Winter Birding at Jesse Jones Park
Jesse Jones Park
Jesse Jones Park
I gathered myself early one morning last week and headed out to enjoy a nature walk and birding. We have been having rain, rain and promises of rain for weeks now; so a sudden clearing of cloud cover was a welcome event to be celebrated. I took off for my local birding place, Jesse Jones Park.
I found out about Jesse Jones Park when my children were in scouting. The park hosts a number of festivals through the year and offers classes for naturalist merit badges, gardening, stargazing, tree and bird identification, and many others at the Nature Center. I had wondered through the trail to Redbud Hill Homestead both during Homestead Heritage Day and off season, but had not really explored the park until recently.
The park boasts 300 acres of pristine primary and secondary deciduous southern forest with a variety of micro habitats including swamps, sloughs, and natural white sand beaches along Spring Creek in its webpage introductions. There are 10 or more trails, both improved wheelchair accessible and unimproved.
Judy Bell Trail
The trail I have been exploring this winter is the Judy Bell Trial. This is one leg of a park trail system that will run 33 miles connecting parks along Spring Creek. The Spring Creek Greenway was the passion of Judy Overby Bell and County Judge Jon Lindsay. They worked for years to purchase land along Spring Creek to deter development in flood prone areas and build a string of reserves and parks for wildlife and nature lovers. The Judy Bell Trail runs for 1.1 mile to the park fence line, just short of the Spring Creek Greenway Bridge. Walk or bike 3.4 miles to Carter Park or 8 miles from Jesse Jones to Pundt Park.
Winter Birding Gear
What does a birder carry with her into the woods for short walks? The Boy Scouts and I have the same mantra concerning heading off into woods, “be prepared.”
1. A warm coat – or raincoat or something that works for both needs that has deep pockets
3. Comfortable walking shoes
4. A whistle would be a good idea even on this short trail to get help and handle rare animal confrontations.
4. Birding Notebook – if you do bird counts or plan to record your sightings on-line later
5. Bird Identification Guide or Checklist – There are small laminated folding guides that are great for helping a birder identify what they see at a glance, but I don’t suggest bringing anything more than those or a small pocket book into the woods. Birds don’t sit still while you thumb through a book to identify them. Taking notes or making quick drawings in a small notebook is best. The Nature Center has small booklet style checklists for birds you can expect to find in the park.
6. Binoculars – If you use them get something from 5x to 10x. Greater ranges are great, but may cause problems re-spotting birds.
7. Lens Cloth – This will keep your lenses clear of rain and snow.
8. Rain/Snow Cover – Besides putting them inside your coat or pocket, you can carry a plastic bag or small towel for the purpose. The small towel acts as an added chill barrier for your hands.
9. Camera – This is my choice instead of binoculars, but some birders bring both.
Get It Yourself: All Weather Field Notebook
A Word About Cameras
Cameras come in many forms and sizes. Use what you are comfortable with and can use easily. Some new small cameras will give you the same range as a good pair of binoculars without removable lenses and take good pictures. I have a 100-300 mm zoom lens on a Canon Rebel with a 1.4x multiplier to increase my reach. This gives around 9x magnification.
Get It Yourself: Camera Rain Cover
10. Lens Cloth – same reason
11. Extra Batteries
12. Check the camera to make sure the film/memory card is in place. You know you have gotten out once or twice only to discover you missed doing this. Don’t laugh.
14. In possible rainy weather, I bring a rain cover for the camera too. Besides a small towel there are inexpensive underwater bags that you can still work the camera through. The less expensive ones are fine for rain, heavy snow or boating.
15. Sound Recording Device – I personally haven’t done this yet, but if you want to record bird calls this is a great idea.
Getting Close to the Birds
Birding the Trail
The trail head starts at a playground and pavilion site. During January, I have been greeted at the entrance by a flock of Cedar Waxwings foraging the abundance of berries along the trail edges. The trail then follows the park fence line to the left and Spring Creek to the right. This is one of the improved trials. It is blacktopped all the way to the back fence, offering gentle rolling hills through the park. I see bikers and other walkers regularly, although during this month’s wet weather, it hasn’t been crowded.
Birding trails like this are helpful because the paved trail helps hide the sound of your foot falls as you walk and makes it safe to keep your eyes on the trees. On a dirt path through dense forest, eyes in the treetops can leave you prone to constant tripping.
Finding the birds just requires listening, walking at a leisurely pace and keeping a watch for movement. Birds move parallel to the trail through the brush, back and forth across the trail in tree branches and occasionally on the ground.
I see sparrows low along the trail edges and open areas. Cardinals, Carolina chickdees, Cedar Waxwings and Robins move through the brush, vines and brambles. It gets thick in places, but that allows the birds to feel secure. Keep watch and they will pop out in the open, but you will have to be ready and quick to catch the shot. On my short excursion in between cloud bursts, I found Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Chipping Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Pleated Woodpecker, a massive flock of Robins and Starlings and a small flock of Blue-gray natcatchers. On a clear day, I saw four deer crossing the road on the way to the trail head and flyovers by at least three species of raptor, vultures, cormorants.
Finding the Bigger Birds
The raptors tend to roost in the upper story trees and snags (dead trees) where the view across the park is clear. I watch these places on both sides of the creek. That’s easy to do in the winter when the foliage is clear, but in the summer, views of the creek may be limited to two overlooks and the Spring Creek Bridge. At these places, I have also caught sight of Great Blue Heron and Great Egrets. I’m looking forward to the Spring when ducks and geese will move through the area.
At the 3.5 mile marker, the trail starts running close to the creek. The old Snags along this area are woodpecker magnets. In the last two visits, I have found Hairy and Downy woodpeckers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and Red-headed woodpeckers. There are more raptor and owl perches than I could count.
For a few weeks this winter, the park was hosting a Bald Eagle. There are great pictures taken by the volunteer bird expert, Al Barr; but the eagle hasn’t been seen by me yet. I keep hoping. Until then, catching multiple views a Red-shouldered Hawk (pictured above) has been treat enough; one more bird for the life-list.
Rich Hinckley's Video of a Bald Eagle
Final Word on Jesse Jones Park
Runoff trails run under the trail in places heading downhill to the creek. I stop and creep up to these areas hoping to see animals in them. When I was younger, I would have wondered off the trial to follow these little streams, but getting off the trail along the creek isn’t smart. Be warned. There are signs indicating quicksand traps present.
Don’t miss this birding site if you have a chance of visit North Houston. Winter birding here has been good, even when soggy. The park amenities are great. (I have never been to the entrance restroom when it didn't smell freshly scrubbed.) The Nature Center has a good list of programs through the year and helpful volunteers that are happy to answer questions. I have found birding here good every trip, with something new to enjoy each time.
© 2015 Sherry Thornburg