Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Birder's Lament

One of the most depressing things about living in the USA these past 20 years has been watching the destruction of so much wildlife habitat. By the time we left the San Francisco Bay Area, we had seen several previously beautiful stretches of land gobbled up by housing development. Then we moved to Texas, only to arrive during one of the busiest construction phases in Houston's history.

Six years ago we moved from Spring to Cypress, to an area that looked to be semi-rural. Guess what? Since then the area around our home has seen lots of development and is now truly suburban.

The situation over on the Katy Prairie is similar. Large chunks of farmland have been converted into houses, schools and shopping malls. Barker Cypress Road -which I drive to work - was a 2-lane road lined mainly with fields in 2005. Now there is hardly a field left standing along this road between 290 and West Road.

For a while the LSC-CyFair campus where I work was an oasis in the midst of all this development.
Unfortunately, a huge increase in our student numbers has led to the need for more buildings. The spring and summer saw large areas of the campus being turned into parking lots, while new buildings are currently going up on other areas that used to provide wildlife habitat. To make matters worse, earlier in the year the eastern edge of both retention ponds had to be removed and then replaced, presumably to prevent erosion.

So what has gone and what is left at CyFair?

The biggest loss has been the soccer pitches. Every winter the short grass on these attracted flocks of Savannah Sparrows (with Field Sparrows mixed in), Vesper Sparrows and American Pipits. It was also a magnet for Killdeer, Mourning Doves, Eastern Meadowlarks and Red-winged Blackbirds. No doubt some of these birds will adapt and move to other parts of the campus, but I am sure that they will not stay or reappear in the numbers I used to see.

Elsewhere, although significant areas of trees, bushes and long grass have been cleared or built on, enough probably remain to insure that we keep a healthy population of White-winged Doves, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, Northern Mockingbirds and other common residents. European Starlings and both Common and Great-tailed Grackles will no doubt cope, too. I'm glad to see that our Loggerhead Shrikes are still with us, but I'm not sure whether our resident Red-tailed Hawks have stayed or have relocated.

Our Purple Martin houses should continue to bring in nesting birds each spring and hopefully our pairs of Western Kingbirds will keep returning every summer to nest above the basketball court and on lightstands in the parking lots. I hope the winter will bring our usual flocks of American Robins and Cedar Waxwings, too.

The college Nature Trail has been greatly shortened but the first section - with two small wetland areas - has been left untouched. So this winter may see the return of Hermit Thrushes, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Pine Warblers and Vesper Sparrows. With luck, future years should continue to bring warblers, Indigo Buntings and other spring migrants to this part of the campus.

Because of the work along the water's edge, the retention ponds this summer didn't see the usual four or five families of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks nest and raise their young, as they did in prior years. However, perhaps they will return to nest next year. In the meantime, perhaps other ducks will move in during the winter, as they did last year. As it is, the ponds get the occasional visit from a few Black-bellied Whistling Duck - and we still have our resident Great and Snowy Egrets and Green Herons.

So we have lost a lot of habitat and will no doubt see fewer bird species in future years. However, I hope that the remaining areas of undeveloped land will continue to provide suitable habitat for a good number of birds - at least until such time as the college decides it needs more buildings and parking lots!

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