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Great Egrets are one of the 220 bird species you can spot at Armand Bayou Nature Center.

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One of my greatest thrills as a small child came when my mother took me to the Armand Bayou Nature Center for the first time. There, from the maze of boardwalks that criss-cross the 2,500-acre wildlife preserve in the coastal marshes near Clear Lake, I saw my very first alligator. It wasn't very large, but it was there, in person, right before my young eyes. My mother let me gaze at the gator for what seemed like an hour until it finally, lazily, swam away. I told everyone at Rummel Creek Elementary the story at recess the following Monday, and the day after, and for possibly the duration of my grade school experience. I saw an alligator and it was this close and it was the most amazing thing that had ever and would ever happen to me.

Your children—or you, if you're like me and still get a thrill every time you see a scrawny city rabbit hop across the Heights Hike and Bike Trail—can still have that very same experience at the Nature Center, or perhaps create a whole new story of their own: Armand Bayou is home to not just alligators, but white-tailed deer, bobcats, coyotes (or, as my grandfather used to call them, "KIE-oats"), snakes of the venomous and non-venomous variety, armadillos, frogs, turtles and much more.

What's more, over 200 species of birds alone call the preserve home, including the birds of prey that can be spotted during Armand Bayou's monthly Owl Prowl night hikes. The next one is scheduled for Jan. 23 from 5:15 to 7:15 p.m. and includes a flashlight-guided tour of the duskier side of the sanctuary.

Coming up this Saturday is another way to explore the Nature Center: by water. Armand Bayou's twice-monthly guided canoe tour takes place on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month, offering guests a glimpse at creatures that may otherwise be too shy to come close to the tourists who traipse up and down the boardwalks. The canoe tours are $25 per person, setting off at 8 a.m. and finishing at 11.

And if canoes aren't for you, this is still the perfect time of year to hit the Nature Center: the holiday crowds are gone, the weather is mild and you'll be able to appreciate the pristine beauty of Armand Bayou in relative peace. Christmas season tapped your wallet? No worries there either; tickets to the Armand Bayou Nature Center range between $2 and $4. And while the cooler temps mean the alligators aren't quite as active, plenty of other species are. Maybe your kid will come back with a bobcat story, an even cooler tale to tell around the playground next week.

Armand Bayou Nature Center, 8500 Bay Area Blvd, Pasadena, 281-474-2551, abnc.org

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