Treking through the Big Thicket National Preserve
I admit I did not know what to expect. I am not the first in my department to brave the Big Thicket with our conservation staff. Others before me have returned with stories of ticks, mosquitoes, chiggers, thorny vines, and one of the best experiences they have had in a long time. I packed everything I thought I would need (and probably more) in a backpack and made my way to the Zoo where I met up with the other three staff who would be going with me. All three had been there before, so I found myself relieved everybody knew where they were going!
I observed a good omen in the guise of a Bald Eagle flying over our car as we left the city. The buildings grew sparse and the highway lanes decreased as we neared our destination. As we turned onto a dirt road, I knew we were almost there. Every time I thought, “This has to be the place,” we would round another bend until we finally stopped at the edge of a river.
Our goals were 4 array locations (see explanation below) where we would collect caught animal hairs for analysis and then completely take them down. The first one was about 1/2 miles away. I have hiked the Grand Canyon (top to bottom and back up) and thought, “No problem!” 1/2 miles through bramble, briar, and every other sharp cutting plant known to man turns out to be a lot farther than one might think. By the first array, I was convinced I was bleeding from every inch of skin and I swear
there were at least 500 ticks crawling all over me (although honestly I did not see a single one).
Sam and other staff at array
We waited until after the second array was processed and taken down to eat lunch. It was peaceful sitting on the riverbank watching the vultures land in a tree on the other side. Rachel impressed me as she managed to eat her entire lunch without touching a single item with her hands! We discovered that although I packed an insane number of things in my bag, I neglected to bring anything to wash our hands with.
The real adventure began with the last two arrays. At the third one, we discovered some scat that was very unlike the specimens we had seen before. We made sure to photograph it for later identification! The last one proved the most difficult to find. It was surrounded on three sides
by the most impenetrable part of the thicket we had seen yet. Clouds were moving in as we discovered a very narrow entrance to the area.
Sam coiling array wire
Once the last array was processed and taken down, we gleefully packed our bags and began discussing dinner possibilities as we made our way back to the car. With thoughts of chips and salsa floating through my head, I felt the first tiny rain drops. The sky opened up and rain began pouring down as we found that we did not know where the narrow opening was. We must have walked a mile in that rain back and forth before we decided to just head directly through the thickest brambles.
The good thing about the rain is that it cleans your wounds! It took us the greater part of the afternoon, but we finally made it back to the car just before it got dark. It’s amazing how the trek did not seem so far once we were sitting in a dry warm car… and I did not find a single tick!
Did you know the black bear is returning to east Texas? Gone for well over 60 years, they are making a comeback in neighboring states and are looking for new territories as populations increase. The Houston Zoo is involved in this hair snare research project to detect black bear presence and
also with education initiatives in support of the black bear recovery. Learn more.
How an array works:
We are now using a modern twist on mark recapture.
We “capture” bears without every actually laying hands on them.
We string barbed wire tight in a square along 4 corner trees about 15 ft apart with a bait hung in the center A bear is attracted to the scent And if we’ve done it right the only way he can get to the bait… Is going under the wire, leaving some hair snagged in the barbs The bear claims his reward…
And leaves the enclosure, offering us another chance of getting a hair sample left behind No bears so far!