Sunday, December 10, 2017

My, What Long Needles You Have...

We are in far east Texas, the only part of Texas that supports Longleaf Pine forests. Longleaf Pine is an interesting tree that is highly dependent on fire to thrive and persist. For the first 5-10 years of life, it exists in a "Grass Stage" in which it appears to be a thick clump of grass. In this stage it is highly resistant to fire, which will burn the needle tips but not harm the bud.

At some point the tree makes a growth spurt, elevating the growing tip 4-5' in just a few months, (hopefully) placing it out of the reach of low-intensity fires. This is called the "Bottlebrush Stage".

After the growth spurt a Longleaf Pine grows up to 3 feet per year, to a maximum height of about 125 feet.  

Longleaf Pine is named for its extraordinarily long needles, which are up to 18 inches long. The local Alabama Coushatta Indian Tribe is famous for their ornate (longleaf) pine needle baskets. Here is a picture of baskets from an article about the Alabama Coushatta tribe. 

As impressive as the needles are, the cones are even more so. These are the biggest pine cones we've ever seen! These cones are 8 inches tall, but sources say they can be up to 10 inches. 

Most pine seeds are too small to notice, but the seeds in these cones are big enough to see. On the right is the "winged" part of the seed, which detaches from the cone and floats to the ground. On the left is the seed itself, which is about 1/2  long. 

Longleaf Pine forests benefit from regular, low-intensity fires. Fire eliminates the brush understory and competing trees. In the Angelina National Forest where we found this grove of trees, there are regular controlled burns to keep the forest healthy. All of the trees have scorched trunks, but they are thriving. 

Next - The rare bird species that relies on Longleaf Pine forests to survive. 


Friday, December 8, 2017

Winter in the Park

We were surprised to wake up to a dusting of snow this morning!

The snow was fluffy and dry, so didn't cause any problems with slick roads or sidewalks.

A beautiful Whitetail buck strolled through the snow behind our trailer. 

I wonder how many times this Pileated Woodpecker has seen snow?

It is supposed to be nice and sunny this weekend!  Crazy Texas weather...


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Another Paddling Trip

We are certainly getting good use out of the park kayaks!  We set out on another beautiful morning to explore the waters surrounding the park.

This first picture is an accidental "art shot" that was caused by the sun streaming though the trees. Usually the glare of the sun ruins the picture, but this one came out great.

We had another perfect morning, with warm sun and no wind at all. The water looked like glass as we set out through the Bald Cypress trees.

This turned out to be the morning of the turtles. Every exposed log had one or more turtles sunning themselves. 

A tiny Damselfly decided to ride along with me for a bit. At this point I am unwilling to take my big camera out on the kayak, so I take an old point-and-shoot camera. It does a pretty good job on close in objects, but leaves much to be desired on birds.

The Great Egrets were out in force once again. This one was hunting among the Water Lily and Lotus pads that cover the shallow areas of the lake.

We don't know how long this amazing November weather will last, but we intend to take advantage of it as long as we can. 


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Sixteen Bridges

In our quest to hike and paddle all of the trails in Martin Dies Jr. State Park, we decided to try the 2.25 mile Slough Trail. For those not familiar with the word "Slough", it means a swamp or backwater area. Because much of this trail is near swampland, there are sixteen small bridges and boardwalks along the way.

Most of the trail is heavily wooded, with tall pines and hardwoods providing a beautiful "tunnel" to walk through. 

We continue to be impressed with the size and height of trees here in the park. We've not spent much time in East Texas, but they sure do grow some dandy trees.

There were plenty of mushrooms and fungus growing on fallen logs and the forest floor. 

The American Beautyberry was still holding on to bright purple berries. Eventually birds will eat them. 

Our hike ended at the "Swamp Overlook", which is a large wooden bridge overlooking the lake in one direction and the slough in the other. 

More to come later from Martin Dies...


Saturday, November 11, 2017

Kayaking and Bushwhacking(?)

Bushwhacking refers to hiking through wilderness areas without trails. But what if you do the same sort of exploring in a kayak? Is is Marshwacking? Swampwhacking?

We took the park kayaks out again, and this time we decided to explore backwater areas of the lake rather than established trails. There were plenty of dead-end coves and channels, but we also found several connecting channels. We saw plenty of ducks and wading birds, and expected to find one of the many alligators that are said to inhabit the lake. However, we failed to find any of the toothy reptiles!

We came across large areas of water lilies and other flowering plants. What is amazing is that all of the foreground in the picture above are growing in standing water. The few areas of land are supporting the trees you can see in the background.

It was a beautiful day and we paddled about three miles exploring the back areas of the lake. We look forward to more exploration.


Sunday, November 5, 2017

Kayaking at Martin Dies Jr. State Park

Martin Dies Jr. State Park rents both canoes and kayaks, and one perk of being a volunteer is that we can use them free of charge.

Teri and I grabbed a pair of kayaks on our first day off and explored the Walnut Paddling Trail. This is one of four paddling trails in the park, and goes all of the way around the island where our campground is located. The map shows it as a 2.7 mile trail, but we traveled a little over 3 miles as we meandered around a bit.

The kayaks are smallish sit-on-top models. We've paddled in a number of different types of kayaks, and enjoy sit on tops when the water and weather are warm. They can get a little damp, which makes them less desirable in colder conditions. The picture above shows the launching area. The first order of business was to paddle out beneath the observation bridge. That area of the lake is shallow and weedy, so it took a little searching to find a clear way out. 

Out beyond the bridge the water was calm and clear. For the most part we stayed close to the shoreline, where huge trees overhang the water. 

We saw a few ducks and wading birds, including this Great Egret. 

There are many different species of trees in this park, but the Bald Cypress and Southern Magnolia seem to dominate the shorelines. 

It is interesting to weave in and out of the cypress roots. They make such an interesting habitat. 

At one point we could see our truck and trailer through the trees on the shoreline. 

About 2/3 of the way around the trail we entered a slough (channel) that took us back toward the launch point. This area was different than the open water we'd been on. 

Near the takeout we had to cross under the small bridge that accesses the island. 

We plan to try each of the paddling trails here in the park. Hopefully they are as enjoyable as the Walnut Paddling Trail!


Thursday, November 2, 2017

Strike up the Band(s) -

One of North Americas most interesting mammals is the Nine-Banded Armadillo. Restricted in the US to southern and southeastern states, many folks have never seen one of these unique critters in the wild. As we explored the 3/4 mile Island Trail here at Martin Dies Jr. State Park, Teri spotted this fellow rooting around in the brush.

Armadillos are the only North American mammal protected by bony plates. Their mid-section is crossed by a series of nine narrow bands that give it some flexibility, allowing it to curl into a ball if threatened.

They have rather poor eyesight, and if you remain quiet they will sometimes shuffle and snuffle their way right up to your feet. They do have a well developed sense of smell, and can sometimes be seen with their head raised, sniffing the air. 

This one got very close to us, but light was fading fast and we had to move on to finish our hike while we could still see. Click on the picture and count the central plates. Is the name correct?

We've since seen a couple of more Armadillos around the park, and look forward to seeing many more.