Wednesday, June 17, 2009
In late May 2009 I made a trip to the new SHANGRI LA Botanical Gardens & Nature Center in Orange, Texas to see what it was all about. Orange Texas is situated just a few miles west of the Texas Louisiana border in the far southeastern corner of the state of Texas. The Shangri La facility sits on 252 preserved acres and is now run by a non-profit organization. There are educational boat trips along the Adams Bayou to view the interior of the bayou preserve from boats and boardwalks. I didn't take the boat trip on this visit but I did walk the garden trails and I was significantly impressed enough to blog about here on my nature forum. Shagri La had been listed as one of the field trips on the Texas Native Plant Society's 2008 symposium. Since I missed that event I had promised myself to keep the listing of recommended sites and visit at least some of the areas they highlighted when I got a chance. Upon arriving I was surprised to learn they had recently been chosen as a Top 10 World Green Project by the American Institute of Architecture. I'm not usually too impressed by man-made garden centers as I prefer natural and wilderness settings, but I was pleasantly surprised when I noticed their main focus was on wetlands conservation and education and a native bayou experience. It was really refreshing to see this new nature center incorporating the existing wetlands on the property and preserving the wildlife habitat already there. They pretty much built this facility around a preserved bayou area and one of the main focal points was the walking trail out to the bird observation blind. Nice!
The natural landscaping began right from the parking lot area where the short stroll along the walkway led past native beds of woodland plants and leaf litter providing an example of native piney woods this area is known for.
After the visitor entrance and main educational buildings there was pathways through various themed gardens like the Children's Garden, Line Garden, Color Garden, etc... Even for adults a walk through the Children's Garden was pretty impressive. This area was all about sensory gardening! Little handmade signs encouraged younger visitors to see, touch, smell, listen, and even taste a variety of botanical friends growing in raised beds at perfect 'kid height'. Really spectacular rows of blue bottle trees with hanging bird house gourds were amazing and they just burst with color everywhere! Martin house condos were erected in a long line suspended high overhead on sturdy support structures. Even on this overcast day it was quite a sensory experience to stroll through this section and it was definitely not just for children!
...we passed through an Epiphyte greenhouse with Spanish Moss draped down from tree branches and a curvy path leading past some gorgeous specimens of orchids and other tropical bloomers....
...A couple of frog lily ponds.............
...and the interior of the courtyard which was made up of WETLAND squares! What a unique concept! Right next to the picnic/concession areas were square pockets of wetlands with native wetland plants growing in them! How's that for an intimate experience with a wetland environment?...
...In fact, I think the central theme here was wetlands, bayou country, and waterways and I can see how it earned the respect of the architectural community. They had these cute little flowing water trough canals connecting one garden section to another throughout.....
...many native Texas plant selections and adapted plants as well along the pathways...........
...but the best part came at the HERONRY!....
...After turning down the path away from the garden areas, the trail veered off through more natural terrain and past more mossy-covered bayous and Cypress trees with their knobby knees jutting out from watery depths. Even before reaching the 'Heronry Blind' sign I could hear distinct sounds of water birds - and it sounded like there was A LOT of them in there somewhere!
We headed past the sign and into this little outpost building which was really a specially designed observation blind! You could gently lower certain board slats in order to observe the nesting birds out in the bayou without disturbing them too much!
I thought this was really cool and I'd never seen anything like it set up for the public to observe bird behaviors in a natural setting before. I was pretty impressed with this part and it really stole the show and sold me on this new Shangri La nature education facility.
This seemed to be a very popular part of the tour as there were people in and out of the blind cabin commenting on how beautiful the birds were the whole time I was there. This was part of the old bayou that had been here for years and served as a hatchery and nesting area for several species of heron. The nature center had now acquired the land and preserved the existing bayou, incorporating it into their exhibit! Neat huh? They made this section into a birding observation and education area for the public! What a great way to help local residents realize the importance of something they might see right in their own backyards everyday, and a great way to help visitors from other areas understand and experience the coastal bayous of south Texas up close and personal!
I don't know if I've ever been as close to a Roseate Spoonbill in the wild as I was here, and I'm sure I've never witnessed the nesting behaviors as closely as I was able to do on this day. A Snowy Egret carefully pruned while the nestlings sat patiently waiting in the precariously balanced bundle of twigs for a nest. The Roseate male defended his mate sitting on the nest from other birds and the constant chatter of bird communications filled the air as we all watched in awe of these magnificent creatures and wondered how those big birds managed to successfully nest on those skimpy bare branches. With the small slats in the cabin only occasionally opening and closing, the birds didn't seem bothered at all by the human presence close by. I hope they can keep it that way as more and more people travel here to visit the gardens. It certainly looks as if they are on the right track and I would recommend a stop here if you are traveling the I-10 corridor between the Louisiana and Texas border. It is only a short 2 or 3 mile drive off the hwy. and well worth the effort. For more information you can visit their website at:
Sunday, June 14, 2009
Finally I got back down (or up) the coast to Crystal Beach which lies on the Bolivar Peninsula to see it after hurricane Ike came through and devastated the whole area. It has been about 9 months since the storm of the century came through and wiped most of the beach homes and businesses right off the island. My friend had recently purchased a beach house and surprisingly it was one of only a handful that made it through the storm still intact. So we were invited up for a party weekend and of course I couldn't refuse!
While I was there I heard talk from a local who said there were about 250 homes pre-Ike and 28 left post Ike. I don't know if that's fact or not, but I can say first-hand that it isn't anything like it was out there before the hurricane of Sept. 2008. Pre-Ike Crystal Beach used to be filled with beach houses on both the beach and bay side and Hwy 87 which runs right down the center was fairly packed on both sides with a good assortment of businesses ranging from hardware stores to gas stations to tourist traps and a good splattering of bars and restaurants to boot.
Post hurricane Ike is quite different now. I had already seen pictures and heard the stories so I was pretty well prepared to see it first hand. It is still a bit traumatic when you see it especially when you remember what it was for so many years before the storm. The last time I was there pre-Ike I can remember the out of control development along the waterfront and how I hated to see the coastline taken up by private houses blocking out the view of the water. I can remember being in college and driving this area in the late 80's when it was just a sleepy little vacation spot but it had become a mecca for weekenders and the real estate business just kept on coming right down the beach, row after row, house upon house. It is a very different scene today. One day and one storm took out at least 80% or probably more of all that development which took literally YEARS to get that way. When you look down the beach now you see the Gulf of Mexico on one side and what used to be the 2nd or 3rd row of houses - now beachfront property! The 1st row of houses was basically completely taken out. The locals say it was the huge storm surge and the water that rose - it popped the houses right out of their foundations. (Of course, I'm sure the winds didn't help any either!)
They are re-building it all as fast as they can but even 1 year later there is still so much damage evident and so many houses that either have only the pilings left or nothing at all, just bare sand. I heard the estimated number of human casualties was finally totaled at 70 with 20 that are still unaccounted for. Looking at the scene, even post 9 months, and knowing the estimated numbers of residents who chose to stay here and 'ride it out' one would think there were really more lives lost than have been officially reported.
I've included several pictures of the beachfront as it looks today because I think it is just amazing what they are trying to do right now all along the Crystal Beach portion of the peninsula. In Texas you cannot build beyond the line of vegetation because from the veggie line to the water is public beach access. In fact, your home needs to be several feet back from the veggie line and I think 4 feet above sea level as well. The storm took out the first row of beach houses AND their property basically because it moved the veggie line back into the 2nd row of houses all along the beach and the water is also now farther inland than it used to be. Well. The people who had front row now have a partial lot (if any at all) of sand where they can no longer re-build. The government will buy them out for something like 75% of the value minus any FEMA money they happened to get, or they can keep it and pay taxes on it hoping the beach will return, but they can't rebuild that close to the water on public beach access. These people have been allowed (somehow) to come in and push the sand around, bring in hay bales and start building the vegetation line back out to the water so they can re-build out into the beach!!!! Can you believe that???? I could not so I got several pictures of it to prove it to you. I don't know how they are being allowed to grow grass out on the public access beach front but they are doing it, all the way down the beach!
Not only that, but a local politician (who lost his beach front home) has so far succeeded in getting some legislation passed that allows for an exception to the Texas Open Beach Act so that he can re-build his beach front home out in front of the veggie line! He is fighting with the Land Commissioner right now who is trying to uphold the rights of the public. WHAT A MESS! If he gets his way I give up on obeying the laws because poor people (or less than rich) are the only ones who seem to have to follow them anymore. The rich (or those with the political clout) just seem to get the laws changed to suit their needs.
But politics aside, I had a fun weekend, the water was spectacular and the beach, the bays, and the peninsula, in my opinion are more beautiful than I've seen it in over 20 years and possibly than I've ever seen it, post-Ike. It really did a cleansing. The beach sand has been taken from the bay side (where much of it ended up), cleaned, and replaced along the public beaches and it looks great right now. I do feel sorry for those who lost their homes and businesses, but I also realize that if you buy anything that close to the coast you know you are taking a risk. The storm of the century just might come your way - eventually.