Shades of Green in Turtle Bayou

On a work trip to Houston this week, my boss and I made a quick detour to Anahuac, TX.  Although we didn’t have enough time to drive all the way to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, we were able to stop at the refuge’s visitor center in the City of Anahuac.  A boardwalk behind the visitor center led us into the cool shade of Turtle Bayou, where it wound between bald cypress trees toward Lake Anahuac.

In the green light that filtered down through the canopy of feather-like cypress leaves, the bayou was still and quiet.  Red-eared sliders sunned themselves on logs.  A diamondback water snake glided through the water, passing underneath the boardwalk where we stood.  A woodpecker rapped on a tree above my head.  With no other visitors around, it was a perfect afternoon for wildlife watching, although I was enjoying studying all the wetland plants.

Spanish moss drips from the branches of a bald cypress tree (Taxodium distichum), and cypress “knees” rise from a carpet of duckweed.

Two types of duckweed formed a carpet over the still waters of the bayou.  Duckweed can form dense colonies, leading to oxygen depletion in the water below.

Looking out across the green soup of the swamp, I saw many of the knobby bald cypress “knees” barely rose above the water’s surface.  With the record rainfall Texas has experienced over the last month, I realized this was the highest the water had most likely been in a few years.  Bald cypress “knees” are actually structures known as pneumatophores. In areas that experience prolonged inundation, these vertical outgrowths of the tree’s shallow, horizontal root system assist with root aeration.  The knees transport oxygen to submerged roots.

The flared bases of the bald cypress trees, known as buttressed trunks, are another adaptation for wetland conditions. They help trees support themselves in unstable substrates.

buttressed trunks

diamond back water snake

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common duckweed (Lemna minor) and giant duckweed (Spirodela polyrhiza)

On my twenty-minute walk through Turtle Bayou, there was much to see — but also much to miss.  I’m sure if I sat quietly on the boardwalk for a few hours, more of the bayou’s hidden inhabitants would reveal themselves. What else hides behind the veil of green?

References

Martin, Craig E., and Sarah K. Francke. 2015. Root aeration function of baldcypress knees (Taxodium distchium). International Journal of Plant Science 176(2): 170-173. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/679618?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.

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Utah (Part 2): Arches National Park

Day One of our Utah trip took us to Dead Horse Point State Park. On our second day, we headed to a park that has long been on my Top Ten list of places to visit — Arches National Park. Our first stop  was the Arches visitor center to see the park movie. Having worked for the National Park Service, I’m a big fan of watching each site’s movie. You can learn a lot about a park if you’re willing to sit down for just twenty minutes and listen. After viewing the short film and picking up a guidebook on canyon country wildflowers (which would come in handy throughout the trip), we were off on our first adventure: a ranger-led hike through the Fiery Furnace.

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the Fiery Furnace as seen from afar

The Fiery Furnace is a maze of sandstone fins, hidden arches, and narrow passages between massive walls of stone. To explore the Furnace, visitors must either be on guided tour or obtain a permit (after having attended a guided tour). While I like to think I generally have a good sense of direction, it would take me a couple of tours before I would feel confident venturing into the labyrinth without a guide. The area is known for the many rescues that are needed. Without cell service, a reliable ability to use a GPS, or well-defined trails, it’s a wonder more visitors don’t end up lost in the Furnace.

In between leaping across crevices, scooting along rocky ledges, and practicing some basic canyoneering techniques, our guide, Ranger Leigh, told us about the plants and animals that call the Furnace home and their adaptations that have allowed them to live in such an environment. One of my favorite plants was Mormon tea (Ephedra spp.), a small desert shrub with jointed stems.

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Mormon tea (Ephedra viridis)

As the story goes, early Mormon settlers drank tea brewed from the plant, since Brigham Young banned caffeine and other stimulants. Ephedra contains pseudoephedrine, a mild stimulant. It’s not known exactly when the name “Mormon tea” came about, and some have pointed out that references from Young’s lifetime to the concoction are hard to find. The plant is also known to have been used by native peoples to treat cold, congestion, and other ailments. Pseudoephedrine is still in use today. If you check the label on a bottle of Sudafed, you’ll find that pseudoephedrine is the active ingredient.

sandstone fins

sandstone fins in the Fiery Furnace

Our next stop, Balanced Rock, is another famous feature in Arches National Park, despite the fact that it’s not actually an arch. The trail circles the base of this island of rock in a sea of desert scrub.

a balancing act in nature, Balanced Rock

One of the rangers told me that the wildflowers we were seeing were the most abundant he had observed in years. They certainly were beautiful. Both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks are located in the Canyonlands Region of the Colorado Plateau. Plants here are adapted to hot summers, cold winters, a dry climate, and strong winds. To conserve moisture, many plants have small leaves, reducing the surface area by which water is lost through evapotranspiration. Waxy coatings on some species’ leaves also reduce the wind’s drying effect.

a good year for wildflowers

common globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea), a common wildflower

After visiting a number of arches, we ended the day with a hike to one of the most recognizable and photographed arches in the world, Delicate Arch. The hike was uphill all the way, but with the stunning scenery all around, we couldn’t complain. After cautiously following the trail across a ledge that was fairly wide but had a steep drop-off, we suddenly rounded a bend and were stunned by the sight of Delicate Arch, glowing in the evening sun. The LaSalle Mountains, bright blue sky, and colorful rock strata behind the arch formed the most beautiful background. It sounds picture perfect, and it was. Delicate Arch was different – and much bigger – than any of us had imagined though. It front of it lies a wide, steep bowl, forming a sort of natural amphitheater that you don’t see in most pictures.

a different view of Delicate Arch

The arch itself is perched on the edge of a cliff with a drop of at least 100 feet behind it. Want to take pictures underneath the arch? That’s fine — just don’t step backward. I opted to pose in a nice, safe spot in front of the base. Many of the hikers had decided to sit along a ledge opposite the bowl from Delicate Arch, quietly contemplating the massive geologic wonder. Despite the late hour, everyone seemed reluctant to leave. I thought about how nice it would be to watch the sun set over this serene landscape, and I realized the other hikers were probably wishing the same. Without a headlamp, however, the 1.5-mile hike back to the trailhead would be treacherous, so with a glimpse over our shoulders to sear the scene in our minds, we turned and marched back down the trail.

Delicate Arch near sunset – a natural tapestry of green, blue, and orange forms an elegant backdrop

a race against the fading sun back to the trailhead

April Showers Bring May Flowers

Here in north central Texas, the bluebonnets may be gone, but some of my other favorite wildflowers are now in full bloom.

Lemon beebalm is known for the citrus scent it gives off when its leaves are crushed.

Lemon beebalm (Monarda citriodora) in the foreground and American basket-flower (Centaurea americana) in the background

Lemon beebalm (Monarda citriodora) in the foreground and American basket-flower (Centaurea americana) in the background

Indian blanket is one of the most common Texas wildflowers and forms dense colonies that often blanket roadsides and prairies. It is a hardy, drought-tolerant plant, making it one of the easiest wildflowers to establish, if you’re thinking about growing some. Lady Bird Johnson was famously photographed amidst a vibrant field of Indian blanket.

a field of Indian blanket (Gaillardia pulchella)

a field of Indian blanket (Gaillardia pulchella)

Although thistles are usually viewed as a sign of neglect of a pasture and can quickly spread and take over, Texas thistle is a native species that produces a brilliant pop of color.

Texas thistle (Cirsium texanum)

Texas thistle (Cirsium texanum)

Indian blanket (Gaillardia pulchella) and mock bishop’s weed (Ptilimnium capillaceum) bring color to a north Texas field

field guide

Some handy tools: my favorite TX wildflower guide book and botany dissection kit

Whooping Cranes

A few months ago, I traveled to Corpus Christi, Texas, to present at a wetlands conference. The conference was held at Texas A&M – Corpus Christi’s Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.  The campus is actually located on Ward Island, bordered by Oso Bay and Corpus Christi Bay. I thought about how nice it would have been to go to a school with a view of the ocean, and then I remembered — I did! For a semester, at least. (Read more about my semester abroad in the Galápagos Islands here.)

A field trip was offered as part of the conference. Since I flew in to Corpus the morning of the conference, I was a little tight on time and missed the opening remarks, including the information about the field trip.  When I arrived, I quickly signed up for the field trip without asking any questions about the specifics. I figured that no matter where we went, it was sure to be fun exploring the coastal marshes with other wetlands scientists. After lunch on our own, we (all the students/recent grads presenting at the conference) all met up to ride together. Once we were on our way in a big van, I asked where we were going. One of the leaders explained enthusiastically, “We’re going out on a boat to see the whooping cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge!” Even though I’m not a big birder, I was pretty excited.  Whooping cranes are endangered, and only about 600 exist today. In the early 1940s, whooping cranes almost went extinct when their numbers dropped to 15 individuals, according to the National Wildlife Refuge. The 15 whooping cranes that remained were part of a flock that migrated from Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Whooping crane pair

By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Flickr: whooping crane pair) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge serves as a haven for a number of migratory birds, although it is most well-known for the whoopers, as they are often called.The whooping cranes that winter in Aransas are the only wild flock. The refuge is ringed by a number of shallow bays, and the main unit is sheltered by Matagorda Island, part of a chain of barrier islands that stretches along the coastline.

As we drifted through the marina, we spotted quite a few jellyfish. One of the other students suggested that the large numbers of the ethereal-looking creatures could be due to poor water quality in the marina. Jellyfish are known to thrive in polluted waters with low oxygen levels, and jellyfish swarms have even been in the news in some areas.

the marsh

the marsh

The bird tour through the marsh lasted several hours. Our guide had sharp eyes and could spot a tiny speck in the distance and immediately name the bird.  We saw probably 30+ types of birds (at least), including cormorants, pelicans, magnificent frigatebirds, egrets, and a peregrine falcon.

birds

I resorted to snapping pictures through my binoculars since I didn’t have my nice camera and zoom lens.

Finally our guide pointed out some whooping cranes, standing hundreds of feet away across the marsh.  They were barely more than a white spot to the naked eye, so everyone crowded to the front of the boat and peered through their binoculars to get a better view.

whooping cranes

Whooping cranes!!

I was shocked by their size! I knew whooping cranes are large birds, but when I saw them in person, I realized that they are huge! They stand about five feet tall and are actually North America’s tallest bird. After watching the whooping cranes for a few minutes, we continued on. We watched dolphins playing in the wake of our boat and talked about our research projects. The birding expedition was a great way for all the grad students to bond before our presentations the next day. After meandering around the marsh for a few hours, it was finally time for us to head back towards land. All in all, I think the day made for a fairly adventurous start to the conference!

boat

If you’re ever near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and want to go birding, definitely check out Rockport Birding and Kayak Adventures!

Utah (Part 1): Dead Horse Point State Park

My love of hiking has managed to rub off on my family a bit, and this past summer we went on one of our most adventurous family vacations yet: a road trip across southeast Utah to visit some of the its most famous parks. Utah has five national parks, plus quite a few amazing state parks. Dead Horse Point is one of these. A short walk from the parking lot led us to an overlook with a stunning view of the Colorado River some 2,000 feet below, sculpting its way through a canyon of red rock that stretched all the way to the horizon. Against the seemingly Martian landscape (I could easily imagine a scene from the Martian Chronicles happening here), two Egyptian blue objects stood out in the distance. Looking through the binoculars (yes, we came prepared), we saw that they were some sort of lined pond.

solar evaporation ponds

A wayside exhibit along the trail identified them as solar evaporation ponds for potash mining. Blue dye in the water helps to speed up evaporation. Potash, aka potassium chloride, is used in fertilizer. Every time I hear the word “potash,” I still picture my Soils professor doing fertilizer application calculations on an overhead projector!

I’ve made a habit of taking pictures of interesting wayside exhibits. You never know when you might want to reread them!

Legend has it that in the 1800s, cowboys fenced off the neck of a spit of land bordered by a bend in the river (now called Dead Horse Point) and used it as a natural corral for wild mustangs. One time they left a group of horses there, which subsequently died of thirst in sight of the Colorado. As we stared at the gooseneck that gave the park its name, we noticed a ribbon of road crossing the dusty canyon floor below. “Wonder how you get down to that road? we asked each other. Little did we know we were going to find out in just a few days.

Dead Horse Point and the intriguing road

We had a picnic supper at a secluded table with a nice view (well, none of the tables had a bad view), then spent some time taking pictures. We had fun creating the optical illusion of standing right on the edge of the cliff, although there was nothing to stop us from dangling our limbs over the edge if we had wanted to. Personally, I prefer to maintain a comfortable distance from such precipices, particularly when there is a strong wind.

We could easily have spent the entire day (or more) exploring the trails around Dead Horse Point State Park, but the light was fading, and it was time for us to hit the road.

it’s a long ways down

my sister and I pretending we’re on the edge of the cliff

Read about the next part of my Utah trip here.