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Houston Regional Group - News
Wild Refuges Provide Big Bird Pay-Off and Something Special
Brandt Mannchen

The morning was mild and the promise of the new day was partly cloudy with warm temperatures. But the wind, oh that wind. It was blowing! We made our way down and across southern Brazoria County and finally turned onto the road to San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge (SBNWR). I had promised a special surprise and drove past the entrance and pulled up to a locked gate. A whirl of the combination lock and the gate was open. We drove through, relocked the gate, and headed up the road for about mile and pulled into the parking lot. I told the eager Sierrans that we were going to visit the beautiful Columbia Bottomlands forest with pecan, live oak, hackberry, green ash, and many other trees.

I then pulled out my copy of "The Explorers' Texas" and read about what the pioneers said about the Columbia Bottomlands "The most expert woodman, it was thought, would find himself at fault for the want of such means as the forest usually affords for determining the points of the compass. What renders the danger still greater, is the frequency of cane brakes, or tracts of land overgrown with the long reeds of which we make fishing piles in the Northern States. These canes there grow in some places among the forest trees, so thick as to render a passage through them inconvenient."

We walked along a forest trail through the "Cane Forest" admiring the Large Live Oaks and the plant diversity. Birds, like Pileated Woodpeckers, were calling from deep within the forest and Ruby Crowned Kinglets, Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers, and Phoebes were flitting through the undergrowth. As we neared a boardwalk we saw in the distance several female white-tail deer feeding. They saw us and moved off the trail and then several bucks with about 8-10 point antlers came out and showed themselves. Finally, they scattered leaving us only to see the white flag disappear in the distance.

Finally, we arrived at the surprise. The largest Live Oak tree in Texas, the San Bernard Oak, stood in front of us. People were delighted and immediately we had to have a photo. After we admired the old giant for awhile longer we retraced our steps and drove back out the gate and arrived at the entrance of SBNWR. Even before we entered the refuge we had seen a Red-tail Hawk, Kestrel, Red-shoulder Hawk, Loggerhead Shrike, Killdeer, Turkey Vulture, and American Crow.

Now we walked along a stream. We saw a lot of small birds flitting through the forest but could not identify any except for a Yellow-Rump Warbler. We came out to a road and walked a short distance and came to a large lake. The lake was full of birds. More American Coots then I have ever seen along with dozens of White Pelicans, cormorants, Common Egrets, Rosette Spoonbills (pink apparitions that amaze you), White Ibis, Black Vultures, and Tri-Colored Herons. An American Alligator lay sprawled out on the marsh grass and slid into the water with a splash when we got too close. Too cool!!! The prairie yielded up Eastern Meadow Larks, Killdeers, and those impossible to identify sparrows. We walked along Cedar Lake Creek and enjoyed this tidally influenced stream. By that time we were exhausted and stopped for lunch, where we picnicked under a grove of Live Oaks.

Then it was on to Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. Boy did we get attacked. The mosquitoes at SBNWR were numerous but the wind kept them down. However, when we attempted to walk through the forest at BNWR we were swarmed and had to beat a hasty retreat. Into the car and on to the ponds! We hit the jackpot. Ducks everywhere! We saw Mallards, Blue-wing Teal, Gadwalls, Pintails, and North Shovelers. The Black-Neck Stilts were huddled together and crouched so low they looked like ducks instead of tall wading birds and Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, White Ibis, and White-Face Ibis fed in the wet marsh grasses.

Perhaps the surprise of the day was to see a Northern Harrier eating a bird that it had killed. What an impressive bird and what a haunted event. This was a great visit to the outdoors. Thanks to Megan, Hannah, Larry, and Nicida for all the great conversation and companionship. Thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for their management of our national wildlife refuges and for allowing us to visit the San Bernard Oak. See you outdoors!

February 2011

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