Monday, April 30, 2012

You just happen to be the most beautiful bird in the world

Painted Bunting at bird sanctuary south of Freeport, Tx - Quintana
Yes, I am in love with a particular bird species, Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) that migrates through the Gulf Coast area and includes parts of Southeast Texas in its nesting range. I never see enough of these birds. To see a flock of them together is an outstanding sight for anyone. They tend to be reclusive within a natural habitat, so one may not see them even though they are within a few feet. Notice the eye, a very remarkable feature that ties its breast colors to its eye. Its markings are clear and distinct.
Male Painted Bunting about to take a bath
Not an extremely small bird, but not a large either, they are easily seen because of their vivid colors. The beauty of these birds is one reason they are on the decline. It is against the law to take them into captivity, yet people do that because it seems a cheap way to get a pet bird without having to spend the money at the pet store. Their diminishing numbers are probably due mostly to the lack of habitat rather than pet keepers, so we will focus here on what we can do to improve their numbers. Similar reason but very different approach than Bluebirds, many of us would like to improve the bird's chances of survival by providing more habitat. It's habitat has been diminishing for many reasons, mostly caused by man taking it away for farming and community development, but also the coastal prairies which provide a natural habitat are on the decline with heavy infestation by the banned-for-sale Chinese Tallow. This bird loves the prairie grasses. I watched them feed on the grasses in this sanctuary on the coast. They would disappear for an hour in the brush and come out to get a drink now and then.
On the edge of a feeding area (behind him)
A Painted Bunting would come into our yards and perhaps nest if we had brush such as this with seeded grasses and plenty riparian (term to describe insects and seed fit for many species) food. To attract a Painted bunting into your yard, you need food on the ground in brush with plenty of cover for them to hide in, preferably a distance from the house. They will come to feed out of a feeder if kept away from the house, as well. They are particularly attracted to running water, not a drip, but something stronger like a waterfall or running stream.
Water attraction - fast moving water with calm places to bathe
The Painted Bunting is a Neo-tropical bird, the generic class of bird indicating it nests in North America but migrates to the tropics for the winter. Not all individuals necessarily do that, but in general, they do.
Daddy bird was dirty, mama bird came to supervise - sound familiar?
The female is light green in color and the juvenile is grayish with a tinge of color. They stay together as a mated pair through nesting, fledgling and migration.
Drink and then bathe
Yaupon is a good native bush to have in your yard for attracting this species, but do not trim the bushes; leave the low growth, because the birds will nest low to the ground. As a result, the nest and feeding areas need plenty of protection from enemies like cats and other predators. Let wildflowers and other plants produce seed in abundance to attract them. You can ground feed by a feeder low to the ground or on the ground in a private, bushy area.
Attitude attitude!

This is a territorial bird known to even kill others of its species in its territory.  From 1966 to 2000, the population declined by an average of 2.7% each year. Since 2000, annual spotting records indicate a continued decline. Assuming the same average decline rate, that would make the Painted Bunting population reduced by about 75% since 1966. They are on the watch list and have been for some time. They need our assistance, so they don't get on the endangered list.  

1. Painted Buntings
2. Audubon Watch List - Painted Bunting
3. Special site just for this species
4. Attracting Painted Buntings to your yard

Friday, January 6, 2012

Social Behavior of Trees - communities of the forest

Apparently, more accurate and deeper knowledge is leading us towards an understanding of how trees interact among themselves and unite for the benefit of the whole.A rudimentary social behavior has been observed recently in studies of forest trees. Using their roots systems, a forest "community" has a natural way of survival by exploiting fungi to communicate among themselves. Where there is need, but in a healthy network, nutrients are shared among trees. So the microcosm of a tree stand, or the ecosystem of an area has trees playing certain roles. This video show the results of recent studies where a "mother tree" shares resources to younger ones in the area, irrespective of species. This concept is extremely interesting and can explain some of the strange things that can happen in a forest ecosystem. This is new knowledge, something to watch in the future, as we try to protect our ecosystems. Planting a couple of trees in the front yard of newly built homes just doesn't do the trees justice. Our planting habits tend to be like a zoo for trees. "There's a good spot. It will look good there." We need to change to consider the social behavior benefits of trees in a forest ecology network.

We are about to embark on another cycle of planting trees.I will keep this in mind as I plan my reforestation. Just think, assuming this is correct which I truly believe, we have destroyed the forest and expect our trees to survive a drought when their social infrastructure has been destroyed. The Woodlands Texas needs to better understand the relationships among our trees to be able to comprehend what it means to humans to live in the forest and to maintain a healthy tall canopy and a diverse ecology below it. Our motive is visual but our tactics need to be focused on their health.

The Mother Tree of the Forest , Prof. Suzanne Simard talks about Mother trees
Video by: Dan McKinney; Producer: Julia Dordel, 2011

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Wildfire North of Jefferson and Marshall Texas

If you are familiar with the deep Texas forests, chances are you have been among the pines of this farming community north of Jefferson. Yesterday when these photos were taken, the fire appeared to be headed directly for Jefferson, but overnight it apparently veered off. At the time of this writing, the fire had consumed more than 30000 acres and is continuing on its trek to destroy everything in its path.
Wildfire next to I59 in the woods
Volunteer Fire Departments are very busy
As in other areas of Texas, the residents here have been facing wildfires during this awful drought and heat this summer. Tropical Storm Lee added to the frustration and fear among the people here, as it brought strong dry wind from the north to exacerbate this summer's problems. Firefighting resources are scarce as almost every firefighter and truck is deployed to a fire. The age of some of the trucks appear to be some 50 years old or more. You see tractors and people moving about and guarding homes, ready to use their equipment to save homes and lives, but not anxious to expend their precious resources to save trees or actually fight the fire.
Traffic passes by as flames shoot up within a few feet of the pavement 
Smoke and more smoke billow into the wind, especially when the fires consumes non-forest material, like a house. A distinct dark change in color from a grey will occur. Utility companies turn off electricity in the path of the wildfire to prevent additional issues. I was under a power line taking some photos when a resident warned me of the line and said that I needed to remove myself from under the line, because the fire was threatening to bring the line down. I moved, because you never can depend on the power being shut off.
Power lines above the fire
The fire develops from the dry grass in this area and then the dry limbs and pine straw catch fire under the trees. On the trees and bushes themselves, you find dry, dead pine leaves which burst into flames and will at times even reach the tops of the trees. I saw several trees on fire where the straw brought the flame to a dead limb, which in turn, became fuel for an even hotter fire.
Flames are noted on some of these trees - click to enlarge
Families were everywhere, watching the fire and hoping they would not have to leave their homes. One young girl of about 13 was watering the grass in front of their house on the other side of the highway to prevent easy kindled fire and thereby risk the loss of her home. Just a few yards away, the home was in danger if the fire would jump the highway. A fire will jump the highway and as one resident said, the winds of a fire are not predictable, because it generates its own wind. A fire can move faster than a human can run in some cases and it lifts embers into the air to fall in a location, normally downwind. That is why we often have multiple fires in an area and why a fire often crosses a fire line intended to box it in and force it to die. In the fire itself, if a wooden object above the flames reaches 572 degrees, it will flash without touching the flame. Keeping the fire cool and the air below this temperature is sometimes very challenging. Most of what I was observing did not reach critical temperatures needed for spontaneous combustion.
Helicopter helping by dropping water to cool the fire
There were no winged craft to drop chemicals on this fire, but one helicopter was deployed to drop water on the fire. There were dozens of firetrucks deployed on the fire, along with volunteers and law officers directing traffic.
Smoke can make a forest totally obscure and blinding
Visibility is greatly reduced in a fire zone. As the sun set, I could see less and less of the highway. The smell of the smoke was difficult to manage. I coughed and had a terrible headache after I finally arrived at my home in The Woodlands that night. I could smell smoke there also, from local fires in Montgomery County. 
Marshall was miles removed from the threat but not the smoke
Marshall seemed under siege by the smoke, although people moved about as normal. They were downwind and somewhat threatened by the movement of the wildfire but no direct danger unless the fire crossed highways and moved in direction. I saw many local people congregate at businesses nearby, wondering if they would be directly involved. I could tell from hand gestures that the fire was the main topic of discussion.
The silver lining - beautiful landscape from smoke as a light filter
Smoke covered the countryside and settled in valleys among the East Texas hills. It was a totally clear day - no clouds at all and no rain for sure! We were on the backside of the Tropical Depression that was moving to the east coast. 
A structure still burns after the grass fire in the wake of the wildfire
There were cattle in the fields just 1/2 mile downwind when I arrived. The were gone from the field when I left, as the fire continued its trek towards their farm. I assumed the cattle had been evacuated or at least moved to a nearby safer place.

I asked an attendant at a nearby gasoline station what she would do if the fire made it to her place of work. She said "run!", meaning of course that she was going to make sure she would be safe!

Related Links and articles:
+ How Stuff Works - Wildfires
+ Wildfire in Dyer Mill, Texas 
+ Forest under Stress
+ Jefferson Fire -
+ Texas Forest Fire Activity (map) 
+ "More Texas Wildfires" by The Atlantic  

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ponds under stress

Bald Cypress near pond
Among the several ecosystems in The Woodlands Texas having to endure the extreme drought of 2011 is the pond. Some of our ponds have Cypress trees like these along the banks. Others have various other types of trees. The Cypress is made to withstand a drought. Although its roots are shallow, it has a built-in defense to hibernate in the summer. This summer is no exception, but it was much earlier and for a longer duration. These trees I personally planted several years ago. They are benefactors of artificial grass watering, as well as nearby water. However, the pond has retreated several feet this summer and caused a stress that these trees had not known before.
Struggling Bald Cypress further from shoreline
Residents and outside visitors who frequent this pond remark about the low water level. They also note the  trees are barely making it this year. In fact, the Parks Dept destroyed at least 8 small trees in the bulrushes, apparently thinking the trees were already dead, when they mowed down the bulrushes. I was glad to see this conspicuous one (which I planted first) still remaining. We all are praying for rain.
Mowed bulrushes and pond ecosystem on left behind homes
This area has long been the home of many turtles, frogs, a water bird estuary, a fish fry estuary, and a butterfly feeding haven. It is a very natural habitat that has taken about 15 years to slowly develop, with the help of the Parks Dept and neighboring residents. If it is not mowed again, it will come back alive once more. Plants are already sprouting along the bank and some of the reedy plants are coming back up by their roots. Normally, the bulrushes provide a sanctuary for almost every living thing in the pond. The bass lay in wait to prey on water creatures along the bank, their offspring feed and hide in the reeds, perch fry hide in it, and a multitude of creatures lay their eggs in it. The dead reeds generally protect the root systems of the live plants until the hot sun gives way to more temperate growing conditions in the Fall. Fortunately, we have an automatic watering system to compensate for the removal of the natural habitat, but that will do little for the fish, frogs, water birds and turtles. Some of our ponds are threatened by oxygen kills (lack thereof). This pond has a large surface for exchanging gases. Algae will take over in some years, so The Woodlands must control the algae. Now as the water recedes from the banks, the threat of algae becomes more intense. Without rain, our ponds suffer from lawn chemicals in water runoffs to the sewer system from irrgating the lawns. Then we have a more concentrated effect of fertilizers and insecticides accompanying lawn water moving down the storm sewers which exit into the ponds'  ecosystem. When we have our normal rainfall, the pond overflows, exiting through a back creekbed and thereby dilutes these pollutants.
Our parks with and without ponds are all under some stress. These four pine trees in this park near the pond have been recently killed by beetles, which have leveraged the weakness of the drought-stricken trees to feed and multiply.

It is not over! The worse could yet come. We have one advantage though, even if it does not rain for another month. The daylight hours are shortening little by little, relieving the sun's intense drying effect. But 102 degrees is still too much for the ecosystem!   

Friday, August 12, 2011

Forest Under Stress

Typical roadway in The Woodlands with "dead" trees in August 2011
Remember 2009-2010? Our forestss came under attack by beetles. Specifically, the pine trees were stressed by drought, making them vulnerable to beetles. We lost many trees, large and small in The Woodlands Texas, as did the whole of southeast Texas.
Pine casualty of  2010 - remains standing
Today we are in the worse drought we have ever experienced on record. It is super hot, with the temperature breaking the century mark daily, and we have had very little relief from rainfall. This situation has become more harshly evident in our forests in recent days as the drought becomes more prolonged.
Forest floor in George Mitchell Preserve covered in falling leaves
Conditions and results have been evident by wilting, leaf browning, leaf falling and a notable decrease in wildlife occupants since May.  There were no birds singing in this area at mid-day and not one butterfly observation today. The pines are generally faring OK, but the hardwoods are really taking it on the chin, perhaps as a knockout blow!
Southern Red Oak in green belt appearing completely dead, easily identified

In one part of the green belt I investigated, nearly 1/2 of the hardwoods appeared dead. Are they? Maybe they are hibernating by premature sap withdrawal, essentially making Fall in July and August. I checked species and believe almost all of them are actually dead. It is difficult to believe they would survive one more month of high temperatures and drought. I could ascertain two different ways the leaves died - (1) wilting and then curling up, like being scorched with a blow torch, (2) Browning like in the fall, with the shape of the leaf retained.
Curling of leaves reveals the withering effect on this partly green Elm

It just depends on the species and the amount of water remaining in the soil. Everyone notices and most think that they understand, but the reality is not always obvious. It is hidden deep in the forest. After I gave this a bit of thought, I started seeking more understanding of the competitiveness of the various species in survival under these conditions. It looked like Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest was taking place right before me. In some places, one species would be surviving. In others, it would not.
Mixed pines and hardwoods in dense underbrush

It is thought that the hardwoods generally win out in the forest over the conifers, but now the hardwoods appear to be not be able to compete in very severe droughts. The population density of the forest was about the same, size of the trees were large and mature, and the exposure to the western sun was about the same. There are many variables that need to be compared to understand the dynamics within the forest.  That includes the age of the tree, the soil, exposure to disease, the surrounding underbrush and the share of canopy. All of these variables are unknown to me,although I could have gathered some of it.  What is known is that all of the trees share soil proximity, similar companion brush, and similar floor cover. Most of the trees have trunks at varying angles to the ground further complicating the movement of water up from the root systems. There was no evidence of disease as evidenced by the bark being fully in tact on all specimens I noted. Fungal diseases of Oaks, such as the Red Oak, could be different in each individual.  The ground was not flat, so the small variations in altitude could affect water runoff and thereby availability of water, but I tried to correlate that with the dead trees and came up empty. I could find no one thing in common that could cause higher mortality.  
No dead trees at Lake Bedias nor in most locations in the preserve

In the lowlands near the creek, all the trees are doing much better than in the highlands just a mile or so away. The moist deep sands of the George Mitchell Preserve is significantly mitigating the effects of the drought. Although the drought is beginning to show its ugly head in parts of the forest, most of it remains alive. Wilt? yes! Die? mostly not, unless this extreme weather continues for another month or so.
American Beauty hanging on with fruit

The understory is faring much better than the canopy trees, but there is significant wilt to most of the plants, nearing death in some cases. I am amazed how well some of our plants endure this hardship. Yaupon is the toughest of all. Of all native plants, I revere this tree for its hardiness in recent winter and now summer environment extremes. American  Beauty plant has managed to produce berries this year, although not heartily as it usually does.
Palms normally living in coastal and forest wetlands are suffering
It is my belief that there is going to be substantial loss but let's cross our fingers and hope that we do not lose a high percentage of the hardwoods in our green belts. These trees are responsible for hiding our homes from the street and vice-a-versa, plus they help to absorb some of the street noise. These majestic trees are decades old and help provide us with the feeling of The Woodlands forests. After all, The Woodlands is absolutely nothing without its forests and inhabitants.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Wildfire in Dyer Mill, Texas

Just a few feet between wildfire and no fire at all
A trip deep into the forest and into typical ranch country of Grimes County just north of Montgomery County  yielded this little story of a big drought, the 2011 disaster in the little community of Dyer Mill Texas. Driving along County Road 302, also known as Dyer Mill Road, one passes through some tall pine and oak country, what I call the "country forest". It was fairly dense but not as it is here in South Montgomery County. Yes, there are many trees, but the under-story is groomed and just not as dense - but very dry and highly combustible. Most of the land is divided into small ranches and ranchettes, many of them with homes on them. Timber is contiguous from ranch to ranch, where timber was planted in rows to harvest someday. There are livestock being raised and hunting leases in this area.
"No Trespassing"
It seemed as if nothing ever occurred here as I first turned onto CR 302. Was there really a fire here?  I questioned. maybe I am lost. Suddenly my truck, cameras and I reached what appeared to be a town. As I rode into this less sparsely populated area, I found on my right a burned forest and on my left some green grass and homes, with people moving slowly about on this very steamy Saturday afternoon. Obviously firefighters had been here, busy confining the fire to the east and keeping it on the right side of the road. Now a video began playing in my head. I could hear voices, commotion, frantic movements to save these homes, which were evacuated at the time. In a couple of places, I noticed some burned areas in the forest, where no homes exist. The fire was here alright, and it jumped the fire lines on this road in these several places, but never next to the road. I could hear firefighters alarmed as they saw a new fire started in the woods nearby. They had to extinguish it before it raged further to the west. "Hold that line!", as a helicopter might have coincidentally flown overhead. Embers had been pushed up into the air, in the smoke and transported by the fire-induced wind into the forest. Response teams managed to confine the fires in town, but in places it almost got out of hand on the left (western) side. The line was to be held on the road while teams extinguished the jumps.
Some places were eerie with the feel of death & destruction
1800 families were told to evacuate this area, from the town folks to the country folks. 32 homes were destroyed and some of the residents said they could have saved their homes. Likely they could have in some locations but the evacuation was mandatory, because there would be no search and rescue teams. Firefighters had more than they could handle to fight the blaze and keep safe themselves. As it turned out, there were no casualties. It is my understanding that some livestock was lost, but on the most part, everyone managed to evacuate and almost everyone moved their livestock out of harm's way.
Intersection of CR302/CR304
I found two public businesses in town - a feed store and a general store. I do not know where people get their gasoline. I saw a few deer feeders in the forest, small service businesses and residents in the community. There was one particular ranchette home that is simply what I call "McDonalds farm" because of the diverse livestock and country atmosphere.
Typical scene in the forest on a ranch - some green tops, charred ground, dead trees
Although I had little contact with residents, I did talk to one lady who didn't want to talk about the fire but would talk about the people and area. There's been too many news reporters here, I quickly realized. She would imply just that.

Hello ma'am. "I'm just passing through to look at the fire damage and take photos of the area", I said to the lady. "Do you know where I can find some ice cream in this little ole town?" She replied, "Sir, this is no ... town. The nearest town is Navasota. And yes hun, there is a general store down the road. You can find some ice cream there." "Boy it is so hot out here, I remarked. "Hun, do you know how much rain we have had?" "None?" Nope, nothing.", she answered.

"Hun, I wouldn't do that if I were you." Taken by surprise, I replied, "Do what?" "Oh, go out there asking questions and stuff. This place is jittery. We have had some break-ins here, and people have their guns. I can tell you, I do and I am not afraid to use it!" I went on, "I get your gist. I am a native Texan and certainly understand that. I would not even approach a home here. I am just talking to anyone on the major public roads like yourself who I think might be sorta friendly. I love the forest, and so I am here to understand what happened here and picture it." "Well, just be careful. People will use those guns!" Ma'am, I certainly will. Thank you for talking with me. It's been a pleasure. I have to run now. Have a good weekend" "Hun, be careful."

So I did go down the road, got me an ice cream bar and then continued with my exploration of the area, but a bit more tense than before I talked to that lady. I was watching everyone in their cars cautiously and was fairly prepared if someone was to be aggressive with me.
In the community located at intersection of CR302/304, there are quite a few homes on small acreage and a few paved street neighborhoods. This is truly back-country, very quiet and laid back. I thought. I found the general store there caters burgers and has a few necessities to purchase. Other than that, there is a feed store across the street.  This community is fairly remote and sits deep in the woods. They know fire! They have to!
Fence burned in places, home totally destroyed

Another view of  where destroyed home has been cleared
Could not hold a line on CR302. Notice freshly bulldozed line.
Tracks of heavy equipment produce sounds of the struggle in my head

An uncanny solitude now engulfs the remains
Soot and destruction at base of trees 
Charred bark of pine evident when light strikes at angle
Beauty of remaining forest is like Fall in the north
But all of them are not careful, like one person said. "All we need to do is to get those knuckleheads who BBQ outside on their grills to stop. They don't seem to understand that fire causes fire! There was another wildfire near here just two weeks ago!" I could see obvious frustration. The drought has taken its toll here. People are selling much of their livestock, and some are even selling their property. It just costs too much to feed the livestock and find water for them in this year's harsh climate. Who is going to wait out the forest to get back to what it was? We are talking 20 years at least. The forest disaster coupled with continuing extreme drought is really pushing the nerves of the folk here. I saw some people starting to clear the charred brush out. It is a messy job. You should have seen me coming out of there with all the black soot on my legs and clothes! Yet I was told that business is just fine.

"What we need sir, is rain!" Amen, I'll drink to that !!! Good luck folks and good luck forest.

+ Google Map of area. Basically the fire was in the forest area north of the noted location.
+ Related news article from KBTX, Bryan/College Station

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Red-eared Turtle - common resident of ponds

Red Ear Slider hiding as it migrates in search of another pond. Note the red marking.
Common among Southeast Texas forests are small bodies of water known as "ponds". Inhabiting these ponds are the Red Ear Slider turtles. Typically there are plenty of plants and food for these amusing creatures to flourish. Like other reptiles, they require the sun, which warms and dries them. Their common name comes from their shyness and ability to "slide" off of rocks and tree limbs. Their anatomy includes papillae which function as gills to allow them to remain underwater for long periods of time, and a shell, which covers their vital parts to protect them from enemies such as a snake. Unique to the turtle is its ability to live for an extended time. Its vital organs do not deteriorate like other creatures over time. Longevity of the human body is being studied relative to this phenomena.  A turtle can be eaten but beware of salmonella, which it is known to carry. Their eggs can also be eaten, but it is made from a different protein than that of a bird. Note that it is generally not a good idea to eat something taken from a pond  located in a human residential neighborhood.
Red Ear Sliders ready to slide off of the floating wood

This particular turtle has been a resident of our forests for ages. Trachemys scripta elegans) is the most likely species to be seen in this part of the country and has been long long before man inhabited this continent. Eggs are laid in the soft sandy dirt of low-lying ponds and hatch without parental care. In fact, adults will eat their own young. Sliders will eat about anything from plants and animals to worms and fish. They will gorge themselves on fish waste (remains after cleaning for human consumption). Freshly hatched babies are popular as pets because they can be easily handled by a human without any consequences. I would not stick my finger however in its mouth. It can bite, if provoked, but it is not inclined to be defensive with its mouth. Its defense to withdraw its head into its shell. This strategy has worked some 215 million years to protect it from harm.

This Red Ear was in the street migrating from one pond to another
You might notice that the reptile is not seen much in cold weather. It goes to the bottom of the pond and waits it out, like a bear retiring for the winter into a cave. It is affected also by drought. In a pond, there is usually a balance of numbers.  It's population in a pond is founded on volume of water, which affects the ability of the pond to sustain life in general. The food chain dwindles with the reduction of water volume. Therefore, the turtle migrates from one pond to another to seek that balance instinctively. At the time of this article, I personally am experiencing an unusual frequency of sightings off the pond in abnormal places. Turtles can also migrate in order to find a mate or in search for an appropriate place to lay eggs. This year, the water's edge has retreated about six feet or more in the pond near my home, causing the normal vegetated shore to dry up and crust, removing the nesting habitat that normally exists. I expect to see attrition of our Red Ears during the current drought. There is nowhere to migrate to either lay eggs or to redistribute the current population.