A Nature Walk through Hermann Park

Wax myrtle is a tree that is eaten by the 5 species of exotic walking sticks that we have here in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, as well as some of our grasshoppers and other herbivores. Recently, while trying to catch dragonflies (don’t ask), I stumbled upon not one, or two, but tons of these trees in Hermann Park! They were all over the place between the Japanese Gardens and the Houston Zoo. Now, every week I have a nice walk down to that part of Hermann Park to enjoy these trees, and every time I go, it’s a different adventure! 

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
A handsome Wood Duck

Today I thought I would take my camera and document some of the great things I saw: vibrant wildflower plants, amazing wildlife and people enjoying a beautiful day. It’s a really nice way to get out of the office and I always look forward to what I’ll see. I love all kinds of wildlife, not just bugs of course!

Hermann Park is filled with so many different species, especially birds, many of which are ducks. The wood duck is just one of the most beautiful I’ve seen. Their colors are amazing and they have such a distinguished look. These ducks nest in trees near water sources. The ducklings jump out of the nest, falling several feet to the ground without being hurt. Many people consider them the most beautiful water bird, and I can see why. This duck was not shy with the camera!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Great Blue Heron

Another bird that I am always happy to see is the Great Blue Heron. The first time I saw one of these take flight, I was so impressed. They are huge birds, but are so graceful and delicate. Seeing these majestic birds completely makes me forget that I’m in the middle of the 4th largest city in the United States. There were two of them today, hiding behind tall plants in the water. Luckily one came out of hiding for me! 

My visits have become even more special recently with the beginning of spring. Dragonflies and butterflies have taken to the air. Aquatic insects dart around the surface of the ponds, feeding fish, tadpoles and baby turtles. The babies are my very favorite part of spring! I’ve been lucky enough to encounter several ducklings on my last couple of visits. Their numbers have decreased, but the surviving ducklings are getting bigger and depending less on their mothers. I saw one today swimming by itself looking for food. It’s still pretty fuzzy and cute!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
A duckling – how precious!
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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

I was also able to photograph a dragonfly. If you’ve ever tried, you know it can be very frustrating! They scare so easily and it’s so hard to get up close. The key is definitely patience. Dragonflies are very territorial and will always come back to the same perch or one near it. If you keep at it, you will be able to catch a couple of shots of one.

Once I had gathered enough food for my insects and lollygagged around enough, I started to make my way back to work – but not without seeing the very familiar, adorable face of a squirrel. I’ve always loved squirrels for their cuteness and fun-loving personalities. They definitely have a way of helping me to forget about any stress. You can’t watch them without snickering a little bit. This squirrel seemed a little confused about what I was doing, but he gave me some really great poses.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

I really should bring my camera every time, as today was actually kind of a slow day for wildlife. I’ve also seen nutria, red-eared sliders, box turtles, whistling ducks, sea gulls, bull frogs, and tons of insects! Hermann Park really is a gem. It is such a historically significant part of our city and it is filled with so many simple, wonderful things to do. I encourage everyone to get out every once in a while to enjoy nature wherever it may be. You never know what you will see and how it can brighten your day!

Happy nature watching! 

Book List: The forecast calls for reading

From Jurassic Park to A Brief History of Time, some of the best and most influential books ever written are science-based. Long before students get to Steven Hawking, however, books about science teach them to explore the world around them and inspire a curiosity that lasts a lifetime.

To encourage this spirit of discovery, HMNS provides monthly book lists on various science topics on our web site. Nonfiction and science-based fiction options are provided at three levels: 2nd grade and below; 3rd – 6th grade; and 7th grade and higher. In January, watch out for the weather and explore the science of meteorology. The forecast for our young readers is Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. Older kids can discover How Weather Works and ride along with Storm Tracker and Night of the Twisters. Choose a book from this month’s list to get inside nature’s fiercest storm as well as the most peaceful calm – and see what makes it all happen.

Susan, the museum’s Director of Youth Education Sales and a former librabrian, puts these lists together each month. She’ll share her inspirations for each month’s topic here; January’s topic: weather.

Galveston sunrise
Galveston, in calmer times.
Creative Commons License photo credit: millicent_bystander

Many books that feature the weather are nonfiction, but one notable exception is Devil Storm by Theresa Nelson. Although Devil’s Storm is the story of the Galveston hurricane of 1900, it is particularly appropriate for those of us in the Houston-Galveston area that experienced the destruction of Hurricane Ike last September.

Theresa Nelson is another author I am proud to call my friend. The second oldest of 11 children, Theresa grew up in Beaumont. Even as a child she wrote plays for her brothers and sisters—as the playwright she could always give herself the best parts!

During her freshman year at St. Thomas University in Houston, Theresa met Kevin Cooney and says she fell in love with him because he made her laugh. Kevin, an actor, and Theresa have three grown sons and three grandchildren. I first met Theresa fourteen years ago when she visited the middle school where I was the librarian to talk to the students. From the time she walked in the door, I felt that we had known each other forever. I have not seen Theresa for several years, but if she popped in today we would take up exactly where we left off.

Theresa talked to the students about the importance of writing about what you know. She showed them spiral notebooks where she wrote down this and that—words and ideas that would later become parts of a book. Students were just as drawn to Theresa as the teachers were because of her genuine enthusiasm for just about everything.

When she talked about Devil Storm, Theresa told the students that the book is the result of stories her mother told. The Nelson family would vacation on Bolivar Peninsula each year, and inevitably it would rain. Can you imagine trying to entertain 11 children indoors before the days of cable TV and video games? Storytelling was the answer, and so Tom the Tramp entered Theresa’s life.

Devil Storm is the story of the Richard Carroll family, who lived and farmed watermelons on Bolivar Peninsula in 1900. In addition to Richard and Lillie Carroll, the family consisted of Walter, 13, Alice, 9 and baby Emily, 1. Another brother, William, died of “the summer sickness” just before Emily’s birth.

Moonlight over Rice Lake
Creative Commons License photo credit: Derek Purdy

One summer night, Alice convinced Walter to walk to the Gulf to see the magical moonwater, and their lives changed when they spotted a campfire on the beach. Soon afterwards the children learned that Tom the Tramp had returned.

Tom, a former slave, was rumored to be the son of the pirate Jean Lafitte. He carried a shovel and an old “sackful of secrets”. Tom told the children he had been born in the middle of a “herrycane—Devil storm outa the Gulf,” and he would die when the Devil makes “another herrycane” that will carry everyone off.

As the story progressed you learn about life on Bolivar in 1900. In early September, Richard Carroll – not knowing a storm was coming – took a load of watermelons to Galveston. His plan was to spend the night with relatives before returning to Bolivar the next day. The next morning, however, he learned that until the current storm passed he would be unable to return home.

Lillie and her children were trying to ride out the storm in their house when Tom showed up and warned them “Ain’t nothing’ gonna be alive where we’re standin’ this time tomorrow….” Lillie, however, refused to leave, so Tom headed for High Island, the highest point on Bolivar Peninsula. As he walked through the storm Tom thought of losing his own family, and decided to make another attempt at saving the Carrolls.
Will the Carrolls agree to leave their home? If so, where will a mother, three children and a dog go in the middle of a storm?

Trolley Stop at Pier 21
Destruction following Hurricane Ike.
Creative Commons License photo credit: P/UL

As I reread Devil Storm, I was reminded of the pictures of the Bolivar Peninsula following Hurricane Ike, and the story had an even bigger impact than the first time I read it. Luckily, as bad as Ike was, the loss of life did not rival the 6,000 lost in the hurricane of 1900.

At the conclusion of the book don’t miss the Author’s Note about the real Tom the Tramp, buried in a family plot in Beaumont with this inscription:


 

TOM THE TRAMP
He alone is great
who by an act heroic
renders a real service

Theresa’s other award-winning books are The 25 Cent Miracle, The Beggars’ Ride, And One For All, Earthshine, The Empress of Elsewhere and Ruby Electric. You will learn more about Theresa at: http://www.theresanelson.net/

Ike-ster…what a mess of things you made!

bye bye ike.
Creative Commons License photo credit: tiny white lights

Thus far, my previous blogs have been exploiting some of my old camp journals that are just collecting dust at home.  I’m going to be a bit radical this week and write about a recent topic rather than an event that occurred a decade or two ago.  Today’s blog involves some brief anecdotes I jotted down regarding the recent Hurricane that struck our beloved Houston early in the morning (dark) on 13 September 2008. 

When friends and relatives asked me how it went post-hurricane, without power and many of the creature comforts our society has grown so used to, I replied, “it feels balmy and tranquil, much like my old study site in Amazonia” (which, incidentally, will be the focus of next month’s entry).  A long-time friend of mine named John described the events at his house as ‘Hurrication,’ where the teens were forced to interact with the rest of the family through playing board games, consuming massive quantities of perishable food during marathon cookouts, and everyone generally having a great time despite circumstances.  With no power, roads blocked by downed trees and electrical lines, and lines to purchase gasoline not worth the struggle, it was a great time to deflate and smell what remained of the flowers.  My family and I went on many walks to cool off since the outside was overall cooler than the inside the house.  During this time we made various observations of how the storm affected the local urban wildlife, which I will attempt to recount below.

- Vegetation was mangled, or completely removed in many cases.  Huge pine trees with a diameter exceeding a yard were snapped clean off at the base like a toothpick.  The animals which depended on such plant communities to thrive had their lives thrown into complete chaos, through their habitat being mangled, or completely removed. 

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Creative Commons License photo credit:
BobMacInnes

- It had been a couple of years since we had seen any Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) in our yard, yet several individuals passed through after the storm, trying to stake out a new territory.  One pair even chased a large Buteo hawk into a tree in our front yard, where it rested briefly before being found and further harassed by the jays.

- We figured mosquitoes would be abundant from the rain that followed the storm, but not a one.  Most wildlife was noticeably lacking.  I was extremely disturbed at absolutely no sign of any of the four species of doves commonly found in the neighborhood, and you can guess my relief when they began to return six days after the storm.  It is very likely that many of the birds left the region well in advance of the storm.  Wildlife seems to have an internal barometric gauge.  For example, prior to the massive typhoon in south-east Asia, much of the wildlife left the coastal forest for the higher interior forest.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: mandj98

- Whereas some wildlife left prior to the storm, other species stayed and were noticeably more active.  An unusually high number of Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa sp.) were all over our house gardens, perhaps trying to find new resources since their former founts were now gone.  Similarly, displaced Fox Squirrels (Sciurus niger) were actively scurrying about in search of a new dwelling in light of the huge piles of fallen trees and limbs.

- A Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta) was found dead on the road on the corner of Haddon and Morse.  These aquatic turtles are not native to this region, but introduced through the pet trade.  The fact that it was at least a mile or two from Buffalo Bayou was amazing.  All the rain and mild flooding that followed the tail end of the storm may have transported this turtle from the bayou to the suburbs, where it sadly met its death.  We knew it was a young turtle, as the carapace (upper shell) was only 12.5 cm (5 inches) in diameter.

- Another casualty from the storm involved a flock of approximately 20 House Sparrows (Passer domesticus).  These were all over the sidewalk of a small alley by a Marble Slab ice cream shop in a strip shopping center near our house.  Perhaps they had taken cover in the only thing they were able to find once the storm got really rough, where they sadly met their death.  Like the turtle mentioned above, these non-migratory (i.e., annual resident) birds were also introduced to the U.S.

Without a doubt, for me personally, the most unfortunate aspect of Ike’s wrath was the devastation it did to various reserves that are crucial to migrating Neotropical songbirds.  High Island, Bolivar Peninsula, Sabine Woods and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge are only a few of these sites that were hit really hard.  However, with time and effort by loyal volunteers, these refuges will again be hotspots for Neotropical avian migrants passing through our beloved state of Texas.

-D.B., 13 October 2008
(1 month after Ike hit)

Beyond the Bones: ABC-13 features Leonardo in 30-minute special

Ack! Paleontologists often take their lives in their
hands to get to fossils. In this shot, they’re looking
at some T. rex fossils on a two-foot ledge that’s
hanging over a 100-foot drop.

Thanks to Hurricane Ike, most of us were still without power when the Discovery Channel aired their documentary about Leonardo, the mummified dinosaur.

Luckily, a local ABC news crew came along on our recent trip to Malta, MT (it’s quite a trek) to see Leonardo, the mummy dinosaur, and venture out to the very remote site (about 2 hours outside a town that is 4 hours from the closest city) where this famous dinosaur was discovered.

It was an amazing experience – and ABC captured it all for their newest 30-minute special, Beyond the Bones: Dinosaur Mummy CSI, airing tomorrow night – Saturday, Oct 4 – after the 10 p.m. news. They braved the elements, trekked to the top of the highest cliffs, risked the ire of some very enthusiastic cows – and even hung outside of vehicles to bring you the story of an extraordinary 77-million year old duckbill dinosaur. If it sounds dramatic – that’s because it was.

Now that’s commitment.

As a photo, this is kind ofimpressive – in the sense that nowadays, anyone who doesn’t wear a seatbelt is perceived as a crazed loon. But I was in the car in front of this one – and what you don’t see is the foot-thick mud we’re fish-tailing through, the 200-foot cliff that’s only slightly to the left of this frame, the forty-degree incline of the hill and the pouring rain that’s obscuring all of the drivers’ vision. I felt like a crazed loon just for being there, and I was buckled in, windows up with a white-knuckle grip on the hang-bar. Mike (holding the camera) is just crazy-awesome – and I can’t wait to see the shots he got.

Art Rascon interviews paleontologist Mark Thompson,
who was on the dig that uncovered Leonardo.

The rain and the mud were so bad that only extremely tough vehicles could make it through to the site where Leonardo was discovered – which is located in one of many, many almost unbelievably gorgeous ravines that – out of nowhere – just fall away from solid ground. (It’s a good idea to watch where you’re going.)

It’s actually pretty tough to get there in normal conditions – so, our transport options were limited. When Mark, one of the paleontologists who was there when Leonardo was uncovered, jumped in the back to ride down to the site – Art and Mike rode with him to get an interview along the way. (Notice I am taking this photo from the safety of the car’s interior). This shot really does not do justice to the madness of trying to avoid being thrown from a vehicle that’s descending 40 degree, unpaved inclines littered with boulders – in the rain.

You can get in on the action – which covers everything from Leonardo’s life 77 million years ago and the site of his unexpected discovery in Montana to behind-the-scenes shots of the exhibit in Houston and the second hurricane Leonardo experienced – when ABC airs the special this Saturday night. Tune in – and come by to see Leonardo for yourself; he’s in Houston through Jan. 11, 2009.