Friday, March 24, 2017

Caddo Lake is an international treasure

This is something I wrote for the newsletter sent out by the Galveston Bay Area chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists.

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Caddo Lake's winter look.

We know our favorite wetlands are valuable, however Caddo Lake is the only site in Texas that has earned a Wetlands of International Importance designation under the Ramsar Convention.

Residents have long appreciated the beauty of the 8,000 acres of flooded bald cypress forest.

“It’s a mystical place,” said Stella Barrow, Cypress Basin TMN chapter president who can launch a boat from her home on Caddo Lake.

“You have to experience Caddo Lake to get why the adventures are special. The bald cypress trees and the Spanish moss provide the quiet peace and the mystical beauty. I swear as soon as we push off my blood pressure drops. The sunsets are breathtaking. I don't know the words. It's just another world.”

Members of the Cypress Basin chapter are among those working to preserve the wetlands. Chapter members maintain the walking trails on the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge and conduct most of the training for new members at the refuge. The chapter is a sponsor for the Earth Day, April 22, paddling regatta.

“Our chapter and the refuge Friends group received an $11,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to install an e-bird kiosk, build two bird blinds and a walking trail on the refuge,” Stella said. “We are super excited!”

Having the Ramsar designation gives Caddo Lake an advantage to get federal grants, attract research projects and obtain technical support for long-term protection of wetland resources, including the ongoing fight against giant salvinia (Salvinia molesta).

The Ramsar Convention was formed by countries and international organizations concerned about the loss and degradation of wetlands habitat for migratory birds.

A call for a global environmental treaty began in the 1960s. The language of the convention was negotiated for eight years before the first conference was held in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971 and a treaty was signed. Australia’s Cobourg Peninsula became the first Ramsar site in 1974.

Today there are 2,250 sites and 169 member nations. The U.S. has 38 sites. The latest U.S. site is Chiwaukee Illinois Beach Lake Plain, on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan.

In 1993, Caddo Lake became the 13th Ramsar Site in the U.S. The original designation area included about 8,000 acres of public land, 500 acres in Caddo Lake State Park and 7,500 acres in the Caddo Lake State Wildlife Management Area. In 1998, the site was expanded to include about 11,700 additional acres, including 1,400 acres of the old Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant, which became the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and some private lands.

To earn the designation, a Ramsar site must contain a unique example of natural wetlands, support important populations of plant and animal species, support animals at critical life stages, and support indigenous fish to contribute to global biological diversity.

According to the Caddo Lake Institute website, the Texas site meets the criteria because:
•    It is one of the best examples of mature flooded bald cypress forest in the U.S.
•    The area supports about 216 bird, 47 mammal and 90 reptile/amphibian species, including peregrine falcon, alligator snapping turtle and Eastern big-eared bat. Bald cypress trees up to 400 years old are stars among the diverse plant life.
•    It is popular on the Central Flyway for migrating birds, including wood ducks and prothonotary warblers.
•    Lake diversity includes up to 86 fish fauna and 18 species of game fish.

When you visit the area, plan to get on the water to experience the unique environment, said Richard Lowerre, Caddo Lake Institute executive director. “That means a boat.”

“But a place I take people to get a feel for the system is the Mill Pond at the Caddo Lake State Park. It is the easiest place to find, and you can drive to it,” Richard said. “There are also great CCC cabins to rent at the park, and you can put in your canoe or kayak or fish off the fishing pier. The lake is 26,000 acres, and there are many different environments and conditions to explore.”

We rented a place on the water when we visited in February.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Attwater's Prairie Chickens get privacy for breeding

Males inflate their yellow sacs to make a booming sound during breeding season
The male Attwater's Prairie Chickens, which are booming for the females, have been paired with potential mates at the Houston Zoo's breeding facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

So that means that the volunteers have been kicked out to give the birds their privacy.

Today was our last day of weeding in the pens until late June or July.  Then we will continue our battle against deep-rooted sedge.

By the summer we hope there will be chicks to add to the population of endangered APC.

What a nice tail.
All these pics are of the same bird. Here is his "stay away" look.
This is his "I will peck that camera" look.
APC pens
Live long and prosper, Attwater's Prairie Chickens. We'll see you again this summer.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Fishing tackle out on a limb

The fish are safe, but the birds may get caught.
During the winter it is easier to spot tangled lines in the trees, especially around Caddo Lake.

Hanging out with a friend
Tangles in the limbs.
I spy something orange.
Who will rescue it?

Caddo Lake wildlife refuge's version of Stonehenge

Yes, it looks like No. 4 escaped.
After a prescribed February burn, the old TNT plant at Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge took on an eerie atmosphere. The crunch of the blackened ground was the only sound as we walked around the abandoned facilities.

It looks like Caddo Lake's Stonehenge.

The refuge was formerly the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant built in 1942 with backing from Lyndon Baines Johnson, a young congressman who would be president 1963-69.

In 1998, about 1,400 acres of the site became part of the area designated a wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar convention. In 2,000 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added the site to the National Wildlife Refuge system to preserve the bottom land hardwood forest ecosystem for a migratory and resident wildlife species.

Admission to the refuge is free. There is a driving loop and some spinoff trails with picnic tables and bird blinds. The old TNT facilities are just one of the stops.

Production area
Info sign at the site

The black form looks like phoenix rising or perhaps a sentinel dragon or just a tree burned to a delicate crisp.

Building remnants

Sunday, February 26, 2017

February butterflies spotted around Caddo Lake

The little Spring Azure is a bright spot.
Found a few butterflies along the trails around Caddo Lake State Park during late February.

Several American Snouts were bouncing and gliding among the branches.
American snout
A Juvenal's Duskywing blends with the dry leaves.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Goldfinches return to my yard



I was happy to see goldfinches return to the feeders on this 50-degree day in late January. They are a welcome addition this time of year. I think the sweetgum tree draws them to our yard.

More competition for the squirrels.

Attacking a seed ball still hanging on.

Picking seeds out of the deck cracks.

I curse the spiky sweetgum balls when I step on them, but goldfinches like the seeds.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

When a neighborhood sinks, a nature center rises


Class with seine net.
Something I wrote for TMN-Galveston Bay Area chapter's newsletter.
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The story of the rise of Baytown Nature Center also is the story of the fall of a popular waterfront neighborhood and the triumph of nature.

I have heard the BNC story several times. It’s part of the experience for ninth-graders participating in the Back to the Bay field trips.

When the students hear how about 300 homes once stood where they are tossing cast nets and doing water testing, they take another look at their surroundings.

On the drive into BNC, as Burnet Bay comes into view on the right, there is an inground swimming pool jutting up at the shore. Take the trail to Wooster Point and find a shelter built on a home’s foundation. The pink floor tiles of the bathroom are still visible

These landmarks are reminders of BNC’s history.

During the mid 1930s, a cattle rancher’s land was sold for development. Humble Oil thought the site would be a great place to build its executives’ homes.

During 1962, Baytown annexed Brownwood subdivision, which was in a beautiful setting with linked peninsulas surrounded by three bays, Crystal, Scott and Burnet.

However with the influx of industry and residents, there came problems. Groundwater was pumped out for use by nearby plants and other developed areas, which caused subsidence.

As the land sank, flooding during the high tide seasons became a problem. The switch to surface water stopped subsidence, but the land loss was irreversible. Tropical storms and hurricanes caused more damage.

Residents tried to hang onto their beloved homes, but ongoing flooding and evacuations became their reality from 1967 to 1981. Many decided to leave.

Then devastating Hurricane Alicia hit in 1983. The hurricane wiped out the neighborhood with storm tides up to 10 feet high. (video)

Longtime residents were heartbroken when the area was declared uninhabitable and utilities to the peninsula were cut off. Some homeowners filed lawsuits. During the next 10 years the homes, foundations and streets continued to crumble while legal issues were sorted out. It was wild area for squatters, dumping and nature.

Eventually the city of Baytown obtained the land with a plan to turn the area into a natural preserve.

In 1995 the Baytown Nature Center opened with 65 acres of tidal wetlands, freshwater pools and forested areas. Most of the initial funds were for a mitigation site as part of the French Limited Superfund cleanup project. Houses were bulldozed and the streets became part of the trail system.

During the next 10 years channels were dug and lined with smooth cordgrass. An observation hill was built and trails were added (and continue to develop).  BNC expanded to 450 acres.

Today school groups of all ages visit regularly. The smaller peninsula at the front of the park is open to fishing although there are warning signs about toxins that may be in the fish.

Petrochemical companies surround BNC and Ship Channel traffic glides by.  The San Jacinto River Waste Pits SuperfundSite is upstream.

Yet most agree that thanks to environmental regulations the water is much cleaner than it was in the 1970s and wildlife has made a comeback.

Fishing is prohibited in the channels cut into the larger peninsula to protect the wildlife.

Hikers and bicyclists share the trails. In addition to the wildlife and wildflowers, photographers can find a great view of the San Jacinto Monument. North America’s smallest butterfly, Western Pygmy Blue, likes the glasswort (Salicornia spp.) along Arkokisa Trail.

Birders find everything from Roseate Spoonbills to Eastern Screech Owls. The past couple of years a Grooved-bill Ani has stopped by. BNC is one of the few locations in Harris County that the Nelson’s Sparrow and Seaside Sparrow can be seen during the winter months.

BNC is still susceptible to flooding. In 2008 Hurricane Ike flooded BNC with 13 feet of water.  A lot of debris had to be cleared. The playground and other structures were rebuilt with the knowledge that nature continues to shape BNC’s future.

** BNC, 6213 Bayway Drive, is open daily, except Christmas and days of extreme weather. Admission is $4 for adults and $1 for seniors and children.

BNC's Brownwood Pavilion