Greater Yellowlegs

The larger of these two waders, seen recently at Paul D Rushing Park in Katy, clearly has yellow legs, which does suggest the identification. I tend to think it’s a Greater Yellowlegs, as opposed to a Lesser Yellowlegs, due to the length of the beak – around 1.5 times the head width (see how to tell them apart). The smaller bird is probably a female or juvenile?

yellowlegs

Yellowlegs are part of the Tringa genus of waders that includes sandpipers, redshanks and willets. These are shore birds and their breeding grounds are in Canada and Alaska, so this pair would have been either still overwintering or in the process of migrating north.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

I suddenly noticed an unfamiliar bird in one of the few bushes at Paul D Rushing Park in Katy. It turned out to be a scissor-tailed flycatcher, unmistakable with that long tail, patch of rust at the shoulder, grey head, and light front with salmony plumage on the flanks. When it eventually flew off, the tail separated to clearly exhibit the scissor-characteristic.

scissortailed flycatcher

According to Wikipedia, the habitat was just right: “open shrubby country with scattered trees in the south-central states”. This bird is also appropriately known as the “Texas Bird of Paradise”, although it is actually the state bird of Oklahoma.

Paul D Rushing Park

Leave Interstate I10 at Katy and go up the long straight Katy Hockley Road for nearly 10 miles, past lines of new housing developments mixed with the usual (for Houston) random industrial and commercial units, and eventually you arrive at Paul D Rushing Park. Amazingly, you are still in Katy (yes, the greater Houston area is just that big). We’d ‘discovered’ this park from the website of Houston Audubon, giving suitable places for birders.

Suspicions arose when there were zero cars in the car park. At first sight this looked like a sports facility with ball courts. But there must be birds somewhere! Past the ball courts and toilets there were several lakes, apparently surrounded by little vegetation other than grass. A few odd ducks were immediately apparent, but the area looked otherwise barren.

paul d rushing park

Well, we’d come to walk, so walk we did. There were lots of viewing platforms, blinds and walkways over the lake, but not a lot to view. Soon we saw a coypu in the water, then an amazing scissortailed flycatcher rested in one of the few bushes, then egrets on the boardwalk hand rails (featured image), chicks in the water, a black stilt in the distance, a little brown job – some sort of sparrow, then a yellowlegs wader, turtles,… So actually there was quite a lot going on in a park that at first looked so unpromising. But it still looked strangely lacking in vegetation to European eyes!

Carolina Wren

This little wren was hopping about among the branches of a bush by the visitor centre at the Edith L. Moore Houston Audubon sanctuary. Typically wrens are very wary, so not usually so accommodating to being photographed.

carolina wren

A passing ranger identified this as a Carolina Wren, which is the state bird of South Carolina. The bird was probably on its annual migration northwards.

Louisiana Waterthrush

Well I think this is a Louisiana Waterthrush due to the pinkish legs, but it could be a Northern Waterthrush, which is very similar. These migratory birds spend the winter in Central America or West Indies, so we were lucky to catch this one on on his way through Houston at the Edith L. Moore sanctuary (Houston Audubon). Also lucky that this rather elusive bird was pointed out by a regular birder.

northern waterthrush

Although its breast looks very much like that of a thrush, this is not actually a thrush, but a warbler.

This was taken at a fair distance from the opposite side of the creek, so the result is not bad at maximum stretch on my travel zoom Panasonix TZ200.

Clouded Yellow Butterfly

This clouded yellow butterfly kindly stopped by for a photograph as we were exploring an old film set at Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas. These are of the genus colias, of which there are many variants. They are apparently called ‘sulphurs’ in North America.

clouded yellow 3

clouded yellow wikiYou can see the apparent shading on the wings, where the strong dark outer colouring on the top of the wings shows through. A web search shows that these butterflies are not often caught with their wings open to reveal the upper side. Here’s an example male (upper) and female from Wikipedia. We can infer that mine is a male.

 

 

Monarch butterfly

There seem to be a fair number of Monarch butterflies in Houston, probably on their way elsewhere in their annual migration. These are large butterflies with a wonderfully graceful flight.

The featured image shows one settled amid Texan blue bonnet flowers. The other below is settled on the ground, a somewhat faded specimen compared to the vibrancy of some, suggesting one that has survived the winter.

monarch

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

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.