Sunday, July 21, 2013

Goose Island Camping

This past week, we took a summer camping vacation to the Texas gulf coast. Surprisingly, this was our first trip to the coast, at least for vacation purposes. In the past, we had not been sure that we could bring our dogs anywhere but it dawned on us that the state parks would accommodate them. This was to be a kayaking trip with some bird watching. Even though this is not the best season for birding, we figured it would be a good practice trip, especially to see how the dog did.

Goose Island State Park- We made home base atGoose Island State Park, north of Rockport. The park has two sections, one part on shore in a wooded area and one part out on shores of the island itself. We chose the wooded area since it offered more privacy. We were pleasantly surprised that the mosquito population was less of an issue than we had expected, though DEET was still a requirement. The shore sites were exposed to the strong evening wind blowing the first half of the week. The park is clearly a haven for fishermen. Those camped on the shore sites were able to cast their lines from just outside their campers!

Based on our reading, we were anticipating WiFi access, though weak, at the park. This was the purpose of last week's long range WiFi antenna project. Unfortunately, what we did not realize was that only the shore section of the park had any coverage at all. My antenna was not capable of pulling in a signal over a mile away. Danielle, who still had to access work, drove several nights to the other end of the park for an hour of on-line computer time.

A fishing boat launch is located on the short causeway out to the island. There, I stopped and watched a flock of Brown Pelicans and Laughing Gulls scavenging for tidbits around the fish-cleaning table.

Lighthouse Lakes - On the north side of the causeway between Aransas Pass and Port Aransas is a shallow marshy area dotted with mangrove bushes. This area is called Lighthouse Lakes for the old lighthouse which still stands. This area has several marked paddling trails and is popular with both fishermen and nature-watchers such as ourselves.

This was to be our main kayaking destination for the week and was about a 25 minutes drive from the camp. Mustang Island State Park is slightly closer but requires passage on the ferry. We launched from the city park along the causeway and were able to back the truck right up to the water.

Separating the paddling area from the launch point is a wide navigation sea channel with various boats from fishing trawlers such as the one below to small fast boats. These have right of way so kayakers have to time their crossing appropriately.

In the back well of our Wilderness Systems Commander 140 boats, I built a carpeted platform for Vali to stand or sit in. These boats are stable enough to pull him back in the boat out of the water. Unfortunately, this was a common occurrence. As a water-crazed Labrador, sitting still in the boat was a real struggle for him. He clearly thought the purpose of the trip was to throw bumpers (retrieving toy) into the water for him. We are going to need to do a lot more obedience training under the distraction of nearby water.

Here we are shoving off from the launch point ...

... and preparing to cross the channel behind us.

At one point, I attached a bumper to the back of the boat to keep Vali from whining continuously. You can see what I mean in the picture below. I was surprised by the gusto with which he attempted to pull the bumper. At one point, he actually backed his hind legs up onto Danielle's back while tugging. He then fell in and, still holding the bumper, came up on the back side of the boat and started pulling the boat back up the lake. I wish I had taken a movie but I was laughing too hard to breath.

Most of our paddling was in very shallow water, rarely more than 2' deep and often only 6" deep. The floor of the lakes is very squishy and smelly mix of silt and decaying vegetation, like a really badly maintained aquarium. Much of it covered in grasses that shelter fish. We saw many Mullets breaching out of the water across the lakes. Here is a shot of my boat skimming over the grasses.

Less friendly were these things which I gather are oyster beds. Sometimes found in isolated clumps on the muddy bottom, sometimes forming shallow islands. They are razor sharp as we found out when we ran aground in a patch of them. Vali jumped out on to them and sliced several paws badly on Monday, our first day out. I sliced a finger flailing in the mud to push the boat out. That pretty much ended the first day's paddling activity.

After a change of pace on Mustang Island the next two days, we came back to Lighthouse Lakes on Thursday and Friday to better weather. I traced our paths with the GPS each day. The blue trace below shows the 5.5 mile look to the lighthouse situated right on the channel and back again. The yellow and orange traces (we got separated) are from our Friday attempt to reach Quarantine Shores which we aborted early because the wind came up again and we expected a rough slog back to the launch. This was a 7.0 mile loop.

The lighthouse was a very picturesque destination. Though not an active lighthouse, there is still a care-keeper in residence and there is no trespassing on the property. Actually, the lack of any "shore" within the lakes region made dealing with Vali more difficult as there was no place to get out and play for a bit.

Mustang Island - On Tuesday, we decided to check out the paddling on the bay side of Mustang Island. We drove there via Corpus Christi which made for a longer, 1 hour drive. We put in at "Wilson's Cut" a few miles north of the state park. I was glad I had entered the way-points in the GPS because there is no signage. A short dirt track leads from the main road to the launch point at the head of the cut. We saw one other kayaking group but mostly outboard motor boats using this as an access point to the bay.

Here, Danielle is taking the edge off of Vali with ten minutes of bumper throwing before we launched.

The wind was brutal that day, blowing straight down the cut from the seaward side of the island. We only did a mile before packing it in. The last stretch back to the launch along the cut was very strenuous; amazing what a "sail" your body makes in the wind.

Tuesday night saw very heavy rain fall which continued on and off all day on Wednesday. We decided to leave the boats at camp and take a driving tour back to Mustang Island. I snapped a screenshot of the weather radar on my iPhone showing the rain clouds funneling up through our area.

This time, rather than taking the long way down and around Corpus Christi Bay, we took the ferry to Port Aransas. I think this is the first time I have been on a car ferry.

In Port Aransas we stopped for lunch and one of the little eateries called Miss K's. The proprietors were very friendly to Vali and we didn't have to leave him in the car. I don't think they would have been as impressed if they could see him on the kayak.

After lunch, we stopped at Mustang Island State Park to see the coast proper. After wading out to the the beach through a parking lot and picnic area flooded with cold rain water, I was amazed how warm the seawater felt. This trip was Vali's first exposure to salt water and he was continually frustrated at not being able to drink out of his own bathing water. The small waves, however, did not phase him a bit ... any place is a good place to fetch bumpers. We did not venture out into any real surf or depth.

Here again at the jetties at "Fish Pass," we let him off leash for another round of fetch-in-the-surf as the storm clouds remained at bay for a while. This spot looks like it was once a channel cut back into Corpus Christi Bay but is now dried up.

The pink granite blocks were fun to wander over and not too slippery. I found a number of roach-sized crustaceans scurrying over them. In one of the tide-pools between the rocks, I found a school of small striped fish washing back and forth as the water surged in and out. They were only a couple of centimeters long.

I at first thought that they were Sergeant Majors until I remembered I was not in Hawaii. After some web searching back at home, my best guess is that they are Sheepshead fry or perhaps Black Drum.

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge - After breaking camp at the end of the week, we stopped at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, north of Rockport. This is another likely spot to come back in the winter to do bird watching as Whooping Cranes winter in the area. At noon, in the middle of July, however there were not too many birds around. Even the resident alligator was not to be seen. The mosquitoes, on the other hand, abounded in the wooded areas. This was what we had been afraid of at Goose Island.

We took a quick walk out to the boardwalk on "Big Tree Trail" to look out over the marsh into San Antonio Bay. We saw a few herons and egrets including this juvenile Tricolored Herontaking off and flying out over the water.

While we were watching, a pair of raccoons ambled in under the boardwalk poking around in the mud. I have never seen a raccoon with such light, reddish colored fur. This one stopped when it saw us, turned around, and ambled away.

Over the course of the week we saw many species of birds including some we had not seen before. We were fairly confident in our identification of the following:
  • Northern Cardinal - Ever present in the trees around the campsite. We are well acquainted with their song from home.
  • Laughing Gull - Numerous scavenging around the fishing boat launch points
  • Brown Pelican - Roosting on piers in the bay and scavenging for fish trimmings along with the gulls.
  • Black-Bellied Plover - Poking around in the mud and seaweed along the shoreline at Mustang Island, only saw one.
  • Ruddy Turnstone - Saw several of these on Mustang Island.
  • Roseate Spoonbill - Feeding in the mud and grasses at low tide at Lighthouse Lakes, saw two.
  • White Ibis - On land on islands in Lighthouse Lakes, and one flying at Mustang Island.
  • Forster's Tern or Royal Tern - Small group diving for fish near jetty at Mustang Island SP
  • Neotropic Cormorant - Perching on duck blinds and flying low over the water at Lighthouse Lakes.
  • Great Egret - Perched in the mangroves and fishing at low tide at Lighthouse Lakes and Aransas NWR.
  • Reddish Egret or Little Blue Heron - Perched on a duck blind with Cormorants at Lighthouse Lakes.
  • Great Blue Heron - Fishing at water's edge at Lighthouse Lakes and Aransas NWR. Quite a few of these.
  • Green Heron - Saw one in mangrove at Lighthouse Lakes.
  • Tricolored Heron - Several juveniles at Lighthouse Lakes and Aransas NWR.
  • Red-winged Blackbird - Both saw and heard a number of these on the mangrove bushes at Lighthouse Lakes.
In addition, we saw a number of other shore birds that we were not sure of the identification. I expect a winter trip will yield more birds.

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