Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Tag: orange (page 1 of 2)

Shangri La

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.

American alligator (juvenile)

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.

Beaver pond

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.

Water moccasin

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.

Fish crow

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.

Old house by the heronry

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.

The Heronry at Shangri La in Orange

Roseate Spoonbill watches over nestlings

Roseate Spoonbill watches over nestlings

Last week we went down to Orange to visit R’s parents. While there we visited the heronry at Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center, which recently reopened after recovering from Hurricane Ike. It was ridiculously hot so we didn’t spend much time at the gardens. Instead, we headed for the heronry which has a beautiful bird blind built over the water right in the middle of the trees, which are full of nests.

Great Egret

Great Egret

We didn’t actually see any herons, but there were hundreds of Great Egrets, Double-crested Cormorants, Cattle Egrets and Roseate Spoonbills, many of which were tending nests with juveniles in varying stages of development. We also saw Fish Crows, Northern Mockingbirds, and an American Robin.

Great Egrets watching the water

Great Egrets watching the water

According to Shangri La’s website, “Since the publication of the book Lost Horizon in 1933, the term ‘Shangri La’ has represented a place of beauty, peace and enlightenment.”

The modern Shangri La in Orange has managed to live up to the name despite having to rebuild in the wake of two hurricanes. But, rebuild they did, even using wood from trees felled by Ike. Perhaps that’s part of how it became the 1st project in Texas and only 50th in the world to earn the U.S. Green Building Council’s Platinum certification.

Cattle Egret and nestlings

Cattle Egret and nestlings

Roseate Spoonbill nestlings scattering

Roseate Spoonbill nestlings scatter

I got a huge kick out of watching the nests. The nestlings in the spoonbill nest had hatched about a month earlier so I assume they’ll be leaving the nest soon considering how crowded it was getting in there.

Roseate Spoonbill was a life bird for me, which is a bit ironic since the first time I ever saw a picture of one was in a funeral home. I’ve been to that funeral home down in Orange too many times and I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the painting of the Roseate Spoonbill.

It was good to see them so thoroughly in life.

Great Egret on the hunt

Great Egret on the hunt

I could have spent hours there had it not been well over 100 degrees out. I look forward to returning when it’s a bit cooler. Perhaps we’ll take one of the boat rides into the bayou and see some alligators.

Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

While we were in Orange, I kept seeing this fellow standing in a ditch by the road hunting crawfish. Finally, I stopped to take a picture so I could ID him. He’s a yellow-crowned night heron.

I love the name night heron. It’s such an evocative name, one that fires the imagination. Not quite as good as the Latin version of the black-crowned night heron (nycticorax nycticorax), which translates to night raven, though.

The picture here doesn’t really do him justice as his crown appears more white than the pale yellow it should be. Blame the photographer. The bird himself was living up to his name, which he claimed was actually Moe.

I also added another bird to my life list: the fish crow. I heard what sounded like a nasal quawking, but the birds flying over looked like crows, but the sound was definitely not the hard caw-caw. I listened to some recordings online and consulted many a tome to learn that I had seen fish crows, a fairly common coastal bird.

The Accidental Hiatus-ist

We did not wash away in the floods, though I’m still trying to collect two of every greyhound for the ark I’ve been building. Unfortunately, they are each individuals, so I’m only able to find one of each.

Mainly, I hadn’t blogged because I wanted to finish my book. I didn’t want to sit at the computer writing and not be writing that, so blog went by the wayside to meet my self-imposed end of June deadline. I made it with a few days to spare.

The manuscript came in at 249 pages or 66,ooo words. A short novel, called A Short Time to Be There, at least for now. When I went back and looked at the early pages written before I really knew the characters or the pace of the story, I found a few chapters and some scenes that I didn’t really need, so I found myself going with Stephen King’s dictum: 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%. When that 10% comes from the front end, things start to move better. Redundancies disappear.

I finished the book last week. The next day R’s grandmother died so we had to go to Orange to help with arrangements before the funeral. She died in her sleep at her home without any illness or hospitalization a few weeks shy of her 87th birthday. It was a tough surprise, but then it’s hard to imagine a better way to go.

On the long drive east to Orange, we saw a coyote standing on the side of the road outside Elgin. He ran when he saw us. We spotted a red-tailed hawk perched on a power line near Houston. A bobcat ran across the road in front of us in Orange. I never see that much wildlife from my car. I had never seen a bobcat before. The weather was weird too. Powerful storms kicking up while we were in church, where she was honored, and also right before the funeral.

My mind kept going back to Caesar: “When beggars die there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”

Of course she wasn’t royalty or even a prince, but she was noble. She would help anyone who needed it. She took in the lost. She never gave up on anybody.


Fenced out or fenced in? If I followed every barbed wire strand in Texas it would lead me to the moon and back and I’d still not have gotten any nearer to the other side.

A Very Special Holiday Weekend Hound Blogging: New Kitchens and Couches

For Christmas, three pups in one post each enjoying their vacation.

Joey checks out the kitchen, looking for easy openings…

Phoebe looking good on a red couch…

And, Daphne in a ball, doing what she does best…


Want to make a fast friend by saving a greyhound in Central Texas? Check these pups out. Or go here to find a greyhound near you. You can also go here to find out why greyhounds are running for their lives.

If you have dogs who need proven leadership, go here to find a cat.

Let’s Watch a Carl

Note: This post is part of the Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-a-Thon in honor of the tenth anniversary of Sagan’s death.

When I was a kid in DC, I used to love visiting the Air & Space Museum. I collected everything I could get from NASA and thrilled to the images that came back from the Vikings, Pioneers, and Voyagers. I also watched Cosmos even though I didn’t understand half of what Dr. Sagan was talking about.

What I did understand, what came through loud and clear, was that sense of wonder. That awareness that there were whole worlds happening out there. Here was a man who was humbled and in awe of this grand universe of which we’re only a small part. But here, too, was a man who wanted to know all the mysteries of the universe, who seemed to be seeking knowledge for its own sake and yet possessed of a desire to share that knowledge as if in sharing it he could fill us all with the kind of wonder that makes one recognize the preciousness of life.

I gained much from joining Carl on the deck of the Ship of the Imagination over the years. I found a love for knowing, not to be a know-it-all or to amuse friends with an impressive command of trivia, but for the kind of knowledge that fills the soul, fires the imagination, and makes us whole.

As an adult, I read Cosmos and Billions & Billions and was struck by not just his passion for scientific discovery but by his compassion for his fellow beings. One thing he said or wrote (I can’t remember) that has always stayed with me was something to the effect of “if we find life on Mars, then we must leave and not go back because then Mars would belong to the Martians.” It’s this desire for knowledge, this thrill of exploration tempered by a profound respect for and love of life that I most admired about Carl Sagan.

There’s another Carl connection in my life. When I was first getting to know the woman I would later marry, we found ourselves in a video store uninspired by the shelves of recent releases. Finally, she said, “Let’s watch a Carl.”

“A Carl?”

“You know. Cosmos. I love that stuff.”

I couldn’t believe it. Something in me knew that I’d found the person I wanted to share my life with. Here was someone who was as moved by the vastness and wonder of the universe as me. Someone who had gained at least a part of that from Carl Sagan.

I hadn’t seen Cosmos in years, but we rented “Blues for a Red Planet” and fell in love cruising with Carl on the Ship of the Imagination.

Thanks, Carl.

Good Fences Hide Their Spiders

A barbed wire fence in Orange last week. I never saw a spider, but there were webs on every barb.

Weekend Hound Blogging: Like a Band of Gypsies

For Thanksgiving we packed up the pups and drove to Orange where my in-laws live. It’s about 300 miles from Austin, right where the Louisiana border and the Gulf coast come together.

It was Joey’s first road trip, and we wondered how he would fare. He loves the car and the drive was fine, but he was nervous when we got to my grandmother-in-law’s house. There were a lot of people who all wanted to meet him, which kind of freaked him out, but he rose to the occasion and showed off with some precision peeing in the front yard before going in to inspect the couches. They met with his approval.

Over the next few days, Joey settled in just fine and expanded his fan base to include the golden triangle.


Fog in Orange

This was the view this morning from the end of my in-laws’ street in Orange, TX.

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