Camping at Meridian State Park

It’s hard to say what I like most about camping. Exploring a new place. Walking peacefully down a wooded trail. Sitting around the campfire with my husband and dogs. All are pieces of the whole.

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Hiking buddies

Just being in nature is perhaps the best part. While our home is our own natural oasis, it is still surrounded by one of the fastest growing cities in America. The more the city grinds forward, urbanizing the fields, woods, creeks and hills that I knew as a child- the more I crave my nature fixes.

Our latest camping adventure takes us to Meridian State Park. The park was established in 1934 and is a great display of Civilian Conservation Corps craftsmanship. The old pavilion over looks the 70-acre, limestone rimmed lake.

There are several short walking trails, including an easy 2.5-mile trail that circles the lake. The lake trail meanders through cedar breaks, limestone bluffs and hardwood groves along Bee Creek. On this visit the trees are filled with hundreds of Robins, Cedar Waxwings, Yellow- Rumped Warblers and other small birds. The bird’s chirps and songs, mix with the wind in the trees to bring music to the day.

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Casino taking a break while we read the map.

The park has only a few campsites and screened shelters, so it area isn’t crowded with people. On the trail we met an enthusiastic millennial man who declared Meridian was his favorite park. When I asked him why, he responded, “cause its peaceful.” He smiled and looked up at the trees towering overhead as he thoughtfully replied.

We took a little afternoon trip into town to see the historic courthouse and slipped into a little antique shop. The woman there knew all about the Sweet Heart Dance that the park was set to host that evening. She explained in her thick Texas accent that dances had been a tradition at the park, but they had not had one in a long while. The restoration of a tradition seemed to please her.

Back at the campsite, we lounged with our pack of four dogs. We named our RV- Camp Lazy Paws- and the name certainly fits the activity of the afternoon. It is unseasonably warm at 86 degrees in February. But there is a soft breeze, and plenty of shade under our giant awning and young live oak trees.

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Courthouse at Meridian

The park is beautiful today. But I can see how it would be a total oasis in the hot summer with the cool lake and shaded campsites. Motored boats are not allowed on the lake, but the park does rent kayaks to get out on the water. The park store also has a tackle loaner program for those that want to fish. There’s even a fishing pier that looks pretty new and was filled with people when we stopped by on our morning walk.

After sunset we wandered down to the Sweetheart Dance at the Refectory. A large group of people gathered on the veranda to listen to the band and dance under the full moon. Kids ran past with flashlights while older folks shared stories of the dances of their youth.

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Dancering at dusk

Back at the campsite we enjoyed an hour laughing and reflecting on what an amazing day we had enjoyed. We finally decided to turn in when nature gave us one last gift. A screech owl bid us goodnight.

 

 

Holiday Weekend Glamping

IMG_1577A snapshot of Americana Camping. We are currently at Bonito Hollow RV and Camp Ground outside Ruidoso, NM. The weather is perfect, partly cloudy, cool and the air is filled with various scents of BBQ, smoke and pine.

Our neighbors in campsite 10 are about 8 to 10 feet from us with their RV angled just right so that it blocks our view of the majority of their activity. However, we can see that they are setting up a small village between their 2 campsites. They have a full outdoor kitchen including items such as; crockpot, BBQ grill, fan, carpet, flattop griddle, 2 pop-up-tents, chairs, and several coolers. Did I mention the full spice rack / shelving unit that houses a family size bottle of Log Cabin syrup and over 400 paper plates? I’m sure the wildlife in the area has already alerted to their location and are plotting an evening ransack.

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Our little campsite

Their tribe is very colorful. Some of the women are sporting red and blue hair for the 4th of July holiday. And I can see a parade of colorful footwear appear as I peep through the space under their trailer as they pop in and out of their portable home.

Across the dirt driveway is another couple who is also setting up a small village. They have far less people they are setting up for, but seem to have an equal amount of gear. They’re campsite is a bit more color coordinated with a variety of green and yellow sundries. The wife just popped out of their fifth-wheel to inspect her husband’s work, and she even has a green flyswatter. They are now putting out humming bird feeders in the Pinion Pine.

A family of four just drove past with a pop-up trailer heading for one of the campsites down the hill. Each truck that passes is filled to the brim with chairs, grills, bikes, and other household items to make camping seem just like home.

On the other side of us the father of the family of six camping in a little tent city just popped open his first beer of the day at 3:15 pm and announced his valiant action to the rest of his tribe. Yesterday, their kids where playing with a projectile toy, and it landed on the top of our RV.IMG_1608

In about an hour all 60 plus campsites should be filled with campers, each seeking an outdoor moment on a holiday weekend. With every campsite full, it feels like a makeshift town that has sprung up in a matter of hours rather than an outdoor experience. But we humans are social animals and this is just part of being an American human.

A gentle rain just started, but we are sheltered under our 19 foot awning. Thomas is in is lawn chair and the dogs are all hunkered down around us. We took them for a 4 mile hike this morning and they are in full lazy paws mode. This is also our 14th day of camping so the dogs are seasoned campsite dogs. Casino wishes he had the lady’s flyswatter from campsite 22.

The sound of pounding tent stakes now echoes through the campsite as the tent campers deploy their rain flies.

But the winner of the Great American Campout in Bonito Hollow is up the hill at site number 50 something. The giant fifth-wheel is decorated with red, white and blue bunting, sparking lights, lawn chairs for ever member of their extended family, grills, lanterns, and windsocks. A true patriot decked out in the colors of our flag.IMG_1654

In a frenzy to keep up with the other campers, we deployed all of our outdoor wares.  We set out our matching reclining lawn chairs on our large matt, strung the retro RV Christmas lights, and erected our folding table. In a moment of feeling totally outdone by our neighbors, we considered bringing out the standalone ice maker. Then we realized even that was no match for the level of gear the other families brought.

A woman just walked past in high heels carrying a pink clutch purse. Anything goes here at Bonito Hollow, just as anything goes here in the U.S. of A.

 

 

 

Birding By The Numbers

In it to win it with the trifecta.  The 2016 teams that I was on came in 1st place for the Big Sit with the TPWD staff- Tweeting Chats, 2nd Place Week Long Tournament, 3rd Place for the Texas-2-Stop.

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In for the win.

There is a lot more than just birds to count while  competing in the Week Long Tournament of the Great Texas Bird Classic. This year my husband, mother and myself set off on our fourth journey to identify as many species of birds as possible in 6 days from April 15-20. On the quest for the most birds, we racked up some other impressive numbers as well.

Our adventure took us from Austin, TX to the edge of the state in the Rio Grande Valley, and back through the rugged hill country. This year we added a second GTBC category to part of the 6-day trip called the,Texas-2-Stop, so my uncle and his friend could join us for 2 days of birding shenanigans. We also birded one day for the Travis Audubon Bird-a-thon to raise money for bird conservation and education in Travis, Co.

We traveled in the Ford f-150 a total of 1,227 miles with the vehicle running for 35 hours and we used 65.5 gallons of gas. The truck is good for comfort, but doesn’t get the best gas mileage. With gas costing an average of $2 per gallon, we spend about $131 on fuel.

We walked about 32.5 miles to identify 240 species (including 2 that are endangered) of birds across 26 counties of the state. While walking, my husband acquired 10 mosquito bites, and I racked up 3 ticks. We also spotted 5 feral hogs, 2 snakes, tons of turtles, 5 rabbits, 3 white tailed deer, 2 dolphins and a handful of lizards.

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The Scott Free Family Birders at the Hawk Watch Tower

We stopped at 3 National Wildlife Refuges, 7 State Parks, 4 waste water treatment plants, 10 city parks, 2 nature centers and 1 Audubon Center. At each stop we met so many nice people who also shared our passion for birding. We even ran into 3 other teams participating or preparing for their GTBC day

Surprisingly, we did not stop at a single Dairy Queen this year. However, we did stop at 7 local eating establishments and only 1 chain restaurant. We also took our own food for the first few days and enjoyed 3 picnics along the way.

We stayed in 4 motels, including a brand- spanking -new La Quinta that had only been open for 2 days when we arrived in McAllen, TX. Only one of the lodges had an onsite bar, which we were happy to find after spending over 14 hours in and out of the car birding from Mission, to San Antonio, by way of Laredo.

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Last day, just spotted the endangered Golden Cheeked Warbler

For the most part we avoided the severe weather that plagued the rest of the state. Some areas, like Houston, received 17 inches of rain in under 48 hours. Because we were down stream of much of the flooding we could see the effects as we crossed 7 of the state’s major rivers and 2 lagoons. Most parts of the Rio Grande Valley remained desperately dry.

All-in-all the Scott Free Family Birders had one hell -of- a -time enjoying the journey around this great state.

Counties Visited: Travis, Bastrop Fayette, Lavaca, Victoria, Refugio, Arkansas, San Patricio, Nueces, Kleberg, Kennedy, Willacy, Zapata, Webb, Dimmit, Maverick, Zavala, Frio, Atascosa, Bexar, Comal, Hays, Blanco, Burnet.

National Wildlife Refuges: Laguna Atascosa, Lower Rio Grande Valley, Aransas

State Parks: Bastrop, Buescher, Goose Island, Falcon Lake, Llano Estero, Rio Bentsen, Pedernales Falls

Local Parks or Land Trusts: Lady Bird Lake- Austin, Webberville Park- Travis Co., Laguna Gloria- Austin, Red Bud Island- Austin, Mueller neighborhood park- Austin, Charlie’s Pasture- Port Aransas, Paradise Pond- Port Aransas, Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center- Port Aransas, Port Aransas City Park, Lockport City Park, South Padre Island Birding Center, South Padre Island Convention Center, Sheep’s Head Valley Land Trust- SPI, Roma Bluffs City Park, Salineño, San Ygnacio Bird Sanctuary & Riverfront

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A little magnolia mud on the last day at Magnolia Cafe

Restaurants: Magnolia Café- Austin, Shells- Port Aransas, Texas Café- Rio Grande City, Los Comales- Lockport, Sea Ranch Bar and Grill- South Padre Island, P. F. Changs- McAllen

Lodging: Days Inn- Port Aransas, La Quinta- McAllen, Inn on Padre Island, Holiday Inn Express- San Antonio

 

 

 

I Like Lists

Looking into Mexico from Texas.

Looking into Mexico from Texas.

What can I say? I like lists. I like lists so much that I take a vacation every spring with my family to make lists of the birds we see. But even before we step foot out the door or pack a bag, I make lists of where we will go, what we might see and how long it will take to drive there.

Birding is about observation, tracking and cataloging as much as it is about getting into nature. The Greater Texas Birding Classic gives my husband, mother and myself a reason to make a crazy run around the state to count as many birds as we can see in 6 days.

This year we are planning on increasing our reach by heading out to Big Bend National Park to start our listing of birds. Big Bend is known for a few types of birds that can only be found in the strange and wonderful ecosystems of the park. From there we will journey to the Rio Grande Valley, up the coast, then inland to our home in Austin.

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List From Smith Point

In the past we have witnessed around 250-275 species of birds per trip. Texas has amazing birding and the spring migration is where its at if you are an avid birder. The migratory birds journey up from Central and South America on their way to points north and Texas is smack dab in the middle of three major flyways.

The other benefit of this mad dash around Texas is it takes me to places I’ve never seen and would never normally travel to unless I was looking for birds. Last year we touched the very tip of Texas at Boca Chico at the mouth of the Rio Grande River and the Gulf of Mexico. This year I’m hoping to visit 3 state parks I’ve never been to before so I can get a little closer to having visited all 92 state parks in Texas.

Sable Palms Birding Center south of the boarder fence between Texas and Mexico.

Sable Palms Birding Center south of the boarder fence between Texas and Mexico.

The other thing I like about our journey is it blends together my love of Texas history, sociology, travel and nature.  We get to see so many great historical sites and some wonderful snapshots into the human activities of small town life, the oil boom of south Texas, campers at parks, and other birders who are on their own quest.

I make a lot of lists in my life. Most are for work, some are for daily life tasks, but the ones I make of the birds are purely for me and purely for fun. Well, I guess they aren’t all for me, I load them into eBird to be a citizen scientist to do my part to help better understand the bird populations and migrations. Stay tuned of for updates from the road on The Atomic Cowgirl Facebook page.

Adding to the list on the Texas Coast.

Adding to the list on the Texas Coast.

 

 

A Day in the Woods With My Friends

I’m lucky to live in a place that is close to where I can keep my horses and still have some open lands to ride them on.  This video is a short chronicle of a day doing some trail work with my dogs before having a nice ride with friends.  Most of the footage is shot from the backs of Chief, the dog with the pointy ears or Casino, the one with the floppy ears, or from the back of my big grey mare- Breeze.  Ranger, the dun mustang, didn’t make the ride today- but he got lots of attention, which is what he loves the most.  The rest of Austin, TX is knee deep in SXSW- but I would much rather be in the woods with the real wildlife, and my friends.

Glaciers, Wolverines and Me

At the top of the world.

At the top of the world.

At 7,000 feet, it’s hard to say what burned more, my legs or my lungs. But my eyes and mind were rewarded with the vistas of majestic snow dusted peaks, big horn sheep, mountain goats and the turquois pools of glacier fed lakes. At the end of the 3.8 mile journey up the side of the mountain lies Grinnell, Salamander and Gem Glaciers. For most of the hike Salamander and Gem Glaciers can be seen and add to the drama of the peaks. However, Grinnell Glacier now rests in a bowl or hanging garden that can only be seen by hiking to the very end of the steep, rocky trail.

Grinnell Glacier 1938-2006

Grinnell Glacier 1938-2006

The first time I hiked to this amazing place was in 1981 when I was 10 years old. I sat on the glacier and shivered in my thin cotton t-shirt and jeans. At that time you could still hike out on the glacier and it was about 20% larger than what it is today. As the human population continues to expand, so does our impact on all aspects of the natural world; glaciers are part of that. Between 1966 and 2006, Grinnell Glacier has shrank 40% from what it was in the 1850’s when it was first discovered and measured by George Bird Grinnell. When G.B. Grinnell first recorded it, the glacier covered about 710 acres and now it covered only 220 acres. As I crested the hill to see my old friend, I could see the remarkable diminished difference in the size and shape of the glacier.

I had hiked this trail once again in 2004, but turned back after seeing a wolverine. I didn’t know it then, but seeing this amazing creature is something only a few people have ever had the privilege of seeing. Wolverines are elusive and well camouflaged against the rocks of the valley and do most of their hunting in the evening. I know now that the valley where Grinnell Glacier resides is one of the most important habitats for the remaining 500 or so wolverines that live in the lower 48 states.

Big Horn Sheep grazing next to the trail.

Big Horn Sheep grazing next to the trail.

Like many of the animals and fish that live in and around Glacier National Park, the wolverines are dependent on cold, snowy winters with a slow, gradual thawing in the spring. When things thaw too quickly, the water rushes away from the snow fields instead of slowly soaking into the ground to allow for the plants to be healthy and bloom when they should. It is a delicate balance in the land of the mighty glaciers and one that we can all do something to prevent when we take the time to reduce our personal carbon footprint.

Hiking down is harder on me as I get older, and is something I have to put my entire focus into. On this day I really wanted to catch the 4:15 pm boat that shaves off an additional 2 mile hike back to the Many Glacier Hotel. But as I rounded the corner of the red rocks at about mile 2 coming down from the glacier, I could see the boat arriving at the dock and knew I would have to hustle to even make the 5:15 pm boat.

Bear and her cubs in Many Glacier Valley

Bear and her cubs in Many Glacier Valley

Sitting on the hard wood benches of the Morning Eagle tour boat that was built in 1930-something feels wonderful after hiking 8 miles straight up and down. I sat among 35 other people, and I was proud to be one of only a few that had made the full hike. Then, as if the valley wanted to give me one last reward for my efforts, I spotted a black bear and her cubs playing on the slopes above the lake. I hope I will return to the valley again and again for the rest of my life. But I have to acknowledge that at our current rate of global climate change, the glacier will be gone in my lifetime and so then will the delicate balance of all the wildlife it supports. I hope we can change that and will work to do all I can.

Here are some ways you can reduce you’re carbon foot print that contributes to climate change:

  1. Drive less. Try working from home at least once a week and plan errands carefully.
  2. Turn off lights and electronics when you are not using them at home and at work.
  3. Plant more native plants and trees in your yard, at church or your school.
  4. Use less plastic made products.
  5. Turn your AC up to 80 when you are not at home. (Or even when you are at home.)
  6. Hang up your clothes to dry instead of using the dryer when you can.

Remember- it all adds up and does make a difference. The glaciers, wolverines, bears, fish, big horn sheep and moose all need us.

For more information about wolverines read:  The Wolverine Way, by Douglas Chadwick  

For more information about glaciers read: The Melting World, by Christopher White