My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Monday, May 30, 2011

Cut-Off Paddle

A few friends and I decided to paddle down Old River to the Cut-Off and then paddle in that.  We were too lazy to do a shuttle so just did an out and back..

Getting Underway

Our paddle started at highway 1490 under the Old River Bridge.  A colony of cliff swallows were busy finishing their nests and incubating eggs. Natalie and I paddled upstream and took each other's pictures while we waited for Dave who was unsure of our start time and was late.

Cliff Swallows

The day was beautiful but windy.  Early into the paddle, a barred owl flew over the river. We often heard prothonotary warblers and saw one foraging. Great egrets, little blue herons, and tri-colored herons shared the river with us. A pair of beautiful tiger swallowtails flew together. Fresh monarch butterflies were all around. I got a faint heady scent of lizardtail that was almost through blooming. The willows and cypress trees were beautiful in the morning light and the swamps off the river and cut-off held mystery.

We shared the river with a trio of fishermen in a john boat who put in while we were waiting for Dave and took out just before we did.  But they were out of sight and sound most of the day, letting us hear the wind through the trees and the bird calls.


Lubber grasshoppers feeding on willow leaves

Me in one of my favorite places

Cypress cones were developing

Pals - the calf was trying to reach leaves

Swamp scene

Boarders catching a ride

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Bird Tours

Since December, I've been running tours on third Thursdays and Saturdays. This has been my favorite job, if I can actually claim it as a job. (Is there a limit on the fun you can have working?) The tours  haven't been advertised widely but usually I have at least a few people on them.  The hours were 9 - 11 or whenever I got finished. So they usually ran until after noon. 

This past week,   I ran my last pair of tours. I had one person on Thursday and seven people on Saturday.  We don't have many birds here because that is the way summers are and because this summer is so dry (we are in an extreme drought here with only about 1/5 of our expected rain and only 1/2 inch this month) that the birds are leaving. However, we are getting lots of looks at rails, especially king rails, and least bitterns.  There are also white-rumped, stilt, semipalmated, and spotted  sandpipers as well as a couple of lingering yellowlegs to be found around Shoveler Pond. And we had the green herons that were still on the nest to observe and enjoy.  So the few people that are coming to the refuge can find interesting birds.

On Saturday, I gathered up my group and first stopped to see the green herons and whatever else was hanging out at the Willows. One baby was already out of the nest but still near it, while the other three still sat their crowded nest. Orchid orioles were around, both singing and giving us good views of them. Imature white ibises were sitting high in the fallen dead trees.  We had a flyover of white-faced ibis there as well. Eastern kingbirds were abundant.

The green heron chicks early last week

An eastern kingbird taken around Shoveler Pond

Then we did a slow turn around Shoveler pond where I found the numbers of least bitterns were way down from my Thursday pass.  We only got quick looks of two of them flying. But the king rails were still around  and out feeding, and we saw several baby killdeer as well as most of the expected sandpipers.  A willet was also around and several laughing gulls came by.

One of the many king rails on Shoveler Pond

A least bittern hunting around Shoveler Pond earlier in the week

A tri-colored heron hunting around Shoveler Pond

 Then I took them to the Skillern Unit where we all walked down to the rookery overlook on the recently opened handicap-accessible sidewalk trail. I took my scope so we could see the nesting neotropical cormorants and other birds using the far end of the large pond. We were excited to find Anhingas in with the cormorants. Great egrets and little blue herons, most in their teen-age colors of white with blue streaks were abundant. Lots of fulvous whistling ducks came and went along with a few black-bellied whistling ducks and a few teal. A small flock of coots were also using the refuge. I didn't get my expected look at a purple gallinule (I think there is one that has a territory almost due west of the overlook) but a few of us got a glimpse of one back by the cormorants. We also got good looks at Eastern Flycatchers as well as a quick look at some little flycatcher I couldn't identify. There were lots of green herons around but we didn't find the night herons that are usually sleeping along East Bayou. There were black-necked stilts both in the rice fields and the pond.

A black-necked stilt

Fulvous whistling ducks, blue-winged teal and a sora have had to leave the VIS pond and move to other places where there is still water

Purple Gallinule taken in March - and seen again today - around Shoveler Pond

Everyone in the tour planned to continue on to the east so they had followed me in their cars.  One participant had gotten lost and finally caught up with us near the end of the Shoveler Part of the tour. She planned to go to High Island and asked me to go with her. So I just changed vehicles and continued birding until  late in the afternoon. The rookery is rocking with the oldest babies starting to fledge but  with lots of smaller babies. Babies of all sizes are begging their parents for food. The cattle egrets are either building nests or sitting on eggs. We didn't find any nests of tri-colored egrets although several are sitting around in the rookery. I wonder if, with the nest sites in such short supply, if some birds will nest late in second-hand nests.

Nests at the rookery are built so close they are sometimes touching

Great egret feeding chicks

We also got to see two alligators swimming around with their kills sticking out of their mouths. One, in Shoveler Pond had a strange mammal in its mouth.  We could only see that it had a gray body with white back feet and a thick tail. It looked most like a dog.  The other alligator was at the rookery and had large bird feet sticking out of it's mouth.  I think it had eaten a roseate spoonbill.  Buy I hadn't taken my camera so you are spared the pictures.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Port Aransas Visit

My daughter invited me to join her and her family in Port Aransas. Her family  and another couple rented a condo and had an extra room for me.  I got to spend two full days and Sunday morning there.  Of course we spent a lot of time on the beach but I also visited a few of the birding spots.  And I enjoyed playing with my only grandson. And we had great suppers - one at a restaurant and an even better one at home consisting of grilled and boiled shrimp, grilled corn, grilled steak and a salad.

Sunrise at the beach

Our cottage for the weekend

Cian working on swimming

Baby pie-billed grebe

Rudy duck in breeding plumage

Rudy duck female grooming
Dunlin  feeding

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Shade-Tree Coffee - Helping Migratory Birds at Anahuac and in Their Winter Quarters

One of the most exciting new aspects of the new headquarters and visitor complex was finding that the Nature Store is selling shade tree coffee. And I think the free coffee will also be shade-tree coffee. This coffee is win - win -win - win- win coffee.  First of all it is organic so it's very healthy.  And another plus for people is that is that tastes better with less bitter parts in it.  (I found my coffee as good the second day as the first when I drank the leftovers from my coffee press. )  

The second win is for the migratory birds such as Baltimore orioles, magnolia and chestnut-sided warblers, American redstarts, and white-eyed vireos. In fact, 186 species have been found in shade-tree coffee plantations, 46 of which are migratory and come to the U. S. in the spring.

And when you buy the coffee here, you are also supporting birds that pass through here or nest in the refuge since all the money the Friends take in goes right back into the refuge.  Projects such as the rookery, the new trees (around 400 planted so far), and even the butterfly garden all help birds with food and shelter. 

The third win is for the whole ecosystem that is being preserved, along with saving the soil and helping prevent more global warming by keeping more carbon sequestered in the large trees. 

The final win is  for the small family farmers that can make enough money to stay on their  farms. In the sun coffee plantations, the canopy is cut down causing soil loss and water degradation.  Many  birds can no longer use the area. These plantations also contribute to global warming as they burn the carbon sequestered in the large trees they remove.

Shade-tree coffee display

Coffee comes in many flavors and in ground coffee, beans, and decaf

Even if you can't come buy coffee at the Friends of Anahuac Store, you might want to consider buying it locally; or asking for it at your favorite coffee shop; or buying it on-line.  But buying shade-tree coffee is a way to spend a little money and make a huge positive impact on the environment.

For more information,  and pictures of birds that benefit from shade-tree coffee, check out these links:

The story, in three blogs, of a visit to a shade-tree coffee plantation in Honduras by Julie Zickefoose, an environmental artist and writer.

Complete list, with pictures, of birds that use shaded coffee plantations.

Information on shade-tree coffee from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center

Map of retailers near you

Order shade-tree coffee on-line

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

It's Here - Maybe the Best Visitor Center in the United States

Anahuac staff and volunteers held the public grand opening of the new office complex and visitor center Saturday, May 7th. All I can say is prepare to be blown away.  There are wonderful displays depicting how the staff manages the refuge to optimize habitat for the ducks and songbirds that depend on it. You can enter an alligator's nest and learn all about alligators and how they reproduce. There is a movie room where you  climb into an airboat to watch a movie.  Soon there will be one about how the refuge looks in the winter and spring.  You can use a touch screen to find out all kinds of stuff about any National Wildlife Refuge in the United States.  And  you can even enter the birds you saw, by unit, into ebird, using a touch screen, as well as check out birds you thought you saw but need help identifying. There is a huge lab that served as a speaker room during the grand opening.  (Photography 101, birding 101, binocular use and other topics were covered by volunteer speakers). But usually this will be used  by the education arm of the refuge.  Children are bused in to learn something about birds, fish, the environment - there are special lessons geared to each grade.  The activities are hands-on so a lab situation is ideal, along with the outdoor classroom around a pond.

Watch for this sign
The building itself is also interesting. It has been built to be as green as possible. Some of the electricity is generated with solar panels on the roof.  All hot water is heated on the roof before being piped to the kitchen and  bathrooms. Rainwater is collected into a huge tank and the overflow  from that will go into renewing the education pond. Each room can  be separately programed for air conditioning or heating so only the offices that are being used are heated or cooled. The air conditioners are super efficient and also so quiet that you can't hear them, even when standing near them. And very little artificial light is needed most days because there is a large, windowed cupola over each section of the building that light the interiors.  The building is covered with thick rock which also makes it stay closer to a constant temperature - it cools and heats slowly from changes in the outside temperatures.

The new administration office on your left and visitor and education centers on the right
And it's extremely beautiful. The layouts, the colors of the walls, the beautiful glassy looking counter tops, along with the architecture all make for a beautiful, soothing space.  And the gift shop is maybe three times larger than the little building that is currently being used at Old Anahuac. The building is made of two wings, one for the staff and one for visitors and education with a breezeway in between that also has displays.I think ithe breezeway also keeps the building from being overwhelming and helps it fit into the landscape better.  The landscaping also holds a promise of beauty, provided we get enough water to keep it all alive. It is comprised of a collection of native plants, from trees to shrubs.

Looking at displays - Lu was the first  volunteer to manage the gift shop

Panels of the wall that locks off the nature store when it is closed

One of the exhibits

Kay and Carol visit at the information desk.  The store is in the background

But beyond the building itself is the site. A boardwalk leads from the breezeway across the education pond to wind it's way downhill through a mixed pine/hardwood forest, typical of East Texas.  Then you move through a sharp downhill turn, in a section of the boardwalk that has sides, and find yourself looking to the right at pine trees and to the left at cypress trees. In a few more yards you are on a raised boardwalk over a cypress swamp, listening to prothonotary warblers sing,  while seeing ibis feeding and yellow-crowned night herons sleeping.  Then in another few minutes of walking, the swamp meets the shoreline of Lake Anahuac and the cypress trees are now growing in water at the edge of the lake. All this happens in about a quarter of a mile.  These areas will  be great for migrating warblers and vireos and in the winter, great rafts of ducks will be on the lake. Saturday, some of the visitors got to see a bald eagle flying over the lake and headquarters.

The trail winds through a mixed pine/hardwood forest to the changeover at the rails

A few steps further it crosses a cypress swamp
This area held night herons, ibis, and prothonotary warblers
The boardwalk ends just before the edge of Lake Anahuac.  An eagle was spotted here several times. 

The headquarters is located at 4017 FM 563, which is about 1.5 - 2 miles south of I-10 on the Liberty/Anahuac exit. Coming from Houston, you can take this exit, visit the headquarters, then go to the next four-way stop sign and turn east (left)  In another mile or so, you will turn south (right) and you'll be on the road to Smith Point and Anahuac NWR that you usually take down to the refuge..

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Moviemaking at the Refuge

I've just completed a few days of guiding a videographer around Anahuac to get spring pictures.  He was particularly interested in our nesting birds and spring migrants. We also looked for our signature birds such as rails and purple gallinules and took pictures of people using the refuge. 

It was a wonderful few days since he came on a north wind which finally stopped our migrants from overflying the refuge. The first afternoon we found American redstart, least flycatcher, Audubon's orioles, northern waterthrush, a sleeping nighthawk, Magnolia and yellow warblers and one painted bunting. In late afternoon we had the severe problem of filming a least bittern and a sora at once - they were 180 degrees apart. He also took some beautiful pictures of the dawn over East Bayou and sunset over the rail rookery. He ended by filming the dawn breaking over the Visitor Information Center Pond with fulvous and black-bellied whistling ducks coming in, to join several other species feeding there.

We also went to High Island to the photographer's blind so he could get closeups of some of the warblers and other migrants. 

Thursday morning all the usual suspects and a few others showed up at the VIS pond for a dawn review. He had wonderful shots of black-bellied and fulvous whistling ducks, including scenes of them landing, a king rail with a baby, squabbling stilts, dowichers, yellowlegs, and pectoral sandpipers.

My job was to suggest places and times and to watch for new birds while he filmed birds I had already found. It was a hard job but someone had to do it.  And I even remembered to take a few of my own pictures.

Eventually the several hundred clips he took will become part of a movie about Anahuac that will be shown at the new headquarters visitor center. So come visit us soon, climb into an airboat and enjoy the picture.

Dawn over East Bayou

Fulvous whistling ducks and sora

Hunting least bittern

Dunlin and long-billed dowichers

Eastern kingbird

Sleeping common highthawk

American Redstart

King rail

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Paddle at Sheldon Lake State Park

Yesterday my friends Bob, Natalie and her daughter, Ellen, and I met at Sheldon Lake Reservoir for a paddle to see the nesting birds. The day was overcast with increasing southwest winds until we had gusts of around twenty miles an hour. We easily blew east and north but had to work a little on the way back. My pictures were often out of focus since I was blowing past the birds so fast.

The rookery has very few birds. Don't know why that is but there are less than a tenth of the normal numbers.  We didn't investigate the upper islands so there may be more birds there.  But anhingas, snowy egrets, tri-colored egrets, little green egrets, both night herons, little blue herons and roseate spoonbills were all there as were coots, moorhens and purple gallinules.

Yellow-crowned night heron
Green heron

Anhinga and Boat-tailed grackle

Purple gallinule

White ibis pair on nest

Little blue heron

Tri-colored heron on nest

Common moorhen

This large alligator was cruising beside us until he got camera shy and sank

After our paddle, we went to the park itself and enjoyed a light lunch and a stroll through the demonstration  butterfly and hummingbird garden. Sheldon Lake State Park is one of Houston's best-kept secrets. Very few people know of its existence.  Bob was one of those people and was blown away at the paddling opportunities, the green toilet, the two manicured fish ponds - this is the site of an old fish hatchery - and the lovely trees and shrubs.  At least 235 species have  been documented at the park and there is a huge rookery of wading  birds and anhingas there.  Purple gallinules and least bitterns also nest there. Here is the complete list of birds documented by 2008.

Another wonderful feature of this park is a reconstructed prairie pothole. The staff used old aerial photos to find the pothole, then removed the fill dirt. (This prairie had been transformed into a rice field and the potholes filled in.)  All in all, this is one of my favorite destinations in winter and spring.  In summer, the water lilies, water hyacinths and other vegetation make for hard to impossible paddling. But the land part is wonderful all year around.