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.

 

 

Nature Near Me

I love all things Texas, including the native Texas plants and wildlife.

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Eastern Giant Swallowtail on Lantana in October

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.

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Butterfly on Mexican Bush Sage

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.

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The tiny Gray Hairstreak on Mexican Bush Sage.

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.

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Gulf Fritillary

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.

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The Hummingbird Clearwing Moth enjoying the Lantana

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.

I help biologist understand what is in the area by using iNaturalist, eBird and Texas Nature Trackers.

 

 

Fury Friends of the Forest

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.

Bubbles the tailless raccoon

Bubbles the tailless raccoon

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 sharing the bucket

Bubbles and Rocky sharing the bucket

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.

Skeeter the Squirrel getting a drink

Skeeter the Squirrel getting a drink

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.Doe in drought

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

Foxy- the Grey fox

Foxy- the Grey fox

Screech owl- Oct. 2015

Screech owl- Oct. 2015

Press Release for Texas Children in Nature

“Every Kid In A Park” Initiative Addresses Problems of Inactivity and Obesity, Promotes Health and LearningQvhzU1-3db00eef65d1469b9f002fbe66554262

AUSTIN — A new National Parks Foundation initiative announced Feb. 19 by the White House emphasizes goals shared by a growing Texas coalition of partners with chapters in major cities, the Texas Children in Nature collaborative.

The ‘Every Kid in a Park’ initiative gives fourth graders free admission to all National Parks and other national lands during the 2015-2016 school year.

“We are so excited about the new ‘Every Kid in a Park’ initiative,” says Jennifer Bristol, Coordinator for Texas Children in Nature. “In Texas this really expands the efforts that many of our partners are working on to create more access to nature for families in our rapidly growing state.”

Bristol says kids 12 years old and younger already can play for free at all Texas State Parks and many city and county parks around the state. She said studies show children and their families who spend more time in the outdoors tend to be healthier, happier and smarter.IMG_4785

With children spending up to 8 hours per day indoors, sedentary with media and only minutes per day playing in the outdoors, experts say this is a step in the right direction.

Texas Children in Nature is part of a national grassroots movement that ignited after the release of author, Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods. Louv participated in a summit held this week in Chicago to publicize the ‘Every Kid in a Park’ initiative.

“[This] announcement and new initiative may well be a turning point,” said Louv. “It will help support the people who have worked so hard, many of them for decades, to connect children to nature. It will encourage new actions by local government, education, religious organizations, the health care professions, and, crucially, by our business communities. The greatest change must happen beyond government, in the daily decisions that all of us, as individuals and members of families, take in our daily lives. Ultimately, only we can make sure that every child receives the gifts of the natural world.”

Richard Louv and experts from around the nation will be speaking on this topic this spring the Children & Nature Conference being held in Bastrop at the Hyatt Lost Pines Resort on April 7-9. The Conference and Gala are being co-hosted by the Children & Nature Network, Texas Children in Nature and Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center. The three day event will bring together leaders from the conservation, health, education, technology and built environment communities to explore ways to encourage families, schools, churches, non-profits and businesses to support getting kids off the couch and into nature.

The surprise of Nature.

The surprise of Nature.

Registration is required for the event. More information can be found by visiting the conference webpage.

“We really want to make outdoor time, family time in Texas,” says Bristol. “The announcement of the ‘Every Kid in a Park’ initiative and the Conference coming up in April are both great steps towards raising awareness that all children and families need to have access to nature to be healthier and happier.”

Multi- Generational Birding

When I was a teen ager I never woke up until my mother made the third trip into my room to give me the final warning. I would lumber out of bed, get dressed, mumble something and get in the car to either go to school or off on an outdoor adventure with my family. Thirty years later, it’s my turn to make the trip down the hall to my mother’s motel room to give her the final call to rise and shine for another day of birding for the week- long event of the Greater Texas Birding Classic.

Family Birding Team

Family Birding Team

My mother is the one that got me and my uncle hooked on birding, and she was thrilled when I married a man that loved to hike, camp and bird as much as we did. When it came time to choose team members for the week-long event of the Greater Texas Birding Classic there was no question in my mind who my first draft picks should be. Even with the handicap of not rising early, my mother is still the prime birder that adheres the rest of us together. She is the president of the Travis Audubon Society and has spent the majority of her career helping set aside land for conservation purposes. My nearly deaf uncle cannot hear the birds, but is an excellent spotter. My husband is a casual birder with a great eye for wildlife photography, excellent at navigation and a champ on adventures. Myself, I’m a fair birder with bird-dog hearing just hoping to learn what I can.   Between us we had at least one set of good eyes, one pair of good ears and one experienced birder.

Our journey took us from Austin, TX to the Rio Grande Valley, along the Texas Coast, through the rolling oaks and finally to the lost pines of Bastrop. We traveled almost 1,000 miles through rain and dust storms to make 22 individual birding stops. We did not consider the addition of the Red Tailed Hawk at the Dairy Queen in Three Rivers an independent birding stop, but it was a good spot none-the-less. At each stop my mother, Valarie Bristol, shared her vast knowledge of how that park or birding center came to be, who purchased or gave the land, what wildlife or resource it was set aside for and what birds we could hope to find there. Each story was shared with great detail and a heap of laughter. But her knowledge didn’t stop there. She also knew where most of the birds we were viewing had come from, where they were going, what plants they liked to eat and how long they would be vacationing in Texas as they migrated through. The few things she did not know, she quickly found in a book or she ask me to look at my “magic phone” to find the answers. Herron at Port Aransas

Birding is an endurance sport with long hours spent in the car traveling from one eco-region to the next to view a different yield of birds. To fill the void, my uncle read to us from the book “Why Stop: A Guide to Texas Historical Marker.” Since my husband is not a native to Texas he isn’t a hundred percent sure why we Texans are so obsessed with our state’s history. However he started to get the picture of why Texas history maters so much to our family as we bumped along HWY 281, just a stones throw away from the boarder, towards the towns of Weslaco and Ed Couch. We regaled him with the tales of our adventuresome great, great uncles that founded the towns. I have to wonder what the bird migrations must have looked like back then when the region was still mostly brush country with dappled resacas laced along the mighty river. After all, the birds that live and travel through Texas are also part of our collective history. Their migration patterns formed thousands of years before the arrival of humans and have stayed consistent despite the many adversities such as; loss of habitat, altered food sources, power lines and an increase in extreme weather.

On Padre Island we experienced a fall out with birds literally sitting on the ground too tired to move after traveling across the Gulf of Mexico. I could hardly keep up with scribbling down the names of the birds as my team members called them out. My husband danced around taking photos, while my uncle gathered information from the local birders. My mother just kept saying, “poor things, they must be starving.” It finally dawned on me, that she was telling me that she was starving since we had not stopped to eat since mid-morning. But we were there to bird, so I kept the team focused until sunset. The rest of the birders moved on, but we lingered in the fading light to watch the heron’s fish in the shallows of the Laguna Madre. The simplicity of the birds fishing was in drastic contrast to the biker rally that raged just a few blocks away. Finally we finished birding to forage for food of our own.

Crested Caracara in the thorn scrub

Crested Caracara in the thorn scrub

Our family birding journey took us through 8 separate eco-regions and 21counties to spot over 170 types of migrating and native birds. As we arrived at Goliad State Park on San Jacinto Day and got ready to settle into another round of Texas history lessons woven through our birding hike- we got a call. My cousin called to say that the newest member of the family was on the way and would we please return my uncle ASAP for the joyous event. Alas, we had to abandon the birds of Goliad for a quick trip back to Austin.

 

 

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

Let’s Talk About Hair

Elizabeth Taylor in the movie Giant.  She always had great cowgirl hair.

Elizabeth Taylor in the movie Giant. She always had great cowgirl hair.

All cowgirls know that proper hair care is very important to maintaining a true cowgirl image.  So I went to get my hair cut the other day and had a very pleasant experience, but to be honest, it was a little boring. The stylist is very nice and a little Austin edgy; her hair is always a different color each time I see her. The salon is very nice too- it’s filled with lots of yummy smelling products and potions that I feel certain will make me look younger and hotter.

But for all the niceness, it makes me long for the golden days of gossip while getting my hair cut at the Best Lil Hair House in Texas on Chestnut Street in Bastrop, TX. Those ladies might not have been as well trained or as polished as the Austin team, but they were world-class gossips. Within their halls of heavenly hair, I learned all about the news of the town that wasn’t fit to print in the town news paper- The Bastrop Advertiser.

I might not have ever gotten a deep scalp massage at the Best Lil Hair House, but I got very best Texas tall tale ear tickling in the state. From the constant chatter I learned all about who in town was broke, who was getting a divorce, who was having another baby and what new businesses where coming to town- or leaving town because of some sorted affair. All that information actually served me in some strange way in my own business. Inside the crowded paper thin walls of the renovated house, every towns person was suspect, and every story could quickly be spun into grandeur with a simple, “I’ve always wonder about them.”

Homecoming and prom where the times for the stylist to show off their creativity and it was the crossroads for gossip and prediction. Mothers and daughters predicted who would be crowned at the homecoming game and gossiped about who had been left heart broken in the wake of a dating coup.  It was worth it to schedule a quick trim to listen to the stories and see the high school girls have their hair turned into towering piles of glittering curls. When I lived in Bastrop it seemed like body and hair glitter was very popular.

Indeed, those where the good old days of hair care. With Austin growing by 110 people a day it just makes it too hard to gossip in the way that a small town can. So yes, it is nice to listen to the soft meditative sounds of pan flutes while letting the stylist lather my locks; but I would rather be straining my ears to listen to the lady next to me tell her tale of woe while her head is tipped back in the bowl.