Hummingbird Picnic

What’s on the menu for your next picnic?

If you’re lucky enough to live near or visit the elevations of West Texas, head up the mountain to Davis Mountains State Park with a goodie-filled basket or backpack to join very special guests for an outdoor feast with a view. 

Pack a little something extra for those guests: a hummingbird feeder and some hummingbird food. Some state park superintendents say it’s okay to do so as long as deer or other mammals can’t get to it and you’re sure to take it with you when you go. 

Head toward one of the CCC-built picnic sites just off the trail going to Fort Davis National Historic Site. You’ll know it’s the right one when you find stone steps sneaking down to it as they wind around a large rock. 

This site has a huge picnic table and one of the most incredible views in the entire state. Let your eyes feast upon the sight of Limpia Canyon and its rare West Texas collection of green while you remember how everything tastes better when it’s eaten outside. 

After spending a bit of time gazing and grazing, chances are the hummingbirds will have found the feeder you’ve hung nearby. You’ll likely find yourself so mesmerized by their antics that you may forget to chew (or sweat). 

Try this picnic at suppertime to catch the quick cool-down as the sun sets. Don’t forget a jacket (yes, a jacket!) and a flashlight. 

Tip: Wear something red and discover that not only are you watching the hummingbirds, but they’re checking you out as well! 

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Lake Livingston Getaway

Camping, Fishing and Boating Await

Although it is only an hour’s drive from Houston, Lake Livingston feels as if it’s a world away from the nation’s fourth-largest city. Covering 90,000 acres nestled among towering trees, Livingston is far enough away to give families a true outdoor experience, yet close enough to allow them to take in Houston’s modern attractions and museums.

Fishing is a popular activity on Lake Livingston.

Primary species: Anglers who fish here find their best luck with catfish and white bass. Largemouth bass are present in good numbers as well.

Family fishing tip: Crappie are often found near structure in deep water. Submerged brush piles and bridge or dock pilings are good examples. When found, crappie are easily tempted by live minnows or small jigs suspended beneath a bobber.

Public access: Lake Livingston State Park offers a number of boat ramps and fishing piers, as well as bank fishing opportunities. Marinas on the lake offer boat launch facilities, rental boats, fishing piers and fish-cleaning stations.

Other outdoor activities: Boating, waterskiing and sailing are popular water sports. Hiking, horseback riding and birding are popular land-based outdoor activities.

What’s nearby: Lake Livingston State Park offers boating, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, birding, camping and equestrian activities. The Big Thicket National Preserve is about 30 miles away. The Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation is nearby as well. Back in Houston, visitors can visit NASA and numerous museums.

We’d love to hear your stories about getaways near Houston.

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Heat Hacks

Don’t Hesitate — Hydrate!

While you’re donning a sun hat and slathering on the sun block, don’t forget your internal preparations for outings on hot August days. Your body needs fuel and water to keep going, too. Have you ever felt the effects of too much heat and not enough water? It can send you to the emergency room.

For 30 years, Dr. John Ivy, the chair of the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin, has been working to understand the machine that is the human body. 

Generally, Ivy works with burnt-orange Longhorns and elite athletes, such as competitive weightlifters, but anybody planning even a modest outdoor adventure would do well to heed the good doctor’s advice. In short, clearing away the thickets of fad diets and advertising hype, Ivy’s approach to eating and drinking suits active Texans.

Whether you plan an afternoon nature walk or a weekend hike across the desert, Ivy cautions that the first thing to do before heading out is to check the weather. In Texas, where temps have reached a record 120 degrees Fahrenheit twice in the past century, the primary nutritional concern for anyone outside is staying hydrated. 

“Temperatures in the low 90s and above will cause you to lose fluid quite rapidly,” Ivy explains, adding that high humidity levels increase the amount of sweat, making fluid replacement crucial.

In order to beat the heat, Ivy says, it’s not enough just to drink a little water, but you must make sure you find a beverage that contains fuel in the form of carbohydrates, helpful salts known as electrolytes and a little protein if you’re pursuing vigorous activities. 

“For the average person, fruit juices are just fine,” says Ivy. “But for hard hiking or mountain biking, the best sports drinks to look for have both carbohydrates and protein.” In addition to providing fuel, research shows that the presence of carbohydrates helps the body absorb liquids more efficiently, while protein helps revitalize muscle.

Beyond what to drink, when you drink is crucial. Thirty minutes before heading out, Ivy suggests drinking a pint of something with electrolytes. Carrying a beverage and vigilantly swallowing a couple of mouthfuls of liquid for every 20 minutes of activity will help keep you hydrated. 

If you become dehydrated, initially you’ll likely experience only mild discomfort, but sooner or later thirst can diminish your performance — making it hard to pedal your bike or, in extreme cases, even cast a lure — while in the long run dehydration can be deadly.

You can live a lot longer without food than without drink, but meals are obviously an important part of outdoor nutrition. Most diets are designed with weight loss in mind, but active sports require plenty of calories, with an emphasis on carbohydrates.

As with hydration, timing for eating is crucial: Ivy recommends eating something as soon as exercise is over. And while carbs are central, protein and even fat are also part of Ivy’s dietary prescription — sports bars, jerky, nuts and fruit top his list. 

Like your car after a long drive, your body needs to refuel, so instead of worrying about calories, just enjoy. What’s your favorite hydrating or refueling hack?

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Today's Photography Tip

The Blue Hour

Don’t you love that time at the beginning and end of each day when the light changes and everything looks magically transformed?

Outdoor photographers often use the terms “magic light” and “golden hour” to denote the special light when the sun is low in the sky and nearing the horizon — resulting in intense yellow and orange colors and providing a low directional spotlight that skims across the landscape, sculpting and defining the shape and texture of illuminated objects. 

A serious photographer may even sit in one location for several hours waiting for that magic light, which typically begins to occur about one hour before sunset and lasts until sunset itself. In reality, the best magic light or golden “hour” may offer a window of only five to 10 minutes in which the magnificent evening light has its most artistic and visceral impact. 

Oftentimes, photographers will take that last image just as the sun disappears on the horizon and then pack up the camera bag and head home. If they do that, they will miss a special opportunity that is only then beginning to present itself: The Blue Hour.

The evening Blue Hour begins roughly 10 to 15 minutes after sunset, or when the sun dips approximately 6 degrees below the horizon. This is the period of civil twilight in which the sky begins to take on a rich blue hue that gradually darkens as astronomical twilight comes on, eventually turning to the black night sky. The early minutes of Blue Hour are often great times to capture high clouds or mountaintops that still have some sunlight illuminating them, creating the visual vibrancy of warm colors against the cooler sky. It is also a prime time to photograph a rising full moon. 

The later minutes of Blue Hour provide the best scenario for photographing city lights against the sky. Again, there is a small window of opportunity of only five to 10 minutes in which the deep blue sky provides the optimum background for the luminance of street, building and vehicle lights. For those photographers who enjoy using hand-held lights to paint buildings or other subjects with light, this is a great time to make the exposure. 

Waiting any longer will result in a loss of the blue hues and a quick transition to the black night sky, which offers its own unique shooting opportunities — primarily celestial photography. Since night eventually turns to day, you also have a Blue Hour before the sun comes up in the morning. The same lighting conditions occur but in reverse, leading into the morning “golden hour.”

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Painted Bunting

Rainbow Flyers

Have you ever seen a rainbow fly through the air? If you have, it’s most likely you’ve seen one of our most colorful songbirds, the painted bunting. While males sport patches of yellow-green, dark red and royal blue, the females wear a demure olive-green plumage.

“Almost every birder who comes to South Texas has painted buntings at the top of his or her list,” says Tim Brush, ornithologist at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg and author of Nesting Birds of a Tropical Frontier: The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. “That doesn’t mean they’re easy to find.”

Painted buntings arrive in spring to nest across most of Texas, spending several months in the state. They depart again in the fall to make their winter home south of the border, with a few birds hanging around South Texas for the season. They pass through the Valley both coming and going.

Male Painted Bunting

During spring and fall migration, it’s best to look for buntings where seeds are abundant, such as in weedy fields or near bird feeders, according to Brush. In summer, they’re most likely found in edge habitat with dense understory.

Painted buntings’ habit of remaining in deep brush makes them hard to spot, but the species’ chip call and the rambling songs of males give the birds away.

When seen, this rainbow flyer can be misidentified. “People often think he’s an escaped tropical bird,” Brush says.

Painted buntings are declining throughout their range as a result of habitat loss, parasitism of their nests by cowbirds and trapping on their wintering grounds south of the border for use in the pet trade. They’re often caught and sold illegally as cage birds.

Have you seen a painted bunting at your feeder or at a park? 

The World Birding Center parks in the Rio Grande Valley will have many species to view during the upcoming fall migration.

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Paddling Tips: Texas Rivers

Glide your way to a cool Texas river float

Have you ever paddled your way gently down a Texas stream?

Canoeing can be the gentlest of river or lake recreations, or the most thrilling — it all depends on the water. While small children (in life jackets!) can enjoy a serene ride down a calm stream, enthusiasts may instead seek to paddle their way through the wildest rapids.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department partners with communities to offer inland and coastal paddling trails. Be sure to check approximate float times and respective local weather conditions when planning a trip. On inland trails, check out the flow rate; it can vary from day to day. You don’t want to get caught unaware by rising, swift water, especially if you’re a novice.

Stay on the river and respect landowners by not trespassing on private property. 

Canoe rentals, also called liveries, are often available at popular canoeing destinations. Children under 13 must wear life jackets when their boats are not beached, tied-up or anchored.

Need some instruction to get started? The Texas Outdoor Family program offers great weekend camping opportunities at parks around the state, and many include paddling. Sign up in advance. 

Check for maps, river guides, events and more information about Texas paddling trails.

Paddling Trails
       Caddo Lake and Big Cypress Bayou — A maze of cypress-lined sloughs and bayous, with trail markers showing the way.
       Upper Guadalupe–Nichol’s Landing — 10 miles of rapid-filled river on a spectacular stretch of the Guadalupe.
       Dallas Trinity — A paddle through the heart of Dallas.
       Village Creek — Big Thicket diversity on display with a variety of trip lengths available.
       Luling Zedler Mill — A family-friendly float along 6 miles of the San Marcos River.

What to Bring
       Life jacket
       Water shoes
       Sun protection
       Food & water
       Waterproof bag
       Trash bag

Where’s your favorite spot to paddle, and do you prefer a kayak or a canoe?

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