Lake Jackson: Gulf Coast Bird Observatory and Wilderness Park

This past weekend, we attended a bird banding workshop at the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory location in Lake Jackson.  These bird bandings are held every third Saturday from 8 am to noon and are open to the public.  I personally was interested in being able to identify more birds.  We were also interested in using his new binoculars to sight more birds, and hoping there might be a raptor or bird of prey being banded.

We showed up for the bird banding fairly late – ten am as opposed to eight, because we were having trouble getting up, but we still got to see quite a few birds.  This time of the year, there were primarily cardinals.  The cardinal is such a handsome bird, but apparently they are very fiesty.  The male volunteer who does the bird banding, Robert Lookingbill, was getting nipped several times by their beaks.  He also had a bit of bird magic about it, seeming to “hyptonize” the birds with a wag of his finger, to the delight of the onlookers who were trying to get pictures.

During the bird banding, this man would gently remove the birds from the sacks they were hanging in and check to see if they already had a band.  If they did, he read the number off to his “scribe”, his wife Kay.  They are both licensed bird banders and research associates at GCBO.  If the bird was not banded, he placed one on them.  I admire his dexterity because this is harder than it sounds.  Then he performed an examination of the animal, during which he verbalized his findings to Kay, who was logging them in a tablet.  They looked at the condition of the wings, measured them, blew a straw across the bird’s chest to get a visual assessment of body fat, and weighed the birds.  This gives them good data to look at migration patterns of birds relative to their body condition.  Bird banding has been going on at this location for five years now, so Kay and Robert have amassed a good deal of data for the US Fish and Wildlife Service that this workshop both supports and is supported by.

In the two hours we were there observing, we saw about ten different species of birds being banded.  Most of them were cardinals, but there were also several species of very small birds, some of which the crowd ooh-ed and ahh-ed over, such as this Golden Crowned Kinglet. J an dI both got to hold a bird before setting it free after the banding, and I got to hold a tiny hummingbird in my hand before it took off.  We all took a walk over to see the mist screens they use to catch the birds before bagging them and bringing them over.

Towards the end of our visit, we ran into a very friendly volunteer, Claudia I think her name was, who showed us how to get to the observatory overlook by walking with us.  She taught us a lot about the history of this site, the work they do there, their conservation and fundraising efforts, and other great places to view birds.  She also told us about native plant species that you could plant in your yard to attract hummingbirds and butterflies.  She walked us over to a location where some of these were planted and put some seed pods in my hand, as well as pointing out the different species, such as Katy Ruellia, Turks hat, yellow bells, and shrimp plants.  We walked a little further down a trail by the office headquarters and observed the screen nets.

I had packed a picnic lunch for after, and loaded waypoints for nearby geocaches into the GPS unit.  We met his parents beforehand and they followed us down here to watch the bird banding as well, and they were still game for enjoying some time outdoors when the workshop was over, so we all went next door to the Wilderness Park.  This is 300 acres of pristine woodlands located on the other side of the Brazos River.  We went for about a three mile round trip hike there and picked up ten new geocache finds.  His parents were with us for about half of the caches before turning back; after they left, we picked more rugged routes and faster tempos, although we still were strolling leisurely enough to enjoy the vistas and take photos of our favorite views.  I highly recommend this place as a good location to escape into nature, although as with most natural adventures, use your sense of caution – we saw a huge snake entering our path as we were on our way out of the path.  We didn’t see other wild animals but we saw plenty of sign of them, animal prints in the mud and scat indicating the presence of feral hogs, deer, raccoon, possum, and possibly bobcat and alligator.

Later, I will go into more detail about the conservation efforts of GCBO and the different birds we learned about.  Mostly I wanted to share our experience of this area in hopes it might inspire you to take a trip out there and experience it as well.  This is a place where nature reigns supreme in the midst of an urban environment, and I hope to find more places like this to share with you.

Katy Prairie Conservancy

On an unusually cold Saturday morning, we went out for a drive along Katy’s back roads to explore the Katy Prairie Conservancy sites.  Our primary mission was birding related.  He had just gotten a new pair of nice binoculars for his birthday, and lately we’ve become more interested in the birds.

Well, he’s always been interested in the birds, since I have known him, but mostly his interest was in hawks and falcons.  Today, his objective was to see an eagle.  I, though, have never been interested in birds before him.  In fact, I rarely even noticed them.  I feel like I must have spent my life looking at the ground, or panning in front of me, but never really looked to the sky.  Oh, what I had been missing!  Now I am all excited and enthusiastic about learning the names of all these creatures.  And what a difference the binoculars make!

I had first learned about the Katy Prairie Conservancy during the Outdoor Fest at Discovery Green last fall that I have mentioned here before.  I had held on to a pamphlet about their mission with the intention of venturing out here someday.  Then he suggested we check it out early one morning, try to get there around sunrise to catch some birds, find some geocaches, take some waypoints of places to see birds at, and so off we went.

The Katy Prairie itself used to stretch from downtown Houston to the Brazos River.  As the Houston metropolitan area spread, and the west side of town was developed more rapidly, the prairie has begun to disappear.  However, this land was home to 300 species of birds, 300 species of wildflowers and other plants, and around 100 species of other kinds of wildlife.  Without a plan for protection, all of this would soon disappear, and the Katy Prairie would be swallowed up into oblivion.  In 1992, the Katy Prairie Conservancy was formed as a nonprofit entity intent on saving this bit of wilderness in our urban environment.  Their mission is to preserve 50,000 contiguous acres on the prairie,  To date, they have protected 18,000 acres towards this goal.

This day, we stopped at three sites along the map provided by the website: the Wildlife Viewing Platform, Barn Owl Woods/Nelson Farms, and Warren Ranch South.  These sites are marked on the map you can find here.  These locations, as you can see from the map, are right next to each other along the same road.  If you want to explore this yourself, you will have to approach from the west end of Sharp, as there is some construction going on right where the Cypress Creek crosses Sharp Rd, and the road is not only closed right now, but there is a gaping crevasse in it.

We didn’t see our eagle this morning, but we did find some geocaches along these roads, including one right at the platform, and we had a good time looking at the birds through the binoculars and trying to identify them. I was watching one for a while that we spent all day trying to identify from various sources, unable to come to agreement until we realized we were talking about two different birds we had seen that morning.  I was able to find out what it was, I think, by a nudge from another geocacher that I contacted who is an experienced birder and pointed me to this list the Katy Prairie Conservancy has up on its website.  From there I was able to narrow the choices by comparing pictures and migration habits.  I am currently convinced the bird I was looking at was an ash-throated flycatcher.

We plan on going back out to mark coordinates of places along this area to view birds and sharpen our skills at identifying them.  Next time we go out, I am bringing a sketch pad and map pencils so it is easier to remember exactly what I saw for later remembering, until we get a really good field guide.  I am excited about our new interest in birding, and thankful that this town has an organization like KPC actively preserving our wilderness so that future generations, both human and bird alike, can continue to enjoy it.


Stoats - Evil, but how cute are they?

So, as I mentioned in the previous story, the kakapo parrot of New Zealand got into a little trouble as as species when predators were introduced to its formerly pristine environment.  The kakapo had more than just the loss of ability to fly working against them, they also had three critical evolutionary habits that did not bode well for survival.  For one, when danger would arrive, the birds would freeze, which may have helped them hide from the Maori people, but not from pouncing feral cats.  Also, they emitted a rather sweet fragrance, something like a honey tinted floral smell, which may blend into the smells of the island to people, but makes them an easy target for predators such as dogs.  Also, because in their evolutionary past, one of the only dangers they faced was from a giant (now extinct) eagle, they had developed a habit of building their nests and laying eggs on the ground, which made their young easy targets for the stoats.

The kakapo were almost completely wiped out fairly quickly, and faced with growing public concern , the New Zealand government realized they were going to have to do something.  They designated Resolution Island as a habitat, and appointed Richard Henry as chief curator and caretaker.  Over the next six years, Henry would move scores of kakapo and kiwi, another flightless bird, over to Resolution Island, hoping they would be safe there.  The stoats, however, after these six years, swam across the water and reached Resolution Island, and the fragile birds’ eggs.

From there, the kakapo almost met its fate on the extinction map.  Within six years, the stoats had effectively wiped out the population on Resolution Island.  A few birds here and there had been ferreted away to other islands; some of which were populated with feral cats, unfortunately.  Reports of seeing kakapo in the wild dwindled.  In the 1950s, the New Zealand Wildlife Service would go looking for them regularly, but eight years went by before even one was found.  In 1961, a handful were found, but all the birds caught and brought into captivity would die off.  I’ll tell the rest of their survival story later.

When I first heard the story of this bird, the details were not as interesting to me as the main idea – the idea that sometimes life comes at you fast, and without means to adapt quickly, we fail to thrive.  As I learn more about the bird, though, it is the little details that fascinate me.  There is so much more to this story I want to tell you, so you will just have to stick around for the next installment.


I first heard about the plight of the kakapo parrot just recently, during a long winded but extremely interesting video segment of Douglas Adams. There are several interesting aspects about this bird, but the one that is intriguing me the most right now is the evolutionary biology angle.

Basically, the kakapo is a bird that missed the boat.  It probably would have been driven to extinction if humans had not gotten involved and worked at bringing them back to higher numbers.  What happened is that nature spoiled this great big bird initially, and the kakapo got so settled into its environment over the 70 million years that when its environment changed suddenly, it was unable to keep up.

For that long span of time, this parrot species native to New Zealand lived in an island environment with no predators or threats to their survival.  Gradually, they had lost the ability to fly, as their body size increased, their wings got smaller, and they lost muscle and bone development in certain key areas.  The adult males weigh up to 4 kg (which is 8 1/2 pounds), so they are a very large bird.  They also developed a very slow breeding pattern, which would be a good evolutionary strategy for animals with a limited space and resources.

This 70 million year slow process, however, was interrupted in the late 1800s by the influx of Europeans to New Zealand.  The colonists had brought domestic animals with them to this island, including cats, dogs, and stoats (which are cute little ferretlike animals with terrible fierce teeth that like to raid nests of birds and eat their eggs and young).  Suddenly, there was survival pressure on this species that it just could not keep up with.  When the colonists arrived, the joke was you “could shake a tree and the kakapo would fall like apples”.  They were plentiful, and, as the native people before them, the colonists enjoyed eating the tasty plump white meat of this bird who could not get away fast enough.  Feral cats and dogs, along with the stoats, did their damage as well, and by the 1890s, the population was in real trouble.

I would like to go into more detail about the stories of the attempts to bring the population of this bird up, which now hangs at about 122 individuals, and also some interesting reproductive aspects of this bird, but that is too much to go into detail with at this time.  Expect more on the kakapo in the future.