East Texas Adventure: Part 4

Day 4 of the East Texas Adventure 2016 began at the Mineola Nature Preserve. On the banks of the Sabine River (this thing really gets around) it is a preserve set apart with trails, marshes, and birds of all kinds. There is also a pollinator garden there to attract bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies.

One of the larger animals you can see there is a small herd of American Bison. While commonly referred to as a “buffalo”, its correct name is actually bison. These massive creatures can surprise you with their speed and agility. I remember watching them in Yellowstone leaping over fences. Many other “tourons” (tourist morons) have approached them too closely, only to learn that that massive head can toss a person quite a few yards, sometimes straight up!!

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One of my goals for coming here this day was to get a good shot of the pronthotory warbler. My friend Danny Pickens comes here often and had been posting some very nice shots. With my first sighting of one the previous day I had hopes of getting a cleaner shot of one out in the open and I was not disappointed! This one came out and landed on this small branch just a few feet away from the wildlife viewing station. This is a shot that made me happy.

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Just like the three days prior, the weather was hot and humid, but I didn’t let that stop me from spending some time on the trails here. I walked down to the gator pond, but did not see any gators. They have been spotted here, but not by me.

I did however spot this indigo bunting on the trail as I was walking back towards the parking lot. I’m always happy to see these little beauties! Combine this with the earlier warbler and I was a hot, sweaty, and happy photographer this day!

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After spending the morning here it was off to the town of Mineola to get lunch and decide where to go next.

After a quick lunch at MickyD’s I decided to go tourist for a bit and check out the East Texas Gator and Wildlife Center. I’ve been looking for gators all week, so why not go someplace where I know they exist? This is quite the interesting place and they do a lot of work with local schools and educational organizations. In fact there were a couple of school groups going through the place when I arrived.

Here you can see several young children being introduced to “lemon drop”, the rather large snake.

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While they have several reptiles and other animals inside, I came to see gators, so I headed outside to see some gators!

I came to the first pond and looked and at first I saw no gators, but then I saw the eyes sticking up out of the muddy water. If you look closely, you can see them too. And if you look even closer, you can see another on hiding in the muddy water behind the grass on the right. The gators are here all right, but they are very stealthy, at least at first glance.

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As I walked around, I soon began to realize that there were many more gators here than I first thought. Of course they are all behind fences for safety, but they are quite close. I would not be wise to be reaching over the fence to try and pet one. This one was practicing some form of gator yoga and it stretched it neck and soaked up some sun.

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And while this one looks like it is snarling at me, I think it was just being lazy and waiting for something to land it its mouth for a quick snack.

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These are truly ferocious looking creatures and I understand they can bite a mans arm or leg off with a single bite! As I was leaving I asked how many gators they have and they have well over 40 in their ponds. When asked where they get them I was told that they are all local East Texas gators that people have found on their property. Rather than kill them, they have a trapper that can bring them here where they can be cared for.

After spending some time talking with the people here, in their air-conditioned building, I figured I would make one more stop since I was out this direction, and headed to lake Tawakoni. Yet another of Texas’ great state parks where you can enjoy the great outdoors, no matter how how and humid it may be.

The first thing I saw was a squirrel, so like any good dog, I froze to watch it.

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Not realizing just how tired I was at this point, I parked my car in the parking lot, and with the motor and AC running, ended up taking about an hour long nap while I was waiting for the sun to get a little lower in the sky. My hope was to stay here until sunset because the sky was full of big fat puffy clouds.

After my little nap, I gathered up my cameras and headed to the nature trail which the rangers at the gate had informed me were well known for birds. And while the trees were not exactly full of birds due to the heat, I did hear a familiar call in the trees and was able to catch this beautiful painted bunting. This is one of my favorite birds and one that I don’t see to see nearly often enough. I occasionally hear their call at my place, but I have yet to actually see one there. Luckily, this male stuck around long enough for me to grab a few shots before heading back into the trees.

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And speaking of trees, I also ran across this very interesting looking tree on the trail. With its branches twisting and twirling all around, I could imaging this tree in the middle of some Halloween scene and drunk teenagers are running through the woods being chased by some crazed person with a chainsaw and machete. I’ll just keep walking for now.

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Sadly, as I picked out my spot to wait for the sunset over the lake, every last cloud in the sky began to dry up and disappear. At this point, hot, sweaty, and the beginnings of hunger beginning to set in, I decided to head for home. I was about a hour away at this point and I figured I could take a picture of a “bla” sunset anywhere. So I picked up my gear and headed back down the trail towards my car. Once there I loaded up, leaving the cameras in the front seat next to me, just in case.

And am I glad I did. Just as I was exiting the park, this greater roadrunner runs across the road directly in front of me. Seeing that no one else was on the road, I cut across the road to the oncoming side, pull over to the shoulder and grab for my camera. Apparently it was its dinner time as well because I watched as it bug up a rather large worm and then went after this cicada. Unfazed by my presence in my car, it continued on hunting as if I wasn’t there.

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Then to my surprise, another roadrunner showed up. I don’t know how to tell the male from the female, but I would guess this was one of each.  I thought maybe that red behind the eye of the second one may be a hint, but from what I’ve read, that is more an indicator of age with the young not having the red patch.

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After spending some time with the roadrunners, I headed home to wind down my this four day adventure. and as I pulled into the driveway, I was greeted with this beautiful sunset, right in my own back yard. Now that is a great ending to my week of adventure.

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Was the week hot and sweaty? Yep. Was it full of adventure? Yep. And was it worth it? You bet! But next time I will try and schedule my time off at a time when it might not be quite so hot.  And I’ll try to sneak in some shorter adventures in the mean time to keep this blog updated. I’ve had several comments from people who have enjoyed reading this and taking the adventure along with me, so I’ll try not to disappoint.

Until next time,

Michael

All photos copyright of Michael Hampton 2016 and taken with the Canon 5DS-R or Canon 7D Mark II

East Texas Adventure: Part 3

Another day, another chance to see something new! I got up early. And by early, I mean 6am-ish. Early enough to be on the road by 6:30ish or so. For today’s adventure I wanted to head over to the very east side of Texas and check out some wilderness on the Sabine river that separates Texas from Louisiana. First stop on the trip was North Toledo Bend Wildlife Management Area just outside of Joaquin Texas.  I found this by googling  “Texas Birding Trails” and picked the North Toledo Bend Loop. Texas has set aside these areas all over the state, so if you’re in Texas and want to find a place to go birding, this is a great resource to start.

As I started down the trail, I saw a flash of yellow and wondered if it might be the fabled Prothonotary Warbler that many of my photography friends have been catching lately. While it remained in the shadows, I was able to catch this glimpse that was my first confirmed sighting of this beautiful bird.

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Interesting note about this bird: according to WikipediaThis bird is named after prelates in the Roman Catholic Church known as protonatarii, who wore golden robes.

Continuing on down the trail, I noticed that it was quickly shaping up to be yet another hot and sweaty day. I had one camera on a neck strap and my other camera on a hand strap. It did not take long for that hand strap to become soaked from the sweat running down my arm. Luckily my cameras are weather sealed fairly well so I didn’t have that to worry about but they’ll be due for a good cleaning after this vacation.

Walking on, I came across this red-eared slider turtle making its way down the trail. I gave it a wide berth so as not to scare it into the woods for the purely selfish reason of getting ahead of it to make a photograph. It didn’t seem to mind too much as it turned its head to give me its best side.

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And yet a little farther down the trail I met up with this nine-banded armadillo. Kind of an unofficial symbol of Texas (although usually on its back beside the road), these things are nearly completely blind. If you are quiet and up wind, you can almost walk right up to one before it knows you are there. I heard this one rustling in the brush beside the trail and simply stopped and stood my ground while it made its way across the trail right in front of me. I stooped down quietly to take its photo.

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Moving along down the trail, I saw yet another flash of yellow. Thinking it might be a second sighting of the earlier prothonotary, I quieted down and moved slowly toward the yellow bird. Once I was close enough, I realized that this was a completely different bird. yet another new one that I had not seen before. After asking my friends and looking on the internet, I have come to the conclusion that this is a yellow-breasted chat. Chalk up yet another new one for my list of birds photographed. Of course, as always with new birds, I am willing to be corrected,

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As I continued down the trail, the temperature continued to rise, as did the humidity, to the point that the “feels-like” temperature felt like about 130°! Okay, that was my personal observation, not anything official from NOAA. However the sweat pouring from my body due to the rising humidity as I got closer and closer to the Sabine river was enough for my internal thermometer to register that I needed more water. Luckily I had brought a bottle with me in my back pocket. As I pulled it from my back pocket, I realized that I had already consumed the bulk of it and began to wonder if maybe I should have brought a second bottle along on this hike. It was then that I looked up and confirmed my suspicion…

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As this turkey vulture circled overhead like some harbinger of doom, I decided to find a shade and sit down to observe the river for a while. I’m also thinking that a Camelbak might not be a bad idea for future Summer hikes.

After a Spring full of record setting rain all over East Texas, the river is still close to the top of its banks. You can also notice the nice puffy clouds as a testament to the high humidity, but they sure are pretty!

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With the heat at this level, a lot of the wildlife has headed for shade or otherwise cooler areas, but there was the occasional egret or heron flying up and down the river looking for a cool spot or a meal of opportunity. This great blue heron flew by, probably looking for a nice shady place on the banks of the river to hunt for its lunch.

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Speaking of lunch, it was that time so as the heat continued to rise, I headed back to the car to go find someplace to refuel my body, or that vulture just might be satisfied in a way that would not please me too well. Arriving back to the car I headed to Center, Texas, which is not in the center of Texas by any means, but it is close enough and they have a Whataburger which is a staple food here in Texas.

As a side note the town’s name goes back to around 1866 when an East Texas State Representative, Al Johnson, introduced a bill to have all county seats be as close to the center of the county as possible. The County Clerk, taking this measure literally, had the county surveyed to find the center of Shelby country and thus Center Texas was born. (Wikipedia) Hey, you never know when that information will come in handy. You’re welcome.

After eating lunch, I circled back to the WMA and spent a little more time there sitting in the shade and just observing the river flowing by. Not much else was happening, other than a grandfather trying to teach his grandson how to back a trailer down the boat-dock which was somewhat amusing to watch. So after making sure they got the boat loaded properly on their trailer, I turned the car towards home with plans to stop at the Martin Creek Lake State Park, near Tatum TX. There is an island in the park that has almost always provided something interesting whenever I visit.

Arriving at the park, I made my way to said island and the first thing I noticed was a rabbit. This was new. I don’t normally see those here, but this was my first visit this time of year. The interesting thing was that it just sat there. At first it was almost flat against the ground in the shade, possibly trying to stay cool. Maybe it was trying to be stealthy thinking I would not see it, but it was too late. I moved cautiously and lowered myself to be a better shot. With those ears though, there was no way I was not seeing it. It sat there while I captured several frames and then slowly hopped its way toward the trees.

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Seemingly laughing at the rabbit thinking it could hide from me, I noticed this squirrel peeking over the top of a tree stump, being clandestine in its own way. But no, I saw it. The squirrel eventually climbed on top of the stump and spread out to relax in the shade. It didn’t seem very threatened by my presence.

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Taking the trail that circles the island, I came across yet another rabbit. Looking around and seeing no knights or land littered with bones, I figured it was safe to proceed. This rabbit did not have “huge, sharp, pointy, teeth” as far as I could tell. This was a good thing since I was not carrying a holy hand grenade. All total, I must have seen about 10 rabbits on the island this visit. But would I get to see my favorite critter of the island this trip? I continue on walking stealthily through the woods and along the banks.

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Three of the last four visit to this island I have seen a white-tailed doe. I’m not sure if this deer swam to the island or if it simply walked across the foot bridge while no one was looking, but I’ve ran across it almost every time I visit this island. I usually walk up on it before I even know it is there and end up startling the both of us.

Sure enough, as I round a corner and pop out of the woods into a clearing, I look across and the doe is there, staring at me while I’m staring at her staring at me. We lock eyes and freeze. I slowly raise my camera and began to take a few shots and then she gives me a chance at a doe action shot as she begins leaping through the high grass headed for the cover of the woods. What a beautiful animal! Not wanting to cause it any further anxiety, I headed in a different direction to let her be in peace. She provided me which a nice action shot and that’s all I could ask for.

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As I head toward the foot bridge to leave the island, I came across yet another rabbit. This one was huge! If any of them were going to attack, this is the one. It just sat there as I slowly approached, watching me watching it, until it finally blinked first and hopped back into the brier bushes. That was a big rabbit!

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Once back to my car, I loaded up and headed for home. Yet another nice day in East Texas and one more day of adventure left. It was about this time though that I noticed that my ankles were really starting to itch. Must have gotten into some chiggers that were immune to my Off. Oh well, not too bad (at least I thought at the time). I later discovered that these chiggers had really tore me up from by belly-button down to my feet. I don’t know if it was the fact that I didn’t have the Off with the higher deet content or the fact that the can had been in my car over a year and had lost its potency, but as the days wore on, my legs got more and more spots. At one point I counted over 50 unique chigger bites. Yeah, it was miserable, but still worth it. I do however now have a new can of Deep Woods Off with a higher deet level in the car and ready for the next adventure.

So that wraps up day three. Day four will be available shortly to stay tuned! More birds, and yes, gators!

Michael

All photos copyright of Michael Hampton 2016 and taken with the Canon 5DS-R or Canon 7D Mark II

East Texas Adventure: Part 2

Continuing on from day one, I grabbed lunch and continued on to Dangierfield State Park near Dangierfield Texas. On my way there, I noticed that the clouds were beginning to get darker, and as I entered the park, sure enough, the rain began to pepper my vehicle.

Driving up to the lake area, I saw all the families running for cover from the beach as the rain came in. Driving around there was not much for me to see. Even the birds seem to have taken cover. But as I was driving around the parking lot, I noticed a small bird perched on a rock, shaking the water from its feathers. It sat there quite a while while I pulled up close enough to roll down my window and grab some photos from my vehicle. From what I can tell, this is a very wet eastern kingbird. The red dot on its head is usually hidden so this is a rare sight indeed!

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Also fighting the rain was this Carolina wren (my best guess). I found that identifying birds when they are wet creates a whole new challenge, especially when they are not birds that I see every day.

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In any event, even with the rain, it was a good day and I got to see several birds that I have never seen before, and even got to photograph a few of them. I also got to see a beautiful sunrise over the Caddo bayou, and while I saw no alligators, it was still a very cool experience.

Day two began with the more mundane but needed task of getting my vehicle serviced at the dealer. Take care of the vehicle and it will take care of you. While waiting on my car I looked to see what state park was the closest and found the Mission Tejas State Park near Grapeland Texas. This is the location of the first mission in the land now known as Texas, dating all the way back to 1690. It sounded interesting, so I take off.

On the way to the park, I came across yet another interesting site. The Caddo Mounds state Historical Site. This was the site of a Caddo (Hasinai) Indian village dating back about 1200 years. While hard to see in this photo, there is a larger mound on the right which was a burial mound and a smaller flat top mound on the left which, it is thought, was some sort of civic mound where ceremonies may have taken place. Across the street (not pictured) is a third mound which is thought to have been their religious temple mound. While digs have been conducted on all three and the surrounding area, a lot of artifacts have been uncovered. Now the mounds are restored and there is a museum located on the site with a plenty of information about what was once there.

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Also on this site is a portion of the El Camino Real trail which was a major trade route at that time. Stretching from Mexico City to Natchitoches, LA, the route was over 1,100 miles long. There is only a small portion of the trail here that is available to hike, but, as with the mounds, there is plenty of information here on the historicity of the site to peak the interest of any history buff.

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While walking around the trail I noticed this old barn back in the woods. I asked the caretaker about the history of the barn and his first question was, “Why, did it finally fall down?” He then proceeded to tell me that this barn actually only dates back to the previous land owners before it was sold to the state and dates back only to about the 1920s. Still, for anyone who loves old barns, it is a sight to see.

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Coming back out of the trail you walk right past the ancient burial mound. Apparently, as time went on, they would create graves on top of other graves thus resulting in this mound. If you are interested in the whole story I would recommend going and taking a few hours to go through the museum and listening to the caretakers explain about the culture of the people who once inhabited this land. And by the way, the descendants of these people still exist and live in Binger OK where they have their tribal headquarters.

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Leaving the mounds I continued on a few miles to the Mission Tejas State Park. Looking forward to seeing an old Spanish mission, I was a little disappointed to find that the original mission is no longer standing, but rather a log chapel which was built by the CCC back in the 1930s. Once again, a little research prior to heading to the site would have told me this information. Still, an interesting piece of history, and a very nice, clean, and peaceful park, at least the day I was there.

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For those that complain about the color of carpet or the comfort of their pews in their church, a quick look inside shows that worship of God has nothing to do with our comfort. The log pews and rock floor would do little to draw attention away from the Almighty.

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As I love looking for birds the ranger told me that they were working on a bird blind on one of the trails. I happily took off down the trail (hilly) in search of said bird blind. What I found was indeed what looked like the beginnings of a bird blind. There was a fence wall with holes to look through, and on the other side was a collection of bird houses and feeders, however they were all empty, save the nest of wasps in one of the feeders. Since this bird blind is a work in progress I won’t post any photos, but I do hope that they continue getting it set up for future visits. Disappointed, I headed back toward my car, hot and sweaty.

Then, as I arrived at my car and began loading my cameras I noticed two birds fly into the trees across the road. I could have sworn I saw flashes of red and white, and then I began to get excited. Grabbing my 100-400 telephoto lens I zoomed in and sure enough, two red-headed woodpeckers! This is a bird I have very few photos of, and exactly zero of those are of any quality. I quickly fired off several shots hoping to get something, anything, before they flew away. Of course they were separated so I was unable to get them both in one shot.

As they remained, I slowly began walking toward them to be closer and cleaner shots. I was able to get several, such as the one below, before they finally flew back into the woods. I’m sure I had a grin that went from ear to ear at this point. Surely the highlight to this day!

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After the red headed woodpeckers, not much else could top this, but it was still too early to call it a day, so on my way home I decided to swing by lake Tyler to see what might be happening. As one might expect on a hot summer day, not much other than people putting their boats in the water and taking their boats out of the water. There were however a group of swallows (I’m not sure of the exact species) that were flitting around the boat dock so I decided to practice my bird-in-flight techniques and was able to come up with this photo of the swallow with its wings outstretched.

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That brought an end to day two of my east Texas adventure. With still two days to go, I had already seen quite a bit. Check back later to find out what happened on days three and four!

Michael

All photos copyright of Michael Hampton 2016 and taken with the Canon 5DS-R or Canon 7D Mark II

East Texas Adventure: Part 1

Taking some time from my “real” job, I took a few days off to explore my local area here in East Texas. After driving several hundred miles over a four day period, I discovered a few things. 1) East Texas is a pretty diverse place; swamps, hills, forests, prairies, birds, snakes, gators! 2) East Texas has a lot of friendly people; many times I was approached by people, just to chat. And 3) even in East Texas, mid-June is not the time to be going out and hiking in the woods. Between the heat and the humidity, my clothes were soaked with sweat before 9am each day. Live and learn. Next year I must remember to do this in March, April, or even May rather than wait until the temperature begins to rise.

The first morning my plan was to visit the Caddo Lake State Park near Karnack, Texas. I woke up and arrived before the attendants were at work, so I filled out my admittance card and entered the park. I proceeded down to the boat dock area where I was able to see the peacefulness of the Big Cypress Bayou as the sun arose in the distance.

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After scouting for any signs of wildlife and arriving at the conclusion that I was the only one here at this time, I was just about to move to another location when a helpful park official arrived and pointed me to the trails behind the boat ramp. I thanked him for the information and headed into the woods with two cameras in hand (one telephoto and one wide-angle).

The first thing I noticed was, “gee, it sure is dark in here.” The second thing I noticed was the amount of trees which have fallen from the recent rains and floods. Part of the trail was actually closed because a large tree had fallen and smashed a footbridge making that portion of the trail impassable.

Sure enough, once I got deeper into the trails it was far to dark for any decent wildlife/bird shots even if anything appeared, but I figured I needed the exercise anyway, and since my clothes were already wet with sweat from the high humidity I soldiered on, and I’m glad I did.

Deep in the woods, I came across some old work of the Civilian Conservation Corps from the 1930s which seem to be for the most part abandoned. While still a “feature” of the park, it does not appear that the camp sites and pavilion deep in the woods are being used at this date as they have been overgrown with moss and vines.

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After walking about a mile or so, I made it back to my car and I headed to the park entrance. Now that the office was open I wanted to talk to the rangers and get some insight into the park. While there, I ran into the official who directed me to the forest trail and he asked how it was. When I mentioned that it was pretty dark he said, “Oh, I didn’t think about that.” But again, no loss. There was still some interesting history to be found in that area.

The rangers pointed me to the fishing pier as a location for birds and other wildlife, although they said gators are rarely seen during the daylight. So, I headed there to see what I could see.

After getting my cameras out of the car I noticed… Squirrel!

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Back to the search for birds. While not a plethora of birds, I did manage to see a few birds which I had never photographed, or even seen in person before. The first was just a flash of blue which I noticed in the cypress trees, hiding among the Spanish moss.

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Not entirely sure what species of bird this was, I texted a photo to my friend John Tucker (also a photographer) who identified the bird to me as a Northern Parula. Not only had I never photographed one before, I had never even heard of this particular bird before. Score! That deserves another view.

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About this time I was approached by a woman who noticed my cameras who informed me that her husband had recently bought her a new camera and she was trying to figure it out. She mentioned trying to find a class to take but I suggested that she could find a lot of information on sites like youtube to at least get her started. She thanked me as they boarded their canoe and headed into the bayou, never to be seen by me again! (cue spooky movie music) Okay, probably nothing bad happened, but I left before they got back. Still, sounds like a line from a horror movie though.  LOL

Focusing my attention back to the cypress trees on the shore, I noticed some movement and happened to catch a touching scene where a male yellow-billed cuckoo was presenting his mate with a bug for lunch, among other things. She accepted his gift and he flew away, but not before I got my very first shot of this species!

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Sure, there were some branches in the way, but I couldn’t let my first shot of this pretty bird remain hidden on my hard drive. And when I turned around… Squirrel!

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About this time another couple came by in a boat. As they approached, the man shut off the motor and they floated up to where I was on the pier. We had a nice chat about the area, and how much nicer it was than living in a place like the Dallas metroplex. I even learned that he was from close to where I live now in Overton, Texas–small world.

While we were talking, a bird began circling overhead and we could not make out what it was. We knew it wasn’t a vulture and we thought we saw a white head. I didn’t think that bald eagles were in this area in the heat of Summer, so I zoomed in and took a shot. As I zoomed in on the LCD on the back of the camera, I realized that what we were seeing was actually a Mississippi kite (yes, I had to sing the song as I spelled that). It was another nice catch to this fine morning.

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As we finished our conversation the couple pulled away into the bayou, never to be seen by me again, (okay, last time I do that). Soon another couple came by to put a canoe into the water. As they paddled into the bayou, (nope, not going to do it), I noticed the calm of the scene playing out before me as they glided effortlessly through the black water. What a nice day.

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Suddenly, I heard laughing behind me and I said to myself, I recognize that laugh! I turned and saw a belted kingfisher on the next pier over. I love the sound they make, even if it does sound like they are laughing at me every time I miss a shot of them. This one was kind enough to sit still long enough for several shots before continuing on his fishing expedition.

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By this time I was getting hungry and decided to head to my next  destination, which was the Atlanta State Park near Atlanta Texas. Little did I know that that particular park was closed due to recent floods. Next time I should read the “alerts” section of their web page. On my way there however, I did pass a couple of scenes that made me pull over and make a photo. The first one was near Antioch Texas where I noticed this fire-station water tank which I felt was rather photogenic.

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After that, I made my way through Linden Texas, which apparently is also known as “Music City Texas”. At this point I had never heard of this fact, but now, if I’m ever on Jeopardy and the question is asked, I’ll know. I learned this fact from a mural painted on the side of a building there, so I pulled into a church parking lot across the street and made another picture.

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As I was getting back in my car a couple pulled up to ask me if the church office was open. I had to tell them that I wasn’t from there and had no idea, so they went to the door and I never saw them again! Okay, sorry, I said I wasn’t going to do that.

After this full morning, I grabbed lunch and headed to my next stop of Daingerfield State Park, near Daingerfield Texas, just as the rain started to fall.

Tune in next time to find out what I saw and photographed at that location!

Michael

All photos copyright of Michael Hampton 2016 and taken with the Canon 5DS-R or Canon 7D Mark II

Prints and stuff for sale

Just a reminder that if you like the photographs you see here or on my facebook/twitter/instagram pages, check out my Fine Art America page where you can buy prints (framed and unframed), note cards, phone cases, pillows, bed spreads, and even shower curtains.

It is as simple as going to: MHampton Photography @ Fine Art America

If you are interested in other shots from the East Texas area, here is a shortcut: east texas photographs for sale

Now, go buy something and help support my photography habit!  🙂