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.

Botanical Detectives

So what is this?

We first encountered this plant while we were hiking through the Armand Bayou Nature Center, finding answers for an Earthcache out there.  I was fascinated with the unique color of the leaves and the soft, rounded seed capsules beneath them.  (Actually, I think I remarked that to me, they bore a resemblance to monkey nuts, but that is just the demented primatologist in me).  In this picture, you can also see a worm moving along the petals, which also intrigued me that day.

This first encounter back in September, we took pictures in hope that we can use them to identify it later.  Only, I couldn’t figure out how best to do that.  A few weeks later, we were at an outdoors expo at Discovery Green, and I talked to a TPWD employee about their recommendations on free online field guides to identify plants.  The lady referred me to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s online field guide, which is awesome.  However, it is somewhat difficult to use when you want to do what I was trying to do, which was match the picture up with another one that had a name attached to it.

Another month or two later, we were out for a lunchtime walk at the Shadow Creek Ranch Nature Park, and I thought I saw a picture of the plant etched into an interpretative sign.  I couldn’t be sure though, because there was no color on the sign and the etching was not a perfect replication.  Also, I meant to remember the name of the plant on the sign that resembled it and look it up later, but I forgot the name I had seen.

Around Christmastime, we were flipping through field guides of plants at bookstores and couldn’t figure out what book would be best to buy to find information like this.  Then, last night, we were at Katy Budget Books and found a pamphlet with color pictures called “Texas Trees and Wildflowers”.  I told him, “this is just what I need!”, then went on to browse the other nature books.  Then he pointed to a picture on the pamphlet and said, “There it is”.

Snow-on-the-Prairie.  Euphorbia bicolor.

Mystery solved.