All about the catwalk

Oilfield tank battery catwalk needed at the Sibley Nature Center

Published Apr 14th 2010 in Habitats

The Sibley Nature Center often presents programs to groups of oil company retirees. I love such opportunities, for I get to hear some mighty interesting stories during the meal before I get up to speak. When working in the oil field, a person gets many chances to observe wildlife. Some of the folks become ardent naturalists.

A couple of years ago I gave a talk at the Petroleum Museum brown bag luncheon series about wildlife in the oilfield. In the talk I told them about many of the stories I had heard over the years. I discussed the amazing number of species of organisms that benefit from oil field activity. Nighthawks and killdeer often nest on the edge of the caliche pads around a unit. Ash-throated flycatchers build nests in open-ended pipes. Lots of birds perch on the catwalk handrails. Birds, deer, rabbits, and other mammals often “shade up” on the north side of a tank battery. Over in Nolan County an endangered species of buckwheat is found at the edge of the caliche roads, for it colonizes disturbed gravel. I have found kestrels and kingbirds nesting on a ledge on the underside of a pumpjack moving up and down.

Once when I was helping my mom do a Breeding Bird Census in the vegetated sanddunes of western Andrews County, a pumper stopped as I was photographing a wildflower. He got out of his truck holding Barton Warnock’s “Wildflowers of the Guadalupe Mountains and the Sanddune Country,” with his finger inside the book. After saying howdy and asking if I had the book, he opened it and showed me a photo, asking me if I had ever seen the species ( Penstemon Buckleyii) and then told me that the largest he had ever seen was just up the road a little ways. “This book is a blast,” he told me, “I have been working this field for several years when this book came out. I have always enjoyed how spectacular the flowers in the dunes are, and now I know these flowers like old friends. I check on that big penstemon every spring.”

Don Merritt is another fellow that became interested in learning more about what he was seeing, and returned to his pumping route on his days off with his wife, JoAnn, who became interested in the birds. Don has told me about some of the things that he has seen. “I was up on the catwalk of a tank battery one morning, and when I finished checking the cages I just stood up there, enjoying the breeze and the early morning coolness. I looked around for a while, and noticed some movement. I could see a smallish snake digging in the soil beneath me. Snakes don’t dig, they just go into other animals’ holes, so I investigated. I couldn’t see the head of the snake at first, but in a minute it backed up until the head was revealed. It was a hog-nosed snake that had just dug up a toad.”

A fellow at one of the programs told me another story about wildlife on catwalks on tank batteries. “I came up one time, and when my head got level with the catwalk a big owl flew straight at my head. I almost lost my balance and fell. As I struggled to keep my balance the owl swung around and came at me again. I got down in a hurry and ran back to my truck. I looked at the tank battery and saw that it laid an egg on top of a control box in between the tanks. I hated to do it, and it was scary, but I got a shovel and went back up there, swinging at the owl when it swooped at me and got to the egg and busted it. I knew I was breaking the law, but I had no choice. Once the egg was broken it made a couple more passes and then left. It didn’t come back.”

The Sibley Nature Center is in need of about 75 feet of tank battery catwalk. As part of the new construction at the Center, we rebuilt the pond. Our photography blind is on one side of the pond and a new shade structure with seating and signage will be completed on the other side. We would like a bridge, and a catwalk welded to drillstem pipe would work perfectly. If you can help us out, please call me at 684-6827.