Friday, July 27, 2007

Bad Sports

Winning has become more important than the kids having fun, more important than the kids themselves.

My first glimpse of the problem came when I walked to the neighborhood Little League field to watch a friend’s son play baseball. Prominently attached to the fences were signs stating, in essence, that anyone yelling at the umpires would be asked to leave. Things hit closer to home at one of my oldest daughter’s kickball games a year or so later, when the game screeched to a halt while the grown-ups huddled around a thick rule book, trying to decide whether to call a player out for some minor infraction I can’t even recall, like taking 5 seconds too long to step up to bat. I didn’t remember kickball having so many rules when I was 10.

After a couple of years of fairly low-key recreational soccer, my son made a “select” team. Not every kid gets on these teams. The coaches are paid professionals, the rules strict. It’s costly, upwards of $1,000, plus uniforms and travel, which can be extensive. The first indication that the ante had been upped was when the team mom handed out lollipops to keep the parents quiet.

There were teams with matching bags precisely lined up on the sidelines, games where parents berated officials the entire time (obviously, they hadn’t brought lollipops), coaches who positioned parents at intervals along the sidelines to yell at their players. When my youngest daughter made one of these teams, she sometimes came home from practices and games in tears, devastated by the comments of a teammate or because she’d disappointed her coach. A particularly rainy fall left the team of sixth graders trying to make up games well into December. I asked if we couldn’t just let those games go (hello, it’s almost Christmas!), and was told that would mess up season statistics.

I think we are taking youth sports way too seriously. Programs like Little League and Pop Warner Football were originally founded on the principles of letting every kid play and having fun, but many youth leagues now resemble miniature versions of professional sports. The frightening “do whatever it takes to win” mentality includes yelling at children, playing through pain, and even trying to injure other players.Winning has become more important than the kids having fun, more important than the kids themselves.

Maybe we need to be reminded that these are just kids. Our kids. I remember T-ball—my son and his teammates spent their time in the outfield pulling up dandelions or digging in the dirt. The grown-ups often hollered at these 5- and 6-year-olds to pay attention. Now I wonder why. We shouldn’t have cared who won, just that the kids were outside and having fun.

I figured I was alone in my alarm until I read Why Johnny Hates Sports by Fred Engh. Engh says 70 percent of all youngsters drop out of organized sports by age 13 because of unpleasant experiences. Seventy percent. By age 13! Frankly, that seems to me about the age kids should start team sports, not already be burned out and quitting.

Sports, and team sports in particular, have a lot to teach children—when they’re ready. Let’s face it, 11-year-olds can get distracted or tired. So can 15-year-olds, but they usually have the developmental ability and maturity to push through it and give that extra effort. That feels like a real accomplishment, and teaches perseverance. But pushing an 11-year-old to act 15 won’t make her develop or mature anyfaster. It might, however, make her drop out of sports.

Fortunately, my youngest has decided to move on to another sport rather than quit. My dandelion-picking son seems to have let all that yelling go in one ear and out the other (an annoying skill in so many arenas), going on from baseball to soccer, basketball, football and, finally, lacrosse. My oldest daughter has dabbled in a variety of sports as well (her favorite: Ultimate Frisbee, a game that defies rules and organization).

I’m glad about this. I’m not against sports or competition, just against taking them too seriously.Too much competition sucks the fun out. An undue emphasis on winning and losing—and not on teamwork, self-improvement and good sportsmanship— takes away from the benefits sports can offer, like cooperation, respect for teammates and opponents, even compassion for the loser. I want my children—and their future coworkers, neighbors and spouses—to have exposure to those things, too.

Finally, I don’t think we should sacrifice the fun of childhood. No one should know better than my successoriented generation that you only get to be young once. I don’t think my kids will look back from that vaunted front-porch rocking chair and say, “Gee, I wish I’d won more soccer games when I was 11.” I know I won’t.

In addition to the emotional and psychological consequences of our overzealous attitudes, there are potential physical ones. Stress fractures, growth plate disorders, cracked kneecaps, frayed heel tendons and back problems were previously seen only in adults. Now injuries like these are reaching epidemic proportions in young teens, as more kids play one sport year-round and focus on single skills like kicking or throwing. Their still-growing bodies simply can’t take it. Some parents justify pushing their kids for scholarships, but a kid with injuries probably won’t be able to play, scholarship or no.

The American Academy of Pediatrics even issued a formal statement: “Those who participate in a variety of sports and specialize only after reaching the age of puberty tend to be more consistent performers, have fewer injuries, and adhere to sports play longer than those who specialize early.”

Kids won’t acquire skills faster just because they start younger. A lot of skill and ability is a function of age and development, not more practice. Former NBA player Bob Bigelow, who wrote Just Let the Kids Play, didn’t even play basketball until high school. World Cup star Mia Hamm didn’t focus on soccer until age 16.That gawky 10-year-old who can hardly run and breathe at the same time could grow up to be the next Mia if given a chance. A lot of kids never discover their talent because they’re told at age 9 or 10 that they aren’t good enough.

Remember that old saw about variety being the spice of life? I don’t want my children to spend their youth hammering away at one thing, no matter what it is. This is the time of life (maybe the only time) they can and should try many things—a variety of sports, musical instruments, dance, horseback riding, camping, biking, scouts. I don’t know about you, but I’m just darned bored watching yet another soccer game. I could go for a little softball for a change, or a picnic, a game of cards, or a hike in the woods.

In short, let’s lighten up and let our kids be kids while they still can. We’ll all have more fun.

Melissa Gaskill is co-author of Lacrosse: Guide for Parents and Players (Mansion Grove House, 2006). Her most recent contribution to Texas Co-op Power was the May 2005 cover article,“Rhinos at Fossil Rim.”

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

There's A Stranger In My House

Your sweet kid's morphed into a teen who hates you. Reacquaint yourselves, quick.

When your children were born, that bonding thing went pretty well. Quite naturally, in fact. Their chubby little faces lit up every time you came into the room. These days, though, their faces darken at the sight of you. You have teenagers.

Parenting during the teen years is at least as important as it was in the early ones, says Michael Bradley, PhD, a practicing clinical psychologist and author of Yes, Your Teen is Crazy! Loving Your Kid Without Losing Your Mind. Believe it or not, research has revealed that the higher parts of the brain form - key word "form," as in take shape out of chaos - during adolescence. Which means good parenting is essential at this stage, if, that is, you want to have anything to do with your child's grown-up outlook on life. "This is when you are shaping the adult," Bradley says. "These are likely the most critical years of parenting."

Well, okay. Except it is also true that one of the primary jobs of adolescents is establishing themselves as independent beings, separate from you. Anthony Wolf, PhD, another teen psycholo-gist and author of Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall warns us, "Just your existence compro-mises their need to feel like independent beings."

"It's like adolescents have an allergy to parents," Wolf explains. "So if a parent's aim is to have close bonding with a teenage child, that's not realistic." What is realistic, even important, is connecting with your teen in meaningful ways. Roni Cohen-Sandler, psychologist and author of - you've gotta love these titles - I'm Not Mad I Just Hate You, cautions that "Teens say they aren't interested, but deep down they do want to feel connected." Just don't expect it to be easy.


The first golden rule: Don't even try to work serious bonding into your daily routine (at least at first). You'll have better luck away from home and all its competition TV, Internet, music, siblings, telephone, friends, and so on - because, let's face it, at this point in their lives, anything is more interesting than you. Doing something out of the context of day-to-day life creates the best opportunities for making a connection.

Cohen-Sandler took her teens to Costa Rica, and while there, the kids got to play expert because they knew more of the language and were more physically fit than their parents. Give your own kids the opportunity to try on new roles by choosing destinations together. Look for a variety of activities as well as a setup that allows both of you a little breathing room. Avoid highly structured tours, which create too many opportunities for adolescent rebellion against authority.

Seek activities that don't involve your usual parent mode - that "where-were-you, what-about-that-English-grade, who-are-these-weirdos-you-call-friends" stuff. Show that you see your teen as a person, not just your child, and temporarily put aside your job of setting limits. How? Try something new, preferably something your teen is dying to do.

If your daughter has been fantasizing about surfing ever since she saw Blue Crush check out Surf Camp in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina ( or Paskowitz Surf Camp in San Diego ( Both promise to have anybody - even you, Dad - up and riding a board in five days. Or cater to your kid's inner scientist. Cheryl Bennett and daughter Lauren spent 10 days researching leatherback turtles on an Earthwatch Institute expedition in the Caribbean ( "It ended up being the trip of a lifetime for both of us," says Bennett. "It was more like we were partners ... researchers working together." If turtles don't excite you, Earthwatch offers expeditions on everything from dolphins to medicinal plants.

As you're casting about for something you can both agree on, don't take rejection of your ideas personally. Your teen will knock some of them just as a power exercise. Don't give up. The offer alone is a connection. If you keep striking out with big plans, start small, with ice cream, a movie, or dinner out. Above all, be creative.

Even if that means, as in Michael Bradley's case, that you have to provide incentives - aka bribes - to get your teen to go along. Bradley rented a convertible for his son to drive through California -with Dad in tow, of course. Such tricks are fair play, but don't be too pushy. If you have to force your teen into that car, your fantasy weekend could turn into a nightmare.


Taking a trip together isn't the only way to foster bonding time. Be open to your teen's ideas, even, perhaps especially, about activities you wouldn't normally do. "I play Ping-Pong with my son, even though it's not my favorite activity," says Cohen-Sandler, "and I hate the mall, but that is where my teenage daughter wants to go."

Volunteering is another way to put you both on level ground and to create shared memories, even if it's not something exotic like an Earthwatch trip. Be open to what is meaningful to your teen (say, saving turtles) rather than to you (art museum), and don't push too hard. You don't have to build houses; maybe your kid just wants a local skatepark. Offer to help him start a petition or visit city officials.

Develop rituals like sharing a Saturday morning breakfast or a Friday night pizza, or reading the morning comics together. Repetitive events are very centering, and while teens may act like they don't like it, the experts say they do. Trust them, they're experts.

If you just want to have a conversation, Bradley has a foolproof trick: Set your alarm for midnight. The adolescent brain kicks in late at night, and teens will actually talk if you just hang with them. Can't stay awake at that hour? "I think about waving goodbye in a couple of years," says Bradley. Works better than a double espresso.

Above all, hang on to your sense of humor. Teenagers still don't have all their brain equipment, and they really are a little crazy. Just like potty training, this, too, shall pass. And if relaxing on a beach makes it pass more quickly, hey, who's to argue.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Trail Mix: Top Texas Hikes

Take a hike. Rather than a brush-off, to me this sounds like an invitation to have a great time. Hiking offers one of the most accessible and versatile ways to enjoy the outdoors. Naturally, Texas boasts an amazing array of hikes for every taste and ability—from strolls of less than a mile to treks longer than 100 miles, through thick woods or open country, on high mountain slopes or smooth, flat shores. Here’s a look into a few of my favorites.

Hill Country State Natural Area

Just outside of Bandera, the 5,369-acre Hill Country State Natural Area (photo on opening spread) offers classic hikes on 40 miles of multi-use trails. My favorite combines Routes 1 and 6 to loop out to the Wilderness Camp Area and back, going 5.8 miles through open stretches where tall grass undulates in the breeze, into shady groves of oak and juniper covered in berries, over rocky hills and down canyons, and even across a wide swath of ankle-scratching but wickedly beautiful sotol. A must is the detour on Route 5B, up a steep, rocky staircase to 1,760-foot-high Twin Peaks for a stunning, panoramic view of the almost unblemished countryside. There is no drinking water or supplies in the park, so bring everything you think you’ll need. Not that you’ll need much, with scenery like this.
Hill Country State Natural Area, 830/796-4413

Sam Houston National Forest

East Texas’ Lone Star Hiking Trail runs for 128 miles through the Sam Houston National Forest, but that’s too much hiking for me. I can handle, though, the challenging 27-mile section between Evergreen and Cleveland, which is a designated National Recreation Trail. Tree tags 25 to 50 yards apart mark the narrow path, but I suggest picking up a map from the Sam Houston National Forest district ranger’s office in New Waverly. Pines and magnolias shade the trail, which also blazes through thick brush and swampy areas, and crosses several creeks and the East Fork of the San Jacinto River (twice). You might also see white-tailed deer, turkey, quail, and rabbits. Foxes and bobcats live here, too, though you’re unlikely to see them. Old stumps covered in shades of green moss, strange fungi growing on fallen logs, and a variety of mushrooms lend an otherworldly, untamed feel to the landscape.
USDA Forest Service, Sam Houston Natl. Forest, 936/344-6205

Lake Georgetown Good Water Trail

A rugged, 23.8-mile trail circumnavigating scenic Lake Georgetown traverses dense juniper stands, hardwood bottomlands, limestone cliffs, and wide-open prairie grasslands. You’ll even ford a few streams. My favorite spot on this hike, Knight Spring, creates a small stream above a lush, serpentine waterfall. Nearby is an old corral left by early settlers, and elsewhere on the trail are remnants of stone walls and fences. Armadillos rustle in the grass, and hikers may startle an occasional deer in the brush. During deer season (check with the office for dates), stay on the trail and wear bright clothing; the trail crosses Hunt Hollow Wildlife Management Area, which allows hunting. Multiple trailheads and several campgrounds make it easy to choose your distance; if your party has two cars, you can even leave one at your destination before driving to the starting point—then you won’t have to backtrack.
Georgetown Lake Office, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 512/930-5253

Full article on Top Texas Hikes can be found in the May 2007 issue of Texas Highways magazine.

Dog-Friendly Parks

When you can’t resist those big eyes that say “Don’t leave me at home,” head for a park that welcomes pooches.

Any outdoor experience is made better when it’s shared with the right company, and as many of us have discovered, dogs are great travel companions. According to the Travel Industry Association, some 29 million Americans now travel with their pets, primarily dogs. While no doubt some of those millions are simply carrying a pampered pooch in and out of fancy hotels, I’m sure that many are, like me, taking their dogs swimming at the lake, exploring at the beach, hiking in the woods or on some other outdoor adventure.

If you’re already one of these people, you know it isn’t always easy to include your four-legged friend. Dogs simply aren’t allowed some places, for good reasons, like protecting fragile ecosystems or endangered wildlife, or because it would be dangerous for the dog. Some places allow dogs but don’t actively welcome them, for the same or related reasons. That said, there are great spots for enjoying the outdoors with your dog.

First, a few words about responsible doghood. Dogs in public places are like kids: Not everyone wants them around, and even those who like them may be somewhat annoyed by the disruptions they can cause. People quietly wildlife-watching won’t be too happy if your barking dog scares the critters away, and someone floating Zen-like on the river probably doesn’t want to be joined by your wet, hairy friend. Do yourself, your dog and everyone else a favor and make that first trip to an obedience class. Train your pooch to come when called and stay when asked; you’ll be much more popular out there, and your dog will be safer, too (think snakes, alligators, cliffs and the like). Take your dog for a vet check-up (and updated shots) before inviting him along on a strenuous outdoor activity. Be aware that dogs can get sunburned and suffer heat stroke just as easily as people. Mosquito repellent may be a good idea, and all Texas dogs need heartworm preventive.
Carry plenty of water for everyone (not all sources of water are safe for your dog to drink) and snacks for your dog if you’ll be hiking or otherwise active. First-aid supplies are a good idea, and, in some thorny places, dog booties.

Follow the rules. When hiking, stay on trails. Most places — and all state parks — require dogs to be on a leash; use leashes where required, even if no one is looking. And only service dogs are allowed in public buildings. Most important rule: scoop the poop. Unlike the stuff that wild animals produce, dog-doo is not a natural part of the environment. It can contain harmful viruses and bacteria, which are carried by rain into streams and rivers. No one likes to step in it, and no one likes to look at it, either. Carry plastic bags — this is a great way to reuse the ones that envelop your newspaper or sub sandwich.

Okay, turn the page to read about the top 10 dog-friendly sites according to my personal opinion, without benefit of scientific analysis or public poll (well, the dogs had a vote). This list reflects a preference for beautiful views, refreshing water, nice facilities for humans and ample recreational possibilities for all. There are many more wonderful places that just wouldn’t fit; almost every Texas state park is worthy of a visit with your dog, for example. You may quibble with certain selections, depending, say, on your level of tolerance for a sand-covered dog, or perhaps a burning (pun intended) desire for shade. That’s okay. What’s important is getting up and out, breathing in that fresh air (even if it is laden with eau de wet dog) and appreciating this great gem of a state. So, don’t sit. Don’t stay. Go!

1. Matagorda County Beach
Dogs can run free on this wide, uncrowded beach that stretches 22 miles from the mouth of the Colorado River. The first half-mile is pedestrian beach, adjacent to the LCRA Matagorda Bay Nature Park, which has restrooms, showers for you and your dog and picnic shelters. Dogs are also allowed on the park’s nature trails and three fishing piers. Stop at Stanley’s, at the turnoff onto 2031 from Highway 60, and pick up a beach vehicle permit, $6 for the calendar year. On the beach, keep your dog out of the dunes and from chasing the birds (there will be plenty; Matagorda County has been number one for number of species counted in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count for four years). There is an RV park and camping is allowed on the beach.
Matagorda County (979) 863-7120;

Honorable mention:

Padre Island National SeashoreMore than 60 miles of undeveloped beach — just you and your dog with lots of sand and surf. Malaquite Beach, a five-mile, vehicle-free stretch, has a visitor center with a place to wash off your dog (who isn’t allowed on the deck or in the buildings). Keep dogs on leash here and elsewhere around people, but let him swim loose in the Gulf. Campground at Malaquite Beach, primitive camping anywhere on the rest of the beaches.
(361) 949-8068;

2. Lake Georgetown
Jump into the blue water with your pup, then hit the Good Water Trail, a scenic 16.6-mile hiking route along the lake’s shore, named after what local lore suggests the native Tonkawa called this area: “land of good water.” Views, rugged terrain, wildlife spotting and solitude abound. Leashes are required on the trail and in developed recreation areas. Dogs are allowed to swim in the lake without a leash. In undeveloped areas, dogs are allowed off-leash (but must be under their owner's control) except during hunting season and nesting season for golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos. Check with the park for dates and locations of those restrictions.
(512) 930-5253;

Honorable mention:

Lake Somerville State Park and TrailwayA 13-mile trail connects Birch Creek Unit (with camping and day-use facilities) on the north shore of the lake to Nails Creek Unit on the south, crossing Yegua Creek and skirting Flag Pond. Shelters along the way for resting and picnicking and four primitive campgrounds. All state parks require that dogs remain on leash at all times, and only service dogs are allowed in public buildings.

3. Bastrop and Buescher State Parks
Dogs — and people — love the sandy, shady 8.5-mile Lost Pines Trail and 3.5 miles of other trails through this most westerly stand of loblolly pine in the United States. The park also has a small lake, picnic areas, campsites and, for humans only, cabins, lodges and a swimming pool with a CCC-built bathhouse. Roll the windows down and drive scenic Park Road 1C to Buescher State Park to enjoy another 7.5-mile trail plus multiuse and tent camping, picnic areas and fishing lake.

4. Canyon of the Eagles Lodge and Nature Park

Hang out at Lake Buchanan with your pup or explore (on leash) 14 miles of hiking trails roaming 940 wooded acres, from level shoreline to rugged hills. Look for a variety of wildlife and birds, including American bald eagles, black-capped vireos and golden-cheeked warblers. Dark skies are conducive to star gazing, and the park’s observatory is open most Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. The park has a dog-friendly lodge, campgrounds and RV sites.

Honorable mention:

Black Rock Park, an LCRA park on the southwest shore of Lake Buchanan, with boat ramp, sandy beaches, tent and RV sites. Dogs can play unleashed in the water if it isn’t crowded.

Inks Lake State Park, on Inks Lake just downstream from Buchanan, has camping, swimming, fishing and 7.5 miles of hiking trails, where dogs will find an endless supply of intriguing sights and smells.

5. Davis Mountains State Park

Trails meander through part of the most extensive mountain range in Texas, including a 4.5-mile route that leads to Fort Davis National Historic Site (dogs allowed on leash, but not in the buildings). The aptly named Skyline Drive is popular with star gazers; let your dog’s inner coyote gaze at the moon, which seems larger here. Keep pups in the tent or RV at night.

6. Caprock Canyons State Park and Trailway

This is John Wayne country — rocky cliffs, deep canyons, dramatic skies, even bison —and almost 90 miles of trails beckon, including a 64-mile trailway along a former railroad bed, complete with a tunnel. Hike up to 3,100 feet, then down to wade in the sandy Red River. People and perhaps their dogs first settled 10,000 years ago. Be prepared to share some trails with horses and bicycles.

7. Sam Houston National Forest Lone Star Trail
Wander through woods of pine and magnolia, across creeks and through swamps on the 128-mile Lone Star Hiking Trail through Sam Houston National Forest. A section with National Recreation Trail status goes from a trailhead on FM 945 just south of State Highway 150 27 miles to another on FM 1725 just north of Cleveland, with several access points in between that allow you to shorten that distance. Double Lake Recreation Area, accessible from this route or by car, is on a 24-acre lake and has campsites, picnic sites, a swim beach and, in summer, a concession stand with canoe rentals. Dogs must be on leash but are allowed in the lake (and can ride in a canoe).

8. Pace Bend Park

The 1,368-acre park on a Lake Travis peninsula, with rugged limestone cliffs and typical Hill Country terrain, welcomes dogs and allows them off leash as long as they are under the owner’s control. Hiking trails take you to the high ground, where you may see deer, fox and other wildlife, and swim beaches on the gentle north and east shores provide easy water access. Picnic areas, restrooms and campgrounds.

9. Hill Country State Natural Area

Forty miles of multiuse trails crisscross more than 5,400 acres of grassy valleys, steep limestone hills and spring-fed streams on this former ranch, which the donors requested be kept natural and untouched. That means only basic facilities are provided, but it also means the park is wild and natural, just the way some of us like it. Primitive and improved campgrounds, as well as several equestrian campgrounds (you’ll often share trails with horses).

10. Grapevine Lake

Several parks on the north shore of this Corps of Engineers lake smack-dab in the middle of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex offer varied recreational opportunities. Your best bet is Murrell Park in Flower Mound, open 24/7 and free, with boat ramps, picnic tables, camp sites, restrooms, fishing banks and a trailhead for the Northshore Trail, a challenging hike and bike route roughly nine miles long. Dogs must be on leash.

When you don’t have time to travel far, tide yourself over at dog-friendly urban parks like leash-free Red Bud Isle or Bull Creek District Park in Austin and dog parks like George Bush Park’s Millie Bush Bark Park in Houston, Gateway Park’s Fort Woof dog park in Fort Worth and the Dallas Dog Park at White Rock Lake. Just promise your dog, and yourself, that you’ll make time for a longer jaunt soon.
From Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, August 2006.

Hatching Hope

A record 51 Kemp’s ridley turtle nests were found along the Texas coast last year, but the species still faces an uphill climb

In front of a knot of early risers gathered on Padre Island National Seashore, park rangers carefully lifted dozens of baby sea turtles from boxes and set them down on the sand, facing the surf. Using the rising sun as a beacon, the inch-long hatchlings scuttled to catch a wave, flippers churning like tiny propellers when they did.

This scene was repeated 51 times last summer, as a total of 3,501 Kemp’s ridley turtle hatchlings made their carefully supervised journey into the Gulf. That’s impressive considering that in 1978, the species was down to fewer than 800 females nesting primarily on Playa de Rancho Nuevo, a 16-mile stretch of sand in northern Mexico. Biologists recognized that additional nesting sites would improve the critically endangered species’ chances, and so launched the multiagency, binational Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Restoration and Enhancement Program. For the next 10 years, roughly 2,000 eggs were collected each year from Rancho Nuevo and incubated in boxes of sand from North Padre Island, where the turtles were known to have nested decades before, reports Donna Shaver, chief of the division of sea turtle science and recovery at the national seashore. Hatchlings were released each year on the seashore’s beaches, in hopes they would imprint on the location and then raised in captivity for another year before final release in waters off Texas and Florida. In 1996, two of those island-born turtles returned to lay eggs. Shaver says it’s possible that others returned earlier, but couldn’t be positively identified because their metal flipper tags had fallen off. In 1983, the project switched to more durable “living tags,” small plugs of lighter bottom shell implanted into the upper shell.

Kemp’s ridleys take 10 to 15 years to mature, and even in natural conditions, their odds of reaching adulthood may be only 1 in 1,000. “We hope we improve those odds by finding the nests and protecting the hatchlings,” Shaver says, at least until they reach the sea. Eggs are still incubated in protected areas, but now untagged hatchlings are released immediately.

The 51 nests found along the Texas coast in 2005 marked a record high that broke previous records of 42 nests in 2004 and 38 in 2002. At Rancho Nuevo, where an estimated 40,000 turtles nested in a single day in 1947, the count has risen from a low of 702 in 1985 to 10,099 in 2005. Some 15,000 adult Kemp’s ridleys and an unknown number of juveniles now roam the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. It is an impressive recovery, but the species still faces an uphill climb. Development on nesting beaches, harvesting of the eggs, slaughter of mature turtles for food and incidental capture by commercial fishing operations continue to threaten the turtles.

Ridleys come ashore to nest from April through July, usually during the day. Beachgoers can help recovery efforts by watching for nesting females and calling the turtle hotline, at 1-866-TURTLE5, immediately when one is spotted. Observers should stay back until the mother has finished laying her eggs and covered the nest, which can take 45 minutes. Hatchling releases at the National Seashore, between June and August, are free and open to the public. Call the hatchling hotline at (361) 949-7163. Purchase of a $10 Adopt a Turtle packet financially supports restoration efforts. Properly disposing of trash and picking up litter on the beach also helps the turtles. For more information, visit .

Melissa Gaskill is a professional writer, and is co-author of Lacrosse: Guide for Parents and Players (Mansion Grove House, 2006). This excerpt was taken from Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, and she contributes to numerous other publications such as Family Fun, The Nature Conservancy, American Way and The Austin American Statesman.

Bright Nights

From fireflies to ocelots, many species are adversely affected by ever-increasing levels of artificial lighting

As the sun fades from the sky, porch lights across Texas cast circles of illumination that welcome visitors, guide children home and help pizza-delivery drivers read addresses. The light also attracts insects, which beckon spiders and, in recent years, house geckos. The humble porch light is part of mounting evidence that artificial light creates opportunities for invasive species like geckos. John Davis, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department urban wildlife biologist, suspects this is only one way that light changes the natural world. Biologists are just beginning to shed light, pun intended, on exactly what those changes might mean.

The insects clearly pay a dear price, in the form of increased predation by the opportunistic spiders and geckos. That may seem like a good thing, until you consider the importance of bugs as food for animals and pollinators for plants. For example, says Mike Salmon, a biologist at Florida Atlantic University, reduced insect populations force many birds to work much harder to find enough insects to feed their young.

And bugs don’t have to die to be affected. On summer evenings, when male fireflies start flashing, they’re doing so in hopes that a female in the vegetation below will blink back and, well, nature will take its course. In today’s typical suburban yard, the poor fellows compete not only with porch lights, but also with street lights and the glow from illuminated malls and car lots to get noticed by the ladies, whose responses may be drowned out as well.

“Some people may not give a [darn] about fireflies,” says Jim Lloyd, professor emeritus in the entomology department at the University of Florida and author of a chapter on the bioluminescent creatures in Ecological Consequences of Artificial Night Lighting, edited by Travis Longcore and Catherine Rich. “But these are clues to what could happen with other species.” Even when sharp-eyed fireflies manage to mate, Lloyd adds, additional troubles await. “Highways, buildings and a lower water table have all combined to reduce the habitat available. When females go to lay eggs, they use signals from other fireflies to choose a spot.” A bright night makes that more difficult, and artificial light could become the last straw. And, not just for fireflies. More and more, evidence indicates that light creates changes in every aspect of the natural world, from animal orientation to navigation, reproduction, interspecies communication, competition for food among related species and predator-prey relationships.


The effects on birds, perhaps the best documented of any species so far, include disruption of annual migrations and ongoing orientation. On clear nights, migrating birds typically use stars for navigation. Under a cloudy sky, they switch to an alternate method that their species developed for just such a contingency, explains Bill Evans, an ornithologist and director of Old Bird, a nonprofit organization that monitors nocturnal bird migration.

One alternative is the earth’s magnetic field, but recent research has shown that certain wavelengths of artificial light can disrupt a bird’s sensitivity to that field. Birds may also switch to visual navigation, which they use during the day, in lighted areas at night. But this can make them reluctant to fly back into the dark, since their eyes need time to adjust when going from light to dark, just as ours do. That results in birds congregating in an urban area when normally they would have moved on, and an area ends up with more birds than it would normally have, or with birds not typically in that area. Birds in both cases are more vulnerable to predation and have difficulty foraging.

John Arvin, research coordinator for Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, cites ongoing studies that show birds are also in danger of collision around lighted structures at night, particularly isolated ones. In what are known as circular events, similar to the trapping effect that gets insects, birds are drawn to the light, then fly around and around in it, where they may eventually strike guy wires, the lighted object or each other — or drop to the ground exhausted. Flocks of birds have died this way. At South Padre Island Convention Center, large numbers died during a spring migration in the 1990s, Evans says. Some 450 migrating species are potentially vulnerable to collisions with lighted structures, with as many as 100 million deaths in North America every year. Since Texas lies directly in major migratory corridors, many of those deaths occur here.


Late at night on Padre Island National Seashore, the black silhouettes of sand dunes rise behind the beach, the expanse of flat water opening in front of it. Hatching sea turtles instinctively use visual orientation to turn away from the former and dash toward the latter, just as they have done for millennia. But on many beaches, turtles no longer encounter that natural order of dark dunes and open, brighter water. Street lights, lighting on houses and condominiums, even a glow in the sky from distant urban areas, can disorient hatchlings. They wander for hours, dying of dehydration or exhaustion, falling victim to predators or being run over. In Florida, thousands of annual hatchling deaths have been documented due to this disorientation.

Thanks to Padre Island’s remoteness, turtles on Texas beaches aren’t directly affected. “But it is safe to say that what happens on any nesting area affects the general turtle population,” says Salmon. “The most heavily used nesting beaches in many places are threatened by development and lights. Everything that interacts with the animal is also affected by the problem.” Fewer turtles means decreased nutrient content on beaches and less healthy sea grass beds.


All 986 species of bats in the world are nocturnal, equipped to do best in low light. Populations in rural areas like Devil’s Sinkhole or Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area still enjoy those conditions, and lights may actually be beneficial for urban populations, attracting insects for the bats to eat. But bright lights have been known to stop emergence of the bats under Congress Avenue bridge in Austin, says Barbara French, a scientist with Bat Conservation International. And faster-flying bat species that congregate around lights to take advantage of the insect buffet may displace slower-flying species that avoid lights and the increased predation danger they represent.


An estimated 60 ocelots — likely the entire U.S. population — live in the Rio Grande Valley area on the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and protected corridors of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. (See also “Trapping Ocelots with a Camera” in the June 2005 issue.) “They are strictly nocturnal animals,” says Linda Laack, a former refuge biologist. “Their prey is strictly nocturnal. If you think about how they live, you would suspect that lighting would be bad for them.” There are so few of the animals, and they are so reclusive, that specifics are difficult to document. But Melissa Grigione and Robert Mrykalo at the University of South Florida reviewed literature on how artificial light affects nocturnal rodents, the cat’s primary prey. Light sends rodents scurrying for cover, in your kitchen and the wild, and in conditions as bright as the full moon, rodent activity tends to cease.


Nocturnal frogs suspend normal feeding and reproductive behavior when exposed to light, and individual hoppers may remain motionless long after the light is turned off. Female frogs of at least one species are less selective about a mate in increased levels of light — call it the closing time effect — presumably balancing the need to be choosy against the equally important need to survive. Male tree frogs have been known to stop calling in areas with bright lights, and no calling means no mating, which eventually means no frogs.

Lights Out

Fortunately, this is one problem we have the ability to solve. Some light can simply be eliminated, if not altogether then at least during peak bird migrations or turtle nesting. In Florida’s 2001 season, standard streetlights were replaced with light-emitting diode, or LED, markers in roadways and sodium lamps low on roadsides, and not one hatchling became disoriented due to light sources. White strobe lights on towers do not induce as much congregating of birds as red lights and have not been implicated in mass mortalities.

Lighting’s effect on the environment can be considered in new construction or improvements, already the case at state parks, says Steve Whiston, director of TPWD’s infrastructure division. Efforts include reducing lighting — at Davis Mountains State Park, for example, project manager Laura David determined existing lighting could be reduced by three-fourths — indirect lighting, and simply hitting the off switch. At Government Canyon, a new park outside San Antonio, David says, timers turn lights off when the park closes.

When lighting can’t be eliminated, it can be more thoughtfully designed. Along the Rio Grande, the U.S. Border Patrol greatly increased use of bright lights for Operation Rio Grande, a push in the late 1990s that significantly decreased area illegal crossings and drug trafficking. But in response to concerns about the effect of all that light on brush-loving ocelots and other critters, the agency reduced and redirected lights onto roads and open fields. According to Ernesto Reyes, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, all parties are pretty satisfied with the compromise.

Fort Bend County, home of Brazos Bend State Park’s George Observatory, passed a low-light ordinance that requires, for example, focused beams that minimize stray light reaching the sky and shielding for some outdoor lighting.

The International Dark Sky Association estimates that one-third of all outdoor lighting illuminates the atmosphere, wasting more than $1 billion in electricity, and creating night skies so bright that some 40 percent of Americans never even adjust to night vision. The TPWD Infrastructure Division follows Dark Sky Association criteria for new buildings and lighting renovations in parks. TPWD also uses low lighting levels and nonpolluting lights with shades and cutoffs to prevent casting light upwards. The stars, long a source of wonder and enjoyment, are often virtually invisible; two-thirds of our population can no longer see the Milky Way. With more thoughtful use of lighting, and the occasional flip of the porch light switch, we can not only protect the wonder of the night sky, but also help protect all the creatures that live under it, too.

Save the Dark
Turn off unnecessary lights
Reduce wattage to the minimum required for function
Redirect and focus lighting so it reaches the ground or areas where needed
(proper shielding can redirect lights, for example, onto signage and not up into the sky)
Eliminate all upward-directed decorative lighting
Use alternative light sources where possible and practical
Incorporate latest technology in new construction