Montana Road Trip- Kalispell

We’ve been living in northeastern Montana for 6 months (officially eligible for resident hunting licenses, yeah!).  Drew’s mom Cathy wanted to come visit us on her spring break so we planned a little road trip!  Here was our itinerary:

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Day 1: drive from home to Kalispell

Day 2: explore Kalispell

Day 3: ski Whitefish

Day 4: drive from Kalispell to Missoula

Day 5: drive from Missoula to Bozeman

Day 6: drive from Bozeman to Chico Hot Springs

Day 7: drive home from Chico Hot Springs

Bogie and Spartacus are such good travelers.  I can't even handle the cuteness!

Bogie and Spartacus are such good travelers. I can’t even handle the cuteness!

The drive to Kalispell took about 9 hours.  Starting the drive in the morning we saw lots of pheasants and some mule deer doe close to the house.

Montana Mule Deer Does

Mule Deer does

But it really didn’t get pretty until we got to Lewis and Clark National Forest and then Glacier National Park.  The roads were mostly closed in Glacier but we were able to enter the park and go 11 miles on the Going-to-the-Sun road along Lake McDonald.

Glacier National Park in Winter

My mother-in-law Cathy at Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park

My mother-in-law Cathy at Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park

We finally made it to Kalispell and stayed at a family member’s condo.  They are winter Texans (or “Snow Birds”) and were still in south Texas so we had the condo to ourselves.  The view was beautiful, but I don’t think there is a view in Kalispell that isn’t beautiful!

View of the Rockies from our condo.

View of the Rockies from our condo.

I like to suggest and pick restaurants in new cities by their TripAdvisor rating so we ate at the #3 restaurant in Kalispell- Hop’s Downtown Grill.

Hop's Kalispell Review

And it exceeded out expectations!  Hop’s is a small restaurant but the ambiance is warm and cozy.  The staff is excellent, and all so attractive!  The menu was a little pricey, but Cathy wanted to celebrate Drew’s birthday so we enjoyed ourselves :)  Drew got the bison burger with homemade chips.  Cathy and I both got the beef tenderloins with rosemary garlic potatoes.  My goodness.   Had I left any sauce on the plate I would’ve licked it clean.  It was an incredible meal!

Beef Tenderloin with Rosemary and Garlic potatoes at Hop's

Beef Tenderloin with Rosemary and Garlic potatoes at Hop’s

We also went to the #5 restuarant in Kalispell- Sweet Peaks Homemade Ice Cream!   Delicious and so reasonably priced!  I got the Lime Curd and Shortbread.

Sweet Peaks Kalispell, MT

Sweet Peaks menu

Sweet Peaks menu

Lime Curd and Shortbread homemade ice cream from Sweet Peaks

Lime Curd and Shortbread homemade ice cream from Sweet Peaks

Kalispell is a really cute town.  I wish we had more time to explore the old downtown area.  It also seems like a lovely place to live.

Yarn Bombing in Kalispell!

Yarn Bombing in Kalispell!

 

Moose Bronze Sculpture, Kalispell, Montana

Our second day was wide open so we called up  Swan Mountain Snowmobiling to see if they had anything open.  I’m so glad we did!  We got their info from the local tourist guide and they squeezed us in for a 2-hour Snowmobile trip in the afternoon!  In the morning we went to Cabela’s and spent way more time there than we planned.  But I walked away with a new 7mm-08 rifle after making a trade :)  Anyways, we drove up north through Columbia Falls to the Canyon Creek Recreational Area where a lot of people enter the Snowmobile trails.  It was about 30 minutes from Kalispell.  We met our guide at the parking/staging area.  He distributed our rental gear (that included an avalanche beacon, jackets, snow pants, helmets, and even gloves if we needed them!).  He gave us a quick intro to how to drive a Snowmobile (or “sled” as its called in western Montana) and we hopped on.   It was the first time on a snowmobile for all of us!   It was a lot like driving an ATV but turning took some getting used to.  The machines were so light that you really had to use your body weight to help you turn.  We took off onto the trails.  It was so much fun!!  Our guide Shawn took us up and up and up.

Snowmobiling West Glacier

The red line is our Snowmobiling Track up the mountain into Kimmerly Basin and back down again!

View from my Snowmobile

View from my Snowmobile

On the trails!

On the trails!

We climbed 4,000 feet up to  to the Kimmerly basin which was over 6,000 feet.  The trails were the most fun.  The basin looked like a giant playground for snowmobiling.  Tracks everywhere!  Shawn brought us to the highest point to take pictures.

The top of Kimmerly Basin in a quick snow storm!

The top of Kimmerly Basin in a quick snow storm!

A snowmobiler's playground!

A snowmobiler’s playground!

 

Shawn showed us how deep the snow was when he pushed the 10-foot poll into the snow under our feet and it never touched ground!

The snow was over 10 feet deep!  And we were standing on it!

The snow was over 10 feet deep! And we were standing on it!

Shawn let us “play” in the basin and do whatever we wanted!  Which of course means we all got stuck.  Several times.  Mine was the worst.  I really dug the tracks deep trying to get out.  Then Shawn got his sled stuck trying to get me out!  It took about 30 minutes of pulling, pushing, digging and scraping but Drew and Shawn finally got my machine unstuck.  I was a little freaked out but Shawn stayed positive the whole time and even laughed about it.

My snowmobile stuck deep!

My snowmobile stuck deep!

I was done with the playground after all that!  The trail ride back to the staging area was awesome.  Shawn let us really cut it open on the straight-aways.  I got over 55mph (which I thought was CRAZY) but Drew passed me going 70!  Our total ride was 25 miles (up and back down the mountain).  By the time we got back we had definitely gone over our 2 hours and Shawn was such a great guide!  I highly recommend him and Swan Mountain Snowmobiling!

Snowmobiling Canyon Creek Recreation Area, West Glacier, Montana

After all the excitement of snowmobiling we crashed that evening!   Sore quads and backs.  But totally worth it for a check on the bucket list.  And that was just the beginning of our trip!  Stay tuned for more :)

Living in the Middle of Nowhere and Embracing My Inner Pioneer Woman

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I’ve lived in 5 different cities so far in my life: Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Houston, Monticello (Arkansas), and most recently, the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) in South Texas.  The RGV  is a huge metropolitan complex of cities and suburbs stretching 80 miles from La Joya to Brownsville.  Needless to say there were never-ending options for eating out and we enjoyed them weekly!

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Baked venison, black bean and green chile tacos.

Now we’ve moved to what I consider the middle of nowhere (although I know it could be a LOT more remote).  Our nearest “big city” (read: has a Walmart) is Williston, ND which is about an hour+ drive through oil field traffic.  In our little town we have a gas station with an expanded food section (canned goods, snacks, etc) but our real grocery store is 23 miles away.  Also, we lost our second income when we moved.  So we HAVE to cook a lot!

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Baked Monte Cristo sandwiches using puffed pastry.

Therefore I am embracing my inner Pioneer Woman.  No, I’m not churning my own butter or anything.   I am inspired daily by Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman.  If you’ve never heard of The Pioneer Woman, its worth your time to explore her website and cooking blog, and watch her tv show on The Food Network.  She’s an excellent writer, photographer and chef.  She cooks for her family of 6 (and them some!) so her meals are easy, big, and kid-friendly.   I love Ree’s blog because she photographs EVERY step of the process, including dicing the onions which I didn’t know how to do before!  Her foods are simple and easy to customize.  My palette is NOT sophisticated.  I don’t like strange ingredients or rich desserts.  I love to watch Top Chef but the fancy food they cook usually wouldn’t interest me in person.

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Fresh duck breast ready to go into my mom’s gumbo!

Even though I grew up in a city, eating out was a special treat.  My mom and dad cooked regularly.  But I didn’t learn to cook.  My mom wanted me to always focus on school and developing interests and passions and the domestic stuff wasn’t really a concern.  So as I grew older  and became more independent, I relied on frozen and fast food more and more.  I learned to cook a few things when living with my best friend in college (who is a natural in the kitchen).  But I didn’t really begin to embrace cooking until I got married.

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Grilled venison backstrap, roasted squash, zuchini and sweet potatoes, and conrbread from scratch. A family effort!

Drew taught me a lot about cooking the basics like chicken and ground meat.  We are lucky to have our own supply of meat from the game we kill.  This mostly includes waterfowl and deer.

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Drew grinding deer into ground meat to be used for just about anything!

Other things I’ve learned to cook are from the internet- mostly blog recipes found on Pinterest.    I have enjoyed cooking more at our home here in Montana.  We have a nice big, open kitchen.  I like making breakfast and dessert the most!

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Homemade “poptarts” (although Drew said they were more like Toaster Strudel, yah).

You can follow along with the recipes I have tried and would like to try on 3 of my Pinterest boards: Food for Life, Sweets and Treats, and Primal and Paleo.

Getting Settled in Montana and Duck Hunting

I can’t believe we’ve lived here in Medicine Lake for one whole month already!  (I also can’t believe we are at the end of October already!).  I am in LOVE with our new house. It’s got a basement (I’ve never had a basement!), a huge master bath, new washer, dryer and dish washer, lots of big windows including big back bay window that the dogs love to look out of, and a really efficient geo-thermal central heater. Our front and back yard weren’t finished so there is just a sheet of hay woven into plastic mesh. We’re told we will get sod in the spring. The front of our house faces the lake and the back looks at a shelter belt of trees where we’ve seen pheasants, deer, and birds of prey taking refuge.When we got here the weather was beautiful.  Warm in the 70′s during the day, down in the 40′s at night.  But winter is quickly coming and we are expecting snow tomorrow!


The front of our house which faces the Lake.


The view from our front yard looking out over the Lake and the Refuge.


The view from our backyard looking at a small shelter-belt of trees.


Our master bathroom. I LOVE that tub!

Our first week was a bit boring.  Drew worked for 1 day and then got furloughed.  Our moving truck hadn’t arrived so we were sleeping on air mattresses and eating on paper plates. We couldn’t even drive around the refuge because it was closed!


Bogie didn’t mind the air mattress.

Finally at the end of our first week, our truck arrived!  No more eating dinner on an ice chest.  But more importantly, our hunting gear got here! One of the first things we did when we went into town was get our hunting licenses.  There is so much variety in the game here!  We weren’t eligible for a lot of the big game tags which sold out earlier in the year, but we did manage to buy 2 white-tailed doe deer tags which will fill our freezer nicely.


Montana hunting licenses.

Our second week was spent doing a little unpacking and a lot of hunting.  The open seasons for this week were duck and grouse so that’s what we chased!  Earlier in the week I drove to Williston, our closest “big city” (read: has a Walmart) to attend a job fair.  On the way home I spotted a tiny little pond that was full of ducks in some land that was open to hunting.  Since the refuge was closed, that was our first spot to try to duck hunt and it really paid off!


Our little honey hole.

That was the first time I successfully scouted a hunting spot so I was pretty happy about it :)  There were a lot of firsts this week:


Our first Montana hunt!


My first Gadwall.


My first teal (Green-winged).


Drew’s first Grouse (sharp-tailed)


Drew’s first Blue-winged Teal, in a mixed bag.


Drew’s first Canvasback

I’ve really had fun duck hunting these past few weeks. The ducks seem to come in waves and right now there aren’t many here. We are patiently waiting for the next group! They tell us it gets really good once the snow starts!

Drew and Christine Move to Montana

Friday, Sept 20th was our last day working in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas.  We accepted an offer on our house earlier in the week and Saturday was spent anxiously waiting for packing day.

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Our living room in boxes.

Sunday the movers arrived to pack our house.  It was so cool watching them work!  They packed our entire house (except for Dale, our mounted elk) in 8 hours.  While the government paid for this service for us, we both agree that we will never move again unless we can have someone pack for us!  Sunday night we got together with our neighbors for an impromptu cook out.  We will miss our neighbors more than anything else in the RGV.  The people that move in after us are very lucky!

Collage

On Monday, the movers returned to load our stuff in their truck.  We just paced for a few hours while they worked.  SIgned some final paperwork with out real estate agent (who is awesome and highly recommended by the way), and we were ready to leave by 1pm!  We said goodbye to our neighbors and our house and left the Rio Grande Valley.

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One last picture of our first house.

We were originally planning on going through Colorado but avoided the area due to the flooding.  So glad we did because pulling the boat up to Denver would’ve been rough!  We ended up going through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and finally Montana.

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Our route from south Texas to northeastern Montana.

I spent hours planning our travel and picked hotels based on these standards: 1. Rate within our government travel allotment.  2. Good reviews on Trip Advisor.  3. Pet-friendly (2 dogs over 50 pounds). 4. Free Breakfast. 5. Pool and hot tub!  Every night we did the same thing.  Check in.  Walk the dogs.  Get dinner.  Get in the hot tub.  Bed.

Since we left Monday afternoon we only went as far as San Antonio.  We ended up staying at La Quinta in Schertz, TX.  I give it 4.5 stars.  The staff was very nice and helpful.  There was no pet fee (no pet fee at any La Quinta).  And the breakfast was great.  The only problem was some noise coming through the walls.  But the hot tub was sooooo nice.

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Best part?  Right across the street from Raising Cane’s!  Oh how I’ve missed Cane’s sweet tea.

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Tuesday, we had a short (6.5 hour) drive to our next stop and got to really enjoy the hotel when we got there.  We stayed at Embassy Suites in Norman, OK.  I give it 5 stars!  Wish we could’ve stayed at an Embassy Suites every night.  We did have to pay a pet deposit but it was worth it.  The hotel was beautiful, we had a 2-room suite and the pool was indoors.

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Every evening they have open bar for 2 hours so we had some drinks and ate at the hotel restaurant so we didn’t have to drive.  The breakfast was by far the best one with lots of fresh options.  Even though all the rooms opened to the main corridor, there was NO sound transfer into our room.

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On Wednesday, the drive to Nebraska was quite beautiful.  Rolling plains and rock outcrops.  We had a little trouble with a tire on Drew’s truck, small puncture leaking air.  We had to pull over on the side of the highway so he could change the tire.  I think it took him 20 minutes total which is quite impressive.

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We drove through Kansas and got to Nebraska for our stay at La Quinta in North Platte, NE.  I give it 4 stars.  This was obviously a stopover travel hotel.  Lots of traffic and noisy room.  But we loved the restaurant they recommended: Whiskey Creek Wood Fire Grill.

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We got steak for dinner and smores for dessert!  They bring out a tiny little fire pit on your table and you get to roast the marshmallows right there!  I LOVED this.  What a great idea.

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The dogs travel so well.  Spartacus rides in the front seat in the truck, and Bogie in the front seat of my car.  They are worn out by the time we get to the hotel each night.

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Lunch break!

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Bogie wiped out at the end of the day.

Driving through Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota was our longest day of travel but it was another beautiful one.  We finally spotted some Pronghorn antelope and even had to brake for a grouse to cross the road!  I didn’t get any pictures because we were driving.  We were beat by the time we got to Dickinson.  Dickinson is a boom town right now thanks to the Bakken oil fields that are currently in production.  They estimate that these oil towns have doubled in population in the last 3-4 years thanks to all the oil field jobs.  We stayed at the Microtel in Dickinson, ND.  I give it 4.5 stars.  We picked this Microtel because it was number 1 on Trip Advisor.  The rooms were very nice ( the dogs loved the seat under the window).

I was definitely most tired today.  We got Wendy’s for dinner and after the hot tub we went to bed early.

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This was the only place where we were concerned about our vehicles in the parking lot.  There were even cards on the beds in the hotel that told you to make sure you leave no valuables in your vehicle.  Crime has gone up with the increase in population.  When we were exhausted at 8:30pm we realized that we were in Mountain Time!  Totally didn’t realized we crossed time zones.  The breakfast was OK.  All the oil field workers get up at 5am so breakfast was a little old by the time we got downstairs at 8.

The drive from Dickinson, ND to Williston, ND and Medicine Lake, MT was a mix of BEAUTIFUL scenery and oil field traffic.

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All the highways were under construction and being expanded.  We got stuck behind lots of oil trucks.  But the views were incredible.  Especially when driving through the National Grasslands and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  That’s where we saw our first bison of the trip!

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Looking across to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

We drove through WIlliston just to see what it was like and pick up a few things at the store.  It is COLD up here!  Williston was crazy with traffic and we were glad to get out of there.

Our final destination is our new home on Medicine Lake.

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The front of our house, facing Medicine Lake.  It’s a new house so the sod isn’t here yet.

On our way in we stopped to watch 6 hen pheasants get out of the road.  We’ve seen a ton of ducks, geese, and swans plus lots of other birds.  Words can not describe out beautiful our new home is.  And how happy we are to have finally arrived.

Me in our front yard.

Spartacus is in heaven, finally in a climate he was bred for.  Bogie is just happy to be with us.  I got a solid 11 hours of sleep our first night here.  Then I embraced my inner pioneer woman and made a hot breakfast!

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Country living is fantastic so far.  We are spending the next two days getting settled and acclimatized to our new 2,000 foot elevation before our moving truck arrives and we fill our new house.I can’t wait to explore our new home!!

Sunrise over Medicine Lake, Montana.

Quinta Mazatlan

Drew moved to the Rio Grande Valley in the summer of 2010 to accept a position with a national wildlife refuge.  We had just begun dating in May so it was pretty hard on me.  I drove 14 hours to visit him as often as possible.  One of those trips I left with some pretty new jewelry :)

We got married in May of 2011 and I moved down to Texas.

Thanks to a recommendation by Drew’s boss, I quickly found a job as a naturalist and supervisor at Quinta Mazatlan (QM).  Quinta means “country estate” and Mazatlan means “where the deer/antelope roam” and is also the name of a city in Mexico where the original builder of the estate loved to visit.


(front facade of the historic adobe home and “main house” at Quinta Mazatlan)

QM is currently a historic adobe home and 20-acre nature center featuring many gardens, native thornforest, and lots of programs for people to enjoy.  QM is also one of the 9 World Birding Centers that work together to promote eco-tourism and birding in the Rio Grande Valley.


(Green Jay- City of McAllen’s official bird – photo by John Brush)

We are under the stewardship of the City of McAllen therefore I have been an employee with the City for the past 2 years. We are also the host of the Valley’s biggest Earth Day Festival: Vida Verde (which means “live green”).

My job has included a bunch of different duties including website management, social media, program development and implementation, supervising staff, writing, public relations, and more.

I have LOVED working at Quinta Mazatlan. It’s a beautiful location in the heart of the city. Every morning I walk down Bougainvillea lane, say hello to the Eastern Screech Owl in the fallen palm, and make my way to my office in the Discovery Center.


(Eastern Screech Owl)


(Discovery Center at Quinta Mazatlan, and my office building)

The best part of this job has been working for and learning from my boss, our manager Colleen. Colleen is so inspired and she has such an incredible vision not only for Quinta Mazatlan for the the City itself. I often tell people there is no one else in the Valley that I would rather work for.


(QM board member, Jonathon Wood of the Raptor Project , and my boss Colleen)

I’ve learned SO MUCH during my time at Quinta Mazatlan. And I’ve enjoyed the beauty of our gardens, forest, and wildlife. Here are some other sights of QM:


(Texas Tortoise crossing the walkway)


(Strawberry Pitaya cactus in bloom in the Cactus Garden.  Photo by JAVIER AREVALO.)


(Red-bordered Pixie, City of McAllen official butterfly.  Photo by John Brush.)


(My favorite- Plain Chachalaca on the trails.)


(Blue Passionvine, a native vine and favorite of the Gulf Frittilary butterfly, has a beautiful bloom)


(Texas Spiny Lizard.  Photo by John Brush.)


(Buff-bellied Hummingbird)


(Bougainvillea- City of McAllen official flower)


(Red-shouldered Hawk juvie sitting over Ruby Pond.)


(The Forest Sculpture Trail features 25 life-size and larger-than-life bronze sculptures of animals native to South Texas.)

I am going to miss the people at QM most!  I’m very sad to leave my work family but excited to see where we go next.


(Sunset over Quinta Mazatlan)

So many people have asked us “So what’s Christine going to do” when we move? Short answer: I don’t know! When we get there, Drew will start right away in his new position. But as soon as possible (December? March?), they are going to send him to training which will take the better part of a year to complete, in a few different places around the country. We don’t know exactly how this will work for me. The first part of his training he has to stay on-site at the training facility and it’s a very intense program so I probably won’t get to stay with him. But his field trainings will be different. So my employment is wide open right now! Which is kind of a cool feeling. I started working when I was 16 and have had a job every since. This will be a new experience for me! We will see how long I will enjoying being a house wife before I go insane and have to find work, haha!

Move countdown: 10 days!!

RGV Bucketlist: Places

RGV Bucketlist: Places to See
As I mentioned in my last post, Drew and I are leaving the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) in South Texas after living here for a few years.  I am reflecting on all the places we visited in the second part of my RGV Bucketlist.  I spent most of my time working in McAllen, but we got to see quite a lot while living here!

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo

Santa Ana was the first place I visited here in the Rio Grande Valley.  This refuge is the reason we moved here, for Drew’s job.  When Drew first moved down here, the Rio Grande was at flood stage and water was released upstream to prevent flooding of urban areas. Most of Santa Ana was under several feet of water. One day while I was down here visiting, Drew took my kayaking on the hiking trail!  Also in the 2,000 acre bird refuge is a hawk tower and canopy rope bridge.

I love visiting Drew at work because I always get the VIP tour :)

Everyone goes to Santa Ana for the birds, and the birds go to Santa Ana for the habitat.

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge

By far my FAVORITE wildlife place in the Valley. I see something spectacular every time we go. Nilgai, Deer, Javelina, Pauraques, Chachalacas, Green Jays, Osprey, Roadrunners, Indigo Snakes, Texas Tortoises, Alligators, and many species of hawk! Driving out to Laguna every Saturday evening in duck season felt like we were going on vacation. Luckily, our friends that work and live on the refuge let us stay in their guest room (and eat their delicious food)! I was always on the look-out for Ocelot but never did see one. They are so secretive and really only move at night. It’s just nice being out there in the middle of the Thornscrub, miles from traffic and people.

American Kestrel on a Spanish Dagger at Laguna Atascosa

White-tailed Buck at Laguna

Altamira Oriole on a nectar feeder at the Visitor’s Center at Laguna

American Alligator at a water guzzler on the trails at Laguna Atascosa. I love gators.


We also had some great hunting at Laguna. More on that in another post.

South Padre Island

End of the road: South Padre Island

If there weren’t so much fishing and hunting to be done, I would’ve spent more time on the Island. It’s easily the nicest beach in Texas. The best days on the Island rival good days in Pensacola, my favorite Gulf Coast beach. There is a cute little bar on the beach that even has a small pool in the middle. I could spend days swimming and sunning on the beach. My favorite places besides the beach are Sea Turtle Inc, and the Birding Center Boardwalks. Tons of wildlife to see including lots of ducks and wading birds. We end up visiting every time we head to the Island.
 

The Birding Center Boardwalk

Gator at the Birding Center. Are you seeing a pattern? My favorite reptile.

Happy grebe swimming very close to the gator!

Sea Turtle Inc Rescue, Rehab and Educational Center

My favorite little island bar: Boomerang Billy’s

Rancho El Charco in La Joya

This one has been on my list for months, every since our new Education Supervisor started at work. She used to be the Education supervisor over at Rancho. This is a really interesting ranch. It’s privately owned and used to be open only for weddings and school field trips. Now they open the whole ranch up on the weekends to the public (for a $10 entry fee) as well. Its got something for everyone! I had seen pictures of their waterfalls and swimming holes and it looked like an oasis in the dessert. Turns out… it is! I LOVED visiting Rancho! We got a private tour and had the whole ranch to ourselves for an afternoon.

They have free-roaming horses (that they used for carriage rides when they are open), wild black bucks, pinned bison and gemsbok, pinned goats that you can go pet and feed, a fishing pond, views of Walker Lake, trails, a rope bridge leading to a waterfall that you can explore, and much more!

My favorite part? The swimming holes. They call them “holes” but the water is actually treated and safe to swim in. There are 3 pools. Two look more like swimming pools and have chlorinated water as warm as a bath!

The “Charco” (which means “puddle” in Spanish) is natural-looking and fed by cold water pumped in from a windmill on the ranch. I could spend all day in these pools. If you get the chance to go to Charco, I highly recommend it!!

Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco

Ring-necked Duck at Estero

We made a quick visit to Estero. The Visitor’s Center deck overlooks a small lake and you can see a ton of birds without having to go far!  Really enjoyed our short day there.

My first good view of a Cinnamon Teal at Estero!

Rio Grande River

This one is a bit controversial. You can see the river from various places (including Santa Ana) but it is not recommended to actually get ON the river. From what I hear, people used to kayak and bird on the river all the time. But being that the Rio Grande is the border between the US and Mexico, increased border violence has shut down most River trips. One River trip that still happens is the Pontoon birding tour during the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. I was invited to go on this field trip as an assistant to the guides. I got to see a “life bird” – the Zone-tailed Hawk!

Big beautiful black and white raptor. Can you see it in the middle of the picture above?  I also got to see all 3 species of U.S. Kingfishers in 1 trip!  We didn’t see any active border issues that I’ve heard about (like cartel men crossing the river with their rifles over their heads), but we did see something disturbing that I’ve never seen before: a body floating in the river. A dead man against the bank on the Mexico side. I called Border Patrol to report it but it was hard to explain to the other birding tourists that were also on the field trip. No, I didn’t take a picture; I felt like that would be disrespectful to that man and his family.  Some people do want to visit the River for eco- and recreational tourism, but I will not go again.

Lower Laguna Madre


A bit further from the US-Mexico border is one of my other FAVORITE places in the RGV.  Laguna Madre is a bay in between  main land Texas and Padre Island.  In the map above, the Lower Laguna Madre runs north-south from the top where it says “Laguna Madre” all the way down to Port Isabel.

We spend our weekends in long, shallow, hyper-saline bay.  The average depth of the whole Bay is just 3.6 feet. Other than where the Intercoastal Channel cuts through, you would wade across it. I have fallen in love with “The Bay” as we call it. It’s become a magical place for me, probably because we’ve seen so many sunrises and sunsets over the Bay.


We usually launch our boat in Arroyo City, head down the Arroyo Colorado (river), and enter the bay from the Intercoastal.  If it weren’t for the port of Harlingen and the Intercoastal Channel, we probably wouldn’t be able to launch a boat because it’s so shallow! But huge barges have to get into Harlingen so the Channel is dredged to maintain its depth. We always see dolphins feeding and porpoising in the Channel.


Out on the sand and grass flats, we see redfish, sting rays, wading birds, and lots of people fishing. This bay offers incredible hunting and fishing but I will have to devote a whole post for that!

Corpus Christi and the Texas State Aquarium

Texas State Aquarium Outdoor Exhibits: Stingray Touchpool

I feel like Corpus is a mix of Houston and South Padre. We went to Corpus to buy our boat and while we were there we did a little sight-seeing. We drove over to North Padre but didn’t really get to see the beach. The Corpus waterfront was a lot like any big city waterfront. I wanted to see the Aquarium because they have billboards down here with dolphins on them, haha. They have a few great exhibits including the Stingray touch pool, but we saw the whole aquarium pretty quickly. We didn’t see too much more of Corpus so I don’t really feel like I can judge the whole city based on that one visit.

Schlitterbahn New Braunfels

While not in the RGV, I’ve wanted to visit the original Schlitterbal forever! On our way home from visiting family in Baton Rouge, we made a side trip to San Marcos/New Braunfels. I can’t believeI did it, but I convinced D to go to Schlitterbahn!! Schlitterbahn has been the mecca of waterparks ever since I was a kid. I’d heard stories of how the park intermingles with the river and it sounded incredible. As an adult I have since lowered my expectations, thinking it the con’s of the crowds and lines would outweightto pro’s. But we had to go to San Marcos for D so I figured, why not check it out! I am sooo glad we did! Schlitterbahn is so much fun!!! Even with the crowds we had a blast and spent most of our time in the (cold) water! The park was built into the banks of the Comal river and even uses river water in several of the “rides.” Most of the rides were actually tube chutes where you hop in a tube and ride the chutes and falls for miles. You can get out and back in in many places. The older part of the park does a great job of incorporating nature into the chutes, but the water was low and all of us adults kept getting stuck! I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed so hard as when we all got bunched up in an eddy and couldn’t manage to get out! The newer part of the park has 3 sections all connected by Tubenbach tube chute. This was my FAVORITE part. The water was still fed from the river and cooold at first! The falls and obstacles were so much fun and so fast! You also got great views of the river. AND we got to ride a conveyor belt, IN YOUR TUBE, to get to the top of the chute! Finally, there was the newest section, Blastenoff, home of the Master Blaster. This was a true waterpark RIDE and we waited an hour in line (it went by quickly). This is the ride that you see on all the tv shows and has been voted Best Waterslide a million times. The cool part is that right after the first drop, you go back up using only the force of the water! Very cool. Worth the hour-wait once, but we didn’t ride it again.  I didn’t have my water-proof camera housing with us so we didn’t really get any pictures inside the park.

I think Drew’s favorite place we visited on this trip was Buc-ee’s. It’s a gas station the size of a department store! So much jerky, candy, home goods, clothes, ice cream, and souvenirs!  You can only see a small part of it in this picture! We bought t-shirts, sunglasses strap, a beautiful cow-hide pistol case, and lots of Dippin’ Dots (ok, I bought lots of Dippin’ Dots because no day at the waterpark is complete without Dippin’ Dots).

Other checks on my Places bucketlist:

  • Rio Grande Valley Outlet Center in Mercedes(don’t laugh, I’ve gotten some incredible deals here!)
  • Bentsen RGV State Park in Mission (biking trail)
  • Rancho Lomitas in Rio Grande City (native plant tour and longhorns!)
  • National Butterfly Center in Mission (beautiful trails and gardens)

Trail at the National Butterfly Center

  • Bass Pro Shops Harlingen (we actually volunteered at the Grand Opening!)
  • Boca Chica (birding on the beach)
  • King Ranch and Kingsville (loved the museum)

  • Choke Canyon (our first time RV camping thanks to our neighbors, and a great swimming spot)
  • Southmost Preserve (inside the border wall)

I hate to make an RGV Places Bucketlist and not include Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen, but I’m not including it on this post because it has been so much more than a check-mark. I’ve worked at Quinta Mazatlan for 2 years and I’m going to miss it terribly. More about QM in another post…

My PLACES RGV Bucketlist is not yet complete. I still want to visit our local Schlitterbahn on South Padre Island and Clayton’s beach bar!  Hopefully we will get to see those places before we move!

RGV Bucket List: Wildlife

I’ve lived in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas for 2 years now. D moved here a year before me to take a refuge management job, and I followed right before we got married in 2011. We planned to stay here for 2-3 years, both of us working full time and building our savings. Now that time is coming to a close, as D has accepted a position in northern Montana! Yes, we are moving from one border to the other!
Mexico to Canada
We have a little over a month left in Texas and I’m contemplating all the things I wanted to do while we were here. I call it my RGV Bucket List. We also did lots of things we never expected we would be doing 3 years ago! Here I outline the Wildlife and Animals part of my RGV Bucketlist.

Birds!

Chachalaca Crossing

Chachalaca Mom and Chicks right out of the nest!

The first time I visited Santa Ana with D I took my picture next to a sign that said “Chachalaca Crossing.” I’d heard about these loud pheasant-like birds and couldn’t wait to see one. I didn’t seeing on that day, but I did end up working at a nature center where Chachalacas are encountered daily! In my first week, I watched a momma coral her two chicks that had just left the nest in a palm tree! I love these hilarious birds and their big personalities. One of my favorite moments was filling the suet feeders on a cold winter morning and feeding them suet right out of my hand.

Banded Great Kiskadee at work

Before I began working, I remember seeing a big yellow bird in our backyard while D was at work one day. I was amazed and had never seen anything like the Great Kiskadee. I pulled out my bird field guide and learned about this large flycatcher. Now I listen to their calls every day from my office window.

Green Jays on the Picnic Table at Laguna Atascosa

The Green Jay is the City Bird of McAllen. Pictures show it to be a brightly colored big bird and I assumed I would see them all the time, like Blue Jays back in the Southeast. Turns out, they are VERY well camouflaged and quite secretive. I’m still thrilled when I see a pair at our sunflower seed feeders. One of my favorite Valley birds.

Common Pauraque and it’s incredible camo

I had seen pictures of Common Pauraques on Birdchick’s blog. Well, she said the bird was in the picture, but I couldn’t really tell! Incredible leaf-litter camoflauge paired with the un-moving nature of this night-jar, I wasn’t sure I’d ever see one. But our groundskeeper always knew how to point them out and I eventually became quiet adept at finding them! I always love showing visitor’s this forest-floor bird because once you see it, you feel like you’ve been let in on a secret!

Green Parakeets on the Powerlines in McAllen

I had no idea there was such a large population of wild parakeets and parrots. I now know how to tell if its a grackle or a parakeet on the powerlines at dusk. There will always be a few parakeets upside down, and grackles never do that! I also enjoyed the parrots coming to Quinta this spring to feed on the Coral Beans early in the mornings. Both Red-crowned and Lilac-crowned visited us.

Lilac-crowned Parrot in a Coral Bean tree

Other species I love to see: Crested Caracaras, White-tailed Hawk, Eastern Screech Owls, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, and Groove-billed Ani’s!

Crested Caracara

Eastern Screech Owl at work

White-tailed Hawk stretching on a fence post

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks on a flat roof in Mission, TX

Groove-billed Ani’s

Nilgai and Deer!

Nilgai on GLO land at the mouth of the Arroyo Colorado river

When D first told me about Nilgai I didn’t understand. So it’s an antelope, as big as a horse, from India and Pakistan, just roaming free in a wildlife refuge? Now they are a regular part of our visits to Laguna Atascosa, and a regular meat in our freezer. Because nilgai are exotic, there is no closed season for hunting them. As long as you are in the right place, you can shoot them. When we were duck hunting, we always passed public land where nilgai roamed and subsequently we always had a rifle with us, just in case. This planning paid off when a friend of ours shot 2 nilgai in the middle of a duck hunt and has been sharing that meat with us since! If you’ve never had nilgai steaks, I highly reccommend them!

Escaped Fallow Deer

White-tailed Deer buck at El Canelo Ranch

Herps!

Texas Tortoise at Laguna Atascosa

I love most of the herptefauna down here too. The Texas Tortoise, a species of concern, is spotted regularly in wild places, munching on Prickly Pear Cactus fruit.

Holding an Indigo Snake I found at the McAllen Nature Center (currently closed)

The beautiful blue-black Indigo Snake (another species of concern) is a big strong snake that eats rattlesnakes, but is very docile when handling. And of course there are more dangerous herps here as I learned when a Black-striped Snake bit me and sent me to the ER for pain and swelling for 16 hours. This happened at work too, so that was some fun paperwork (/sarcasm).

American Alligator near a water trough at Laguna Atascosa

I ALWAYS love seeing American alligators!

Ranch Animals!
I’ve gotten to get up close and personal with lots of ranch animals. Ranching both cattle and white-tails is big down here. Here are some of my favorites…

Saying Hello to Longhorn cattle at Rancho Lomitas

Texas Longhorn at Rancho Lomitas in Rio Grande City

Feeding Bison at Rancho El Charco in La Joya

Wild-roaming Black Bucks at Rancho El Charco in La Joya

Gemsbok Oryx at Rancho El Charco in La Joya. She was not interested in my apple.

Bottle-feeding White-tailed Deer fawns at El Canelo Ranch

Surprises!

“Playing” with Dolphins in the Intercoastal Channel in the Lower Laguna Madre

Every time we go fishing or duck hunting from the Arroyo Colorado, we see dolphins using the deep channels! One of our first times out, they came right up to our boat!

Assisting with a White-tailed Deer artificial insemination program at El Canelo Ranc

We also got the opportunity to assist with a White-tailed Deer artificial insemination at El Canelo. Fascinating!

Holding a Cannonball Jelly in the Lower Laguna Madre

Another surprise was holding canonball jellyfish! They don’t sting the same way the beach jellies do, and they rarely harm humans. We were wade-fishing one day and they were swimming around us, so we took some pictures!

Red-tailed Hawk ,Raptor Banding in the RGV with Bill Clark

We got a special invitation to help out with Raptor Banding in the sugar cane fields on the border. This was such a thrill! We watched as the expert took measurements and attached bands to hawks he caught using a field trap. Then Mr. Clark let us hold the raptor and release it! This was a once-in-a-lifetiem experience for sure and I’m so grateful for the opportunity. (Mr. Clark is actually doing a Raptor Banding Field Trip as a part of the RGV Birding Festival this November if you are interested in being able to do this!)

I would still like to get a better look and even photograph Javelina. I saw one from the road one morning on our way to duck hunting, so I’m counting it, but I’d like to see them closer. Other than that, my RGV animal bucket list is pretty much complete!

Roadrunner at Laguna Atascosa

Pictures of Life in South Texas

Here in South Texas, our winters are very short and we seem to leap right into spring in January. Here are some pictures of my year so far…

AK Shoot Feb 16

Drew finally got his AK-47 so we took it to the range to try it out.  I still prefer the AR-15 because it has a collapsible stock.  We’ve found our new favorite indoor shooting range: Point Blank Sporting Goods in McAllen.  It’s brand new and really spacious.  You don’t feel like you are right on top of everyone while shooting.

Green Jay Feeding Collage

I love Green Jays.  Just like their Corvid brothers and sisters, Green Jays are so smart.  This one found a weakness in the sunflower feeder and exploited it.  Sunflower seeds came pouring out.  The doves on the ground appreciated his hard work.

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A banded Kiskadee at Ruby Pond.  My goal is to one day be able to read all the numbers on a band one day so I can report them to the Bird Banding Laboratory.

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My first work trip!  We got to go see some nature centers and museums in Dallas!  This was the Trinity River Audubon Center.  Nice walking trails and boardwalks, and great indoor exhibits.  ???????????????????????????????

I also got to see a Rodin sculpture at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.  I wish we had more time to explore the whole museum but we had to rush through it.

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The Dallas Arboretum (which is really a Botanical Garden) was incredible and it was only January!  I would love to go back in spring or fall.???????????????????????????????

We finished out duck season and I got a Scaup for the wall!  Oakley is good retriever, even if he does chew the butt’s off.  I miss duck hunting already.  And its been too windy to get out in the boat for fishing.???????????????????????????????

Our resident Eastern Screech Owl at work picked a very visible cavity for a month or so and let me take a few pics.???????????????????????????????

I kind of stumbled upon this gathering on a house in Mission, across the street from a city park and pond.  These Black-bellied Whistling Ducks seem to prefer this one flat roof as opposed to all the sloping roofs in the neighborhood!???????????????????????????????

Our staff member who was filling the feeders had to run inside for a minute and the Chachalacas took advantage of a container of homemade suet that was left unattended!???????????????????????????????

The Red-eared Slider in Ruby Pond has gotten so big!  We don’t know exactly where he came from but he seems to enjoy having the pond to himself.???????????????????????????????

I love the call of the Curve-billed Thrasher!  And the look of their orange eyes and big down-turned bills.  This Curve-bill was hanging out in our parking lot at work.
QM Cactus in Bloom

Our newest garden is a Cactus Garden.  It was planted this year and already many of the cactus are blooming!  Its a beautiful site.Raptor Banding Feb 2nd 02

Drew and I had a fabulous opportunity to tag along on a Raptor Banding field trip with Bill Clark, who quite literally wrote the book on Raptors.  We banded several Red-tailed Hawks.  It was an unforgettable experience holding those giant birds.  They would look you dead in the eye but were quite docile while being worked up.  Then we got to release them right from our own hands.

Spartacus Jan 27 Bogie March 15

Now that duck season is over we are doing a lot of relaxing on the weekends and it has been really nice.  Its our busy time of the year at work so coming home to these two babies is always a highlight in my day.  As spring approaches are calenders are filling up even more (including a last-minute getaway to HAWAII over Easter!) and I can’t wait to see what South Texas has in store for us.

Hunting Season Wrap-Up in South Texas

Our hunting season was pretty great this year!  South Texas (Laguna Madre, specifically) is definitely under-utilized by duck hunters which is great for those of us who DO use it!  We hunted public land and public water all season.  There are several blinds that have been built that you can use if you get there first.  We also hunted from beaches and islands.  The only thing preventing more hunters from hunting Laguna Madre is access; you need a boat to get out there.  We purchased a small Alumacraft hunting boat at the beginning of the season and it really paid off!

We hunted with some friends who live close to the Laguna.  They would bring their sweet black lab, Oakley, to help retrieve ducks!  I love watching Oakley work, especially when the ducks dive away from him and he has to chase them!

Early season saw lots and lots of Redheads.  We would get our limit of Redheads (2 per person) almost every time we went out.  Pintails were also very common in the early season, but again the limit was only 2 per person.

As the season went on we started to see more Scaup but never could capture a whole limit (6 per person).  Buffleheads were few but we did take a few home.

Sarah even managed to get a banded Redhead!!  It was the third duck she’s ever shot.  Our boys were green with envy!


My favorite part about duck hunting in South Texas is the variety of wildlife you see!  Many different species of ducks and birds, not to mention dolphins!

We hunted one week in Arkansas over Christmas and sat in SNOW and got about 2 ducks.

But in South Texas, its like you are hunting at the beach!  I hunted barefoot in the sand during many of our trips this year!

This year we were lucky to be drawn for a rifle hunt at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge!  We were allowed to take deer, hogs and nilgai.  We never did see any nilgai on this hunt but we did get some meat in the freezers!

It was a pretty incredible hunting season.  My best, for sure.  Between the 4 of us, we ended up with over 100 ducks, not to mention the deer, hogs and nilgai.

Now on to fishing!!