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Prairie Seas and Wooded Islands

 Fall/Winter 2016
 Prairie Seas and Wooded Islands  


Galveston Bay WatershedThe prairies and woodlands of the Upper Texas coast are one of the most biologically diverse ecological regions in the world. A vast area that stretches roughly from the southern tip of Matagorda Peninsula to the Sabine River, it is home to an incredible array of animals and plants. There are many parks and nature centers in the region that provide public access to walking and hiking trails. Other sites provide launching points for canoes, kayaks, sailboats and motorcraft. Streams, bayous and bays in this part of Texas are often cloudy and tea-colored. While not as visually dramatic and clean in appearance as the rocky coast of Maine, this "off color" appearance does not necessarily indicate a high level of toxicity. The color is due in part to tannins and other compounds leached from tree leaves and twigs that fall into the water. Other causes are the disturbance of deep, clayey soils that occur in developing areas, and subsequent erosion during heavy rain events. This factor creates large sediment loads during much of the year. In some situations, they can create significant ecological problems for our bays and estuaries, and developers should take appropriate steps to avoid unnaturally high erosion events. Shrimp trawlers also contribute heavily to the high levels of suspended particles in our bays. Many years ago, I spent almost two weeks working as a deckhand on a shrimp trawler. On some runs we would literally have to dig shrimp out of the clay that we pulled up in the nets - and this was in Gulf waters! I have observed the turbid trail of trawlers on our coastal waters, and Texas Parks and Wildlife has documented the damage that trawling does to the grass beds in our bay systems. They are currently working with the fishing industry to develop a solution that will preserve remaining grass beds, and allow continuation of a valuable coastal fishery. However, it must be noted that some waterways do have significant levels of toxins present, and people need to be aware of local conditions before they venture into the water.

Tattered and tarnished this region may be, but it still holds many secrets. White-tailed deer still roam many woodland areas, and can be seen venturing out onto prairies at dawn and in the early evening hours. Osprey are increasing their population levels, and there are some nesting pairs in scattered locations along the upper Texas coast. Two sub-species of bald eagles visit the area during winter, and like the osprey, there are a few nesting pairs in the region. Pileated woodpeckers can be heard as they pound away on old snags, and brilliant flashes of red can be seen in the spring as male cardinals seek a mate and defend their territories. Along the bayous, the bizarre cries of great blue herons break through the background noise of nearby suburbia. Various species of gulls, as if to add an exclamation point of defiance to the encroachment of civilization, add their raucous cries to the chorus. Even the wind joins the choir now and then, and alternately whispers, wails, moans and shouts as the parade of seasons pass by.


Out on the prairies, the rustling and waving of tall grasses evoke a scene reminiscent of gentle winds blowing across the sea. In some areas, mottes of oaks and associated vegetation stand like islands in this prairie sea. With a little imagination, the black vultures and red-tailed hawks that soar overhead become the elusive albatross of the open ocean. Dragonflies dart about in the warmer months, and butterflies struggle elegantly against the frequent winds. Prairie birds flit about chasing them, and as the seasons progress, dine on a well-set table of seeds, and a multitude of insects and other critters that are often hidden from human eyes. Wildflowers of varying hues bloom whenever conditions are right. In restored areas, they often put on a show that can be quite stunning.

I hope I have aroused some interest in the resource that is just outside your door. Join a volunteer group at your local park, or create one if it is nonexistent. Take an empty trash bag when you walk the trails, and pick up what trash you can. The person that comes behind you will appreciate it. And call or write your local officials about the deplorable condition of many of the roadsides and drainage ways in the Houston-Galveston area. These areas form not only a significant portion of the Galveston Bay watershed, but also serve as a habitat for herons, egrets, kingfishers, deer, and a host of other birds and animals. Additionally, they often retain significant populations of wildflowers, particularly if the mowing schedule has been developed with an eye towards prairie restoration. In the coming months, I'll expand the discussion of various segments of the great outdoors that make up the upper Texas coast. In the meantime. enjoy....the Outdoors!


 Phillip (Phil) Coker, Certified Arborist #PN-0100A
d.b.a. Madrono Tree Services 


 Phil Coker


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