Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Texas City Dike (UTC074) On a Windy Day

Down on the Gulf Coast of Texas most residents and especially us transplants from cooler climes, welcome the first real cold front of the autumn/fall.  It is a blessed relief from the heat and humidity of the summer and a excuse to wear a jacket - even if its only for the first two hours of daylight.

Usually when a cold front blows through the next day is cool, clear, sunny and still, sometimes it's all the first three with a near gale force wind blowing.  Well, guess what I had when I took a drive down to Texas City Dike.  Yep, WIND.  It was so windy that as I was setting up my tripod and camera it nearly nearly blew over.  I managed to grab one of the legs just in time, it was a good job I caught it as it was standing on a concrete parking area.  I thought that a nice smooth flat surface was the best place to set up my gear, which of course it is.  Though it should be noted that concrete has a very low bounce factor.  I tried a few test shots to make sure everything was working, but even using the truck as a wind block wasn't working as I had hoped.  It was a real challenge trying to get decent shots with the amount of buffeting and vibration the wind was causing, so I decided that most of the photography today was going to be of the vehicular variety. I keep a soft, over padded cushion in the truck to for just such times.
I have seen various bean bags and mounts that fit on the door or window that are designed to provide support when shooting from a vehicle window, and I have no doubt that many of them do what is expected of them.  However, I often raise my window a little to get everything at the height I want.  I'm not sure I want the additional weight of anything more bearing down of my window glass and the winding mechanism, the lens and camera are plenty heavy enough.  So a light pillow is my choice.

Just after dawn at the base of the dike on a really windy day:

Texas City Dike was built in 1935 from granite blocks, much like those on Bolivar.  It runs out into Galveston Bay Southeast about 5 miles from it's base in Texas City.  Designed to prevent sediment build up it has shallower water on one side and much deeper water on the other.  The shallower side has numerous sandy and rocky beaches along it's length whilst the deeper side is granite boulders all the way down.

In winter it is as close as you can get to a banker to see Loons and Mergansers.  Common Loons are by far the most numerous but there are occasional reports of Pacifics being seen.  Red-breasted Mergansers and Hooded Mergansers are frequently present though not in good numbers. 

Red-breasted Merganser

Mixed flocks of Terns, Black Skimmers and Gulls can often be seen resting on the beaches.  This weekend there were several hundred resting from the wind in a dense flock.  Its a simple drive down on to the beach and the resting birds will allow moderately close driving to allow good looks.  Obviously it's wise not to push the envelope and see how close you can get.  The birds are resting for a reason they don't need to be continually disturbed by birders or photographers.  For that matter you can also add dog walkers.

Black Skimmers

Nice to see a Sandwich Tern today.  I was hoping to see one but without much optimism as they are not easy to find in the winter.  This one was by itself just a bit off from the large flock, alternately preening and standing half asleep.

Sandwich Tern

There were plenty of Royal Terns but no Caspians this time. 

Around the edges of the main flock of Black Skimmers were Ring-billed Gulls and Laughing Gulls in about equal numbers of around 75 of each.  These guys are not stupid, they were to the rear of the Skimmers and using the skimmers as a wind break.

A little further down the beach the smaller waders were much in evidence.  For the most part they kept a respectful distance from the much larger gulls and terns.  The difference is size is amazing, I certainly didn't fully appreciate the size difference until I was checking out this photo.  It seems that this first year Herring Gull could eat the Sanderling in one gulp.  They are probably well advised to keep their distance.

I was pleased to (at last), get some decent shots of some Snowy Plovers, one of which was ringed.

There were a good number of Black-bellied Plovers, one or two were on the beach, but mostly they were hanging out around the rocks.

Western Sandpipers were around but not in large numbers

Sanderlings were running around everywhere it was flat.

 After a couple of hours out there I was hoping that the weather would have settled down but if anything the wind was picking up so I decided to call it a day on the Dike and try one of the close by parks that had reports of Monk parakeets being seen.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary

Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary

    After leaving Boddecker Road its only a short drive to the ferry terminal across to the Bolivar Peninsular.  As an added bonus the ferry crossing is free, unless you want to count paying your taxes that provides for this free service.  The crossing is brief, I'm thinking in the region on 15 to 20 mins in total.  There's a chance see gulls, terns, pelicans and possibly a Magnificent Frigatebird  from the ferry.  There's usually a good chance to photograph something, and this time did not disappoint..............

After disembarking its only another short drive to the 17th Street turn off and then it's down to the
jetty.  The jetty runs for more than a couple of miles out into the Gulf of Mexico.  The first part is a easy and wide concrete walkway but after that it's a jumble of large granite blocks and as you get further out they get less even and more slippery.  The creation of the jetty in the late 1800s has allowed silt and sediment to build up on the East side and has created about 1,000 acres of mudflats, saltmarsh and beach in a natural shallow lagoon much beloved by all kinds of shorebirds and waders.  At the right time of the year the sheer numbers of birds can be breath taking, vast flocks of American Avocets, Black Skimmers, Gulls, Dowitchers, Willets and other goodies allow for unbeatable photographic opportunities, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of birds make use of this sanctuary for resting, feeding and breeding annually.  Wilsons and Piping Plovers especially enjoy this habitat and the sanctuary is as good a place to see and photograph them that I know of.

The Sanctuary is currently owned and managed by the Houston Audubon Society.  It can get pretty busy on a weekend on the jetty in nice weather as local fisherman enjoy using it as well as birders and photographers.  The fisherman cast to the West into the deeper water, while for the most part the birders and photographers are busy looking East.  Having the fisherman around is not such a bad thing.  Naturally wary birds become relatively tame and unconcerned by human activity, this allows for closer looks than would otherwise be possible.  My only complaint is that some (not all), still leave their trash and discarded fishing line on the jetty when they leave.  Its not necessary, its dangerous to humans and wildlife, and not only is it disrespectful, it's downright inconsiderate.

On this visit the tide was just starting to drop as I arrived.  The whole area looked to be underwater at first glance but there were many birds out in the middle standing in shallow water.  There seemed to be Avocets everywhere.  I counted them in blocks of fifty and at a conservative estimate there had to be a minimum of three thousand and in all likelihood considerably more.

While walking along the concrete path along the top of the jetty a single Least Sandpiper was flitting from one rock to the next and staying almost next to me.  As I was walking directly into the sun I was anxious to get in front of it and then to get some shots looking back towards it with the sun behind me.

The area at the end of the concrete pathway was where the closest exposed mud flats were located and waders were congregated there in good numbers and they were not shy.  They seemed totally at ease with the coming and goings of the fishermen less than 20 yards away and when plonked myself down on the rocks less than 15 yards away they just carried on resting, feeding and preening.

Further out flocks of White and Brown Pelicans, Black Skimmers, Terns and Ring-billed Gulls were resting on the now exposed mud flats.  Even further out along the edges of the reed beds were Roseate Spoonbills, Black-necked Stilts, both species of Yellowlegs and a whole bunch of peeps that were too far away to identify.

Close by to my feet were Dunlin

Western Sandpiper,

Lesser yellowlegs,

Black-necked Stilt,

Marbled Godwit,

American Avocets by the busload were everywhere

I still hadn't found a Reddish Egret.  I wandered further out along the jumble of rock boulders to an area of denser reed beds hoping to find one in a sheltered spot.  As I was moving along the boulders it occurred to me that one slip could be really expensive with either rock or water damage to the camera and lens.  It also entered my mind how easy it would be to break a leg or worse and be stuck out there.  Just then a fisherman who was coming towards me slipped and there was a horrendous cracking sound as he went down hard.  Fortunately, it was his fishing rod that snapped under his weight, but it goes to illustrates a point - be careful.  He was ok and escaped with a scrape and a few bruises but nothing too serious. There was a time I wouldn't have even have given safety out there a second thought, I guess that's what getting older and having responsibilities does to someone. I now find myself much more cautious than I used to be.  Alas after all that I still didn't find the Reddish Egret.  I made my way back to the parking lot stopping to chat to a few of the fishermen who all reported a very quiet day, when out in the middle mudflats all on it's own was the egret I wanted to find.  To be sure it was too far out even on a CMOS sensor and at 600mm, for anything other than an id confirming snap but at least I achieved one of my goals.  Next week I think I'll try one of my favorite winter coastal spots at Texas City Dyke - I hope its not going to be too windy.

Friday, November 4, 2016

George Bush Park - Part 2 (The History)

This is a follow up to the previous post and give a little more detail on the park.  George Bush Park used to be part of the LH7 ranch.  In it's heyday of the 20's and 30's the ranch used to occupy 33,000 acres.  This was one of the biggest and probably the last large ranch in the Houston area.  In the 1940's the Corps of Engineers purchased a large part of what remained of the ranch to create the Barker Reservoir as flood control for Buffalo Bayou and to prevent flooding issues downstream. 

There is an interesting article on the ranch and family that owned the land before the 1940's that can be found here:

There is also a delightful book on the history of the ranch and the surrounding area that I can totally recommend:

Deborah Lightfoot Sizemore, author of the 1991 book The LH7 Ranch: In Houston's Shadow.  I believe that the book is now available as a free ebook download.

Prior to settlers moving into the Katy area, the area was occupied by Orcoquiza Indians, who hunted buffalo in the area in the 1700s.  Apparently they were decimated by disease before settlers moved into the area.  Karankawa Indians may also have had a nomadic existence through the area.  They were documented to have been up to as far as 100 miles inland from the coast and there is evidence that shows they were found as far inland as Eagle Lake.

There are documented reports of Indian burial grounds, arrowheads and pottery being found by the Corps of Engineers Archaeologists before the reservoir was completed.  Apparently these were not made public in an attempt to prevent looting.  There are also references to Indian artifacts in the LH7 book.  I have found a couple of arrowheads within the park, but no pottery.

Nowadays the park has easy walking and bike trails, as well as some large drainage ditches.  These ditches are good for finding Herons and Egrets, Alligators and Snakes.  There are some large carp in the ditches but as yet I haven't found the time to go after them, it's one of those things that every time I see large carp, I say to myself, I must come and catch a few of those.  But I never seem to get around to it.

Some winter visitors:

Vesper Sparrow