2010 RUNNING & TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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  MARSH MADNESS: LOTS TO DO &
SEE @ BRAZOS BEND IN THE SPRING

SATURDAY, MARCH 27

 
"Activities include camping, picnicking, hiking, biking, equestrian, and fishing . . .
A multitude of interpretive and educational activities are [also] available."
 
~ from the park website and state park information guide
 
 
If you're bored at Brazos Bend State Park, maybe you need to get outdoors and develop some more diversified interests!

There's something here for just about everyone to enjoy, from the sedentary to the very active. The two sentences I quoted above don't even begin to list all the available activities. I'll expand on them here, and give additional information about day-use and overnight facilities on a second page.

PHOTOGRAPHY & WILDLIFE OBSERVATION

If you've read or scanned the six previous entries in this series you already know how beautiful this park is and what a wide diversity of plants and animals it showcases. It is a nature-loving photographer's dream, as much for amateurs like me as for serious hobbyists and professionals.


The strip islands in Elm Lake provide refuge for wildlife within visitors' sight of the levee trail.

Every time I hiked or rode around Elm and 40-Acre Lakes I saw one or more photographers who are regulars at the park. They appeared to be "focused" primarily on the numerous species of wading and shore birds. They had expensive equipment, and plenty of it -- long telescopic lenses, a variety of other types of lenses, sturdy tripods, and other gadgets stuffed into large camera cases they slung over their shoulder as they lumbered from one vantage point to the next.

I always tried to walk or ride slowly/quietly past them so as not to scare their winged subjects into flight. That didn't always work out so well for the photographers but they are used to having to share the lake trails with numerous other visitors, many of whom are totally oblivious to the people around them.


Students set up their equipment in a photography class I attended at the park;
armed with only a compact digital camera, I was more amused than intimidated.

Jim and I quickly learned to ride our bikes on the most popular lake trails only when the fewest people were likely to be out there. Why is it -- when you courteously warn, "Bicycle on your left" -- the majority of folks move into your path???

But I digress . . .

Casual "tourist" photographers like me are more common at Brazos Bend, and pretty easy to identify: we're the ones who are still captivated by the alligators and take lots of pictures of them! Casual visitors enjoy the birds, too, but they tend to take more pictures of the landscape and each other than the  regulars do.


 Sunset over Elm Lake

Many of the tourists have big 'ole telescopic lenses, too. Sometimes I feel quite inadequate -- until I edit my photos. It's amazing what you can do with a simple digital camera! I'd rather keep it simple at this point in my life. It's so much easier to schlep a little camera when I'm walking or cycling than a larger SLR and its accoutrements.

The best way to see what Brazos Bend has to offer in terms of wildlife and terrain is to get out there on foot or a bike and explore the various trails, not just the most popular lakes. Wildlife and plants are diverse and abundant in the three distinct ecological zones in the park.

COMPETITIVE BIRDING?

Brazos Bend is a very popular park with birders, especially in the winter when various species migrate south to find warmer weather.

Birders seem to fall into amateur and professional ranks, too, or at least into "less obsessed" and "more obsessed" groups. Both can come well-armed with powerful binoculars and/or cameras.


A visitor "focuses" on a duck in Elm Lake.

Dennis, one of the rangers who has been at the park nearly as long as Dave, loves to share stories about the animals at Brazos Bend and the people who come to see them. We enjoyed listening to them when he was able to spend some time with Jim and me. He also gave us copies of some of the best stories that he's written down. They should be published!

One of his funnier stories describes the trick he played on a particular type of bird watchers.

These are people obsessed with what I would call competitive birding; Dennis calls them "listers." He uses the term with disdain because their goal is to check off huge lists of birds they've spotted in order to brag about them to like-minded individuals -- rather than to observe the birds long enough to enjoy their beauty and watch what they do.


This observation deck gives great views of Pilant Lake (L), 40-Acre Lake (R),
and the wetlands on either side of the spillway trail (background) that leads to Elm Lake.

"Listers" tend to go to great lengths, literally and figuratively, to spot and add unusual species of birds to their lists, sometimes doing potential harm to the environment (such as trampling sensitive habitat) or to the birds themselves (such as luring nesting birds off their nests to see them better).

A few years ago Dennis decided to have a little fun and make a point to the listers who visit Brazos Bend by emulating the great Roger Tory Petersen, "a saint to the birding community" and author of the first practical bird field guides.


A view of Pilant Lake from the observation deck:  this is a great place to spot a variety of birds.

Dennis painted a reasonable decoy of a duck that's found much farther north on this continent and planted it out in the swamp. He advised the rare bird recording folks so they wouldn't put it on their list of birds found in southern Texas, but he didn't tell anyone visiting the park that might see it.

Dennis said that if anyone spotted the decoy and actually watched it for thirty seconds they'd realize it was a decoy and get a good laugh out of it -- and hopefully be reminded of what bird watching should be about. Less observant folks would probably be thrilled to add another new bird to their growing list . . . and might never know it wasn't real!

Which proved Dennis' point about their "sport," of course.


A kingfisher in Pilant Swamp

That's a great practical joke.

I forgot to ask him if the decoy is still out there. Not that I'd see it anyway. Dennis put it out far enough that someone would need powerful binoculars to spot it -- the type of equipment avid birders use!

WINGED POETRY IN MOTION

Brazos Bend is perhaps more fun and full of wonder for people like Jim and me who don't know the names of half the species of the birds we see . . . but simply enjoy their beauty and behavior.

I love to watch long-legged herons and egrets slowly wade through the water, then gracefully soar skyward on wings that spread three to four feet wide:


A great blue heron


Egret in flight

I love to see beautiful roseate spoonbills with their flamingo-pink bodies and wide, spoon-like bills, or pure white ibis with their long, curved, bright pink beaks:


Ibis

Members of the duck family amuse me as they silently float on the surface of the lakes, suddenly diving into the water to catch a morsel of food:

 
Diving duck (center, butt in the air)

Moorhens put on a fascinating show at sunset, swimming across Elm Lake in a long line and parading on foot across the levee trail to Pilant Slough:


Evening ritual on Elm Lake by hundreds of moorhens -- what a treat to watch!

Owls entertain visitors with their hoots at all hours of the day and night. Hummingbirds delight campers who hang feeders at their campsites. Songbirds fill the air with delightful sounds in every nook of the park, if we are just quiet enough to listen to their music.

You don't have to be a professional birder or serious hobbyist to enjoy some of the 300+ species of birds that have been spotted at Brazos Bend.


Egret (L) and ibis (R)

If you'd like more information about birds in this park there are several field guides and books available at the park headquarters and Nature Center. There is a pdf. link on the park website to a checklist dated 2006 with the names of 304 birds found in the park to that date.

No, Dennis' decoy is not on that list!

FISHING FRENZY

This is a popular activity and ones that kids will enjoy, too.


Large pier at 40-Acre Lake;  high observation deck across lake in background

Fishing is easily accessible in six of the lakes at Brazos Bend. Four of them have piers (Elm, 40-Acre, Creekfield, and Hale). Fishing is allowed from banks or piers only; no boats are permitted -- and you'd have to be nuts or incredibly stupid to wade out into any of the lakes to fish, considering all of the alligators!

Species found at Brazos Bend include largemouth bass, white bass, catfish, crappie, and sunfish. You can find more information on the park's website or by purchasing a field guide at park headquarters.

MULTI-USE TRAILS

I have totally fallen in love with the trails at Brazos Bend in the last month and have spent as much time on them as possible.

A total of about 35 miles of trail are available for foot, bike, and/or horse travel. I hiked or biked on all but about five miles that were closed this month because they were either under water or still too muddy to negotiate. I was finally able to access a mile of the Pilant Slough Trail this week after the water level was lowered about a foot:


View of Pilant Slough from the trail

Each time I explored a new trail I came back raving to Jim about it until he went out to run it, too!

These trails are just about the opposite of the mountainous single-track trails we usually crave. Most of them are pretty flat. We didn't get bored with them, however. There are some hills here and there to relieve the monotony, and all of the trails are interesting as they meander through woods or next to water -- or both. They are great for hiking, running, and cycling.

Trails vary in width from about two to eight feet. Surfaces are dirt, crushed rock, or grass. There are lots of wooden bridges spanning inlets and outlets, but no long "bog bridges" like those at Huntsville; Brazos Bend could use some of those in a bunch of wet spots.


Bridge over part of Pilant Slough

The Creekfield Lake Trail is paved and billed as handicapped-accessible, although it is uneven in places where the asphalt has been patched:


Creekfield Lake

It's probably easier for folks in wheelchairs or pushing strollers to negotiate the wide dirt and crushed rock trails on the levees around 40-Acre and Elm Lakes:


An artist paints a scene along the 40-Acre Lake Trail.

Our favorite trail is the rather hilly, single track Red Buckeye Trail:

It became quite jungle-like by the end of March, and just gorgeous with all the red buckeyes in bloom.

Several trails are soft and grassy, like this part of the Bayou Trail:

All of the trails are open to foot traffic (when they're dry enough). All but two or three miles are open to off-road biking. Only eight miles can be used by equestrians.

Runners, walkers, and cyclists can also enjoy seven or eight miles of paved roads through the park and campgrounds. Speed limits vary from 5-30 MPH in the park and drivers are used to lots of kids and adults riding bikes. It's one of the safest places I've ever cycled on roads.


The paved trail around Creekfield Lake is about the only place cyclists can't ride.

[NOTE:  Since I'm writing this entry more than a year late (not uploaded until April 19, 2011), I'll describe the trail system in a series of entries in the 2011 journal. I'll be able to include photos and descriptions from trails I wasn't able to access in 2010 because they were too wet.]

NATURE CENTER ACTIVITIES

Brazos Bend has a larger nature center than we've seen at other Texas State Parks but it needs an even bigger one for all the exhibits it displays and programs it conducts. It not only sits near the geographic center of the park, it is also the center of educational and interpretive activities in the park:

The Nature Center is run by a staff of enthusiastic park personnel and volunteers. It is open to the public on weekdays from 11-3 and on weekends and during Spring Break from 9-5.

Visitors can learn a lot about the park and its wildlife by perusing the many attractive displays inside the Nature Center. There are also large freshwater aquariums (one with baby alligators, the other with pond life), about a dozen cages holding native venomous and non-venomous snakes, and lots of things to touch -- live baby alligators, live hairy tarantulas, animal skulls and hides, and a tactile model of the park.


Tank with baby alligators

Nearby is an outdoor amphitheatre that probably seats about a hundred people:

There are at least three interpretive programs and hikes offered each weekend and many more during busy weeks like Spring Break.

I have the  "Spring Break Marsh Madness" list from Saturday, March 13 to Sunday, March 21. A whopping 33 different programs, hikes, and workshops were available to visitors. Jim and I attended several of them. Program subjects included angler education, alligators, pond life, bobcats, snakes, owls and other birds, armadillos, butterflies and other insects, nature photography, and nocturnal animal activity.


Program about snakes in the park

Weekday programs and guided hikes for educational organizations are also offered for a fee during the school year.

STAR-GAZING AT THE GEORGE OBSERVATORY

I believe there are only two Texas state parks with space observatories in their boundaries: Davis Mountains, in west Texas, and Brazos Bend. It's quite a distinction to have these available to park visitors.

The George Observatory features three domed telescopes and the Challenger Learning Center. It is operated by staff and volunteers from the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Why is it located 'way out at Brazos Bend? That's a 30- to 50-mile drive (or more) for many Houston residents. Wouldn't it attract more students and other visitors if it was closer to the city?

Sure it would. But how well would they be able to see distant stars and galaxies with all the artificial light surrounding them in one of America's largest metro areas?? When you see how many vehicles come into the park every Saturday night for public viewings, you realize that avid star-gazers are more interested in the quality of the experience than by how far they've got to drive to enjoy it. The state park is the perfect venue.


Most visitors walk this paved path across Creekfield Lake to reach the observatory
from the parking area at the Nature Center; handicapped visitors may park closer.

The Observatory is open to the public on Saturdays from 3-10PM. Viewings through the telescopes  begin at dusk and are limited to a certain number of people every 15 minutes. The cost is $5 per person (unless you bring your own telescope!), plus the $5 cost of entry into the park if you don't have a TX state parks pass that allows free entry.

I wish we'd been able to spend more Saturday nights at the observatory but each was too cloudy this month to see much in the sky except the one clear night I did attend a "star party." I really enjoyed it.


The path is lit at night; each lamp post has information about
a planet or asteroid that visitors may see through the telescopes.

The observatory also sponsors special events throughout the year. For more information about what you can see and do at the observatory, check this link.

Continued on next page . . .

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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