Grandchildren. They may be the most powerful forces on the planet. We have two located in Houston, Texas. Recently, Gini and I drove 1,000 miles to see our granddaughter perform in a play. She and her younger brother held us captivated for several days before we were able to escape. Magic was surely involved.
Texas is big. Over 268,000 square miles (+696,000 sq. km). It’s almost twice as large as Germany and Japan. With that much territory, Texas has an incredibly diverse geography. Exploring is challenging and exciting.
While visiting with our grandkids (and their parents), we took some time to investigate a couple of nearby wildlife refuges. This entry is about our time at Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, about an hour west of Houston.
This refuge was established specifically for attempting to replenish an almost extinct population of Attwater’s Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido attwateri), a subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken. About 100 years ago, there were over a million of these small grouse in the coastal plains of Texas and Louisiana. By the 1930’s, there were less than 9,000 birds in Texas and they have continued to decline since. Refuge personnel at Attwater refuge tracked only 29 individuals in mid-2017, most of which were hens. In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey wreaked incredible devastation across southeast Texas, mostly due to extensive flooding. Post-storm tracking could locate only five remaining birds within the refuge.
We felt quite privileged to observe a hen almost as soon as we entered the refuge property. Captive breeding is ongoing at two zoos and some local private landowners are helping out by allowing birds to be released on their land. We hope our sighting will one day be repeated by those grandchildren once they become adults.
The weather refused to cooperate during our foray into the prairie. We dodged rainstorms and the wind was fairly high all day. Despite adverse conditions, we found a wonderful array of birds, flowers and scenery. I complained about bad lighting as I happily accumulated several hundred images. (No, you don’t have to sit through them all!)
Typical coastal prairie habitat located at about the center of the refuge. Local ranchers are allowed to have cattle forage in the more than 10,000 acres of grassland. Grazing helps keep open pathways through the grass for young birds of several species.
Greater Prairie Chicken (Attwater’s). This hen surprised us by a sudden roadside appearance. She allowed a few photographs and took off toward the interior of the refuge in a straight flight just above the tops of the grass.
An adult Killdeer tried to divert our attention, using the “broken wing” ruse. We soon saw why. Three very new chicks were feeding along the road.
A creek crossing attracted about three dozen Cliff Swallows. Their pale forehead and dark throat helps to differentiate them from the similar Cave Swallow.
A new bird for us! With spring migration still in progress we were surrounded by Dickcissels. The bright yellow chest with dark breast band gave an initial appearance of a miniature Meadowlark. The smaller size and thick beak helped identify them as members of the Bunting family.
From a thorny perch, this White-crowned Sparrow carefully searched for seeds.
A pair of Northern Bobwhite stealthily made their way through the grass. The female showed her crest and the male was striking with his black and white head pattern.
The rain stopped for a bit and we were thrilled to have a pair of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers spend some time just outside the car window. They likely had a nest nearby but we couldn’t locate it and they weren’t telling.
Although the Savannah Sparrow may be common, it is nonetheless a very attractive bird.
At home, in Florida, we see Northern Grasshopper Sparrows like this once in awhile during migration. A subspecies, the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, is quite rare and has become endangered.
In this prairie habitat, myriad flowers bloom. We missed the “prime” spring bloom by a week or so, but were very pleased with those that were still showing off. Amazing diversity.
Texas Bullnettle, Drummond’s Phlox
Perhaps a caterpillar of one of the Tiger Moth species?
Imported Fire Ants are a huge problem. They were introduced to the United States in the early 1900’s from South America. They continue to spread throughout the east and south and cause damage to many crops and wildlife. If you’ve ever been bitten by one, you know what a painful experience it can be.
A White-tailed Deer pauses from feeding to gaze across the prairie. We really enjoyed our time at the refuge.
If you have a chance to visit Texas, do it! Whatever your destination within this huge state, you’re sure to find something to please your sense of adventure.
Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!