A Quick Trip to California

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February 5th 2010
Published: February 8th 2010
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View of Coosa RiverView of Coosa RiverView of Coosa River

Sam Houston Jones State Park is on the Coosa River. This river flows into Lake Charles and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico.
Our second leg of the trip began leaving New Orleans. Our plan was to spend ten days in Joshua Tree National Park with one or both of our sons. We had ten days to get to Joshua Tree; enough time to enjoy a few special places along the way.

We had a few more thoughts about the Big Easy and Louisiana in general as we left the city. Our first visit there was the winter after Katrina, four years ago. Many parts of the city were wrecked and deserted. However, the French Quarter, although not flooded, was in shock. There were hardly any people and few businesses were open on Bourbon Street, which is usually overflowing with people. Last year when we stayed there, Bourbon Street was really alive. It was several weeks later in the season, closer to Mardi Gras, but strippers came running out onto Bourbon Street to pet Moxie (much to Jon’s delight)! It was so crowded; we had to carry her in places. This year was different. It may have been the economy, it may have been the time of year. It seemed as if all of the French Quarter was in good shape, but
Great Blue HeronGreat Blue HeronGreat Blue Heron

Both camping areas at this state park were adjacent to this large Cyprus Swamp. Great Blue Herons were common there.
there weren’t that many tourists. Hopefully, business will pick up as Mardi Gras approaches.

Our first stop was the Sam Houston Jones State Park near Lake Charles on the western edge of Louisiana. This lovely park is set in a swamp surrounding the meandering Coosa River. It was a great place to walk the trails and roads to see both water and land birds. The travel-free day was appreciated and Moxie and we had a great time there. The weather was beautiful and relatively warm. Moxie and Lynn actually went running for the first time since early December.

We also did some birding. In addition to the expected “local” birds, we had good luck picking up some uncommon residents, notably at least five different Red-Headed Woodpeckers. You can find this species in Ithaca, but it is quite rare. We also saw a good assortment of overwintering migrants, including Blue-Headed Vireo, Red-Eyed Vireo, flocks of sparrows, mostly chipping, white-throated, and white-crowned were seen, as were flocks of Cedar Waxwings and American Goldfinch. The goldfinch were feeding on the seeds of abundant Sweetgum trees. Other migrants included about all the warbler species you’d expect over-wintering in the southeast
Cyprus SwampCyprus SwampCyprus Swamp

The very still morning turned the swamp into a beautiful giant mirror.
: Yellow-rumped Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Palm Warbler, and Pine Warbler. We saw both Common Crow and Fish Crow.

On January 22, we drove to McKinney State Park just outside of Austin. Part of the reason was to see Austin, which we had never visited before, and part was to visit our friends, Kathy and Jerry Schwab. Stopping at Austin required a slight detour off of interstate 10 which we had been following since New Orleans. Traveling north on route 183, Lynn spotted a Crested Caracara, a raptor we both get excited about. It is most closely related to falcons and vultures, about the size of a red-tailed hawk, with very striking plumage. The Austin area is about as far north as it gets and a good find.

When we met Kathy and Jerry Saturday morning we decided to spend part of the day birding and part seeing the city. First we went to Hornsbee Bend, a sludge treatment site for the city of Austin. They get the sludge from Austin’s sewage treatment facilities and after composing and other treatments, mix it with other organic material and sell it as a product called “Dillo Dirt”
SIte at McKinney Falls State ParkSIte at McKinney Falls State ParkSIte at McKinney Falls State Park

It was hard to believe that we were only fifteen minutes from Austin at this tranquil spot.
in honor of the lowly armadillo. The city just received a major grant to build a methane-fueled generator that is projected to meet the electrical needs of 750 homes. There are several large ponds at Hornsbee and we found lots of waterbirds as well as passerines in hedgerows along the ponds. We saw about 35 species in two hours. Favorites included several Least Grebes (a species most common along the Rio Grande and unusual this far north) and a loose flock of 30-40 Wilson’s Snipes. We also stopped briefly at a small lake at a city property called Zilker Park where we saw 15 more species including Common Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron (adult and juvenile), and Great Blue Heron. Included among the ducks we saw was one of Jon’s personal favorites, the Black-bellied Whistling Duck. We then took time for a really good Texas Pit Barbeque lunch and then Jerry gave us a car tour of the city, University of Texas campus, the campus of Huston-Tillotson University, the historically black school where Kathy is a faculty member. In all, we had a great day.

When we left Austin a major weather front had just missed the
Upper FallsUpper FallsUpper Falls

There are two sets of beautiful falls on the Colorado River (other one!) in the state park.
area. This resulted in strong winds of 20-25 mph from the west (our direction of travel), which cut into our gas mileage substantially. While traveling in the morning, we noted that almost all of the vultures that we saw flying were Black Vultures; only later in the day did lower-flying Turkey Vultures appear. The geology to the west of the Austin along interstate 10 is known as Texas Hill Country. Our copy of Texas Roadside Geology had lots of interesting things to say about this part of Texas, some of which we included in captions of certain photos included with this travelblog.

Our next two-night, one-day stop was a wonderful state park in West Texas called Balmorhea, the site of an artesian spring that feeds a desert wetland, called a cienega. In the shadows of the Davis Mountains, the Civilian Conservation Corp built the state park facilities in the mid 1930’s, all in adobe style. The facilities include a massive swimming pool through which flows the 74°F water from the spring (one million gallons per hour!!). There is also a small motel, cabins, and an RV sites with electric and water. The scenery was stunning, and so were
Lower FallsLower FallsLower Falls

Above the lower falls was a huge area of bare rock that must get washed clean with heavy rains.
the birds, which included many desert species making you realize that you are finally in the Chihuahuan Desert. These include, Scaled Quail, Canyon Wren, Pyruloxia, Curved-bill Thrasher, Bewicks Wren, Greater Roadrunner (!!), White-throated Swift, and Black-throated Sparrow. Wow!

The next day we made the 500 mile trip from Balmorhea to Tucson, Arizona, arriving at Cactus Country RV Resort about 5 PM mountain standard time. Actually, Arizona is always on mountain standard time since it does not recognize daylight savings time. We arrived in Tucson just as a major storm passed through the area. It was very strange to drive through the area and see sheets of standing water on low points in the desert. I guess this is the second major storm in a month and has helped alleviate a drought. The lowlands received over two inches of rain in a month, which sounds more like the northeast. The mountains received lots of snow and Mt. Lemon had skiing for the first time in several years. It was very cold in the lower areas. While we were there, we didn’t expect to be wearing down parkas in southern Arizona.

Last winter we spent two weeks in
Birding at Hornsbee BendBirding at Hornsbee BendBirding at Hornsbee Bend

We had a wonderful morning with Kathy and Jerry Schwab at a wastewater treatment center. Really!
Tucson visiting the many wonderful natural areas around the region. If you are interested, you might consider browsing our travelblog from last year at http://www.travelblog.org/North-America/United-States/Arizona/Tucson/blog-373970.html. We are scheduled to be in Tucson for only two days this year and will spend most of our time doing laundry, getting some minor repair work done on the truck, and provisioning for our trip to Joshua Tree National Park and Salton Sea in California. That will be the topic of our next travelblog.

We did spend several hours one day at our favorite sewage treatment area euphemistically named Sweet Water Wetlands. Actually it is very pleasant and loaded with birds, including flocks of Yellow-headed Blackbirds. The last photos show a few waterbirds from Sweet Water.

Additional photos below
Photos: 37, Displayed: 27


An Austin City ParkAn Austin City Park
An Austin City Park

We visited this city park with this huge spring-fed swimming area similar to Balmorhea but not as warm (See below).
Skyscrapers in AustinSkyscrapers in Austin
Skyscrapers in Austin

Downtown Austin with skyscrapers including this one ethereal building.
The Texas Capitol (in distance)The Texas Capitol (in distance)
The Texas Capitol (in distance)

The Texas Capitol resembles the US capitol except that it is taller (of course).
The University of Texas TowerThe University of Texas Tower
The University of Texas Tower

The icon of the university dominates the campus. In 1966, Charles Whitman a student at the University of Texas at Austin, killed 14 people and wounded 32 others during a shooting rampage that began here.
Skyline of CitySkyline of City
Skyline of City

This view is from the Huston Tillotson University Campus where Kathy teaches.
Sunset over AustinSunset over Austin
Sunset over Austin

This was the spectacular sunset that we observed on our way back to McKinney State Park after a wonderful day in Austin.
Through the Texas Hill CountryThrough the Texas Hill Country
Through the Texas Hill Country

West of Austin we passed through the rolling countryside of hills.
Geology along I-10Geology along I-10
Geology along I-10

This limestone strata was deposited during the Cretaceous period when much of Texas was covered by a shallow sea. Thus, most of the embedded fossils are marine.
Geology along I-10Geology along I-10
Geology along I-10

The incredible depth of the sedimentary layers was evident in these huge road cuts.
Crossing the upper Pecos RiverCrossing the upper Pecos River
Crossing the upper Pecos River

The last time we were on the Pecos, it was near its entry into the Rio Grande in Seminole Canyon (winter 2009).
Texas wind turbinesTexas wind turbines
Texas wind turbines

In west Texas, we traveled about 20 miles beside wind turbines placed on the ridge beside the road. There must have been many hundreds, maybe thousands. Like many wind farms, they were not close to civilization and thus difficult to utilize.
Balmorhea State ParkBalmorhea State Park
Balmorhea State Park

We were here last year but only spent one night. This time we got to know the park and its adobe architecture better.
Balmorhea State ParkBalmorhea State Park
Balmorhea State Park

Our campsite was across the way from a cienega, or desert wetland that is supported by a spring in the desert. We thought of it as a little oasis. The state was doing a lot of work on parts of the park including the area adjacent to the wetland so it wasn’t as striking as it was on our last visit.
Cienega (desert wetland)Cienega (desert wetland)
Cienega (desert wetland)

Parts of the cienega were still beautiful and much beloved by coots!

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