While in Houston earlier this year I went to inspect the new flood controls at Barker Dam, the very ones that were almost overwhelmed by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. A vast amount of concrete has been used to reinforce the defences against Houston being overwhelmed by flooding after days of continuous rain. We pray that it holds the next next time.
What I had not realised is that the dam lies at a very historic point, where the old San Felipe Trail crossed the Buffalo Bayou, enabling transfer of cotton from the plantations further south to the port of Harrisburg, inland from Galveston. Harrisburg burned down during the 1836 Texas Revolution, to be replaced by the new port of Houston. So Houston had its origins in the cotton trade.
In 1831 a travellers’ inn was established by Joel and Elizabeth Wheaton at this important ford across the Buffalo Bayou, very close to the point where these modern flood defences lie. Wheaton’s inn operated until the 1870s, when a new railroad replaced the old trail.
In the 1840s many refugess fleeing war in Eastern Europe made their way across the Atlantic, through Galveston and Houston and then westward along the San Felipe Trail (via this crossing point) to surrounding areas and the Texas Hill Country, where many settlements were founded.
After the civil war ended in 1865, the slaves of the Texas plantations were declared free, and many of the freed men made their way eastward along the San Felipe Trail to a new life in the Houston area. Indeed there is a Freedmenstown area in Houston.
That’s a lot of history for one inauspicious location between Barker Dam and Texas Highway 6!
Those ducks looked oh so familiar, lurking under weeping willow trees by Knutsford’s Moor Pool. But something felt wrong. Then I realised. These were black bellied whistling ducks, very familiar from our visits to Houston, Texas. And this was Knutsford, Cheshire, far away from the homelands of these American sub/tropical birds (see Wikipedia entry).
How did they find their way to Knutsford? A mistaken migration across the Atlantic? Unlikely, as this is not a migratory species. More likely, they are escapees from somewhere like WWT Martin Mere? Anybody know?
Apparently, they hop to propel themselves and fly away when threatened.
It is good to research and name these unknown (to me) species, although there is also a good argument to just be in, look and marvel at nature – rather than compulsively needing to name everything. Left and right brain – best to engage both!
Blue flowers en masse are popular in spring on both sides of the pond – bluebells in England, blue bonnets in Texas – and in many English gardens there is lots of blue muscari, or the similar blue lyriope in Texas.
The point where the outflow from Houston’s Barker reservoir runs into Buffalo Bayou is a great for a spot of fishing. Here a great blue heron waits patiently, intent on the running water. A snowy egret waits to the side, a good distance from the prime spot.
It’s difficult to believe that we would only just be home from Houston according to our original travel plans. We’re just left with family Zoom time and memories, including this pretty bottle brush tree, one of my more successful ventures into gardening in Houston. This one flowers well, early in March. It’s easy to see why it has the name.
These plants originate from Australia. They appear to be happy with the Houston climate.
As coronavirus gradually reduced our horizons during our recent stay in Houston, it was surprising how many insects one came across in the garden. Surprising because continuous chemical warfare is waged against termites and cockroaches, which would both soon become very widespread without it.
The presence of lizards and birds, such as cardinal, mocking bird and blue jay, does suggest that there are insects around, and if you go in the summer there will be mosquitoes due to large amounts of standing water. Fortunately these were not significantly around during our recent visit. We did see odd cockroaches, the great survivors, but these are not my favourite photographic subjects.
Bees were around on emerging spring flowers, but my two best pictures were of a monarch butterfly and a colourful paper wasp(?).
Wander around the garden in Houston and there is usually the odd small lizard, a few inches long, scuttling out of sight or sunning itself on a wall. There seem to be two sorts.
The green anole (left) is native to the south eastern US. They have the ability to change colour to brown, hence sometimes called American chameleon, but these are not true chameleons. Their natural habitat is trees, although house walls seem to provide an alternative.
The brown anole (top right) is a native of the Caribbean, more recently introduced via pet shops and pot plants. This lizard is said to displace green anoles from their preferred habitat, so represents a threat to their long-term survival.
My third picture (bottom right) is probably a brown green anole, as it lacks the strong patterning of the brown anole.
Houston was only relatively recently wrenched from the Texas swamps (founded 1836). The city is now mainly a man-made environment where nature clings on where it can. There are some areas that are in a relatively natural state. George Bush Park is one of these, because it lies behind Barker Dam, which protects much of residential and downtown Houston from flooding after heavy rainfall events. So the park is regularly flooded in varying degrees.
We recently managed a lovely spring walk through a seemingly remote part of the park, actually just a few minutes from Interstate I10. The featured image shows one of the patches of swamp vegetation, which were probably typical of the area before Houston came along.
Much of the land is scrub interspersed with lakes. This new grass was growing just at the edge of a lake as the water receded. The grass was only a few inches high; getting the camera down to near ground level was essential here.
Highlight of the walk was the number of wildflowers in evidence. The spring sunshine had really brought them out. Bees and other insects were in evidence, not so persecuted here as in other parts of Houston. Here’s a selection.
Animal tracks in the mud showed signs of grazers and predators of varying sizes, but they keep well away from people, with good reason.
The park is named after President George HW Bush, who we saw was very popular in Houston in his later years.
The park is not virgin land; it was a ranch before being taken over for use as a reservoir.
Barker Dam leapt to worldwide attention during the dramatic events of Hurricane Harvey 2½ years ago, when the dam was tested to its limits.
These black bellied whistling ducks were hanging out as usual in a private pond near to the Terry Hershey Trail and Buffalo Bayou in Houston. Piercing whistles show that they fully deserve their name. This is a popular spot for birds. Here they were joined by cormorants and then a snowy egret.
The great blue heron is a very large bird, the biggest heron in North America. We seem to come across the odd solitary bird fairly frequently when in Houston, in typical expectant pose waiting for signs of fish. These examples were in Archbishop Joseph A Fiorenza Park and beneath the bridge taking the I10 freeway over Buffalo Bayou. Amazing that this bird happily fishes while hundreds of cars and lorries thunder overhead.
The Audubon site gives good information on the vulnerability of this and other birds to climate change. Assuming that food sources hold up, they should still be around Houston for future generations.
“I imagine you are both enjoying seeing the grandchildren grow up,” said a friend by email, while we were out in Houston with the family. We were, but this was soon curtailed by the developing coronavirus panic on both sides of the pond.
We were due to fly back to Manchester 7th April, but it was becoming clear that we’d have to do so sooner. President Trump stopped people flying in from Europe from Friday 13th March. Maybe we should bring our departure forward by a couple of weeks to Tuesday 24th?Read More »
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Ray Miller Park is a smallish urban park just by the busy Eldridge Parkway in Houston. In a quiet corner of the park it is a delight to come across Tagore Grove, established in memory of the Indian polymath Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). A calming space on the midst of all that busyness.
The featured image shows a panel containing the words of Tagore’s poem, shown in full above – a call across the ages, so relevant to these times.