Saturday, December 11, 2010


I've been thinking on a lot of things lately, especially as the stress of the holiday season sets in. Two of the themes that keep coming into my head in intersecting fashion are the complex systems that underlay our society and the general concept of decay. There is nothing that gives me more Reevesian “Whoa” moments, than thinking for any length on the increasingly complex, increasingly specialized, and increasingly decaying web of mechanical and electrical systems that we rely on to keep bright the light of civilization.

One of my favorite blogs is written by a photographer and writer with a fantastic talent for capturing sense of place and also the subtle decay and facades of our built environment. So with a nod to the good folks over at Are There Any More Cookies?, I'm going to swing this potentially dense and pretentious discussion toward another installment of the themed photo sets that I've indulged in lately. Here is my own take on decay. I'll tackle sense of place in another installment.

Barbed Wire and Vines (antiqued)
Bear Creek Park - Burnished RustGasworks Parks DetailProgression

Varner-Hogg Plantation 5 - Pump Detail
WPA Building (cottage)Progression"History"

TippedCreeping Decay
Stone Staircase with leaves (B&W)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Negative Space

Wikipedia defines negative space as:

"Negative space, in art, is the space around and between the subject(s) of an image. Negative space may be most evident when the space around a subject, and not the subject itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape, and such space is occasionally used to artistic effect as the "real" subject of an image."

This is a bit more high brow than my usual take on negative space, or perhaps more technical. A lot of my photography is pretty subject oriented, especially wildlife shots. I may show it off centered in its habitat, but the subject usually fills as much of the shot as my paltry 300mm lens can make it. That being said, there are times when the subject just really doesn't make sense out of the context of its greater surroundings. See? Now they have me doing less technical terms, and more true to what's going through my head, I'd simply say, "sometimes you have to see the whole picture to appreciate a piece of it.".

So here's a few of my favorite shots that make a little use of negative space.

Houston Photowalk- Top of the World
Half Dome Sunrise
Brazoria NWR 24Hula Abstract, Old Lahaina, MauiEvolution

From top: Top of the World (Houston Skyline), Half Dome Sunrise, Reeds in Still Water, Hula Abstract, Evolution, Flatlands

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hiking, Sunday November 21

Coots in Evening Light
Coots in Evening Light

Nothing monumental for this post, just a look at what an average day of hiking in the area is for me [1].

I set out Sunday morning to hike down in Brazos Bend State Park[2]. On my way down I stopped to check out one of my favorite new places, the Project Brays Eldridge Road stormwater basin project[3].

Project Brays - Eldridge Stormwater basin project
I've watched the area being developed over the course of several years, slowly transforming form some vacant land to an intricate series of constructed wetlands, and (gasp) hills![4] Until recently, the area was un-mown, and hard to access, making it fantastic habitat. Smack dab in the middle of suburbs and commercial areas on all sides, I have seen a diversity of wildlife that rivals some of the wilder areas. Native grasses, raptors of all sorts, plentiful songbirds, skunks and other mammals, even a wintering flock of pelicans. It's been fun to watch it develop, and I hope they keep at least part of it wild [5]. That day I noted a Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, and some unexplainable sheep[6].

Cullinan Park
As I drove on down toward the coast, I made another short stop at Cullinan park, a small municipal facility comprised of not much more than a wood area surrounding a small lake[7]. However, it's kept fairly wild, allowing for some great habitat and walks[8]. In the winter, this place is duck central. I counted no less than 9 species of waterfowl in about 10 minutes time.

Finally I set out south for Brazos Bend.

Brazos Bend State Park
Brazos Bend State Park is a fantastic chunk of the coastal prairie, bottomland forest, and extensive wetlands that existed prior to development of the area. It's still buffered by a lot of undeveloped land around it, but every year the metropolis encroaches a bit more. However, being not far from the coast, and a large and inviting habitat, it is a birding hot spot [9] as well as home to a substantial population of American Alligators. I love this place.

I started the day there giving a short nature hike. I love getting out into the woods with people and getting them to look more closely at what's going on. I've had people complain that they "didn't see anything" when they were on the trail by themselves, only to be amazed that someone who knows (kinda) what to look for, can show them a multitude of life they walked right on by[10]. Some people don't like kids on hikes, but I don't mind them at all. In any group of kids, there's usually a know it all, and a smart-a$$, and a rebel, but there's usually one or two who spend most time watching the world around them intensely and soaking it in. They're the kids that I really like having along.

Upon return, I spent an hour or two introducing kids to snakes and baby alligators in the nature center before heading out on the trails. As much as I'm hiking for myself at that point, one look at a pseudo-uniform with badge, and it's amazing what sort of pent-up questions come pouring out of people. I've had some really great conversations when I'm out there, boots on the ground.

Sunday, not much was going on. Lots of gators out, but the birds were sheltering from a decent wind that kicked up. I rounded out the day with a sunset from our observation tower. Our tower is about 40' tall, and has a commanding look over a large lake and massive wetlands area. At sunset the view is amazing enough in and of itself, but winter sunsets come accompanied by hundreds of thousands of blackbirds[11] coming in to roost; long, unending streams coming in fro every cardinal direction, and swirling in vast swarms over the fields of wild rice. It's an amazing experience, and the noise is just short of deafening. It's impressive enough that even the vast winter flotillas of American Coots (see top picture) cross the road to get to deeper marsh.

On my way home, as the last light faded into twilight, I slowed down while passing an open section of prairie, waiting to see a large figure perched on top of a telephone pole. Sure enough, my normal "owl alley" did not disappoint, and I was treated to the soundless flight of a great horned owl passing over as my car startled it.

I can't help, these days, but to make mental notes of the animal species I see along the way. This was a good Sunday, as I recall seeing or hearing about 60 species in all. That's a decent amount of biodiversity for casual observation.

In relative order, I saw: Great Blue Herons, Little Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Northern Harriers, Red-Tailed Hawks, Kildeer, American Kestrels, American Coots, Double-crested Cormorants, (domestic) Sheep, Longhorn cattle, Plecostomus sp. (dead), Belted Kingfishers, White Ibis, Yellow Rumped Warblers (myrtle), Mourning Doves, White-winged doves, Tri-colored Herons, American Crows, American Wigeon, Ring-necked ducks, Common Moorhen (common gallinules), Blue-winged Teal, Wood Ducks, Gadwall, Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures, Muscovy ducks, Black-bellied whistling ducks, American pipits, ruby-crested Kinglets, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Red-shouldered Hawks, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Phoebes, Black-crowned Night Herons, American Bittern, Brown-headed cowbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, Boat-tailed Grackles, Common Grackles, Starlings, Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, Great Horned Owl, Pied-billed grebes, White-faced Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Carolina Chickadee, some species of Skink, Yellow Sulphur butterfly, Monarch (or viceroy) Butterfly, Common Buckeye butterflies, more than one species of "lady bug", red-eared Slider turtles, Cattle Egrets, Eastern Grey Squirrels, Bullfrogs, and, of course, a large number of Alligator mississippiensis.

Whew. Quite a day. And I didn't even get down to Quintana, but that's a place and story for another post...

[1] I try to get out hiking at least once a week. While the area doesn't have much in the way of fantastic landscape, it does have a pretty good selection of parks. Being a naturalist at heart, I don't need towering mountains (per se), as long as there is wildlife. And the Houston area has wildlife, albeit mostly avian

[2] I volunteer there as a naturalist, leading hikes, teaching kids in the nature center, being a roving interpreter of nature on the trails, that sort of thing.

[3] Ok, so that's not the most inviting name, but I swear it's cool. It's part of a series of flood control projects on Brays Bayou that focuses on multi-use facilities, rather than the unfortunate traditional flood control method of channelizing and coating with concrete all natural channels to move water more quickly. These sites are designed to provide natural filtration and slow water release through retention, to relieve flooding, create habitat, clean the water, and serve as recreation. My hat's off to you, Harris County Flood Control District! A much more rational approach than the usual "build anything you want in the floodplain, we'll just move the water faster" mindset of generations past.

[4] We do not have topography here. Standing on a hill, I'm pretty sure I can see to Dallas.

[5] Unfortunately, they've started to convert bits of it into parkland, so we'll see how long this fantastic closed ecosystem lasts. In some similar projects, they have reserved a section as wild, which would be fantastic here.

[6] I'm fairly sure these aren't native, but man, wouldn't that be an awesome argument for preserving habitat.

[7] Which kept me sane at my old job, which was located about a mile away from it. When affluent suburbia got me down, it was nice to have a small refuge.

[8] Most famously, this is the park in which a sign indicating that alligators are present in the water is located quite near a bench which is placed only a foot or two from the water's edge. That's some fine planning, boys:)

[9] Over 300 species are seen at some time of the year, with massive fall and spring migrations.

[10] This is why I will never be a really good "destination" hiker. One new bird, or cool amphibian, or unknown insect crosses my path, and my progress screeches to a halt. A recent hike up Half Dome with some other hikers made me pretty aware that the "naturalists' pace" is decidedly not the "destination hikers' pace".

[11] The mixed flocks of blackbird species are themselves witness to the biodiversity of the area, often containing Brown-headed cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, boat-tailed grackles, starlings, and even a couple errant migrants. You know you're making progress when you can start to pick out individual species from the vast skies full of swirling black shapes in low light.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Blackbirds on Painted Landscape
Blackbirds on Early Winter Fields

As I write this, I am working my way toward an early morning flight to NY for Thanksgiving. There's nothing quite like NY in autumn, especially as the splendor of fall leaves winds down toward Thanksgiving, when the cold nights bring on a sort of after-the-party melancholy that simultaneously has a clarity and warm sentimentality bundled with it. At least for me.

Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday because it doesn't need distractions. No gifts, no heavy metaphor, just a few days of family, food, and rest before insanity of the Christmas onslaught begins.

So, I hope this finds you and your family well. Here's a few pictures from Thanksgivings past, and I wish you all a happy holiday.


Thanksgiving in NY 2Letchworth State Park - Curved WallTurkey!

Letchworth State Park - Winter Trees

From top: Last Leaves, Early Snow, November Path, Turkey!, Cold Landscape

All images copyright Justin Bower, All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Winter Colors

Winter Palettes (sunset colors)

Winter Sky Palette, Brazos Bend State Park

Photos Copyright Justin Bower, all rights reserved. Click on them to see larger versions.

One of the things I do appreciate about the pseudo-winter of Houston is the colors of sunset. More often than not, our “winter” skies at sunset are cloudless. The sunsets are not as dramatic as the brightly lit pantheons of blazing clouds form other seasons, but they form fantastic color gradients. Sometimes subtle, sometimes massive color shifts, but always gradual from sky to ground.


Elm Lake SunsetRiver of Birds Brazos Bend Photoshoot - 17

From Start: Primary Sky, Elm Lake Sunset, River of Birds, Purple Haze

Even unedited, the colors are pronounced through the (relatively) less humid air. At a time when the landscape is not especially attractive to photograph, the color shifts make for some nice abstracts. It’s an interesting counterpoint to the subdued earth tones of the landscape.


Grass and SkyIMGP9771

Last light in Winter Grass

From Start: Winter Grasses, Reeds and Sky, Last Light on Winter Fields, In the Gloaming

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


I've been taking a quick break from regular posting as I'm caught up in a heavy workload, and have been editing pictures form a recent Yosemite trip.

In the interim, maybe you check out my other blog?

Nature and wildlife and such.

Also, I know the joke is old hat, and in general I don't find auto-tuned Youtube videos very funny, but I can't get this song out of my head.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Where the Wild Things Are (Sierras edition)

When I recently took a trip to Yosemite National Park with my wife (Details of the trip itself at, one of the many reasons for anticipation was the chance to see some western[i] species. While we didn't spend a lot of time specifically looking for wildlife while we were there, we did manage to see a couple of cool, new (to me) species.


While I’m not a birder by specialty[ii], birds are so varied and visible[iii] that one passively encounters quite a few[iv] just by standing in a given location and being conscious[v]. I have not been out west (with the exception of a quick trip to Seattle) since I started “birding”, so I was looking forward to western birds in general, and especially the sub-alpine and alpine species that Yosemite might yield up. I ended up having very little time to go out specifically looking for birds, and the persistently rainy weather didn't help. However, we ended up getting fairly lucky. I counted a Western scrub jay at a friend’s house in Sacramento before we even got to the Park, and I logged 9 new species, and a great picture of a common raven[vi] over the course of our time in Yosemite. Common Ravens and Brewer’s blackbirds were everywhere in Yosemite Valley, and there were several Stellar’s Jays about as well. I managed to get some decent shots of White-headed woodpeckers in Mariposa Grove, a Brown Creeper at the base of Yosemite Falls, and several Sooty Grouse and a Clark’s Nutcracker at the base of the final ascent for Half-Dome. I finished out the trip with a flock of Spotted Towhees in a pile of bracken in Cook’s Meadow.

Common RavenWhite-Headed Woodpecker (male)Steller's Jay Clark's Nutcracker Sooty GrouseBrewer's Blackbird (female) Brewer's Blackbird (male)

Brown Creeper Spotted Towhee, Cook Meadow


There are a lot of rodents in California. A lot[vii]. I encountered several squirrel or squirrel-like animals in various elevations. The California Ground Squirrels were persistent little things, completely habituated to human presence in the Valley. Making sandwiches in the morning outside our tent required constant vigilance, as they would often team up and create distractions, and were not fazed at all by human aggression. In the Mariposa Grove, we found both Douglas Squirrels, with their elfin ears and voracious appetite for pine cones, and Lodgepole Chipmunks, who didn't hesitate to make their annoyance at our presence known. We saw several Western Grey Squirrels, but I didn't managed to catch one on “film”.

California Ground SquirrelDouglas Squirrel with Pinecone nutsLodgepole Chipmunk

There are also supposedly a lot of black bears in Yosemite. However, despite omnipresent bear lockers, “speeding kills bears” road signs[viii], and tons of bear-themed merchandise, we didn't see or hear a single bear. Sadly, even with hordes of sticky, unwashed children in tents nearby, no bears took the bait and wandered in. One evening I did wake up to hear a rustle behind our tent, and then a steady deep grunting. Much to my disappointment, however, it turned out just to be the heavyset man in the tent behind us snoring it up to beat the band.

While we missed out on the bears, we made up for it with copious Mule Deer. The deer seemed to also be fairly domesticated in the valley, with small herds roaming through Yosemite Village. However, we did encounter many in the wild, and had one great encounter with a fawn at close range on the Mist Trail to Half-Dome. My favorite encounter of the trip occurred on our arrival, as we were walking through the dark[ix]way in to our campsite, in the midst of crowds of people, a Ringtail darted between trees and into the forest. At first I thought it was one of the almost tame Raccoons that infest Curry Village, but its long ringed tail and lemur-esque appearance ruled that out. It was a rare treat[x] to see this elusive nocturnal species, especially in such an unlikely place.

Mule Deer Faun Mule Deer Stag

Everything Else

Sadly, we didn't encounter much else of Animalia. Insects seemed to be in hiding from the sudden coldsnap, and while we had more than our fair share of water, amphibians and reptiles were nowhere to be seen. The sole representative of the rest of these teeming categories of life was a Western Fence Lizard I found sunning itself at about 8000 ft. above sea level on the trail to Half-Dome.

Western Fence Lizard

All in all, a great trip and a great introduction to western wildlife of the Sierras.


[i] The continental divide and related factors lead to variations of familiar species, and separate spheres for region specific species. Many of the ho hum bird species of the eastern areas are novel for westerners, and vice versa

[ii] These protestations are starting to wear thin, as I accumulate more and more birds. I’ll be co-leading a Christmas Bird Count for the Audubon Society this year.

[iii] Especially in the daytime, unlike many wild mammals.

[iv] Which is why I think birding is so easy to get into. You can see a lot without a lot of expertise in finding birds. A backyard feeder may draw a dozen different species in a day. That sort of return on investment is much harder to imagine in, say, herpetological pursuits.

[v] In Texas you can accumulate even more while unconscious. Unfortunately, they will likely all be Cathartes aura and/or Coragyps atratus.

[vi] My previous shot of a common raven was about three steps below the usual crytobiotic standard set by Sasquatch/Nessie/etc.

[vii] Admittedly, it’s a big state, and admittedly, Rodents is a pretty big group. But there are 98 species in California, and that’s not even counting rodent-like species such as voles, etc. For comparison, New York state has less than 25 species.

[viii] As noted on the other blog, I think it’s just irresponsible to let bears drive to begin with, even at safe speeds.

[ix] Stan, you weren’t kidding about needing to get there before dark set. 120 was a blast that evening.

[x] We confirmed our sighting with a Ranger the next day, who said in all her time there, she’d only seen one once. When we told her how we had seen one within 20 minutes of being in the park, I think we broke her heart just a little bit.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Comes the Fall

Sycamore fall colorsLast Light on the Prairie

Sycamore Colors, Last Light on Winter Prairie

The thermonuclear rage of Houston summer has ever so gradually started to give way to the first cool whispers of fall[i]. With the season change, many of our fall and winter[ii] species have started to arrive. As well, the muggy, sweltering atmosphere[iii] begins to cool and vibrant fall and winter sunsets dominate the skies.

blackbird, antiqued. Morning on the Grassy SeaBarker Reservoir B&W study 8 - Ghost LakeElm Lake Sunset

Red-Winged Blackbird, Wetlands in Morning Light, Reservoir Bones, Elm Lake Sunset

Fall is our secondary bird migration season[iv] and we’ve already seen some of our favorites stop by. Broad-Winged Hawks have been spotted, and our yearly deluge of Wood Storks has come and gone. Barred Owls become more visible as the vegetation thins.

Broad-winged HawkWood storks (low light)

Barred Owl>Bottomlands

Broad-winged Hawk, Wood Storks Roosting, Barred Owl, Bottomlands Bare of Vegetation

Our over-wintering species start to arrive, slowly at first, and then in force. Eastern Phoebes, Blue-winged Teal, Coots, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, Vermillion Flycatchers, Wood Ducks, and a vast pantheon of Sparrows have all made a showing down at Brazos Bend State Park. Their numbers will increase exponentially by the time of the Christmas Bird Count in December[v]. Soon the Snow Geese will arrive in incomprehensible numbers, filling the sky with mercury-shifting white clouds as flocks wheel and pivot over fallow fields in the coastal National Wildlife Refuges. Ducks and their compatriots will fill local lakes.

Cullinan Park 1- burnished afternoonEastern Phoebe

Blue-Grey GnatcatcherIMGP1984-1-2Brazos Bend 25th Anniversary - Blue Winged TealCullinan Park 3 - Sunset Social ClubVesper SparrowSnow and ? Geese in flight

Coots at Sunset, Eastern Phoebe, Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher, Wood Duck (Male), Blue-winged Teal, Ducks at Sunset, Vesper Sparrow, Flock of Snow Geese

With our new arrivals comes the departure, under their own power or through the end of the life cycle, of many of our iconic summer residents. The vast empire of insects and arachnids that reign supreme over the Texas summer begin to dwindle. The summer dominance of the resplendent Golden Silk orbweavers gives way to the drabber domain of the fat, grey and brown draped orbweavers of fall nights.

Dragonfly RemainsGolden Silk Spider 2

Spiny-backed orb weaverGiant Lichen Orbweaver spider (Araneus bicentenarius)

Last of the Dragonflies, Golden Silk Spider, Spiny-Backed Orbweaver, Giant Lichen orbweaver

My favorite fall spectacle here[vi] is the arrival of birds to roost at sunset in places like Brazos Bend. As the sky blazes in undiminished colors through the clear air, blackbirds of all varieties flood into the vast fields and wetlands. Their numbers are so great that counting is nearly an impossibility. They stream in from all cardinal directions, in what seems an unending torrent of birds, tens to hundreds of thousands of raucous blackbirds swirl in clouds. Roost trees erupt violently into swirling black clouds with the slightest sound, as birds take off and then return. These flocks are like omens, harbingers of the colder times ahead. While the noise can be deafening at close quarters, it is the iconic sounds of fall and winter on the Gulf Coast.

InfluxBrazos Bend Photoshoot - 15 Brazos Bend Photoshoot - 21Brazos Bend Photoshoot - 19Brazos Bend Photoshoot - 13

Brazos Bend  February Photowalk - Orientation of the WorldBrazos Bend Photoshoot - 11

Blackbirds at Sunset, Evening Star, Blackbirds and Fall Colors, Birds in Flight over Lake, Winter Sunset, Orientation of the World (Blackbirds at roost), Wetland Colors


[i] In other words, “weather that doesn’t make one want to consider becoming a nudist if for nothing else than the increased evaporative surface”

[ii] The two seasons being distinguished only by dates, really. Less their own character, and more really just “time of not-summer”

[iii] The degree to which the air is saturated with water is such that simply moving through it counts as disturbing a wetland, and requires a 404 permit from the ACoE.

[iv] Spring is the true spectacle for birding on the Gulf Coast, with the warblers trouncing through in breeding colors. Fall is less rejoiced among birding circles.

[v] What are great first sightings now will rapidly become boring as vast flotillas arrive. For the Christmas Bird Count, we often have one person assigned just to count Coots or blackbirds, given the sheer biomass they represent by that point.

[vi] Since we are bereft of changing leaves and other traditional harbingers of fall