8 December 2018

We finally made it to Texas after 3 ½ months on the road!

After a cool evening, we started the morning at Palmetto Island State Park (Louisiana).  The darkening sky foretold the forecast for rain, and rain it did – if not ‘cats and dogs’ then buckets full.  The rain on our ‘tin tent’ van was very loud.  By the time we left our campground at 8:00 a.m., we had endured almost an inch of rain.  We decided to forego cooking in the rain and made haste to the nearby community of Abbeville, LA to find a restaurant for breakfast.  Maybe going out to breakfast is a “west coast thing” because we haven’t found many places open for breakfast in the south, unless you are in a large city.  We googled restaurants in Abbeville (sizeable town closest to our campground) and found two non-fast food restaurants that served breakfast.  We went to the first one and found it had closed permanently.  So we stopped at the second place – Park Restaurant.  This turned out to be a popular place.  We got a table, got served coffee, and then we waited, and waited, and waited to have someone take our order.  One waitress kept ignoring us.  Finally, the woman who served us coffee took our order.  Southern hospitality?  Not so much.  Maybe if you are another southern regular, but they knew we weren’t locals.  They are lucky I’m not the type of person to leave on-line reviews, otherwise the number of stars would descend.

This is our campsite. Notice the pooled water near the trees. It was dry the night before.

We then proceeded to make our way to Texas via the back-roads.  This required we take a short ferry ride out of Cameron, Louisiana.  We were waiting for the car ferry when I realized that a place I wanted to bird was about a half mile behind us.  So we managed to get turned around and went to the Cameron Pier to bird.  We had to pay $5.00 for the pleasure of parking in the driving wind and rain and using a nasty looking restroom.  We also birded, of course – there were two nice viewing platforms, each with a roof shelter.  We were surprised to find on the beach, by my estimation, over 1,500 Laughing Gulls, 200 Black Skimmers, 50 or more American Avocets, and smaller numbers of terns, other gulls, and other shorebirds.  It was an amazing sight to see as the birds braced themselves against the wind.  We had a bird’s eye view so to speak as the bathrooms were part of one of the elevated viewing platforms (they don’t want their toilets washing away during a hurricane).

Scrub habitat on the way out to the pier. I was hoping to see a Nelson’s Sparrow here. No luck.

Cameron breakwater jetty

On the beach were thousands of gulls, mostly Laughing Gulls. Guess it was too windy to fly.

Jack carrying the spotting scope – this was the elevated viewing platform/restroom building. Nice for observing the birds.

Parking lot campground. No one here when we first arrived, but then a camper from Idaho showed up before we left.

Jack on the trail to one of the viewing observation platforms

View from that platform. There were several brave souls fishing from the breakwater, but access was not easy.

Now we are waiting for the ferry.  The cost to cross is $1.00.  It probably took longer to load the vehicles than to cross to the other side.

On the ferry and arriving to the opposite shore

As you can see not the best of days

After birding, we stopped to get lunch knowing it might be late by the time we got to our campground – Sea Rim State Park in Texas, which turned out to be true.  We didn’t pull up to the campground until 4:35 and we didn’t have reservations yet.  Luckily the park staff person was taking busy with a telephone reservation or she would have left at closing – 4:30 pm.  So, we sneaked in just under the wire.

In Texas you have to pay a day-use fee in addition to a campground fee.  Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, (why not make it part of the camping fee?), but whatever.  There are a number of state parks we want to visit in the lower Rio Grande Valley that don’t have campground, but charge a per person day use fee.   Hot tip: Buy the Texas Park Annual Pass ($70.00 per year), which allows everyone in a vehicle free day use and if you stay two nights at the same campground you get the second night for half-price.  Right now (2018) the second night discount may only be applied twice in a year.  Starting in January 2019, the second night discount will be for unlimited times.  So if you spend any amount of time in Texas (a big state with lots of great birding spots) the pass is great.  I think on our last trip we saved over $100 by having the pass.

Once we arrived at Sea Rim State Park I had to go to the beach to check out the birds.  In addition to lots of gulls, I had eight different shorebirds:  Long-billed Curlew (first of year), Sanderling, Willet, Snowy Plover, American Avocet, Dunlin, Least Sandpiper, and Semipalmated Plover.  I didn’t stay long because my hands were freezing and I was losing daylight.  Ah, but what a great way to end the day – on the beach with shorebirds.

Port Arthur Texas – mostly oil and gas refineries …

… which you must pass by when you travel to Sea Rim State Park

Campsite #1 at Sea Rim State Park – a little bit of water

Boardwalk at Sea Rim State Park. This boardwalk takes you from the campground to the beach.

View of the dunes from the boardwalk

The beach here is quite nice. Not the white sand we found in Florida however.

Not sure what this came from – interesting though


9 December 2018

Well at least it wasn’t raining this morning.  However, it was cold (for southern Texas) with temperatures in the mid 40s, but with the wind chill factor it felt more like 30 degrees F.  Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.  Not much colder at our Homer, Alaska home, although they are getting snow – finally.

We had breakfast and decided to move campsites.  We wanted a spot where the picnic table was on dry land, not surrounded by water – like campsite #1.  Most campers don’t use or need their picnic tables.  We need ours.  Jack went to the park office when it opened at 8:30 am, interrupted coffee time, and got our site changed from #1 to #11.  We now have a view of the ocean from our camper van and a dry site.  Sweet!!!

Campsite #11 at Sea Rim State Park (a pull through). Higher (slightly) and drier.

Despite all the gunfire we heard when we woke up and during breakfast (tis the season to hunt waterfowl), we decided to drive the road within the nearby McFadden National Wildlife Refuge.  We did see a number of hunters –not a friendly bunch – as we checked out the area for birds.  At first it seemed pretty slow, but at the end we were surprised to find we had a total of 35 species, so not too bad.

This refuge is pretty flat


Brown-headed Cowbird

There are several lakes on the refuge. Not much waterfowl, but then people were hunting them.

Marsh Wren

Pied-billed Grebe

Osprey on the road

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

We did see where four feral hogs had been shot and left for the TV’s (turkey vultures).  Yes, I took photos.  I like to photograph dead things.  I know weird.  And later I saw something large, and black moving off in the distance.  I got my binoculars on it and at first though it might be a black bear.  They do have black bears in Texas, although rare.  Now people in Alaska have a general inkling as to the size of black bear.  So if I could mistake this animal – which turned out to be a feral hog – for a black bear, then that hog was HUGE!  That is one animal I would not want to cross paths with on any given day.  And closer to the road we saw four more live feral hogs also large in size.  They were very quick to run off, but hey hunters shoot away.  These hogs are non-native and very destructive to native habitat and wildlife.  Get rid of them I say.  I think that is one animal I “might” be able to kill.  “Might”.

Dead wild boar/feral hog

These animals are non-native and destructive to native habitat. Good riddance.

We came back to the campground and decided to walk the beach and day-use area to check out the birds.  This park has a nice wetland boardwalk but it is closed due to disrepair.  I hope they replace it.  Jack and I think all the ducks from the nearby refuge came over to the park ponds to escape the hunters.  The ponds were filled mostly with Gadwall, with a few American Wigeon, Redhead, and Lesser Scaup in the mix.  Oh, and we cannot forget the American Coot.

Snowy Egret

Great-tailed Grackle – female

Great-tailed Grackle

This Snowy Egret was at a small pool of water near the park entrance booth. Maybe looking for a frog?

Blue Crab

We saw the crab on the road where it could easily get run over so Jack picked it up and moved it closer to a pond and off the pavement

On the beach we had our usual assortment of shorebirds, gulls, and terns.  Nothing new to report from last night.  We did pick up a lot of garbage on the beach.  I picked up a lot of rope related products, and fishing line – my pet peeve.  Occasionally we would find a piece of clothing.  Did those items come off a fishing boat or from the oil rigs out in Gulf of Mexico?  We can see a few off-shore oil rigs from the park.

Beach roped off to keep vehicles off this portion of the beach. Not sure why.

This pile of fishing line was about the size of a dinner plate. Lots of plastic on the beach. Not good.

A fish, of course. Not sure what kind.

10 December 2018

We woke to beautiful sunny skies, cold temperatures (41 degrees F), and calm winds.  Hated to leave pleasant, quiet, Sea Rim State Park, but the goal today is to bird Anahauc National Wildlife Refuge and Bolivar Peninsula, with camping at Galveston Island State Park.

Sunrise from our campsite at Sea Rim State park

The Great-tailed Grackles liked to visit our campsite – hoping for food handouts

We made it to Anahauc NWR around 9:30 a.m., and proceeded to spend 4 ½ hours birding the refuge, primarily by driving the Shoveler’s Loop Road which is only 2 ½ miles.  But, there were a lot of birds to see.  In total we had 59 different species – a really, really, really great day to bird.  I think the highlights were the 300+ Black-bellied Whistling Ducks – all roosting on a narrow strip of ground in the marsh, and the American Bittern that Jack found on the side of the canal just off the road.

Boardwalk near the visitor center

Loggerhead Shrike

American Coot

Lots of canals on the refuge

Blue-winged Teal – Drake (male)

This American Bittern was walking in the open at the base of the dike road.

Seemed oblivious to our presence

Which was fine by us

Surprised by how many Pied-billed Grebes we saw (26)

Green Heron

One of the ponds

Eastern Phoebe

Small alligator

Boardwalk on Shoveler’s Pond loop road. In the past this area has always had tall Phragmites – a very, very tall grass, which made it difficult to see anything.

A watersnake perhaps?  Maybe even a Texas Indigo Watersnake?

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks – we estimated there had to be around 300 or so

Gee I wonder how they got the name “Black-bellied” Whistling Ducks. We know how they got the “Whistling” part of their name. They have a whistling call.

Jack checking out the ducks. Notice he is wearing his down jacket.

Northern Shoveler – drake (male)

Northern Shoveler – either a first year bird or a molting bird (male)

Northern Harrier – the first one we’ve ever seen on the ground. Must have caught something?

Red-tailed Hawk – in the eastern U.S. they are much lighter.  Of course this bird is a juvenile.

When we were here last (January 2017) we saw a Burrowing Owl on the refuge.  We remembered where it was spotted so we went to check the spot out.  No owl.  Darn.  I did hear a Yellow Rail, it was so teasingly close, but well hidden in the vegetation.  These birds are very hard to see or find.  And later I learned that we missed the Yellow Rail and Rice Festival in Louisiana in late October.  I guess a good time to see these elusive rails is when the rice fields are being harvested.  Some year I will go to Louisiana for this unique bird festival where you ride on a combine looking for flushed Yellow Rails.  I love rails so would really like to see this elusive bird.

Crested Caracara on a bloated dead cow

Shrubby habitat on the refuge too

Trail we took near the visitor center which leads to a viewing platform

After the refuge, we drove towards Galveston via Bolivar Peninsula.  High Island is a town on the peninsula known as a “fallout” hotspot – migrating birds stop to rest and ‘fuel up’.  High Island is situated within the primary migration corridor where migratory songbirds stop after crossing the Gulf of Mexico on their way to their breeding grounds further north.  We missed the spring migration season, but would like to come back one of these years to check out this great migration.  We did stop off at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary (17th Street Jetty) and saw quite a few shorebirds (in total), with the largest group being American Avocets.  We estimate there were at least 300 of these birds, mostly roosting.  We also had Long-billed Curlew, Willet, Least Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, Killdeer, and Black-bellied Plover.

17th Street Jetty

Mad Flats loved by shorebirds

American Avocets – we estimated about 300

Long-billed Curlew

We took the free ferry from Bolivar Peninsula to Galveston and made our way down Seawall Boulevard in Galveston.  As the name implies, the road follows the beach.  Galveston is a very heavily developed commercial tourist destination – lots of places to spend your money on items you don’t need or on a plethora of restaurants.

Bolivar lighthouse

Our ferry to Galveston

We were allowed to get our of our vehicles, but if we wanted to “feed the seagulls” we were suppose to do that at the back of the ferry

Back of the ferry. Luckily no one was feeding the gulls.

Gulls enjoying the ride

The three (gull) stooges

To me this gull looks happy. Maybe he likes riding on the ferry?

Great-tailed Grackles were on board hoping for food handouts too

We stopped at Kroger’s to stock up on food.  When we came out of the store it was twilight and the parking lot was being mobbed by grackles.  There must have been a thousand or so of these birds – great chaos, reminds one of the Alfred Hitchcock movie “The Birds”.  Car roofs were covered with birds, including ours.  And more were on the ground and flying about.  A truly amazing spectacle.  We assume there was a roosting site nearby.

The number of grackles in the Kroger parking lot were amazing

Here there are about 30 on the top of our van

We got to the campground around 6:15 p.m., and found a spot for the night.  This is the first time this trip that we’ve gotten to our campground after dark.  I don’t like doing this because you can’t see much of the campground to select the right site (I’m choosy), but the birding was just too great to give up so we couldn’t get to the campground before sundown.

Campsite #2 at Galveston Island State Park.  A nice spot with no one to our right and restrooms nearby.

11 December 2018

Another cold morning, but the sun was shining, which really helps keep the coldness away and the mental spirits high.  I didn’t have to put on my Ugg knockoff boots today.  After breakfast we drove to the park office to register for another night.  Then we went across the road to the “bay” side of the park and walked a short trail.  I think if they get high tides the trail is under water, as the trails were quite muddy.  Although we did see 19 different species, including two White-tailed Kites, I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the LeConte’s Sparrow, which is found in this area.  No luck – drats.  One of these days I will see that bird.

View of the bayside of the park from a viewing platform

White-tailed Kite near our campsite

We then drove to town so I could download a registration form.  Jack and I are going to Uganda in September 2019 to see the Shoebill and hopefully an additional 300+ birds – many of them new birds.  I REALLY want to see the Shoebill (Jack calls it the ‘ugly bird’ so Google it and you decide).  This bird has been high on my list (okay the top) of birds I want to see.  I’m thinking of staying an extra day or two to see the bird – again if we saw it and for the first time if we didn’t.  We had planned to go to Australia and New Zealand next fall, but this opportunity came along and the price was right.   We are going with Talon Tours, a bird tour company that a friend, Betty Siegel, uses a lot.  So I printed off the forms, wrote out the deposit check, and mailed the forms and check – we’re committed.

This guy was driving his golf car in downtown Galveston. He blew through a stop sign.  Luckily no cars were coming from the opposite direction.  The car was decorated for Christmas.

Afterwards we caught the Galveston-Bolivar ferry again (remember – free) and headed to Bolivar Flats beach to check out the shorebirds.  Two additional shorebirds I want to add to my ‘First of Year’ list are:  Wilson’s Plover and Piping Plover.  At the beach we did see a single Wilsons’ Plover.  Hard to mistake this bird with its light pink legs and its large bill (large relatively to the other plover bills – Snowy, Piping, and Semipalmated).  As we walked the beach we also picked up trash.  A lot of trash.  And we hardly made a dent.  Texas has an anti-litter marketing campaign “Don’t Mess With Texas”.  I don’t think it works, especially on certain beaches.  And Texas should initiate  a recycling campaign.  The parks don’t have recycling containers.  As a country, we use and dispose of too much plastic.  Remember – the key is to “reduce”, “reuse”, and then “recycle” what you don’t reuse after you’ve reduced.  Reduce packaging and waste!  Okay, end of lecture.

Habitat on the way to the beach – this property is owned by Houston Audubon

You can camp (for free) on Bolivar beach. The beach is quite wide.  We saw at least four different campers.

Wilson’s Plover -note the large bill, light pink legs

Now that is a “long” bill – Long-billed Curlew. Easy to see how it got its name.

Ring-billed Gull – I guess we know how this bird got its name too

We are thinking this was some type of “Ray”. It looked pretty dehydrated.

We’ve seen a lot of Loggerhead Shrikes on this trip

We did another short stop at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary – 17th Street Jetty.  Still a lot of shorebirds here, but the number of American Avocets was only half of what we saw yesterday.  Still fun to watch the shorebirds peck away for food in the mud.  We also saw a raccoon making its way across the mud flats.

Hard to tell from this photo but there is a lot of trash on the beach. So much for “Don’t Mess with Texas”.

Jack walking on the Jetty



Black-bellied Plover

This is a bait shop near the jetty. We counted six cats. Yikes!!! Keep your cats indoors folks. And spay or neuter them.

Great-tailed Grackle catching a ride on the ferry back to Galveston

I checked on the prices of rooms at this hotel and they were less than $150 per night. I guess Galveston in December is not the “high season”.

We returned to the campground and took a nice hot shower, where I was joined by three frogs.  They were quite small – the largest about the size of quarter (it’s entire body).  I don’t know if they liked all that steam or not.   Tomorrow we head to San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, then on to Brazos Bend State Park near Houston where we will camp for the next three nights.

12 December 2018

Overcast today, but not much wind so bearable, although sometimes no wind is a curse when you are in an area with a lot of mosquitoes, which we were when we went to the San Bernard NWR this morning.  They swarmed the van, not very inviting. This is our third visit to this refuge.  The refuge has several trails (which we didn’t take because of the mosquitoes) and an auto drive (which we did take.)  We saw a lot of raptors here today – sheer numbers, not necessarily a lot of different species.  The Red-tailed Hawks really like this area.  We observed eight of them.  We also had a Merlin, several Turkey Vultures, a Northern Harrier, two Bald Eagles, and a great find – a White-tailed Hawk.  The White-tailed Hawk is a FOY (first of year).  I expected to see this species near the lower Rio Grande Valley, so was surprised to find it here.  A pleasant surprise no less.

We spent almost three hours at the refuge, and saw a total of 39 different bird species.  At one stop – Wolfweed Wetlands, we spotted over 20 small, young alligators in the same wetland slough.  About half of them were practically resting on top of each other.  Female alligators typically lay about 20 eggs, but young alligators are heavily preyed upon (before they can become a formidable predator), so all these alligators were probably the result of more than one female.  But who knows???  Typically, only one of the 20 babies will live to be an adult.  Maybe by hanging out together they increase their chance of survival.

This main wetland is comprised of several ponds with water-control dikes.  In the past the dikes were a mowed pathway but now they are unmaintained and impassible.  Each time we’ve been here there is less and less area to walk around these ponds.  Today we could only access the observation platform.   We didn’t see many species from the viewing platform  – mostly American Coots.

Path to viewing platform

Viewing Platform

As you can see the refuge staff have mowed around the platform, but not the dike trails. There aren’t any of the typical refuge signs prohibiting entry, but with alligators in the area I’m not about to walk in the tall grass on those dikes.

And speaking of alligators…the smallest one was checking us out

Not easy to see, but there are probably 15 alligators in this small area alone

After touring the refuge we drove to a nearby Target store to get a few supplies and then headed to our campground for the next three nights – Brazos Bend State Park (near Houston).  I really like this campground and park.  I think the best sites are #122 and #106.  There aren’t many people here today, so we got a decent site (#120) – #122 is the most popular site in the campground, and was fully booked and #106 was booked our last night there so we couldn’t get either of these campground sites.

The campground will probably see more use on the weekend.  Last time we were here – 2017 – we had to stay one of three nights in an overflow area – essentially a parking lot as the campground was full for the weekend.  Maybe since it is close to Christmas there isn’t as much interest in camping.   Oh, and surprisingly, despite being close to Houston, we have only intermittent cellphone/internet coverage (our carrier is AT&T – what service).   Oh well, I guess this way we can really enjoy the park and leave the rest of what’s happening in the world behind.

13 December 2018

Boy did it ever rain last night – again (we’ve had a lot of rain on this trip).  I left a pan outside and Jack swears there was about two inches of water in the pan.  I even recorded, on my phone, the racket from the rain hitting our ‘tin tent’, although it sounds worse in person.  There were a lot of rain puddles (small lakes) in the campground and at least one picnic table was surrounded by water.  Luckily our campsite did pretty well.

Campsite #120 at Brazos Bend State Park

I birded around our campsite and it was alive with post-rain activity.  “The park was alive with the sound of bird life” (sung to Sound of Music).  I know, I know.  We had really close up views of Carolina Wrens (remember Wrens are some of my favorite birds) near our campsite.  Of course the light wasn’t that good for photos, nor my camera.  Or should I blame it on the photographer – me???

Nothing could be finer than to see a Carolina Wren in the morning…

Carolina Wren

After I got my fill of birding our campsite, we headed to Elm Lake.  We decided to walk about 0.50-0.75 miles from our campsite to the lake, rather than drive the short distance. We birded along the way and once we got to the lake we heard this “whistling” sound.  That sound came from numerous (hundreds) Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.  Now we know how they got their name – they tend to make a whistling sound when disturbed and they have black bellies.  In all I estimate there were, at least, 500 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks on the lake.  I counted one group huddled together and came up with 91.  And that was just one small part of the lake.  When they are roosting they blend in quite well and it is easy to miss many.

Lots of “Live Oaks” in this park. Beautiful trees.

You can see the water line from past floods on these trees

Another magnificent live oak

Just a little bit of flooding. Hurricane Harvey brought a lot of rain to Houston and flooding. Here too.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks

And speaking of the lake, we did the 1.7-mile loop trail around Elm Lake.  But first we stopped at a lake viewing platform (which looks out over the lake) near the day-use area.  Here we got close to the Whistling Ducks and other birds.  I asked Jack if he wanted to start walking around the lake on the left or the right.  He said left.  So off we went.  And you had to pay attention to the trail.  As a result of all the rain there were a lot of puddles and slick muddy areas.  As we got close to the beginning of to the trail (east side – it is a loop trail), I looked up to see this HUGE alligator crossing the road about 30 feet from us.  I yelped, then stepped back, got out my camera, and took some photos as the alligator advanced (lumbered) across the road.  I even took a short video.  Once he got across the road he plopped down by the trail as if daring us to come forward.  Oh good, now he is really close to where we want to start on the trail.  So we ‘bravely’ headed off in the opposite direction, with the hope the alligator would be gone by the time we got back around the lake.

Elm Lake

Viewing Platform at the day-use area (Elm Lake)

I have not intentions of “feeding” the alligators …

… including this monster

The trails were pretty wet and muddy from last night’s rain – at least on the north side of the lake

Trail around Elm Lake – west side.  We had to pass two alligators near the trail on this side of the lake.

Blue-winged Teal

I love how these turtles stretch their legs out behind them. I keep thinking “Turtle Yoga”.

Great Egret

Immature Little Blue Heron

Common Gallinule (formerly known as Common Moorhen)

Lot of Pied-billed Grebes here too (17)

This is the habitat on the opposite side of the trail from the lake – south side

This family of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks was roosting on the observation deck on the south side of the lake

I love this park as it has some really good birding.  We saw a total of 42 species today, of which only two were ducks: Black-bellied Whistling Duck and Blue-winged Teal.  We actually had a lot of songbirds – something we haven’t had in awhile having been on the coast  where you are more likely to have gulls, terns, shorebirds, and waders.  So a nice change to have mostly songbirds.  Of course, now I had to be alert to these birds’ calls and songs all over again – to jar my memory.  I keep saying “I should know that call”.  Learning and remembering bird calls is not my strong suit.

Going along the lake we did have to walk gently by three large alligators situated alongside the trail and giving us ‘the stare’.  They were not the size of the humongous one from the road, but still nerve-wracking when they raised their head and made any movement.  When we stopped by the Nature Center,  I was told alligators really don’t want to eat humans (hmm, was that an experiment?) but one had drowned a guy who was drunk and decided to go swimming in an area known to be frequented by alligators.  He did say this was the first death in Texas by an alligator in over 140 years.  Of course, that could be “known” deaths.  They may not want to eat us, but their bite can still harm us.  Thus, I’m reluctant to go too close to an alligator, especially  a mom defending her young.  I read if a gator starts to hiss, that is a sign to back off.   Personally, I like it when they go into the water before we get close to them.  And speaking of going into the water, when we walked by a bunch of American Coots they flushed (took off across the lake).  Then the water starting swirling and there was splashing.  We didn’t see what caused the commotion, but we think an alligator got agitated by the actions of the coots and slipped into the water sight unseen.  That got our attention too.  Oh, the humongous gator was gone …. yeah!

Later we walked from our campsite to the Creekfield Trail.  It was coming on dusk so there were a lot of Turkey and Black Vultures coming into roost.  Of course, whenever anyone walks by their roost trees, off they fly, circle around, and land once again.

Boardwalk and observation deck at Creekfield Lake

Turkey Vulture

Black Vulture

Mixed flock (Black and Turkey Vulture)

Turkey Vultures look to be checking something out

Despite the early rain and all the large alligators, we had great birding today.

14 December 2018

Brrrrrrrr.  Cold, cold, cold today.  The wind really makes the cold cut through you, especially without the sun – yes it is overcast, so no sunny warmth.  We drove to the day-use area at 40-Acre Lake to take the 40-Acre Lake trail (still part of the park).  We ventured out, went a short distance to a viewing platform, checked out the lake, and then quickly went back to the van to get more clothes.  I changed from my jeans into a pair of Smartwool long underwear and pile pants, another coat, and warmer gloves.  Jack added another layer under his winter coat and got his gloves.  And after walking and birding in the windy, cold weather, I was still cold despite my added layers.

Observation platform at 40-Acre Lake day-use area. We went here first then quickly retreated back to the van to put on some warmer clothes. Chilly out.

There is a connecting trail between 40-acre Lake and Elm Lake so we took that and walked around Elm Lake again.  You never know what you might see in the same area again.  Today was a “cardinal” day.  They seemed to be everywhere.  We also had a Red-shouldered Hawk that flushed from the ground and flew to a nearby tree.  When we put the scope on him we could see he was feasting on a frog – frog legs for dinner.  Despite the cold temperature it was a nice walk, in part because the alligators were apparently all in the water.  Too cold for them to be up on land I guess.  We had 41 different bird species today.  That figure would have been higher if I had counted the birds I saw and heard in the campground, including two Pileated Woodpeckers.

Trail around 40-Acre Lake on the west side

Great Blue Heron

Trail between 40-Acre Lake and Elm Lake

It truly was a Northern Cardinal day – male cardinal

Red-shouldered Hawk in a tree munching on a frog

Snowy Egret and Little Blue Heron

A precarious perch

Now how do I turn around on this railing?

It was really comical to watch this Little Blue Heron turn around on the railing

Tricolored Heron

American Bittern

All puffed up in the cold weather

Immature White Ibis

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Female Northern Cardinal with a berry in her beak

Tricolored Heron

Yes, more Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. They do like to hang out together.

Northern Cardinal

We weren’t quite sure what this came from – nutria maybe. It wasn’t on the trail going out, only on the trail coming back.

Headless Bird – Probably killed by an owl. They like the heads.

40-Acre Lake Trail – near the end

Speaking of campground.   The loop we are in has 39 sites, and only six of those sites were occupied last night.  Not a busy time at the campground right now.  That may change somewhat because today is Friday and this popular campground seems to always fill up during the weekend.  Tomorrow we leave this park.  We’re not sure where we will be staying next.  We need to decide whether to visit a state forest and hope to see a Red-cockaded Woodpecker or go to a national wildlife refuge established to protect the Attwater Prairie Chickens.  Let’s just say we have a better chance with the woodpecker, and that chance isn’t very good.  Spring is a better time for seeing either bird.

15 December 2018

Having internet is both a pain and a blessing.  It was nice not to have internet for two full days (rarely did we have a signal on our phone and Texas State Parks does not provide internet service in their parks).  However, it is also hard to plan for future birding spots and campgrounds.  We had several birding options for today: (1) bird Brazos Bend State Park again, (2) bird Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, and (3) bird W.G. Jones State Forest.  The last time we went to the Attwater National Wildlife Refuge was in 2014.  All I remember is being chased by some cows in a field.  Jack remembered watching a movie about the prairie chickens and being chased by the cows.  Neither of us remembered they have a five-mile auto route.  Jack was ready to move on and didn’t want to bird the state park again, so we chose W.G. Jones State Forest located north of Houston.  This state forest is supposed to have Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.  Well, we never found out because we only got within ¼ mile of the forest.  It had taken us almost three harried hours of freeway driving and misroutes to get almost there.  So, in disgust, we said forget it.  We wouldn’t have sufficient time for a hike and to search for the bird.  We decided to just go on to Somerville State Park (Birch Creek Unit) near Austin – our campground for the night – and call it good.  The campground was at least another two hours away.

Why so disgusted?  Have I mentioned I hate Google Maps?  Or at least the woman’s voice giving directions.  I also hate the fact they give you several routes to chose from, you chose the one you want, then they try to direct you to the “faster” route.  If I had wanted the another “faster” route I would have chosen it in the first place.  And you have to quickly opt out on your phone from “going the faster route” in order to stay on the original route you chose.  And I understand you can’t turn off this feature off.  I think I might switch to the “Maps” app that comes with the phone and forget Google Maps.  Another thing I hate/dislike is that I cannot prevent the app from putting me onto toll roads.  Have you ever been to Houston and the surrounding area?  Every major road is a toll road.  And on some road sections and exits you can’t access unless you have their pass.  Well we don’t.  Google maps had us going on a road that only those with the toll pass could use.  So what good does that do us.  Sorry for the rant, but with technology today Google should be able to design a better map app.  I guess I need to tell them that.

So, no hiking and looking for the woodpecker.  We finally made it to our campground around 2:30 pm.  I was worried that we wouldn’t get a spot.  Ha!  Not to worry.  In our camping area alone (Old Hickory) there are only four camp sites occupied in the 42-site camping area.  Guess this campground isn’t too popular in the winter or at least on this particular Saturday in December, which is fine by me.

Jack checked in and the park staff person helping him tried to get him to take a puppy off her hands.  Probably good I didn’t go into the park office.  I probably would have snatched one or two of them up.  However, we are staying in an Airbnb rental for six days (December 20-26) in Donna Texas, and they don’t allow pets.  The woman told Jack that people in the area dump unwanted dogs all the time.  Now that really *&^%$# me off.  However, I won’t go off on a rant about how people treat animals.

We did walk a portion of the campground roads.  No traffic, which was nice.  We could stop and listen and watch birds without having to get off the road for vehicles.  We did see about 15 different species within the 55 minutes we were out and about.  Beautiful day here.  Sunny, little wind, and temperatures in the low 60s.  Tonight will be cool, but that’s okay with us.   We have an electrical hookup campsite so I can plug-in our small heater to take the chill off – especially nice in the morning.

Campsite #82 at Somerville Lake State Park (Birch Creek Unit)

Trail around the campground portion of the lake

Somerville Lake

16 December 2018

Today we walked the campground checking out the birds prior to leaving for relatives who live near Austin, Texas.

A little hard to tell but we had frost on the ground this morning

Blue Jay

This will be our first visit to Jack’s cousin’s home in Dripping Springs, Texas.  We told them we would be there sometime after two.   Jack wanted to check out the Charles Umlauf Sculpture Garden in Austin first.  He saw a reference to the sculpture park on our road atlas, but he didn’t know anything else about the garden.  He was, however, intrigued.  When we arrived, I think he was surprised to see actual “people sculptures” in the garden.  They also had some sculptures in a building, including three busts of Farrah Fawcet Majors.  He must have had a thing for her.  In all, there were over 50 of his sculptures in the garden.  In 1985, Charles and his wife gifted their home, his studio, and over hundreds of sculptures  to the City of Austin.  He born in 1911 and died in 1994.

I liked some of the sculptures, but many were depressing.

Painting on the side of a building in Austin Texas

St. Michael and Lucifer

Mother and Child


Icarius – falling into the sea as his wings are melting. That’s what happens when you don’t listen to your father and you get to close to the sun.

Angel’s Wing




We had a nice visit with Jack’s cousin and his wife.  They are world-travelers so we enjoyed their experiences.  And, always good to catch up with family.  They have a lovely home in the “Hill Country” of Texas.  We regret we couldn’t stay longer to enjoy their company and explore their twelve-acres of bird habitat, although I did see a Black-crested Titmouse (FOY – first of year bird) at their feeder.

17 December 2018

After a pleasant morning spent visiting with family over great fresh-roasted coffee (literally), we left and headed south.  Our campground for the night is Goose Island State Park near Rockport.  Rockport was hit hard by Hurricane Harvey.  It will be interesting to see how they have recovered over the past year.  The campground has a camping area along the bay, but those sites are still closed due to hurricane damage.

I was a little worried the campground would be full, but I need not have worried.  I think the campground is less than 50% occupied even with the bay camping area closed.  I suspect a lot of people are not in the camping mood so close to Christmas.

Since we left Jack’s cousin’s house late in the morning, and we had some shopping to do, today was essentially a travel day.

In Wimberly, Texas they have painted “Cowboy Boots”. This one was at a local grocery store.

Campsite #140 at Goose Island State Park

18 December 2018

Decision day.  Stay another night at Goose Island State Park or move on?  We decided to stay another day.  When Jack went to register for another night the park staff person mentioned that ten Whooping Cranes were spotted this morning by “The Big Tree”.  The “Big Tree” is a part of the park, but located about a mile away.  So off we went to see if the cranes were still there.  Sure enough.  We only saw five Whooping Cranes, but that was plenty.  There were also about seven Sandhill Cranes in the pasture with the Whoopers – perfect!

Earlier in the morning (and last night), I had heard what sounded like a lot of birds.  Late afternoon (yesterday), I looked up and saw some ducks fly over and thought nothing of it.  Ducks don’t make that kind of call.  Well I forgot the Black-bellied Whistling Duck does make a call that sounds more like a songbird.  Sure enough, this morning when I heard whistling and looked up in the sky I spotted the ducks as they flew over.  I could see their black bellies.  At the pasture with the cranes there must have been about a hundred of them.  In total, our morning excursion netted 25 different species of birds – a whooper of a morning – so to speak.

I love it – the “Become a Birder” sign at the park near a feeding station

One of two feeding stations at the park. Not much activity though.

Well there was this Yellow-rumped Warbler

Whooping Cranes

Turkey Vulture

Black Vulture guarding the area so you don’t trespass

So before leaving the “Big Tree” area we thought maybe we should check out this state record tree.  The tree is a Coastal Live Oak, and it is indeed BIG.  The tree is estimated to be over 1,000 years old.  So it has survived a lot of hurricanes, including the latest – Hurricane Harvey in 2017.  The tree is 11 feet across the trunk, 35 feet around, 44 feet tall, and 89 feet across the crown.  I must say that I am in love with the majestic live oaks of the southern U.S.  They always have leaves, as the seasons progress they are always replacing leaves.  The leaves just don’t all fall at one time (like in the fall).  Hence the term “live”.

Not the “Big Tree”, but impressive nonetheless

The “Big Tree”

This tree had an impressive number of limbs, but didn’t look alive

We decided to go to a small city park in the town of Refugio, Texas.  We visited this park in 2017 looking for the Golden-crowned Warbler.  We never did see it, although there were a lot of great birds there, including a Green Kingfisher and a Barred Owl.  We got all the way to the park, about 35 miles away from the campground, only to find it closed.  Jack asked some city street maintenance workers doing some work in the park if it would be okay to bird the park.  One said no, that it was too dangerous because of limbs on the ground and the potential that limbs could fall at any time.  When asked why the park was still closed, the maintenance worker said they were addressing dangerous trees in neighborhoods first.  Okay, that hurricane occurred over a year ago, but government has its own time table.  One of the guys Jack talked to used to live in Homer.  Small world.  He told Jack that he and his partner helped build Don Jose, a Mexican restaurant in Homer.

Crested Caracara we observed on the road to Refugio

We decided to partake of the fast food in Refugio and joined the high school students at McDonalds (yes, really) and Dairy Queen (love their Dilly bars).  We then went back to the campground and decided to bird the immediate area.  We walked over to the bayside of the park.  There is an area where fisherman can clean their fish and this is where the American White and Brown Pelicans love to hang out – free food.  In all, despite the disappointment in not birding at Refugio, we had 33 different bird species here, so not too shabby a afternoon of birding.

This trail was only maintained a short distance

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

American White Pelican

There is a elevated boardwalk behind this fencing, but it just ends. No platform.

Savannah Sparrow

May the force be with you

Although the bayside wasn’t open to “camping” you could fish during the day from the camping sites

Not my idea of camping, but it has always been full when we’ve been at the park.

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone and Laughing Gull checking something out to their right

There is a dock nearby with a fish cleaning station. Guess who was popular? Yes, the fisherman. The pelicans were waiting for handouts.

Give me some, give me some

The pelicans were both on land and on the water waiting for handouts

Size comparison between the two types of pelicans

Campground nature trail

White-winged Dove

The habitat along the trail was pretty dense, so not easy to see birds

More of Texas to come.  Until then keep birding…

It’s A Great Day to Bird