Thursday, June 20, 2013

Lone Star to Badgerland

Back from Costa Rica, life returned to normal (please - no remarks about what is “normal”). We continued to volunteer at the state park next door, visited favorite birding areas (Estero Llano Grande State Park remained our favorite), and got together regularly with our BPV friends.

Last day at BPV was very quiet - note our truck in the distance
In order for Carol to celebrate her upcoming milestone birthday with as many family and friends as possible, an early May arrival in Wisconsin was essential. Of course by now, many of you already knew what Carol didn’t: Tom's ongoing plans for Carol’s surprise birthday party which had begun in late January.
With our early May arrival target date in mind, an April 7 Bentsen Palm Village RV Park departure date was set. By the time we eventually left BPV, the park was nearly devoid of RVers and was by this time, very, very quiet.

pretty much had Mustang Island SP to ourselves
Mustang Island-Port Aransas ferry crossing
Birding friends Dick and Sally Werling, parked a couple sites away, had also stuck around until the 7th. By 9:00 a.m., a half hour after the Werling's departure, we were rolling again, headed to our first stop: Goose Island State Park. We detoured for a picnic lunch at Mustang Island State Park, then during a short jaunt on the Mustang Island-Port Aransas ferry, we added one more new bird species to our Texas state list, a Magnificent Frigatebird. Part of the Texas Department of Transportation system, the free ferry crossing was definitely one of the cheapest pelagic trips we’ve taken.

snugged into site 103 at Goose Island SP
By mid afternoon we were checked into Goose Island SP. Once settled into our site we set about birding by first visiting the feeding stations at Larry and Judy Geiger's site, the park’s bird hosts. One thing was clear - the hoards of mosquitoes we had encountered the previous year were noticeably and blissfully absent. However, also noticeably absent were the numbers of neotropical migrant bird species. Bummer.

American Oystercatcher Rockport Beach Park
White-eyed Vireo at Geiger's water feature
Buff-bellied Hummingbird bathing in Geiger's water mister spray
During our two full days at Goose Island SP we visited the Joan and Scott Holt Paradise Pond (alas, dry as a bone), the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center (sewage treatment plant), and the Rockport Beach Park and beaches. We included a non-birding stop at the Aquarium at Rockport Harbor (free admission), plus a few return visits to the Geiger’s feeding stations. All in all the birding was slow given the time of year. Where were the migrants?

site #1 at High Island RV Park
birders gathered for the Reeve at the Skilleran Tract Anahuac NWR
On Thursday April 10 we left Goose Island bound for High Island roughly 220 miles away. Taking coastal Hwy 35 we avoided the heavily congested Houston area which also meant another free ferry crossing: the Galveston ferry to the Bolivar Peninsula. Our travel day consisted of some light rain and strong winds but by the time we arrived at High Island RV the weather had cleared enough for us to comfortably walk to nearby Boy Scout Woods to buy our annual Houston Audubon passes. By late afternoon more rain returned accompanied by lightning and thunder. By the way, this was the first rain of any substance we had experienced since our arrival at BPV last December! The north winds that brought the rain served to heightened our hopes of the possibility of a fallout of migrant birds.

Green Heron at Anahuac NWR
Seaside Sparrow at Anahuac NWR
Alas, despite what seemed to be favorable birding conditions, as we hiked Boy Scout Woods, Smith Oaks trails and rookery, Hook's Woods, and Eubank's Woods the next day, the bird numbers remained low and slow. The weather had cooperated and done its bit but apparently not many birds had begun their migration across the Gulf of Mexico yet. Kind of hard to have a fallout of birds when there are no birds to, well, fall out.

Roseate Spoonbills at Smith Oak rookery
American Bittern at Anahuac NWR
Our week at of High Island included side trips to Rollover Pass, Bolivar Flats, and nearby Anahuac NWR which seemed to be where most of the birding activity was occurring. We included an organized morning “rail walk” which was really a slog through wet meadow/marsh habitat in search of incredibly hard to find Yellow and Black Rails. One of the former cooperated. But while other birders on earlier walks from a couple days previous managed to find Black Rails (a life bird for us), we had whiffed on our walk. However, later in the day at the Skillern Tract, we did manage to see a Reeve, a north Eurasia bird that occasionally wanders into the United States. Reeve is the name given to the female Ruff. The male is remarkably distinctive in appearance while the Reeve is not. Regardless of which gender when a Ruff is found in the ABA area, it always causes quite a stir.
Rick and Betty Zarwell, long time birding pals from Iowa, happened to be in Texas on bird related business and joined us at High Island for a day. They had target birds that we helped them find and supplied them with a meal at our place on Monday evening.

Common Nighthawk day roost at Anahuac NWR
Finally, on our last day at High Island we had a decent fallout of birds. Nice to see some good numbers for a change but of course we would be leaving the next day, driving away from what appeared to be a decent birding forecast for the next few days. That seemed to be our luck this year...that when good birding picked up it was after we had left an area!
We crossed over into Louisiana the next day. Having already decided that we would not be spending the following winter in Texas, our Lone Star state bird list would remain, at least for a time, at 409 species.

Carol and the famous Betty of Betty's RV
Avery Island Jungle Park
Forsaking a route via the Interstate we hugged the Louisiana coast on our way to Abbeville. which included another free ferry crossing at Port Arthur.
Abbeville is where Betty’s RV Park is located. It’s one of those parks that anyone who has been RVing for a while that if they have not yet visited, has at least heard about. We had first stayed at Betty’s during our first year on the road in the Spring of 2010 and had several fond memories of the park. Betty, the park's owner operator is an iconic fixture in Abbeville and pretty much the reason so many people stop. If there’s anything worth knowing or seeing in the area, Betty is all too happy to share. While the RV park is small and sites are, well, sort of scattered about, she has a following of regulars, some of whom we recognized from our 2010 stop. Betty’s daily happy hour is THE place to be. Friendly, fun and a talented folk artist and cook - that’s Betty.

Anhinga pair (male on right) Avery Island Jungle Park
Tree Frog at Betty's RV
young Barred Owl, Palmetto Island SP
We were only going to be at Betty’s for a couple of nights which left us with just one full day. We planned a repeat visit to Avery Island, home of Tobasco, a must do mainly to stock up on our Tabasco. It also meant we had a chance to catch migrants at the nearby Jungle Garden. Sadly, as with everywhere else before, the birding was quiet. However, the next morning before leaving Betty’s we had time to explore Palmetto Island State Park. It proved to be a park that we’d like to visit if we’re ever back in the Abbeville area again. Lots of hiking trails, canoe trails (you can rent a canoe for $20 for a full day), and very clean, large campsites. RV camp site #88 in particular turned out to be a site we might book in the future - it had a very cooperative male Swainson's Warbler!

site #50 Bayou Wilderness RV Park
Chicot State Park
The move to our next park was short. Just over 30 miles to Bayou Wilderness RV Resort. Astute blog readers will recall our five day stay at Bayou Wilderness in 2012 when we connected with RV friends Pat and Sue Genereux to attend the Festival International de Louisiane (Music Festival). This year we were too early for the big festival but joined Pat and Sue and another couple, David and Pat, visiting UK friends of the Genereuxs, for the day long Dewey Balfa Cajun and Creole Festival at Chicot State Park. Of course no visit to Lafayette would be complete without breakfast at T-Coon’s! (check out their menu)

site #44 Gulf State Park
Northern Bobwhite Quail (male) at our site
The drive to Lafeyette would be our last short haul. The calendar dictated that now endure longer driving days if we were to make our Wisconsin deadline. Our next leg was over 300 miles to Gulf State Park near Gulf Shores and Mobile Bay, Alabama. We had not been RVing in Alabama so this added another state to our RV map. The longer distance was in part due to having to navigate around the east side of Mobile Bay. But, we would be spending a week at Gulf SP so we’d have time to rest and recoup. Well, rest and recoup as best we could given all the things we had in mind to do.

Gulf State Park beach
Pitcher Plant, Graham Creek Nature Preserve
We had hoped to see more neotropical migrants by now having read about a massive fallout at South Padre Island (TX) and at High Island but it turned out that we were too far east. Still, we added new yard birds: Northern Bobwhite Quail coming to our feeder and  Brown-headed Nuthatches. We also managed to find more some highly unusual birds for the area: Great Cormorant, Golden Eagle, and Gray Kingbird. Gulf State Park has several long hiking/biking trails all easily accessed from our site. We also spent a day traveling to Dauphin Island by taking a ferry (not free) across Mobile Bay and back.

site #28 Clarko State Park
We departed Gulf Shore SP on Sunday April 18, crossed over into eastern Mississippi for an overnight at Clarko State Park. Interesting to discover that a highway we are very familiar with in Wisconsin, Hwy 45, runs all the way up to Wisconsin and was for the most part, 4-lane.

site #7 Chickasaw State Park
The next day and another long haul. We crossed into and through Kentucky before we stopped for the night in Tennessee at Chickasaw State Park in Tennessee. It was interesting to note that the foliage on trees and shrubs was getting smaller and smaller the further north we drove. Chickasaw SP, while a lovely place to visit seriously lacked level sites and access for rigs bigger than a Class C...and even then, good luck finding a level spot!

site #7 Hill Top RV next to the Smith's site
The last day in April found us parked at one of our “regular” spots: Hilltop Campground outside of Goreville, Illinois. Facing two more days of very long hauls we opted to spend a couple nights at Hilltop. Besides, we wound up being parked next to good birding friends, Jerry and Karen Smith who also have made Hill Top a regular stop on their way north. We shared an evening cookout with the Smiths and spent part of the next day birding at nearby Ferne Clyffe State Park then a stop at Owl Creek Vineyards, our favorite winery in the region.

site B3 Hickory Hollow RV - note how small the leaves are!
Hickory Hollow RV in Utica, Illinois was our next stop as we spent the better part of a long day driving mostly in the rain. It didn’t help that the driver’s side windshield wiper was not clearing Tom’s side of the windshield well. Rather than take the time to find a GMC dealer to replace the wipers, Tom simply switched wipers. The next day, much of it again in the rain, Carol didn’t see the road very well. But then it seemed more important that the driver have the clearest view.
From Utica, it was another 250 mile day but it was our last day towing for a while. We were backed into our regular summer spot at the Ward’s home in Dale by mid afternoon. Todd and Cindy were not be home when we arrived but we still managed to back in and park all on our own. We would not have been able to do so had the TV cable company not finally taken care of a low hanging (out of code) cable which had apparently been buried.
Already our calendar was filling up with planned visits with family and friends starting the next day. The behind the scenes details for Carol’s milestone birthday surprise party were taking shape. It was goog to be back in familiar surroundings again...and would we be able to keep Carol in the dark about her party?
chance meeting with "Birdchick" at Estero Llano Grande SP

Brown Thrasher bathing at the Geiger's site, Goose Island SP
Lincoln Sparrow at Geiger's site, Goose Island SP
Willet, Rockport Beach Park
Water Moccasin, near Anahuac NWR
moon over Gulf State Park
young Barred Owl, Palmetto Island SP
Abbeville Iris
Laughing Gull

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