I awoke early for the long-awaited Willow Waterhole sojourn. For many months my dad has been urging I join him for a crack-of-dawn bird watching expedition. Now at the end of the year, just days before Christmas, I finally ran out of reasons not to go, reasons mired in an acute fear of daybreak (phengophobia?) and screaming alarm clocks (chronomentrophobia?). It was a stunning mind over body moment, one where I managed to not only unhinge myself from a deep coma, but also arrive within five minutes of the agreed upon time. My parents, agape, threw streamers in celebration.

The three pond habitat, just south of Houston’s 610 loop, is barely noticeable from the road. However at 279 acres it’s not an insignificant tract of land. Foremost, the Willow Waterhole provides critical flood control for Brays Bayou. Should we get hit with another epic rain event, like, say, Tropical Storm Allison, the excess water will safely accumulate in its network of reservoirs.

But it also doubles as a nature preserve, which might seem odd given its location. These water bodies and their surrounding marshes live below rows of low-income housing, strip centers, and factories. Nonetheless, the Waterhole teems with exotic faunae: turtles and egrets, great blue herons and caracaras: indigenous wildlife thriving where not expected. It may well be one of the finest non-sequiturs in our strange city. A serene and oddly quiet place too, despite the occasional roar of buses and other urban rumbles.

It’s clear that the Waterhole has yet to catch the attention of the city. At least today it was completely free of other humans. But birds? The Audubon Society has counted over 120 species.

So there we were, snapping pictures, walking through muddy terrain (I definitely wore the wrong pants), training our lens on fast moving falcons, meandering herons, and stationary turtles. I shot 15 photos. My dad, 200. In the last year, he has become one of the park’s biggest advocates, visiting several times a month with gigabytes of beautiful photographs to show for it. Last summer he compiled shots of these iconic birds into a 2012 calendar, which they now sell to raise money and awareness. And of course, its inhabitants have made cameos on his radio show: http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2574.htm

Here he is aiming toward a pair of Caracaras (“care-uh-care-uh,” a type of falcon):

He later emailed the resulting photo:

And others from today’s expedition:

We visited all three of the ponds in the Willow Waterhole, though I was corrected: the Waterhole prefers we call them lakes (the difference explained). Incidentally in the next few years, it will double in size with the addition of three more “lakes”.

More on the Willow Waterhole project: Chronicle Story