Llano, Texas

Llano is a good place to stop on the way to somewhere else in Texas. This small town was founded as a frontier trading centre on the Llano River in 1856. The river and the ‘old’ town provide the main focus of interest, plus one of the best BBQ restaurants around (delicious).

The bridge is rather functional and not particularly attractive, so I was quite surprised that my Panasonic ZX200 made it look quite attractive after nightfall (featured image).

More spectacular was the view of the evening sky from the bridge, over the weir.

llano sunset

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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.

 

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 Herons

During our recent visit to southern US, we saw quite a few great blue herons, as ubiquitous as are grey herons in the UK.

These American birds are among the largest herons, being twice as large as a great egret, and larger than the European grey heron.

We were also fortunate this little blue heron stood just by us at Brazos Bend Texas State Park. This is only relatively little, being still of a medium size, similar to a nearby ibis.

Note the blue dominance of the beak, compared to the yellow in that of the great blue.

Apparently, the little blue is white during its first year. Maybe there were more around than I thought!

 

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.

American Purple Gallinule

Another memorable and beautiful bird from last month’s visit to Brazos Bend Texas State Park was the Purple Gallinule, a member of the rail family. In my experience, the most commonly seen rails, in both US and UK, are the ubiquitous coots and moorhens. But these American gallinules, less often seen, are much more colourful – a superb gradation of shading from white to grey through greens and blues to the deepest shades, completed by the red-yellow beak and yellow legs.

purple gallinule

As you can see from the top featured image, they have enormous feet (blurred) that enable standing  on water plants and in mud.

 

Ibis, White and Green

I was not very familiar with ibises before our recent visit to Brazos Bend State Park. There were two varieties on display, the American White Ibis and the Green Ibis.

american white ibis
American White Ibis family

The key distinguishing feature of the ibis is the downward curved beak, as compared to say egret or heron which have straight beaks. The American White Ibis ranges through North and Central America.

green ibis 2
Green Ibis

The Green Ibis is more of a Central and Southern American bird, so Texas is a natural place where the two would meet.

 

 

 

 

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.

American Bittern

We had a superb view of this American Bittern at Brazos Bend Texas State Park. The remarkable markings on this wading bird serve as excellent camouflage in the swamp.

 

For several minutes we watched him trying to manoeuvre what appeared to be a catfish into position to swallow. Eventually it disappeared and he resumed that alert upright state.

The Houston area is in this bittern’s winter range; they travel north to breed in the spring.

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.

George HW Bush Library

George HW Bush was one of a small number of Republican US presidents since WW2 who I do not recall as being regarded with great trepidation by the rest of the world. Bush still lives in Houston with wife Barbara, and it was apparent from the recent superbowl in Houston how affectionately they are regarded locally. We made the day trip to visit the presidential library for this the 41st US president, in College Station, Texas.

This rather grand building lies in the campus of the enormous and rather drab Texas A&M University. The museum is efficiently run, and well staffed with enthusiastic volunteers, well laid out with introductory video and audio guide – the US does such museums well. The presidential library itself is not accessible to the general public.Read More »

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 »