Critters and NOLA

the very tiny Spiny orb weaver spider that made this great web in our backyard

In the past few weeks things have really warmed up here in Houston.

Just as we got home from our fabulous Utah trip, Rob left for a work trip and I went to New York to visit my sister, who was at a conference there and also stay with friends for a few lovely days. New York Central Park in summer is so beautiful (I have only seen it in winter before).

Central Park New York-summer 2019

Anyway, since getting back the weather has been HOT every day. We have had quite a lot of summer storms but that is to be expected when it is so hot and humid. Houston has a latitude of about 29N. It is about 3300km from the equator (similar to Grafton in NSW) but the proximity to the warm Gulf of Mexico, lots of lakes and rivers and the flat topography combine to make it extremely humid. Its weather patterns are really like a tropical region, with just two seasons, rainy and dry. The annual average rainfall in Houston is over 1200mm, more than Townsville Qld, so it is very wet. We have been having big thunderstorms most days for the past couple of weeks. (I love thunderstorms….just saying..). The water lies around in big dish gutters once it rains and the flood mitigation reservoirs are close into the suburban areas and are huge areas of low-lying greenspaces, all adding to the humidity. The streets are briefly completely flooded when it rains hard. Its is most humid in the mornings around 90%. The condensation on the outside of our windows is remarkable. We use the air conditioner at night to keep the house cooler and so the windows fog up on the outside! The evening humidity is usually less, around 70% but it depends on if we are having a storm. Consequently, even though the temperatures are around 33C most days, the humidity makes it feel over 40C.

These nice warm temperatures really suit the reptiles and insects. I drove out of our garage on Thursday last week and as I closed the garage door I glanced across towards the front of the house and there was a large snake quickly slithering towards the front door garden. I think it was about 1.2 meters long and stripy. I reflected, that if I was in Australia, I would be thinking tiger snake. It was moving very fast, (I guess I just about ran over it) but stopped in the low hedge out on the verge area. I got out of the car to take a photo incase I needed to get a snake handler to remove it. I was thinking how crazy that seemed but, I had seen that it wasn’t a viper which are the most likely poisonous snakes around here. It didn’t want to have its photo taken and headed for the hedge right next to our front door. One of my neighbors was out the front of his house and came over to have a look. He put his hand into the bushes to push them aside to have a look! (As an Australian I thought that was a bit crazy) and he assured me that because the snakes head and body were about the same diameter it was not likely to be poisonous. That is not a rule of thumb to follow for Australian poisonous snakes, by-the-way. Anyway, that was a bit of up-close excitement. I expect the snake was after the little skink lizards that are everywhere around here. I’m pretty sure it was a rat snake.

A couple of weekends ago we went to Corpus Christi. It’s about a three hour drive south west from Houston, with a stop at Aunt Aggie De’s Praline shop in Sinton. There is a statue of a big squirrel out the front and an excellent little shop selling yummy pecan praline and pecan brittle.

Corpus Christi is an interesting place. As you drive in its highly industrial with oil and gas processing plants all along the river. Then you come to the business area of town and an enormous bridge over the river with an old aircraft carrier moored next to it. The ship is the USS Lexington which was commissioned in 1943 and served in the US navy until 1991. It is now a museum and was quite an fascinating place to look around. I thought how frightening it would have been to be inside it when it was involved in combat during the war. Apparently, the Japanese announced on four separate occasions that it had been sunk so it was nicknamed the grey ghost.

Corpus Christi and the Lexington Museum

The beach at Corpus Christi is on the Gulf of Mexico, so, no waves, except those caused by the wind, and it was very windy. Along the Gulf coast from Mexico to Galveston Island are a series of long sand barrier islands that protect the mainland from the water of the gulf; handy in hurricanes. The area off Corpus Christi is designated a National Seashore. Which is a national park on the sea. It is called Padre Island National Seashore and is an area rich in nature. Lots of turtle species nest on S. Padre Island and it is managed by the national parks service. They allow the public to come and watch the baby turtle release early in the morning. Unfortunately, there was no baby turtle release the day we were there but we know about it now, so might be back. The Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle is unique to this area and lay their eggs on the beaches, along with leatherbacks and green sea turtles. The  nesting areas are carefully protected and monitored. The national parks officer told us to go to a jetty near town to see turtles in the wild. We saw about four juvenile green sea turtles swimming around. It was lovely to see although there was also a large amount of plastic debris in the water too.  We were really struck by the juxtaposition of the heavy industrial and nature trying to coexist. The national parks service is obviously doing a great job, but I fear one oil or chemical spill and it will be all over.

S. Padre Island National Seashore

The beaches (and parks) of Corpus Christi are beautiful with white soft sand. When you go to the beach, you park right on the sand. It felt kind of bizarre driving our 2WD Audi onto a beach. Despite being quite hot, it was a very windy weekend so (spoilt Australians) did not feel tempted to get in the (not blue, kind of brown) water.

Our drive home took us further up the barrier islands and we crossed at the biggest domestic car ferry terminal I’ve seen. There were 6 ferries crossing a very busy but short waterway. There were oilrigs sitting in the river waiting to go into service, huge boats going up and down, tugs pushing barges and these 6 car ferries. In the middle of it all was a big pod of dolphins, just having a great time like there was nothing else about. Again, an example of nature adapting (I hope).

Last weekend we ventured the other direction (East) and headed to New Orleans Louisiana, or NOLA as it is known. This was a five-and-a-half-hour drive, so we got a fairly early start. Like Houston, the coastline towards Louisiana is flat, flat, flat. We soon seemed to be on bridges more often than land roads. Crawfish ponds were everywhere. Crawfish are freshwater yabbies. The ponds are rotated to grow rice in the other year. It’s a great idea. We stopped in a little place outside of Lafayette called the Gator Chateau. Here you can hold baby alligators and talk to the handlers. The babies are quite cute, like most babies, and their underbellies are super soft. We enjoyed that little break and it got us interested in doing an airboat swamp cruise. We picked up a few brochures and booked one on the Lac Des Allemande, about 30 minutes out of New Orleans.

After we left Lafayette, we travelled over one of the longest bridges in the US. It’s over the Atchafalaya Basin and the bridge is 18.2 miles long of mostly dual bridges, two lanes wide. The Atchafalaya basin contains the largest connected block of forested wetlands remaining (about 35%) in the lower Mississippi River valley and the largest block of floodplain forest in the United States. Its about 70% (cypress) forest sitting in the water and 30% marsh lands. Its really quite remarkable. The birdlife, even from the road at 60mph was amazing. The wetlands of Louisiana are under threat due to the flood levies put up in the 1930’s and the damming of the Mississippi River which would naturally dump tons of sediment into the delta everyday but now does not. Balancing the needs of the resident people with the natural environment is difficult at the best of times but climate change seems to be having a huge effect on this already damaged ecosystem. Our tour guide suggested that a football-field size of wetland is being lost every day (or was it every hour?). The impact that will have on the gulf coast is significant.

We traveled to Baton Rouge where we looked on trip adviser for somewhere to have lunch. We found Louie’s café. Wow it was a real picture postcard classic diner. The food was good too. We drove around the university lake in Baton Rouge and it felt like we were in “Gone With the Wind”. The mansions were beautiful, and some were that classic “southern” white house. Gorgeous.

From Baton Rouge we headed to the airboat tour. We sat on the first row of seats on the airboat, collected out ear protection and headed off. Going up the river was pretty with water hyacinth, ducks and little turtles. As we got into the swamp the egrets and cranes became more abundant. The Whooping Crane is the tallest bird in the US; it has a wingspan of 2.3m and stands 1.5m tall; and we saw a couple of them at the Zoo in Houston a few weeks ago but did not see any on this tour. They are beautiful white birds and have black tips on their wings that you can see when they fly. However, we did see some other enormous birds: the Great Blue Heron; it has a wingspan of up to 2m, and the Great Egret; wingspan 1.5m, which is a large white bird that was endangered due to over hunting for their pure white feathers in the 1800’s early 1900’s; they are making a comeback.

The real interest in the tour was of course the alligators. They are really very different to crocodiles; they seem much less threatening (from the safety of the boat). Our guide fed two big males each about 12 feet long at different places and I was brave enough to pat one. There is a clip on my Facebook page if you haven’t seen it. There would be no way I would get that close on purpose to a salt water croc. I was surprised and pleased to note that the gator, who climbed onto the edge of the boat to get fed, reminded me of the crocodile in the original PeterPan. I do not know why that stuck with me, but it did. Disney must have used an alligator to mimic rather than a real crocodile.

Alligator up close

Finally we arrived in New Orleans and checked into the hotel, walking distance from Canal and Bourbon streets. That evening we walked along Canal street to the river and watched the steamboat go out. The Mississippi River is still used as a transport corridor. It starts way up north in Minnesota and is the second longest river in the US. (The longest one is the Missouri River which empties into the Mississippi.) Apparently, a raindrop that falls in Lake Itasca where the river begins, takes about 90 days for it to reach the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans. It was flowing quite quickly even though we were right at the delta. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mississippi_River_-_New_Orleans.jpg

We kept walking until we found Jackson square. This is sort of the heart of the French Quarter and reflects the history of European New Orleans. Jackson Square was the site of the hand over of Louisiana from Spanish to French and then the signing of the Louisiana Purchase. Louisiana territory in the mid 1800’s stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, and Louisiana to Montana; it was big. Napoleon apparently traded New Orleans for $7, but the whole purchase cost more than $11 million. It must have really opened up the continent.

Jackson Square also has the beautiful St Louis Cathedral which is apparently the oldest cathedral in the USA. It was rebuilt in stone and brick after the great fire of New Orleans in the late 1700’s. There are lots of great restaurants all around the area of course but we decided to try a seafood one right on Jackson Square with a view of the river walk called the Moon Walk. Cajun food is spicy but not as hot as Mexican. We loved it. Next time we will do a food and history tour. and try more Cajun and Creole food.

After dinner we walked to Frenchmen Street to go to the Spotted Cat Music Club. It was packed and the band was fabulous. There were lots of these little music bars all along Frenchmen Street. As it was summer and the fourth of July week, the whole street was busy and felt like a party. We caught the St Charles Street streetcar back to the hotel around midnight. FUN!

The next morning, we headed back over to Jackson Square to get on the Hop-on Hop-off bus. We have found this a really good way to get to know a city (in a bit of a hurry). New Orleans seemed to be freshly washed down; although, as it was early there were a few drunks passed out in the gutters. The police were picking them up as we wandered by. We did the entire bus tour which took us to places like Basin Street Station and Armstrong park (I thought how much my dad would have loved it). We drove through Tremẻ‍, the Garden District and the French Quarter. It was beautiful in places and run down in others. The garden district was very grand and pretty. We also discovered something called shotgun houses. In a shot gun house there are no walls inside; so the story goes, you could fire a shotgun from the front door through the back door and not hit anything. We also learned about the difference between a balcony and a gallery house; it’s what holds up the top floor verandah (or not). Support columns mean it is a gallery and no supports make it a balcony.

After our tour took us back to Jackson Square, we walked through the French markets, which were just the same as all flea markets of the world, and had a stop to listen to some more great music in a café nearby. We finally made it down Bourbon street and peered into the shady courtyards behind the bars.  We must come back again. What a fabulous and interesting town.

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