Wednesday, April 13, 2016


We are down to the wire on our southern camping season (she said with despondence) - just a few more weeks remaining before the heat and mosquitoes are upon us and we have to refrain from local outings until late September or October.  For this reason, I'm seizing every possible opportunity to GET OUT THERE and enjoy a few final trips.
I didn't have to go far to "get out there" to Brazos Bend State Park, and it's a good thing, because my entire trip lasted for just 23 wonderful hours.  I'm in the middle of doing my small business income taxes, plus regular work... couldn't spare any more time.  But every little bit counts and I make the most of it. 
Would you believe I didn't know how young this park is until just this minute?
Despite it proximity, I hadn't been to Brazos Bend State Park in about 20 years.  I was a "regular" at the former Lake Houston State Park (now known as Lake Houston Wilderness Park) before Texas Parks and Wildlife regrettably divested it, passing it to the City of Houston, and I just didn't make it to too many other local parks over the years.  That means I was probably at Brazos Bend during the first decade of its life, when it might not have been as fully developed.  Which would explain why my memories then were not as positive then as my reaction is now.  Here is a photo tour of my brief but wonderful stay.
As I am increasingly fond of doing, I worked the week through Saturday and took off Sunday and part of Monday, rather than observing a conventional weekend of Saturday-Sunday (my husband took his car separately and came with me for the Sunday hikes but did not stay overnight because he had to be at work on Monday morning).  Camping reservations are often easy to secure on Sunday nights, at least while school is in session.  I had a lovely spot in the Burr Oak camping area. The campground was only about 20% occupied so there was plenty of privacy.  And I've seriously never heard that many frogs in my entire life, as were surrounding this campsite.  And I've heard frogs in many places.   
This is one of the two things that Brazos Bend is best known for - the spectacular bottomland hardwoods, strewn with distinctive Spanish moss.  Husband and dog wait for me with anticipation beneath one of the countless massive trees.  
That white thing around the dog's neck in the photo above is this bandanna with the trail map printed on it.  I pick up these in all of our state parks that offer them (they are about eight bucks apiece).  They don't get soggy in our subtropical humidity, and they can be used to swat flies.  And wipe foreheads. And decorate dogs.  And even clean camera filters.  
Where to start with the sights to be seen?  Let's start with wildflowers.  We do so much of our local camping during fall and winter when temperatures are bearable but the land is dormant.  It's a rare treat to see life springing forth in the intense and riotous way that only the subtropics can muster.
Herbertia.  Apparently it has no common name.  They were literally carpeting the forest floor. 
Evening primrose, sometimes just called buttercup.  

Southern iris.  There's a good wildflower identification key at this URL.  
From the micro to a bit of the macro scenery for context.
The north shore of 40-acre lake.  It looks so peaceful, but...
...that is where the park's other star attractions were congregating.  This is the other life form for which Brazos Bend is so well-known. 
They were numerous - and large!  People come to see the gators, and the gators do not disappoint.  Sunning alligators have very definite and easily-communicated spatial requirements.  Eyes wide open means you might be too close.  Eyes sagging shut signals transition to spatial comfort.  Eyes closed means you are far enough away for them not to care about your presence.  
We circled 40-acre lake, did a side trail, and proceeded to hike north of Elm Lake around the old river oxbows.
The park has a wonderful balance of developed and wild areas. 
See the rail?
Watch him high-tail.

Gallinules fight their way through watery weeds to freedom.  It's unfortunate that our interior waterways are polluted with this vegetation, which is invasive hyacinth.  I hope someone comes up with a good way to control it (I'm thinking biomass).  
Now for a word about pests.  Our two most typical camping challenges on the upper Texas coast are usually invasive imported fire ants and mosquitoes.  We were bothered by neither of those on this trip, but instead were beset by two species that normally don't appear in great numbers.  However...
The park had flooded extensively in 2015, to the point where it had to be shut down for weeks.  When abnormal environmental conditions manifest, insect populations can get all out of whack.
Screengrabbed from the TPWD website.  
This was the first of our two tormentors.
I have never seen this magnitude of caterpillar explosion.  They were everywhere, raining down from the trees to the point where we couldn't even really take off our hats.  
For the first time ever, I had to screen our rear door to keep out caterpillars instead of mosquitoes.  I wasn't going to sleep with the door unscreened and have these guys inching across my face.  
I kid you not.  Here's a close-up of a tussock moth caterpillar, and yes they do sting.  Before I put up the screen, he had somehow launched himself in through the back door to occupy a place on the couch beside me.  But he was neither invited nor welcome.  
Did I mention that they were present in large numbers?  That granular stuff you see there on the Interstate running board is mostly caterpillar droppings that accumulated overnight as I was parked at the campsite.  Wow.  
The other pest was even more rare, thankfully, and I hope to never experience it here again.
My favorite REI hat with the all-important back extension, which I had to spray down with Off to repel a stinging gnat that bore a profoundly disturbing resemblance to Canadian black flies.  
There's just one problem - black flies are most definitely not supposed to occur in our area.  I know this better than almost anyone, because I spent my childhood submerged in great clouds of them - but that was 3,000 miles from here.  And I confirmed the rareness of this event with one of the park volunteers, who stated that he'd never seen anything like what was happening this year.
Suffering and scourge in Canada - not in southeast Texas, please! 
I couldn't find any definitive answers on what might have happened to cause this unprecedented local condition, but this entry regarding Florida might contain a clue.
See, the biting black fly species are present in greater Houston, but normally we don't notice them because our environment is not optimized for those species, to the point where their numbers remain very low.  They need flowing water to breed whereas mosquitoes do fabulously with still, stagnant water, of which we have an unlimited supply.  The local floods of 2015 may have created lingering flow conditions that were just enough to support this very rare explosion of black flies in Brazos Bend.
Florida-related quote screengrabbed from this site.  
 Anyway, like I said above, the bandanna printed with the park map makes and excellent fly swatter, and the clouds of black flies did not stop me from going for an early-morning hike around Hale Lake the next day, Monday.
The oxbows were mirror calm and beautiful in the morning light.  
Following a refreshing shower in the park facilities, I stopped in at the nature center, which is run by volunteers.
Art shot of the "touch table", where the staff maintains wild animal skulls, shells, skins, and other goodies for kids to handle and experience.  
And this guy was touchable too - an August 2015 hatchling from a nest that the mother had reportedly abandoned due to receding water levels.  The park staff rescued the babies and relocated them to other nests, keeping a couple for the interpretive displays.  This guy had one thing on his mind - he wanted to get down and run away.  He was hell-bent on finding a way out of there.  Call of the wild.  
Through the looking glass and not for touching, my least favorite local viper - the copperhead, noteworthy because they are really dumb.  A cottonmouth will move around and make himself visible; a rattlesnake will make noise ("Buzzzzzz..." not rattle).  A copperhead will just sit there perfectly camouflaged, lacking the good sense to move out of your way.  And then it will strike.   
Canebrake rattlesnake.  Exhibit snakes are always so fat!  Lay off the mice, dude!  You need to go jogging!  Oh waitaminute, you don't have legs - make that slithering!
Following my visit to the nature center, my magical 23 hours were up, and I proceeded back to my typical more industrial Monday activities.  But I will be returning to this wonderful park for additional visits in the future.

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