Struck by the urge for adventure last week, I Googled “outdoor activities in Houston” and stumbled upon Armand Bayou Nature Center’s website. The ABNC is located about 25 miles southeast of Houston and is the largest urban wilderness preserve in the U.S., maintaining 2,500 acres of mixed marsh, prairie, and forest. They offer various classes, camps, and canoe and pontoon tours, and more, including something that interested me – the Owl Prowl Night Hike.
The Owl Prowl costs $8 and takes place after the park's normal hours (9 am- 5pm Wednesday-Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday).You’ll need to call ahead to make a reservation and are advised to bring along a flashlight, though I didn’t use mine much.
Before the actual hike, ABNC volunteer David Kovach played the hoots of the four types of owl that lived on the grounds and gave a presentation on their anatomy. During this presentation, he warned that there was no guarantee that we would actually see an owl, but he promised that we would hear them. My expectations tempered, I still held out hope deep in my heart that I would glimpse of one of these mysterious creatures.
The kids on the tour were given the chance to examine a couple of owl pellets, which were more interesting than they sound, and then we ventured out into the night. (Owl pellets are the regurgitated undigestable remnants of owl prey.) The tour took us through the 1.5-mile Lady Bird Trail, which traced a forest, where hawks roost high above three box turtles, and a pond, where a lone alligator resides. The last leg of the hike goes through a prairie where two bison roam.
While on the hike we overheard a conversation between two barred owls and possibly the distress call of some owlets, but unfortunately the tour ended owllessly, my hopes dashed cruelly.
Still, I wanted to see more of the ABNC. The Sunday afternoon farm life demonstration also struck me as interesting, especially the butter and cheese making (and tasting) portion. The nature center was much livelier during the daytime (General admission is $4 for adults and $2 for kids’ four to 12 and seniors over 60) and I was given a map and encouraged to explore the park before heading to the the Martyn farm, the site of the demonstrations.
I meandered along the Discovery Loop, which includes the education building and exhibits. Inside, I looked at the various species of king snakes on display and had a lovely conversation with a visiting volunteer from Houston Bat Team, who sat at a bat information table and display. Eventually, I found the Martyn Trail and made my way to the farm.
Unfortunately, there was no butter or cheese to make or taste. There was a crochet display and demonstration and ABNC volunteer Eleanor Stanley was giving tours of the Robert-Hanson family home, built in 1895 and donated to ABNC when the original Martyn farm house was destroyed by vandals. The house featured appliances, clothing, and furniture from the early 20th century. Most interesting to me was the antique wood cook-stove (cooking was way more complicated back in the day) and the manual type writer.
I left Armand Bayou, once again a tad bit disappointed, but also feeling like I’d discovered my own hiding place not too far from Houston. These were the things I knew: if I had to go on every night hike for the next year, I would eventually see an owl and that I loved the staff. While you may not get exactly what you came for on your first visit, the friendly people and relaxing environment will encourage you to return.