Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

DAYS 133-140 Brazos Bend State Park, Texas

2 Comments

February 8-15, 2013

I recently heard on NPR that one in five Americans identify themselves as birders (Could that be?). Houston is only 45 miles from Brazos Bend State Park and has 5 million people. This means that over a million locals might be interested in visiting this state park at any time. And, indeed, a lot of them were there when we arrived late Friday afternoon; the campground was full. Fortunately, the park had an overflow parking/camping area where we, and several other last minute arrivals, stayed until regular campsites became available on Sunday.

Brazos Bend has plenty of birds but it is especially known for its alligators. The following morning I hiked to the closest lake, where gators can sometimes be seen. It was cloudy but mild and humid. Walking slowly with my camera, I inspected the swampy water on both sides of the trail. Aquatic plants obscured some of the water’s surface, creating ideal haunts for gators. I strolled surprisingly close to ibises, herons and egrets. The most numerous waterfowl were coots and moorhens. Occasional pied-billed grebes and blue-winged teals floated by.

Down the trail I saw four women acting strangely, stopping and starting, walking back and forth, talking to each other. Oh, I thought to myself, I bet there’s a gator there and they don’t know what to do. Finally they proceeded toward me and when we passed, they gave me the warning: alligator ahead!

Just beyond a tree, I saw a suspicious log-like shape. This medium-sized alligator lounged on the grass, completely still. The trail was less than 10’ from the gator, not allowing the 30’ wide berth that the park advises. I understood the women’s hesitation and felt the special unease of being close to a potentially dangerous wild animal. I then spotted a second gator nearby at water’s edge, submerged with only its head above water. In truly wild situations without so many people, alligators will flee when approached by humans. These gators were so accustomed to seeing trail traffic that they were not perturbed by those passing by.

While Lake Texana had little alligator protocol, Brazos Bend had extensive guidelines on how to be safe around gators. There are about 300 adult alligators here; I don’’t know how many juveniles. Although there are several lakes in this park, no swimming or boating is allowed, for the protection of both people and wildlife.

We spent six nights here, deciding day by day whether to continue. On the second day, while sitting at the picnic table, a chill wind blew suddenly and in seconds the temperature dropped 10 degrees. I heard a neighboring camper exclaim, “Hey someone just turned on the AC!” Soon a storm arrived and we had chilly, on-and-off wet weather for several days. During periods when the rain let up, I went for walks exploring different trails and bodies of water. Usually, I would see numerous birds and sometimes alligators. I also frequently sighted turtles, from small to quite large. All were red-eared sliders, the same species of turtle that are common pets for children. Chris and I both recalled having captive turtles in the clear plastic kidney-shaped pool with the ramp to the tiny island and plastic palm tree. Those turtles never lived long enough to reach the size I saw here.

The third evening Chris burst into the camper just as I started falling asleep.
He said excitedly, “Guess what there is here!”
“What?” I had no idea.
“My favorite insect!”
That had me stumped and I gave up guessing.
“Fireflies!”
I hadn’t realized we had crossed into firefly country. I was especially surprised to see fireflies in February since I associate them with the warm, humid days of June in the Northeast.

One evening, both Chris and I woke up in the middle of the night, hearing the loud calls of several barred owls from different directions, repeating, “Who cooks, who cooks for you?!” Earlier at dusk we’d had a coyote chorus. Other curious sounds accompanied the darkness: hoots, howls, whistles and chirps. Chris returned from a late night pee break and solemnly announced, “It’s a jungle out there.”

During a rainy spell we visited the nature center to see a film about alligators. When we walked in, they were showing newly hatched baby alligators to visitors. We were allowed to gently stroke the tiny beast held by the volunteer. Even with its dragon face, like all babies, it was cute. It eventually started chirping like a bird, calling for its protective mother, who I assumed was not nearby.

The film was quite old and reminded both Chris and I of the movies shown in elementary school on projectors that never failed to break. The clothing, hair styles, film quality, and method of narration gave away its age. We were surprised that nothing more up-to-date has been made about the always fascinating alligator. The ranger also brought out a giant gator skull, eggs, the bony plates found in their skin and a plastic reproduction of gator poop.

The most surprising behavior of alligators is the unusual relationship between mother and young. Unlike most reptiles which lay eggs and disappear, the gator mom stays near the nest and protects it. When the eggs start to hatch, she hears their chirping and uncovers the nest, helping them reach water by gently picking them up in her gaping mouth. (If she detects that an egg or baby has died, she unceremoniously eats it. Waste not, want not.) Then, most unbelievably, the babies stay near mom for one to three years and she continues to protect them. They must forage for themselves from the start, beginning with insects and then working up to larger prey.

During mating season, the alligators bellow back and forth to each other after dark. I hope we get to hear this display before we leave gator country.

On the fifth day, there was a cloudless blue sky, warm sun and gentle breeze. Chris happily exclaimed, “This is the nicest day of our trip!”  Not really – we’ve had lots of nice days – but after four days of rain, chill and wind, it sure seemed like it.

NOTE ONE: If you click on the ”WHERE WE ARE” link at the top right of this page, you will see where we are now (or within a few days of now.) I have also added some tantalizing photos of what is coming. If you have suggestions or recommendations of things to see or places to stay near where we are, please let me know! Leave a comment here or email me at brennan.carla@gmail.com.

NOTE TWO: It’s great getting your comments. And you can also “Like” or comment on photographs. So if you feel inspired to say something, please do. It encourages me and makes me feel more connected to friends, family and even strangers.

This gallery contains 56 photos

DAYS 131-133 Lake Texana, Texas

4 Comments

February 6-8, 2013

When we arrived at Lake Texana State Park we discovered it is no longer a state park but now run by a separate non-profit. This meant our Texas State Park pass (which offered significant savings every time we used it) wasn’t applicable. Since it was late, we decided to stay anyway. I asked if there were alligators in the lake. “Ah . . . . yup,” said the ranger, hesitating a bit, perhaps not wanting to scare us off. The maintenance worker nearby perked up and said, “Yeah. I saw two last week!” This was going to be our first experience with alligator infested waters! They had warning signs around the lake, cautioning against harassing or feeding the gators. We had no intention of doing either.

On our way there from Goose Island, we were waylaid for an hour or so by a torrential rain and electrical storm in Rockland, TX. We lost visibility for driving. Water ran down the windows in a solid sheet. Rainfall was so heavy that we would have gotten immediately soaked if we opened our doors to find rain gear in the back. The wind blew hard, projecting the rain into stinging, wet pellets.

We finally made a break for it into a coffee shop. Connected to the cafe was a talkative photographer and his studio; he was selling his images of Texas wildlife and local landmarks. We talked to him for quite a while and gathered information about the area and photography. He told us about The Crane House, a vacation rental nearby that abuts Aransas Wildlife Refuge. It is the best place to photograph whooping cranes since they wander through the property. You can set up your tripod outside on the deck of the house. As you might guess, reservations must be made many months in advance. Maybe we’ll try that on a future vacation.

The Texana Park was attractive with grassy expanses and spacious campsites, many along the shoreline. Chris didn’t like it, saying it looked like a manicured lawn, but I thought it was pleasant and inviting. When we opened the camper we found the rain had been driven inside and all the bedding was wet. It was no longer raining so we took everything out to dry in the blustery wind.

Here was another birder’s paradise, waterfowl circled the lake in groups. Wading birds of all kinds stood near the edge. The next day I launched my kayak with some trepidation. How safe is it to kayak with alligators? And in an inflatable boat? Boating and even swimming was allowed (at your own risk) so I figured it was okay.

At one end of the lake, dead trees and limbs reached out of the water. I thought I would go there since it looked interesting. As I approached, I saw a dark shape moving slowly through the water. Large eyes and the end of a snout were the only parts visible. But I knew it was an alligator and the soundtrack of “Jaws” sounded in my head as my heart started to pound. I stopped; it stopped. I paddled elsewhere. My first alligator!

I saw many birds. A brown pelican gave a big yawn with its oversized mouth and then stretched its strange elastic pouch toward the sky (see photos below). Two black vultures sat on the shore, watching everything with their gray crinkly heads. Great egrets, snowy egrets, great blue herons, white ibises, roseate spoonbills, glossy ibises, a white morph of a little blue heron. Terns dove in the water, cormorants swam like low riders, ducks and coots busied themselves with preening and eating. Although I took photos, a kayak being blown about by wind is not a good base.

I saw something large break the surface like a sea serpent, arching its large curved body, showing smooth, tan skin. I guessed that it was an alligator gar, a fish in these lakes that can reach ten feet. It was not an alligator, since gators are gray, with patterned skin, much of it rough with bony plates.

Among a carpet of floating plants, I saw two more alligators, motionless. At the other end of the lake across from our campsite, I kayaked into a a small cove. There was a moderate sized gator sunning itself, mostly out of water, on a log. I eyed two more milling about in the shallows nearby. Large turtles also basked in the warm light and cormorants spread and dried their wings perched on dead branches. I soon left the cove and returned, feeling uneasy but excited by meeting the big lizards of the swamp. Six alligators on my first trip!

Back at camp, I looked up the dangers of kayak-meets-alligator online. I guess I should have done that before paddling. Is it dangerous? Yes and no. When its still cool in winter and spring, they aren’t very active. It recommended not boating at dawn or dusk when alligators feed. Later in spring, when breeding starts, males can get territorial and lunge at anything that resembles another male; kayaks are a pretty good imitation. And in summer, mothers can be quite pugnacious defending their nest of eggs or little hatchlings. If alligators are fed they will approach people, sometimes aggressively, looking for food. Mostly, however, alligators don’t want much to do with people and their boats.

NOTE ONE: If you click on the ”WHERE WE ARE” link at the top right of this page, you will see where we are now (or within a few days of now.) I have also added some tantalizing photos of what is coming. If you have suggestions or recommendations of things to see or places to stay near where we are, please let me know! Leave a comment here or email me at brennan.carla@gmail.com.

NOTE TWO: It’s great getting your comments. And you can also “Like” or comment on photographs. So if you feel inspired to say something, please do. It encourages me and makes me feel more connected to friends, family and even strangers.

This gallery contains 22 photos

DAYS 125-130 Padre and Mustang Islands, Texas

2 Comments

January 31 – February 5, 2013

With the calming of the winds, we returned to the barrier islands, this time to Padre Island National Seashore. I steered us to the Bird Island Campground because it is possible to kayak there and because the name suggests good birding. It is on the bay side of the island, on the Laguna Madre, a 130 mile stretch of water between the barrier islands and the mainland. It is one of the few hypersaline bodies of water left undiluted by regular seawater. It is saltier than the Gulf of Mexico, saltier than the Great Salt Lake. It is also one of the premier wind-surfing spots in the country.

But it is a less than ideal campground, basically a parking lot of RVs, the other vehicles dwarfing our little truck and camper. There were no hook-ups which meant generators ran somewhere most of the day, spewing noise and fumes. We wished that Padre Island, like Big Bend National Park, had a no-generator section. In this day and age, generators are antiquated since solar power is easy to install. Free (once set up), quiet and clean. The good news about this campsite was we were right on the bay and I could put my kayak in easily.

During our first night, a pack of coyotes howled loud and extremely close. We looked for them but only saw darkness. They must have been just yards away. Their outburst set off a barking frenzy from all the dogs holed up in RVs. During both day and night, a loud rich honking emanated from the dunes a few hundred yards inland. Eventually, I realized we were hearing Sandhill Cranes. We watched them fly overhead and could see the flock at a distance, feeding, heads down in the sand hills, looking like a flock of sheep until they popped up their long necks to survey the environment. Sandhill Cranes, unlike the Whooping Cranes, are plentiful. However, they are similarly impressive. Alike in shape and size to the Whoopers, they are tan in color with red and white on their faces.

REDDISH EGRETS
My new favorite bird is the Reddish Egret. From my kayak and from standing on shore, I got to witness several displays of their unique behavior and hunting style. In the U.S. the Reddish Egret is only found on the Texas and Florida coastlines and is considered endangered. They are a small egret with a mane of dark reddish feathers covering their head and neck and bluish slate gray on the rest of their body.

The egrets I was previously familiar with, hunt using stillness and stealth, walking slowly with precision, or waiting motionless until darting their sharp beaks at prey. In contrast, the Reddish Egret is an “ADHD” hunter, never remaining static, instead dancing, prancing, running, hopping, turning one way and then making a quick U-turn. Sometimes it stopped briefly as if it forgot what it was doing and then suddenly would run off in hot pursuit of a fish. It actually chases fish down in the shallow water. The egret periodically spreads and snaps shut its wings, aiding in the beauty of its dance and allowing “canopy hunting” that is, creating a shadow on the water’s surface to reveal the fish below. Visual hunters, they often lean their long extended necks to one side giving them an off-center, off-balance comical look. I’ve discovered that others are enchanted by their “dance” and have posted videos on YouTube. They are fun to photograph since they strike so many odd and dramatic poses. Mostly it was entertaining to just sit and watch their delightful performance.

GUIDED BIRD TRIP
Twice a day the park offers free guided birding trips on Padre Island. A married couple led the tour. We were given binoculars if we needed them and a bird list to check off our sightings. Most of the people went with the woman, making a caravan of cars with walkie-talkies. We and another couple, joined the man in a government car and went off in a different direction. They knew what birds we were likely to see and where they might be found. For those of you who like lists, here’s some of what we saw: redheads, widgeon, northern shoveler, pintail, gadwall, northern harrier, peregrine falcon, white-tailed hawk, long-billed curlew, willets, crested carcaras, snow geese, sandhill cranes, white pelicans, savannah sparrow, yellow-rumped warbler, reddish egret, ruddy turnstone, snowy plover, sandwich tern, royal tern, laughing gull, ring-billed gulls, herring gull.

PORTUGUESE MAN O’ WAR
After going to Corpus Christi for a night in town we returned to the free beach on Mustang Island. The sand was newly strewn with beached Portuguese Man O’ Wars and I walked the waterline with camera in hand to see them all. Their most visible part, the bladder, is a pretty blue and they ranged in size from one inch to up to about 9 inches. Many had floated ashore tangled in seaweed so that the piles of plants appeared to be decorated in blue baubles. It was if an evil clown had thrown pretty blue balloons around the beach with toxic, stinging streamers attached. Instead of barefoot as before, I walked with beach with shoes.

When young I had an illustrated children’s encyclopedia. For entertainment I would repeatedly flip the pages and inspect the pictures. I was particularly attracted to exotic creatures or events of nature, things foreign to my suburban Pittsburgh life. Staring at my favorite images, they would become compelling and mythic in my imagination. The drawing of the Portuguese Man O’ War was one of these. Their colorful wind-blown bodies, sailing in far-away seas, trawling the water for prey with the long deadly tentacles. So finding the beach littered with them was something I didn’t want to miss.

Although, when in water, the tentacles average about 30 feet in length, most were gathered up in a dark green-blue pile with the bladder sitting on top, like a nest holding a misshapen blue egg. As they sparkled in the late afternoon sun, they glowed pale aquamarine and cerulean blues, teals, turquoise, lavender and sometimes a hint of pink. They reminded me of something I couldn’t put my finger on, something familiar and attractive. Finally, I realized they appeared to me as carved and polished masses of fluorite, one of my favorite minerals, even though the Man O’ Wars were soft and hollow and fluorite is hard and solid. They glowed with the same beautiful transparent colors.

I had a child’s impulse to pop the blue blobs but didn’t want to harm them further nor be harmed by them. When I accidently stepped on a small one, it burst with a loud pop, like a packaging bubble.

As the floats sat on dry sand in the hot sun, they became swollen and dull, the ridged sails falling over like a shipwreck. They sometimes looked like large blue slugs or sea cucumbers. When I showed Chris a photo of one he said it looked like an elephant seal. And strangely, it did.

Sometimes when I got close to one it would move slightly. The bladder has no muscles but can change its inflation, whereas the tentacles have a rudimentary ability contract and release. Man O’ Wars are not jellyfish but a siphonophore, a colonial organism, made up of four types of individuals called zooids. There are 1) the polyp that is the gas-filled bladder, 2) the tentacle zooids, 3) the digestive zooids, 4) and the reproductive zooids. It was sad to realize many Man O’ Wars were still alive and in the process of dying, all four parts of them.

NOTE ONE: If you click on the ”WHERE WE ARE” link at the top right of this page, you will see where we are now (or within a few days of now.) I have also added some tantalizing photos of what is coming. If you have suggestions or recommendations of things to see or places to stay near where we are, please let me know! Leave a comment here or email me at brennan.carla@gmail.com.

NOTE TWO: It’s great getting your comments. And you can also “Like” or comment on photographs. So if you feel inspired to say something, please do. It encourages me and makes me feel more connected to friends, family and even strangers.

This gallery contains 40 photos

DAYS 57-58 Near Sedona, Arizona

Leave a comment

PLEASE NOTE! This post is out of order. I just found it in the draft folder. For some reason it was never published.

November 24-25, 2012

From Flagstaff we drove south to Sedona and hit an unwelcomed Thanksgiving weekend traffic jam. The only nearby campground was full so we continued and passed through town. The sun was low in the sky and it ignited the red rock cliffs into a brilliant fiery glow. I longed to take photos but we needed to find a place to camp soon since we were losing daylight.

Heading west on 89, I realized we were close to a forest service road suggested for camping on freecampsites.net. We found the dirt road, drove a couple miles and pulled over and parked in a clearing. We were alone, surrounded by a wide open view. Small hills with modest trees rose nearby to the east. Faraway mountains absorbed the setting sun to the west. To the north was a tantalizing bank of red rock cliffs, still glowing like dying embers.

That night was the full moon, our third of this trip. We started our sabbatical on the Harvest Moon at the end of September. Our second full moon, the Hunter Moon, was completely obscured by the rain and overcast skies of Oregon. Here, near Sedona, the November Beaver Moon crested a nearby hill shining vividly.

The evening was mild and I sat outside, entranced by the fading light of the sun and the brightening glow of the moon. There was a period of magic when everything darkened causing the features of the junipers and the prickly pear cactus to slowly dissolve into a singular darkness. Then, reversing the usual progression of night-fall, the sky lightened again with subtle grace. The soft silvery radiance of the moon created new contrasts and revealed the desert inhabitants again.

The next day we relaxed at our campsite. Wandering down the road I discovered a sign indicating that the Palakti Heritage Site – a place of ancient cliff dwellings – was a few miles farther. I called to make a reservation to see them the following morning.

The Palakti Site visitor’s center was the old home of the early 20th Century homesteader, the first person to live there since the cliff dwellers left in the 1400’s. Inside were artifacts and information about the various native inhabitants. An eager, new, volunteer host guided Chris and I up to the remaining cliff dwellings of what are called the Sinagua Indians. Sinagua, meaning “without water” in Spanish is a misnomer since they, of course, had water to survive the hundreds of years they were there. There were no streams or ponds nearby but they used springs and collected rain water.

These were the red rock cliffs I had seen from our campsite and up close seemed more tangerine than red. They faced a beautiful valley of red earth and green trees toward other mesas and mountains.

Seven centuries of erosion, as well as souvenir hunters and vandals, had left little behind. But what was there to see and what is known of their lifestyle gave the impression of a relatively peaceful and prosperous village. It is not known why they abandoned the cliff dwellings or what exactly became of them.

From there we were directed to a trail that led to a cliff face with petroglyphs and pictographs. Thousands of years of rock art was represented, created by the Sinagua as well as their predecessors and those, such as the Apache, who followed.

In addition to his white wood farmhouse, there were also other remnants of the homesteader. Partial adobe walls still stood where hired hands lived. Near the rock art site, was his own cliff dwelling, where he lived while constructing the wood house. Moving there from the town of Cottonwood as a 60-year-old widow, he began a new life, planting an orchard and dry-farming it with only the water that the desert sky offered.

NOTE ONE: If you click on the ”WHERE WE ARE” link at the top right of this page, you will see where we are now (or within a few days of now.) I have also added some tantalizing photos of what is coming. If you have suggestions or recommendations of things to see or places to stay near where we are, please let me know! Leave a comment here or email me at brennan.carla@gmail.com.

NOTE TWO: I do like getting your comments. And you can also “Like” or comment on photographs. So if you feel inspired to say something, please do. It encourages me and makes me feel more connected to friends, family and even strangers.

This gallery contains 17 photos

DAYS 122-124 Goose Island State Park, Texas

1 Comment

January 28-30, 2013

When we arrived at Goose Island State Park, the ranger misinformed us, saying there were no campsites left in the protected wooded section. We were sent to the exposed bay front for the night. Although much farther inland than Mustang Island, the wind was still fierce and we slept poorly, the roar, rattling and rocking disturbing any dreams.

The next day we discovered that there were actually many campsites available in the live oak woods, just not ones with full hook-ups, which we didn’t want anyway. Our new spot felt like a relief, a refuge. Although still windy, we were shielded enough to be outdoors comfortably. At times the stiff breeze even felt refreshing, a break from the warmth and humidity.

This is a premier birding spot, as all of Texas seems to be. Goose Island State Park even has a “bird host” in addition to the regular campground host. During my exploration of the campground, I found a bird watching station. Several seed feeders for most birds and two sugar water feeders for hummers hung like lanterns from tree branches and metal poles. Water dripped from hoses into small pools to also entice birds. Wooden benches were provided for quiet observation. Unfortunately, few birds were active in this blowy weather. I did hear quite a few cardinals, occasionally seeing flashes of red, and the disembodied calls of goldfinches, catbirds and others not identified. Another camper mentioned that they saw whooping cranes in another part of the park and I was excited about the possibility.

The second day there I roamed the park pummeled by wind. The weather was sunnier, cooler, and less humid as the cold front arrived. But it still produced powerful gusts of wind. Walking along the shore I saw two crested caracaras sitting atop shrubs and three little blue herons hunkered down in the marsh grass. An osprey sailed overhead.  A great blue heron hunted at the waters edge. (I can tell you confidently that great blue herons are not endangered as they are everywhere across the U.S.) On a small dock. brown pelicans rested and preened, showing off their yellow heads and multi-colored beaks.

POSTER CHILDREN FOR ENDANGERED SPECIES
As we left the park to drive north, I asked a ranger where the whooping cranes might be. They hang out in a residential area abutting the park, near the famous Big Tree so we headed in that direction. As we slowly explored the roads looking for the tall white birds, we spotted a large spot of pink in the water.  A roseate spoonbill! We parked on the road shoulder and watched it hunt, sweeping its head and strange beak side to side in the shallows seeking small creatures in the mud. Chris calls them “duck-billed flamingos” which is an apt description.

Continuing our slow pursuit of cranes, we crept up and down small roads past meadows, houses and yards. The majority of all migrating Whooping Cranes winter in Aransas Wildlife Refuge in Texas very close to Goose Island. But a few come here every year. It is ironic that these endangered birds like to be so close to human habitation rather than in the nearby protected park.

I spotted a pair! Five feet tall, prancing across a dry meadow near a few houses. We turned down a dirt road, a driveway actually, and approached them carefully on foot. They walked together, gracefully, tentatively, poking the ground for food and looking around with caution. A few times they whooped for us with the loud trumpet-like call they are famous for. We were torn by the pull to get nearer to them and the desire to not be too close to disturb them.

I was in awe. The Whooping Cranes had large snow white bodies, long serpentine necks and feathery bustles on their behinds; a dash of red and black highlighted their heads. In 1941 there were only 21 left in the wild. Today the estimates range from 200-350, still a small number but on the rise. As long as I can remember, the Whooping Crane has been a beautiful reminder of the fragile existence of many creatures, a poster child for all endangered species.

Eventually the couple took off, magnificent in flight. Their 7.5 foot wingspan revealed the black primary feathers of their wings against their pure white silhouette. I understood why cranes are so treasured in Chinese culture and why they appear frequently in Asian art.

THE BIG TREE
Making a pilgrimage to a grand ancient tree is always a worthy trip. A few blocks away was what is simply referred to as The Big Tree, considered to be the largest and oldest – over 1,000 years old – live oak in Texas. Like a frail elderly relative, it has help remaining upright. Wood poles, acting as canes, bolster its outstretched arms. Guy wires also relieve some of the great weight of its massive body. The thick gnarly trunk rises six feet from the earth before dividing into numerous smaller trunks, like enormous tentacles on an upside-down octopus. These massive arms jut out, each twisting and undulating along its own unique path. Around The Big Tree are its family, the offspring of this ancestral tree, some of them still young, while others have also become aged.

California has Californian live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) that look very similar to these southern live oaks (Quercus virginiana). But these oaks seems even more sinuous and fanciful in their form. Entire trucks lean at extreme angles and then change directions in ways that appear to defy gravity and good sense. Branches that should ascend, dip down, and snake horizontally a few inches off the ground and then abruptly grow skyward.

I was sure that this tree, that has spent a thousand years in one spot, had some wisdom to impart to us even if it was in a hard-to-understand, mysterious language.

NOTE ONE: If you click on the ”WHERE WE ARE” link at the top right of this page, you will see where we are now (or within a few days of now.) I have also added some tantalizing photos of what is coming. If you have suggestions or recommendations of things to see or places to stay near where we are, please let me know! Leave a comment here or email me at brennan.carla@gmail.com.

NOTE TWO: I do like getting your comments. And you can also “Like” or comment on photographs. So if you feel inspired to say something, please do. It encourages me and makes me feel more connected to friends, family and even strangers.

This gallery contains 20 photos

DAYS 118-122 Mustang Island, TX

1 Comment

January 24-28, 2013

FROM DHARMA BUM TO BEACH BUM
We finally made it to The Third Coast! Although we left California with only general ideas of where we might go, one likely destination was the Gulf Coast, especially in Texas. This was because neither of us had spent time there and because we hoped to find winter beach camping.

Mustang Island State Park is on the narrow barrier island across from Corpus Christi. In Texas the beaches are roadways and often campgrounds. We pulled onto the expansive nearly empty beach and knew we had found a temporary home. The state park offered almost two miles of beach camping; only two or three other travelers were taking advantage of the opportunity. Low dunes with squat shrubs and long vines were behind us. We sat on thirty yards of flat beach. In front of us was the endless succession of small sparkling waves from the Gulf of Mexico. The weather was pleasant and we had found our little bit of heaven. We renamed the camper, “the cabana”.

Beach, sky, gulf, nothing more. Day and night were accompanied by the constant roar of surf. Here water and wind take precedence, having the upper hand over the land, reshaping it, flooding it, changing everything in their path. Waves offered up gifts: shells, seaweed, animal parts and an endless supply of human litter.

I went barefoot and waded in the lapping low waves. The water was cold, about 60 degrees, not yet the 80+ temperature of summer. Chris bravely claimed he was going to swim but after wading to his knees he thought better of it. Although the air temperature was mild, the constant breeze made it feel much colder on wet skin. He opted to fly a kite instead.

The quartz sand was fine and hard-packed. A delight to walk on, it was soft to the touch and molded gently to each step like clay. But its fineness and the constant breeze, meant it got into everything, sneaking into every crevice and coating all surfaces. Food had an extra crunch to it. Our camper (I mean cabana!) will no doubt carry tiny hidden particles from the Gulf Coast for the rest of its lifetime.

THE MOON
Another full moon marked the passage of time. The January full moon is traditionally named after the wolf; I renamed it the Coyote Moon because it was coyotes that we heard. There was haze at the eastern horizon, hiding it from view when it first rose. Slowly it became visible, huge, pale and translucent. Then, looking like an imitation sun, it became solid, glowing a deep yellow-orange. Later in the night it shone white, contained in an enormous halo overhead. Chris rode his bike up and down the beach by moonlight and was euphoric.

HERON VS CATFISH
As I sat quietly writing one morning, a great blue heron landed at waters edge just in front of me. Very quickly the bird seized a large catfish, larger than I would have thought it could handle. (Until that moment, I didn’t know there were salt-water catfish. Neither did Chris.) The heron spent the next twenty minutes struggling to find a way to swallow its silvery catch. Herons eat fish whole, head first. The heron tossed it, flipped it, picked it up and put it down. It played with the fish on the sand and then in the water, walking in and out of the surf at regular intervals. But the wide fat fish didn’t seem to fit in the narrow long beak of the hungry bird. Two opportunistic gulls waited nearby to see if it would succeed or eventually abandoned its delectable scaly meal.

With much effort and dedicated manipulation of the whiskered fish, the heron finally, some how, got its head into its maw. The seemingly simple task of swallowing was also a drawn-out process. Jerking its head back and forth, the fish gradually sunk into its gullet. You could almost hear the sound of gulping. The bird’s throat and long neck expanded and distorted to accommodate the size of its meal.  Finally, only the end of the fish’s tail was visible. The bird stood still, apparently waiting for more room to open up. Then down the fish went.

After the strenuous task was completed, the tall heron remained stationary in the shallow water – perhaps wondering if it should have eaten something so large. Or perhaps it was waiting for the fish to finish sliding down and settle in its stomach. I later read that great blue herons sometimes choke to death from attempting to eat a too large prey.

A sudden decision was made and the heron turned around and strode across the beach, deliberate and elegant. It marched up the dune, standing statuesque at the top, its head plumes blowing in the breeze, gazing calmly out to sea. A little time to rest and digest.

Witnessing these little episodes in the life of other creatures is sometimes delightful, sometimes sobering. Always a precious moment in time. Some events are life and death struggles as it was for this catfish. What I observed is something I will never see again. Not with this heron, this fish, at this spot.
(A series of photos of this event are below.)

LEAVING
Earthly heaven is always temporary and the weather system changed. The wind picked up and clouds crowded the sky. Everything was sand blasted, chairs blew over and small things blew away; the camper shook. My prayer flags began to bleed and shred. We decided to find refuge inland and headed to Goose Island State Park before returning to the area to visit Padre Island National Seashore.

NOTE ONE: If you click on the ”WHERE WE ARE” link at the top right of this page, you will see where we are now (or within a few days of now.) I have also added some tantalizing photos of what is coming. If you have suggestions or recommendations of things to see or places to stay near where we are, please let me know! Leave a comment here or email me at brennan.carla@gmail.com.

NOTE TWO: I do like getting your comments. And you can also “Like” or comment on photographs. So if you feel inspired to say something, please do. It helps encourage me and makes me feel more connected to friends, family and even strangers.

This gallery contains 40 photos

DAYS 115-117 Lake Corpus Christi State Park, TX

2 Comments

January 21-24, 2013   

After our diversion to San Antonio and New Orleans, we headed south toward the Gulf of Mexico. A short drive from the highway we found Lake Corpus Christi State Park. The few people there were crowded into areas with the most amenities – water, electricity and sewage. Since we were happy with the least amenities, we end up alone in a large loop of campsites in a spot overlooking the reservoir.  Herons, egrets, ducks, cormorants, and pelicans regularly entered and exited our view. The weather was delicious, reaching the upper 70’s. At night, the waterfowl purred and chatted, having conversations that would rise in volume and then subside into brief silence. Coyotes sang at dusk. We are sold on winter travel since we are so often the only, or almost only, visitors.

For my first kayak trip I skirted the shore of the state park, observing wildlife as I went. A great blue heron gracefully walked the shore in its stately manner. A snowy egret aggressively hassled a group of cormorants until they finally took flight to find a more peaceful spot. Turtles sunned on exposed logs. A lesser yellowlegs poked the mud for small creatures. The wind picked-up and I had to work hard to make it back to my starting point.

When I returned to the cove near our campsite, I discovered that my large kayak bag and my hand pump had been stolen. Our first brush with crime. Fishermen had come and gone the two hours I was paddling. Although Chris was nearby, he hadn’t pay attention to who was there. Admittedly, I made it easy for someone to take, leaving it on the sand for my return. I could have walked it back to the campsite but I was not particularly worried. My mistake. Sometimes I take the pump with me in case I should lose pressure but not this time. I reported it to the park rangers who also happened to be nearby. They took my number and checked around the park but we all felt it was unlikely the bag or pump would be seen again. The head ranger said they normally do not have trouble with theft. It is possible someone thought the gear had been forgotten but that also seemed unlikely. I had to deal with repeated stern internal “should haves” and the sour taste of violation.

The next morning the wind was light and I kayaked to the far side of the lake where the remains of trees protruded above the water. Many of the bird calls came from that area – a perfect place to perch, preen and rest. As I got closer, I saw that the area of exposed trees was much larger than had appeared from shore. Paddling through the strange bony forest, the reflections and shapes looked like a landscape from a Tim Burton film. The first birds I came to were American White Pelicans in a group of about ten. The evening before they had landed in the water near our campsite and fished together, herding their prey and scooping them up in those odd pouched lower beaks. White pelicans do not dive for fish like their brown cousins, but fish on the surface as a coordinated group.

Next I realized that the trees were full of ducks, a species not familiar to me, the Black-Bellied Whistling Duck. They were the source of much of the chatter we heard on land. A pretty duck with colorful head and feet, they stood upright, often on one leg, remaining still and usually facing the same direction. If I paddled too close to a group they would fly off to a new perch. Cormorants, herons, gulls, and terns also used this spot to roost. I enjoyed drifting slowly in the shallow water among the angled otherworldly wooden arms.

THAT EVENING
What do you get if you combine a giant sow bug, an iguana, a piglet and an opossum? An armadillo, of course! While Chris and I chatted around the picnic table, a good-sized armadillo waddled by us on a mission of some sort. He wasn’t in a great hurry, just determined. It was time for digging up ants and other insects for dinner, I guessed.

This was my closest encounter with an armadillo; what a strange and endearing little beast! It was tan in color with pink highlights; a few long wiry hairs stuck out from beneath its scales. Although seemingly prepared for fighting in its thick leathery covering, the armadillo looked completely fresh and unmarred in anyway, as if it were just born, rolling out of a dinosaur-sized egg. There was something exceedingly cute about it. Maybe it was its cartoonish triangular face with miniature mule ears or its elaborate set of armor looking a few sizes too big, making the creature seem over-prepared for a battle. Its main shell was accordion-like as if the pleats in the middle would expand or contract. We followed it until it disappeared into the dense shrubs, probably glad to be rid of the paparazzi. I had seem many mysterious holes dug in the dry ground around the park. Armadillos were probably the source.

Shortly after the armadillo visit, a couple of raiding raccoons stopped by to determine our vulnerabilities. Chris got out his slingshot to discourage these pesky, sometimes aggressive critters. He didn’t want to hurt them, of course, buy he did want to get the message across that they were not welcomed. The first few pebbles he shot seemed to interest the raccoons rather than repel them as if Chris were generously lobbing marshmallows or peanuts to them. Eventually, however, they did get the message and retreated into the underbrush.

We also witnessed trails of leaf cutter ants, endless lines of individuals carrying leaf parts overhead like green sails. I had seen them years ago in Costa Rica but hadn’t realized we also had them in the U.S. They store the plant material underground to grow fungus to feed their larvae. The fungus needs the ants to exist and the ants need the fungus to reproduce.

The weather at Lake Corpus Christi was delightfully mild and it felt good to once again be able to spend most of our time outside the camper in the boundless arena of nature.

This gallery contains 21 photos