There’s life in the old log yet

P1080667

This stump of a freshly felled tree in Anderton Nature Park caught my eye when walking there yesterday. It’s quite sad to see the remains of what must have been quite a large tree – maybe it had become diseased, maybe it was getting dangerous. We did hear the branch of a nearby tree creaking loudly and a bit alarmingly in the wind, as though it might have been loosening, ready to break off. We moved on sharpish!

The path took us through a wood full of past-their-best bluebells. Most of them were shrivelling and going to seed, but a few of the fresher and younger ones still looked magnificent. Right now the ground under the trees is carpeted with ramsens in full bloom, looking like soft white feathers.

The tree stump was surrounded by ramsens, and along with the ferns growing there they formed a wreath of green life, an appropriate memorial for a felled tree.

Cowslips

Cowslips – yes, I remember them. They take me back to the summer of 1966 when I was supposed to be revising for end of year exams at Saffron Walden Teacher Training College. It was sunny and warm, so I went with a group of friends to revise in the sun at the bottom of the sportsfield.

The song around at the time was Lazing on a Sunny Afternoon by The Kinks. That’s what we started singing when we’d had enough of the revision, then some of us got over or through the boundary hedge and made our way along the adjacent disused railway line for a delightful ramble in the countryside.

The railways had undergone severe cuts in the 1960s, thanks to Dr. Beeching, and there had once been a station in Saffron Walden. I don’t recall finding that but do remember the large number of wild flowers growing amongst the disused tracks. One of these was cowslips, and it’s the first time I remember looking at a wild flower that I’d only seen before as a picture in a book and recognising it.

Of course, I picked some – we all did – and we took them back to our rooms in college and put them in water in a glass or coffee mug, feeling slightly guilty because we knew you were not supposed to pick wild flowers.

I also remember the delicious feeling of trespassing on railway property – there were “No Tresspassers” signs up –  but we didn’t care. There was no-one about, it was warm and sunny, we needed that break from revision and we felt we could do pretty much anything!

The name Cowslip may originate from cowsdung, as this flower grows in boggy or wet ground. Cow’s dung and the word “slip” offer quite a graphic descriptive name!

Black vulture, Turkey vulture

P1080446This pair of black vultures were hanging around on the trees by Buffalo Bayou in Houston while we were there, taking a walk one sunny morning. It’s not a particularly good shot with out of focus leaves blurring it, but it offers a clear enough view of the scaly bald head of this bird.

I find vultures fascinating. They’re fairly ugly and they have grim associations with carnivorous tastes for dead animal matter. I didn’t at first like their scaly heads until I learned that they’re bald and without feathers so that the bird can insert its head into the carcass and feed without getting head fearthers messed up. Quite a neat trick of nature really, and rather practical in a gruesome kind of way.

There are always plenty of black vultures around in Huston, and they can be seen wheeling overhead in gangs or, as we noticed on this visit, hanging out on the banks of the bayou. We once counted 21 of them on a dual carriageway road tussling and vying for a morsel of the dead squirrel which several of them were having a tug of war over. Those not joining in were watching from nearby rooftops. It was reminiscent of a scene from Hitchcock’s film The Birds.

Turkey vultures are similar but significantly different. They also have bald scaly heads, but theirs are red, not black. They are larger, their wings have white patches underneath (not visible in this photo because taken against the light) and they’re more likely to be seen in open countryside. They soar overhead seeking out carrion and have a keen sense of smell.

P1080539

When we visited Brazos Bend State Park, a group of them were involved in seeking out something hidden on the ground, repeatedly wheeling around returning to the same spot. Nature being nature. I took this shot of one of them and its red head is just about visible. Its finger-like wing feathers make it easy to ID. Trying to get a shot of them on the wing is always a bit of challenge though.

Since I’ve been back in the locked-down UK, I’ve been doing a fair bit of on-line singing with my choir and think I must have been doing too many vocal warm ups because as I typed the title  “Black vulture, Turkey vulture” I started saying it as a tongue twister – like “Red leather, Yellow leather”…….oh dear!

A day of birds and beasts

P1080567

Wetlands and Spanish Moss on trees, Brazos Bend State Park

Following our truncated stay and hasty departure from our visit to family in Houston ( to get back before all planes stopped flying, no other reason!) I’ve finally got around to looking at the photos I took there. So distracting and disorientating is this period of lockdown (what day is it…?) I’d forgotten about our family day out at Brazos Bend State Park and what we’d seen there.

It’s one of our “must go to” places when in Houston, so before our departure we had a family day together and enjoyed a walk around these wetlands. They are alligator- inhabited, a bit of a birder’s paradise, and they always delight us. We’ve seen roseate spoonbills, ibis, blue herons, bitterns catching fish just feet away from us, red-winged blackbirds and alligators basking on the banks.

Trees are festooned with Spanish Moss, noisy American coots hoot and squawk, anhingas (cormorant-like) sit with wings spread in the sunshine and large dark blue butterflies make their presence felt as their wings brush by.

P1080543There’s always something new to see, and this time it was the large brown furry creature in the marshy area, which some of our party thought was a beaver, some thought was a coypu, and some some just didn’t know. It’s taken me a while to get round to the ID job, and I had to check it out and do a spot of research too. It’s a nutria, which I’d not heard of before, but they’re quite common, are similar to beavers and are related to coypu, which are found in Europe. It’s the size and tail which give the answer – large body, rat-like tail. Beaver tails are flattened.

One down, one to go. What was that unusual bird with an orange and black head I saw lurking in the undergrowth? I took a few shots very quickly and managed to get enough for an ID. But what was it? I’d seen something like it before but couldn’t remember where.

P1080546Lockdown days offer more time to browse photographs. This bird looked vaguely familiar, so I tried a long shot and looked at photos I’d taken in Costa Rica, and there it was – a Crested Caracara. I’d seen one there. They’re listed as being seen in Texas, and specifically at Brazos Bend. It was quite  thrill to see this large bird – and not only that, on the way to Brazos by I spotted a male Hen Harrier (called a Northern Harrier in the US) flying low over a field.

This was probably the most significant sighting of the day for me. Hen Harriers are persecuted and endangered in the UK, and although I’ve been fortunate enough to see both male and female of this species on the wing in the UK, they still give me goosebumps on my neck when I do.

Footprints

Time in lockdown doesn’t have a great deal of sense, and it seems a while ago now since we were in Houston (actually it’s not), socially distancing ourselves as a family, ahead of the instructions of both US and UK governments, but we made sure that when we went out for  walk, it was somewhere quiet and not especially popular.

A walk around part of Barkers Reservoir in Houston was suggested – wildlife, not likely to be busy – and take care because there had been reports of aggresive wild boar roaming in this area…..a nice relaxing Sunday afternoon stroll then!

The name Barkers comes loaded because this was the dam, close to where our family live, that threatened to breach in the endless rain following Hurricane Harvey in 2018. This was prevented by a conrolled release of water, and although many homes were flooded, a major incident was averted. Thankfully our family’s home escaped but it was a nail biting time nonetheless. So going to see Barkers had a sort of fascination for us; we’d be able to see it for real, as it is now, controlled and surrounded by fairly unruly vegetation and thickets.

P1080521There were plenty of wild flowers to enjoy as we walked, some butterflies too, and we walked to one of the large ponds that are part of Barkers (beware of the alligators by the way) so the grandchildren could lob stones into the water. A few fishermen go there, but otherwise it’s generally deserted. We saw large empty water snail shells as we walked along the edge of the water, and where the earth was muddy and still damp, we started to notice animal tracks.

We guessed at what they might have been made by, and I took photos to ID them later. Well, “later” has just arrived, I’ve done some research and think we saw coyote, deer and raccoon prints (see above). If any expert out there knows what they are for sure, please leave a comment. I’m pretty confident about the coyote print as the long nails seem significant – and different from dog prints, where the claws would be more worn down from walking on pavements.