Saturday, December 30, 2006

Ann and I Go Birding At Brazos Bend State Park

My friend Ann has been taking care of her ailing father for nearly a year now. He’s been in and out of the hospital recently, and with him in hospital just now I called and asked if she wanted to go to Brazos Bend State Park, our favorite place. I knew she needed a break, and I also knew she wouldn’t say no.

Brazos Bend State Park is just outside the Needville city limits along FM 762. Within its 5000 acre area it contains several unique ecological habitats. We go there to walk the trails and look at the wildlife. We go at different times of the year because the landscape and the wildlife constantly change.

And we go to watch birds.

Neither of us is an expert on this by any means. Ann is better at recalling the names than I am. When we go on the guided bird watching tours, we always learn a lot, and some of it sticks. Yesterday all we had was Ann’s Field Guide to Birds of North America, but we were finally able to figure out what those "real little birds" were: Gnatcatchers. Ann found it: Blue-grey Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) They are so active it’s hard to follow them with your binoculars. They must eat a lot of gnats to have that kind of energy. Either that or they use their energy efficiently. Ann pointed out that hummingbirds are 47% efficient in their energy intake to expenditure.

One thing we didn’t expect to see because they’re northern birds, is the American Robin (Turdus migratorius) but we found a whole flock of them. Then we discovered that their wintering range is in this general area and south, so there you go. An American Robin, you know, isn’t really a robin, it’s a thrush, but early colonists noticed the bird's red breast and likened it to the English Red Robin. So the name stuck.

What else did we see? One Great Blue Heron standing as stiff as a statue. White and Black Ibises (Ibi?), a couple of Cardinals, both female, something that looks like a sandpiper (it has a black ring around its neck) but we couldn’t figure it out, and coots, coots, coots. Coots breed in the fall. We saw several coot families. Their young have brown mottled feathering that probably serves as protective coloration. Mature coots are black.

In the early spring, the park is lush and green and the lakes are covered with algae and lily pads, in winter it looks stark by contrast. In early spring you can see nutria scampering around in the grassy plains. By late spring they have nearly all become alligator dinners. Alligators can be seen sunning themselves across the trails and lurking in the lakes in the spring and summer. In winter, they’re all but gone. Ann actually spooked one 4 year old that was lying on the bank of 40 Acre Lake.
Just one.

Alligators don’t hibernate per se. They dig holes in banks and lie in them, slow down their metabolism, but don’t sleep. Obviously. This 4 year old was out and about.

How do you tell how old an alligator is? Estimate the length from snout tip to eyes (usually the only part you can see). The number of inches is the number of years old the gator is.

It rained lightly off and on all morning but that only made the visit better because you see different things and different things happen. Where and when else do you see a black ibis sitting on a dead tree with its wings outstretched letting the wind dry them?

After we made the circuit around 40 Acre Lake I wanted to drive over to Elm Lake to see what it looked like in winter. Again, the greenery and algae was very much reduced. There is a big picnic area on the northern shore of the lake, and I noticed some by god brand new picnic tables and concrete pads had been recently installed. It doesn’t jive with all the news about Texas’s state park system being underfunded. Hopefully that’ll change in the next legislative session. My guess is the new facilities are the result of donations which Brazos Bend State Park gets a lot of. That and a great volunteer program.

We took a last look around then made the trip back to Ann’s house. The place was in utter chaos. The hospital had called and said that they were discharging Ann’s dad a day early. Beds needed to be taken apart and arrangements made.

Ann’s reality came crashing down on her.

I was glad she had the morning of escape and indulgence in something that she really likes to do. Ann is the best person I know. She's saving her dad's life.

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