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 »

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

The Kimbell Art Museum

During a short stay in Fort Worth we visited the Kimbell Art Museum, which was well rated in the tourist information. It proved an excellent choice.

Wikipedia tells us that Kay Kimbell was a wealthy Fort Worth businessman who built an empire of over 70 companies in a variety of industries. He married Velma Fuller, who kindled his interest in art collecting. They set up the Kimbell Art Foundation in 1935, and by the time of his death in 1964, the couple had amassed what was considered to be the best selection of old masters in the Southwest. Their estate was bequeathed to the Foundation, with the key directive to “build a museum of the first class”.

The building was designed by architect Louis I. Kahn and is “widely recognized as one of the most significant works of architecture of recent times”. I have to say that, from the outside, the museum is most unprepossessing, even boring. However, when you get inside you come upon an ideal space for displaying art works, with superb natural lighting coming obliquely from the vaulted ceilings and skylights.

bodhisattva_maitreya
Bodhisattva Maitreya

Looking at the art works themselves, you realize that this museum is rather special. Almost every item in the collection is a quite exquisite example of a particular period of art or artist – mostly paintings and some sculptures, including early pieces such as a beautiful 8th century “Bodhisattva Maitreya’ from Thailand.

torment_of_st_anthony
The Torment of St Anthony, Michelangelo

Many of the most famous European painters are represented, including many impressionists and a rare painting by Michelangelo “The Torment of Saint Anthony”.

I was led to reflect on how many of the world’s major art galleries have come from bequests from those who have made mountains of money. With money comes responsibility, and it seems that Kay Kimbell and his ilk have made good use of their money, in the great tradition of philanthropy.

The museum contains an excellent cafe serving lunches, run with great efficiency by a formidable yet friendly Dallas lady – one could well imagine her on the set of the long-running Dallas TV series.

A companion building, reached through a small garden, was added later, architected by  Renzo Piano. Here is the space for exhibitions and we were lucky that the current ‘blockbuster’ touring was of the works of the impressionist and art patron Gustave Caillebotte.

This was quite an eye-opener, demonstrating what an excellent painter Caillebotte was, and also telling the story of his friendships with other impressionists and his role as patron in encouraging their development. As a man of means, he did not have the problem of lack of resources common to many who choose this profession.

Altogether, the Kimbell provided a very happy way to spend a day. Definitely ‘first class’, and well worth a visit if you’re ever in the Fort Worth/Dallas area.

Photographs are my own, and can be copied so long as you attibute to this blog.

 

 

Signs of Spring in Houston

One of the delights of retirement is to do more of the things that feel just right, rather than those that are more imposed upon us. So what better to do on a clear sunny but cool (by Houston standards) February afternoon than a walk by Buffalo Bayou* – itself interestingly named as I think the days of buffaloes in this part of Texas are long gone.

buffalo bayou
Buffalo Bayou

It was one of those lucky days when you just come across things.

The bayou emerges from a reservoir in George Bush Park (Houston is the home town of the first George Bush). I climbed up the levee and walked along the top, overlooking typical swampland. Just a small patch of trees could be seen spouting forth the first green shoots of spring.

signs of spring
Signs of Spring
great blue heron
Great Blue Heron

Back along by the bayou itself, by the rushing waters flowing forth from the reservoir, were three of the local common fishermen: a Great Blue Heron, a Great Egret and a Snowy Egret. Quite a treat to see them all together.

On the way back there was a great commotion of tweeting from a family of sparrows in a patch of bushes. Another sign of spring? No, I realised not, when I caught a glimpse of the characteristic shape of a some sort of hawk passing over. After that they quietened down again.

Back home, a bright red cardinal was feeding for the first time on the bird feeder we put up a couple of days ago. Quite a birdy day!

snowy egret
Snowy Egret

* Buffalo bayou would probably be called a river in UK.

Photographs are my own, and can be copied so long as you attibute to this blog.

The heart of capitalism?

I am standing on the footpath that threads around a large field in Cheshire. It looks like flattened mud, with rows and row of small young plants, maybe winter wheat? I feel desolate at the barren scene – no variation, no birds, no insects, just that vast cloying mud.

Confined-animal-feeding-operation
Combined animal feeding operation

I am being driven through eastern Texas. We pass seemingly endless cowsheds, enclosures, corrals of cows. Arid flattened earth, not a blade of green to be seen anywhere. A nothing environment for an unlucky cow to live what can hardly be called a cow’s life. My heart cannot grasp the enormity of what is being done here.

I read the story of DDT and Rachel Carson, and how the world stepped back from the brink of massive destruction of natural beings. And now I read again of the new DDT, neonicotinoids, which are being extensively used without due precaution. Not only the bees our life depends on, but other insects, the birds that feed on them, and the thousands of organisms of the very soil itself are being massacred. Ignorance on a grand scale in the name of money. I weep internally.

I drive through the northern French countryside. More huge fields, thanks to the Common Agricultural Policy. Yet there is not a hedgerow in sight, so few insects and birds. I grieve for the lost opportunity to maintain the threads of nature.

I observe in my own Cheshire garden the decimation of populations of bees, butterflies, hoverflies, some bird species over less than half a lifetime. My heart tells me something is amiss with the web of life, and it is something to do with the way we farm and the chemicals we use.

And yet through all this there are signs of hope. Part fields of wild flowers in southern France – lost but now re-established. Land set aside for wildlife. Campaigns to keep and extend old forests. The organic and small farm movements. The national parks, scientific areas, conservation movements etc etc. In the hearts of many the connection with nature is still strong.

Does not the problem lie in our hearts? If we cannot feel that empathy with the whole living world, as we do for example with our pets, what hope is there for us? Industrial agriculture with its related chemicals appears to be largely about the pursuit of money at the expense of the natural world. Land ownership should imply stewardship of nature on that land, which means maintaining the connections of nature and should not allow them to be destroyed.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the currently manifested capitalist system, that has money as its supreme value, lies at the root of the problem. If decisions are taken based on what makes the most money, rather than what the heart says is right, then does that not inevitably lead to the increasingly denatured world we see before us?

[Of course, similar problems are evident in totalitarian countries, which are either part of or have aped the capitalist money system.]

Featured image of Confined Animal Feeding Operation, from Wikimedia Commons