Pacific Ocean

Pacific Ocean
Pacific Ocean

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Birds du Jour

After being in stasis on the bird migration front for a couple of weeks, migration began again in mid-July.   More and more shore birds are being seen.  A few weeks ago, I went out with an intern to catch, band, and put radios on baby black-necked stilts and found spotted, solitary, and stilt sandpipers, as well as greater and  lesser yellow-legs. These birds will be hard to spot in the public places at Anahuac because areas that hold  water are way back from the road or in closed areas,  Shoveler Pond  area is closed to pave the road. (All of the refuge roads are getting paved which will make it much less costly and time-consuming to maintain them.) Other birds are on the move as well.  Wood storks are still being reported all over, including here at Anahuac.  I wrote an early  blog on them.  I was blessed with a flyover of three wood storks yesterday morning. Other birds that are found in growing numbers are eastern willets and several kinds of terns, including black and sandwich terns.  And we are seeing some warblers move through the area.  I've seen several yellow-throated warblers at the main refuge and a black-and-white-warbler behind the new headquarters/visitor center.  And I often see a Swainson's hawk traveling to and from the main refuge or in the fields near my trailer.

A young Swainson's hawk

We still have a few least bitterns

Sandwich Terns were at the bay a few weeks ago

Many other birds are leaving. Our Martins disappeared in mid-June - and are probably in one of the huge roosts that have built up in several places in Texas. I haven't seen or heard an orchid oriole in weeks except for some migrating through.  There are almost no eastern kingbirds around. Most of our least bitterns are no longer evident around Shoveler Pond. I.  The barn swallows and their progeny are no longer around the visitor center but can still be found on the refuge. Our own orchid orioles are long gone and we have seen migratory ones come through. Our yellow-billed cuckoos are gone.  We still have the common nighthawks and should have them until October as well as the scissor-tailed flycatchers, although the later also seem to  be diminishing in numbers.

Our yard nighhawk with its version of wire sitting

I remember two times when I lived in Shreveport, Louisiana when I got to see gatherings of both species. I was walking in a park along the Red River early one October morning and found an entire field covered with scissor-tailed flycatchers. They were on the tips of every tiny shrub, in the branches of larger shrubs and trees and glowing like jewels in the early morning sun.  Another time, I was walking on a bridge between two buildings and saw the sky full of common nighthawks. Both were created pictures I still remember after more than twenty years.

This immature male orchid oriole claimed the butterfly garden as his territory

One of many eastern kingbirds who breed here

So every day is a new experience here at the refuge as we watch migration for most of the year. And I haven't even had time to drive another thirty miles to the Smith Point Hawk Watch where numbers of kites and hawks are starting to build. The time to visit us  is early in the mornings or late in the evenings when the heat index is under one-hundred degrees and the birds are active. Migrating birds are here in the mornings and then often leave in the early evenings.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Gift of Trees - Part II: Cypress and Willows

Cypress trees are another species our biologist wants to plant in the rookery.  We also need to plant more in The Willows area.  They are very expensive to buy but I thought that was our only option. 

But when I mentioned that by getting all the buttonbush cuttings, the Friends could put more of their Adopt-A-Tree monies toward buying cypress, Laurie, the Trinity NWR biologist, said I could have as many cypress trees as I wanted. Because the lake has been drying up for two years, cypress are sprouting where there is supposed to be six feet of water.  And they will die when if the lake fills back up. I had come in my car and didn't have room so asked if I could come back. She said that she would be gone for a month and Eric, her new intern, would not have anything to do on Mondays. So we made a deal that I would meed with Eric every Monday until I had enough cypress or until the month ran out. 

Baby cypress in foreground
So for the last two Mondays, I met him and we loaded up the mule with buckets, bins, shovels, our water, my camera and set out.  The staff has a Friends member living right on the lake who allows the refuge staff to cut  across their property to get to the now mostly dry lake bed. Of the 800 acres, only 12 to 20 acres actually have any water on them so the mule is the best way to get around.

Eric bringing the mule to our second cypress seedling site

We carefully maneuvered our way around cypress knees and soon cut the track we had made the week before. We followed it into the cypress forest until we found the bare patches of ground that were full of tiny cypress seedlings, ranging from about six to eighteen inches tall.  The ground is a clay that easily lets the shovel cut through  but which also splits easily. So we are seldom sure that we have gotten the entire cypress root. We take the tree and the piece of clay that holds the roots and gently pack them into buckets and bins. It takes two mule loads to fill up the big pick-up. 

Eric digging up a seedling

Eric with a seedling - others are at his feet and also got dug up

A bin full of seedlings - the clumps of heavy clay dirt will harm the seedlings so we have to carefully pack them

And I did a little more than just take pictures - here I'm hauling a bucket of my dug trees to the mule

A mule load of cypress saplings

 It only takes a little over two hours to get a load of trees so before mid-morning, I was on the way back with my wonderful booty. I still don't know how many trees I have but think there are about one hundred  of them. I am still potting up, as I have time, and hope to finish in the next day or two. Meanwhile, the trees are in a few inches of water an I'm making sure the dirt stays moist.

But that is not all.  We came through a huge forest of willow saplings and I asked about getting some of them. Stuart said they didn't need any of them and the water should eventually drown them. So, on my third thip, I got a mix of cypress and willows and found a few buttonbushes I dug as well.  I'm sure many of the little trees will not survive the digging and potting so  I'm potting more than we need.   We can always plant extra ones in other places on the refuge. I haven't gotten a complete count but think I have about one hundred cypress and thirty willow trees. I expect to get another thirty to fifty willow trees from my cuttings so we also have a good stock of willows. They will go in several places on the refuge after the drought breaks. 

Eric watering the newly dug plants - see  the larger willows?

The pickup full of booty
A local volunteer and Friends President, Travis Lovelace, came over and helped me get the cypress potted up.  I still need to finish potting the willows but they are in root balls of dirt and are heavily watered so should be fine if I get them potted by the end of the week. 

Travis potting up cypress - I was the soil mixer and pot filler

Some of about one hundred cypress seedlings in our shade shelter

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Kayak Break

This past Saturday, Natalie and I decided to join the Houston Area Seakayakers  in a ten-mile paddle from Smith Point  to Double Bayou at Oak Island last Saturday. She arrived at my trailer in time to unload her dog and put her in a crate in the trailer, and eat a pancake breakfast. 

Putting in - this place charges $5.00 a kayak but we could have put in free nearby

We loaded up my paddles, life jacket, water, hat, and camera - she had a loaner kayak for me already on my car - and set off to the put-in.  After not finding the put-in where we thought it was, we had to make a few phone calls and locate our leader. Soon we were unloading the boats, while the rest of the small group - all guys  -helped us and hassled us about being late. I asked Natalie, "Do the other women know something we don't and have been smart enough to not try this paddle on a day with heat warnings?"  But the weather wasn't very bad and there was a small breeze which should pick up later. 

Paul and terns

Soon all the kayaks were in the water and we were moving northward with a gentle wind pushing us. We were moving lightly across the little waves and enjoying terns, pelicans, and gulls. We even got to see a juvenile magnificent frigatebird.

Birds loafing on a shell island

In only a little over an hour,  and four miles of paddling, we spotted a shell island and headed there to stop and eat lunch and cool off. The island was also being used as a resting place for brown pelicans, royal terns, laughing gulls and other birds. I went to get some pictures.  When I came back to our side, another paddler had found what he though was a baby bird. It was a least tern and the tamest I've seen.  I just stayed where I was and  took pictures as it approached me. 

Royal terns and laughing gull - not sure of one tern

Least sandpiper
Cooling off - we all stayed cool by wetting down and drinking lots of liquids

 After lunch, we paddled much slower but all too soon were seeing the buildings of Oak Island and watching motor boats come out of Double Bayou or go back in. Shortly, we were in the bayou, heading to the park where there is a boat launch.  We waited our turns to a ramp and quickly took out our boats and unloaded our gear. We gathered the group we could grab to get one last picture.  Then the drivers went to get their cars while I stayed with the boats. By the time everyone was back and the boats were loaded, three of us decided to eat supper at a little restaurant in Oak Island. Two of us had fried scallop baskets ant the other had a fish basket. All were delicious. Natalie finally left here around 7:30 P.M and I came home too. 

A few miles from the entrance to Double Bayou

Barges in the bayou

Four of the six of us

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Gift of Trees - Part I: A gift of Buttonbushes

 I've been putting out feelers about obtaining cuttings of buttonbush because the refuge will require hundreds of them to rehabilitate the artificial rookery where they were just starting to grow when Ike wiped out all their plantings. I love to grow plants, so figured I could get lots of cuttings started.  But I've only found four buttonbushes, in sad condition, in the butterfly garden, and the ones we planted this spring didn't grow enough to be useful for cuttings.

Buttonbush blooms are extremely attractive to butterflies and are planted in the Visitor Center pond to attract them.

Why are buttonbushes so important, you ask?  They provide nectar to many kinds of pollinators, including bees  butterflies, and moths.  And the butterflies get so intent on getting the nectar, that they are easy to photograph. For this reason, I planted button bushes on the east and west sides of  each of two boardwalk extensions over small ponds. The will eventually be really easy places to see and photograph butterflies. The seeds are used by many species of ducks and wading birds. And many songbirds build nests in buttonbushes. Waders will also use them for nests in rookeries. Hummers are attracted to them as well, as much as for the tiny insects that are attracted to the blooms as for the nectar.

While I was researching buttonbush, I found this link to the national grand champion tree. But most shrubs are under twelve feet tall. They can be trained into small trees. (My choice for shrubs in a small yard.) But buttonbush blooms are both extremely beautiful and have a lovely honey scent. They can grow in water or on dry land. They start very easily from cuttings and can also be grown from seed, although the seed has low germination rates. Naturally, they are associated with water in ditches, near lake sides, in marshes, and swamps, but I've also seen them growing in dry creek beds. A fellow naturalist reported that she had dug a buttonbush up from the San Marcos River and planted it in her yard where it was growing well without water in a Texas Hill Country drought.  I've grown them in my back yard in Houston, Texas.  However, since I knew they liked water, I planted my tree below grade in a shallow depression so I could flood it during our normal late summer drought.

A juvenile little blue heron catches a minnow in the ever diminishing pond at Trinity NWR. 
Earlier, I'd visited Trinity National Wildlife Refuge and was reminded that they have lots of buttonbush growing at lake's edge. However, they are all now on dry land, since the 800 acre lake only has 12 - 20 acres of water in it. So I wrote Stuart Marcus, the refuge manager, and asked him if I could come take  cuttings. He agreed I could have them since they would be going to another national wildlife refuge.  Then his biologist, Laurie , wrote me that she and her intern, Eric, would like to meet me and help me gather the cuttings. So a week and a half ago, I met them at 7:00 A.M. and explained what the stems would look like that would most probably root. Stems need to be starting to turn woody but not completely.  If they are not woody enough, they rot before they root, and if they are too woody, they never make roots. We ended up gathering four five-gallon buckets of cuttings, some of which I later cut into two pieces, trying to make sure one of them would grow.

Eric and Lora gathering cuttings from me

Walking under the fishing pier, which, ,when the Trinity River floods, gets water over the railings

My loot - the left bucket has the cuttings already prepared

 A reporter was on the way to get information from Stuart on the effects of the drought.  I was invited to go along in the Kowasaki mule to visit the lake.  It was amazing to see the dry bed of the 800 acre lake.  We found a cypress knee that was over six feet tall. Eric was six feet.  I could barely stretch to reach the top so I think it was about 7 feet tall. So usually the water would be over the mule if were to try to take it into the lake at normal levels.

A lotus pond within the mostly dry lake

Our view of the lake bed as we drove through it in the mule
But the mule had to cross the last little bit of water and we got stuck just as we arrived back at the near shore. We could get out without getting our feet wet and  Eric and Laurie got Stuart back out.

Laurie isn't hauling Stuart out herself - just pulling out the tow rope to tie it to the pickup

Rescue complete
I drove back with my buttonbush loot and spent a couple more hours making cuttings and putting them in bins. I forgot to take a picture of the cuttings before they lost all their leaves. Right now, they are an ugly brown and look pretty bad.  But most of them are beginning to grow roots - they resist a gentle tug - and will soon be ready to go into gallon pots.

But wait.... that's not all.   In our conversation, I was telling them how grateful I was for the cuttings because this meant that the Friends of Anahuac NWR would have more money to buy cypress trees. Laurie said that, because the lake had been dry for two years, cypress seeds were sprouting and I could also have them. Laurie took Eric and I out to the swamp to see the seedlings. We found this huge cypress knee then.

Me with the biggest cypress knee I've seen - about seven feet tall. The water should be over my head here. 

Gift of Trees, Part II  is coming in a future post.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Universial Language of Flowers

I recently spent a Friday morning watering my friend Natalie's garden before bringing her dog back with me to the refuge for a weekend of babysitting. Natalie lives in Galveston, which is heading for one of the hottest and driest summers of record, so I planed to thoroughly water all of her garden to hold it until she finished helping her college daughter change apartments.

Part of Natalie's front yard.

I started watering at dawn and was in the side yard and almost finished  when a little Mexican lady came to the fence and called "Lady".  I thought she was one of the tamale ladies I've met while working in Natalie's front yard (they drive around the neighborhood in a beat-up car and honk and stop where they see people outside) so went to see what she wanted. She said "I no English".  Then she started talking in Spanish and gesturing that she wanted one of each color of zinnea - red, yellow, and white - from Natalie's garden.  I told her one momento - I'll get some scissors - and mimed cutting.  She nodded and I gathered up scissors and added water to a  plastic gi'me cup and went back out and cut her a bouquet of flowers with her exclaiming all the while. She immediately picked up a spent head.  I told her "no I'd give her better ones". But she mimed picking the seeds and planting them so she looked for heads with seeds while I finished picking the fresh zinnias.

Two varieties of red zinnias with yellow bells in the background

Then I cut a branch of lantana and pulled most of the leaves of of it and mimed planting it. She eagerly said "yes, yes", and we added it to her cup of water and flowers.  I also gave her a cutting of Turk's cap which I again mimed planting.

Yellow double zinnia

She thanked me profusely in two languages and walked away, leaving me with a happy feeling from getting to share my love of plants with another person who also loves them.

I love the yellow centers in this zinnia

 It's been awhile since I've been able to share plants. But when I first lived in Houston, my neighbor and I decided to garden the median strip between our two driveways together.  Whenever I needed to wack something back, she made me make cuttings of the prunings because otherwise she felt like the cuttings were dying babies. Then whenever someone stopped to admire our gardens, we would offer them rooted cuttings. It was a great way to get to know our neighbors in a city where people mostly drive in and out of their neighborhoods and don't know the people who live around them.

A blue salvia that is a beautiful conterpoint to Natalie's apricot house

Sorry that I'm so far behind on posting.  But my tour is coming to a close here and I'm busy making arrangements to visit friends and relatives before starting another tour. I'll have a lot to write about soon. And I'm busy trying to get the new trees at Anahuac NWR in a state  such that the next watering person can find them.  I'm spending a few hours each day cutting baccharis from near them and hauling a mulch to the ones that still need it so they can survive longer between waterings. Pray for a tropical storm or small hurricane to come our way. We could use about twenty or more inches of water right now.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Wood Storks All Around

A lot of people have been reporting wood stork sightings, here at the Refuge, at High Island which is only a few miles away, and at other places near here.  But I hadn't seen any until this weekend. On Friday, I worked at the new Visitor Center and an intern who also works there  said she had seen wood storks around Shoveler Pond.  So I did a quick pass on the way home and found one wood stork.

These teenagers have faces only a mother could love

Saturday I came in early and went on a wood stork hunt before working in the old visitor center. I found 5 of them in with at least sixty great egrets. They flew ahead of me as I drove around Shoveler Pond, then landed and then flew again, until they finally circled back to their favorite site near where the culvert is in the canal on the south side of Shoveler Pond.

Wood storks spend a lot of time just standing around

They still look ungainly as they leap into the  air but when they get really high, they are beautiful gliders

Monday morning, I got to the access  road to the refuge just before sunrise and found it completely covered with cows. An entire herd of over 100 cows had gotten out of their pasture.  I was urgently trying finding someone to get them rounded up, and had even gone to the visitor center to find emergency numbers; then come back and turned them all back into the refuge, off the main road, before a staff member reminded me that there was a cattle guard at that intersection.

A few of the escapees with their attendant cattle egrets
Later I followed a cattle trailer around Shoveler Pond, thinking I would eventually get pictures of the roundup, but they were neither catching nor releasing cattle. But I did find the wood stork population had grown to thirty and, instead of just associating with great egrets, they also had a few roseate spoonbills, white ibis, and lots of snowy egrets sharing their fishing hole.

Wood stork with great egret

Two white ibis that were with the egret/wood stork group

Roseate spoonbill and black-necked stilt feeding with the wood storks. (The truck mirror is fogging the right corner.)

Wood storks breed in Florida and Georgia.  They used to breed in other southern states but I think they no longer do.  They also breed in Mexico and Central America. Apparently, the wood storks that visit us are tourists from Mexico.  The ones that breed in Florida are supposed to stay further east. I saw my first wood storks in Arkansas and I think I saw some adult wood storks in Florida once.  But I'd love to see them breeding. But I am enjoying watching them fly, stand around, and feed here.