Birding in Hidden Places – The Lowlands Trails in Kingwood, Texas
Lowlands Trail Head
Sometimes a great birding trip doesn’t have to be a day trip off to some well-known refuge or park. I’ve lived in Kingwood for 17 years and am still finding hidden places.
Kingwood is a planned community with greenbelt trails running through residential neighborhoods with a number of parks along the edges and tucked into housing tracks. We call it the “Livable Forest” for the jealously protected woodlands and abundance of wildlife harbored in green spaces. Most of my recent birding years had been spent exploring the trails and parks before looking farther afield.
One evening early this February, I was checking the news on the American Birding Association’s website and saw two things, a mention of a local walking trial in Kingwood I never knew existed and Purple Finches.
Gentle Winding Trails
Evans Gully is part of a new trail area built by Lone Star College of Kingwood with a matching grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It was dedicated in November 2013. The actual name of the trail system is “the Lowlands.” This trail is a bit more than a mile long starting behind the tennis courts.
The trail follows Evans Gully to its outlet into the San Jacinto River with other extensions into the willow, oak and cypress wetlands. The front of the trail is Kingwood’s signature hardwood forest, a variety of oaks, pines, sycamore, and sweet gum with understory brush such as yaupon holly, wild grape, trumpet creeper and Carolina jessamine vines.
Crushed granite paves the trail for the first third of the trail. After that, you are following a wide leaf-covered path. The trail offers three, 200-foot-long boardwalks, and an observation deck giving views to 88 acres of wetlands.
Male Purple Finch
Female Purple Finch
The Purple Finch is a lovely little bird that some say looks like it was dipped in raspberry juice. The male differs from its cousin, the House Finch, by lacking the brown streaking in the breast and having the raspberry coloring extend into the wing feathers. The female has strong facial markings, two white streaks that run across the brow and lower jaw. This differs from female House Finches who are greenish brown with no head markings. This is a bird I have wished for at my feeder, but I seem to only attract House and Gold Finches.
Their primary food is seeds including crabapples, juniper berries, cherries, and apricots. In summer they forage on ground plants for seeds such as dandelions and ragweed. In addition they go for berries and nectar by biting the bases off flowers. Insects are also on the menu.
The Purple Finch nests in coniferous and deciduous trees such as oaks, maples, and cherries. Sometimes they will choose vine tangles. Nests can be low or as high as 60 feet off the ground, often built under overhanging branches for shelter. They will incubate 2 to 7 eggs for 12 – 13 days. Sometimes they will raise two broods a year.
The bird doesn’t compete well with the House Finch, which was introduced into New York in the 1950s. The East Coast has seen a significant drop in populations, but they are still considered of least concern conservation wise. Mostly, Purple Finches winter in the U.S. and nest in the upper North East, the Pacific Coast and Canada. Where they nest in the U.S, they generally don’t migrate. For me in Texas, winter is the only time they can be found.
Birds in the Lowlands
Birding the Lowlands
In an excited rush, I headed out the next day. Ok, I could have picked better weather. It was cold, with misty rain; a typical day this winter in South Texas. I was consoled by running across another birder coming out as I walked in. He was a nice friendly gentleman that was happy to tell me what he had found. He was carrying a spotter on a tripod and a camera around his neck with one of those two foot long telephoto lenses I occasionally envy. Compared to the 55-250mm Canon lens I was carrying, I felt out gunned. He had seen two female Purple Finches along with a large number of others. I forgot about the gray weather and lens envy as I said goodbye and hurried in.
Almost immediately, I fell in love with this place. Past the wide entrance walk, I stood and watched a flock of what looked like goldfinches and possibly pine warblers move endlessly across the trail heading to the south side of the gully. Then, up sweet gum trees, I found a number of other Goldfinches busily working seeds out of hanging sweet gum balls. A little farther down, a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds were working on Pine cones at the top of several shorter pines. Then, in a vine bramble, I found an Orange-crowned Warbler darting back and forth through the cover.
On the first boardwalk, I found the rest of the Red-winged Blackbird flock. They were covering trees in a moving mass. Out over the water, I also caught sight of a bit of color, a Yellow-rumped Warbler and in the distance the north an unidentifiable hawk was eyeing the flock tucked inside the thick branches. The going was far too tight for such a big bird.
All the birds were foraging. Besides the wild bird food mentioned, the yaupon holly bushes were heavy with berries. I found a mixed flock of Cedar Waxwings and Robins happily gobbling them down side by side past the boardwalks. The Robins were also going after dried sassafras seed. Trees that might have been redbuds had dried seed pods dangling like banquet piñatas. That’s where I found the Purple Finches.
There appeared to be two or three females foraging on seed pods in a loose group. They didn’t call to each other, but the white streaks across their faces were enough for me to know what they were by sight. They weren’t concerned about me at all. They just continued to work seeds out of the small flat pods. I watched them for quite a while, but no males showed themselves.
I had to leave as the cold was getting to me. I had followed the south side trail to its end near the parking lots and walked about a quarter of a mile on the north side past the boardwalks. A few days later, we had nicer weather, so I followed the Evans Gully Trail to the river.
Taking the Trail Deeper
Past the boardwalks the crusted granite walk ends and a well maintained bare path takes its place. The mower had been there maybe a day or two before I arrived. The trail goes by a large palmetto grove and then a wide shallow swamp. If I went earlier in the morning, I would expect to see some of the wildlife spoken of by others, such as deer and foxes. For a time the trail follows the gully to the left, but that is so you can get across it at a shallow point with logs making a walk over the mud. I noticed that the birds were getting fewer and farther between at this point.
The next turn off is a left for the Old Bus Trail. The Evans Gully Trail continues on toward the river, but this is where the trail ceases to be maintained. Past this turn off, the path becomes a well-worn deer trail through tall grass. There is a no trespassing sign as you get closer to the river bank. I was told later that this area used to be private property and there had been a fence to keep hikers out. The fence is gone now. I was able to walk right up to the river. There is no walk along the river though, and it appears to be pretty deep, so that was the end of my explorations. The Old Bus Trail is shown to cross the river close to the gully outlet, but that would be another trip.
For birding purposes, I would not recommend the back part of the Evans Gully Trail. Besides the low bird counts, the lack of an improved trail could be dicy in the spring and summer when snakes could be present. You would be hard pressed to see a snake in the thick grasses. The area around the boardwalks was best. On this second trip, I caught more waxwings and warblers, an Eastern Phebe, woodpeckers as well as robins, blue jays, finches and cardinals.
Don’t hesitate to visit this trail yourself. The south side of the trail is less improved, but the path is wide following the gully most of the time. Getting lost would be hard to do. The north side of the gully is where the boardwalks are. This section offers an easy walk until you get to the unimproved section. It’s a beautiful wild area on the west side of Kingwood’s livable forest.
© 2015 Sherry Thornburg