KHOU Series on Hidden Buffalo Bayou Featuring Tom Helm

Discover Scenic Secrets of Buffalo Bayou with Reporter Brandi Smith and Geologist Tom Helm

Nov. 17, 2018

KHOU television (Channel 11) is airing a four-part series on the hidden wilderness of Buffalo Bayou in Houston. Thank you, KHOU. Titled “Brandi on the Bayou: Buffalo Bayou’s Hidden Wilderness,” the series is reported by KHOU’s Brandi Smith and airs Tuesday mornings at 6 a.m.

The first episode was broadcast Tuesday, Nov. 13, and featured geologist, river guide, naturalist, and Save Buffalo Bayou board member Tom Helm.

You can watch that first episode here. The next episode airs Tuesday, Nov. 20, at 6 a.m. and the final episode on Dec. 4. All the episodes will be available online.

Tom Helm talking beavers and geology in “Brandi on the Bayou: Buffalo Bayou’s Hidden Wilderness,” airing Tuesdays at 6 a.m. on KHOU Channel 11 through Dec. 4.

But you don’t have to be a television reporter to float down Buffalo Bayou learning from Tom Helm.

Helm offers geology classes on the bayou. Find out more about the ancient history of this 18,000-year-old bayou, where it comes from, where it’s going, and why understanding the natural function of a dynamic river is important for effective flood risk reduction. Houston has rocks, and they are hundreds of thousands of years old!

In addition Helm offers a Happy Hour Bat Trip with refreshments on Buffalo Bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park.

Fall Photographing with Jim Olive, a Butterfly, and a Coral Snake

Monarch Discovers Daisies on That Bend in the Bayou. Big Coral Snake Slithers By

Nov. 17, 2018

We were a little delayed for a fall photo of that Bend in the River. We have been documenting this particular place on Buffalo Bayou through the seasons for more than four years. Photographer Jim Olive has obligations elsewhere these days, so we had to go with the day he could be here and the early morning weather on that day.

It was overcast and the flow was a high, a little under 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). It had been raining. Base flow in the bayou–normal flow when it’s not raining–is about 150-200 cfs.

But we waited and waited for the right moment, which is what a professional photographer does. We were standing on that same high bank in Memorial Park in the middle of Houston looking at the bayou flowing downstream with River Oaks Country Club property on the opposite bank. It was the same location, but as you can see if you look at Jim’s series of photos, it has changed through the years. Nature is not static.

Jim Olive at work documenting that Bend in the Bayou from that same high bank in Memorial Park. Photo Nov. 6, 2018, by SC

Jim patiently shifted position and cameras and lenses. In the meantime, as usual, the photographer’s assistant wandered off, looking around, mainly for something edible to forage, and found some small puffball mushrooms growing on a rotting log. These little, round white mushrooms are variously described as “edible” or “choice.” The latter means delicious. “Edible” means they won’t kill you but they don’t necessarily taste good.

There were daisies growing on the high bank, and suddenly a big orange and black Monarch butterfly was fluttering there, feeding on the flowers on its way to Mexico. If you look closely, you can see where it had been in Jim’s photo.

Fall 2018 on that Bend in the River. Water was high and the morning was cloudy just after sunrise. Photo by Jim Olive on Nov. 6, 2018.

As we were leaving we encountered the most beautiful coral snake on the path through the woods, right where we had seen a gigantic, sleeping king snake coiled up in the old, broken drainage pipes left over from Camp Logan, the World War I training camp and military hospital that occupied this land back then. This snake was “red and yellow, kill a fellow” and not “red and black, all right, Jack,” so definitely a coral snake. Turns out there are numerous variations of this ditty we learned as children to distinguish a highly venomous coral snake from the harmless milk snake. But a coral snake is not aggressive. And it can hardly bite. So not really dangerous at all unless you try to pick it up. This one was very large and shiny. Jim, an expert naturalist, thought maybe it had just shed its skin.

Here is a video of the coral snake.

As for the little puffballs, they were okay. Ordinary, really. Not as delicious as the honey mushrooms or oyster mushrooms one can find growing in the park and along the bayou. The photographer’s assistant made a mushroom omelette.

Puffball omelette with scallions.



How Katy Prairie Landowners Could Help Houston Fight Flooding

A Conversation with Jim Blackburn

Blackburn is an environmental lawyer, founder of the Bayou City Initiative, and co-director of the  Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center (SSPEED) at Rice University in Houston

Nov. 13, 2018

Q: How could preserving the Katy Prairie help minimize flooding?

A: Preserving the Katy Prairie alone can be useful and, with management, even private lands that are in cattle production can be useful. Mainly, it is about getting roots to penetrate the soil and water following the roots down into the ground. If you combine that will a small levee like what is in rice fields, you can perhaps pond another foot of water on the flat land. Together, the potential to store water is substantial.

Q: It’s been said that the Katy Prairie acts like a natural sponge. How does this work?

A: The roots of prairie grasses penetrate and break the soil, and in doing so, they create natural pathways. There is space around the root, and the water naturally penetrates. Those roots go down five or six feet. With roots in the soil, a very impermeable clay soil can become permeable.

Read the rest of this article in the Houston Chronicle.

The Katy Prairie west of Houston. Photograph by Steve Gonzales for the Houston Chronicle

KPFT Radio Accidentally Revives Dead Bayou Project

Five-Year-Old Interview About Memorial Park Demonstration Project Causes Confusion

Nov. 12, 2018


Well, we were confused too and a little upset as we listened to Evelyn Merz of the Houston Sierra Club being interviewed this afternoon on KPFT by Mike Honig of Thinkwing Radio about the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. That project would have stripped, dredged, and rerouted over a mile of Buffalo Bayou flowing past Memorial Park in the middle of Houston. The stretch is a historic nature area, one of the last remaining publicly-accessible forested stretches of the bayou in the city.

But the more we listened, the odder is seemed. Above all because the project is dead. Save Buffalo Bayou was founded over four years ago to stop this pointless project, which was promoted by Kevin Shanley of SWA Group, the landscape architecture firm responsible for Buffalo Bayou Park. (See the problems here.) The firm also happened to be on retainer with the Harris County Flood Control District, which became the official sponsor of the project, believing it had community support. Shanley was then the president of the Bayou Preservation Association. And for a time the project manager for the engineering firm hired to do the project was also on the board of the association.

In any case, it was a terrible, unpopular idea that served no good purpose and wasn’t going to work anyway. Based on a faulty analysis of bank collapse on the bayou, the project cost had increased from $6 million to $12 million. And after Harvey in August 2017, Flood Control District Director Russ Poppe, who inherited the project from his predecessor, publicly declared at a Bayou Preservation Association symposium that the project would not be going forward.

It turned out that the radio interview with Merz was five years old, and someone at KPFT had pulled it off the shelf to fill air time.

Merz, a member of Save Buffalo Bayou’s advisory board, was outside doing chores during the broadcast and just as surprised as everyone else to hear about it. She is also chair of the conservation committees of the Lone Star (Texas state) Chapter of the Sierra Club as well as the Houston Regional Group of the Sierra Club,

Station manager Don Freeman was apologetic, explaining the station operates “on a shoestring.” We urge everyone to support the nonprofit KPFT, a valuable public resource.


Looking upstream on Buffalo Bayou from a high bank in Memorial Park. Photo Nov. 6, 2018, by SC



Birds of the Bayou

Report from Buffalo Bayou beat correspondent Janice Van Dyke Walden

Nov. 11, 2018

I had the great pleasure this weekend to take wildlife photographer Greg Lavaty canoeing down Buffalo Bayou to photograph birds. In the three hours of an overcast morning in the section of Memorial Park/River Oaks, Greg heard or spotted 33 bird species (full list below, along with some of his photos). Many thanks to Gary Studwell who helped crew so Greg could have a stable experience in fast water. It is truly wonderful that we have this wild corridor in the middle of our nation’s fourth largest city. Let’s keep it wild.

  • Eastern Phoebe. Photo copyright Greg Lavaty
  • Great egret. Photo copyright Greg Lavaty
  • Red-shouldered hawk. Photo copyright Greg Lavaty
  • Red-shouldered hawk. Photo copyright Greg Lavaty
  • Northern flicker. Photo copyright Greg Lavaty
  • Juvenile cattle egret. Photo copyright Greg Lavaty
  • Great blue heron. Photo copyright Greg Lavaty
  • Great egret. Photo copyright Greg Lavaty
  • American kestrel. Photo copyright by Greg Lavaty



List of birds heard or seen on this bayou trip:

Muscovy (domestic)
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Eurasian Collared-Dove
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove
Rock Pigeon
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
White-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Carolina Wren
House Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle

Growing, Growing Grass and Boys

Boy Scouts Help Nature on Buffalo Bayou


Oct. 31, 2018


On a fine Saturday morning last March, a small group of Boy Scouts got together with shovels and some potted plants and headed towards the public boat launch in Memorial Park near Woodway. Under the leadership of now 15-year-old Austen Furse, their goal was to plant gamagrass on the upper bank of Buffalo Bayou. The native grass is a stabilizer plant, known for its deep-rooted ability to hold the bank together.

Stabilizers are one of two basic categories of riparian plants that naturally work in succession to fix a sandy bank. There are colonizer plants that spread out near the water’s edge, sending out shallow roots. They prepare the way for the stabilizers with stronger, deeper roots. Stabilizers, which can be grassy or woody, help dissipate the erosive flow of the water and collect sediment to incorporate into the bank and hold it together. Riparian plants, including trees like willows and sycamores, generally work to absorb and cleanse water, among other benefits. The bayou, like other streams, naturally does this intelligent landscaping, although sometimes competing plants that aren’t supposed to be there intrude, fugitives from lawns and gardens, for example.

It was early March, and the bank was almost bare. Once a wooded nature trail, the public area had been stripped and graded more than four years ago to install a massive concrete outfall that drains stormwater from Post Oak Road. The mowed upper banks were planted with non-native, rapidly spreading Bermuda grass, the lower banks hardened with fake stone. And after three big floods, most recently the monster flow in Buffalo Bayou from Hurricane Harvey, the area was not looking so good.

This was Furse’s project to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. He is also a contender for the Hornaday Prize for natural resource conservation projects. The five boys helping him were all from Troop 55 of the Sam Houston Area Council. Within a few hours they had planted some 200 plants.

“Austen is a great young man,” said Daniel Walton, conservation coordinator for the Memorial Park Conservancy, the private nonprofit that manages the public park. “The way he handled it all was pretty impressive.”

Furse said that until a recent kayak trip, he had never really seen the bayou “which we drive by everyday.” He said it was “so cool.” That he saw “snakes and things.” This brief interview took place in October, in the midst of the growing gamagrass, as giant dragonflies buzzed like noisy, low-flying helicopters all around.

In the months that followed the initial planting Furse returned to monitor the grass, documenting its growth, sending reports, notifying Walton of potential threats like mowers and competing invasive weeds. At one point the bank was overtaken by an army of horseweed, which though native, can take over and monopolize disturbed areas, pushing out other native plants, points out native plant expert Katy Emde, a member of Save Buffalo Bayou’s advisory board. A variety of native plants supports a variety of insects, which in turn support a variety of wildlife.

“I think it is always interesting to see how plants that can be annoying are beneficial, nonetheless,” wrote Emde in an email. “It turns out that most native plants are beneficial, even if they are not our favorites.”

Furse also sent photos to Save Buffalo Bayou. And it was difficult to tell which was growing faster: Austen or the gamagrass.

Thank you, Austen Furse, and your helpers and advisors in Troop 55.

  • Boy Scout Austen Furse, third from left, and his fellow scouts from Troop 55 in March 2018.
  • Planting gamagrass on the bank of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park at Woodway. March 2018.
  • Furse checking out the newly planted gamagrass (foreground) amidst a field of native Conyza (horseweed) on May 20, 2018.
  • About one week later, Furse and a shoot from the gamagrass.
  • Austen and the gamagrass on June 10, 2018.
  • Boy Scout Furse and gamagrass one month later in July. Photos by his mother, Anne.
  • View of the landscape at the outfall/boat launch at Woodway in July.
  • Austen checking out the growing gamagrass on August 26, 2018.
  • Austen surrounded by gamagrass and willows on Oct. 14, 2018. Photo by SC.