Here’s a typical walk along a trail in a state park: You enter the trail and admire the foliage on the trees around and above you. You hear the sound of the wind rustling the leaves, and there are frequent bird calls providing a pleasant sonic accompaniment as you walk along. You sometimes catch the rustling of leaves just off the trail and stop a moment to see if you can spot the creature making the noise, but usually you see nothing, or maybe catch a shadowy glimpse of motion through dense brush. Sometimes you see a bird flitting from one tree to another, but it’s hard to get a good view. After passing a pleasant little stream, you return back to the parking lot and go home, relaxed and happy from your walk in the woods, but wishing you’d been able to see more of the wildlife.
Now imagine it could be like this: You get out of your car and start to walk towards the trailhead, but before you are even out of the parking lot you watch as a great egret soars just overhead and lands on the edge of the first pond, 200 feet away from you. As you step on the trail, the egret moves grumpily away from you, but stays in the shallows hunting for a tasty fish. As it moves farther down the bank, your eye follows and you see a blue heron wading at the far end of the pond. And then a snakelike neck emerges from the surface of the middle of the pond – but it’s no snake! It’s an anhinga, swimming around hunting it’s prey in and under the lake. Either sated, or simply tired, it hops out on the far bank and spreads it’s wings to dry out in the sun. And that was just in the first pond. The second pond seems oddly empty – oddly, that is, until you spot the aligator’s eyes peering out above the water waiting for an uncautious bird to get close enough. You look down the trail and realize that there are still another 23 ponds out there, all holding their own assortment of birds, reptiles, and other creatures waiting for you to come along and learn about them.
That description of the beginning of your walk is not made up. It actually happened to me, and does so on a regular basis, since I live near the park and visit it often. Sheldon Lake State Park is located on the eastern edge of Houston on old Highway 90. This park is home to more than 250 species of birds, numerous alligators, turtles, lizards, and the usual assortment of deer, raccoons, possums, armadillos, and other wildlife common to southeast Texas. The birds are what make the park special, though, because of their variety, numbers, and easy viewing.
In a way, we can thank World War II for this wonderous menagerie. During the war, the federal government created Sheldon Reservoir to provide fresh water for war industries along the Houston Ship Channel. After the war, the reservoir was turned over to the City of Houston, but the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department acquired the property in 1952, drained part of the land and built a fish hatchery, which operated until 1972. At that point, the old hatchery ponds were allowed to begin reverting to a natural state, and the many birds that live in and pass through the Houston area suddenly had a wonderful new hunting and nesting ground available to them. Yellow crowned night herons build their nests in trees overs the ponds and raise their chicks here. It is easy to be able to stand and watch a nest with it’s parents and young from a distance of as little as 30 feet. In the winter, snow geese fill the meadow, and flocks of white ibis are common throughout the year. Sheldon Lake State Park is such a wonderful place for birds that the Audubon Society has partnered with TPWD to build a new Audubon Center on the property, though construction is only just getting underway.
Of course, there’s more than just birds here. The alligators are numerous and easily spotted, floating with their eyes above the water, perched on small logs, or basking on the banks in the morning sun. These are true apex predators, afraid of nothing. You are well advised to keep your distance if you see one, and treat them with respect. Alligators are often very cooperative photographic subjects as long as you don’t get close. If you do get close, they will usually slip silently into the water and glide away, but if you walk along the trails rapidly you can sometimes startle them. I was once walking on a trail down the bank of the second pond on the south side when I heard a large splash right in front of me. I looked and realized that in my haste I had come right up to a young alligator on the bank, and when I was about 6 feet away he saw me and jumped into the water. I should count myself lucky that it was not one of the adult alligators, and especially not a female watching her nest!
In all this, I’ve only mentioned the pond area of the park, which is really quite small! There is a large set of fields reverting to prairie where you can see a different set of birds: sparrows, meadowlarks, kestrels, and more. Bald eagles are not uncommon, even. The largest part of the park is the lake itself, though. Bring your own boat and you can see large flocks of ducks, blue-winged teals, several kinds of egrets, and, of course, more alligators!
In short, Sheldon Lake State Park is concentrated life! The animal life here is so abundant that even the most inexperienced observers will still find plenty to see and marvel at. Adopt a quiet attitude and take a bit more time, and you can see almost anything you want.
Sheldon Lake State Park and Environmental Learning Center is open 7 days a week 8am-5pm, and 8am-7pm on the weekends from April to October. Entrance is free. There is no overnight camping or boat rental, sadly, but the close proximity to Houston makes this park an ideal destination for day trips.
15315 Beaumont Highway (Business 90) at Park Road
Houston, TX 77049