Purple Martin Madness


You might have seen our Facebook posts Friday about watching the Purple Martins roost in Stafford.  We posted enough pictures and videos there that I don’t necessarily feel like I need to double post them here.  As far as I know, the only readers of this blog are friends with us over there on Facebook (?).  The posted YouTube video, though, is from that same night, taken from someone behind us.  Jason and his parents are over to the left of the view, I think I was sitting down at this time.  I really enjoyed the hour or so we spent out there.

At first, the birds gathered slowly, and seemingly with little purpose.  They weren’t flying as much as they were gracefully gliding with the night breeze.  I found their movements to be smooth and silky feeling, and it was relaxing to watch.  Birds would glide in and out, and the group gathered in numbers and then eventually in momentum and energy.  It went from a few groups of hundreds of birds to a more solid group of thousands, coming closer to the ground and moving faster and faster, tweeting, beating wings in unison.  They would light on top of the trees and then suddenly move off en masse, and then more birds would join and they would repeat the process, over and over until they finally settled.

I wanted to share a thought about those graceful little birds that really intrigued me, though.  Twelve thousand years ago, before man crossed over the Bering Straight into North America, the martins kept their nests in abandoned chambers of woodpecker nests or hollowed trees.  However, at today’s evolutionary point, these birds have stopped nesting naturally east of the Rockies, and are completely dependent on humans setting up houses or gourd-like nests for them.  This is a behavior shift that happened over hundreds or thousands of bird generations, as the humans and the martins began mingling.

Back before the urbanization of America, the Native Americans had realized the appeal of these little birds.  The purple martins acted like little “scarecrows”, scaring crows away from crops and vultures away from their meat and hides.  The Native Americans hung dried out gourds up to attract the birds to nest near them.  The birds were potentially able to lay more eggs and successfully raise more offspring to maturity as a result.  Over time, the birds returned to these nests year after year, until they “forgot” how to make it on their own in North America.  Approximately one million Purple Martin houses are put out by human beings to keep this species of bird going.

indian and martinsBy the early twentieth century, this behavior shift was complete.  Also, around the 1800s, the introduction of the House Sparrow and European Starling to North America meant that the Purple Martins had competition for resources.  The starlings and sparrows take over the houses of the martins, and the martin numbers began declining in the 1980s. Pesticide use and deforestation in the martin’s winter grounds in Brazil have also added to the decline of this species.   The Purple Martin Conservation Association formed in 1987, and has been trying to keep these birds from further decline.  You can get more information here if you are curious about this association.

This has made me curious about the co-evolution of humans and other species, and also about the ways people help nature.  I am not sure if the relationship the martins developed with the humans was negative or positive – while they do benefit from the support of the houses, if we didn’t enable them with the houses in the first place, they might have retained their ability to find their own nests and be sustainable as a species without us.  I am going to look for more examples like this to illuminate in future posts.


Puerto Rico Adventures #2

el yunque 2So, we’ve been back from Puerto Rico for a month, and I have been a slacker about relaying our adventures, sorry about that.  I’ve been occupying my time writing my children long letters because I miss them this summer.  They are a little more than halfway through their visit to their father’s house.  We’ve been going to the gym a lot, and hanging out doing other things besides computer activities.

I did want to share our experiences, though, in case other people were curious.  Our trip to El Yunque Natonal Forest was a sojourn into the true wilderness of Puerto Rico.  This US National Park Service property spreads across 28,000 acres, and is the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest system.

Our visit there was somewhat marred by the fact that it was raining all day, but we were determined not to let it interfere with our enjoyment.  If one finds themselves in El Yunque National Forest, a stop to the El Portal Rain Forest Center is essential.  The walkway is 60 feet above the ground, taking the visitors on a walk through the treetops.  It gave a unique perspective on the canopy.  We engaged in a long conversation with a dedicated employee who supplied us with a map and explained to us key features of the road and trails.  We shopped in the gift shop, because I wanted to get something for the kids there.  There were several educational areas along the walkway, but we were now in a hurry to take in as much as we could before the rain stopped us.

We stopped at the Yokahu tower and climbed to the top to get an aerial view of the area.  This is where the top picture came from.  We then went to hike along the La Mina Trail (below picture).  Since it was raining so hard, and also there was a promise we might be able to get into the water at the La Mina Falls, I changed into my swim suit for the hike.  When we got to the falls, about 0.8 miles down the trail, it was raining way too hard and causing the falls to be too intense and dangerous to get into.  Normally, the water cascades gently into the natural pool that visitors like to wade in, but there was no one in the water today.

The trail we took went down hill along limestone steps and walkways, which was great fun on the way down.  Although I was concentrating on not slipping and falling, I was completely thrilled with the walk.  I was very happy to be hiking here this day.  The way back was a little bit more difficult, because we had to now go up that hill we just went down. It took us about an hour or so to get there and back.  We could hear the coqui frogs singing in the forest but we never saw any.  We actually didn’t see any wildlife at all – they were probably all being smart and hiding from the rain.

When we got back to the car, J was done with the whole hiking thing, but I wanted to grab one more geocache so I went just a short way down the Bano de Oro trail by myself.  It was very nice, but then I was also ready to go.  We drove up to the end of the road, thinking we might hike up to the Mt Britton Tower, but then we decided not to, and elected to drive back and hit up the Loquillo food kiosks for the second time that day.

I would love to go back again someday and finish walking all the trails.  This place had a lot to offer and is a beautiful jewel of a forest.
el yunque

Lake Livingston State Park

livingston1On the Fourth, we headed about an hour and forty five minutes northeast of us to a state park that I particularly like, Lake Livingston.  Lake Livingston itself is the second largest lake in Texas, being 39 miles long and 7 miles across at its widest. It covers 93,000 acres, 635.5 of which belong to the state park.  It is notable for its white bass fishery, but also holds catfish (mostly blue), largemouth bass, striped bass, and crappie.

We were going up there to chill for the day and go hiking.  Once there, we met up with my friends Diane and Misti, and were joined at various points by a geocacher named Linda (it was technically a geocaching event, but very low-key) and some members of Diane’s family.  We all sat around in chairs in the shade by a picnic table in the swimming area of the park for a couple of hours.  People had brought various treats to eat, such as chips, guacamole, salsa, orzo salad, couscous, and pound cake.  We grilled some veggie burgers, hamburgers, and hot dogs and had a group lunch.  After this, Misti, J and I went for a little hike.  We ended up walking almost all the trails in this little park in about two hours.  It was a little warm outside but it was bearable.

Initially, we took the Livingston Trail from the swimming area.  We did the entire loop.  At the beginning of the loop, you cross over a bridge that takes you over very inviting looking water.  I wanted to swim in the lake today, but J didn’t think it was a good idea given my complications with my leg injury.  We are fairly certain that last time we were here, this bridge was out, and also this part of the lake was dry – it was probably a drought year when we were in this section of the park last, so that doesn’t surprise me.

livingston4 livingston5We found one of the few geocaches left in the park that we hadn’t already found while we were over this way.  After this loop, we walked past the swimming area again on this same trail – which, in its entirety, is 2.73 miles long – and then skipped off of it just before it ended and took the Pineywoods Nature Walk trail, which is about 0.95 miles.  This is a boardwalk path that leads you through a butterfly garden and bird blind observation area. I liked the educational signs inside the bird blind building.


We noticed as we were walking that some of the trees in the park had been completely taken over by poison ivy.  This picture below is actually of a pine tree, but it has been enveloped nearly completely in the poisonous vine.


All in all I think it was about 3.5 miles that we hiked.

This state park has a lot to offer, but apparently can get crowded with both people and poisonous plants.  There were a lot of people here on this holiday afternoon.  The parking lot to the swimming area was so full that the TPWD state park police were parked at the front of the lot, blocking access to it and directing traffic.  In this area, there is a swimming pool that is about $2-3 entrance fee, and it was completely packed with people.  I really did not check out the lake access swimming area, but I imagine it was crowded, too.  We found some occasional trash along our walk to pick up at first.  At some point we just kind of gave up on that – especially after two incidents where I picked up 1) something nasty and 2) something that had ants all inside of it that bit my fingers pretty good.  The park volunteers or rangers were going by on golf carts to pick up trash, but towards the end as we got closer to the swimming area, I noticed quite a bit of trash piled up near one family’s little claimed spot, and a collection of soda or beer bottle tops piled up near a little bridge.  It is a little disheartening to see, and it made me consider the idea of hosting CITOs at state parks after holidays like this.

This park also offers horseback rides through their stables only (public is not allowed to bring their horses) for about $30 an hour cash, and you can also boat, paddle and fish here.  There is a nice fish cleaning station at the marina.  Diane was camping for the weekend, and said she was not too thrilled with the camping areas – they were very close to each other, she said.  It is not her favorite park, but it is nice that it is close enough to Houston for a weekend getaway.

I heard a rumor that the state park was looking to kick this park out of their system, but that might not be substantiated.  It looked like a very popular park, and I think it has a lot to offer in terms of recreational activities.  TPWD is hosting a Birding 101 walk there July 13 and August 10, which could be interesting – unfortunately, I have conflicting events going on those days.  I wouldn’t mind going back to this park again – at least to grab that one last geocache we have left to find in the park.  It was also a nice excuse to see Misti again- hopefully it won’t be so long in between our next outdoors outing together!

Puerto Rico Adventures #1: Bio-Bay

We’ve been home for over a week, recovering from our latest adventure.  It took us a while to come back because we were really exhausted from lack of sleep, and then from trying to play catch up with work and the house maintenance.  Part of me feels like the Facebook pictures say it all,  but here are some you haven’t seen.  I call this the “Dorkiest Kayakers Ever” series.

biobay 2 biobay 3 biobay 4 biobay 5This was us on our Bio-Bay excursion in Fajardo.  I would totally do it again, even if we did look like dorks.  I enjoyed the trip through the dark mangroves, up the little channel on the way to Laguna Grande, following a strand of twinkling lights on the other kayaks. Even thought we were using the lights to navigate through the channel, I think it would have been so much better without so many people.  They were disturbing our serenity.  I think I might look for opportunities to go night kayaking with a small group of friends, instead of at a tourist stop like this.

Still, it was great to experience something so rare – the bioluminescent bay.  Our tour guide told us there were only five bioluminescent bays that were still active, three of which were in Puerto Rico.  The best one is in Vieques, but we didn’t want to spend money on another hotel by crossing over to that island, so we did this one in Fajardo.

I was expecting something more dramatic in regards to the water lighting up, but we realized later it was because there was a little false advertising going on.  In the pictures we saw before we went, there was a blue light shining under the kayak, and vibrant lights from the paddle hitting the water.  J pointed out later that under the image, it said “computer enhanced”.  Really, what it looked like, once you reached the Laguna, was silver confetti when you ran your hand or the oar through the water.  Even though it was less spectacular than I thought it would be, it was a neat experience that I might only have once in my lifetime.  If I ever have the opportunity to take the kids on something like this, though,  I am definitely springing for it.

The water lights up because of the action of dinoflagellates (pyrodinium bahamense) that light up when they are agitated.  The motion of your hand or the paddle running through the water gets them all worked up.  The luminescence is a defense mechanism in response to a perceived threat, potentially to attract attention to the predator or to warn them off.  These organisms only exist in rare and fragile ecosystems.  We were lucky to see it.

We would have liked to go snorkeling or on an “aquafari” but food was so expensive there that we tried to save money by not indulging our every whim.  I will post some more pictures and explanations about our excursions to Old San Juan, El Yunque, and the beach areas another day.