My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Friday, November 30, 2012

Bird Watching at Brazos Bend State Park

Take a friend, a beautiful warm fall day, and a few good birds and you have the recipe for a wonderful outing.

My friend, Becki, and I hadn't birded together in over a year so it was great to meet her at Brazos Bend State Park and do a little preview for the Christmas count. We agreed to meet there at 8:00 A.M. but we were both there by 7:30 A.M. and immediately started looking for birds. We started at Creekfield Lake and found these white ibis and blue-wing teal, and pie-billed grebe. The lake is very shallow and there were few species or numbers of birds about.

 We also found these beautiful camphor daisies.

 Then we walked through a mostly empty woods, seeing only some cardinals, and a few sparrows, although we heard a titmouse. Soon we were walking towards the tower. We kept seeing this immature male vermillion flycatcher and I was finally able to get at least this ID picture of him.  The other flycatchers we saw were lots of Phoebes and a probable western kingbird.

 Both of us took lots of pictures of these three birds feeding together, singly, in pairs and all together. From left to right is a little blue heron, a young tri-color heron, and a white ibis.

 There were lots of great egrets fishing. I particularly liked this one with coots all around.

 We saw several great blue herons.  They are usually harder to find since they mostly sit very still.

The only ducks we could find were blue-wing teal and black-bellied whistling ducks. These were the closest to us.

 When we got to the day use area, we found this kestrel to far away to get a decent picture of it. We also heard and saw red tail and red shoulderd hawks.

The day was so warm we saw three alligators out. Alligators don't when the weather gets below  61 degrees but they will come out and sun on warm days.

 Most of the black-bellied whistling ducks were sleeping in large groups, but a few were awake and  feeding. I saw my life black-bellied whistling duck here when I did my first Brazos Bend Christmas Count in 1990 and have loved them ever since. 

 We only found a few juvenile white ibises. I am often asked what species of birds these are. The birds get more and more white on them as they grow up.  It takes at least two years for them to turn completely white.But I only saw maybe five juveniles all day. I hope they had a better year than it appeared from the few juveniles around.

 Surprisingly, we only saw two killdeer. This was one of them.

We saw several turtles but only this time saw two species together.

Becki and I also visited the nature center since she had never been there. We had a good visit with the two volunteers and one of them got out one of the baby alligators they keep for a short time in a tank. This little guy was three months old.  He was one of a group of eggs hatched  by the volunteers they will later be released and replaced by new babies. 

It was not the wildest day I have had watching birds, but we had time to catch up a little while we walked five miles and took lots of pictures. All in all it was a lovely, relaxing day.

Sweet Potato Caper: Lost and Found Thanksgiving Sweet Potatoes

I mentioned in my last blog  that I forgot the prepared sweet potatoes for my catered Thanksgiving dinner.

Pat had  brought cranberry cornbread so we were stuffed without them.  But Natalie and I came home to about two quarts of Chipotle Smashed Sweet Potatoes. We could have just heated them and served them but I decided to immediately start using them for breakfast. On our arrival home, we had found a mysterious package on our front steps containing limes, lemons and plantains with no indication of the giver.

The next morning, I  envisioned sweet potato cakes and plantains, so hauled out 1 1/2 cups of the sweet potatoes, added bread crumbs and whole wheat flour and and egg, then spooned them into the frying pan with  a little oil, and cooked them into little cakes. I quartered the plantains and sauteed themwith the cakes. Very delicious. I didn't make the mix  quite stiff enough so will have to work on this. But the savory sweet potatoes seem much more delicious than sweet ones.We gobbled them up before I thought about taking a picture.

For the following day's lunch,  I  finely chopped half an onion and one garlic clove and sauteed the onion until very soft and caramelized, then added the garlic, followed by chicken stock and about three cups of potatoes. I kept adding the stock until the soup was the consistency I wanted.  I made it in the morning and let it sit for a few hours before reheating it and serving it for lunch.  Superb. The onions brought out the flavor of the chipotle peppers more strongly. We each managed to choke down at least two servings and had one more lunch amount left which I ate the next day. 

Sweet Potato Soup

And very serendipitously, while I was catching up on my blog reading, I found a recipe for sweet potato biscuits. that seemed too easy and good to pass up. So I made them for breakfast on Wednesday and served them with an omelet made with our left-over roasted Brussels sprouts, some sliced grape tomatoes and a little cheddar cheese.  All of this made us very full, especially since we each ate half the omelet and three biscuits.

Breakfast with sweet potato biscuits

I love to explore new ways to cook and use cooking as a problem-solving exercise, as well as an art outlet.  One success story from my first few days house-sitting for Natalie was to find a way  to use my extra polenta and her eggplants - they are still growing and making about 4 - 6 eggplants per week. So I made a pizza of polenta, stirring Parmesan cheese into the polenta, before pouring it into a 8 X 12 cake pan. While it set up, I roasted eggplant slices and chopped onion, then spread the polenta with a thin layer of canned spaghetti sauce, added the eggplant and onions, then grated some cheddar cheese over all.  I put it  into a 400 degree oven for several minutes until the cheese melted and everything looked melded together.  It was delicious and made several filling meals. Next time, I want to add roasted peppers to it. It would also be good with roasted fresh tomatoes or dried tomatoes, and omit the sauce, but sprinkle Italian seasonings over it. And it would taste good with different cheeses, as well.

Polenta pizza

As for the sweet potatoes, we have a small batch left which I think I'll just serve us as the were intended.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Wonderful Watery Thanksgiving

When Bob, my Boundary Water buddy,  said he was leading a trip on the Neches River, in the part that runs through the  Big Thicket National Preserve, I immediately signed up. He said he would only have eight people. The first trip that I ever paddled with Bob, was this trip, Thanksgiving weekend 2001 with 8 people.. To totally recreate this trip, I also needed to cater Thanksgiving dinner and the Friday lunch of leftovers. This is a trip of about 38 river miles, but since we paddle from bank to bank, around each outer curve of the river, to ride the fastest current, we actually did more like 47 miles of distance. But since the current ranged from 1 to 1.6 miles, we didn't have to do all that much paddling to get on down the river.

 I planned a meal of turkey, divided into light and dark meat, gravy,  Cajun Cornbread Dressing, Chiptole Sweet Potatoes, Molded Cranberry Salad, Shallot and Mushroom Green Beans, Moma Stambergs Cranberry Relish. Pumpkin and Pecan pies. I precooked everything but the beans and transported it in a cooler. Thanksgiving evening, as soon as everyone had their tents up, everyone had to set up their stove and heat something. The dressing was cut in cubes and wrapped in foil, then steamed. The gravy was divided into two pots, and the white and dark meat was added. Dutch didn't have to cook because I left the sweet potatoes home. (But Natalie and I already enjoyed a slight modification of them as breakfast cakes with plantains.) I cooked the beans at camp - first cooking them, then sauteing the shallot and mushrooms - which Dutch had to cut up for me - and then adding the beans back and heating them up. It was all delicious and we were all soon stuffed.

Cajun cornbread dressing  fresh from oven

Thanksgiving morning found us driving though a heavy fog towards Silsbee, Texas where we planed to put in at the Old Sheffield Crossing -FM 1013 crossing, - 5 miles east of Spurger, Texas. We drove through heavy fog. I suggested we NOT follow the route given us by our leader, but go up a back way to make up for lost time and to avoid I-10 in the fog. I was also hoping to get out of the fog zone faster. We didn't get out of the fog early, but later found we had missed a 140-150 vehicle pile-up on I-10 in which we could have been involved.

The pins show our put-in and take-out.  Click for larger view.

Loading up at the put-in

Me checking the balance of my load - later I had to add two tables and Dutch's food bag

Almost ready - Natalie has most of the Thanksgiving dinner also

Our first camp site taken Friday morning from my tent
The first thing Rob did each night was to gather wood for a huge fire. He, Dutch, and Bob dragged whole small downed trees to the fire and pretty much just fed them  into it throughout the evening. It took a lot of wood because the trees were very dry and decomposing. But the guys were up for the task every night and had coals to un-bury in the mornings when I appreciated the fire even more.

One of Rob's beautiful fires.

Me getting to play in the fire Friday morning after hauling in more wood
For Friday lunch, I supplied leftover turkey in wraps along with cream cheese, fresh spinach and the cranberry relish. We managed to kill off all of a 22 pound turkey in the two meals, plus Natalie and I had turkey slices for breakfast.  Dutch supplied a wonderful orange molded salad for desert.  I ate some of it again at supper and, I think, finished it off at breakfast the following day. I even ate dressing and cranberry relish for one breakfast.

Some of us on a lunch stop Thursday

Lunch stop on Saturday
Pat eating his supper on Saturday night
Terri with mascot
Natalie and Zootie
The river was beautiful and the weather wonderful.  We had a cloudy day on Friday with several little warm misty showers.  We all enjoyed all of the showers except for the one that made us put on our raincoats for a few minutes.  Then Saturday and Sunday were exceptionally bright.  I woke up at 4:00A M. on Saturday morning and saw probably the most beautiful Texas night sky ever. Even though I was freezing - only had my socks and long underwear top on - I had a hard time going back into my tent. Sunday we woke to frost on our tents and boats.  But it was shirt-sleeve weather again by the time we left, around 10:00A.M.

Sunrise view from my tent on Saturday

Morning View of frost and mist from my tent on Sunday

Natalie and Zootie matching the colors around them
Sunday morning was bittersweet as we enjoyed each others company, the beautiful day but knew the trip would be over in a few more hours.

Real men don't need shirts - Sunday morning about an hour after the frost melted

All weekend, I was  was truly thankful  for such great friends, the wonderful wild quiet, the beautiful fires Rob and friends built each night, and the fantastic stars and early morning views. And of course, I loved all the hours I spent paddling.  The only thing I'm not thankful for was the end of the trip.  If only I could have paddled longer. And of course, I'm now paying my dues as I clean the sand out of everything and get it all dry and packed away.

It's all over but packing up the cars - waiting for the drivers to return about 2:00 P on Sunday.
Now I'm dreaming of re-paddling all the Neches River. Maybe I'll just pack up and go for a couple of weeks and get someone to retrieve me at the end.

There is lots of information on trips on this lovely river.  Here is the link to the description of the paddling portions of the river.
And here is a wonderful article on the history of the river.
I put up an album for each day on my Picasa site, if you need to see more pictures. 

 Hope you too can enjoy this river. Or have stories about it to share. I would love to hear them in the comments.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Rainbow Trees of the Petrified Forest

The last detour Lucy and I made before we really had to get back to Texas was a visit to the Petrified Forest National Monument. in Arizona. This ancient forest is now mostly grassland but there are petrified trees everywhere.  And there would be a LOT more if so many tons had not been hauled off before the land was protected. Even now, vandals steal about a ton a year.

The minerals that have replaced the wood cells have their own colors and together, they make the trees all colors of the rainbow. As Lucy and I visited the Rainbow Forest behind the visitor center, each log had different colors and patterns so we had to visit them all.

 We drove through the main road, taking a couple of side trips to see other sites.

The ravens were all panhandlers and would fly up to anyone who drove into a parking lot

Hikers on a trail in the basin were Newspaper Rock is located

Newspaper Rock.  I could only see a couple of petroglyphs until I had this picture on the computer

This park has a lot more to offer than we had time to sample.  We did take time to visit the  Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark, as well as the Rainbow Forest and the Painted Desert Visitor Centers.

On  the home front, when this blog comes out, I'll be paddling and camping with seven friends for Thanksgiving on the Neches River.   I'm supplying Thanksgiving dinner and we'll be in the part of the Neches River that is in the Big Thicket National Preserve, one of the most biologically diverse places in the world. So I'll have lots to talk about when I get back. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Paddling with Zootie

 Dateline: November 18, Clear Creek, League City, Texas

I got to go on my first paddle since I've been back in Texas.  I've already been here for over a week so it was getting to be desperate times to live so long here without wetting my boat. I've been house sitting for my best friend, Natalie. She takes her small springer spaniel, Zootie, paddling so I thought I could probably handle her.  So we loaded up the boat, snacks, water, paddles, and both our life jackets and set off.

A little dry land practice pre paddle
 Zootie has been going lots of places with me and is a good little passenger.  But when we got to the park, she got really excited at all the great smells and sights of birds there. She got so wound up, I wasn't sure I could make her sit still  in the boat.  The first time I got in and both times we went under the Interstate 45 bridge, she was a little hard to manage. In fact she was totally terrified going under the bridge the first time and only a tight squeeze with my legs and grabbing her with my hands saved us. The second time, she was again reduced to shaking but she sat like a little trouper.

John has almost conquered  his spray skirt while Jim loads his kayak

Two pelicans weren't disturbed at all by our passage.  Zootie didn't try to retrieve them. So we stayed dry.

The group coming in to Challenger Perk

And I got to paddle with several of my friends - there were nine of us - in really beautiful weather; temps at about 70, with a light wind and little current in either directions. We had a good stopover at Challenger Park where we ate lunch together. 

 Notice that I'm the only one in a canoe?  This paddle is by the Houston Area Sea Kayakers and they don't invite canoers. But they let me get away with paddling since this canoe is fast enough that, with doubleblades, I can stay at the front of the group. And this way Zootie can have fun also. She loves water and walked and swam in it while we were waiting for everyone else to get ready.  She also needed some practice staying in one place in a boat since I think Natalie and I will be paddling solo canoes on our Thanksgiving trip.
Ann used my camera to get a picture of me and Zootie

Time to head back after lunch.

Spray skirts and life jackets go on, lunch gets packed away and we will soon be underway

This is a very urban paddle but we paddled between two parks so it still has lots of birds

The all-too-short end of a lovely paddle

Since I got home,  I had to get the turkey out of the brine - a major undertaking since I had to lift over 40 pounds high enough to get the bucket on the sink counter. I drained off the brine, rinsed the turkey and returned it to the refrigerator.  Tomorrow I'll bake it, then slice it up into dark and light meat bags.  The little pieces will become the meat for Friday's wraps. I'll make gravy to add to each bag of turkey and it will all be ready to reheat.

I cooked a huge batch of curried butternut squash soup this morning and just left it on the stove to cool.  I'll have to heat it all again for supper, then put most of it in the freezer. But my work for today is almost done.