Sunday, May 14, 2017

Texas' terrapin is an elusive creature

This is something I wrote for the newsletter sent out by the Galveston Bay Area chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists.
Photo taken by Environmental Institute of Houston researcher.
If your wetland adventures take you to brackish areas with saltwater marshes and shell beaches, keep watch for the Texas Diamond-backed terrapin.

Little is known about our state’s only species of terrapin’s limited distribution in the larger Galveston Bay system, so many will be interested if you spot one, according to Jenny Oakley, Environmental Institute of Houston environmental scientist.

As more research is compiled, the health and numbers of the terrapin will be another indicator of the overall health of Texas bays.

EIH has been studying the elusive Texas Diamond-backed terrapin for 10 years and continues to uncover new information about the estuarine species.

The only species of brackish water turtle in North America, the Diamondback terrapin ranges from New England to Texas. The Texas subspecies (Malaclemys terrapin littoralis) found in Galveston Bay, particularly around the North and South Deer islands, is the focus of the EIH study. EIH calls them Diamond-backed terrapins, while Texas Parks & Wildlife and others use the name Diamondback terrapins.

However you spell their name, the terrapins have shells that range from 4 to 9 inches, with the females noticeably larger.  It is named for the diamond-shaped scutes or plates that form the carapace.  The carapace is dark and the lower shell, plastron, is pale.

It is known for its polka-dot skin and often has a dark mark over its lip that resembles a mustache. The feet are webbed, with bigger and darker back feet.

The terrapins can live up to 40 years. Males reach maturity around age 3, and females mature at age 6, according to the TPWD website.

They prefer to go to the same nesting area each year to lay four to 18 eggs in the spring. Nest temperatures determine the sex of newborns. Warm temperatures produce females.

Habitat destruction is a major threat to the Coastal Bend terrapins’ survival, but they also are drowned in crab traps and killed on roadways.

A recent graduate of University of Houston-Clear Lake/EIH studied the diet of Texas Diamond-backed terrapin and found that male and female terrapins within the same population have significantly different diets. 

The larger females with thick jaw plates eat mostly gastropods, especially marsh periwinkles. The males consume more decapods, such as blue crabs.

Although funding has been reduced, EIH research continues. If you see a Texas Diamond-backed terrapin, take a photo, record your location (latitude and longitude are best) and send the information to

For donations, EIH has an Adopt-a-Terrapin program. For $25, you get an adoption certificate for a Texas Diamond-backed terrapin that you name.  

I named my terrapin adoptee Iron Fist. The name was chosen after I looked up from my laptop and said to my spouse: “I’m going to adopt a terrapin.”  With no questions asked, he answered, “OK.”

“What do you want to name it?” I asked. You can guess what we (mostly he) were watching on Netflix at the time.

So here’s wishing good luck to Iron Fist. I hope you become a terrapin superhero and conquer all your challenges on Galveston Bay.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Is that a clapper rail?


Why, yes, it is a clapper rail.

When I snapped photos of the bird at Baytown Nature Center from my car, I wasn't sure what it was. I tried to identify it later by looking online and came up with clapper rail.

But that didn't seem right. I'm not a birder, but I hang around some birders so I know clapper rails are elusive. On bird counts they usually are heard rather than seen. Also this was a big bird, and I always imagined clapper rails as smaller birds hiding in the grass.

Unsure about my identification, I asked three birder buddies, and they all agreed it looks like a clapper rail. The white eyebrow, gray face and tail feathers are major clues.

As a non-birder, I was quite pleased with my sighting.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Hello Monarch butterfly

This caterpillar chose the underside of a the porch railing to become a chrysalis and gave me great view of its transformation into a Monarch butterfly.

The pupa
When it became dark, you could see the wings.
Hello, gorgeous!
Then it dropped to a leaf and began testing its wings.
Good night.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Flying Question Mark

Backyard distraction. A Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis) stopped by while I was doing some yard work. So I had to stop and take a pic with my phone.

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.


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.