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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I love all things Texas, including the native Texas plants and wildlife.
Slowly I have removed the invasive plants from our yard and replaced them with Texas natives. It takes time to see the rewards of the change. But this fall the native plants are in bloom at just the right time for the migrating butterflies, birds, and moths to feed from as they pass through.
On a warm, breezy day in October I decided to document just a few of the things I saw feeding on the plants in the yard. Trying to catch a good photo of a butterfly is slow work, but worth the effort. It is easy to get lost in the vibrance of life while watching these tiny creatures flutter from one flower to the next, then be cast away by the breeze. Joining in the mix of butterflies are all sorts of moths, bees, dragonflies and other insects.
The native plants are the foundation for creating a space that attracts wildlife. They feed the insects, and the insects attract the birds, lizards, toads, and mammals. Different plants attract different insects. For example milkweed attracts monarch butterflies- the state insect. Monarchs have been in serious decline in part because of a drastic loss of milkweed along its migration routs as it follows the eternal summer from Mexico to Canada.
The scarlet salvia attracts the cloudless sulphur butterflies, although they enjoy other flowers too. Lantana attacks all sorts of pollinators as it blooms in late summer and fall. The hardy lantana is easy to maintain in yards and gardens of central Texas. The bees seem to prefer the Plateau Golden-eye that came up on its own in the very back part of the yard.
The well timed blooming of the native plants help fuel the migrating insects on their journey south. Habitat loss is something all species, other than humans, are feeling. Food can often be scares for these tiny travelers. Especially in times of drought. I invite you to find out more about what native plants would work best in your yard so you can aid them as they pass through.
I’m not a plant expert, but have found what works for the rocky soil of our yard through trial and error. A few plants I recommend for north Austin are: Scarlet Salvia, Mexican Bush Sage, Purple Sage, Turks Cap, Plateau Golden-eye, Lantana, Rock Rose.
Some of the flying and crawling things I observed on this day in October are:
Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly, Hummingbird Clearwing Moth, Clouded Skipper Butterfly, Gray Hairstreak Butterfly, Gulf Fritillary, Zebra Longwing, Eastern Giant Swallow Tail, Honey bee, two types of lizards and some dragonflies that I don’t know the names of.
One of the other fun thing that has occurred since we don’t put herbicides or pesticides on our lawn is that the Fireflies of have come back in droves. It makes me happy to see them twinkling a dusk from May to September.
All photos were take in my yard in October. I think I was most excited about seeing the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth. It looks like a bumble bee, but is closer in size to a hummingbird, but has clear wings like a dragonfly. Very cool species.
During the summer of 1977 most little girls were asking for a new Malibu Barbie for their birthdays. I liked Barbie too, but what I really wanted was a living, breathing pony. Not just any pony either. I wanted Squaw.
Squaw was a Pony of America with a nasty reputation for being willful, stubborn, a little too fearless, an escape artist, and full of boundless energy. In short, she was just like me. At the young age of 6 years old, I didn’t see her traits as bad or nasty, I only saw a beautiful pony that wasn’t afraid or too conditioned to try new things. I saw a friend.
Most parents living in suburban America at the time would not have succumbed to the pleadings of a 6 year old to get a pony for their birthday, but mine did. My mother had a horse growing up in rural east Texas and it was something she wanted to pass along to me. Like millions of people of her age in the 1970’s, she and my father were only one or two generations off the farm and still held tightly to some of the ideas of rural life.
We lived in Austin, TX that was also at the crossroads between rural and urban life. This short moment in time was the perfect mix for my pony and me to explore our world together. Our adventures took us far and wide as we road through the rugged woods of Westlake Hills before it was developed. Many times my mother would hike with through the Wild Basis Nature Preserve (which was not yet established) and at the end of the hike I was allowed to gallop all the way back to the barn which was miles away. I can still feel the thrill of charging through the woods, leaping over creeks, darting under trees and scrambling up the steep limestone slopes.
Riding on the trails was often the reward for making it through tedious lessons and shows. Riding in general became a common bribe for my parents to get me to do my homework or snap me out of one of my more stubborn moments.
Our times in the woods are some of the best memories of my life. Often, I would pretend I was a Comanche warrior and search the ground below for wildlife tracks. I even made a bow and arrows to sling on my back to complete the look. Like a good warrior’s pony, Squaw would even swim with me. I would glide along in the water hanging on to her mane, then drift onto her back just before she launched out of the river or pond.
My friends still tease me about how I could spring off a hay bail, fly across the back of Squaw, land just at her withers, and then go charging off with just a halter and a lead rope. Sometimes, during the charge I would fall off. Squaw would patiently wait for me to get back up and if she determined that I was okay, and if she was done with our games, she would prance off to the barn. Other times she would let me catch her and we would continue on.
On one occasion, I decided it would be fun to show her off to our neighbors. I rang the doorbell, waited for the door to open, then rode my pony straight into the their house. Thankfully our neighbors had a wonderful sense of humor and simply led us back out to the yard. They still enjoy telling that story when we meet from time to time.
Squaw was masterful in the show ring, but it was our time together in nature that meant the most to me. From age 6 to 17 she was my companion for exploration. When I was with her I had nothing to fear and our only boundaries were the limits of my imagination. She taught me what it was to care for another living being. And I came to understand what it meant to have a silent conversation through simply observing animal behavior and patterns.
My senior year of high school I finally out grew her and decided to sell her to our veterinarian who wanted to use her as a lesson pony. About a year later he sent me a letter to let me know he was retiring her early because she simply would not let anyone else ride her. I had to laugh. The man that sold her to my parents told them, “I’ll make you a really good deal. Jennifer is the only one that can ride that little demon.” She lived to be 30 years old and even in her twilight years she dominated the hayrack from the bigger horses.
I’m lucky to still have horses in my life today. I went through a long period with a giant hole in my heart that could only be filled with a connection with a horse. I finally found good matches in a feisty mustang and a laid back Arabian cross. I share my love of horses and nature today by trying to encourage others to ride. When possible I take my niece out on my big grey mare to walk in the fields and forests.
I know that soon the area I ride in will be developed just like the hills of my childhood. I might not be able to do a flying leap onto my horses now, but I am able to explore the woods and quietly observe nature from the unique vantage point of a horse’s back.
A 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
My husband loves technology. I love wildlife (and so does he.) So what better way to bring those two things together than a wildlife camera. Last winter I set up the camera and slowly began defining the best place to observe the wildlife that lives in the woods behind our home in Austin, TX.
This summer the drought returned with a vengeance and the creek behind our house dried up in July. In August I started, on occasion, setting out buckets of water just beyond the fence. The result was fascinating.
I started to not only see animals that I have not seen before, but I started to see some frequent visitors. These frequent visitors are full of personality. Perhaps the most vivacious is a no-tail raccoon that I have named, Bubbles, and her sidekick, Rocky.
They are not the only characters in this documentary. There is Bucky the buck, Foxy the fox, Mitzy the mouse, Peter the possum, Armand the armadillo, Coco the coyote, Kitty the feral cat, Henny the hen and Skeeter the squirrel. Each reveals a little bit more about themselves each time they pass in front of the camera.
Bubbles and Rocky sometimes spend hours just playing in and around the water bucket. Bubbles is clearly older and in addition to her missing tail she also has tattered ears, but she seems as nimble as the younger guy. She even snatched a moth out of the air for a meal, and it’s all caught on camera just before dawn.
Skeeter the squirrel is an obsessive little thing. Every morning at first light he scampers around sniffing the area, seeing who passed by in the night. And Mitzy the mouse seems to always be a few steps ahead of Kitty the feral cat. However, Kitty looks like she is ready to destroy just about anything that slithers, hops, crawls or flies.
When Henny the hen arrived one day out of the blue, it took less than 24 hours for Coco the coyote to pass on through. Coco looks thin and secretly I’m routing for her to catch up with Kitty. Foxy the fox looks a little healthier. But whether they are predator or prey they all look thirsty.
At first I watered them with rainwater captured in our rain barrels. But then I noticed that had mosquito larva in it so I switched over to watering my plants with that water and setting out fresh water for the wildlife. I only water my yard on the scheduled days the city sets forth in effort to save as much water as possible.
It is a comfort to me to know the wild things that I share this forest with are healthy. I gladly share in the resources that I can acquire during these drought conditions. Some might say that is altering the natural balance of their life. To be honest, that ship has long sailed. The forest we share has been impacted and altered for hundreds of years now and even more so since 1958 when this house was built next to the creek.
Invasive plants have further altered the landscape. They line the creek beds, sucking away the life-giving waters and shading out the native plants. The loss of native vegetation means lack of nutritious food sources for wildlife. The invasive plants also alter the soil, which impacts the grubs, bugs, frogs and bacteria.
But I digress. I’m happy just knowing that the woods are full of creatures both large and small. And I delight in the fact that I can silently observe them with my wildlife camera.
Wildlife observed to date: Raccoon, fox, mouse, skunk, possum, armadillo, coyote, deer, squirrel, anoles lizard, Texas spiny lizard, gulf coast toad, Med. house gecko, tree rat, hognose snake
Birds: Screech owl, great horned owl, common night hawk, chimney swift, blue jay, common grackle, white wing and morning dove, Carolina chickadee, Carolina wren, house sparrow, house finch, lessor gold finch, northern cardinal, northern mocking bird, Baltimore oriel, curved bill thrasher, blue grey gnatcatcher, red bellied wood pecker, turkey and black vultures, coopers hawk, red shoulder hawk, Tennessee warbler, cedar waxwing, Mississippi kite, tufted titmouse, European sterling, great blue heron, painted bunting, ruby throated and black chinned humming birds, ladder backed woodpecker
Other: Feral cats, chickens
When we moved into our house the yard was filled with non-native plants, grass and some amazing trees. None of the plants bloomed and few offered any resources for wildlife. Over the past year and ½ I have systematically removed all the invasive and non-native plants (accept the grass.) This summer I decided to start replacing the plants with native plants that bloom and offer a food source to birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. It hasn’t been easy! Removing invasive plants is a lot of work. More often than not they come back unless they are sprayed and I don’t like to use herbicide. So I have to hack at them several times or totally remove their roots. But it’s totally worth it- I love Texas and I only want Texas plants in my yard!
This summer I ordered 1 ton of limestone and 2 yards of pea gravel to complete my flowerbeds. This afternoon I completed the second flowerbed. It has lots of native plants that will grow into the space, a place for me to coil up my water hose (finally!) and I installed a birdbath with a drip.
The birdbath with a drip is key to attracting birds in the front yard. It sits on a rock pile that I built to cover an old tree stump. The layered rocks provide places for toad and lizards to live- which in turn cuts down on insects.
I also have started mowing the large lawn in sections to the fireflies have habitat. They love longer, moist grasses and plants. The results of that experiment have been amazing. We have tons of fireflies every night. Oh- and another thing I did for the fireflies was eliminate all outdoor lighting. The outdoor lights now only come on when someone passes by instead of always flooding the property.
In May I certified our yard as a Wildlife Habitat and Bird Habitat with National Wildlife Federation. The certification means that our yard has the following elements:
Water– we have 2 birdbaths and now a drip, plus a wet weather creek.
Food– we have large trees that produce acorns, pecans, and seeds, plus we now have a variety of native plants that provide nectar and seeds. We have bird feeders with seed and hummingbird feeders.
Shelter– we have large trees, log pile and rock piles.
Chemicals– we don’t use any chemicals on the lawn.
I purchase all my plants at Barton Creek Nursery – locally owned and locally grown.
The birdbath and other bird feeders come from Wild Birds Unlimited– also locally owned.
We also added gutters and rain barrels this spring to capture the water to use on the yard and plants. They’ve been a big help this year.
It gives me a thrill to look at the photos from the wildlife camera we have set up just outside the fence behind out house. I love seeing the types of wildlife we share this small space with, what time they are active, and even knowing the temperature. On some days I can remember what I was doing, or how the dogs reacted to something.
For example on this last reel of photos a random chicken shows up, then five days later a coyote enters the frame. The coyote looks thin and thirsty which is not surprising since we are now in the driest July on record. We had a very wet spring, but July has been dry and hot. The coyote also might have been attracted to the feral cats that frequently cruise through. (I secretly hope the coyote eats the cats since they are not a native species to North America. And they kill millions of birds each year.)
I made a short slideshow with the images from the camera as it was fixed in one location from April to mid-July. Activity speeds up as the summer gets drier and I toss a watermelon on the ground. A very industry raccoon snacks on the watermelon for almost 4 hours one morning.
In this very small space of about 8 square feet that the camera is able to record images, there are approx. 10 species of animals and birds that pass through. Many are frequent visitors.
Thank you to William Orbit for the music in the video.
On occasion I make it to the gym to swim or work out if the weather is nasty, but I prefer to exercise outside. Last week I ventured to the Gold’s Gym at prime-time after work to try to shake off a long day with a few laps in the pool.
After my swim I decided to sit in the dry sauna to warm up and dry off. My eyes where still adjusting from taking off my goggles when I opened the door to the small sauna- only to find it was packed with about 15 people. I squeezed into the top corner and could not have predicted what was about to happen.
Maybe I’m old school, but I don’t think the crazy hot sauna is really a hospitable environment for electronics. The other 15 people would not agree with that statement. Each person had a device and was listening to music, checking emails, Facebook and even taking pictures- I’ll get to that in a minute.
The woman next to me was decked out in a trash bag looking space suite that I thought they quit making in the 80’s. Her makeup was pouring off her lush, black skin and pooling on the collar of the suit and she was mouth breathing very loud. The man next to her decided a crowded sauna was absolutely the right place to do some yoga moves and grunt through each pose.
But the chick in front of me took the cake. At first she wasn’t looking at her phone, but then saw everyone else was so she pulled out her giant iPhone 6. She surfed around briefly on Facebook, then decided the sauna was a great place to capture a selfy.
She lined up her phone to get a good photo, puckered her lips, sucked in her cheeks, flipped her long blond hair around and snapped a few choice shots. I wanted to tell her to take her hat off so didn’t get such a shadow over her eyes, but I let it slide. She seemed so pleased with the way she looked in the hot sauna that I didn’t want to rain on her narcissistic parade.
Unfortunately, she didn’t check her background. If she had she would have noticed that I had moved my big old, white leg just behind her right shoulder. No one looks good in a sauna. They look even worse with a giant, middle-aged woman’s thigh photo bombing their precious selfy.
At one point she grew frustrated that her phone wasn’t able to follow her commands because her hands were too sweaty to navigated the touch screen. But, then again we were in a dry sauna so she might have expected that.
People came and went during the 10 minutes that I spent in the tiny room but there was never less than 15 people. I feel certain each one of them came pretty close to voiding the warranty on their smart phones on that day.
I love riding on the trails. Well- I love riding horses pretty much any where, any time. After the Memorial Day floods of 2015, there was a lot of debris and mud on the trails at the barn where I ride. But a few amazing women did a little trail work and now we can ride again. I also love my GoPro and learning how to edit on iMovie. So I made a little Trail Report news reel to share with the other riders.