When my wife was growing up in Orange, Texas, Shangri La was a mystery. In the 1950’s, it was Lutcher Stark’s private garden, which he opened to the public. After it was destroyed by a snowstorm in 1958, Stark let it go wild and it became a dark and wild place walled off from the outside world. R has told me of the legends that grew up around the place and the stories people invented for what went on inside.
It seems that what was happening is that birds were nesting, alligators and snakes were thriving and nature was doing its thing. A few years ago, the Stark Foundation reopened it as Shangri La Botanical Gardens & Nature Center. It’s no longer much of a mystery, but it’s still wild.
We visited last summer when the egrets and roseate spoonbills were nesting, and I even got some decent shots of the spoonbills and their nestlings from the bird blind. This time, since it wasn’t so hot, we were able to see more of the area. One of the first things we saw was the above young alligator sunning on a pond near the nature center. I’ve seen the adults in the wild but never a baby and didn’t realize the young sported such a brightly contrasting tail.
The boat tour through Adams Bayou gave us a look at an osprey that kept circling over the water. I’ve only seen these guys a few times and never when I had a camera on me, so I tried. I was hoping he would dive, but he seemed content to circle.
Eventually we came to the outpost where there is a massive beaver pond that’s unconnected to the bayou. The beavers moved away a few years ago, but their pond remains, the water thick and covered in a layer of very small fern that from a distance looks like a perfectly planed layer of mud.
While the guide was describing the ecology of the region, the boat driver was busily collecting snakes. It was a little disconcerting how quickly and easily he found a water moccasin and a Texas rat snake. He released the moccasin so we could get a look at it. Its bold pattern surprised me, but he explained that this was a juvenile and they grow darker and lose the contrast as they age.
After the trip up the Bayou, we walked through the grounds toward the heronry. The fish crows were conversing in the trees and as we walked closer we could hear the sqronks of the egrets and cormorants.
Nesting season really gets going in April and May when you can see anhingas, cattle and great egrets, roseate spoonbills and double-crested and neotropic cormorants by the thousands. Things were still getting underway for this year and the first spoonbill had only arrived a few days earlier (we didn’t see him), but it was a thrill to sit in the blind and watch these beautiful birds. I didn’t get any decent shots this time, and in all honesty, I didn’t try too hard since I think it’s good to sometimes just watch and be.
There was a volunteer birder working in the blind to talk about the birds and their lives. He told us that in the summer many of the egrets and spoonbill nestlings fall from their nests and since they can’t swim, they’re quickly snapped up by the alligators that lurk below the nests. I thought back to that baby alligator and couldn’t help but be reminded of the old saying “the bigger they are the cuter the ain’t,” which certainly applies to alligators even if they are just doing the job assigned to them by nature.
This is the only shot of the heronry that I liked. The wrecked house in front is from the early days before that snowstorm in ’58. Those white things in the trees behind it are great egrets sitting on their nests.