My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Saturday, September 17, 2011

An (Almost) Year in Review

I started working at Anahuac NWR on November 1st, 2010.  I took a few days to get settled in.  I was given a trailer, and a work truck. We have a community building with a living room and kitchen, two baths and a room for the washer and dryer. Thati  is my trailer in front of my Honda Fit with my my Blackhawk Zephyr solo canoe on top.  I carry my bike behind the car both for better milage and because it it really hard to lift it to the top of the car.  The truck is the one I started with.  Now I have a smaller ranger with a tank in back. And the rig to the right belongs to Judy Bell, a volunteer a really enjoyed.  I have a link to her blog and her pictures are better than mine.

There were already lots of birds coming into the refuge.  And the staff was doing controlled burns.  This was a new area of open water, created by the geese which ate the tubers of the plants that were here and created a wonderful birding spot.  But mostly you need a scope to enjoy them. These are white-faced ibis and probably great egrets.

And soon after I got to the refuge, I was able to enjoy the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen in Texas. this picture was taken from the volunteer area.

Throughout the winter, I live to see and hear the geese when a hawk or harrier, or low-flying plane puts them up in huge clouds in the sky.


At the end of the year, the professional crabbers, mostly Viennese, have to take up all their crab traps. Then volunteers remove the abandoned ones because they kill crabs and fish needlessly. Early in February, there was a parade of crabbers hauling in their boats loaded with traps. Now I see them coming in to collect the crabs every morning, just about dawn as I bring in my first load of water.

The refuge hired a guy to build terraces in Shoveler Pond while they were waiting for a day calm enough for the airplane to spray pesticide on the Phragmites as they worked to make Shoveler Pond into a fishing hole again. It is still waiting for water because the water available is too salty.

This tree is a large part of my life.  It sits all alone in a field I drive by several times a day,  and looks like something I'd expect to see in Africa.  I think of it as a survivor since it made it through Hurricane Ike. This picture was taken in February.  It is even more stressed now.

One of my favorite jobs was guiding a videographer while he took pictures of the refuges and the birds there. I got to help him find wintering birds and geese in February and then migrating birds in late April. My job was to take him to good locations and then redirect his attention as birds flew over or landed to the left or right or where he was looking.  My friend and I even got a rail to walk across the road in front of him for a good closeup. But this day he filmed the dawn and then we stood around and froze our feet while waiting for something to put the geese up.  But we also had the rewards of an eagle, many ducks, black-necked stilts, herons, and egrets to keep him shooting while waiting for the geese.

This vermillion flycatcher spent the winter in the Skillern Tract, but on a portion that wasn't open to the public because the refuge was building a accessible trail down to the rookery overlook. Hopefully he will be back this winter. I also got to watch an immature male molt into his adult colors before he left us during spring migration.

Wildflowers started blooming in January and by the end of March, there were lots of all kinds.   I like this picture of Lanceleaf coreopsis.

And where there are flowers, soon there are butterflies. The monarchs were migrating back in early March and I got this on on a galardia. 

By April the canals around Shoveler Pond were getting so low that we could see the alligator dens. (And I used to have to use a canoe to get across the canal  to spray water hyacinths because the water was over my head.)This alligator has his tail in his den.

Our whole area supports thousands of cows. They are continually moved from one field to another. And during the winter, we had a herd of bulls in the field across from the trailers.  I had to keep my fan on to drown out the noise of their bellows.  They had a deep, carrying roar that reminded me of whale calls.  Most of the cows are mixed breed but one day there were a couple of longhorns in a pasture. This one has such a sweet expression.

I spent a lot of time at the rookery at Smith Woods in High Island Texas.  This premier birding hotspot is only a few miles from the trailer so I went there once a week or more after work between March and July.  There were thousands of roseate spoonbills, neotropical cormorants, great egrets, cattle egrets, and snowy egrets and lesser numbers of little blue herons and tri-colored herons.  This picture is off two spoonbills fighting over a stick. They rattled their bills and used them like sword fighters.  And I never tire of their breeding colors - where else can you find hot pink, red orange, and yellow looking so good together?

May 7, 2001  was the date of the grand opening of the new Refuge Headquarters with its own Visitor Center.  We had a series of booths set up for the kids, programs for the adults, and I led a series of birding tours down the path/boardwalk that runs from the center of the building to Lake Anahuac.

The headquarters is on a very special site with a completely different set of habitats than the refuge.  The land by the road is a typical East Texas mixed forest with hardwoods and pine trees. It adjoins a cypress swamp which ends on the shores of Lake Anahuac. My favorite birds there are the pileated woodpeckers and the prothonotary warblers. The swamp part of the boardwalk the the view of Lake Anahuac are among my favorite sites in the refuge

May had no rain - we didn't get any from early February to July - and the mottled ducks were flying off and leaving their babies as the places they had nested in dried up. This little guy was found in a parking lot and didn't make it. 

Mallows continued to grow and bloom in the ditches along the main road. The county mowed them down and now they are back and blooming once again.

In June, I was still trying to get all the trees planted. Here I'm planting a trio of false indigo bush, Amorpha fructosa. Steve, a fellow volunteer, helped me with the 20 gallon ones.


July was notable for rain.  We got 3.4" at the volunteer trailers but only about 1.5 inches where my trees are growing. However, the headquarters got 8" and both their ponds filled up for the first time.  But we have only gotten about 1/5 of normal so far this year and are praying for a tropical storm.

 In late June the first of the snow-on-the-praire started blooming. Now there are a few areas that are solid white with it.

 In July through September, I tried to spend a couple of hours, several times a week cutting baccharis and hauling it off. In places, it had overgrown our little trees and I couldn't find them to water them. And I had to water more and more trees when the cypress and willows we expected to be in shallow water ended up high and dry and dying.  I had two guys that helped me about a week and we got a lot of the areas freed up. But there is still another thousand or so hours of work to be done in cutting the baccharis and then spraying the sprouts - they re-sprout in a couple of weeks.

And from January to the present, I've hauled water to the plants.  I've hauled it in buckets with the truck, with a tank on the Kowasaki mule, with buckets and tubs in a wheelbarrow, and finally with the tank in the little Ranger attached to a garden hose or two which is by far the easiest way to water. I used up all the rainwater we had in tanks at the refuge and then had to haul each 120 gallon tank from my trailer to the refuge, a twenty mile round trip.  Now I can only haul three loads or less a day, depending on what else I have to do. It takes 40 -50 minutes to fill the tank and about 25 minutes of travel time.  Then it takes between 1.5 and 2 hours to water the trees, depending on how many times I have to pack up the hose and move the truck.

  I usually water before and after I work at the Visitor Centers, which makes for a very long day.  And I've only been able to rest for a few days at a time before starting over. Even the last little rain only moistened the top four inches of the soil.  I'm in the process of inventorying the trees and assigning them a value of 1 - 5. 1 being a supple stick with no leaves and 5 representing a tree that has noticeably grown. I have lots more trees in the 1- 3 range than in the 4-5 range. I simply cannot get enough water to them fast enough.  Here I'm watering a group of mulberries, which are among our healthiest trees. They have actually grown about a foot or more this spring and summer.

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 In August I started making bags and magnets in Zazzle, an on-line store. We think the bags are too expensive but the Nature Store is carrying my magnets.  I'm glad I was able to make some magnets of the pictures I've taken. I also made one of the refuge's pictures into a magnet. It is of the momma alligator with babies on her back. You can see them by scrolling down in the sidebar.

Late August and September was the start of harvest of both hay and rice. And after the rice was harvested, the fields were also cut for hay.  I think the bales are beautiful when they are scattered out across a field, but in a matter of hours, tractors with fork lift attachments have hauled them either to one place in a field, or loaded them on large flatbed trucks or trailers and hauled them off.

This will probably be my last post for a couple of weeks.  I have to sort my stuff into what gets given away, stored with a friend, packed for shipping or packed into my little Honda Fit.  And I still have to water the trees and work at the Visitor Centers two days.  Then I'll be spending a few days moving out of the trailer. But I'll keep you posted on my play and travel over the month of October and my trip to California in starting at the end of October.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

There Be Dragons in This Place

Many years ago, when I would come and work once a month at Anahuc NWR, I always worked in theVisitor Center on Sundays, after working in the garden or working out of my canoe to spray water hayacinths and cattails on Saturdays. In the summer, we had few birds and fewer  customers so  I started watching dragonflies through binoculars to relieve the boardom and bought the book Dragonflies Through Binoculars. One slow day I remember watching a leopard frog trying to ambush dragonflies that landed on a bent piece of cattail. He would leap up and try to get them.  I think he missed over twenty times. 

Dragonflies are an important part of the food web at Anahuac and there are different species of dragonflies present at different times of the year. They often occur in swarms when we have our normal huge mosquito population. (According to one of my sources, we once had a group come in and trap mosquitoes across from the Visitor Center. The trap was set up in the evening and was to be checked in 12 hours.  When the investigators came back the trap had filled completely up and the weight had made it fall to the ground prematurely. The mosquitoes were spread out on the front of a van and covered it several inches thick.  The test didn't make it for the full time and still was a record. So there is lots of food for dragonflies.) The dragonfly larvae are also fierce predators.  Lots of birds catch and eat dragonflies including our Eastern kingbirds and scissortail flycatchers. And I'm sure common nighthawks, barn swallows, and purple martins also eat lots of dragonflies.

 I have  new method of watering that allows me to use a 3/4 inch diameter garden hose.  It makes watering MUCH easier but it now takes 5-6 minutes per tree to water it.  So sometimes I bring my camera and try to capture some dragonfly pictures and learn what species they are.

Here are some of our species. 

Meadowhawk Male

Common Green Darner


Seaside Dragonlet Female

Seaside Dragonlet Male

Halloween Pennant

 Blue Dasher

Varigated Meadowhawk

Four-Spotted Pennant

Black Saddlebags

Eastern Pondhawk female

My most exciting dragonfly picture never got recorded.  A couple of days ago, I was watering when I heard a rattling noise behaine me. I turned around and saw a tiger swallowtail butterfly on the ground fluttering madly. I walked closer and thought I saw a mouse tail.  Then I realized a pondhawk had the butterfly. I ran to the truck for my camera but, by the time I ran back, the dragonfly had already subdued the butterfly and flown out of sight.

Dragonflies are beautiful and terrifying (at least to their prey) creatures. They are associated with lots of different kinds of habitats and live their adult lives at different times of the year. There is a lot to learn about them.  So check out dragonflies where you live.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Moving Day

Cattle are raised on the coastal prairie for their meat and are also used as a management tool.  Grazing  shortens the prairie grass and opens up areas for new plants to come in, thus increasing diversity. But if the cows stay too long in any area, they degrade it and cause species to disappear. Both the farmers and the government use cows to help manage the prairie.

This means the cows have to be moved a lot. Several times a month, I see cows being rounded up or hauled down the road in the large cattle trailers. Some ranchers have permanent corrals while others set up mobile ones. Last month, I drove past a corral filled with cows and saw the cattle trucks coming in.  I stopped to watch the action. I saw this temporary corral filled with cows while horses rested on the outside. They had been used to round the cattle up and get them penned.

A truck hauling a cattle trailer backed up and gates were opened to the trailer in such a way that they formed a chute.

One guy got his horse and went in and separated the cattle into two groups and rearranged the corral to fence it into two parts. He moved around slowly and did a quiet clucking to get the cattle to move.

Then enough cattle were allowed to jump into the trailer to fill it half full. A guy closed a gate that divided the cattle into two parts, I guess so that a cow  at the back couldn't slide all the way to the front in a quick stop.

 The cows  were allowed to finish filling the truck.  I finally got a picture of one leaping in. Then that truck pulled out and a second trailer got the other half of the load.  All this was repeated with two more trailers for the other half of the herd.


A short way from that field, hay was being harvested. The rolls of hay look so picturesque but they are picked up within two days and either all put in one corner, or hauled off.  

I too am thinking abut moving day. My last work day here at Anahuac will be September 25.  Then I'll be visiting friends and relatives and playing for a month. Then October 30, I'll  leave from Corpus Christi, TX to drive  around 2000 miles to Sacramento NWR in the northern Sacramento Valley, north of Sacramento, CA.  That refuge is very similar to ours in that it provides habitat for ducks and geese of the western flyway and is in a rice-growing area. I'm excited about my new job and new opportunities to learn about different plants and animals and do some hiking, biking, and canoeing while making new friends. I will have to ship some of my stuff so I can fit back into my Honda Fit.  I'll have my canoe and bike on the outside and most of the rest of my stuff on the inside.