Monday, December 28, 2009

Port Aransas and the Birding Center

Our daughter Jenny, had arrived from Minneapolis and we wanted to show her some of the Coastal Bend area. We packed a picnic lunch and headed to Port Aransas and Mustand Isand State Park. Our intent was to visit the jetty and then drive onto the beach at the state park.
On the way from Aransas Pass to the ferry, we saw several roseatte spoonbills but always just a glimpse. Crossing the ferry we saw our first dolphin and Jenny excitedly pointed out a brown pelican, sitting on a pier. We drove off the ferry and parked along the sea wall of the jetty.
The waves were breaking on top and it was pretty cold, fifty eight, with a biting north wind. The dolphins were posing and so we spent a little time walking out on the cement walkway, where Renita and Jenny concentrated on watching and photographing their antics.
I threw in a couple of poles with some cut mullet but nothing picked them up and of course I lost both rigs in snags, but that wasn't unexpected. We got back in the truck and drove along the beach front, pointing out the camping areas, before heading to Mustang Island State Park.
At the entrance booth the lady told us that the red tide had cleared and that the beach driving was a little iffy, but ok once you got onto the beach itself, in other words pretty typical. We drove out toward the park jetty and we immediately found that the tide was really high. That, plus the strong onshore wind was not giving us much room to keep dry yet out of the soft sand.
We parked with some other cars and walked along the beach looking for shells and stuff. The beach was littered with starfish, which was the first time we had ever noticed them. Renita asked me what the bird was, as we walked by a flock, and we took some photos as we couldn't identify them. We thought at first that they were elegant terns but we decided that they must be royal terns, which was a new bird for our life list.
Returning to the truck we headed back toward home. I asked Renita if she remembered the name of the park in Port Aransas, where our friend Judy went for birding, and she couldn't remember but we neared a sign that said the Birding Center and we turned down the road.
Unexpected pleasures are usually the best part of any day and we certainly had one as we arrived at the wooden walkway. A sign told of the dangers of alligators and of course we had to pose as other birders walked by and gave us strange looks.
A flock of blue winged teal greeted us, then a roseatte flew and landed just on the other side of some turtles. Jenny noticed that there appeared to be another and so we climbed the wooden observation tower to discover not two but six spoonbills preening themselves and washing their wings. It was quite a sight to see them shaking all the water off and we had quite a display that we had never seen before.
We continued down the wooden deck and watched green winged teal and northern shovelers paddle by. A least grebe busily paddled and swam under the water. It was such a tiny bird and it was so fast. We were barely able to get a photo.
The girls told me of a much larger birding trail they had noticed while on the tower and we watched as a turtle tried to sneak by our position. More teals, and shovelers, and even a little blue heron paraded by us, all unconcerned with the birders. They quacked and made other calls that I had never heard before, there is so much to learn and so little time to do it in.
Returning to the truck we headed home and talked about the great day we had experienced and the joy that birding has brought Renita and I. Jenny mentioned that she had seen a lot of colorful song birds since she moved from downtown Saint Paul, to a house surrounded by trees in Minneapolis. A day with our daughter, enjoying birds and beach, what could be better! Clear skies.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas to All, and a Happy New Year!

Merry Christmas to All!

Just a short note today to thank you all for all the good times we have had with many of you and that we are looking forward to more good times down the road.
We have been blessed with our family and friends.

Clear skies,

Mark and Renita

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, 2010

It was good to see the changes, or most of them anyway, as we made our first birding trip to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. It was obvious that the drought had finally ended, or at least eased, a new viewing tower stood next to the old, and we saw Whooping Cranes!
As we checked into the visitor center, the volunteers asked us if we had mosquito lotion. Having some in the truck we purchased another bird book, a field guide, so that we wouldn't have to share a single copy.
Our first stop was at Jones Lake, where last year the lake had almost completely disappeared. With so much water we didn't spot any alligators, deer, or feral hogs but the rooting damage from the hogs was quite evident. We did see a pied grebe, and some greater scaup, all in all it was apparent that the water was allowing the wildlife to spread out and that the viewing might be tougher.
Driving on we reached the viewing tower and climbed the long ramp to the top. There, blocking our view was a new viewing tower, with no one on it! Whats this we asked? There was a man walking near the shoreline and we hoped he wouldn't scare the birds away, Some birders can be a bit selfish at times.
It didn't take long before Renita spotted two large white birds across the way and we were able to confirm them as whooping cranes. The spotting scope was a real help and we steadied it on the cement railing, which was like night and day in keeping it rock solid. We watched as they fed, unconcerned by a passing string of barges, pushed by a tug.
Moving the scope we were able to spot another whooper feeding further on the same peninsula but the bird was so far away that we really couldn't see much. There really weren't a lot of birds out, the time of day perhaps, and so we descended the ramp and walked out to another viewing trail.
Plastic ribbons blocked the entrance to the new viewing ramp,(stability problems perhaps?), and so we continued on spotting a willet, and a flock of marbled godwits.Their long bicolored bill was slightly upturned and it made it an easy identification
form the long billed curlews we had at the Bartel Islands.
We met another birder who asked us how many whoopers we had seen and she informed us that she had seen five, three adults and two juveniles. She also told us that there had been two near the tower, maybe they had been flushed by the man mentioned earlier.
We returned to the truck and turned onto the one way road. Stopping at the first turn out we watched as several green wing teal and northern shovelers fed. The mosquitoes swarmed us and we were reminded of Spirit Lake in Utah. They even attacked me with the bug spray I had generously applied!
We drove further when Renita,(Gator Girl), yelled at me to stop and back up, and sure enough a large gator was pretending to be napping in the high weeds. We drove and stopped but didn't see many other birds, some black vultures, some northern mockingbirds. Perhaps the recent deer and feral pig hunt had temporarily moved everything away from the roads, or maybe it was simply the much higher water.
The scenery along the eleven mile drive was so different then that the dry parched earth we had seen last year.
We stopped at the fishing pier and ate lunch before continuing on to the Heron Trail.
Several little blue herons posed, along with a great egret. Just a lazy day perhaps.We attempted to walk down the trail, but the mosquitoes swarmed us again and we didn't see any alligators,only their trails where they had sunbathed or perhaps waited to prey in unsuspecting deer or birders.
Our final stop was at the alligator viewing below the visitor center. No alligators posed but a American coot and a common moorhen fed greedily and several turtles basked on the far shoreline. It had been a good day, it always is when we spend the day together, and spotting the whoopers adding the icing on the cake! I think back to the long hours we worked to be able to retire early and sacrifices we made. I wish we had worked less but now is our payback and it s good. Clear skies.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Canoeing and Birding the Aransas and Sailboat Channels

Our original plan was to launch at the Lighthouse Lakes Park, cross the Aransas Channel and then wind through the maze of channels until we reached the Lighthouse on the Lighthouse Channel. The plan quickly went south as soon as we entered the first cut and discovered the water was at low tide. Rule number one, check the tides and don't plan anything in the Lighthouse Lakes at low tide!
We struggled against the outgoing flow much like struggling against a strong current in a river. Passing a beached kayak, whose owner was fishing, we quickly came to a stop in the shallow flats. Val explored further, looking for a channel but it wasn't to be. We were tired already from the great exercise and so we turned around and floated easily with the outgoing water. We watched the fisherman catch two reds on three casts, and I cast a bit but to no avail.
Renita snapped images of a reddish egret, a little blue heron, and some white ibis, and reaching the Aransas Channel we decided to head under the bridge and explore the Sailboat Channel and Brown and Root Bays. Passing under the bridge Renita yelled to hear the echo and with the wind at our backs we easily floated west as two Great Blue Herons engaged in a fight display over the fishing territory.
We tried to canoe up a cut but the water was too low and so we turned back and headed further west down the Sailboat Channel. Val spotted a roseate spoonbill standing asleep on one leg and we got quite close as Renita snapped image after image.
A little further down was the old channel which Lannie had showed me as a possible canoe fishing spot and a guide pulled up with his clients and begin to fish.
We felt a little bad about disturbing him, but we also felt a little sorry for his clients who were paying big bucks to fish next to the highway, in a spot we could so easily reach.
The wind kept floating us steadily towards the East Shore,(I know it sounds confusing as we are paddling west), but thats the name on the map. Reaching the end of the channel we saw oyster bed after oyster bed and another roseate. Renita took the camera out of the waterproof bag and took more images as I gently steered the boat near the bird.
The roseate seemed pretty unconcerned with us as it lowered its head again and again, occasionally lifting its ping pong paddle shaped bill and swallowing its prey. It was quite pink in color and we were surprised to see that the legs were also pink!
Passing by, Renita put away the camera and we headed under another bridge to enter the Aransas Channel and head back to our put in and take out point. We fought the current and turning east we also fought the not so gentle wind. The mile and a half turned into some great exercise as we couldn't stop paddling or we would be blown backwards. Renita pointed out a pod of five dolphins and she tried to take some pictures but she soon put the camera away as we struggled east.
Finally reaching the truck, I was a little angry with myself for going so far in one day. Two lessons learned, plan the trip better and check the tides. We loaded up our boats and talked of the days adventure. It had been a fun day, with warm temperatures, lots of wading birds, and blue skies. I hadn't been bothered by any fish and that was ok as it was another day of acting like kids! Clear skies.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Clear skies! Canoeing the Blackjack Peninsula

The weather finally broke, the skies cleared, and it warmed up so we headed out to Goose Island State Park for a day of fishing and canoeing. George and Val and Dave and Jane all joined us for the adventure.
Getting live shrimp for bait, we drove to the park and walked out onto the fishing pier. It wasn't long before Dave had a sheephead and then a nice one! Val kept casting for trout and George was fishing live shrimp but it didn't take long before Renita and I switched to sheephead fishing.
Soon Renita had a fish and then another. She caught a keeper and it went on the stringer. The fish were biting as fast as we threw in, it was really crazy! Most of the fish were undersized but it was fun to catch so many fish, and we did end up with enough for supper!
Stoping for lunch, we decided to go canoeing and kayaking with Val. She launched ahead of us and soon disappeared around the bend, her kayak is so much faster than our canoe! We pushed off and headed towards the Bartel Islands. The water was so much deeper in the bay than last year and we glided across oyster beds that would have grounded us.
With the water so high it made the trip much quicker and with no wind we soon reached the Blackjack Peninsula. Paddling further than we planned we rounded a bend and could see the intercoastal and some large white wading birds, whooping cranes perhaps? We were along the Aransas Wildlife Refuge so it was certainly possible but without our binoculars we just couldn't be sure.
Stopping, our peace and quite was disturbed as several air boats roared by. Air boats are a Texas tradition and the local guides use them to take their clients to duck blinds. There have actually been close encounters with kayaks and air boats and the air boat are blaming the kayaks for close misses! What a joke.
We canoed back on the outside of the Bartel Islands. The water was so smooth it was really amazing to have such perfect weather! We passed several islands that were crowded with birds and Renita took images of Dunlins,(a new bird for us), and long billed curlews. We even got near a rosette spoonbill that watched us warily as we paddled by!
It had been a great day of fishing and exploring and birding, all reasons why we are here on the Texas Coastal Bend. Arriving back at the landing we met George who had been patiently fishing the pier, while we explored the islands. Life is so good! Clear skies.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Rainy Days on the Costal Bend

Our friends Dave and Jane,(see Michigan posts), told us it has rained fourteen of the first eighteen days of December so we are seeing the effects of a strong El Nino here along the Coastal Bend. Its quite different than the dry and scorched Texas we have been used to seeing for the past two years and its a welcome relief from the extreme drought.
Not surprisingly we haven't been outside as much as we have would have liked to but the fish have been biting when we are, everything is green and its bitter cold where our kids are so no complaints.
The speckled trout are running large this year and nothing I like better then speckled trout, well maybe grilled pompano or black drum. Renita and I had a feast of fresh trout, sheepshead, and black drum which we cooked the same way and were able to compare on the same plate. Our favorite was the black drum, followed closely by the speckled trout.
Our friends around the park have kept themselves amused and a rubber duck has appeared in Vals Lake, a pool of water that collects in a low spot if front of their fifth wheel,(She didn't put it there it just magically appeared while she was cooped up inside and sick).
Dave baked a blueberry pie with blueberries that Jane picked in the UP and brought us two pieces and Pete stopped by to give us a jar of his and Wernas homemade red raspberry jam. Others have left for the Holidays and the park has a lot more empty spaces,(economy?), than last year but the happy hour bunch still meets at four pm, when the weather permits.
The weather is finally breaking today and dry and clear skies are forecast along with a warming trend,temps have been in the fifties and even as low as the forties for daytime highs and sixties and seventies are forecast, so we are all excited about the nice days and hopefully some canoeing and kayaking. The water level in the bays is really high this year and the oyster beds are not as obvious a hazard, Big black drum are coming from the campground shore at Goose island State Park and our friend Wayne even caught pompano back inside Copano Bay. Not much more to report, basically lots more water and that's always good to us as we spend so much time in the desert. Clear skies.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Fishing the Texas Bays on a Baby Cat!

Imagine running at full throttle across water only a foot or so deep. Forty miles per hour and you are on a boat the size of two sheets of plywood and only a foot deep! Patches of sand and grass and oyster beds intermingle and there is no protection from the elements, thank goodness for goretex! The boat weaves in and out of small islands covered with mangroves and you are lucky because you are being guided by a friend who is as knowledgeable as there is and so you can relax and enjoy the ride!
Yesterday morning I was preparing the canoe for our first canoe adventure. It was suppose to stop sprinkling, clear off and warm up, never happened, when our friend Lannie stopped by and asked if I wanted to go out on his Baby Cat. He said he would love to show me some places to fish in our canoe and after checking with Renita I jumped at the chance,(Lannie has fished his whole life in the Texas coastal waters and his wife Judy is the best bird photographer we know)!
We drove to Cove Harbour and unloaded the 16 foot boat. It has no sides, I mean none and runs with a 90 horse power Yamaha on a jack plate,(a device that raises and lowers the motor). This setup, combined with a tunnel hull, allows you to run full speed in as little as three inches of water! This also allows you to run across grass flats and not disturb or damage the protected seagrass.
The Intercoastal, Sailboat Channel, Aransas Channel, the Klondike, the California Hole, Talley Island, the names kept coming and my brain was going into overload trying to remember it all. We stopped and fished and Lannie's equipment was so much better than mine so I used his, but it was to no avail. The fish weren't biting, even though we had a strong current flowing though the passes.
It didn't matter a bit, it was a ride and a day of instruction on the water from a new friend. A dues day but what a dues day! We talked about how our wives drove our boats and fished with us and it reaffirmed how lucky we both were. The discussions were about techniques and tackle and fishing opinions, to which Lannie said, "Opinions are like noses, everyone has one".
The day never cleared, the fish never bit, the fog made my glasses useless, oh and it was cold, especially at forty miles an hour standing on an exposed platform. Thank you Lannie and yeah I want a baby cat of my own, hmmmm maybe if I add it to my Christmas list........
Clear skies

Friday, December 11, 2009

Progresso Dental Work

Well the day had finally arrived and we were returning to Nueve Progresso, Mexico, so I could get my new crown. We had made the first trip while in Mission and now was the visit so I could get the crown installed. I was excited as I have a whole box of salt water taffy and I couldn't eat it and take the chance on my temporary coming loose.
One of the problems with fulltiming is keeping up with our dental work. I had, what I thought was a good dentist in Spearish, South Dakota, but when I told him I was going fulltime and that I wanted to stop once a year for checkups and the usual stuff, he told me he simply couldn't be my dentist. Hmmmmmmm.
So when I lost a filling this summer I planned to wait till Mexico so I could save some money but the tooth started to hurt and I was fortunate to have a dentist in Lander, Wyoming, squeeze me in and perform a root canal and a temporary filling.
The main reason we went to Mission was for my dental work, and to see chachalacas, and so once we arrived I got online and googled dentists, Nueve Progresso. It turns out there are about 800 and so trying to pick one seemed pretty daunting.
I finally was able to read reviews and so I made a list of 4 possibilities, all near the bridge and all with nice looking offices.
Arriving early, there was no one in the waiting room and the receptionist took my information and told me to take a seat. It wasn't very long and the room filled up with snowbirds, most chatting like chachalacas. One told Renita that Dr Muestra was very good, he has eight dentists or so working for him.
My turn came and I was led into a room that had a familiar looking dental chair and the usual looking equipment, although it wasn't as massive. Even though I had an x-ray the Dentist wanted to take another, for 10 bucks, and he then proceeded to get to work. He seemed fascinated and worked and worked. It seemed like he was doing a lot but he wasn't any slower than my old dentist in Gillette, (whom I bit by the way and was the worst dentist I have ever had), and he eventually finished the prep work, molds, and then left. A technician(?) then came in and she made and fitted a temporary crown.
Renita had talked with our friends Mike and Loretta, and she told us her crown was costing her 700 dollars, yikes that a lot of fishing equipment! The final cost, including an x-ray was 180 dollars, you can find dentists that are cheaper, but I was satisfied with the result. The office was clean and bright, the dentist and the assistants spoke enough English and I will return again.
After I left the office I met up with Renita and our friends George and Val, who had ridden down with us. They had decided on eating at a store/restaurant called the Canada Store, and we went upstairs to find a large and fairly elegant room. The prices seemed a little high, 8.25 cents for a meal but the food was good and the service was excellent. All in all it had been a good day and I now could check dentist off my checklist of things to do this winter. Look out fish! Clear skies

ps The day before I lost the biggest speckled trout I have ever had on but that story will have to wait, sufice it to say that its a weird cold front bite that few are crazy enough to go out in.

pps Three out of four of us got sick the next day, water or ice cubes? We all had the same menu item.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Goliad and Presidio La Bahia, The Fort of the Bay

It seemd somewhat of a dicotomy, on one side of the fort a monument to the Texas Revolutionaries slaughtered at the massacre at Goliad, and on the other side a monument to the hero of the Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo. Its kind of like seeing so many Texans with Mexican heritage and then seeing all the Border Guards driving everywhere in there white and green swiped trucks trying to keep Mexicans out.
We had been invited by George and Val to go to the Christmas Merchants Bazaar at Goliad, Texas, and never having been there we climbed into Vals truck and took off for a new adventure.
Upon arrival, we parked and only had to walk a couple of blocks to the center of town, dominated by the beautiful county courthouse. The streets around the plaza were blocked off and flled with tents and merchants and food courts. Renita and Val turned towards the first tent and I stopped in my tracks as I read the menu on the first food stand.
Which to eat first, it was quite a dilemma! Opting for the sausage on a stick, and then being talked into having it served inside a tortilla, I took my first bite of a greasy hot and somewhat spicy sausage. It was great. Wanting another I resisted the temptation as I had to leave room for a chicken fried steak sandwich or maybe a greasy cheeseburger, both cardiologists nightmares.
We walked around the towns square and while the girls perused the tents I took photos. Its really a neat town! It didn't seem to have changed into the usual tourist trap and the town, seemed to me to actually be filled with real working people, the kind of town I admire.
Before lunch we got a special treat! Santa Claus had arrived atop his Texas Longhorn and he was the star of the parade of Cowboys and Cowgirls, and a small horse drawn buggy. Only in Texas! The longhorn was being led by its handler who kept saying, "Don't get to close", a warning that was heeded by everyone but Val,(Val and George have a ranch on the west slope of the Colorado Rockies).
As soon as the parade passed by we headed to the Empressio Resturant, where we were treated to the best chicken fried steak and cheeseburgers we have had, period. It was a delightful time in a Texas town.
As we walked back to the truck, Val asked us if we wanted to see any other place in the town and Renita spoke up and said, "The Presidio". I was my usual grumpy self after lunch and just wanted to take a nap but I agreed and so we drove to the edge of town and parked in front of the fort.
As usual Renita had made a great choice. As soon as we entered the fort and saw the displays I perked up. The first were of relics dug by archaeologists and then a display of Jean Lafeytte, which told of his use of Galveston Island. Sure enough the next cases held piece after piece of old china fragments just like the ones that litter his main base at Gran Terre.
Entering the main grounds we turned and walked into an alcove and then up a ramp to view the view from a cannon emplacement. Next we entered Our Lady of Loreto Chapel, which is the oldest buiding in the compound. Its also one of the oldest church's in America that has its original groin vaulted ceiling. The fresco above the altar was painted in 1946 by Corpus Christi artist Antonio Garcia and the statue of Our Lady of Loreto was sculpted by Lincoln Borglum of Mount Rushmore fame.
From the fort we next visited the rebuilt home of General Zaragosa, who was born there in Texas and went on to lead the Mexican forces in their surprising defeat of the French in 1862.
Finally, we visited the Fannin memorial. This monument is a tribute to the remains of the Texans slaughtered by the Mexican Army after they had surrendered. About three hundred and fifty died and this was in addition to those executed at the Alamo.
It had been a long day and a day that we had really enjoyed, good food, shopping, a beautiful church, and lots of history. We both strongly recommend Goliad and plan on returning there another day. Clear skies.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Whooping Cranes in St Charles Bay

The birds were really far away but they were simply too large to be anything else. They were jumping up and flaring their large white wings, their black primaries showing. A flock of American white pelicans flew by and so we were even able to compare their size. Definitely whoopers!
We wanted to check out Goose Island State Park, before the cold front blasted through and kept us indoors, so we invited Val and George and they agreed to join us! It was a short drive across the Copano Bay turning onto the Lamar peninsula and we were at the park entrance in no time.
We went inside to show our pass and the park ranger told us about the whoopers, visible from the Big Tree road shoreline. He also said that we could hear them, if we were lucky, from the Big Tree itself, and so we loaded into the truck for an afternoon of birding and sightseeing.
Our first drive was through the campground, checking out the campsites and looking for any birds. As we drove through we realized that many of the sites were actually large enough for our fifth wheel to fit into. The only sites that wouldn't work either had a low oak tree branch or were two narrow for our slides.
Not seeing any birds we did find the resident birding experts campsite, site 141, and we noted it for future visits as we learn so much when we go birding with an expert.
Leaving the oak trees we headed to the fishing pier. A cold north wind blew and it was pretty nasty but there were three people out fishing! Walking out to them they informed us that the ,"Trout were biting on plastics!, and we watched as they measured a nice and legal 15.5 inch speckled trout.
We walked out further and saw a willet, a new bird for us, and watched a ruddy turnstone feeding on the oyster reef. The tide was going out and it was really too cold to be there so I pointed out to George some fishing spots we knew and showed him where we had paddled to Black Jack Peninsula, on a better day.
Our next drive was to the Big Tree shoreline looking for the whoopers, but we got a new life bird on the way, a red-shouldered hawk! It was perched nicely atop a nearby tree. It seemed unconcerned with us and stayed there for my attempts at images, hmmm reminder to self buy a better camera!
A belted kingfisher posed on a gate to a fishing pier, as if to say, this spot is mine, keep out! As we neared the bend in the road we watched two fishermen wade out just where I usually wade and fish. Stopping to glass the far bay we quickly found the whoopers. It was only the second time we have seen them and it was really nice, even though they were quite a ways away.
Our last stop of the day was at Big Tree itself and we walked to the back edge hoping to hear the whoopers. The wind was still blowing and we didn't have any luck, as they were too far away. It didn't matter, we had a nice day with friends, had added to our life list, and even got a firsthand fishing report! Clear skies.