George Bush Park Hikes: Series #2

gbpOn a crisp winter morning, I met up with a friend from geocaching to head out to George Bush Park.  We were specifically after a series of caches off the Noble Road, an old farm road from the turn of the century that was later converted to a three mile stretch of trail.  This trail runs from Highway 6 to the hike and bike road leading to the Equestrian parking lot at the end of South Barker Cypress.  It was the latter parking area that we parked at around seven thirty this morning.

I carried a lightweight pack and binoculars, but I realized pretty quickly that I was going to have to choose between hiking and caching, and watching birds.  Last weekend J and I did a little of both, but we were only after two caches; today, my friend and I were trying to get 15-20 and we had a limited time frame, because I was headed to the Wildlife Center midday for a volunteer training.

The Wildlife Center’s motto is “A place to grow, a place to heal, a place to be wild”, and this is what I thought about this morning during our hike: not about the Center, but about this park.  This 7,800 park is reported to be home to about 10,000-15,000 feral hogs, signs of which were apparent to us this morning.  We saw several piles of what I believe to be scat from these guys, some quite fresh.  We had some discussion on whether it was actually their scat, because there was hair in some of the piles.   I was aware that pigs are omnivorous, but not sure if they actually consumed small mammals (I learned later that they will, on occasion).  There was also the tell tale evidence of the rooting for food that these creatures do.

There were also other sets of tracks along the path, telling the oldest story of all: the relationship between predator and prey.  I didn’t get a picture unfortunately, in the interest of expediency and regret it now.  I am fairly certain what I was seeing were the tracks of a raccoon, who was being tailed by a coyote.  I am not sure if both made it out alive.

Later, as we got past the curves and headed into the part of the trail that heads straight to Highway 6, we had our first and only encounter with actual wildlife.  A doe was grazing as we came around the curve, then lifted her head and watched us for a minute before darting off into the thicket to the right.  A few minutes later, an adolescent deer, most likely her fawn, came trotting out of the woods on the left.  It was confused for a bit, and I think even mistook us for its mom, because it began running towards us.  Then it stopped, and ran back, then towards us, back again, then from side to side along the path until it finally figured out how to also dart off into the right side of the thicket.  We hoped he got reunited with his mom.


We also saw a lot of birds out here, but I was unable to identify all of them.  We saw and heard crows, robins, cardinals, and sparrows.  I was able to identify the Savannah and Chipping Sparrows.  With that Chipping and some House Sparrows I was able to identify at J’s family’s house, that brings the bird species total to 39 now (maybe more, need to check my notes).

A place to grow and a place to be wild, that is what this park is; a sanctuary for wildlife in the middle of urban sprawl.  We heard the gunshots from the range all morning and wondered if the animals who live here just get desensitized to the sound.  Perhaps they never know what guns mean, seeing as that one recreational activity not allowed here is hunting; good news for the feral hogs, not so good news for the homeowners around the park that have yards torn up by these wild things.

Despite the lack of hunting, the deer still have a healthy fear of people.  I was a little concerned by the young one running up so close to us before he found his way out into the forest, but the mom was quick to bolt, reminding me of this line from an Indigo Girls song, “they’re coming for us/cameras or guns/we don’t know which/but we got to run”….we just wanted to take her picture, poor thing.

Even though George Bush Park sometimes gets cursed under our breaths for its thorns and rough forest patches, it is still a wonderful thing to have so much land available here where the wild things can live without restraint, and where we can go looking for them by hoof, foot or bike.

What Does the Vulture Say

vultureWe were having a talk about vultures at lunch, my kids and I.  The older one made a statement like, “no one wants to see vultures,” and the little one wanted to know why.  It was postulated that seeing a high number of vultures could be an indication that something is wrong with the environment.

As it turns out, it might be the other way around, for it is the decline of vultures in other areas that may actually demonstrate a natural imbalance.  While it is true that in North America, we have made the world a better place for vultures (by the increase in roadkill and decrease in vulture persecution by farmers), this is not a boon seen across the board.  In fact, in India, the vulture population decreased by 99% by 2008, leaving very little of these large, although unsightly, incredibly useful birds.

Of all the reasons why these large carrion eaters have been reducing in such significant numbers in India, the biggest reason is the use of Diclofenac, which is a painkiller administered to cattle.  The cattle carcasses were a large part of the diet of vultures in that area, and the painkiller was poisoning the birds.  The birds do not have a critical enzyme needed to break down the medication and die within three days of renal failure after consuming this meat.  The use of this drug was banned in 2006, and numbers show a slight increase between 2011 and 2012, so that is good news.  DDT has also played a role, as this pesticide was dumped in high quantities in a national park in order to quell malaria rates.  High levels of DDT were being found in the flesh of cows, left for vultures to feed on due to Hindu practices regarding the revered cud chewers.

However, it is not just India that has seen a significant decrease in vulture population.  Nepal shares many of the same reasons for decline of the vulture population within its borders as India.  Africa has also seen its fair share of vulture decline, also due in some part to the use of Diclofenac, but also due to the use of a pesticide called Furadan that farmers lace carcasses with to reduce herd loss from carnivores.  Since each carcass can feed up to 150 vultures, this leaves a huge unintended consequence of the dying off of these useful birds.   Some of the deaths are also attributed to the use of vultures by shamans in mystical ceremonies that commonly involve the use of this animals brain in ceremonies.  It is believe that the vulture brain (either through smoking, eating, or smearing on the body) imbues on the recipient powers of clairvoyance or increased intelligence.  The black market sale of these birds leads to the disappearance of roughly 59,000 birds a year.

In the US, we have also had our losses over the years.  During 1946-1970, vulture numbers dropped off, like the other large birds of prey, due to the widespread use of DDT.  This pesticide was discovered to thin the shells of these big birds, decreasing the ability of the offspring to survive.  However, since the use of this has been banned, the numbers have rebounded, and it seems like here in Texas, you can’t hardly look at the sky without seeing one floating about.

I think it is interesting to note that before 1920, the ubiquitous Black Vulture was not common to Texas.  It was not until a change in agricultural practices that they became permanent residents.  The truth is also that the vulture population follows the white deer population.  Since Texas has the largest population of white tailed deer of all the states, it makes sense that we would also see high numbers of vultures here.

So in our case, seeing the vultures IS something we want to see, because it indicates the health of the system, not the other way around, like we speculated at lunch.  It means our wildlife is flourishing, and that pesticides (at leas those that affect the birds) are not leaking into the environment at such levels that they are having an impact on population levels, that our farmers aren’t leaving laced carcasses meant to discourage large predators, and that we don’t eat their brains.

It could just be, though, that no one wants to see the vultures because they are just not attractive birds.  Their heads are bare to keep them clean when eating carcasses, but it makes them look funny.  They don’t have flashy colors to their feathers, and their eating habits make us feel disgusted.  However, they perform a useful task in cleaning up the environment of the collective dead things.  Without them, the risk of disease spread goes up.

If you don’t believe me on this, ask India.   They now have issues with increasing feral dog populations and water contamination from their lack of vultures.

I myself find the vultures boring and commonplace, but after today’s research (what better way to spend a non-snow snow day), I understand why there are so many of them, and it makes me feel comforted.

Things with Wings

This past week, we’ve been getting out and stretching our tendons, strengthening muscles weary from winter rests.  It’s been a beautiful week, with mild temperatures and sunny skies.  Birds have been tweeting sweet temptations from the trees, and we desired to go see the things they spoke of – branches, berries, bits of brittle wheat grass and little insects hopping on a forest floor.

And so we ended up at Addick’s Reservoir.

wheat grassWe were in search of the Elements – not just wind, water, earth and fire, although we did find the first three (and signs of a past fourth).  No, this time we were seeking Copper and Zinc, as in two of the natural earth elements that are featured on the cache pages of these two in the Elements series by Z Malloc.  These were two in a line that I could have gotten in a cache run on President’s Day some years ago, but couldn’t because they were past the water line.

Today we took a path that led down the side of the reservoir and towards the edge of the water line.  Then we turned east and walked towards a stand of bare, gnarled trees, one of which held the cache.  Yellow rumped warblers were too numerous to count, twittering in and out and all around the fields and trees.  A few American Robins were spotted here and there.  A hawk flew above us, either a red-tailed or a red-shouldered.  The vultures were ever present to the east, just above the water that grew from a trickle where we stood to a little gully several feet across in the distance.  If I was an artist, I would draw for you the sight I saw from my binoculars as I looked that way – the sight of three incongruous birds perched in a vertical line in the bare branches of the tallest tree; the lowest a blue heron with delicate neck in a s-shaped curve, the middle a white ibis with long curved bill, and the top unidentified, with the bill of an ibis but dark brown feathers.  I wished I could see that mystery bird better, but we were also in a mission to keep going, find what we were looking for, not fall down, and get home in a reasonable time frame.

As we made our way east, we heard one, then another crack of a rifle to the north.  We aren’t sure what was being hunted.  We did see signs that, at night probably, the wild things were doing hunting of their own.  I am fairly certain that in these collection of tracks below, besides the obvious raccoon, that a large cat was spending some time out here, perhaps bobcat.  Also, a few piles of coyote scat were seen, as well as damage to the side of the reservoir from feral hogs

tracks 2 tracks 1On the way home, we stopped to take a picture of a red-shouldered hawk perched all dejected-looking in a tree.  I will have to post those shots once J gets them off his camera (all shots in here are from my phone).  Also, I had him get a shot of a striking Northern Cardinal singing to the day at the top of a bare tree.

Later, we ended up in Cullinan Park on the south side of town.  We were with kids and parents, armed with sets of binoculars and a birding book to see what was going on at Pumpkin Lake.  We saw American Coots and Common Moorhen, with Great Egrets congregating at the back of the lake.  More yellow rumped warblers flitting in the bushes, along with what appeared to be Song and Savannah Sparrows.  There were probably a great many others, but identification is still difficult for me.  We walked along the trails and found a cache, and talked about others that used to be here (that I never found, only J) and what the trails used to be like.  Apparently this bridge used to go all the way across, but now stems the tide of trash down in the large creek:

bridgeAlso this week, I have been spending quite a bit of time along the Willow Fork Trail Bayou Extension (?) that runs under 99 and to the west along the bayou just south of Westheimer Parkway near my house.  I’ve been strengthening these muscles there, too, combining dog walking with geocaching and looking for birds.

One day, in the golden hour of light just before dusk begins, I had a rare moment where the multi-users of this trail had disappeared, and the birds felt comfortable enough to peek out and peep down the trail.  A Downy Woodpecker flew past the Song Sparrows that were cheeping along looking for insects.  Several Blue Jays were seen, one carrying what appeared to be a big muffin in his beak.  Several birds were heard fluttering around on the forest floor, none of which I was able to get a good lock on.

With these birds, plus the Great Horned Owl sighting of earlier this week, it brings the yearly total of seen species to 37.

Wild Things

where_the_wild_things_are_hd_wallpaper_2-normalLast Friday, three of us were watching “Where the Wild Things Are”: J, myself, and the little one.  About halfway through, the little one wondered if we were going to turn it off soon.  When I asked why, he answered that it was scaring him.  He couldn’t handle the wild rumpus.  He asked me if those things were real, and I explained to him that it was just a story that someone invented to help children deal with their fears.  “But what if they ARE real, Mom?” he asked me, very concerned.

There’s nothing to be scared of, child.  The wild things aren’t real.

Except that they are, sometimes.  Just not in the way he thinks.

A few days later, I was walking my dogs out along a nearby bayou.  We were walking along the footpath, and I was scouting for birds.  Peeps and chips indicated the birds were all around me, but the sun was going down, and I was having a hard time spotting them in the little field binocs I had.  The dogs were all excited because they had been flushing small game out of the brush along the way.  When I heard the fluttering of brush to my right, at first I thought it was just another rabbit, but then I realized that it was something much larger.  Then I heard this peculiar sound, a wuf-wuf, the snuffling of an animal trying to fix a smell in his nostrils to make an identification.  Trepidation filled me, and despite my very strong inclination to continue down the trail, I realized that would be a bad idea.  It was a wild thing party, and I had brought the predators.  I am not sure if the dogs on the other end of my leash were akin to bringing a gun to a knife fight or the other way around, but I didn’t want to find out.

Except that I was on the verge of getting some bird sightings in for the day, and I really wanted to get back on the trail.  After walking in the dirt next to the bayou for a while, I noticed some walkers going down the same path, but from the other direction.  I was hoping that whatever it was would be scared off by them, or would have moved on by now.  I followed them back in, thinking if nothing else, I could judge by their reactions if there was anything to be concerned about.  They didn’t react to anything, so I kept going, but when I got to that same spot, there it was again, the snuffling sound.  I booked it out of there, with the feeling that a feral hog or coyote was going to come charging out of the woods towards the dogs any minute.  Or, just perhaps, one of the Wild Things…

A couple of months ago, the kids and I were driving to a football game, and we spotted the incongruous sight of a coyote booking it across busy 99.  A few days after, I saw a dead coyote near the same spot.  On the same road but much further south, on my daily commute down past the farms and the prison on the way towards Stafford, dead coyotes leer up at me from the side of the road, frozen in the grim smile of death.  I feel for the coyote, whose home range we have slowly been destroying in order to feed the need of expansion.

In Bellaire, the only good coyote is a dead coyote, or at least a relocated one.  Residents have been complaining about a pack of them that are living in what little is left of their world – a small tract of land between power lines.  Coyotes have to adapt to the urban environment, or die off.  Nobody wants a wild thing eating their house cats and small fluffy dogs.

In the darkness of a suburban night, the little one and I are out at a school track doing some exercise when a large bird begins a slow descent above us.  We could almost feel the wind from his wings.  I got excited for a second, thinking I was witnessing a rare predator bird, but then I realized from the light blue under wings and the way he glided into the creek nearby that it was just the Great Blue Heron that lives over there.  “Was that a monster, mommy?”  “No, my son, it was just a bird.”  “But what if it was a bird who was really a monster?  Is there such a thing?” No.  “But what if there was?”

It’s nothing to be scared of, my child.  Monsters aren’t real.

But big birds are.  Last night, when the husband came home, he was preoccupied.  He was looking for his binoculars, and for the super flashlight.  There was an owl outside, and he wanted to get a look.  We were all ready to celebrate his birthday, but instead he said, come look.  I peeked through the scope to see a large dark body on the power line, eyes glowing in the night.  Then he cast the light of 250 lumens on it, and it lit up like broad daylight – and I was looking at the dark brown and golden feathers of the Great Horned Owl, who turned to look at us but didn’t fly away.  I asked J how he knew he was there, and he said he heard him.  This morning, as I got in my car, I heard him again, and it made me smile, and it made me think about that movie again, that movie in which monsters are teaching a kid about what it means to be a human, and he teaches them about what it means to be a wild thing, and I thought about my little son.

Yes, my child, the wild things are real.  They are all around us, and all you have to do is look, and listen, but don’t be scared.  This world, after all, belongs to them.