In August of 2006, a party was held at a house in Webster.  It was this day that the two of us could look back on and say definitively that we were at the same place for the first time, although it is possible not at the same time.  There could have been times in our youth that our paths criss-crossed, like maybe when he was a courier and sometimes drove out near Tomball, but our social groups, split by geographic distance, never would have mixed.

That day, that party eight years ago, I had left for an hour or two, during the part where most disperse from geocaching events to go find some local caches.  I had ended up in Sylvan Rodriquez Park, pushing the stroller and fussing with my six year old who did not want to have any part of geocaching.  Such was my lot back then.  I remember doing a couple and then just being frustrated, and since then, that park has been staring at me from the map, reminding me of my inability to get caches crossed off the list.

So, eight years later, we find ourselves together at this park unexpectedly, after a snafu at another geocaching event nearby, and had a chance to rectify some of those caching misadventures.  By this time, we were married and together for nearly four years.  Here is a picture of the megaliths at the park (a special theme there) that also includes our special travel bug that we created to celebrate our union:bride and groom TB at SRP

 We still had some fussing with the older child who wanted no part of the geocaching, but now he was old enough to be left sunning himself on a park bench, listening to music from his smartphone.  We grabbed those caches that had alluded me back then, and more.  We also identified some new birds for our list:  the Neotropic Cormorant and Lesser Yellowlegs.  The first species was actually in and around the lake, diving for food, and the second was skirting the marshy areas nearby.  We also watched and listened to a hawk and several other small birds as we walked (mostly yellow rumped warblers), and then on the way out, I was surprised by a large vireo who flew down into a tree near us.  He really looked like  Gray Vireo,  but those aren’t supposed to be local to here, so I am going to have to call him a Blue-headed Vireo.

The day before, there were also some unexpected adventures, mostly regarded birds (of course, since this blog has accidentally become like a one trick pony).  The kids and I were joining friends at the zoo, and walked over to the lake over there at Hermann Park while we waited.  There was a large flock of ducks in the water that included American Coots, which we have been seeing a lot of, but also Ring Necked Ducks, a species we haven’t encountered before.  My youngest laughed with delight and surprise when a huge flock of pigeons fluttered their wings around us, attracted by the seed that a couple of little girls brought.  Their feathers tickled our faces and their coos made our hearts race as they rose up around us any time they were slightly spooked.

pigeonsAs we were walking through the zoo, I noticed that I was observing the birds within and around the exhibits more than I used to.  We had to wait at the Duck Pond by the refreshment stand for a while for my friend, and there I pointed out the Brown Pelicans and then the rare pair of Hooded Mergansers that were in the pond, in addition to some of the usual suspects.  The mergansers are highly sought out by the birding types on a forum I get emails from, which is understandably because they are quite flashy.

hooded merganserThere was another brightly colored duck in one of the exhibits that I was trying to get a picture of, and never got one decent enough to put on here.  However, I was trying to identify the duck species later.  I thought it was a Woodduck, but its markings were different.  I finally figured out the reason why I was having  a hard time identifying it is because it was not a local species, but an imported one – the Mandarin Duck, which actually is related to the Woodduck (so I was on the right path).  I am not going to count this one in our species count because it is not a native species, so that brings our species count to 50.

Edit:  No, wait, 51.  I forgot about another unexpected event.  It was a cold evening last Tuesday (37 degrees) but I had to find a cache to fill in my dates calendar.  So there I was, by a duck pond, signing a log, and I called out to my feathered friends, “hey ducks!”  I almost shrieked with surprise when like fifty ducks started making a fast beeline towards me.  I was not expecting them to be so hungry, and I had nothing on me to feed them, so I had to make a quick getaway.  Not before noticing, though, that most of them were Mallards, a species I didn’t already have checked off this year.

We had a nice hike yesterday on the Lone Star Trail, and although I heard lots of birds, the only ones I really saw were the Red-Bellied Woodpecker and the Northern Cardinal.  There have been some interesting peeps and tweets outside drawing me to nature, so I am sure I will be finding some new birds soon.

Prairie Parkway

South of the Indian Grass Prairie preserve section of the Katy Prairie Conservancy land, a steady stream of Northern Harriers fly northward, forty eight in total counted by birders within about an hour.  Like the jets that were named after them, these birds now seem symbolic of war – the current war between development and conservation raging west of town over a proposed section of road called 36A, or the “Prairie Parkway” – a proposed four lane highway to run from Freeport to Hempstead at 290, cutting through land protected by the KPC that preserves habitats for local flora and fauna.

map of 36A

This is not a new war; it’s just one battle of the same kind that has been played out since man first took to corralling nature, certainly burning more intensely since cities starting sprawling ever further over the land.  It’s not even that recent of a war.  The Prairie Parkway has been on the thoroughfare plan for Waller County since 1985, and TxDot approached the commissioners in 2007 about piggy-backing the Trans-Texas Corridor along the same path.  The Sierra Club was  investigating the proposed parkway sites as early as April 2010.  However, just two weeks ago,  the turnout at the Texas Master Naturalist Coastal Prairie Chapter’s January meeting was much larger than usual, due to concerned environmentally-minded citizens coming to get some questions answered.

The biggest question on everyone’s minds regarding 36A seems to be, why? Why does it have to go through one of the sections protected by the KPC, therefore most likely interfering with the protection of species such as the Northern Harriers that were roosting in this area, or the native plants such as blooming Spider Lily, Blue-eyed grass, Spiderwort, Indian paintbrush, Lyre-leaf sage, and many other flowers that grow in this area?  The environmentalists are concerned that building this highway through the area will lead to the direct destruction of hundreds of acres of prairie and agricultural land as well as important prairie pothole and riparian wetlands.  The developers insist that this road will provide an important transportation shortcut from the Port of Houston to outlying areas, reducing the Fort Hood route from Port Arthur from 460 to 246 miles alone.  It would provide an important evacuation route for those along the coastline to make their way north, and help Waller County rise up in quality of life and tax base.

The environmental groups ask why the route cannot instead direct traffic over the new Section E of the Grand Parkway (99), or along 362, and the planners insist that there is a need to provide a new route, and not displace those who already use those previously existing routes.  Also, it would slow down the traffic moving northward from Brazoria County to have to shift over to these other roads, and just extending 36 from Waller County upwards would keep this traffic flow efficient.  Some in opposition to this route suspect that the real motive is to develop infrastructure to later build houses and strip malls along this route to support the tax base.

The engineers charged with planning this route also stress that the route would be built using Low-Impact Development (LID) techniques, such as creating a large number of smaller, cascading wet ponds to better slow down rain water and create a more natural green space, paving the roads with porous asphalt to slow rain water’s progress, as well as filter out its pollutants, and planting native fauna along the thoroughfare.  They could plan to  divert animal traffic by thick hedges and tunnels that run under the roadway for animals like deer to cross.  Utilizing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process – the seven-step process that’s required to build a public highway like 36A – the coalition wants to include environmental advocacy groups early on, so they have taken the interests of the Sierra Club and Katy Prairie Conservancy into account at a much earlier stage than what is typical.

The funding for this project is not yet complete.  The Prairie Parkway Advocacy Group is advocating for the project and trying to get people organized to press for funding.  They maintain that they are recognizing not just current needs, but future needs as well, placing their sights ten years or more into the future.  By 2050, the Greater West Houston area (Harris-Ft Bend-Waller Counties) is projected to have over one million new residents, and transportation in and out of these areas will be imperative for quality of life.

The question is how to maintain the balance between the needs of the people and the needs of nature.  If there is a formula for this, we might have forgotten it.  Last week, birding reports from the suggested route counted a thousand snow geese and over three hundred cranes.  Ducks, hawks, bald eagles, caracara, long-billed curlews and short eared owls all call this area home.   Biologists suggested that 50,000 acres were needed to maintain habitat for the native wildlife, so the 19,000 acres obtained by KPC is less than half of this recommendation.  How much will be lost to these transportation needs is not known right now.

I haven’t seen a source yet that indicates when the next open forum conversation will happen about this proposed route, or what are the next steps that will be taken.  I will be watching, though, and will let readers know if there is an opportunity to share our opinions on the matter.  Meanwhile, I propose we continue to develop those opinions, whether or not we have opportunity to share them.  I, for one, don’t want to lose this vital wildlife resource we have practically in our own backyard.

Brazos Bend, Again

Sunday afternoon was drizzly and a bit cold, but here we were, in the truck headed south to Brazos Bend State Park anyway.  We were on a mission to retrieve J’s lost binoculars lens cover, and he agreed to indulge my desire to get a few caches and look for a few birds.

We settled on the Old and New Horseshoe Lake part, because that was a trail in which we could accomplish both missions.  Last time we were here, we were not near the water, so I wanted to see what the water birds were doing.

Old Horseshoe Lake is pretty much dried up right now, but there was a lot of action going on at New, as well as the larger Elm Lake to the left of the trail.  We meant to be moving right along, but got distracted by a hawk flying over and then parking himself on a branch across New Horseshoe.  We watched as a gator trailed an American Coot across the water.  It seemed like the gator was serious, but at one point he slowed down, and the coot stopped and moved back towards him, like, “whatcha doing now?”  It makes me wonder if the gators eat the coots or not, although it seems like it would be a good food source for them.  There were a LOT of coots in this lake.

There were also White Ibises feeding across the lake, as well as an egret here and there.  Common Moorhen also cruised the water.  Our new find of the day was a pair of Blue-winged Teals who moved in and around the coots, feeding at the edge of the lake.  We watched the hawk for a while, identified as a Red-shouldered, and then moved off to get those caches.

The caches were great – ammo cans just a bit off the trail, not too hard to get to or find but enough of a challenge to keep us interested.  The rangers or volunteers of some sort were driving around the trail on a golf cart, stopping now and then to pick things up, and it was the only thing that interfered with the song and sound of birds.  I could hear them, but I couldn’t always see them.  If I am going to take this bird thing serious, I really need to learn their songs and calls to be able to identify what is out there on hearing alone.

Our best bird find along the walk was finding a pair of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.  That was fun.  Later, we saw a red-bellied woodpecker.  We also saw and probably heard cardinals and the yellow rumped warbler.  We saw another hawk, or maybe the same hawk, calling and then perching on a dead tree out on the field to the right as we made our way back.  It was a red-shouldered as well, so might have been the same one.

As we passed the New Horseshoe Lake one last time, we found another bird in the lake that got us in a heated discussion trying to identify.  It was a goofy looking bird – big and tall, with mostly grey-ish feathers with black markings and a white head.  His feathers on his chest stuck out on all kinds of directions, and he looked like an old retired bird, long past the point of caring about what he looked like.  After much discussion, combing the bird book, and looking at pictures online, we finally decided he was a Great Blue Heron, although his blue was now a bit faded.

I think we have 87 active caches left in this park that we haven’t found yet, so I am sure we will be back to find them, and more birds, soon.

Species total for year: 44


Spring Creek Greenway: Peckingpaugh Preserve

nature centerYesterday, we were out checking out some places we plan on utilizing to prepare for this year’s Texas Challenge, and we decided on a whim to stop on at the new Nature Center off Riley Fuzzel Road in Spring.  This Center is part of the Spring Creek Greenway system, a project managed by the Bayou Land Conservancy.  The Spring Creek Greenway will eventually connect thirty three miles, encompassing 12,000 acres, offering protection for this valuable riparian habitat along the edges of Spring Creek.  This will make it the largest continuous forested urban corridor in the U.S.  The Greenway is 75% complete, and will eventually connect Burroughs Park in Tomball to Jesse Jones Park near Kingwood.  The map here suggests it will actually then curve north and go all the way to what looks like New Caney (this discrepancy is the difference between what area will be part of the parks managed by the precincts, and what will be protected preserve land set aside by the Bayou Land Conservancy).

This particular Nature Center that we went to is about halfway, I would say, along that route.  The $2.2 million facility was built with funds obtained from the sale of a community center and a grant from Texas Parks and Wildlife.  Inside the Center, a volunteer told us about the literature that was available in the front part, which included what we came in here looking for – a map of the trail system.  Then she told us about the exhibits they had in the Discovery Center, and my youngest child managed to get in on a short tour/education being given to some other children by another volunteer about the snakes being housed there.  They told us that there had just been an Angler Education course, and there were still some animal exhibits on ice that they could show the kids, so we all ended up outside marveling over a small shark and sting ray.  Another volunteer held them up and showed us some of the interesting features, then let the children touch them.  Also, they had a bin of squid, shrimp, oysters, and other small aquatic creatures that the kids could touch.

After this, we took a short walk around the lake off to the side of the Nature Center.  We looked for birds to identify and for a couple of geocaches.  If we had time, we could have spent all day out here doing that, but we were on a limited time frame.  Looking out on the lake initially, we spied a Great White Heron and Snowy Egret hanging out.  A man we ran into at the park at the other end of the lake told us they had been hanging out there together for a couple of months.  He also said that a bald eagle has been spotted flying over the lake.  He sure seemed to know a lot about the day to day life here in this little corner of the park.  I think he was a grandfather who lived nearby and took his grand kids to play here regularly, as he was with some little ones who played with ours as we looked for a nearby geocache.

On the way back to the parking lot, we saw a lot of bird activity.  I thought we were seeing a new bird for us, until we looked it up later and realized what we were seeing was the female Eastern Bluebird.  We also saw males.  I saw two woodpeckers flying about trees together that I am fairly certain were ladderbacks.  We also saw Yellow Rumped Warblers and what I think was a mix of Savannah and Chipping Sparrows.  Kill Deer peeped as they flew across the lake in a trio.  I am sure there were many new birds to us, but we aren’t that good at this yet.

I did identify some species near my house this week, most notably the European Starling.  The grackels are out in FULL force, and I noticed when looking at them that the Boat Tailed and Great Tailed are mixed in with the Common.  Rock pigeons fly up under the overpass at 99 and the Westpark, as well as other places in town.  So with the Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, that brings the year total now to 42.

My younger son and I were most impressed with the Nature Center, although I think the others enjoyed it too.  There is so much to see here, and I want to host a geocaching event here to experience it.   I am considering hosting events at all the parks that are completed throughout the Greenway system on a rotating basis this next couple of years, so that my caching friends can go out and experience these places too (many of them already have, but not all of them have seen all the locations).  This makes me feel excited about the future.  I can’t wait to find more caches and more birds!

For more information on the center, see here:http://www.springcreekgreenway.org/naturecenter.htm