Lake Livingston, I presume? Birding and boating in the East Texas pineywoods

We wrapped up our spring break vacation last weekend with a visit to the pineywoods of East Texas and the cute little lake house that belongs to my sister and her partner. This is the view from their yard.

Located on the Kickapoo Creek side of Lake Livingston, about an hour’s drive north of Houston, their weekend getaway is a light-filled cottage with a wraparound porch, a cushy hammock suspended between a tall pine and a pecan, a fishing dock, a couple of kayaks, and a pontoon boat for puttering around the lake. The weather was perfect—sunny and in the upper 70s, and at night it was just chilly enough to enjoy roasting marshmallows and making s’mores around the firepit.

Their pontoon boat was a new purchase since we’d last visited, so we were excited for the chance to go out on the water. Lake Livingston is a fairly shallow, man-made reservoir, with an average depth of 23 feet. With a number of “islands” of flooded-out trees, swampy thickets, and tall pines, the lake is a great place to bird-watch. My sister photographed bald eagles fishing at dockside recently, and huge flocks of pelicans migrated through a few weeks ago.

Alligators live here too, as in all southeast and northeast Texas lakes. My daughter went kayaking with C. after lunch, staying close to the bank as they paddled around the cove. She soon spotted a big gator in the water, and they turned around and paddled right out of that area. But I imagine there are plenty you don’t see, stealthy as they are. During one of their early visits, they told us, an alligator stalked their dog as it played near the water, tracking the pet’s movements with only its eyes visible above the surface. They scared it off and soon had a bulkhead constructed along the shore, which they hope will keep alligators from coming into their yard (which is fenced on both sides all the way down to the bulkhead).

Unless they’re fed, though, alligators aren’t naturally aggressive toward humans. People who live with them don’t ever seem to worry too much about them. People swim and ski in the lake, including my sister and C. I don’t believe I’ll ever swim with the gators, however.

I hoped for a gator sighting from the boat, and a photo op, but they eluded me this time. Still, we saw lots of beautiful great egrets (pictured) and great blue herons hunting along the shore.

They’re fairly tall birds, and when they take off their wingspan seems enormous.

We also spotted cormorants flocking in trees on marshy islands…

…along with great blue herons, who were carrying sticks to build their nests.

This one perched atop a pine tree seems to be preparing for the crane kick.

The great egrets were busily nesting too and sporting their breeding plumage—wispy, ornamental feathers along the back and green on their faces.

Such a gorgeous bird!

We had a lovely, relaxing time at Lake Livingston. Thanks for your hospitality, sis and C.!

Upcoming: Lawn Gone! talk and book-signing, this Saturday
Hey, Texas Hill Country peeps! Please join me this Saturday at 10 am at Backbone Valley Nursery in Marble Falls for my talk, “Lawn Alternatives for Central Texas” and a Lawn Gone! book-signing. I don’t know about you, but since it’s bluebonnet season, I’m going to take a little wildflower-peeping drive while I’m out there.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Austin Open Days Tour 2012: Rockcliff Road Garden

My fifth stop on last Saturday’s Open Days tour, the Rockcliff Road Garden, was really more of a sculpture garden. Lots of open space on this lakeside property, graced with a home designed by Lake Flato Architects, gives prominence to many large works of art placed on the grounds. But I couldn’t help noticing a devotion to Japanese maples in the entry garden. There were dozens, not all in the best of health, but clearly they were part of a collection, like the art. This one is a beauty, its rusty leaves set off by the chartreuse foliage of the tree behind it.

Some glowed red…

…and some greenish yellow along a curving limestone path. So many Japanese maples lent an Asian vibe to this part of the garden…

…played up even further with this courtyard combo of pines, junipers, and boulder.

Overall, however, plants seemed chosen for their sculptural qualities more than anything else, like these weeping blue atlas cedars, bent like wizened, gray-haired women and framing a boulder set on a concrete pad—art or nature? And are the plants part of a garden or pieces of art themselves? It was hard to tell.

Moisture-loving leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum) brightened a shady spot. Many of the plants in this garden were water lovers, but since the garden sits on the banks of Lake Austin it may well be naturally moist.

Leaving the entry garden behind, you step onto a railing-less boardwalk edging a small canal. The boardwalk leads in a straight shot toward the main house, set closer to the lake.

As you near the house you see this fascinating sculpture of crouching men stacked in a vanishing line atop the shoulders of an Atlas-like figure.

Each figure is blinded by the one above—a somewhat disturbing effect. Talk about a monkey on your back! Now that I think about it, all of the sculptures on the property had a vaguely ominous or unsettling mood, or so it seemed to me. Many were so visually off-putting that I didn’t photograph them. The owners obviously have a particular taste in art, and it doesn’t involve beauty but provocativeness.

Beauty was to be found in the design of the home itself, the natural lake view, and dramatic accents like these hanging, bare-root orchids.

I’m not usually much of an orchid fan, but I found these quite appealing.

Looking back down the boardwalk we just crossed—long vistas, straight lines, and vanishing points.

A soaring porch was open to garden visitors. In fact, we passed through the porch to see the rest of the garden along the lake.

Succulents in organically shaped pots and saucers

Another look—beautiful framing and craftsmanship

A wider view

I admired the interior for a bit, and then I noticed that a stone-block side table was engraved with some unsettling declarations. Later I learned that they are from Truisms (1978-1983) by Jenny Holzer. Hmmm. “Murder has its sexual side” is not something I’d want to read every time I set a drink down.

Stepping outside, a green-and-blue vista of lawn and lake greets you.

But uh-oh, here’s another vaguely creepy piece of art, like a swirling whirlpool, or a black hole ready to swallow you up.

Another look

Ah, I much prefer the view of water and green hills.

Chairs at the end of the lawn overlook the lake…

…but mischievously, some of the chairs are cleverly disguised pieces of art, placed in unsettling positions—one leg hanging off the edge of a deck or tilting to one side or, like this one, strewn into the lake as if a really good party had occurred the night before. Well, it was fun to see! This was definitely a garden with a sense of humor and a dark side.

Up next: The cactus and agave collector’s garden of Jeff Pavlat and Ray Clayton. For a look back at the contemporary Bonnell Drive Garden, click here.

All material © 2006-2012 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Rocky Mountain National Park: Bear Lake, wildlife, & tundra

My family and I recently enjoyed a nearly two-week vacation in Colorado, and I’d love to share some photos from Rocky Mountain National Park, a favorite destination for this Texan looking to escape the heat for a little while. Bear Lake Trail is an easy hike around a small, nearly circular mountain lake on the east side of the park. Although the trail is heavily used by visitors, I still find a slow meander around the lake to be a restorative experience.

We’ve walked around Bear Lake many times before, on sunnier days. But this time rain clouds had socked in the lake, making for a dreamy, contemplative hike.

On this still day, the glassy surface reflected a mirror image of the surrounding firs, pines, and mountain ridges.

Although the pine bark beetle has killed off many thousands of evergreens in the park, Bear Lake is still relatively untouched, although we did see stands of dead trees here and there. All part of the natural process, we were told, though it’s still sad to see entire mountainsides of bare trunks and fallen trees.

Shapely, white-trunked aspens are a favorite of mine. Walking through a grove of them, with their fluttering leaves overhead, is almost a transcendent experience.

We saw some cute critters, including this bold golden-mantled ground squirrel…

…and lots of birds, including this small nesting female, who flitted into a crevice under a rock shelf, right in front of our eyes, where she settled on her nest of peeping chicks, which we could only hear, not see.

She was quite safe from predators there, as the rock face was steep, and her nest situated under a overhanging ledge.

I don’t know what this satiny gray-trunked tree is, but its bark was very beautiful.

I spotted a number of wildflowers along the trail as well. though I don’t have IDs for any of them. This is a groundsel…

…and this is cow parsnip (thanks for the IDs, Tina).

Beautiful texture amid the ferny undergrowth

We also drove Trail Ridge Road, which takes you seemingly to the top of the world at 12,183 feet elevation. We took a short walking path through the tundra, admiring alpine plants that eke out a living up here, with a growing season of only about 40 days.

It’s easy to get altitude sickness at this elevation, if you’re not careful. That happened to me one year, when we walked the trail on an intensely sunny day. As I got back in the car, a stabbing headache, sensitivity to light, and severe nausea set in, and all I could do was close my eyes and slump against the window until we got back down to our cabin in Estes Park at 7,500 feet. Luckily, that didn’t happen this year.

We were higher than some clouds.

Later we spotted this elk on the side of the road, and I snapped a few photos through the windshield.

Majestic, no?

In one of the valleys, a sighting of a female moose having lunch in a marshy area stopped traffic on the park road, as several of us pulled over to have a look through binoculars and telephoto lenses. Wildlife sightings are one of the highlights of a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, along with beautiful scenery and mountaintop vistas.

All material © 2006-2012 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.