On my way to the coast on Friday, I made a side trip back to High Island, and was treated to another fun day of birding through their woods. I also made a stop at Bolivar Flats – a beach on the gulf coast. I am woefully lacking knowledge of shorebirds, but am trying to learn. Afterwards, I took the Bolivar-Galveston car ferry to Galveston Island and then drove on up to Kemah to meet the ladies. Some sights..
A pair of red-bellied woodpeckers have consistently made appearances at my feeders for at least two years. The male has chosen a tree in the front yard to make a hollow for their nest. I will be keeping an eye on them!
There were good winds today, pretty steady at 20 knots, so we headed to the lake. We washed a thick layer of pollen off the boat and then we were good to go. We sailed for a couple hours and then picked up Michael and Amber for more sailing and then enjoyed sunset back in the slip.
A good day…
I finished our tax return today, with 2 days to spare!
Now I’m finally getting the opportunity to look back through the notebook that I took with me on a birding trip last weekend. I enjoyed two wonderful days on High Island on the Texas Gulf coast. A cold front was predicted to sweep through southeast Texas last Saturday morning, and I got up early so that I could get to the coast about the same time the Norther did. The hope was that the cold air and strong northerlies would persuade the wave of birds migrating north from Central and South America to land in the woods on High Island for cover, rest, and stay there for a day or so. I left Austin at 3:30AM, drove through the advancing cold front and made it to Boy Scout Woods bird sanctuary right after sunrise.
It was drizzly, not pouring rain, but because of that, I didn’t take my camera out all day on Saturday. But WOW was I treated to a diverse collection of birds. It turns out that the front stalled a bit and took its time getting to the coast. But it eventually did. And though it wasn’t a fallout of colossal proportions, the birds were happy to stop for a break and birding was fantastic, giving me the opportunity to see nearly 100 different species, many of them lifers for me.
We southeastern and central Texas residents are incredibly fortunate to live right on the superhighway that is the twice-a-year-traveled pan-American bird migration path. So, let me share with you a bit of my experience. High Island is a small coastal island on the Gulf of Mexico, southeast of Houston; and it is unique in that it sits on a salt dome foundation, rising over 30′ above sea level, providing a habitat in which shrubs and forests thrive where they are not usually encountered until well inland. The beach along Bolivar Peninsular and the trees in the sanctuaries on High Island are often the first thing migrating birds see after completing their 600 mile (and 15-24 hour) non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico.
My trip to High Island was quickly-planned, but I had an amazing experience. First of all, High Island is home to a number of lovely birding sanctuaries/locations that are beautifully owned and managed by the Houston Audubon Society and/or the Texas Ornithological Society. On my trip I visited Boy Scout Woods, Bolivar Flats, Smith Oaks woods & rookery, and Hooks Woods. And since I was in the neighborhood, I spent time at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on my northwest trek back to Austin.
The Houston Audubon Society charges admission of $8/daily visit to their sanctuaries. Or you can buy a (lovely) patch for $30 which is good for admission to all their High Island sanctuaries for the entire year. I opted for the patch. Because I WILL be back.
Around lunchtime on Saturday I got mighty hungry. So you can imagine how pleased I was to see a sign outside the Boy Scout Woods entrance advertising the local St. Matthews United Methodist church BBQ lunch. Every Saturday during Spring migration. $12 a plate. Delicious. Also, I simply must encourage you to make sure you take advantage of the FREE, 3-times a day each Saturday during Spring Migration guided walks hosted by the fantastic group Tropical Birding. Tropical Birding have been partners of Houston Audubon Society for many years. Three expert guides walked us around the island with sharp eyes, ears, and spotting scopes, making it easy to see the birds that are usually so invisible. I spent at least 8 hours with these guys and enjoyed every minute of it.
I didn’t have a plan to stay on the coast overnight, but I knew I would. It was very easy to find an inexpensive place to stay in Winnie, Texas, just 20 miles north of High Island, right off I-10.
I did eventually get my camera out on Sunday, which was quite chilly, but at least it wasn’t raining. I may post a picture or two from that set of photos in the future. But, for now, if you are even mildly interested in birding, you must get down there soon!
On February 20th, we noticed a pair of Carolina wrens making a nest in a planter we have on the patio out back. For the last week or two we have watched them bringing insects all day long, and could hear the babies’ chirps. Today they fledged! I saw the first one jump out. Then called Monte to the window. We watched the second one jump out, and then he reminded me I might want to get a picture or two. 🙂
The last three…
And then there were two…
And then there was one…
And then there were none! Such cuties.
Yay! Now I can finally trim that plant and water it.
With no commitments until Easter dinner with Julie later in the day, we headed out to visit Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. It is a beautiful place to see in the spring, full of gardens teeming with wildflowers, and several miles of lovely trails to explore.
I don’t think the wildflowers have peaked yet in south Austin, based on what we saw here, so there’s still time to get out there and see them!
There is a great-horned owl family roosting in a wall ledge just inside the entrance. There are two owlets, but they are not sticking their heads up in this shot.
I love this time of year in Austin. The hills look like broccoli.
And the golden-cheeked warbler returns for nesting season.
I wish it lasted longer, but I’ll enjoy it while I can.
Spring is in full gear in Austin! Temps swing between the 40’s and 80’s every few days. The wildflowers and trees are in bloom. Trying to make sense of just how quickly the year seems to have flown by, I looked back over my calendar, only to realize that I have been out of town four of the first ten weeks of the year. Yep, that’ll do it.
I’m looking forward to getting out and about to take in all the beautiful sights. This is the prettiest time of the year.
Monte and I took another road trip at the end of February. Some stats: 10 nights & 11 days on the road, nearly 3,000 miles driven, over 1000 photos taken, 2 states visited, 18 holes of golf played, 3 birthdays celebrated, 5 relatives thoroughly enjoyed, my 1st ringer in a game of horseshoes, and 25 new lifer bird species seen!
It was a fantastic trip. The only downside is that Monte picked up a cold somewhere along the way, so he’s laying low for a few days.
Susanne flew to Austin to drive with us to Tucson. Though I have been to Tucson many times for work, I guess I never took the time to enjoy the place. It is really beautiful. And late-winter was a terrific time to visit.
Here are a few of places we explored in Tucson, and I would recommend all of them if you, too, get a chance to visit:
– Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: an outdoor museum showcasing the diverse ecosystem of the surrounding desert, and its teeming flora and fauna species. Simply an amazing destination, with so much to see. I will do this again next time I’m in Tucson.
– Saguaro National Park (the western Tucson Mountain district location): saguaro cacti for miles. MILLIONS of them. An informative visitor center. Also some very nice petroglyphs at Signal Hill, only a short hike off of the Bajada Scenic Loop.
– Catalina State Park: a lovely park at the base of the Catalina Mountains. Lots of nice hiking trails and many of my lifer birds were seen here.
– Mission de San Xavier del Bac: a national historic momunent, it is the oldest in-tact Spanish colonial structure in the Americas, built in the late 1700s. It is still a working parish church, serving the Native American Tohono O’odham nation, on whose reservation it resides. An informative free tour gave us an overview of the history of the Spanish, the native Indians, the Mexicans, from the 1700s through today. We wanted to see one historic mission, and decided to do this one instead of the Presidio downtown. I’m glad we did.
– Catalina Mountains at sunset: simply stunning to view
Susanne flew home after we all had a nice visit with her. And after a week, we bid adieu to Gene & Jo (and Dan & Patrick, who were also visiting) and took off on a loosely-planned trip home, on a northern route instead of the southern one we took on the way west. Taking an I-40 eastern route home also gave us several opportunities to drive along portions of the Historic Route 66 (and, yes, we played the song when we did).
There were 3 things we wanted to see, and we left Tucson with no plans on where or how long to stay at each one:
1) Grand Canyon National Park: neither of us had been there before. The park needs no introduction, so let me just say it is all that it is cracked up to be. And again, late winter was a wonderful time to see it with a minimum of crowds. The park has a really well thought out visitor center, shuttle bus system, and easy to hike trails that run along the rim of the canyon with stunning views. The Yavapai Geology Museum is another must-see inside the park, along the rim trail. We had originally planned to make the park a quick stop, spending 2-3 hours there tops, and then head back down to Flagstaff to continue our trip east. But as we were driving there, I decided to check out lodging options in the park. I figured it was a long shot, but since we had to stay somewhere overnight, the park would be a much cooler place to stay than somewhere off the interstate. I am SO glad I checked it out, because we were able to book a cabin at Bright Angel Lodge for that night RIGHT ON THE RIM of the freaking Grand Canyon! What a treat. And so we did spend much more than 2-3 hours exploring the park. I’m so glad we did.
2) Meteor Crater Natural Monument: a hole in the ground about a mile across. Formed by a meteor that fell to the earth 50,000 years ago. It’s only 5 miles off of I-40. The admission was (relatively) steep, compared to other tourist sites ($18 per person), but we knew that going in, and still just really wanted to see the crater. It’s been on Monte’s bucket list for a while.
3) Staircase of Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe: a spiral staircase in a 1880s-built Gothic chapel, with a mysterious legend regarding how it was constructed, and by whom. Another last minute hotel search turned up a simply lovely location right next door to the chapel, the Inn & Spa at Loretto. Yes, a staircase is an odd reason to visit Santa Fe, as there is so much to see and do there, but that was what took us there. Our drive brought us into Santa Fe after dark. The original plan was to stay one night, see the staircase at 9AM, and then proceed immediately east for the 11-hour drive to Austin. Once we got to our luxurious room, and saw the private patio (which alone was bigger than my first apartment!), and thought of all the things we could do to fill a day in Santa Fe, we extended our stay another night. Again… awesome!
After another long day of travel, we enjoyed a really delicious dinner and bottle of wine at the hotel’s restaurant, Luminaria. The next day we ate breakfast at the Palacio Cafe, walked through the Cathedral of Saint Francis of Assisi, finally saw the staircase in the Loretto Chapel :), walked through the historic district, then made a bee-line for the Gruet Winery tasting room in the lobby of the St Francis Hotel. Then we visited a lovely park, the Randall Davey Audubon Center & Sanctuary, just 2 miles east of downtown and took in another hour or so of birding. More lifers!
On the way back into town, we picked up a baguette and some nibbles to go with the bottle of champagne we’d picked up at the winery, and enjoyed a late lunch al fresco on our ginormous private patio. It was a tad chilly, but it was lovely.
After a big lunch, we chose to skip dinner and tried out a good place for margaritas and chips. We chose Tomasita’s, in a restored railway station building, and enjoyed walking there and back.
That’s it. 🙂 We drove non-stop to Austin the next morning, and are enjoying being home again.
A pair of Carolina Wrens are nesting in a planter on the back patio. This puts them frequently within 10 feet or so of the window. I can’t wait to watch for the babies in a month or so.
My friend, Lori, bought a new boat – a 45′ Island Packet, located in Florida. She wants to move it to Texas, so it will be nearby as she prepares this year to take it on long voyages up the east coast of the US and across the Caribbean. She asked if I’d help her bring it to Texas, and I said yes. So, last week, Lori, me, Monte and another friend, Joe, set out to bring her home. We are back home in Austin now. A summary of our adventure from my point of view follows… It’s a tad long, so read along as far as you like.
We had an amazing piece of technology with us – a Garmin InReach Explorer+ handheld device that uses satellite technology to send out our latitude & longitude every 10 minutes, and allowed us to receive and send text messages. Our friends and family could follow our progress via a web portal.
Monday – February 5: TX -> FL
We started out, by car, driving from Austin to Kemah, where we picked up our fourth crew member, and arranged for a slip for the boat when it arrived in Kemah. Then Lori rented a car that we’d drive one-way from Kemah to Florida. We took turns driving all the way through and made it to the boat by dawn the next day.
Tuesday – February 6
This boat is a high-end, blue water boat, in very good condition. During the marine survey, this boat was rated as “above average condition,” but even so, there was still a list of things to fix/adjust before we could set sail. After we arrived at the boat, we immediately went to work on that list, which kept us busy all day long for each of the next four days.
Must fix items:
- leak in the water heater
- leak in the generator exhaust inside the boat
- rudder post leak & clogged housing drain
- broken red/green navigation light
- repair tackle on boom vang
- (the REAL biggie) GPS Plotter / Radar non functional (we can’t leave without this getting fixed… AND we can’t fix it ourselves)
By the end of the first day, we went to bed feeling very down. We were tired and could not get many of the systems working. Couldn’t boot GPS plotter. We four seasoned sailors couldn’t even start the darn propane stove. We couldn’t figure out how to use the vacu-flush heads. We couldn’t get the generator started. UGH! At the end of the day, we made a store run – at least we’d figured out how to turn the fridge on…and the TV / DVD. So we sat down to drink some wine and watch Captain Ron, and turned in, exhausted, without dinner.
Wednesday – February 7
Wednesday morning was a new day. The Garmin guy showed up early and after a few hours said he’d fixed the problem. YAY! Right after he left, the same problem re-occurred. ARGH! He came back and gave us a workaround, enough to allow us to take the boat out on our shakedown cruise, and he’d come back the next day.
Also on Wednesday, the guy that did the original marine survey of the boat came back for the day. Lori had hired him for the day to walk us through the boat’s systems, and to accompany us on our shakedown cruise. This guy was awesome. If his fee was a million bucks it would have been worth it. After four hours he had walked us through how everything should work, fixed a few things, and lifted our spirits immensely. The sail was a nice one, in good wind. It was very good practice run, sailing a cutter-rigged sloop with electric winches; a little different to what we are used to. We pumped out the holding tank and filled the fuel tank. Afterwards, Lori took her back into the slip flawlessly, with bow-thrusters assisting.
Wednesday night we had a lovely dinner aboard, cooked on the now easy-to-light propane stove, and we watched Casablanca until we couldn’t keep our eyes open.
We felt 1000x better at the end of Wednesday. We have a boat that works, mostly, AND we can sail her smartly.
Thursday – February 8
Today was full of boat work. We each tackled one thing after another from the long boat prep list. We all worked hard all day long and celebrated with a nice dinner at the marina restaurant. The Garmin guy returned and brought the hoped-for cure-all: a new Garmin data cable to connect the master plotter in the cockpit to the slave plotter in the salon below. This is an apparently important detail, without which lots of data errors can occur, rendering sonar, plotter, autopilot, AIS and other important marine electronic components useless. We crossed our fingers… and the new cable appeared to address all the problems we had been experiencing. AWESOME!
Friday – February 9
Another busy day. Time is flying by. West Marine run for the final fix for the nav lights. Several grocery runs for provisioning. Cleaning boat. Refilling and sanitizing water tanks. The todo list is down to minor (we think) things. We declare tomorrow to be DEPARTURE DAY!
Saturday – February 10 – DEPARTURE DAY
At 9AM sharp, Lori took the boat out of the slip, and we were off. The waters off Tampa Bay were shallow and full of many fisherman and crab pots. We had nice breezes as we left the channel and headed into the Gulf of Mexico for the first time.
As we proceeded to raise all 3 sails, the outhaul for the mast-furling main sail snapped. Those darn electric winches! No worries, though. Monte sewed the end of the old, broken outhaul to the end of a new one and with that, Joe easily threaded the new line through the blocks in the boom. Just a slight delay, and we were as good as new. Light chop made for a lovely sail. We buzzed along, motor sailing, at 7 knots.
We plan to sail straight across. We have plotted a course using waypoints from a weather service that Lori enlisted. Sailing straight through means 24 hour watches. We are doing 3-hours-on / 3-hours-off 2-man crew shifts. Lori & I are paired up, and Monte and Joe are paired up. This kind of schedule leaves little time for anything other than trying to sleep when you are not on watch.
As the sun set on the first day, obscured by clouds on the horizon, Joe’s handline which we had been trailing behind us in the water had a big tuna on the end of it! He reeled it in and cleaned it on the deck.
Lori & I had brazenly cooked dinner for everyone after our 3-6pm shift. Later that night, the light chop turned into a relentless, grueling 3-6 foot southerly swell, given our western track. After midnight the winds picked up. This would continue for the next 30 some hours.
Overnight, as the wind was howling, the pressure on the rudder overloaded the autopilot, requiring hand-steering, making for difficultly maintaining our heading, and one less pair of hands to tend to the sails.
Sunday – February 11
By morning, it has become impossible to stand down below without being thrown about. The boat is a tank and there is no fear of her not being able to take it, but the bouncing and motion above and below decks is tiring. We each wear PFDs with a harness built in, using a 6 foot long tether to clip ourselves in while in the cockpit, and if we have to leave the cockpit to tend to rigging or other adjustments, we must clip ourselves to jacklines on the deck which have been strung bow to stern, to keep us from being thrown overboard.
Today the depth meter is over its limit, we are now in waters over 1000′ deep, and it doesn’t have that many digits.
In the afternoon, a friend of Joe’s sent a text on the InReach warning of a line of storms NW of us, moving SE. We were sure to run into it. And we did. From 4PM to 4AM the next day, we were dodging a dozen or so storm cells that lit up the radar in red. Rain pummelled us. Winds topped 30 knots (pretty much tropical storm strength). We rolled in the jib and prepared to bring in the main as well, as we proceeded south of Mississippi. We’ve started to see oil rigs on the horizon.
Monday – February 12
In the morning, the horrible pounding and smashing had subsided – for a while. We have been making good time though – over half way – and still have 3/4 tank of fuel. We celebrated the halfway point with our first beer underway.
As we sailed west into the afternoon, winds starting gusting over 40 knots, steady at 30 knots, with NNE swells. We were sailing through a Blue Norther! It was very rough above and below. At some point, Joe was thrown from his berth while asleep and smashed his face on the other side of the boat.
As we plodded ahead, we were surprised to see a 30′ fishing boat that did not show up on radar or AIS, directly ahead of us. We saw it about 200′ away and easily sailed around them as they waved hello to us, but we couldn’t help wondering what they were doing out here. Less than 5 minutes after that, we encountered our first close crossing with a tanker. He had the right-of-way, so we adjusted course to sail around his stern.
That night, we tiptoed through miles of oil rigs and freighters and submerged hazards. All eyes were on the instruments and dead ahead using the spot light to help us avoid dangers.
I have to say, it is challenging to process all the inputs – wind speed, radar blips, lights on the water, warning horns blowing, depth meter, in the dark, while encased in fog, with wind gusting around 20 knots, blasting through the waves at 8 knots – while weaving your way through. But there’s nothing like it!
After midnight the winds became calmer, and shifted more to the NE, making for a slightly kinder ride on our westerly track.
We are still getting used to the autopilot and GPS plotter. We had to be careful to keep adjusting our heading in the autopilot to maintain the desired heading over ground, or we’d find ourselves farther off course than we’d like to be. Somewhere south of New Orleans we got pretty close to shore and had to significantly correct our heading to get back on track.
Tuesday – February 13 – HAPPY MARDI GRAS!
This morning, FINALLY, the winds have dropped to 10-15 knots, and the swell has turned into a lovely following sea. I slept better than I have this whole trip. And the boat is calm enough to stand up below again.
We raised a Mardi Gras burgee on the flag halyard and donned our beads. We can actually cook again. Lori made breakfast. We had gumbo for lunch. Sauteed tuna appetizer. Spaghetti for dinner. We are starting to feel a tiny bit more normal.
During the afternoon a haggard and nearly exhausted Great Blue Heron made 4-5 attempts to land on the boat. He finally landed, bracing himself with his wings to stay onboard. We’ve named him Trigger.
While on night watch, Lori and I sailed across a shipping lane. We had 2 close crossings with giant tankers. They had the right of way in each case. One hailed us on the radio as we were listening to music on the iPad. It was a tad nervewracking deciding whether to pass in front of or behind each one. It depended on their distance, heading and speed relative to us. We made it though.
After dark we began passing through more fields of oil rigs. As of 3AM we were enveloped by a thick fog. It was bizarre listening to the fog whistles of the hazards as we sailed by. During the night we sailed into Texas waters. Trigger is still with us, now back on his feet.
Wednesday – February 14 – ARRIVAL DAY
We are enveloped in a thick fog. We can see the bow of the boat, but that’s about it; ~50′ visibility. Before dawn, the autopilot stopped working again. Hand steering is tiring, so I gave Lori a rest until we got outside of our waypoint outside the Galveston ship channel. We are still passing oil rigs. We just can’t see them.
The radar tells us that we are passing dozens of tankers and freighters who have moored/anchored outside the ship channel, as we get close to it. We are just about the only boat moving. We arrive at our waypoint at about 8AM and decide to enter the channel. All hands are on deck, including Trigger, as Lori approaches the jetty.
Monte is at the nav station below, entering waypoints for our transit of the channel. Joe is in the cockpit with his laptop running OpenCPN, showing charts to Lori as she makes her way through the channel.
It is eerie to be completely unable to see the tankers anchored to our starboard, just outside the ship channel, and the boats leaving the channel, passing us to port, not 500′ away. We cannot see them with our eyes. But we can see them on AIS and on radar. We can hear them, and we feel their wake after they pass us.
As we pass the Galveston ferry route, we encounter and dodge 2 ferries. By 10Am the fog has lifted slightly. By now we are safely in. We can relax a bit. We just need to be patient for another 4 hours or so, as we navigate our way to Clear Lake to Kemah.
It’s amazing that Galveston Bay is only 7-ish feet deep. We draw 5 feet. Crazy.
Trigger bid us adieu as we crossed the bay. We pulled into the slip early afternoon on a low tide, with narry an inch of depth to spare. WE MADE IT!
This has been an important experience for me. I learned much. I went through many different emotions – excitement, nervousness, frustration, weariness, happiness, confidence building decision making, to name a few. It was amazing to be on the water, with no land in sight for days, in water a quarter of a mile deep, testing myself, while helping my friend bring her boat home.
Wednesday morning I set my alarm for 4:30 am, got up, and looked out the window; overcast skies and foggy. I told myself that it was unlikely I’d get a shot of the first-in-150years-super-full-blue-blood moon. I went back to bed without taking a step outside.
So, I don’t have a photo of that. This, however, was taken yesterday morning while I was freezing and hiking around the woods. The moon is pretty, most days.
Yesterday, before the sun came up, and with a 16 foot long bag of pole-vault poles strapped to the roof of my car, I took Irene and Jeremy to the airport for their flights home. I could have begun my 6 hour drive home right then. But I had one more thing I really wanted to do in Lubbock before I left — to find a burrowing owl. I had to wait for the 7:30AM sunrise to do it. So, I went to Starbucks to kill some time, and then scoped out a couple parks.
After sunrise I spent about 90 minutes surveying several locations where ebird.org had reported sightings this month. But no luck. I was bummed, but I couldn’t stay here all day. So I punched in my home address on google maps and was about to head home. And then I thought I’d buzz through Mackenzie Park on my way out of town. I spent about 15 minutes there, when I turned around to leave. Out of the corner of my eye I saw something, and (drumroll, please), there he was! A little burrowing owl sunning himself on his burrow mound. AND he stood there long enough for me to take a picture. It’s not great; the sun was in my face; but I got it! 🙂