Friday, November 13, 2009

Woodlands Community Association Capital Projects marking an end to an era

Year-end capital projects will wind down the WCA's program to build new and renewed amenities during the last year of WCA operation. All of these projects are on track to  be completed by year end.

1. Additional plots in the Community garden at Bear Branch Sports Park.
2. Added pathway to connect the western side of Flintridge to the eastern side, providing a continuous hike and bike pathway along Flintridge.
3. New pathway to connect Indian Springs Village to Creekside Park. The pathway will be constructed from the pathway at Flintridge and Gosling, proceeding south on the eastern side of Gosling, utilizing the existing walkway on the bridge over Spring Creek and then proceeding to a marked crossing over Gosling to the entrance of the Village of Creekside Park.
4. Dog park to be added to Sawmill Park in Grogan's Mill, providing residents on the eastern side of The Woodlands with play space for their pets.

The Village of Creekside Park will be connected for pedestrians and bike riders via this new pathway, helping to integrate all villages into amenities enjoyed by residents in both counties. This will also provide easier pedestrian access from Montgomery County villages to the new YMCA, which will be completed next year in Creekside Park.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge - Butterfly Count

A nice day trip from The woodlands Texas for the nature lover is Trinity River Wildlife Refuge. It is one of fourteen priority-one bottom-land refuges identified for protection in the Texas Bottom-land Protection Plan.1 This particular protected site has great diversity of birds, butterflies, vegetation and wildlife. This annual event is focused on counting butterflies, as part of the National Wildlife Refuge Week., October 11-17 2009. This year was a good one statistically. There were 44 species and 1368 bugs identified.
Butterfly enthusiasts from the general Houston area participate in the event. Only a few people volunteer each year to help. The Butterfly Enthusiasts of Southeast Texas (BEST)4, local chapter of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA), sponsors the event.  Stuart Marcus, Refuge Manager 2 organizes and leads it. Those who assisted him are at various skill levels. All were enthusiastic about participating. Stuart Marcus has been with the Fish and Wildlife Commission for 30 years. He has been assigned to 5 locations, with this being his longest stay - 15 years. This guy knows the refuge very well, including its neighbors. I was impressed with his butterfly expertise and awareness of the preserve's ecology.

From The Woodlands, it took a little less than an hour to reach the town of Dolen, traveling 242 to H59, taking 105 from Cleveland.

All 25000 acres are located in Liberty County, about equidistant between Houston and Beaumont.  There are five public tracts available to the public3, but our little adventure was not a public one. We visited places in the preserve specifically suitable for identifying the diversity and quantity of butterfly species, serving as a comparable benchmark from year to year. These count expeditions also help to measure the relative health of the preserve itself from year to year.

The first stop was in a tall mostly yellow field, full of blooming Golden Rod plants with Ruellas acting as a host for the Buckeye. This field was only our start. I believe we identified some 8 species of butterflies here alone and several species in large abundance!     

This blooming plant is I believe is called a Ruellia, the host for the Buckeye caterpillar, larval stage of the Buckeye butterfly shown below.

The Pearl Crescent was common to see. It added to the delight of spotting traditional well-known butterflies amidst varied other, less familiar species.

On this day, I never saw one single Monarch, and only two were spotted by the group. Maybe they had already migrated or had left to the coast in preparation for migration.

The Common Buckeye was everywhere in the field. We saw many of its caterpillars consuming the Ruellas. We sighted 232 individuals, the largest number of any one species. A better appreciation of the colors on the caterpillar can be derived from the next photo.

In this photo, one can see the beginnings of the colors of the Buckeye which will be evident when it morphs into a butterfly.

Next we went into the deep forest to a long clearing adjacent to the forest edge, where one butterfly species was first spotted in southeast Texas last year. This time we did not find that butterfly, but chances are, it is close by and hopefully thriving in and on the edge of the forest. maybe next year ...
One of my favorites is this gorgeous species, the Red-spotted Purple which we first observed a few yards into the forest at this location.

Everywhere we went the Gulf Fritillary appeared. This male was typical of the newly morphed butterflies in abundance there. The male is much more striking than the female, but both are readily identified in flight. We counted 201 unique sightings this day, second highest count for one species.

We also observed the caterpillar of this Fritillary on its native host, the Passion Flower.

You've seen the Golden Rod plant here in The Woodlands. It is just beginning to bloom on the pond behind my home. In the refuge, these plants are everywhere in open spaces - along the roads and in fields where trees are sparse or not present at all. The butterflies use it as a food source.

This unusual beauty was the only one I saw, but he was a showoff.

Of significance to this preserve, is its rare bat population.5 The Rafinesque’s Big-eared Bat is quite special, so the preserve has taken extraordinary measures to protect its small but now thriving population. These bats typically live in cavities within large tree trunks but took up residence in an old broken down house on the preserve. To protect them from harm, two bat houses were built as shown in this photograph. One is  placed in the shade and the other in the sun to ensure success with this endeavor. Since these bats do not migrate, we were able to view them, because the houses are located near one of our count areas. The refuge is host to many other bats as well.
At the end of the day, we tallied our observations and parted our ways, to gather again  year to repeat the counting process. Additional photographs of this adventure is placed on the this website for your viewing. Some species may not be identified since I have not had time to finish editing the photo captions. I have to do verifications since I am not nearly an expert in the field of butterflies. Nevertheless, I felt this article was a worthwhile presentation to share some remarkable work and care of our natural resources.  
I recommend you visit the web page of the refuge (below) for a more detailed account of what is available there for a day trip from the Houston, Beaumont, Conroe, and surrounding areas. You will not be disappointed.

References and Links
1. Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge
2. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services
3. Directions to the five public areas
4 BEST (Butterfly) Website
Mammals of the Trinity River Wildlife Refuge

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sawmill Park in The Woodlands Texas

This is a relatively small park nestled in tall trees and has some nice amenities including a swimming pool, volleyball sand court, basketball court,  tennis court, soccer/softball field, large pavilion with eight tables plus a grill, childrens' play areas and very few picnic tables with grills. I particularly like the volleyball court.


Monday, September 7, 2009

Hike through Mercer Botanical Gardens and Arboretum

This is a terrific 300 acre park located within easy and quick reach of The Woodlands Texas. It is situated along the southern bank of Cypress Creek in Precinct 4 of Harris County. The Mercers first planted their 13.8 acre garden in the late 1940's. It was expanded in size by three purchases in the 1980's and 1990's and developed by Precinct 4. Click here for additional history. It took me less than 30 minutes to get there, going south on I-45 to Louetta, turning left on to Louetta, then right on Aldine Westfield Rd and traveling a few minutes to Cypress Creek bridge.  After passing over the bridge you can turn left into the botanical gardens for parking or to the right for the picnic, playground and arboretum parking areas. Just follow the signs. There are plenty of trails on both sides of the road for hiking.  Map.

My hike was very slow since I decided to do some photography in the gardens first. My first task was to photograph butterflies, then some flowers and finally some of the gardens. It was a gorgeous day with a little sun and a lot of moisture from the rain the night before as you will notice on many of the photographs. I will provide many additional photographs in a link below but for now will lead you on a short tour of the facility and explain what I saw.

On passing through the entrance, immediately to the right is the Mercer Center.  To your left will be the Water Lilies pond and the main entrance garden. It is here you will sign the visitor's book and if appropriate, the professional photographer's book. Reference books are available to purchase if you need a field guide; bottled drinks can be also purchased, and a map of the premises is provided free (you may need one). Click here for their online brochure.  It is a nice place to stop for a rest - air conditioning!  In the immediate area, you will be able to observe water  plants and various other plants where butterflies, bees and birds hang out.

Briskly walk the paths in the area and you will observe all sorts of creatures and plants. Most people stop along the way and take a close look. At this time of the year, the water lilies are in full bloom in the pond near the entrance to the Central Gardens. The Central Gardens is the large area in front of the center and gets lots of sunlight. It is kept planted with the varieties of the season, season by season.

I found bumble bees very interesting in the striking colors of the various flowers. With the great variety of blooming flowers, one also sees a variety of bees. And they are busy!!
Then the butterflies -  Sulfurs, Swallowtails, Skippers and more are easily viewed  among the assorted species of plants.  A Ruby Throated Hummingbird expressed an interest in what I was doing as he hovered less than three feet from my eyes in one garden on one occasion.

Here is a familiar butterfly to everyone - the   Monarch. It is easy to get the Monarch confused with a few others in the Arboretum, but at this time of the year, this is the dominant species among about three similar butterflies. A checklist of butterflies normally seen at Mercer is provided by Mercer Arboretum. Click here. Take the list and a butterfly field guide with you (or purchase one there) and you will be able identify many species.

The Sulfur Butterfly family is a special favorite of mine. If you have ever handled one of these, their outer covering comes off in your hands and looks like yellow sulfur, thus the name.
Or you might prefer to search out the Pipevine Swallowtail.

Or the male Pipevine Swallowtail may be your choice. You can feast your eyes on these beautiful creatures on beautiful plants until your eyes become tired of brilliance. For me, after a few more varieties, I was ready for the trail again. 

The botanical gardens are great, so as I trekked out towards the east to find the Bamboo Gardens and its pond, stopping when finding  some unusual flowers like this one, moist from the earlier rains and looking like wet paper.

And this plant. The "flower" of the various Ginger plant species has two types of blooms.
There is a Volunteer Center for those who  help with various projects and maintenance of the grounds. Click here for more information.

As I continue to hike to the right side of the gardens, following the brick path, I come to a place where I can veer off onto a gravel road. This will lead me to the Bamboo Gardens. I pass by the Salvia  and the Endangered Species Gardens, and through the Perennial and Rock Gardens - lots of butterflies and hummingbirds.
Finally we arrive at the Bamboo Gardens. This is truly a beautiful place with the Lily Pond, which was renovated after the storm, next to it. The Botanical Gardens is still recovering from the storm Ike, but hopefully the Japanese Tea room will be reconstructed soon to complete the renovation.   
Now we proceed into the primitive loop. There are several routes to enjoy. On this day, there is only one person on the path, jogging. I see many animal tracks in the wet earth - deer and raccoon, as well as a White Tailed Rabbit.  A weary person like myself can sit down on one of the many benches for a short breather all along these trails and walkways.

There are benches in several small gardens where one can sit and meditate or just read.

I pass by the pond again on the way back towards the center and on through the Lily Garden.  This takes me through the Prehistoric Garden, passing by a bog and through the Shade Bog Garden and Boardwalk (photo right).

Now we leave the botanical gardens and go to the arboretum, picnic grounds and nature trails across the street on the west side of the main road. This area also follows Cypress Creek but towards the west. Here I realize how big this place really is! There is no way to cover it all in one day - not for me on this day. I am carrying a backpack and heavy camera with the temperature about 92 degrees.

I park in the arboretum parking lot and start the trek along the creek. The path takes me through the Jake Roberts Maple Collection. Since I love trees, this area strikes me as especially great! Maple trees lined both sides of the pathway!

Now we head into the trail loops to see a variety of bogs, a swamp and various natural forest areas. An impressive dried up swamp of Cypress trees are in the Bald Cypress Pond (right).
A large pavilion can be rented for Bar-B-Ques.This is located of course in the picnic area, near the children playground equipment. There is parking here also.

There are picnic tables close to the playground equipment with nearby grills. This family park is well equipped and well kept.

Additional Photos click here - I recommend viewing them as a slide show using the full screen option

Mercer Gardens website

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Festering problem with Invasive trees and vines

For decades, a creep of invasive plants has been drifting north from the coastal prairies. I have observed this occurring my entire lifetime. When I was young, there were not many invasive trees, notably the Chinese Tallow. Now, there are forests in marsh areas, once inhabited by marsh creatures. The coastal marshes are however not in scope of this article. They are only examples of what can and will happen when invasive plants go unchecked. The Woodlands parks and paths have these trees, some in abundance. I am blessed by living next to one such park which demonstrates what can happen. We have a beautiful invasive tree population in this park. People like to see them in the Fall. They produce a lot of color. As the trees are allowed to grow unabated, birds spread their millions of seeds throughout The Woodlands. New trees are also propagated through their long root systems. An example of this propagation is shown in the leading photograph of this article. The little trees are on the edge of the pond and on this peninsula where residents sometimes picnic and fish. The tree is also very difficult to kill, and it propagates even when stressed. Some residents see this tree as a friend and actually take measures to protect and encourage its growth. If unchecked, in five years, the trees will be "small adults", about 8-10 feet tall. In 10 years, they will be full sized, reproducing prolifically. I have lived here more than 10 years now and watched as the population of this tree has grown. If we let it, it will eventually displace our forest, and we will be just like the prairie.

We do have an irradiation program, but it was designed for very visible spots, like entries into neighborhoods. The program replaces those trees removed with native trees. Perhaps we should prioritize this program and place more funds on it to get the job done. The other issue being brought forward here is the vine growth. We have a program to mitigate this issue as well. Mitigating the destruction of our trees by vines that grow well in the sunlight has been difficult. We have a contractor working on the program. It appears that the program is simply under funded, or just lacking sufficient resources to get the job done.

In short there are certain critical issues that must be resolved. Status quo in government transition may not be acceptable. We need our leaders to question these programs and make sure we have sufficient budget and emphasis to protect the natural environment which serves to make out community an exceptional place to live - in the forest.

Other resources 1Number 1 Enemy Chinese Tallow

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Gardening on community property

Do you know that The Woodlands Texas has a resident's gardening location and possibly will have a second one soon? Residents have gardened for years here. They wait in line for someone to relinquish a plot in the "garden" at the Bear Branch Sportsfields. The gardening plots are sectioned off and marked clearly to enable residents to have a vegetable or flower garden out in the sun. In the older parts of The Woodlands, some homes have practically no sun in their yards. Even now in August, some of the gardeners are working their little gardens. Some have trellises for vines; others have stakes, coverings and other tools to help them deal with the heat. Water delivered by hose is available close to all the plots. Sign-up is with the association, so you can access their pages there to see what the current process is to get a plot.