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July 08, 2009

Avian Wildlife Abounds at Willow Waterhole Stormwater Detention Basin

A nest containing four baby Cooper's hawks - an uncommon find in urbanized areas - was recently spotted at the Willow Waterhole Stormwater Detention Basin in southwest Houston, a site that has attracted more than 120 species of birds since the Harris County Flood Control District began excavating the basin to reduce flooding risks for thousands of area residents and businesses, while also creating habitat for wildlife.

"People have gotten such a kick out of it," said Joy Hester, board member and past president of the Houston Audubon Society, whose members recently discovered the nest while conducting a routine bird count at the 280-acre site, which has quickly become a hot spot for avid bird watchers in Houston. "It's amazing to see how thrilled people get about these birds," she said.

Protecting the Young… at High Speed
The nest was spotted when the hawks' protective parents dive-bombed birders walking along a wooded trail near Willow Waterhole Bayou. "You don't have to find the nest. They will find you," said Ben Hulsey, board member of the Houston Audubon Society and the first to photograph the chicks. "They led me to the nest by harassing me."

Cooper's hawks are known for their ability to fly at rapid rates through forested areas and prey on other birds. So, it's rare to see other birds near the hawks' nests, Hester said. Because their blue-grey plumage with warm undertones resembles that of the sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper's hawks can be difficult to identify. The chicks and fledglings, however, have brown backs and white breasts with scattered brown streaks.

Basin is Home to Many Bird Species
Other hawks that have been spotted at the Willow Waterhole basin include red shouldered hawks, red tailed hawks and American kestrels. "I've seen more hawks there per acre than in any other urban setting," Hulsey said. Other unusual or dramatic bird sightings at the site include the Wilson warbler, great cheek thrush, roseate spoonbills, snowy egrets, night herons and black-necked stilts.

"You would never believe from driving through the area there would be such a variety of birds," said Hulsey, who has visited the site nearly 10 times since discovering the area five months ago. Even birds typically drawn to the shore such as laughing gulls and ring-billed gulls have been spotted. "It's even better in the winter because a lot of birds that winter there you won't see later on," Hulsey added about various migratory warblers.

Although the Willow Waterhole basin is being constructed to reduce flooding risks and damages in the Brays Bayou watershed, it has been designed by the Flood Control District to be environmentally friendly. Its six stormwater storage compartments, three of which have been excavated, will ultimately hold more than 600 million gallons of stormwater. Inside the compartments, which retain a certain amount of stormwater year-round, are thousands of specifically chosen wetlands plants that attract many types of birds, including ducks. The District also has planted thousands of trees and has plans to plant thousands more.

Multi-use Projects Enhance the District's Mission 
"We see no reason to be 100 percent utilitarian in what we do," said Glenn Laird, director of the Environmental Services Division at the Flood Control District. "Job No. 1 is reducing flood damages in Harris County, but in keeping with our mission statement, having appropriate regard for community and natural values leads us to want to restore habitat in an urban environment."

Hester said she is grateful for the multi-purpose aspects of the flood control project. "It's all about how it's done and getting the right vegetation in," she said. "If not, you would just have big holes out there."