeding Birds, and it was led by Glenn Olsen, a Master Naturalist.  Glenn has over twenty years experience identifying plants and birds, and he shared this knowledge with the group of a dozen or so nature enthusiasts who gathered at the preserve’s headquarters early this Sunday morning.
First we walked along the path to the large pond at the end of the path near the office, and Glenn pointed out all the different types of flowers that were blooming along the path’s edge.  I am not usually the one who gets to to operate my husband’s fancy camera, but since we had decided that we 1) didn’t want to fork over $50 per person for both of us to come, and opted to just pay one registration fee and 2) it would have defeated the purpose and taken away from the experience to have to trek the younger kids out with us, and 3) we are too cheap to hire a babysitter, that it made sense for me to just bring his Nikon.  I can’t exactly go to a photography workshop without a camera, but we procrastinated so long on making the decision that this was going to be my gift that we never made the time for him to give me a lesson on how to work the camera to get the shots I wanted.  At first I was a little frustrated, but I kind of figured it out after a little while of fooling around.  I got some shots I wanted (including the ones here in this post, and some more I didn’t post), but I also missed a lot of shots due to poor technique.
After we saw all the different types of the flowers along the path, we wandered behind the buildings to check out the nests of the barn swallows that were flitting about.  We saw the marks on leaves where monarch butterflies had been feeding on a “toothache” tree, and learned about which plants are best to encourage butterflies and bees.  Glenn pointed out which species were native, and which were invasive, and explained which type of butterfly or insect fed on several varieties as we made our way through the workshop.  His knowledge was also pretty extensive regarding the range of common bird species.
About halfway through our time, we divided up into three groups and got into cars to do a driving tour of the Katy Prairie.  We stopped at a couple of places along the roads, getting out to get shots of various plants that Glenn elaborated on.
Eventually we made our way to another KPC site, which I think was part of the Nelson Farm section.  Here, we saw more wildlife, including big bullfrogs that hopped vigorously into the big lake, huge snakes that slithered into the water out of our site, and more birds.  We got some pictures of the pair of Eastern Kingbirds that flitted about.   There was a Lesser Yellow Legs that kept flying by that I did not get a picture of, and then we were treated to the rare sighting of a Hudsonian’s Godwit that I also was not able to catch with a camera (but did catch with my binoculars).  In the distance, White Faced Ibis flew over the prairie in flocks, settling in the marshes together.  We saw pelicans, cormorants, coots, meadowlarks, herons and egrets, as well as the ubiquous Red Winged Blackbirds.
On the way back, there was a nice shot of a Crested Caracara perching on a fencepost, but the people in my car missed the best angle because Glenn had moved his car to allow his passengers to get the shot.  One of the guys in my car was mad about this the whole rest of the workshop, and I assured him that if he drove around these back roads long enough, he would find another to get a picture of.  Sure enough, on the way home, I had a clear shot of another, who had gotten mixed into a flock of vultures feeding off some cow feet that were mysteriously dumped in front of a pasture gate.
I learned a lot about photography and about nature on this expedition, but I also learned I have a lot left out there to learn about.  I also had a great time just being myself (not “Mom”), being completely absorbed in an experience, and spending some time embracing the outdoors.  I am going to look for more experiences like this in the future, both guided and unguided.


Here are some of my other photos from today (not all, believe it or not):
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Hundred Acre Woods

“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”
A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

20160220_150149This past weekend, we did go to others, specifically our friend Misti and her son Forest to explore, like Winnie The Pooh and his friends, the Hundred Acre Woods.

Ours, however, is a real place, made up of grass and trees and little dirt trails that beckon one to come explore them.  All the side trails eventually lead back to the blacktop of the Cypresswood Hike and Bike Trail system, which runs a possible additional nine miles.

The trails were developed with bikers in mind, rather than hikers (especially those with babes on their back), and there were i20160220_145553nteresting obstacles and challenges.

Up, down, around and back again…this is how our hike felt to the legs and  to my spirit.  Despite the new development of this little section of property that lies just west of the Cypress Creek YMCA since the donation of the land from the Houston Endowment to the Precinct 4 Parks Department in 2013, some of it was ground I traveled in my former life.

Before Jason and I were together, I didn’t live that far from here.  Sometimes I would come explore out here with my dogs, trail “running” or just exploring.  I recognized the section of creek crossing where large blocks of concrete, like graffiti covered tombstones, jut out of the culvert.  There was a familiar pipeline crossing Cypress 20160220_143018Creek at another point, a point on a landscape I remember, but the trail seemed like an unfamiliar new friend.  It was bittersweet in a way to remember that other time in my life, reflect on the way life had changed since then, and yet marvel at the improvements.

Although the Precinct 4 website states that this preserve contains two miles of trails, we ended up walking almost three and a half miles.  The extra steps might have been from the walk from the backside of the YMCA, though I could see later that there was closer parking.  The YMCA soccer field was a nice spot to let the boys explore their walking legs, though – despite the fact that they seemed20160220_155549 more interested in the parking lot and the wire rope fence.  These two boys (about seven months apart in age) hopefully have more nature exploring to do together in the future, as they both have parents who enjoy the outdoors.  This park is a great place to come back to sometime to do just that.

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.

W.G. Jones: Sweetleaf Nature Trail

20151212_095430We’ve had quite a few walks in the woods this year, but all seemed to have a sub-text to them. We’re walking in the woods with a group from Hike It Baby, or like the weekend before, with a Meet Up group composed of people with similar interests. We were there to walk, but also to make or deepen existing friendships. Walking was something we did as we talked. I had this idea that perhaps I wanted to get back to the roots of what drew me to the woods: a time of introspection, a time for mutual wonder, a time for quietness and reconnecting with the physical world around us, the spiritual world within us, and the emotional world between us.

So it was that my husband and I found ourselves alone with the baby on this fall day in the woods to do exactly that.  We had left the older boys with grandparents to go shopping, and we were escaping.  However, there were qualities about the morning that were less than ideal.  The weather had been nice all week and now had turned overcast and threatened to rain.  So also had our emotions, and truthfully we had gotten on each other’s nerves so much that by the time we got to the hiking location, I wasn’t really sure I was in the mood to go hiking with him (and it was probably mutual).

I had decided that we had spent enough time exploring W.G. Jones State Forest on the south side of 1488, and that I wanted to explore the north side, the side that claims the Sweetleaf Nature Trail.  Here are some tips about this trail that we learned the hard way: 1) it is not really stroller friendly, so if you are bringing a baby, you best bring that baby in a carrier and 2) you really need to call the office and make reservations to park in the area, and make sure you have the combination for the lock for the gate that allows access to this area.  It is probably best to call in advance of the weekend, since the office that would give you the combination is not open on the weekends.  We found this out the hard way, and if we didn’t have a vehicle with four wheel drive (and a man who knows how to use it creatively), we would probably still be there.  No, not really, we probably would have called a friend to come pick us up and recover the vehicle later, but it was a close call.  I really had no idea when we followed a troop of cub scouts into the parking area that they were going to lock us in when they left.

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In a way, I wished the cub scouts had never been there, but their leaders probably planned this in advance and had called to make the proper arrangements, unlike us. If the Scouts hadn’t opened the gate, though, we would have parked on the south side and walked over, creating a much longer but in some ways safer walk. At any rate, there had been two troops of them, plus leaders and various cling-ons, so whole hordes of slow-moving and loud-talking people were on the trail with us. It wasn’t the best way to enjoy peace in the forest, although some of the children made me smile in their cuteness. At one point, we had to hold off on crossing that suspension bridge in the pictures because the scouts were crossing it instead, so we pulled off to the side of the trail and held this impromptu photo session that resulted in some favorite pictures.
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We had two missions for the morning, which kept us engaged in a mutual task. We were looking for geocaches (the initial common interest that drew us together to begin with), and also half-heartedly searching for the endangered red cockaded woodpeckers that are supposed to live in the forest. We didn’t talk much, but had to help each other get the BOB stroller up and down and around various roots and inclines. There was one point when we reached a different section of trail, one composed more of tall pines with wide open trails versus the knobby knees of the cypress down by the creek section, where we spread out from each other a bit more, as we needed each other’s help less. A storm was approaching, and the tops of the pines were swaying in the wind. I felt the excitement in the air, and considered what the woodpeckers did when the rains came, and if they were clinging to the branches or safe in little holes. I thought about my husband, who sometimes in the night seems to me like a solid oak, the kind that stands for years unswerving in face of the storm, and how he had said recently that he felt like this year and all its challenges had brought us closer, and yet sometimes I felt, further apart. Like this day, where I knew as I watched the wind that he was also watching and enjoying the same scene, even though he was a few hundred feet ahead of me, and perhaps he even thought like I did that it brought back memories of some forest we had discovered on one of our road trips.
The rain started right as we reached the car, and the mosquitoes started in just a little before that. We reached safety barely, out of the storm, and back to some level of peace. I appreciated that he was willing to get up early with me and drive an hour and a half to spend the time with me here, and then drive back, stopping to try a fun mid-eastern restaurant on the way home without grumbling, and by the time we were home, we were in a much better mood.  And this, my friends, is part of the reason why the forest draws me on the weekends, even when it is hard to get to, even when I don’t always feel like it on the way, even when it is hard; because in the end, the reward always make it worth the struggle.   Although, I think I would have been just a teensy bit happier with the trip if we had actually seen one of those elusive little black and white woodpeckers.