Osprey and Catfish

The osprey is quite rare in the UK, so it was great to see one of these great birds of prey  at Archbishop Fiorenza Park, just by a tollway and major road junction within half an hour of Houston centre. Signs by the lake implied that it contains quite large catfish, which was confirmed as the osprey flew overhead with a huge catfish in its talons. Even better, it then settled on a nearby telegraph pole to take a few bites. The only problem for photographs was that he was between the sun and us, so detail in the images is not great. But the silhouettes are impressive and really show the size of the fish taken by this huge bird.

 

Advertisements

Muscovy Duck

Muscovy ducks are quite large, rather ugly, and somewhat ungainly ducks. They are native to Mexico, Central and South America, but have established themselves also in parts of the US, notably Texas where we they are quite common.

This one in Hermann Park, Houston shows an attractive iridescence in the feathers.

muscovy duck hermann park

The most remarkable feature of these ducks is the blackish or red knob seen at the bill base, with the bare skin of the face a similar colour.

muscovy duck head

Why these are called Muscovy Ducks seems to be a bit of a mystery, as they have no clear historical relationship with Russia.

Whistling Duck on Green

Sometimes you ‘see’ an image that is just a perfect colour combination. These black bellied whistling ducks were serenely progressing through the green covering on a lake in Terry Hershey Park, Houston, and almost immediately disappeared beneath the overhanging vegetation. I just managed to grab a couple of shots that weren’t too bad.

I particularly like this one, cropped, that I’ve included at higher resolution.

whistling duck on green

Common Grackle

Contrary to the pair in the featured image studiously ignoring each other, common grackles are gregarious birds, commonly seen in gangs scavenging at supermarket car parks and traffic lights in Houston and elsewhere. Much as are jackdaws in the UK, but more ubiquitous.

Much more apparent are the larger all-black males. However, the female is arguably the more attractive bird, such as in the following photos.

Both male and female coats show an iridescence in the right light.

American White Pelican

On previous visits to Texas, we’ve often seen pelicans when by the sea, for example at Galveston and Corpus Christi. This February we were surprised to come across a large number of American White Pelicans at Archbishop Fiorenza Park, just by a tollway and major road junction within half an hour of Houston centre.

There was quite a large number of these birds, mostly congregated together on a relatively tiny island in the large lake (featured image), along with a few cormorants. These pelicans are migratory, and the population on that small island was much reduced just a few weeks later.

In the solitary specimen below you can just see the black feathers underneath the wing, that only become really apparent when they are in flight.

pelican

This magnificent bird is second only (in the US) to the Californian Condor in terms of wingspan, so floats effortlessly over the water despite that large bill. My efforts to capture this were pretty unsuccessful.

pelican flying

Blue bonnets

blue bonnets
Blue bonnets by the bayou in Terry Hershey Park

You really know that spring is sprung in Houston when the blue bonnets appear, as they recently have. This is the state flower of Texas, frequently seen alongside country highways, especially since this was encouraged by ex-first-lady Lady Bird Johnson. Families are often seen out parked by the roadside, taking photographs to a backdrop of blue bonnets.

Petrochemical dream or nightmare?

So we took the grandchildren to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which we’d much enjoyed in previous years, particularly to see the new Wiess Energy Hall.

What a spectacular set of exhibits this provides, summarising all you might know or wish to know about the oil and petrochemical industries. Many working models and explanations keep young and old engaged and interested for hours. What a monument to the wonderful creative spirit that has engaged humanity for a century and mostly created the modern world, with its variety of fuels, chemicals, plastics…

If you want to know about different types of oil rigs, the fracking revolution, oil pipelines, and much more, this is the place to go. Maps show the incredible scales of operations in the US.

There are even sections on nuclear power and renewable energy sources, albeit at a lower level than the obviously dominant petrochemicals.

Sadly, there are things it does not tell you, issues it does not address – like how this petrochemical dream is running into the buffers.

It does not tell you about the global warming and climate change that is being caused, nor of the suppression of knowledge of this by those who first knew – the oil industry.

It does not tell you how the land and sea are becoming increasingly polluted with all those plastics, not to mention the regular oil spillages, escaping methane, frack-caused earthquakes,…

It does not tell you how the very soil we grow our crops on is being denatured by those chemical fertilisers.

It does not tell how insects, birds, vegetation, mammals, fish are all being depleted, species destroyed at an alarming rate as the chemicals and plastics spread around the environment and the industrial scale enabled destroys the intimate spaces of nature.

It does not tell how human populations have been subjugated and their politics subverted by the imperative for this energy.

It does not tell how the earth cries out at this painfully rapid change, and is harnessing its resources for survival, ensured by its wonderful yet frightful variability – the heatwaves, coldwaves, biblical rainfalls and fires and floods, hurricanes, typhoons, thunders and lightnings…

In short, like most human endeavours, this industry’s continued prevalence contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, which it resists to the death throes. But why would all those so-generous oil industry related sponsors of this exhibition in the oil capital wish to tell that story?

Featured image shows one of the exhibits: “Energy City,” a 2,500-square-foot 3-D landscape representing Houston, the surrounding Gulf coastal waters and the terrain of southeast and central Texas, aiming to bring to life the energy value chain.

Loggerhead Shrike

A pair of smallish birds that turned out to be loggerhead shrikes, also known as butcher birds, were sitting atop branches of the bare bushes as we walked around Archbishop Joseph A Fiorenza Park in Houston. They seemed quite happy to be photographed.

Their hooked bill provides for disabling of prey, which they are also said to skewer on thorns or barbed wire.

Populations of this common American bird have been in steep decline since around the time of the introduction of chemical pesticides in the US.

 

Waxwing

waxwingsWalking by the bayou in Houston we often come across gangs of tens of small birds high up in the trees, silhouetted against the bright sky, even on a cloudy day. The initial reaction is that they’re impossible to successfully photograph with just a travel zoom (Panasonic TZ80). However, it’s amazing what you can do with maximum zoom, followed by a bit of image editing afterwards, mostly to crop and brighten up.

These are clearly waxwings, with characteristic crest and yellow-tipped tail – a very colourful perching bird, although you do not get much of an impression of that colour from the ground.

I even managed to get a reasonable crop of an individual bird showing more detail.

waxwing

Waxwings are also found in northern Europe, but not much in the UK.

Black Bellied Whistling Duck

There is usually a gang of about 50 or so whistling ducks hanging around in Terry Hershey Park when we visit Houston. They are quite notable for their whistling habit.

This particular variant is called the black bellied whistling duck, for obvious reasons, found all year round in South East Texas.

whistling ducks
Geronimo! Whistling duck landing to join the gang.

Wikipedia lists 8 variants of whistling duck, or tree duck, and suggests that they are not actually true ducks but “a subfamily, Dendrocygninae, of the duck, goose and swan family”. They do look sort of intermediate between duck and goose.

American Robin

american robinIt must have been the unaccustomed cold February weather in Houston, 4°C with a strong windchill. This American Robin just stayed still as we walked by, allowing an easy photograph.

American_Robin-rangemapFrom the distribution map at the above reference, Houston is at the northerly end of this migratory bird’s winter range – so it may well have been struggling with the cold.

Like everything in the US, the American Robin is larger than the robins we have in the UK (European Robin). Although its red breast is remarkably similar, this American bird is actually not a robin in the European sense, but a member of the thrush family.

Distribution map by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons

Houston and Harvey

Having family in Houston, the recent hurricane Harvey has been rather on my mind of late. There are two main lessons from this experience, an experience shared across much of the globe.

Global Warming

Of course, climate change and global warming did not cause Harvey – there have been major hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico for many decades.

But it is clear that the raised level of temperatures in the Gulf and ocean waters, caused by rising levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, will have increased the severity of the effects of Harvey. It didn’t have to be as bad as it turned out.

If action is not taken on the lines of the Paris agreement, which itself did not make change fast enough to avoid severe consequences, future hurricanes in Texas will descend with increasing fire and fury on oil state Texas and its neighbours. The havoc caused so far by the current hurricane Irma, approaching Florida, gives a hint of the disasters to come.

Supercharged Capitalism

Houston was a star of unalloyed capitalism, the oil capital, minimal planning regulations, cheap housing, rapid expansion of population, apparently a great place to live.

But within that apparent success lay the seeds of disaster. New industrial and housing developments gave minimal consideration to the increasing demands put on old drainage systems, and the need to retain flood plains. Flood defences such as the Barker and Addicks dams were not kept adequately up to date. There was a lack of zoning of industry and housing, so minimal consideration of pollution effects on people living close by petrochemical works… It all seemed like the free market right winger’s wet dream! Harvey exposed this toxic mix as totally inadequate for a city in Hurricane Alley.

The City of Houston, the US and the world need to step back and get a grip on a more sensible way to manage human affairs, before we become submerged in a never ending chain of disasters. Supercharged capitalism is at best unintelligent.

The featured image apparently shows a waterway, which is a recently taken photo of the flooded Beltway, a major Houston artery. Things are far from being back to normal.

 

Anhinga

One of the delights of visiting Brazos Bend State Park, near Houston, is the frequent sighting of anhingas.

anhinga 2When perched, the anghinga is a bit like a large cormorant, with that same spreading of the wings to dry – but with more striking plumage.

It’s also called a snakebird, because of its habit of swimming with just head and neck visible above the water. We’ve not seen this.

These photos were taken during our visit early last year.

Monster Jam

Monster Jam is one of the purported great ‘experiences’ Houston has to offer, so I duly accompanied grandchild, friend and a couple of parents to experience it. The venue was the very arena where the superbowl was held a week ago.

First we had to be prepared and take ear plugs and ear defenders (both). The vehicles involved have very noisy engines.Read More »

Lucky vireo

Sometimes you get lucky. There was this tiny bird flitting in and out between the twigs and leaves of the dense canopy of this Houston tree. It was super fast, so very difficult to see clearly, let alone capture on camera. We needed a photograph to subsequently identify it.

Out of numerous shots of twigs, leaves and blurred birds, just one was adequately focused for identification purposes. It turned out to be a blue headed vireo. These songbirds are apparently winter visitors in the south eastern US and spend the breeding season in the Appalacheans or further north.

It appears very similar to Cassin’s vireo, which ranges smilarly up and down the western states of the US.

Black vulture

black_vultures_2Vultures are a common sight in Houston, and indeed all over the US. We often see them gliding around looking for food. Roadkill is a great attraction. A couple of years ago we saw a gang of about 15 around what was probably a squashed squirrel, seizing the opportunities to grab a bite between the traffic.

A large group hangs around the Terrey Hershey park near the I10, and seem happy to pose for photographs.

These are black vultures, which are mostly found in the south eastern states, not to be confused with the more common turkey vulture found over much of the US.

Mostly you see the distinctive outline as they soar through the air, seeking out their staple food, carrion. The one below, which I took some time ago in southern Texas, is a turkey vulture, which you can tell by the red head.turkey_vulture_in_flight

Shy cardinal

The attractive red northern cardinal is quite common in Houston (and all of the southern US states), but seems to have an uncanny ability to know when a camera shutter is about to be clicked, always absenting itself just before the said event. They are quite happy to be viewed nearby, so long as there is a barrier of twigs between them and you, such as in the featured image. As soon as there is a clear view, they just fly off, or possibly wait until the camera is pointed.

With a source of food around, such as the garden feeder we set up a year ago, they were a bit less wary, so long as you kept your distance. These were taken with mazimum zoom on Panasonic DMC-ZS15.

This is a vocal songbird and this website gives good examples of their calls.

Houston and Knutsford

Our only grandchildren live in Houston, an immediate challenge to any ‘green’ credentials we might have had. Our way of reconciling with this is to keep down the frequency of flights to Houston, but to live there a while when we do go. As a result, we observe interesting differences in the way people behave, which are mostly characteristic of Brits versus Americans, but do bear in mind that Houston is probably America’s most cosmopolitan city.

First of all, Americans seem to love the English accent and all seem to have been to or want to go to England. It’s a great conversation opener. They mostly understand English, with the following major exceptions:

  • For tomato, you must say ‘toe-may-toe’
  • For water you must say ‘waar-durr’
  • For toilets you must say ‘rest room’ or ‘bath room’.

Understanding what Americans are saying is a different matter, and you frequently need to ask them to repeat.

i10 beltway interchange
I10 – Beltway Interchange, Houston

Most things in Houston are twice as big as their European equivalents – dual carriageways for residential roads, the freeways and their junctions, the typical local journey, the size of the houses and gardens, the fridges. I was expecting the cars to be as well, but that was up to the 1970s and the first oil shock – now there’s just a much higher percentages of large SUVs and trucks than in Europe.

Residents of Houston drive everywhere. The neighbours are bemused by our habit of going out for a walk, and possibly coming back with shopping bags. It’s just not done. We’ve even seen someone get into her car and drive about 30 yards to visit her daughter’s house – we know she can walk because we once saw her do it.

Sidewalks in the residential areas are sometimes non-existent or poorly maintained. Our son suggests this is because the person responsible for maintenance is the property owner, and not the local authority. Then again, they’re not always brilliantly maintained in the UK

Going anywhere in Houston other than the immediate locality usually involves going on the freeway. This often looks like the M6 on a bad day, but with sometimes 5-6 lanes or more. The nice thing is you can stay in any lane; the scary thing is being under- and over-taken at the same time; even more scary, you actually often need to move out a lane or two to stay on the road you’re on – otherwise you finish up going off somewhere you don’t want. And there are the tolls, but son now has the relevant automatic gadget that means we don’t have to worry.

Satnav is essential for us here, but it’s called a GPS. Our first trip ever, to Galveston, was a disaster. Daughter-in-law had the sound level low on her early GPS because she only used the pictures. We set off on the freeway, could see the GPS was working – there was a map on its tiny screen. But we couldn’t hear what it was saying. This was fine till we reached a complicated freeway junction – where to go? It was too distracting from driving to look in detail at the tiny screen, and I couldn’t hear what the darn thing was saying! We came off, stopped in a car park and worked out how to turn up the sound. We then had to make our way back to the right freeway, which involved a U-turn at the next junction. (U-turns are a common feature of Houston driving.) Keeping up with the traffic, I noticed the lights going red as we went on to the junction. Several weeks later our son received a ticket for jumping the red light! After only 20 minutes driving in the US. Houston abandoned the red light clampdown soon afterwards – it was seen as an invasion of personal freedoms.

Driving in residential areas is a revelation. If a driver sees you crossing a road, or even thinking about crossing the road, he or she stops to let you cross. You can almost feel obliged to cross. This creates dangers when coming back to the UK – try stepping out on an estate road when there is a car within 100 yards, they do not slow down and expect you to get out of the way fast. Basically, drivers in the US are more considerate of pedestrians.
1-0 to US.

There is also a danger for European drivers on these roads. Many minor junctions have 4-way Stop signs. Stopping is mandatory and cars in all directions must take turns to go. It can get very confusing at busy times. The same rule applies at traffic lights with flashing red lights – even on quite major roads. We were once driving home on Texas State Highway 6 and came to a great all-way queue of traffic at one of these. It looked like chaos. We were severally hooted at when we efficiently slipstreamed through the junction behind another car.

Eating and drinking out is a major American pastime. The staggering thing about this is the almost-invariably superb service. Politeness, friendliness and checking that all is OK are the norm. This is possibly because staff are poorly paid and rely on tips, which are typically much higher than in Europe, but I get the impression that that’s the culture. Compare that to the offhand, surly or nonexistent service you often get in the UK.
2-0 to US.

When you get ill, it’s vital that you remembered to sort out the medical insurance. The first thing they want is your insurer or your credit card, and you’ll be lucky to get away with a bill of less than a few hundred dollars just for being examined and prescribed an antibiotic. Compare that to the NHS.
2-1.

The US does not have a good reputation where guns are concerned, and we were a bit worried when we learned this last trip that the local Kroger supermarket now had an ‘open carry’ policy, whereby guns could be carried openly in the store. In actuality, Kroger was no different than on previous visits, but there’s always that lurking concern that some nutter somewhere will do something stupid with a gun – you read so much about it there.
2-2.

So there are pros and cons, and both countries could learn from each other and improve as a result.

But there are two big things which easily settles any argument on comparison as a place to live. In the US, history began about 1800 – apart from when you get to the Indian lands. And the climate in Houston is unlivable without air conditioning from around April to October – indeed the city only really began to expand when air conditioning was invented.

I make that 2-4, with two goals in extra time – just like the 1966 World Cup Final.

1966-world-cup-final

Freeway picture courtesy of wikimapia

 

In Praise of The Beans

beans
Beans Cafe, Eldridge, Houston

It was the last visit of our time in Houston to the ubiquitous Beans Cafe (mentioned in several of my posts), which is one of those locally run independent coffee shops that are done so well in the US, alongside all those regional and (inter)national chains. The feeling is homespun, the service friendly, the coffee is great, the music always discreet and well-chosen, the seating old-fashioned armchairs, but quite comfortable. Wifi is free and reliable, and many appear to use it as a temporary office with their laptops, as they linger over their drink or food. It just feels comfortable to be there, hence our regular visits.

Such local independents seem to turn up in most of the towns of the US we have visited during several road trips. Trip Advisor is good at unearthing them and the reviews are usually good, as is the food, drink and ambience. At the Village Cafe in Bryan on our way to Fort Worth there was even live music following the lunchtime rush.

Of course, the same is true in the UK. Many high streets have their own independent coffee shops or tea rooms, alongside the inevitable Costa, Nero or Starbucks. So the choice is local colour versus the known standard of the global brand.

Now it seems to me that the rules are somewhat stacked against these local shops, in that their ability to avoid taxation is not on a level playing field with the Starbucks of this world, with their international financial arrangements, paying taxes where it most suits. And the big chains can run outlets at a loss until they have killed off the local competition. Yet local shops are effectively largely recycling money in the local economy, so good for local prosperity – whereas the chains are slowly sucking money out of the local economy. The local shop is probably paying its staff better, and forms much more a part of the cultural ‘glue’ of the local community. It’s the same story that has over the years seen American high streets denuded of small business shops, replaced by chains paying peanut wages.

Free market enthusiasts will say that it’s just natural that small shops may get crowded out by chains, they just have to be good enough to survive. Well yes, but at least we should make sure that the playing field is level. It does not appear to be. Maybe the field should actually be biased towards local businesses, because of the benefits they bring to the community as a whole? By all accounts, and the evidence of my own eyes, the capitalist free market seems to have done a pretty good job at destroying any sense of community and individuality in many places in US and UK. The high streets and malls are all pretty similar, the same set of stores and cafes with their national/global branding. We need more unique outlets with their own style, local colour and individuality. Let’s support them and move the political environment to encourage them…

Shooting Snipe

Wilson's_Snipe_2
Wilson’s Snipe

Over coffee at Beans cafe, I just read a feature in the Houston Chronicle on Shooting Snipe. The writer extols the joys of walking through wetlands, seeing the snipe* flushed out, their subsequent glorious twisting flight and then the difficulty of shooting them, even when cheating using a shotgun.

As a town-dweller, this whole concept is anathema to me. I can see the joy of walking in that land open to the skies and seeing the thrill of the snipe flushed from its hiding place, the glory of that speedy, turning, twisting unpredictable flight. But why then destroy that magnificent beauty of creation?

And yet I can see why country dwellers might see things differently, coming from times when the need to survive was paramount, and the snipe might provide a valuable source of food. I guess there are still such country dwellers who maybe still need the licence to kill these wonders of creation, although surely there are easier prey than this. And is it a good idea to gradually seed all the land with what is probably lead shot?

One could certainly argue that maybe we would not miss a few of the said 2 million of them, purely numerically. But what does the willingness to destroy these beings say about our internal psyche and our connection with the natural world?

Then there is the third category, the hunters, so-called sportsmen, probably themselves city dwellers. Again I can see the joy of achieving such a connection with the natural world that you can intercept the flight of this twisting turning bird and capture it in an instant. Of course this can be done with a camera, and what joy the resulting pictures would bring.

The gunshot brings destruction of life rather than creation of image. Yes, the satisfaction will be similar – the achievement, the transient pleasure of eating the result. But was there any need, other than that to complete man’s illusory dominance over nature. And what about the wounded birds that suffer for hours…

It would be more sporting to use a sniper rifle rather than gunshot, less polluting but no less inhumane, other than in the lower ‘hit rate’.

We are in truth one with nature and when we have fully realised that we take only what we need, not what is in the grasping greed of our distorted imaginations.

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed”

Mahatma Gandhi

* The bird referred to in this article is Wilson’s snipe, described as ‘fairly common’ in America by Wikipedia.

Picture courtesy of Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren and Wikimedia Commons