Thursday, May 21, 2015

Texas - Part 2

Post by Henry and Loretta

Moving west through Texas Hill country, and apparently Wine country too, South Llano River State Park was next.  This park had been a 2,600 acre ranch and was donated to the state by Walter W. Buck, Jr., a man who lived and ranched on it since 1910.  He wanted his acreage to remain intact, in a natural state, and open to the public.  The park office is actually his old farmhouse.  Pretty cool! 

South Llano River State Park Office

Most of our birding frustration of the last month came to an end, as this park is a birders paradise.  They have bird blinds in four (4) locations in the park, set up with various feeders and water, and each one is a flurry of activity with birds on the ground, flying from feeder to feeder, taking a bath, pretty much everywhere!  I called it the Bird Channel.   We saw so much it was incredible - Indigo and Painted Buntings, Summer Tanagers, Vermillion Flycatchers, Golden Fronted and Ladder Backed Woodpeckers, various Sparrows and Vireos.

The Spectacular Painted Bunting

Vermillion Flycatcher
Spotted Towhee
Black Throated Sparrow
Yellow Breasted Chat

Again though, two birds eluded us that are supposed to be seen in this area - the Golden Cheeked Warbler and the Black Capped Vireo.  We heard the Black Capped Vireo in several locations, but he sure wouldn’t show his little butt!

The park has quite an extensive system of trails leading into the backcountry, some rising high above the park with 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside.  One of our hikes along the South Llano River lead us to discover a porcupine in a tree!  He was not too happy with Loretta taking photos and slowly, very sloth-like, moved higher into the tree.

Porcupine in Tree

On a day trip to Junction, TX we spotted a group of Philanthropes at the water treatment facility.  This was another new bird to us.


Heading further west the landscape becomes mostly flat.  On the horizon, close to 100 road miles out, we could see our next destination rising above the flatness, The Davis Mountains State Park. These mountains rise to an elevation of 5000-6000 feet and are the only mountain range totally contained within the state of Texas.  The 40 mile drive from the interstate to Davis Mountain State Park was incredibly beautiful with ooohs and ahhs around every bend as we gained elevation.

Wildflowers Going Toward Davis Mountains

This park was built by the CCC in the 1930’s and evidence of their work is everywhere and especially in the lodge nestled at the end of the park road.

The Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains

CCC Work at Davis Mountains

This park also has 2 bird blinds set up similar to the last park where we again saw a number of new life list birds.

Ladder-Backed Woodpecker

Again, though, another bird said to be seen here, the Montezuma Quail eluded us.  We also finally saw a Road Runner (speedipus-rex) chasing after some lunch and I discovered they don’t actually go “beep-beep’.


A couple of evenings we were able to catch a view of a pair of Elf Owls that had built a nest in a power pole in our campground.

The park is also home to black bears, mountain lions, and javelinas.  We didn’t see any of these, but talked to a couple that said if you went outside after midnight, you could see javelinas running up and down the dry creek bed.

We did, however, have a Black Chinned Hummingbird nesting in the tree just outside our front door!  We spent hours watching her.  She was sitting on eggs, and unfortunately, they did not hatch while we were there.

Black Chinned Hummingbird Nesting

There are very nice hiking trails here, all rising to outstanding vistas.  We hiked the Indian Lodge Trail that rose high above the park and ended behind the lodge, where we topped off the hike with a meal at the Black Bear Restaurant in celebration of my birthday.

Black Bear Restaurant at the Lodge

There’s a road in the park called Skyline Drive that takes you to more mountaintop views and several CCC built structures. This was a good area to go to get a cell signal.  In the campground there is no cell service, but as soon as you get to the top of a mountain, it’s blazing fast LTE.

One day we went on a loop road nearby billed as a scenic drive.  This turned into a 50+ mile ride that did not disappoint as the mountainous views seemed to get better and better with each mile!

Road Leading through Davis Mountains

Also nearby to the park is the McDonald Observatory, where we took a brief tour.  Several nights a week they have a Star Party.  This area is said to have one of the darkest skies in the country, being so far from the bright lights of a big city.

About 4 miles from the park is the small town of Ft. Davis, which is the highest city in Texas at a little less than 5,000 feet in elevation. In town is Fort Davis, which is a National Historic Park and an interesting place to visit. 

We’ve been told we picked a good year to visit this area, as normally it would be very dry and brown.  Last year they had a very wet winter and it’s quite green, with an exceptional wildflower display this spring, as a result.

Wildflower Display

Over all the beauty of the Davis Mountains caught us by surprise.  We really enjoyed this area and plan to someday return.

As far as Texas goes, the trip went from an original idea of ‘getting through it as quickly as possible’ to a four (4) week adventure of outstanding state parks.   Yippe Yi YAY!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Texas - Part 1

Post by Henry and Loretta

You’ve probably heard it before and it’s a fact, Texas is one BIG state.  Originally, our thoughts were to get through Texas as quickly as possible to New Mexico.  Then we started hearing how nice the Texas State Parks are and decided to give them a shot. The campground fees are all pretty reasonable, but then there is an added daily entrance fee per person per day that can add up in a hurry, so we bought a $70 Texas State Parks Pass.  The pass eliminates the daily entrance fees and is good for a year.  In just a week the pass can pay for itself and in our four (4) weeks here, it paid for itself many times over.

Village Creek State Park, located in Lumberton, just North of Beaumont, was our first stop.  This was a last minute decision to stay here.  We had made reservations at Sea Rim State Park on the Gulf Coast, and an hour before we would have arrived there, I checked a voice mail I had received earlier in the day.  Seems they had a water main break at Sea Rim and they would be working on repairs, but were not expected to have water service until the middle of the following week.  Rather than deal with that, we opted for Village Creek.  We only stayed there for three (3) nights and it pretty much rained the whole time.  Mostly, we had the place to ourselves, so it was pretty quiet.  The campground and the park are very woodsy with a few hiking trails. 

Nearby was the Big Thicket Preserve, which we spent part of a day exploring.  They had a very nice Visitor Center 

Big Thicket Visitor Center

where we learned there were a couple of trails to see the carnivorous Pitcher and Sun Dew plants.

Carnivorous Pitcher Plants
Flowering Pitcher Plant
Carnivorous Sundew Plant

On the above Sundew Plant, notice the tiny droplets of a sticky substance that attracts and traps tiny insects. Look closely and you will see an insect on the left yellowish petal that has been trapped.  The Sun Dew is only about one (1) inch wide and about two (2) inches tall.  Fascinating!

As we traveled through Texas, wildflowers were exploding with color all along the highways and byways.  Every shade of yellow, purple, and orange lined the highway and looked like a flower garden that had been lovingly attended to.

Roadside Flowers

We learned that the winter of 2014 had more precipitation than normal and what is usually brown was now green and lush, even in the desert.  Such natural splendor!

After Village Creek, we went to McKinney Falls State Park just outside of Austin.  We took the ‘back way’ to avoid driving through Houston.  About half way we stopped in the town of Brenham, Texas where Loretta made me take the factory tour at the Blue Bell Ice Cream factory.  It was rather boring, but the payoff was some ice cream at the end of the tour which was quite yummy!

Once we arrived at McKinney Falls, we were able to pick out what is probably our best campsite so far in our journey.

Our Campsite at McKinney Falls

The campground is very nice and spread out with very large campsites.  There are two (2) main loops and I don’t think there is a bad site in the place.  The first morning there, a couple of Black Bellied Whistling Ducks flew in and landed briefly on an old tree stump in our campsite!  We took this as an omen that this was going to be a great place to stay. 

There are hiking trails, lots of history and ruins, and the water falls of Onion Creek here in the park.

Onion Creek Falls

A couple of years ago, the park and nearby community suffered serious damage when a storm flooded the creek and it crested at over forty (40) feet!  The Visitor Center is still closed due to structural damage from the flood.

McKinney Falls Visitor Center
Closed Due to Flood in 2013

Austin is the capital of Texas and it is a big city.

Downtown Austin

And McKinney Falls is the perfect base camp for exploring Austin and the surrounding area.  We were able to stock up on supplies at some favorites like Trader Joe's and Costco and discovered Central Market, which was a very cool, upscale grocery store. We actually got some good deals there.

We spent some time on South Congress which is a happening place with an assortment of eateries and shops. Loretta’s daughter, Lori, bought her a gift card to one of the nicer restaurants for her birthday and a fine meal was enjoyed,

Greek Salad in Background and
Manicotti Florentine

topped off with Tiramisu plus a Tiramisu to go (for breakfast the next morning).

One day we hung out with the locals and listened to some live music and watched several couples doing the Texas Swing at Guero's Taco Bar.  It has a nice outdoor setting underneath oak trees.

Music at Guero's Taco Bar

That same day, along with at least 500 other people, we watched the Mexican Free Tailed Bats exit from under the South Congress bridge, which they say is the largest urban bat exodus in North America.

Daily Gathering to Watch Mexican Free Tailed Bats
Exit from under Congress Bridge

Another day we drove out to Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge.

Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge

They have a bird blind just outside of the Visitor Center, so we strolled back there to see if we could spot any birds.  A concrete sidewalk, lined with a rock wall on each side, leads you to a three sided, concrete structure with large windows to look out of.

Henry Strolling to Bird Blind

Loretta casually made a photo of this sign beside the rock wall leading to the blind:


We were excited to almost immediately see a Lesser Goldfinch, a new bird for us.  We had been in the blind for about ten minutes when I spotted this about twenty feet from us, blocking our way out of the blind:

Guess They Were Serious!

Looking through our binoculars we verified it was a Diamond Back Rattlesnake!

Yep!  It's a Diamondback!

He was about three to four feet long and was not planning to move, blocking our only exit.  After tossing a few small stones toward him, which were not fazing him at all, I tossed a broom that was in the bird blind toward him.  That caught his attention and after checking out the broom, he finally slithered off over the stone wall.

Finally Slithering Away

Needless to say, we made a quick exit.  An exciting beginning to a mostly frustrating day trying to get a view of the Golden Cheeked Warbler or the Black Capped Vireo.  Those are two elusive birds, let me tell you!

On our last day we went to Muleshoe Bend Park to see the fields of Texas Blue Bonnets, which was absolutely breathtaking!  

To be continued.