Thursday, December 30, 2010

Islands in Winter

A short piece I did for Women's Adventure Magazine about visiting islands in the winter.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Texas Perspective on the Oil Spill

My part of TP&W Magazine's two-article coverage of the oil spill.

Monday, November 1, 2010

East Texas Travel

Three Days in the Field: Nacogdoches, my latest piece for Texas Parks & Wildlife.

Fall Foliage

This year's great fall color drives - my piece for November Texas Highways.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Turtle News re-posted

My piece for Nature on the Gulf sea turtle project was posted on Scientific American.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

From Texas to NY

A New York-based outdoor blog picked up the Houston Chronicle story where I talk about hiking with dogs. And here's the original Chronicle article.

Gulf research fleet

So much research, so few ships.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Turtle Relocation Project

My latest oil-spill related piece for Nature.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Oil Spill Research in the Gulf

I spent two weeks on board the R/V Cape Hatteras with scientists from The University of Texas and University of Georgia, researching the oil spill, and wrote about it for Nature's blog, The Great Beyond. Here are my posts:
Mapping Subsurface Oil
On the Oil Trail
Shallower Plume Found
A Month Searching for Oil

Sand Dunes

A fun little piece on sand dunes I did for Women's Adventure magazine.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Backpacker Featured Hike

A hike at Enchanted Rock I mapped for Backpacker, featured on the web site.

Texas Wine

A short piece I wrote about some fun East Texas wineries, in the August 2010 Texas Co-op Power Magazine.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Oceanic Roadkill

My piece in The Atlantic about protecting right whales from ship strikes.
This piece also got picked up by the Consortium for Ocean Leadership web site.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Latest Story in Nature

A news piece I wrote for Nature online about the Census of Marine Life project.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Texas Diving

Preview my story about scuba spots in Texas, in the August issue of Texas Highways.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Cool Park Lodges

A low-cost, easy way to enjoy some of our beautiful parks. Check out my story in the summer issue of Women's Adventure Magazine.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Good Times = Good Works

From the July issue of Texas Highways. See full article in the print issue.

The ferry bumped to a stop at the San José Island dock, and I filed off with 30 or so other passengers. We followed a line of low dunes to the beach, which stretched as far as I could see—all of it littered with plastic jugs and bottles, aluminum cans, buckets, and just about every other imaginable form of detritus. The vast majority of it travels here on currents that enter the Gulf of Mexico, much of it trash from ships originating in far-flung destinations. Our group of volunteers, including 23 science students from Eastfield College in Dallas, sprang into action and, within a few hours, cleaned about a mile-and-a-half of sand. We dragged, carried, and carted many thousands of pounds of trash, enough to fill the 38-foot boat three times. Total haul for the St. Jo and Port Aransas beaches that day: 12,075 pounds of trash.

The shore looked beautiful, the entire afternoon lay before me, and the sun shone on this now nearly spotless stretch of the Texas coast. Beach clean-up, I realized, offered a perfect way to combine volunteering with travel.

Vacations can present excellent opportunities to do good works—you’re likely to have some time on your hands, to be in a place you find worthy of assistance, and the work itself tends to be interesting and unexpected.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, more than 3.7 million Americans volunteered more than 120 miles away from home in 2007, and a 2008 MSNBC poll reported that 95 percent of those who volunteered while on vacation indicated they’ll do so again.

What’s more, people who volunteer may benefit almost as much as the people or cause they serve. According to data from a National Institute on Aging study collected from 1986 through 2006, people who do community service enjoy better physical health and suffer less depression. Other research shows that volunteering triggers release of oxytocin and other feel-good brain chemicals, and can also lower the risk of illness, even decades later.

If cleaning beaches sounds like your cup of tea, several organizations spearhead events perfect for families with children of almost any age. The Texas General Land Office Adopt-A-Beach program holds cleanups all along the coast each fall and spring, including the one I joined on St. Jo. The Ocean Conservancy sponsors an annual international cleanup every fall, with a number of locations in Texas, and local coastal communities often organize trash pick-up days.

Opportunities abound in Texas to do good deeds while traveling. Just about anywhere you go, someone needs volunteers for a worthy cause. These examples can help get you started.

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
The refuge provides volunteers with RV sites and kitchen, bathroom, and laundry facilities in exchange for working three or four days a week for at least three months (or shorter stints in times of need), says volunteer coordinator Bernice Jackson. These volunteers work in the visitors center, mow, and maintain trails. Jackson also plans day projects for groups (call ahead), and has local volunteers who come in regularly. She says. “We have a real need for people in spring, summer, and fall months.”

Give Back Getaways, Ritz-Carlton, Dallas
Guests at Ritz-Carlton hotels worldwide can volunteer with local organizations chosen by hotel employees through its Give Back Getaways program. The Ritz-Carlton, Dallas picked the North Texas Food Bank as its beneficiary. I spent a morning in its bustling kitchen, mixing ingredients for chicken casseroles, some of the 10,000 hot meals prepared weekly here. Participants age 10 and older also can sort and box food in the food bank’s cavernous warehouse, and a full-day experience includes serving after-school meals. Volunteers receive snacks upon arrival at the Ritz-Carlton and a Food Bank T-shirt, but those rewards paled next to the idea that my help meant someone had a meal that day who might not have otherwise.

Grand Hyatt San Antonio
Grand Hyatt San Antonio offers a volunteer program called Destination Humane. Visit the city’s Humane Society, where you can play with dogs and cats, and post your “vacation” photos on the organization’s adoption website.

State Parks
Texas state parks rely heavily on volunteers, who provided nearly $7 million worth of labor in 2008. At Palo Duro Canyon State Park, volunteers help maintain the extensive trail network. Volunteers don’t need any specific skills, and there’s work appropriate for teens and adults.
State park volunteer hosts receive a free campsite in exchange for 24 hours of work each week (36 hours for couples) for at least 30 days. “Their primary task is to maintain the camping loop where they reside,” Londenberg says. “Hosts serve as the eyes and ears of the park in that loop, too.”
Nearly all state parks offer both short- and long-term volunteer opportunities.

Inks Dam National Fish Hatchery
This 160-acre federal facility near Burnet provides striped bass to restore populations in Gulf waters and major tributaries, and raises channel catfish and largemouth bass for freshwater sport fishing. Open daily, it includes a visitor pavilion, fishing site, and areas for observing abundant waterfowl and shorebirds.
Volunteers build and maintain trails, installs signs, help with construction and renovation of an interpretive center and builds bird blinds, coordinate events with schools, lead tours on the trails, landscape, clean, or help with office work.
Hatchery administrative assistant Cindy Fronk says, “We’ll take anyone who is interested, for the long term, a day, or even just a few hours,” says Fronk, who also welcomes families who want to help out.

National Public Lands Day
This annual late-September event mobilizes folks around the country for a variety of one-day projects benefiting our public lands. North of Fort Worth, one location, Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area, provides habitat for 270 species of birds, and attracts kayakers, birders, and hikers. Lisa Cole, LLELA’s education coordinator, organizes Public Lands Day volunteers, and welcomes helpers year round for a variety of chores, including moving electric fencing for the resident bison herd.
Volunteer Diane Wetherbee plants trees and prairie species, helps build trails, and leads visitors on hikes through the property’s 2,000 acres of diverse habitat. “I like seeing prairie restoration in a major urban area,” she says. “I feel really good about playing some small part in that. People can see a difference even if they just work a day or two.

Lake Travis Parks Underwater Cleanup
Sponsored by Keep Austin Beautiful, Travis County Parks, and the Lower Colorado River Authority, this annual September event takes place at nine LCRA parks around Lake Travis. Shoreline volunteers remove and recycle tons of trash from the water’s edge, and, at seven locations, several hundred scuba divers collect trash below the water’s surface. This year will mark the event’s 16th year.

Restoring Urban Prairies

My latest article for Wildflower Magazine. See with photos here.

Prairie once covered our country’s mid-section, making way for mile after mile of lush grasses waving in the wind, carpets of wildflowers every spring and fall, and a vibrant habitat full of life under, on and above the ground.

In these places once defined by prairie, little of it actually remains today. Missouri contains barely one-half of 1 percent of its former prairie, according to the Missouri Prairie Foundation, and the National Park Service reports that only about 5 percent of the central and southern mixed-grass prairie remains. The Des Moines Urban Prairie Project laments the loss of 99.9 percent of tallgrass prairie that once covered 85 percent of Iowa.

But efforts are afoot in many prairie states to preserve, restore or reconstruct native grasslands, including sites in some of our busiest cities. These urban prairies provide vital habitat and ecological services and, perhaps just as importantly, a way to change public perception.

The Wildflower Center participated in a prairie restoration in the Mueller Austin development, on the site of the former municipal airport, including more than 30 acres of mixed-grass and tallgrass prairie and savannah.

“At first, we got a lot of calls querying why we had sown weeds,” says Center restoration ecologist Mark Simmons, Ph.D. “We actually had local residents mistakenly pulling up those so-called weeds. But when we explained that we were restoring a native prairie and all the benefits it provides, people started to get it and even take ownership of their new neighborhood native ecosystem.”

Other urban prairies include Shaw Nature Reserve and Forest Park Grasslands in St. Louis; Jerry Smith Park Prairie and Saeger Woods Conservation Area in Kansas City, Missouri; the City of Des Moines Urban Prairie Project; and 150 acres of prairie and prairie savannah in Chicago’s city parks.

Building Prairie From Scratch
When developers began tearing out Austin’s Mueller Airport, Simmons discovered a remnant colony of native little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) in a remote corner of the airfield. Staff and volunteers from the neighborhood rescued the grass and potted it at the Wildflower Center before installing its progeny at Mueller in blackland prairie soil found beneath the old parking lot. Other native grasses and 14 species of wildflowers were seeded there as well.

“We weren’t preserving a piece of nature; we were making a piece of nature,” says Barbara Austin, principal with RVI Planning+Landscape Architects+Graphic Design, landscape architects for Mueller. “Taking something that was an airport and turning it into a natural area is different from enhancing a natural area. We went back and looked at what would have been there before people came.”

With the Center’s help, the firm created design guidelines for the rest of Mueller that encouraged using native plants. In the residential area, for example, 50 percent of landscaping plants must be native and the rest well-adapted to the site.

Simmons helped the property owners association, which employs the grounds maintenance crew, develop a detailed contract for maintenance, including when and how the prairie should be mowed. “The first couple of years, fast-growing grasses protect the soil from washing away and help keep out invasive plants while the slower growing grasses get established,” says resident Janelle Dozier. Mowing is scheduled around the grasses’ growth cycle.

The Chicago Parks District created the 1.5-acre Ashburn Prairie in Marquette Park by excavating and moving an existing prairie from land slated for development, according to natural areas manager Zhanna Yermakov. It has created prairies in under-utilized park areas by killing turf grass and seeding with native species. Seeded areas require intense maintenance the first three years, she says, primarily to fight weeds and invasives. “With time, the native community develops and more native seeds come up, but in urban areas, invasive species control is ongoing thanks to a constant supply from surrounding areas.”

A 10-acre tallgrass prairie at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Shaw Nature Reserve in St. Louis represents reconstruction from pastures and crop fields left devoid of prairie plants, says curator Scott Woodbury. Grazing, row cropping and timber management destroyed plant diversity and suppressed the use of controlled burns, which led to tree growth. The Reserve uses mowing and controlled burns to manage trees.

The area was first seeded 30 years ago. More recent seedings covered five or 10 acres with 75 or 100 species. “The greater the diversity of plants,” Woodbury says, “the greater the diversity of other species, including insects, birds, mammals, fungi and bacteria.” If a planting fails, perhaps due to drought or invasives, seeding is repeated.

For Jerry Smith Park, the Missouri Department of Conservation and Kansas City Parks removed woody vegetation using “tree eating” equipment that did not disturb the soil, which might have destroyed dormant plants and seeds. “We allowed time for what was there to establish,” says Larry Rizzo, natural history biologist with the state conservation department. “Then we added a few species that records showed had been present in the area.” Annual controlled burns and hand-sown seeds collected from nearby prairie have enhanced and helped distribute the native populations. The effort includes eradication of an aggressive invasive species, Sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata). Invasive plant removal and prescribed burns will be ongoing.

Why We Need Prairies
According to Simmons, prairies provide many valuable ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration, stormwater control, water filtration, absorption of air pollutants, oxygen production and habitat.

Next to wetlands, prairies are the best way to sequester carbon dioxide below ground, even better than tropical forests, he adds. “Grasses invest their resources more below ground than above and so put the carbon into the ground.” Prairies also can be harvested to produce ethanol, a renewable resource.

Once established, native prairie landscapes cost less to maintain. A St. Louis corporation cut landscape maintenance costs by $40,000, to less than $10,000 a year, by planting prairie on 85 percent of its headquarters’ property, Woodbury says. Municipalities can save money by converting frequently mown areas to prairie or savannah. The Missouri Department of Transportation hopes to reduce highway maintenance costs by focusing on native plants on all new construction projects, he adds, with trained roadside managers in every district in the state to implement the plan.

Yermakov doesn’t have hard numbers on what its prairies have saved Chicago in terms of water and mowing. But the District currently collects some data on accumulation of soil carbon in prairie versus turf grass. “Maintenance produces carbon outputs such as mowing, with turf, and burning, with prairies,” she says. “We’re trying to see how much net carbon we are accumulating, to demonstrate with hard numbers how mowing less or changing management practices and converting this many acres of turf to native may change our carbon footprint.”

Native landscaping on parkland improves habitat and provides opportunities for wildlife, Yermakov says, especially migratory land birds. With it also come social benefits like enhanced recreational opportunities and education. At its 132-acre Burnham Centennial Prairie on Lake Michigan, Chicago has partnered with The Audubon Society to track use of native landscapes versus turf land by migratory birds. “We’ll be monitoring that as we convert turf to natives and expect to see more birds and more species,” Yermakov says.

The Mueller prairie is already a stopover for migrating birds, Simmons says, especially in fall when the plants go to seed.

Prairies in urban areas provide unique opportunities to educate the public. “When we restore a ranch in the Hill Country, the owner’s friends see it. But when we do it in the city, hundreds of thousands of people see it,” Simmons says. “This prairie is just a few miles from downtown.

When I say there is 0.1 percent of the prairie left, who cares? But when people see how beautiful and productive it is, then they care. If you say Austin used to be tall-grass prairie and a child asks what it looked like, well, who knows? Now we have an accessible native prairie right in the heart of Texas and open to everyone. At the end of the day, it’s not that this is a restoration but education. Education is what is going to save us.”

Part of the goal at Mueller is to show people how natives can be used in a garden. “If we get these same prairie plants into yards, you’ve effectively extended the prairie and all its function across the urban landscape. It will no longer be like, ‘Here is nature, and here is something else: your yard.’” Simmons notes that unfortunately only about 50 of roughly 5,000 native vascular species in Texas can be purchased at commercial nurseries. This number, however, is increasing every year as interest grows.

Challenges of Urban Prairies
Restoring long-suffering prairie remnants and creating them from nothing are equally challenging. One of the biggest obstacles is keeping out invasive species like the Johnson grass and King Ranch bluestem that trouble Mueller. More than that, conventional landscape maintenance staff often lack proper training. Simmons says, “It’s a learning process. You can’t walk away from restoration. When local communities tend restored landscapes like this it not only benefits the land but also becomes an enriching experience for the people. ”

Appearance can be another obstacle. To the uneducated eye, a prairie may look neglected and unkempt. Chicago uses signage and fencing to deal with this issue. “We put them up throughout the process,” Yermakov says. “When we’re killing the turf grass, we’ll put up a sign that tells people why this grass is brown. If we put in a cover crop and mow it to bring more sunlight to native seed, we put up a sign explaining why we’re mowing. Any major action we take, we put up explanatory signs.” Signs are used to identify the habitat, what it is used for and its history. They also take into consideration planting methods as well as attributes of plants that have traditional aesthetic appeal. The district takes projects to local advisory councils as well, to communicate with the community and allow residents to comment. An active volunteer stewardship program recruits people from the community to be involved in restoration projects, creating a constituency.

Outlining prairie areas with fences makes them look intentional and helps counter the perception that someone just forgot to mow, Yermakov says. Shorter species may be used in certain areas, or a suite of species that provide color through the season to enhance aesthetics.
Prescribed burns in urban areas can be tricky. Burns at Jerry Smith Park, for example, have grown about as big as they can safely get, says Rizzo. Limits on burns effectively limit the size of urban prairies.

Another issue is public perception of desirable versus undesirable wildlife. At Mueller, people worry about rats, Simmons says. “But, while trash attracts nasty invasive rats, those in the prairie are harmless cotton rats.” People worry about snakes as well, but Woodbury argues that snakes increase wildlife diversity in a prairie. Some years ago in Illinois, one landowner sued another over a native landscape, in part over fear of snakes coming into his yard from the native landscape.

“That wouldn’t really happen,” Woodbury says. “Snakes don’t want to go into a mowed grass yard. In the end, though, the judge said that this state once was tallgrass prairie, and that is an appropriate landscape even in a residential neighborhood, if done correctly.”
Urban sites such as Mueller are opportunities to show prairie done correctly. “We’re not just restoring prairie but showing its value,” says Simmons. “It’s a good field to be in.” No pun intended.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Inks Lake Hike

Another hike I mapped for Great Hill Country hike.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Saving sea turtles

My latest piece on the oil spill and its effects, for Nature online.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

What will get sick from the slick

I wrote this article for Nature Magazine about the effects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on five signature species in the Gulf of Mexico.

Woman's Day article

My article on what every teen should know before heading out to college.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Palo Duro Canyon Hike

I mapped the Lighthouse Trail for See it here.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Giants in the Gulf

My article from the June issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. See photos online.

Rays of sunlight spear gem-blue waters where the southern Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean mingle just off the Yucatán Peninsula’s northern tip. In late summer, tiny plankton cloud the usually clear sea like sugar in a glass of tea. A ghostly form covered in white spots suddenly looms out of the cloudiness, its open mouth a dark cavern in a wide, flat head. The whale shark measures some 28 feet long, roughly the length of a nearby boat. Oblivious to snorkelers less than 10 feet away, it motors on, swinging a massive tail. While that tail could deliver quite a smack to those snorkelers, these sharks have only tiny teeth.

The world’s largest fish, Rhincodon typus can grow longer than 50 feet. Even though it’s big, it eats primarily plankton — the small animals, plants and microbes that drift in ocean currents. Feeding whale sharks swim slowly, sucking in plankton-rich seawater and passing it through a filtering structure in their gills. While often seen feeding at the surface, they can dive 4,500 feet deep and eat larger organisms such as small squid. Common sights around Australia, India and the Philippines, these generally solitary creatures also congregate off the southern shore of Belize in spring to feed on fish spawn.

Then, each summer, they arrive off Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, where a current roaring up the continental shelf drags nutrient-rich deep waters with it. The resulting plankton bloom rings the whale shark dinner bell, and the feast lasts until mid-September.

But until recently, not many people knew that the gentle giants also venture farther into the Gulf of Mexico. Eric Hoffmayer, a researcher with the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, came across a pair in the northern Gulf in 2002. Talking with deep-sea fishermen, he learned they had been spotting whale sharks for years, often in schools of up to 100.

“There was nothing like that out there anywhere in the world. It was unheard of to have a group of more than 15,” says Hoffmayer, who suspects the sharks come to the northern Gulf for an all-you-can-eat buffet when bonito, skipjack and tuna gather to spawn. He established a sighting database and distributed posters to dive shops and fishing outfitters, asking people to report whale sharks in the Gulf of Mexico. From 2002 to 2007, 60 sightings were reported; in 2008, 75. All occurred between April and November, with 86 percent between June and October. Most centered around the Mississippi River, perhaps because of the supply of nutrients the river carries.

Then, last summer, scientists collected the first proof of the connection between populations at the Mesoamerican Reef, which runs from Honduras up to the Yucatán, and those of the northern Gulf. According to Rachel Graham, associate conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s ocean giants program, scientists retrieved data in August indicating that a whale shark tagged near Isla Holbox, Mexico, had triggered a detector at Bright Bank the previous November. That reef lies 14 miles east of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, about 100 miles from the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. In September 2009, Graham also tracked tagged individuals “doodling around” off South Padre Island, where divers often see them circling rigs.

This solid evidence of movement between the Mesoamerican and Gulf reef populations will help efforts to foster regional accords for conservation and management of a variety of marine species, Graham says. With the Flower Garden Banks management plan currently under review, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is considering requests to add an additional nine banks and reefs to the sanctuary, including the one visited by the tagged whale shark. Marine Meganet, a joint project involving Graham, Hoffmayer and Emma Hickerson, a researcher at the Flower Garden Banks management office in Galveston, plans to tag additional whale sharks and expand the number and range of acoustic receivers to gather additional data on the whale sharks’ movements.

Tagged individuals feeding in Belize’s spring snapper spawn have been tracked moving from there to Honduras, according to Julianne Stockbridge, marine program manager for the Nature Conservancy in Belize, while others headed to the Yucatán. Stockbridge has no tagging evidence as yet, but is sure others end up in the Gulf of Mexico. Marine biologist Kenneth Johnson, owner of EcoColors outfitter in the Yucatán, says tags he helped place on more than 600 whale sharks there show that some move from the Caribbean to the feeding area off Cancún and back. Others go farther north into the Gulf, while some go south. In other words, he sees no defined pattern of movement. Further, he says, the large Yucatán aggregations include only a few tagged sharks, which tells him that the same individuals don’t necessarily hit the plankton buffet every year.

Tagging evidence to date, and the knowledge that whale sharks frequent the northern Gulf, southern Gulf and Caribbean around the same time — June to September — suggest that individuals move freely between these areas, joining different aggregations to feed based on opportunity. The sharks can easily swim 10 kilometers daily, Graham says.

Scientists bearing tags and divers seeking thrills haven’t been the only ones noting the presence of these behemoths. Yucatán fishermen noticed the whale shark aggregations about seven years ago, Johnson says, and started taking tourists to see the impressive sight. Concerned for the animals’ welfare, the World Wildlife Fund asked Johnson to organize tourism activity and protect the sharks. He worked with Graham, who had helped develop rules in Belize, and others to establish rules to minimize tourism’s impact on the animals in Mexico.

“The main rule is no touching,” he says. “Not because that could hurt the whale sharks, but to avoid disturbing or affecting them.” Persuading the curious to avoid interfering with the docile creatures is a challenge, says Hickerson, who has received photographs of people riding on whale sharks. Candid snorkelers and divers report that when they move in front of them, the animals often dive. This, of course, interrupts their feeding.

Stockbridge hopes to document the effects of tourism in the Belize whale shark zone, but doesn’t have enough data yet to draw conclusions. Trained guides there are primarily locals, she says, and have a vested interest in following the guidelines and helping maintain the integrity of the shark population to protect their livelihood.

Well-managed tourism also can be beneficial in other ways. “It reconnects people with nature, and gives them the opportunity to interact with a large animal in a way they aren’t able to anywhere else on earth,” Graham says. “Imagine being five feet away from a full-grown elephant, rhino or large lion. You can’t do it. Whale sharks provide this absolutely phenomenal experience, and for many people it is life-changing. Tourism can definitely be a good thing.”

The fact that tourism occurs at key feeding sites presents particular challenges, though. “What happens if, every time you go to a restaurant, people mob you, and you can’t even eat?” Graham asks. “You’re going to stop going. In Belize, we’ve seen change in the behavior of the spawning fish and then, of course, in the whale sharks themselves. We have to be very careful that tourism doesn’t overwhelm these animals. If we start making it difficult for them to come to these key feeding sites, we affect their fitness and ultimately their survival.”

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species ranks whale sharks as vulnerable, a step below endangered, with the population currently decreasing. Top threats include the sharks’ high value in international trade and targeting by directed fisheries. Their low abundance and migratory nature make them particularly vulnerable to exploitation, and whale sharks have suffered from high human predation (as have most types of sharks). Currently, Mexico, the Philippines, Australia and the United States, among others, protect the sharks from fishing, and Graham thinks populations in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean remain in pretty good shape.

Other threats include ocean pollution and ship traffic. Last summer, Graham reports, a large aggregation of whale sharks occurred right in the middle of a shipping lane.

“I am very concerned, because shipping has been a major threat to the sharks,” Graham says. “It will be particularly bad if we get ships plowing through massive aggregations.” Documentation of the large aggregation can serve as a basis for discussions with the shipping industry, though, she says. “We’ll engage them to find mitigating measures to protect whale sharks. My goal is to see whether we can know enough about the aggregations that we can ask shipping companies to please deviate slightly to avoid the key areas during this particular time.”

If not, these amazing speckled giants could end up as pelagic road kill. Scientists and snorkelers everywhere hope that won’t happen.


Sharp-eyed boaters, fishermen and divers can report whale shark sightings and submit photographs two ways. Ecocean Whale Shark Photo-ID Library collects photographs of individual whale sharks. New photos are compared against already identified sharks using a pattern-recognition software originally developed by NASA to analyze data from the Hubble Space Telescope. The Whale Shark Project, organized by Project AWARE, an international nonprofit involving the scuba diving community, collaborates with Ecocean, encouraging divers to submit images for the database — and to follow guidelines for whale shark interaction.
Sightings in the northern Gulf of Mexico can be reported to the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Ecocean Whale Shark Photo-ID Library,
Project AWARE,
Gulf Coast Research Laboratory,, Click on “Report a Sighting”)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Latest Engineering Article

My story about a nerve graft developed by a University of Texas engineering professor.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Backpacker Magazine

As a hike correspondent, I'm featured in the May issue of the magazine.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Passport to Texas

Hear my brief interview about hiking with dogs on this Texas Parks & Wildlife radio show.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

2010 Wildflower Drives

Part of my Texas Highways article on four of the best wildflower drives from this year, from the April 2010 issue.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Engineering Topics

My latest work for The University of Texas Cockrell School of Engineering web site includes pieces on hands-on learning, education for professionals, recruiting women into mechanical engineering, and developing a diverse workforce.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wild(flower) Campouts

This article of mine appears in the spring issue of Women's Adventure Magazine.
Spring’s arrival means hillsides transformed by multicolored riots of wildflowers. To truly appreciate the blooms, hike, bike, or—best yet—bed down among them. The show varies depending on rain, temperature and elevation, but March, April, and May bring peak spring color across the nation’s lower half and upper latitudes bloom well into June and July. For a dependable show, try these three camping havens in the thick of the color.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, Texas

Native Tonkawas thought the creaking, 640-acre rock at the center of this Texas park was haunted—hence it’s name. As it turns out, the noises come from the heat-fueled expansion of the enormous granite batholiths. A handful of other revealed-by-erosion rock formations dot the open woodland and grassland that are most vibrant in April. Look for the state flower, bluebonnets, along with Indian paintbrush, coreopsis, bladderpod, and basin bellflower. Arrive early on weekends: The park often hits capacity and closes to late arrivals.

Things to do:

* Set up at one of 46 walk-in campsites or three primitive camping areas complete with fire rings and picnic tables.
* Climb the 0.6-mile trail to the top of the rock for long views of the surrounding countryside.
* Circumnavigate Enchanted Rock on the wide, easy 4.5-mile loop trail.
* Take a picnic lunch for an early-spring splash in Sandy Creek.
* Rope up for a climb on the rock’s north side. Technical routes range from 5.4 to 5.11.

Joshua Tree National Park, California

With sufficient rain and March’s peak-season mild temps, wildflowers sweep north through Joshua Tree’s 800,000 acres in waves of blue, red, yellow, and white. The Dr. Seuss–like signature Joshua trees, actually giant yuccas, bloom showy cream-colored flowers, while displays of yellow desert dandelions, delicate Spanish needles, blue chia, Mojave lupines, gold poppies, red chuparosa, and tiny forget-me-nots color the surrounding desert habitat.

Things to do:

* Pitch a tent under a crystal-clear desert sky. There are 500+ established campground sites and 585,000 acres of open-camping backcountry.
* Hike barely a mile to the palm-fan-lined oasis at Cottonwood Spring.
* Grab a pair of binocs and scout for golden eagles, roadrunners, and 76 other avian residents at the Oasis of Mara.
* Pedal fat tires into Pleasant Valley. Traffic is light on the 17-mile lollipop loop.

Ha Ha Tonka State Park, Missouri

This central-Missouri park is home to a fern-lined spring pumping more than 48 million gallons of water a day. The 30-year-old park is peppered with sinkholes, caves, cave shelters, and even a natural bridge, providing diverse habitats for wildflowers of all kinds. May is peak season for native prairie and woodland species, including catchfly, exotic ladies’ tresses, prairie roses, and multiple varieties of asters, coneflowers, blazing stars, violets, buttercups, and goldenrods.

Things to do:

* Hike the hilly 6.5-mile Turkey Pen Hollow Trail. Camping here is the park’s only overnight option.
* Look for mink, beaver, and otter from the stair-stepped boardwalk on Ha Ha Tonka Spring’s edge.
* Explore the ruins of a fire-burned castle (built in 1905) atop the 250-foot bluff.
* Pack your caving gear and call ahead to access Island Cave, the park’s only wild cave.
* Hike the 1.25-mile Devil’s Kitchen Cave trail and peek up at the sky through its chimney.
See the article with photos here.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Learning Vacations

My story from the April 2010 issue of Texas Co-op Power.
Sometimes you want to spend a vacation lazing in a hammock or basking on the beach. But other times, you want something more, such as acquiring a new skill or exploring a historical site. In other words, you might want to roll up your sleeves and take a learning vacation, like one of these.
Some of my best family memories involve camping. The idea might daunt those who didn’t grow up with it, though … all those poles and stakes, stoves with flammable fuel, inflatable things and wild critters. Fortunately, Texas Outdoor Family Workshops (TOFW) come to the novice camper’s rescue.

These events, hosted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at various state parks throughout the year, help ensure a good experience by teaching basic camping skills.

I packed up my 16-year-old daughter, Bridget, and two of her friends, Ellen and Lauren, both camping newbies, to test the approach at Lake Somerville State Park & Trailway. Nine families gathered on a Saturday morning in October for the first lessons from TOFW coordinator Dan Hayes and two rangers. While this was the first campout for most of the group, one family had returned for a second workshop (participants may attend three). Hayes says people often come back. “The first time, everything is so new you don’t really absorb all the information,” he says. “The second time, you get more comfortable.”

Our first order of business: putting up a tent. After assembling one, with coaching from Hayes, everyone in the group succeeded in pitching their own. Stoked with this success, we were ready to tackle the afternoon activities. Depending on the park, these can include things like canoeing, fishing, Dutch oven cooking, hiking or wildlife watching. Our agenda listed learning to kayak and fish in Lake Somerville and geocaching, which turned out to be my favorite.

Geocaching, a high-tech treasure hunt, involves using a GPS device to track down hidden caches, or containers, such as camouflaged coffee cans, ammunition boxes or even a hollowed-out coconut with a clasp and hinge. At the minimum, the caches contain a written log, or a piece of paper, that geocachers sign to show they were there. There are nearly a million of these caches around the world—searchable by zip code at the official website,—including in a number of Texas state parks. Some parks hold special events such as geocache challenges. You can find GPS coordinates for existing caches online or place your own coordinates. Just ask first, as some sites are off-limits.

Hayes showed us how to key in on the caches he’d hidden, and we headed down the road. I felt pretty cool and high-tech following a little line on my GPS through the park. But even fancy technology gets you within only 10 to 30 feet of the actual cache—then, old-fashioned powers of observation rule the day. We ended up collaborating with other participants to locate all the caches. A side benefit of the workshop: a built-in extended family to play with.

The afternoon wrapped up with instruction on fire building, crucial to any successful camping trip. We used our campfire to make s’mores, of course, which we ate while listening for owls, frogs, crickets and other night creatures. We would have recognized them had we heard them, thanks to a presentation by Hayes that matched photos with recorded sounds. But the only critters we heard were two bold raccoons trying to make off with our Hershey’s bars and marshmallows. After convincing Ellen and Lauren the ’coons wouldn’t eat us, we doused the fire and crawled into our sleeping bags.

In the morning, the group reported for a quick lesson on breaking camp, apparently having survived the night quite well. I counted our outing a success when, on the drive home, the girls started planning their next campout.

Texas Outdoor Family Workshops: $55 fee per family covers basic equipment, such as tent, camp stove and pots and pans for up to six people. Registrants receive a list of groceries and personal items to bring. (512) 389-8903,
Other camping workshops: REI stores periodically offer classes on camping, outdoor cooking, kayaking and related topics. Check events calendars for a store near you at
Geocache challenges in Texas state parks: Coordinates for existing caches:

On Greer Farm west of Daingerfield, Maine-Anjou cattle graze in lush pastures around a restored circa-1850 Texas home. Guinea hens bob around the herb gardens, and goats mow grass near four guest cabins overlooking a stocked lake.

This working farm makes a perfect setting for Cooking with Chef Eva, aka Eva Greer, a graduate of the Art Institute of Houston’s Culinary Arts program whose work reflects a Belize upbringing, European parents and world travels with her husband, Sid. A recent class focused on roasted meats, which attracted Bob Hewes, his son Greg and son-in-law Jay Boerner. They spent the weekend at the farm’s guest cabins, where their wives and children relaxed during the midday class. The attendees also included two women from Dallas celebrating a birthday and several repeat customers from nearby towns.

During the whirlwind three-hour class in the spacious, well-lit kitchen, we watched Eva prepare beef roast, lamb chops, pork loin, butternut squash soufflé, potatoes, mint sauce, gravy, roasted fruit and toasted pound cake. She handled this complex dance with practiced ease, even managing to involve us in pureeing, seasoning, turning, beating and mixing. Delectable smells permeated the kitchen, and we dug appreciatively into the finished dishes. Chef Eva made it fun and had us convinced that we could cook like this ourselves. And while I likely won’t tackle such a complex menu at home often, if at all, Eva shared general cooking tips in addition to teaching specific recipes. Placing the roast on a rack inside the pan, for example, keeps it out of the drippings for more even cooking. Kosher salt’s larger grains make it easier to tell how much you’ve applied. (And Chef Eva uses a lot of salt and pepper, rubbing it into the meat with her hands, which she washes constantly.)

Besides, with her enthusiasm, the hands-on opportunities, easy banter among the students and delicious food, it felt more like an afternoon with friends than a cooking class. The only thing better than heading home inspired to upgrade my cooking would have been the chance to stroll across the green lawn, through the shade of tall trees, and onto the porch of one of the cabins to digest a wonderful meal while watching the breeze ripple the pond.

The Hewes family got to do that and apparently left the next day suitably inspired as well. “On our way home, we got a call from our daughter, who was at the grocery store buying a roast,” Bob Hewes says. “We had it that Sunday night, and it turned out great. Then Greg made the pork loin and squash soufflé for his in-laws when they came to visit.”

Cooking class students can work off their homework by visiting area attractions such as the Daingerfield and Caddo Lake state parks or Los Pinos Ranch Vineyards in Pittsburg, which offers tours and live jazz in the dining room on weekend nights.

Greer Farm: 1444 CR 1125, west of Daingerfield. Classes range from $60 to $75 per person. Cabins are $135 a night for two people, $10 a night for each additional person. Can sleep four adults, includes kitchenette. For a schedule and directions, call (903) 645-3232 or visit for more information, including about pick-your-own berries.
Other Cooking Classes
Blair House Inn: 100 W. Spoke Hill Road, Wimberley. Themed classes and two-day classes, (512) 847-1111,
Lake Austin Spa Resort: 1705 S. Quinlan Park Road, Austin. Culinary Experience, second week of each month, available only to overnight guests. 1-800-847-5637,

Taking an amazing photograph often requires extreme effort along the lines of crouching in a blind, kneeling in the bushes or lying flat in wet grass, sometimes for hours.

I learned this on a recent outing with Larry Ditto, who offers instructional photo tours and workshops through Larry Ditto Nature Photography. I also learned that, while lenses as long as your arm, packs of filters and lots of other pricey equipment produce great images, so can a mid-price-range digital camera, with a little of the aforementioned effort and a few tricks. On instructional photography outings, Ditto teaches some of those tricks and demonstrates the required effort. I attended a workshop at the Block Creek Natural Area, which is made up of two adjoining ranches between Comfort and Fredericksburg owned by Myrna and David Langford and Sharron and Larry Jay.

The owners installed photo blinds in strategic spots and have an intimate familiarity with what photogenic wild creatures show up where and when. They can place shutterbugs right where they needed to be for a shot of, say, a Belted Kingfisher, Painted Bunting or gray hairstreak butterfly. Creeks, water features and feeders around the property attract a variety of wildlife, and careful land stewardship means plenty of wildflowers, trees and scenic vistas. Workshop participants lodge in the historic ranch house and two nearby cabins, with family-style meals included.

Our group of four rose before the crack of dawn, the better to be ready when the first rays of sun painted the landscape in soft, warm light. We spent part of the morning crouched behind a concrete spillway on a pond populated by geese and worked by a kingfisher, while Ditto and Larry Jay did their best to herd the geese into sunlight. The two men also pointed out dramatic angles of the sun through trees and spotted frost-edged sycamore saplings in the tall grass. I would never have noticed those, much less realized how dramatic they would look in a photograph. The results were worth lying on the cold ground.

Over lunch, we downloaded photos and discussed the results while Ditto offered feedback and suggestions for improving specific images. It struck me how different a scene can look when photographed at slightly changed angles by several photographers. Ditto dedicates some time during his workshops to using software such as Photoshop, but the real emphasis is on taking pictures, which suited me fine. We spent the afternoon shooting scenic views, close-ups of plants and lots of butterflies. As the sun worked its way lower in the sky, we added creek reflections and waterfalls to our memory cards and ended the day shooting star trails in the dark, something I’d always wanted to do. Then it was time to hit the hay to rest up for another early morning. Time really flies when you’re taking great pictures.

Larry Ditto Nature Photography: Three-day workshop, $645; for additional costs, such as lodging and ranch access, contact Ditto. (956) 682-3251,
Block Creek Natural Area (Kendall County): (830) 995-4174,

Other Photography Workshops
The Expedition School: photography workshops in far West Texas. (512) 626-6282,
Cibolo Creek Ranch, Marfa: Spring and fall photography seminars with Wyman Meinzer.
REI, free photography clinics: Visit for events scheduled at a store near you.

What better way to learn Texas history than by walking where it happened? Washington County, aka the birthplace of Texas, contains a wealth of historic sites and museums that make it easy for families to turn vacation into a living history lesson.

At the Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site, 293 acres of rolling hills and tall trees on the banks of the Brazos River, stroll through the remains of the town of Washington, including a replica of Independence Hall. In this nondescript wooden building, a ragtag collection of delegates signed the Texas Declaration of Independence on March 2, 1836, creating the Republic of Texas, while a blue norther raged outside. Sitting in the drafty building gave me a renewed appreciation for those hardy souls. Guided tours refresh those vague on their seventh-grade Texas history or inform those who—gasp!—never learned it.

Interactive exhibits in the adjacent visitor center trace events subsequent to that memorable March day, and walking trails lead to the river and a pecan-shaded picnic area, a great place to contemplate how things have changed since this spot bustled with river-borne commerce.

In the middle of the park, the Star of the Republic Museum’s star-shaped, 10,000-square-foot building holds thousands of artifacts that bring to life early 19th-century Texas. Definitely worth a stop for museum buffs, but this outdoors girl couldn’t wait to get next door, where the Barrington Living History Farm re-creates the homestead of Anson Jones, last president of the Republic of Texas.

Architecturally accurate outbuildings such as a barn, smokehouse and slave quarters surround his original 1844 home, moved to this site in 1936. Interpreters in period clothes—love those bonnets and suspenders—use Jones’ records to properly plant crops, care for livestock and keep house. Depending on the season, they may be plowing fields with a pair of enormous oxen, drying vegetables or feeding the piglets. Not just any piglets, either; these are Ossabaw Island (Georgia) hogs, descendants of animals brought here by the Spanish 400 years ago. Visiting the farm leaves me admiring our forebears and feeling thankful for modern conveniences.

A self-guided walking tour in the nearby town of Independence covers a wide range of history, from Sam Houston’s homesite and a home owned by his wife, Margaret Lea; to the state’s oldest continuously active Baptist church; and to the first site of Baylor University and a number of early 1800s structures.

The Brenham Heritage Museum houses a lamp collection spanning 200 years, items from Houston’s home and what it claims is one of three remaining steam-powered fire engines in the U.S. The Burton Cotton Gin & Museum covers all things related to cotton and ginning, including in early 1900s Texas, when cotton was king. National Register and Texas historical markers dot the county, including on Brenham’s historic railroad depot and the Stagecoach Inn in Chappell Hill. The birthplace of Texas clearly takes pride in its offspring.

Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site: (936) 878-2214,
Independence walking tour:
Washington County Chamber of Commerce: (979) 836-3695,
Stay At
Southern Rose Ranch Bed & Breakfast: 8580 Dairy Farm Road, Chappell Hill. (979) 251-7871,
Ant Street Inn: 107 W. Commerce St., Brenham, 1-800-481-1951,
Eat At Bevers Kitchen and Gifts: 5162 Main St., Chappell Hill, (979) 836-4178,
Volare Italian Restaurant: 102 S. Ross St., Brenham, (979) 836-1514,
More Texas History Lessons
Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, the Story of Texas: 1800 N. Congress Ave., Austin. (512) 936-8746,
San Jacinto Museum of History: One Monument Circle, La Porte, (281) 479-2421,

Monday, April 5, 2010

Perspectives on Sustainable Energy

Articles I wrote from interviews with a variety of experts at The University of Texas for the Cockrell School of Engineering web site.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Energy Article

A piece I wrote for The University of Texas Cockrell School of Engineering web site.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Hiking Talks in Houston

I'll be talking about hiking with dogs at the Houston and Willowbrook REI stores on April 17.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Not Your Average Engineer

I wrote a piece about three very interesting engineering students at The University of Texas. See it on the school web site.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Trail Blazers

From the Spring 2010 issue of Wildflower Magazine (which includes scientific names for all these flowers!)

Popular hikes bring wildflowers up close and personal

Growing up in Texas, I learned to appreciate wildflowers mostly from the window of a car. A particularly spectacular field of bluebonnets might earn a stop on the highway shoulder, but that was as good as it got.
As an adult, I found that true appreciation of nature’s lavish and colorful show can be found up close and personal, and a hike offers an excellent way to reach this natural nirvana.
We’ve selected nine inspirational hikes that put you in the middle of spectacular spring wildflower blooms. Chosen for variety of locations, landscapes and level of challenge, these represent but a tiny sample of the hundreds of wonderful wildflower hikes across the country. Once you get started, you’ll want to look for opportunities wherever you go.

Zook/Sundance/Talon Loop, Cheyenne Mountain State Park
Out of Cheyenne Mountain State Park’s approximate 20 miles of trails, Pamela Irwin, native plant master and author of four wildflower hiking guides, recommends this combination loop. Start on Talon Loop, which shortly merges with Zook Trail; remain on Zook until it intersects Sundance, follow Sundance to Talon, and Talon back to the trail head.

On Zook Trail, prickly poppy, fleabane daisy and wild rose bloom among grasses. Species near an old ranch corral include chiming bells, yarrow, narrow-leaf penstemon and American vetch. On the Sundance Trail portion, overlooking Fort Carson, find yucca, orange paintbrush, wavyleaf thistle and evening primroses. Farther along, see perky Sue, snowberry, wild four o’clock and skullcap; in spots shaded by Ponderosa pine, many-flowered puccoon and spiderwort. In south-facing areas, find scarlet gaura and cowboy’s delight. A prairie dog town provides additional diversion.
Talon Loop passes through scrub oak and flowers such as blazing star, goldenrod, thimbleweed, sego lilies, silky locoweed and wallflower.
Distance: 3 miles
Elevation change: 200 feet
Peak: June
Cheyenne Mountain State Park, 410 JL Ranch Heights, 719.576.2016,

Guy Fleming Trail, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is named for the rarest pine in North America, Pinus torreyana, which once covered a large area of Pacific coast but now grows only here and on Santa Rosa Island. In addition to Torrey pine woodlands, the park includes coastal sage scrub and chaparral.
This short, relatively level trail has diverse scenery, including an up-close look at the pines, ocean vistas and, of course, native plants and wildflowers. These include bladderpod, bluedicks, Mojave yucca, golden yarrow, wild snapdragon, monkey flower, popcorn flower, common goldfields, California sunflower and rein orchids.
Other hiking options include Razor Point Trail, with dramatic views in addition to wildflowers; Parry Grove Trail, which has a native plant garden at the trailhead; Broken Hill Trail, which passes through chaparral; and the Beach Trail, a route popular for accessing the beach.
Distance: 0.7 miles
Elevation change:
Less than 10 feet
Peak: March – May
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, 12600 N. Torrey Pines Rd., San Diego, 858.755.2063.

Serpentine Loop, Edgewood Park and Natural Preserve
Known throughout the Bay Area as the place for spring wildflowers, according to president of Friends of Edgewood Bill Korbholz, this park houses more than 500 plant species within less than a square mile, some 70 percent of them native. The unique serpentine soil favors natives that adapted to its unusual mineral content. Serpentine endemics grow only on this soil, and the park has several species, including threatened Marin dwarf-flax and the endangered San Mateo thornmint, which are found nowhere else in the world.
Serpentine Loop offers the most spectacular wildflower viewing, says Korbholz, who recommends following Sylvan Trail from the parking lot to the Serpentine Loop. It passes through mixed woodland forest, where crimson columbine, spreading larkspur, checker lily, California saxifrage and common snowberry bloom. It also meanders through chaparral, which includes clovers, California bee plant, blue witch nightshade, pipestem and California yerba santa. It continues on through grassland, with a wealth of wildflowers from California blue-eyed grass to California buttercup, Abram’s woolstar, the aforementioned Marin dwarf-flax, rare stinkbells, common goldfields, coast range mule ears, California poppy, slenderflower sun cup and the charming brownies.
Easy to moderate
Distance: 3 miles
Elevation change: 500 feet
Peak: April
Park located at Edgewood and Old Stage Road, Redwood City, 650.368.6283. Free, docent-led walks available every spring weekend at 10 a.m. Trail map at (click on Edgewood, then Maps, then Trails)

Cady Ridge, Jackson Wilderness/Wenatchee National Forest
“When it comes to resplendent alpine meadows, the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness can’t be beat,” says hiking guide author Craig Romano, who recommends seeing it via Cady Ridge and West Cady Ridge trails. Wildflowers proliferate along the mile-high ridge, dominated by lupines and including paint brushes, alpine leafybract aster, gentians, mountain lady’s-slipper orchid, Columbia lily, Wenatchee valerian, white mountain-heather, phlox, buttercup, narrowleaf fireweed, crimson columbine and beardtongue. The 2,700-foot gain in elevation is strenuous, but the scenery is worth the effort.
At the trailhead, follow signs for Cady Creek and, at the next junction, to Cady Ridge. This trail crosses a creek and climbs a series of switchbacks, eventually cresting a 5,300-foot knoll with a view of Glacier Peak above a lupine meadow. Satisfied hikers can turn back here; otherwise, continue across an open slope with mountain views to what Romano calls “one of the finest alpine meadows this side of the Colorado Rockies.” Mountain peaks form a dramatic backdrop, and the route ends at the Pacific Crest Trail, 5,350 feet high and six miles from the trailhead. Backpackers can return to the meadow and bed down in sites located along the meadow’s edge.
Distance: 12 miles round-trip
Elevation gain: 2,700 feet
Peak: July and August
Jackson Wilderness lies within the Wenatchee National Forest, 509.548.2550, wenatchee-river/trails/

Paw Paw Prairie Fen Preserve
Paw Paw Prairie Fen Preserve, in southwest Michigan, houses a “botanical paradise,” according to The Nature Conservancy’s marketing manager Melissa Soule. Geologically and biologically unique wetlands found only in the glaciated Midwest, prairie fens feature tall grass prairie flora and fauna. This preserve also contains coastal plain marsh, a wetland community dominated by grassland rush.
Some 150 rare prairie fens have been identified in Michigan, says Brad Slaughter, conservation associate at Michigan Natural Features Inventory. The Paw Paw preserve is home to around 200 species of vascular plants, he says, more than documented at any other fen. Slaughter reports that hikers can see marsh blazing-star, a member of the sunflower family that grows up to 4 feet tall, with a dense bottle-brush of showy purple disk flowers. Two valerian species, one of them rare in Michigan, flower in late May and early June. Later in June, Indian plantain bursts out with creamy-white tubular flowers tipped in bright yellow-orange. The carnivorous purple pitcher plant and roundleaf sundew also live on the preserve.
Distance: Approx.1.5 miles
Elevation gain: insignificant
Peak: June – August
For directions and access, contact The Nature Conservancy Michigan Field Office, 616.785.7055,
/northamerica/states/michigan/preserves/ art17142.html

Breakneck Pond Trail, Bigelow Hollow State Park
New England hiker and author Jeff Romano (brother to Craig) recommends Breakneck Pond, a trail in Bigelow Hollow State Park with an abundance of mountain laurel, the state flower. The state park and adjacent Nipmuck State Forest offer a number of trails.
This one, the East Ridge Trail, follows an old roadway then traverses an open area, re-enters the woods, and climbs gently. Follow the Nipmuck Trail north through forest to Breakneck Hill Road, turn left, then remain on the Nipmuck to Breakneck Pond. The trail follows the pond for 1.6 miles, tunnels under abundant mountain laurel, and actually enters Massachusetts. Bear left at the pond’s northern end, cross a small stream, and go right onto the Ridge Trail. This winds around a wetland and through large boulders to the top of a forested ridge. Enjoy the view here, then descend to Breakneck Hill Road, which passes a small gate before branching onto a second road up the hill. The route goes up a sedge-covered ridge, then descends and follows the narrowing ridge line.
Moderately strenuous
Distance: 7.5 miles
Elevation gain: 350 feet
Peak: June
Bigelow Hollow State Park, 860-684-3430
Classic Hikes: New England, Jeff Romano, The Mountaineers Books.

Big Bend National Park, Chisos Basin
In this mostly desert park, wildflowers can be spectacular following rain. The higher Chisos Basin has more consistent rainfall and wildflowers. This loop combines several Basin trails for a day-long hike, beginning with the Laguna Meadow Trail, which offers views of the iconic Window formation. A notch in the mountain ring, the Window drains all rainfall from the Basin. Rising through a long series of switchbacks and steps, the trail reaches stands of colorful Texas madrone and Mexican buckeye trees that bloom in spring, says park ranger Jennette Timmer, as do beardtongues, Mexican catchfly, claret cup cactus and scarlet bouvardia, or firecracker bush, a Trans-Pecos endemic shrub.
The trail offers an amazing mountain vista at Blue Creek Overlook and traverses the mountains on the Colima Trail. On this wetter side of the mountains you’ll see mosses, mistletoes and perhaps two types of rare orchids, scarlet mock lady’s-tresses and crested-coralroot orchids. After rounding an exposed rocky point called Boot Rock, the trail enters a more open area, with the deep Juniper Canyon on the right, and continues descending on the Pinnacles Trail. Mints may be growing along the trailside cliffs. The route levels out into grassy Boulder Meadow, painted yellow in fall by blooming broom snakeweed, before heading back down to the Basin.
Distance: 8.6 miles
Elevation gain: 2,000 feet
Peak: April – May
Big Bend National Park Headquarters, Panther Junction, Highway 118, 432.477.2251,

Loop Trail, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area
One of the nation’s largest batholiths, or underground rock formation uncovered by erosion, Enchanted Rock covers 640 acres and rises 425 feet. Native Tonkawas attributed the rock’s creaking and groaning sounds to spirits and thought it enchanted. A 4-mile loop trail gives hikers view of all sides of the rock, plus plenty of wildflowers. The display in spring can’t be beat, and fall isn’t bad either.
The trail initially follows Sandy Creek, at times awash in bright yellow cowpen daisies. It crosses the creek, passes between Buzzard’s Roost and Freshman Mountain and levels onto a wide dirt path circling Enchanted Rock and neighboring Little Rock. The park contains open oak woodland, mesquite grassland and floodplain. Grasses and sedges such as Indian grass, bushybeard bluestem, frost weed and switchgrass form groundcover. Abundant wildflowers include Texas bluebonnet, Indian paintbrush, tickseed, bladderpod and the endemic basin bellflower.
Easy to moderate
Distance: 4 miles
Elevation gain: 160 feet
Peak: April
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, 16710 RR 965, Fredericksburg, Texas, 830.685.3636, website enchantedrock

Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park, Gap Point Nature Trail
A barrier island between the Gulf of Mexico and Apalachicola Bay, St. George Island stretches 29 miles. Nine of those lie in the state park, five accessible only by foot. This trail explores the bay side, beginning in the campground and traversing slash pine forest, sand scrub oak, blooming beach morning glory, slender goldentop, slender muhly grass, Florida rosemary, frogfruit, camphorweed, and blazing-star.

The trail dead-ends at the shallow water of St. George Sound. The tall pines and oaks here attract many species of birds, including migrants, wintering waterfowl, and nesting osprey and bald eagles. A number of trails in nearby Apalachicola National Forest, including 74 miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail, cover landscapes containing a variety of wildflowers.
Distance: 2.5 miles
Elevation gain: Less than 10 feet
Peak: April, October
St. George Island State Park, 1900 E. Gulf Beach Dr, 850.927.2111,
Apalachicola National Forest Trails, 904.942.9300.

Short Story

Five O'Clock Shadow and Other Stories, the 2000 Fish Anthology, contains my short story, Swift Water. Read about and order it here.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Texas Highways article

View a snippet of my article on New Braunfels here. Full story in the March 2010 issue of Texas Highways.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

2009 Ocean Science Journalism Fellows

Science writers, including moi, aka journalism fellows having fun in the sun at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution last September!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Hiking Talk

I'll be talking about hiking with your dog at the Gateway REI store on March 30. Come join me - it's free! More info here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Alumni Publications

Check out my article about writing for alumni publications, in the public section of the December 2009 ASJA Monthly.

Journalism Fellowships

See my article about journalism fellowships in the public section of the ASJA Monthly, the newsletter of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Hike Posted

Check out one of the hikes I mapped for, Closed Canyon in Big Bend Ranch State Park. More to come!

Friday, January 8, 2010

High Plains Vintners

See the full article in Texas Highways Magazine, January 2010 issue.
On a visit to Lubbock, among undulating fields of tall sunflowers or cotton, you might be surprised to spy neat rows of carefully tended grapevines winding along miles of trellis. You may find it even more surprising that those grapes end up in some of the state’s finest wines.

During a recent exploration of several Lubbock area wineries, I learned why. Good wine starts with good grapes. Good grapes start with the right kind of dirt. And the Texas Panhandle, it turns out, has that in spades.

“The soil here is excellent for growing quality grapes,” says grower Bobby Cox, who first planted grapes here in 1972 and now works as a viticultural consultant to West Texas farmers. Today, on 162 acres of this amenable soil, Cox grows Merlot, Chenin Blanc, Orange Muscat, Muscat Blanc, Marsanne, Syrah, and Nebbiolo grapes, which he sells to wineries across the state. Other Panhandle attributes that create heavenly grapes include cool nights, high altitude, and a dry climate, which combine to limit vine diseases and improve fruit quality.

“The High Plains is an enchanting place to grow grapes,” agrees Gregory Bruni, winemaker at Lubbock’s Llano Estacado Winery. Llano Estacado, which produces more than two million bottles of wine annually, purchases most of its winemaking grapes from vineyards in the High Plains and Far West Texas.

Roughly 8.9 million acres around Lubbock represent the High Plains American Viticultural Area, one of eight federally designated AVAs in Texas. For a winemaker to include an appellation such as High Plains on its label, 85 percent of the grapes used to make it must have grown within the region. Winemakers would love to tout Texas appellations on more of their labels, but even with Texas farmers planting grapevines as fast as they can, they don’t yet grow enough to meet the demand.

“Anything you could want in a wine you can find in a Texas wine,” says Bobby Cox. “People who like Chardonnay will probably like Texas Viognier. If you’re a fan of Sauvignon Blanc, you might like Vermentino. And if you normally drink Pinot Noir, try Texas-grown Sangiovese—it has the varietal’s characteristic expansive flavor.”
'Anything you could want in a wine you can find in a Texas wine.'

Viognier wines are aromatic and fruity, he adds. “They have what we would call a tropical fruit flavor, a refreshing taste. They’re especially good if it’s hot outside, and they complement foods such as grilled chicken, cream-based pastas, and mild cheeses like Provolone and Gruyère. Sangiovese grapes, most commonly used to make Italian Chianti, create a medium-bodied red wine with a little more acid—think ‘brightness’—than your typical Merlot. I recommend drinking Sangiovese with foods made with tomatoes, such as pizza, or what the heck, hamburgers.”

Tempranillo, a big purple grape native to Spain, make wines with pronounced fruit flavor that Cox likes to pair with steak, grilled meat, and barbecue.

“We make wine in a climate of extremes—we have extreme heat, cold, and wind, and it’s oftentimes very arid. To grow grapes in the High Plains requires application of good science,” says Gregory Bruni. But, he says, Texas farmers, and those in the High Plains in particular, definitely grow quality fruit. “As the Texas wine industry continues to evolve, grapes are getting better and wines are getting better,” Bruni says.
High Plains Wineries

* Llano Estacado Winery, on FM 1585, 3.2 miles east of US 87 in Lubbock, offers tastings and a gift shop. Hours: Mon-Sat 10-4, Sat noon-4. Call 806/745-2258
* McPherson Cellars, at 1615 Texas Ave. in Lubbock, offers tastings and tours Mon-Sat 10-6 (expanded hours in summer). Call 806/ 687-WINE,
* La Diosa Cellars, at 901 17th St. in Lubbock, includes a tasting room, gift shop, and bistro. Hours: Tue-Fri 11- midnight, Sat noon-midnight. Call 806/744-3600.

Other High Plains wineries that offer tours and/or tastings include Pheasant Ridge Winery in Lubbock, 806/746-6033; CapRock Winery in Lubbock, 806/686-4452; and Bar Z Wines near Canyon, 806/488-2214.

For more information about Texas wines, vineyards, tasting rooms, and winery tours, call 866/4TX-WINE;

Las Tortugas en Espanol

See the Spanish version of my sea turtle monitoring and kayaking expedition post on The Esperanza Project here: