Alligators, Armadillos and Ants! Oh my!

huntsville-state-parkUpon arriving at Huntsville State Park on Christmas Day, we were greeted by a sign warning of alligators in the park. Although our rig is parked only about 25 feet from the park’s lake, we’ve yet to see any ‘gators. Last night, however, we did spy three armadillos feasting on ants around a tree stump. Considering some species can consume up to 200,000 ants (about 1.5 pounds) per night, it makes us wonder why we packed the fire ant killer.

The park is in a scenic wooded area teeming with wildlife. In fact, it adjoins the 163,000-acre Sam Houston National Forest, one of four national forests in Texas. It encompasses the 210-acre Lake Raven, which is noted for largemouth bass fishing, so named because Sam Houston’s Cherokee name was Colonneh, which means “the Raven.”

At the end of his life, Houston retired to Huntsville with his third wife, Margaret, because he said the hills reminded him of his boyhood home in Tennessee. He died of pneumonia in 1863 and is buried near his last residence, Steamboat House, which was relocated to the campus of Sam Houston State University.

The entrance to the park is within sight of the massive 67-foot-tall concrete statue of Sam Houston (one of the nation’s tallest freestanding statues), which overlooks Interstate Highway 45, about 50 miles from the city that bears his name. The 25-ton statue, dedicated in 1994, is named “A Tribute to Courage,” and features the political architect of Texas with his famous walking cane, looking rather jaunty in 19th century attire. Houston’s reputation for courage may have had to do more with his willingness to wear such clothing in the Texas heat and humidity than with any actual political accomplishments. Well, OK, he defeated Santa Anna’s superior Mexican military force in the 18-minute Battle of San Jacinto to “Remember the Alamo,” and then served as president of the Republic of Texas, governor of the state of Texas and a U.S. senator, so we acknowledge that he deserves some accolades.

The area’s various tributes to Houston’s honorable life seem to stand in contrast to Huntsville’s less-than-honorable industry as the place where Texas prisoners are put to death. In fact, visitors to the Old Statesman can also take in Old Sparky, the electric chair that ensured 361 prisoners arrived in Hell already toasted during its 40 years of service. Made by prison workers and “rescued” from a prison dump, it’s now on display, along with other fascinating artifacts, such as various shivs and contraband, at the Texas Prison Museum.

While walking the dogs, we observed a red-cockaded woodpecker. The small black and white woodpecker with distinctive large white cheek patches has a single streak of red feathers on each side of its head. Designated an endangered species in 1970, it makes its home by pecking cavities into large, living pine trees. These cavities are later used by a variety of forest wildlife including other woodpeckers, bluebirds, screech owls, wood ducks, squirrels and honey bees.

The lake is also home to various water fowl, including snowy egrets. We were determined to get video of one of these magnificent birds in flight, so we decided to wait and watch near the water’s edge. We didn’t know, however, that egrets stand still for long periods waiting to ambush their prey. We spent nearly an hour waiting for one bird to take flight, but we finally got our video!

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