Brazos River Canoe Excursion

by Alan Rudd

I have been accused of having too many boats. Anybody that loves the water and understands that water transport has been a vital part of human existence, should naturally be attracted to boats and boating. It is after all deep in the human psyche to want to cross the waters and see what is on the other shore, and for most of human history bridges have been few and far between.

There is no such thing as too many boats!

On June 20, 2022, my son Adam (36 years old USAF veteran) and I checked and noted that Lake Whitney flood gates were being opened every night allowing a 4000 cubic feet per second (cfs) gush of water to proceed toward the coast and downstream users. Even though most rivers in Texas have been at extremely low flow rates all spring and summer, this water management strategy kept the Brazos River at a nice steady flow from Waco to the Gulf of Mexico, and perfect for canoe travel.

The canoe

We had scouted a reach of river that borders Milam and Robertson County from Google Earth photographs and by examining the access points at several highway crossings. This was a stretch of the Brazos I had never been on and pulling under the FM 979 bridge west of Calvert was the beginning of a very special day. Angie was the shuttle driver.  She took command of the truck after we unloaded my 1982 Grumman canoe, and an Ocean Kayak. We estimated that we could cover the 16 miles of river by 3 pm and that was the default rendezvous time at the next highway bridge on FM 485 near Hearne.

The only person we saw the entire day was a young man in a small motor boat at the launch point under the 979 bridge. We talked as three boaters should, about the river conditions, his cat-fishing success, and marveled that we had common friends down in Somerville. This polite young man named Austin said he is alone most of the year fishing this stretch of river that is blocked upstream and downstream by large rock structures that prevent most motorized boating. I was somewhat unnerved by the fact that he was surprised that we thought we could make it all the way to FM 485 Angie had already spun wheels in the gravel to go shopping in Bryan so there really was nothing left to do but head downriver.

We paddled in the shade of very large cottonwood trees, Texas ash, and black willows that form a high green curtain on both banks of the river. It would be 100 degrees later in the day, but the first three hours were delightful. At a rocky riffle less than a mile from the bridge two bald eagles launched from their observation posts and crisscrossed the river in front of us. I observed blue bells flowering on a clay embankment on the Milam County side. Spotted gar and alligator gar were surfacing alongside the boats most of the day, and you could distinguish them by their different skin color patterns in the moderately clear water. We passed through one location where the river cut through deep clay banks that sandwiched a 15-20-foot-thick vein of lignite. Spring water flowed from above the lignite seam and dripped into the river with and audible trickle. On this 16 river-mile reach we observed no less than seven spring-water inflow locations. The dripping and flowing spots alike felt to be about 70 degrees F to the touch of a hand when the river water was in the high 80s. One spring I estimated was running 6-8 gallons per minute and dropped at an angle where you could paddle under it and catch water in a canteen. I just filled my hat and then enjoyed an impromptu cold shower on river right. I carry large sponges to bail the canoe out when this indulgence strikes me.

The kayak

We did see cattle tracks, beaver sign, feral hog rooting, and wallow sites, but did not see a single human footprint the whole way. We found and picked up exactly two pieces of litter (a Gatorade bottle and a soda can). There were three tractor tires that had obviously washed down decades ago from farm operations just out of sight through the trees, but it was a joy to paddle a track where the trappings of modern society were not in plain view.

The large sweeping bends of the Brazos River produce huge sand bars on the inside of each curve. One on river right (the Milam County side) appeared to be 80-100 acres in size and was dotted with mussel or clam shells of many species. What a great camping spot to pitch a tent in the soft sand. Invariably these sand bars are across from a steep soil bank into which the river is carving and eroding away the deep alluvial deposits of red sand and clay. I searched with my eyes for evidence of bones protruding from these crumbling soil banks. Mastodon skeletons have been discovered by boaters in just such a search pattern. I seem to remember one excavation in the 1980s by Dr Gentry Steele, a Texas A&M professor that was alerted to a fossil find by river paddlers.

If I’d had a talented birder along (especially one with perfect pitch who knew birds by sound) it would have been a good time to listen and learn. I know the sound of painted bunting males as they are abundant around my home is Burleson County. Buntings were singing in the jungle along the river though on this day I never caught sight of one on either shore. Much other birdsong emanated from the trees and tangled vines, but I could not interpret the notes nor the silence between the notes.

Blue herons love to hunt in the shallow riffles on the Brazos. They were present in cadres of 8-12 individuals and were never happy to see us approaching. I thought it was odd that we saw only one white heron all day.  Cliff swallows were fledging young from nest holes that were burrowed into the crumbling red soil of one high bank on the Robertson County side (river left). I have seen them nesting on rock overhangs on the Rio Grande, but this display showed how they could have a nesting colony on the lower Brazos before the advent of concrete bridges that serve them so well these days.

The end of the river run brought us to a massive rock structure about ¾ mile upstream of the FM 485 bridge. This sandstone formation blocks the path of the Brazos and eons of the wear and tear of flowing water have not been able to dramatically alter its presence. 

In the late 1800s US government officials toyed with the idea that the Brazos River should be fitted with locks and dams such that steamboats could be run from the coast to Waco, Texas. Paddle-wheel steamboats of earlier decades could power upstream from Freeport all the way to Washington on the Brazos. A rock formation known as Hidalgo Falls blocked any meaningful traffic further upstream. The lock and dam proposal was shelved in the 1890s because railroads were doing a capable job of moving freight about the country. The idea was revisited, however, and circa 1905 construction was started on several of the proposed eight locks and dams. It seems a flood wrecked much of the work within a few months and another attempt after WWI saw Lock #1 (Hidalgo Falls), Lock #3 (Port Sullivan now FM 485), and Lock #8 at Waco, all earnestly under construction.

Lock # 8 at Waco in fact was completed and stood proudly until a massive flood in 1923 bypassed this man-made obstruction as the river rerouted itself. This same flood also apparently clobbered #3 and #1 as it lumbered to the Gulf. When I spoke with Eric Neubauer about this story, he mentioned having seen the lock and dam on a Google Earth image still present in the middle of a farmer’s field near Waco. At any rate the Feds abandoned the project 99 years ago and the remains of three structures are all that is left of that early attempt at freight hauling on the Brazos.

So, back to that sandstone structure that I approached with trepidation.  The 800 cfs of water flow was chaotic and looked dangerous to me. A good pathway through the rocks was not clear. As commander of this expedition, I stood on a mid-river boulder that resembled a giant biscuit. Without hesitating, Adam paddled past me through a maze of other giant biscuits (if I were allowed to name this formation today it would be Pillsbury Falls).

Working my way through in the kayak I saw Adam had cleared the formation in the Grumman using several daring maneuvers.  He was a combat airlift pilot so supplying him with a canoe built by a company that made WWII fighters just emboldened the pair to run the rapids pell-mell. The entire formation was perhaps 275 yards in length with multiple passages. It would be quite a nasty spot to traverse at 1800 cfs.

Directly below Pillsbury Falls was what remains of Lock #3 that was abandoned almost a century ago. This massive concrete structure dwarfs all human traffic on the river and clearly will stand for thousands of years. Watching the water flow through its 23-foot-high walls and across its perfectly flat concrete bottom made me wonder about the crew of engineers and laborers that strove to build this structure. Some of their equipment is a tangle of steel and wood downstream and near the current highway bridge. I don’t want to have to go through those upstream boulders at high water, but it would be fun to go shooting through that giant concrete lock one day.

After pulling the boats out under FM 485 bridge, we took a quick shampoo/shower with buckets of well water from the back of the truck. Changing into dry, clean clothes we were off to Coats Grocery in beautiful downtown Gause for ice cream. And the problem about “too many boats?” You either have enough to do the job or you don’t. No Problem.

Mike McCormick Explains Purple Martins

by Carolyn Henderson

Mike McCormick, considered the largest houser of Purple Martins in the area, shared his wealth of knowledge with the El Camino Real chapter of Texas Master Naturalist on Saturday, June 18. McCormick lives south of Buckholts in Milam County with thousands of Purple Martins and a few family members. He has been housing the birds for more than 40 years and has grown the number of seasonal residents steadily every year.

Purple martin house with adults waiting for fledglings to fly

There are approximately 65 Purple Martin houses at his place – all made by him. He’s also helped many others get started with some extra houses. 

Up close of the three fledglings that haven’t decided to fly, yet.

ECRTMN visited at the optimum time. All the babies are starting to fledge. Members learned how to house them and keep them coming back. McCormick also clarified some untrue facts about the migrating birds. For example, a 6-foot-tall martin house works as well as a 12-foot-tall house.

Martins in flight

Thanks also go to Donna Lewis, organizer of the event, and Ms. McCormick, sister to Mike, who fed us and kept the cattle herded.

Volunteering at the Gault Site

by Michelle Lopez

by Michelle Lopez

My husband Oscar and I went to the Gault Archaeological site and helped clear huge trees and branches that had fallen during a recent tornado. Got to meet some fellow Master Naturalists from other groups. It was an honor and a pleasure to meet Dr. Mike Collins, who bought the land/site and donated it to the Archaeological Conservancy to be able to preserve it.

The entry. We are always up for more field trips here!

There was also a film crew who are in the process of making a documentary about the site. It was exciting learning about the history, and I’m still very surprised that this place has been there for so long and I only heard about it when Dr. Clark Wernecke taught an archaeological class about it. It was fun meeting him as well; he’s a very cool guy.

About the film

Olive Talley is doing an awesome job on this documentary trying to get the word out about this hugely important site that literally changes everything scientists thought they knew about when people were living here locally. This site suggests 20,000 years ago!! That’s much earlier than 13,500 previously thought for the Clovis culture. 

Clark W. explaining about the site.

Here is a link to be able to follow the documentary.

Enjoy some photos from our day!

Wildlife Rescue – The Red-Tailed Hawk

by Larry Kocian

It was Wednesday, March 16, 2022, and we were enjoying spring break.  My wife was on her way to Bryan, Texas, with her mother, to pick up our niece for a spring break visit.  It was about 3:00 pm and past Milano on the south side of highway 79, she saw a hawk just standing there.  She thought the hawk must have prey on the ground and is trying to get.  The hawk was standing right in the grass and almost on the shoulder of the highway.  She continued her way and was in Bryan for several hours.  Upon her return home, she noticed the hawk in the same location, when she passed the area.  She turned around and pulled over in the grass passed the shoulder to see what was wrong.  

The hawk

My wife, her mom and our niece got out and saw the hawk was standing there looking around, but it was not moving its feet or wings.  They were careful not to get too close because they did not want the hawk to fly into the highway.  Her mom said the bird looked so pitiful, like it was seeking someone to help it.  It was about 7:30 pm by the time they got back in the car and started calling any wildlife rehab center they could find on google.  My wife knew there had to be a place to take the hawk, because when we go to the Renaissance Festival, we like to watch a presentation called “Birds of Prey.” In this live show, they explain how they acquired each bird and how it came to be rescued and rehabilitated.  The birds in the show were not able to be released back into the wild, so they used them for educating the public. Everyone they called was closed and they could only leave a message.  They did not want to leave the hawk there, but they were running out of choices.  They did not have a cage or any idea of how to approach a hawk to attempt to detain it.  

After she got to rehab

Then my wife remembered our friend, neighbor, and fellow master naturalist Catherine Johnson. My wife called Catherine’s daughter Rosie Johnson and then Rosie and Catherine got on the phone together. They gave my wife the number to the wildlife rehab called All Things Wild. However, All Things Wild is only an intake center, so they were still in the same boat, no cage, and no knowledge of how to capture the hawk. But thankfully they also gave her the number to another fellow master naturalist, Donna Lewis. My wife called Donna, and Donna was on it. Donna started calling all her contacts for wildlife rehab.  Before Donna hung up to start her search for help, she mentioned the Game Warden.  

My wife’s mom looked up the Game Warden, Derrik Rennspies, and my wife called and talked to him.  He agreed to come and bring his raptor cage and secure the hawk. Before he got there, Donna and her neighbor and friend, Holly Jentsch, showed up. Holly put a white sheet on the shoulder of the highway so approaching vehicles would be cautious.  When he arrived, the Game Warden turned on his lights to caution other drivers. He then put the white sheet over the hawk and the raptor cage, then carefully got the hawk inside the cage. When he was putting the hawk in the cage, he saw a dead animal, maybe a mouse or rabbit close to hawk. The hawk was most likely trying to get it.

Her red tai,

Now they had the bird secured, but there was still the problem of where to keep it overnight. Donna and Holly agreed to keep the hawk overnight and then my wife and I would transport it to College Station the next day. Game Warden Rennspies put us in contact with a wildlife rehab that would accept the hawk.  

The next day, 3/17/22, my wife and I, along with our niece, met Holly in Gause at Coats Grocery to pick up the hawk for transport. Once we secured the raptor cage in the inside of the truck, we took off for the wildlife rehab in College Station.  

She still had some energy!

Once we got there, we met wildlife rehabilitator, Krista Bligh. Krista is a wildlife rehabilitator through Texas Parks and Wildlife with mission of taking in injured or orphaned wildlife and releasing them back into the wild. She is not funded by the state, so she does wildlife rehabilitation out of her own pocket, as well as donations. She currently takes in a wide range of species, and she never knows what she will get. Currently she is feeding a litter of baby opossums as well as nursing other red-tailed hawks. Last year, she got in two orphaned baby bobcats, three orphaned baby foxes, and numerous injured and orphaned opossums, raccoons, squirrels, and the list goes on.  She explained that a huge part of wildlife rehabilitation is also educating the public. Not many people are taught about wildlife, so it is common for people to accidentally kidnap a baby from their mom, since they are left in odd spots for a wide range of time. The most common kidnapped wildlife are fawns (baby deer) and baby bunnies. By educating the public, she can save more animals by allowing the animals who are not needing assistance to stay and free up her time for those that do.  

Removing her from the box

Krista is currently a senior Wildlife and Fisheries Zoology major at Texas A&M University. She aspires to attend Vet School with the eventual goal of opening an official wildlife center for the Brazos Valley since it is so incredibly needed.  

Krista and Cherie Kocian

Once we got the hawk out of the truck, Krista was prepared to pick her up out of the cage. Her first impressions were the hawk had some neurological damage and possible internal injuries. She examined her and said she must have been grounded (not able to fly and hunt for prey) for a while because she was emaciated. Neurological damage can also come from eating poison or poisoned prey. Before we left, she said ask for updates at your own risk because the hawk did not look good. Based on the hawk’s size and weight, Krista believed the hawk was a female hawk.  

We contacted Krista the next day, 3/18/22, and the hawk was doing well.  She had her on oxygen to give her a boost while she was rehydrating her as well.  She was going to start her on semi-solid foods that night. She had no apparent external injuries, but she was not quite stable yet. She wanted to go very slow with her since she suspected she had internal injuries on top of the neurological issues and slight emaciation.  

Coming out of the box

Update a week after finding the female red-tailed hawk 3/23/22:  She is doing great.  She has been eating like a champ and Krista will be evaluating how well the hawk can fly very soon.  

Update as of 3/25/22: She is doing well and will be doing a test flight tomorrow to see how strong she is and how far she can fly.  

Update 3/28/22: After a few days of building her strength flying, she flew like a champ and is back into the wild.  

Back in the wild!

What a great ending to this story.  After 13 days from being found on the side of the highway, the hawk was rehabilitated and returned to the wild. 

Game Warden Derrik Rennspies-254-482-0892  

Wildlife Rehabilitator Krista Bligh-979-676-3974

What’s Blooming (and other things) along the Highways and Byways of Milam County?

by Carolyn Henderson

Spring bloomers are out in force this week. In two quick roadside stops, I found 17 interesting bits of nature, and 14 of them were native flowers. I was headed to the ECRTMN Birds and Bees Wildscape, but got sidetracked, so I thought I would see what’s blooming instead.

Fantastic shot of this vesper sparrow!

It started near the wildscape where I photographed a Vesper Sparrow, which is more common in New Mexico and Arizona than Texas, but it’s here. And then I found a Wild Turkey running down FM 334. I got one picture of it before it jumped/flew/ran from me.

Turkey time!

Via Rockdale, I went down Spur 77 toward Cameron. There are lots of Texas Bluebonnets out and Texas Paintbrushes are starting to come up. Southern Dewberries are in profuse bloom. If there are no more freezes this spring, there should be plenty of dewberries. I also found Wood Sorrels, Sword Leaf Blue-eyed Grass, Tenpetal Anemones and Imported Red Fire Ants in very large ant hills.

Moving on to Hwy 36/190 headed east past the Y, I found Eastern Redbuds still in bloom but changing over to leaves, Texas Toadflax, Drummond’s Phlox, Slender Vetch, Narrowleaf Puccoon, Hairyfruit Chervil, Texas Prairie Parsley and Groundsels.

There is an array of colors on the highways and byways of Milam County. In another week or two I suspect wildflowers in a massive bloom (assuming no late freeze). I hope you can take a drive to enjoy it.

Posting all these on iNaturalist has given me a new quest – to figure out where they get these names! I mean “Hairyleaf Puccoon?” “Texas Toadflax?”  Almost every plant was picked up by Plants of Texas in iNat, so they are native.

Finally, love is in the air. There is a Mockingbird across the street from my office admiring and attempting to attract this other bird (him) reflected in the window. I’m amused. He’s frustrated.