Birdwatching

The diverse habitats along the Spring Creek Greenway (SCG) provide some of the best birdwatching in the region. More than 200 species have been documented along the SCG at such sites as Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center, Pundt Park, and Carter Park. The land and water resources protected by the greenway provide important stopover sites for migratory birds as well as places for our resident and overwintering species.

One of the most notable birds along the SCG is the Swainson’s warbler, which attracts birdwatchers from around the world. Other noteworthy species include white pelicans, wood ducks, and red-headed woodpeckers.

Butterflies

Butterflies are attracted to and pollinate vivid flowers, which helps with the reproduction of flowering plants. Butterflies are essential pollinators for food crops, including artichokes and sunflowers.

Many animals feed on butterflies and caterpillars, making them a critical species in the food web. According to ecology professor and author Doug Tallamy, it takes 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to raise one clutch of chickadee birds! The loss of butterflies or their host plants affects organisms that depend on them.

You’re bound to encounter butterflies year-round at Precinct 4 parks and along the Spring Creek Greenway! You can also visit the Pollinator Garden at Dennis Johnston Park.

Ecology

The banks of Spring Creek feature southern magnolias, red bay trees, river birches, black willows, and horsetail reeds, creating a rainforest-like atmosphere. 

Along the creek, visitors often see deer cross in shallow places and river otters slide along the bank, while raccoons, opossums, and many other creatures come out at night. The stream features a rich variety of fish and is the most pristine water stream in the Houston area. Pileated woodpeckers, kingfishers, and many other birds can be seen flying from side to side across the creek.

Edible Plants

“After all, what is life without a little wild stuff?”

How to Know the Wild Edibles

There is only one way to learn the edible from the inedible or poisonous plants – at least one safe way. That is to learn the individual species and their qualities. There’s no “litmus test” that can be applied to a plant to determine its edibility. Don’t experiment by putting weeds in your mouth and chewing on them. Learn a plant and find a definite reference to its edibility before trying it. There are lots of uncultivated plants in North America that were eaten by the Native Americans but are not now commonly used as food. There are others that are eaten where they grow in other parts of the world.

There are probably more edible, or at least harmless, plants in the world than poisonous ones. However, there are some very common species that are deadly. Many plants cultivated as garden flowers and shrubs are dangerous, although some are quite good as food.

Don’t go by what birds and other critters eat. They digest some things that would put you in the hospital, if you lived long enough to get there.

So what is the best way to approach this? Read all the literature you can find on the subject and find a botanist or naturalist who can get outdoors with you and help you identify the species. Stop by Precinct 4’s Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center or Mercer Botanic Gardens for a field trip. If you’re unsure, don’t eat it.

 

Carmine Stahlled a colorful and varied life – a wartime meteorologist in the Army, a Methodist minister, a leader of nature camps for underprivileged youth, a college professor, and a naturalist at Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center for many years who worked along Spring Creek. His passion for wild plants and their lore stemmed from his childhood in Arkansas, where he spent time exploring the woods and collecting roots, shoots, and tubers with his father, a country homeopathic doctor.

Want to learn more about local edible plants used by Native Americans? Carmine “Papa” Stahl, co-author of Trees of Texas and a former naturalist at Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center, graciously allowed Harris County Precinct 4 to reproduce sections of his booklet, Papa Stahl’s Wild Stuff Cookbook.

Fishing

White bass migrate from late winter to early spring, and you can catch other bass species, catfish, crappie, and freshwater drum year-round.

Texas Parks & Wildlife Department fishing rules and regulations apply. A fishing license is required for anyone 17 and older. To learn more about the fishing opportunities in Precinct 4, visit www.hcp4.net/parks/fishing/.

TREES

Research shows that protecting the environment – including the air, water, forest, and wildlife – benefits our health, finances, and quality of life.

Improving the quality of our forests and trees:

  • Increases real estate values and community pride.
  • Improves air quality and reduces pollution.
  • Reduces air temperatures.
  • Provides a buffer against flooding.
  • Lowers utility costs.
  • Improves health and aids illness recovery.

Top 20 Common Trees in Precinct 4

  1. American Elm(Ulmus americana) – Much-loved American tree, lives up to 300 years. Dutch elm disease, caused by a fungus, wiped out elms in large numbers at one time, but they are recovering. Leaf margin doubly toothed, opposite sides of leaf uneven. Wafer-like seeds eaten by gallinaceous birds and leaves browsed by rabbits, opossum, and deer.
  2. American Holly(Ilex opaca) – Evergreen tree with thick, spiny leaves. Red fruit ripens in winter, and foliage and fruit are often used in holiday decorations. Many species of birds eat the fruit.
  3. American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) – Large distinct toothed leaves. Reddish brown bark peels off in thin plates to expose the white or greenish new bark underneath.
  4. Bald Cypress(Taxodium distichum) – Deciduous conifer with feathery  “Knees” protrude from water to help aerate the roots and provide structural support. Trunk swollen at base. The cypress was highly prized by early explorers because of the wood’s durability, even in contact with soil and water; it was primarily used to build dugout canoes and bulkheads by Native Americans in this region. Massive cypress trees, as much as 800 years old, once lined creeks, rivers, and other waterways, but loggers removed nearly all of them. Today, people still cut them down to create cypress mulch (though many other mulches can be used). Many birds and wild ducks consume their seeds. The fossil ancestors of bald cypress (including ginkgos, sequoias, and incense-cedars) once covered most of North America. Today, bald cypress is concentrated in the swamps of the southeast United States. The photo was taken along Spring Creek.
  5. Black Walnut(Juglans nigra) – Pinnately compound leaves, 1-2 feet long, beautiful dark brown wood used commercially for furniture, cabinets, musical instruments, and caskets. The nuts, now used commercially (walnuts), were a favorite of Native Americans and squirrels.
  6. Carolina Cherry-Laurel(Prunus caroliniana) – Evergreen tree with toothed lanceolate leaves. Also called laurel-cherry. The leaves contain prussic acid, which is harmful to livestock. The seeds are eaten by many birds. This tree is widely cultivated and can be trained into hedges.
  7. Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) – Spade-shaped leaves. “Alamo” is the Spanish name for the tree. The leaves flutter rapidly and make a rustling sound. Rose-breasted and evening grosbeaks eat the seeds.
  8. Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) – Shrub or tree that can grow up to 40 feet. Oval leaves. Large white flowers bloom from March to June. Fruit eaten by 28 species of birds and a preferred food of wild turkey, quail, and deer.
  9. Loblolly Pine(Pinus taeda) – Needle length is between longleaf and shortleaf pine at about 6-9 inches and usually in bundles of three. Because they grow quickly, these were planted throughout the southeast United States. They are native, but more common now because so many longleaf pines were logged and replanted with loblolly.
  10. Mexican Plum(Prunus mexicana) – Small tree to 25 feet. Finely toothed oval leaves. Drought resistant. Found in Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and New Mexico (southwestern distribution).
  11. Redbay(Persea borbonia) – Elliptical, aromatic 3- to 4-inch long leaves used in Cajun spices. Found along riverbanks in southeast United States with rich, sandy soils. Crush a leaf in your hand and smell the fresh scent!
  12. Redbud(Cercis canadensis) Heart-shaped leaves and beautiful, purplish red buds in the springtime before new leaves have sprouted. Hence, the name “Redbud.”
  13. Red Maple(Acer rubrum) – A short-lived but rapid-growing tree, often planted as an ornamental. Wood used for flooring and furniture. Five-lobed leaves with a silvery underside. Many bird species and squirrels eat the two-winged samara fruit. One of the few native trees to southeast Texas that displays brilliant colors in autumn.
  14. Red Mulberry(Morus rubra) –Three different leaf shapes: ovate, two-lobed (glove), or three-lobed. Mulberry fruits, similar to a blackberry. Eaten by people, squirrels and at least 21 species of birds. Fibrous bark was used by Native Americans to make cloth.
  15. River Birch(Betula nigra) – Found near water, sometimes used for erosion control due to its fibrous root system. Bark peels into papery strips. Foliage browsed by deer, and seeds eaten by birds.
  16. Southern Magnolia(Magnolia grandiflora) – Large evergreen with large, oval leaves. Beautiful, large (8 inch) white flowers. Found in rich, moist soil of southeast United States. Seeds eaten by squirrels and five species of birds. Widely cultivated. Sapsuckers, a woodpecker species, love to drill holes in magnolia trunks, and the tree’s bark is often riddled with sapsucker holes.
  17. Southern Red Oak(Quercus falcata) – Leaves with three to seven bristle-tipped lobes. Variable species with intergrading forms throughout its range. Can cross breed with other red oaks.
  18. Sweetgum(Liquidambar styraciflua) – Five-lobed leaves, twigs withcorky wings. Genus name (Liquidambar) refers to the amber-colored sap, which has been used as chewing gum, for healing wounds, to treat dysentery and diarrhea, and as a perfuming agent in soaps. At least 25 species of birds eat the fruit. The source of poky “gum balls.”
  19. Water Hickory (Carya aquatica) – Pinnately compound leaves. Nuts and flattened, strongly four-angled, rough leaves. The water hickory is the tallest of the hickory varieties. Tolerates a wide range of soil moisture levels, but is typically found on sites with more water. The nuts are more bitter than other hickory trees, but occasionally consumed by ducks and other wildlife.
  20. Water Oak(Quercus nigra) – Shovel-shaped (spatulate) leaves. Found near streams or swamps.

A Few Distinctive Scrubs

American Bamboo – Declining throughout the region, native bamboo used to form dense thickets. Native Americans used the bamboo to create blowguns, as well as bedframes and fishing poles.

Common Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) – Shrub or small tree to 18 feet. Round, white, button-ball flowers. Nut eaten by many water birds.

Drummond Rattle-box (Sesbania drummondii) – Short-lived woody shrub of low, wet areas. A legume that produces a four-sided pod that rattles when dry. Seeds are poisonous to livestock, especially sheep and goats. Causes diarrhea, weakness, and lethargy one to two afterconsumption.

Palmetto (Sabal minor) – An understory plant in the palm family. Commonly associated with the swamps of Florida or Louisiana, but now found in abundance throughout southeast Texas, particularly in moist low-lying areas.

Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria) – An understory evergreen shrub that has bright red berries. Soldiers used to make “coffee” from the leaves during the Civil War. Karankawa and Akokisa Native Americans used the berries (and possibly leaves) to make a purgative tea; in other words, it makes you throw up; hence the scientific name, Ilex vomitoria!

Exotic Species

Chinese Tallow (Triadica sebifera) – Non-native tree that has escaped cultivation to become an extreme nuisance, outcompeting native tree species that are crucial to wildlife and the southeastern ecosystem integrity. Can grow in moist or dry, hot or cold conditions, highlands or lowlands, and seeds prolifically. Can reproduce by cuttings. Rice University biologists are studying the ecology of its invasion.

Other species that Precinct 4 targets for removal include privetspp., trifoliate orange, and Japanese climbing fern.