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.

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