Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Tag: shangri la

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.

Osprey

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

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