My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Monday, February 28, 2011

It Might As Well Be Spring

In, at least the southern half of Texas, spring usually arrives by the third weekend of February and soon we are having our brief spring fling before summer comes in tripping over spring's heels. The signs of spring are growing each day since last weekend.

Pale, hairy legs have appeared, including mine.

Photo by Bob Scaldino. And I'm indulging in my spring compulsion to play in the dirt.
The martins are here - the females also - and are getting their houses ready for a new generation. And  our barn swallows that build ther nest on the old Visitor Center are back. I caught them trying to find their nest which was a casualty of the Visitor Center transformation.  

The geese are leaving.  I heard a large flock calling goodby through last Thursday night's fog as they flew northward.

 Our harriers have mostly left to start nests in the northern states and Canada.

Bye Harriers!

Tiny new leaves are appearing and flower buds are swelling and even bursting out.

Photo by Bob Scaldino. Our coral vine is about to bloom while waiting to be planted

Photo by Bob Scaldino. Our recently rooted willows are already supporting pollinators

Our Mexican Plums waiting to be planted

Even the redbuds are starting to bloom in their pots

And our alligators are out and eating.  We saw one grab a turtle yesterday. They usually don't eat below an ambient temperature of 70 degrees.

Photo by Bob Scaldino    Sunning alligator.

So, it might as well be spring.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Choke Canyon Critters

For many years, I've  spent the third weekend of February in Choke Canyon State Park.  This park, located just outside of Three Rivers, Texas, is is on the confluence of western, eastern, and Mexican habitats. It is the westernmost place to find the American alligator, has western birds such as pyrrhuloxia, olive-sided sparrow, and Harris hawks. It has eastern birds such as the eastern phoebe, eastern bluebirds, and robins. It has lots of duck species and even birds we think of as coastal birds like the tri-colored heron.  And it has Mexican specialties like the Audubon's oriole, green jays, Kiskadees and crested caracaras. 

I arrived at site 107 about 4:00 PM and immediately took out an orange, cut it in half, and hung each half on tree branches.  Within seconds, I had Audubon's oriole, golden-fronted woodpeckers, and green jays all feeding on the oranges. I unpacked my seeds and put them in little hollows in tree trunks and just a few in front of a little log.  I  got my hammock hung and then sent a large part of each afternoon in it watching the birds in my camp.

My bird blind.  The next eight  pictures were taken from here or a few feet away. 

 By the next morning, Site 107 was the place to be.  I invited people with binoculars to come see our array of birds. We went off to see other birds and came back to find the camp full of friendly strangers, still enjoying the antics of our birds.

Pine Warbler

Audubon's Oriole

Orange-crowned warbler

Golden-fronted woodpecker

Green jay, Audubon's oriole and cardinals

Olive-sided sparrow, a target species here
Green Jay
A green jay provided a good bird story.  It was early afternoon and the other birds had all disappeared for their afternoon nap. A green jay flew in and checked the little dip in the leaning tree where I had put sunflower seeds.  He hopped closer to me and said RAK, RAK, RAK, RAK, RAK,.  I just looked at him so he said, an octave higher, RAK, RAK, RAK, RAK, RAK.  So I got up and put the sunflower seeds in the tree.  He immediately went and got a seed and said,  Puhrr. ( a soft little purring noise).  I felt well trained.

I also walked and drove around and saw lots more birds but only got photographs of a few of them.

Crested Caracara

Rio Grande turkeys

Couch's Kingbird

Mottled ducks

White ibis

White pelicans and coots

This is a wonderful place to bird at all seasons. And they sometimes have rarities here.  Last year they had the pine flycatcher and the northern jacana..

Northern Jacana - this was a rarity from Mexico that spent several months here. 

And in the spring through fall, it is also a wonderful place to enjoy butterflies.  We go there to paddle the Frio as well, but this year, access was closed.  Lots of fishing goes on in the reservoir and there are lots of roads for bike riding. Altogether, a wonderful place.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Continuing Story of the Trees of Anahuac

Recently I published a blog on the fate of the trees of Anahuac.  But the story will be continuing over the next few years.

A map of the region just north of the butterfly garden with way points showing planting sites

A huge chapter got written between mid January and  Saturday, February 5. It started with me taking the tree order plus counting all the trees I was caring for and figuring out where they should go. I walked around for several days marking coded way points and then put them in Google earth so Stephanie, the work day coordinator, would know what size holes to drill and where each tree should go. Then she used the maps to deliver trees to the correct places. This data will also let us track these trees and see how they fare over the years.

Taking delivery
Then, in late January, Travis and I accepted delivery of 250 trees that the Friends had bought. We started getting them unloaded and were really happy when a Chuck and Jerry, two staffers, volunteered to help. We unloaded all of them near the treated water well house. (The well water in that area is so salty, it kills trees so we have to use rainwater or treated water for them). They made a wonderful show there.

In spite of  a cold front with predicted icy rain, sleet, and snow, and the refuge being closed for a day and a half, the workday went on. The refuge staff had had to pull several guys to load the delivered trees on  two trailers and put them in the maintaince building.  Another group had gone over to the voluteer quarters and picked up the hackberry and willows I had been watering and stored them safe from freezing.  I gathered up tools, tables and chairs and hauled them to the refuge just before we had to leave at noon on Thursday ahead of the icy precipitation.

Some of the planters

Vehicle is bringing trees, planters are working and the walkers are between plantings

On Saturday, many people didn't get to come until after the starting time of nine o' clock because their routes still had black ice on the roads. But they mostly came as soon as they could. Locals made it on time and immediately got to work. A couple brought in their own team of their kids and their kid's friends and worked a couple of hours between ball games that had been rescheduled due to the weather.   A school bus with thirteen high school kids and their teacher showed up at 11:00 and the kids madly planted hackberries and willows at the edge of The Willows Pond until around 1:00 when then finally stopped for a late lunch. By the end of the day the count was up to 55 volunteers and staff workers.

The high school volunteers

This workday was planned for planting 400 trees and shrubs in the twelve acres around the Visitor Center, including The Willows.  Teams were planting along the back grassy trail, along the boardwalk, around the Willows and even along the road to Shoveler Pond. ATV's were hauling trees and mulch, people were walking behind wheelbarrows carrying mulch or empty pots, people were digging, planting and weeding, then building dikes around the plants.  The lovely warm weather made it all more fun and then we got to eat a really good meal served by Kay and Dorothy who probably worked harder than any of the rest of us setting up the room and getting everything hot and ready to serve, then cleaning it all up and hauling it all away again.

Break time after planting yaupons

By the end of the day we planted about 250 trees which was amazing because the very heavy clay soils were extremely wet - too wet, in fact, for the drilling machine to get in to drill all the holes. It was extremely hard to get the dirt back in the holes and build the dikes. Because the holes were filling up with water the driller decided to wait until early on the work day to drill the holes.  He ended up sliding into Willows Pond and having to be pulled out.  I didn't get time to water the trees until Sunday when I spent the day driving around  with a about 70 gallons of water at a time, running it into buckets, and then hauling the buckets to the trees. A few other volunteers helped with this big chore.

Now we have about 150 trees sitting on trailers- we had a second spate of 3 consecutive below thirty-degree nights so they just got back out yesterday  - waiting for our March 5 work day. Come join us for fun, good companionship, a good free (well sorta free) meal  and a great sense of accomplishment towards restoring the habitat at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. Contact me at and I'll get you on the list.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Birds du Jour - From Birding at Galveston and Texas City Dike

I had my fellow volunteer and friend Lucy staying with me for the weekend.  I talked her into staying until this morning and going back to Houston via Galveston. We started the day by unloading our truckload of mulberry trees that the probationers had potted up yesterday, watering everything, and then going to Winnie for the best breakfast burritos. Then we set off to Galveston. The temperature started off at forty-four degrees with a ten degree chill factor and the winds were predicted to reach twenty-five miles an hour; not good for finding birds.

Sandhill Cranes
 There were lots of laughing gulls at the ferry but the pelicans - white and brown - and the red-breasted mergansers were somewhere more protected from the wind. We continued on over to 8 Mile Road and birded the corner then proceeded with many stops to the end of it and then birded Sportsman's Road. There were very few birds about but we did get to see the sandhill cranes and roseate spoonbills we had hoped for. But we had an amazing view of  about 20 American oystercatchers all sitting together on a pier on Sportsman's road. Then we went to Galveston Island State Park and only saw kites and a few herons and one flying roseate spoonbill.

Great blue heron, reddish egret, white ibis, roseate spoonbill, and snowy egret hunkering from the wind

Feeding roseate spoonbills

White-tailed kites

American Oystercatcher

After a delicious lunch at Salsas Mexican and Seafood Restaurant, Lucy went home and I went to Texas City Dike.  The winds were still howling and the birds were scarce.  I finally had to get on to  the shopping errands I had to do. But even with few birds we had a wonderful time.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Fate of the Trees of Anahuac

Once there was a magical place called The Willows that had a world-wide reputation as a migrant trap. This was because it's trees were the first ones seen by by tired birds as they reached land after crossing the Gulf. People came from all over the world during spring migration to be awed by the variety and numbers of birds found in this very tiny corner of the coastal prairie. Often they could see several species of birds at one time in one binocular field. The refuge staff, and Friends of Anahuac Refuge, knowing how important this area was, added more trees, including live oaks and cypress, and built a handicap accessible boardwalk form the Butterfly garden down to another boardwalk that took one through the middle of The Willows. Records show that hundreds of  people a day came during the months of April and early May to see these wonderful migrants.

The Willows by Martin Tribe -used by permission

Another important place was known as the Hackberry Trail. It was a short trail, about one-quarter of a mile, that had water on both sides and was shaded by hackberry, willow, and Hercules club trees.  It adjoined a field that was kept wet in winter and spring so one could find everything from avocets to chats to soras to peregrine falcons in sight of the trail. Wading birds and ducks were also common there. And in migration, oven birds and warblers were in the trees and working the water's edge.

Then along came Hurricane Rita in September of 2003.  She pushed salt water into the refuge and also blew down many of our trees. Most of them survived but were partially broken off and very stressed.  Then in September of 2008, Hurricane Ike made landfall almost directly over the Refuge and pushed an eighteen foot high wall of water over the entire refuge. The huge force snapped  the trees leaving tall, partially alive stumps. Then the salt settled into the soil and poisoned it..  This caused most of the trees, especially in the main visitor area, including the Willows and Hackberry Trail, to die. The few that were spared were severely stressed and have not grown well over the past three years.

The Willows now - one live oak survived

Dead cypress on the east side of The Willows

Stumps at The Willows

Places most important to birds are: The Willows - one live oak is still living while over 100 trees died. The Hackberry Trail where there are no living trees (but  I hope that  our Hercules clubs may have seeds that can now sprout -I have found two seedlings in The Willows.) The Woodlot - this area still has large trees but could use more trees for biodiversity and to make an understory layer.

Skillern tract. This area still has at least seventy percent of its trees. It is along East Bayou and is an important riparian area for all kinds of birds from anhingas, wading birds, ducks, to all kinds of migrants, including wintering sparrows, warblers and buntings.  The Refuge staff have put in a permanent pond and are developing a rookery area there.   That area needs lots more trees like cypress and hackberry, and buttonbush to provide nesting sites for wading birds and neotropical cormorants. The whole area needs understory trees and more filling in with different species to better serve migrating warblers, flycatchers, and wintering sparrows.  Also most of the trees over the water were killed and need replacing.

Part of the Hackberry Trail with all dead trees

More of the Hackberry Trail

View along East Bayou in Skillern Unit

Of course the Refuge lost buildings and equipment.  They are being compensated for that loss, but not for the loss of habitat. And the soils remained too salty to support young plants until this fall. So the Friends of Anahuac started a program called Adopt-a-Tree to raise money to replant the habitat with trees and woody shrubs. One of the things they did was to make cards that represented each tree or shrub species on the list and then sell the card for the cost of buying and planting the tree. And many people just give a small donation. To date, the Friends have  raised almost $5000 and provided enough volunteer hours to get a matching grant  to use to buy trees and shrubs.

This is a sample view of a card and text. We hope quail will come back to enjoy the beautyberries.


This is the first segment on the trees.  I'll soon be telling you the story of our first planting and how we are helping the living trees get healthier.