The Whistlers of Brazos Bend


Black-bellied whistling ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis) are described by the Cornell birding site as ‘boisterous,’ and a better word couldn’t be chosen. Whether in flight or calling to one another from the treetops, their loud, piercing whistle is unmistakable, and their tendency to form large groups only increases the racket.

Although they will nest on the ground, their preference for nesting in tree cavities and perching on open branches makes them relatively easy to spot. Their brightly colored bills often can be seen even when the birds are hidden away in reeds or grasses.

At Brazos Bend, the few dead and dying tree trees allowed to stand at the edge of Elm Lake provided a resting spot for these birds after a night of foraging among the abundant lotuses, duckweed, and smartweed.

Seen at close range, these large, colorful ducks are among my favorites: their appearance seems as bold and brash as their behavior. Their breeding range extends somewhat to the north, but they can be found throughout the year in coastal Texas: a fact that pleases me greatly.


Comments always are welcome.

62 thoughts on “The Whistlers of Brazos Bend

  1. Fabulous pictures, Linda. In every area of the world there are species that have an extra oompf to them, and even though I am delirious at the thought of northern species such as Snowy Owl visiting us soon, I have to confess that if we had whistling ducks around here, I would be a happy man. They have personality to spare!

    1. I like your phrase: “an extra oompf.” That’s it, exactly, when it comes to these wonderful birds. They’re such clowns, and their big feet only add to the impression. I recently learned that there are things about them that are more akin to the swans and geese than to the ducks. I’ll be showing some from the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge whose environment and way of going about their lives is somewhat different.

    1. This video may give you a smile. I know someone down the coast who feeds them in his back yard, and I’m sure the scene is something like this. He says he’ll get thirty or forty at a time. They spend time in agricultural fields, too; he feeds them corn.

    1. They really do. It helps that they’re so large, and that the colors are so distinct. The babies look much like baby mallards — all brown and yellow, and cute as can be. When I looked at the first photo this evening, I suddenly saw that curved broken limb on the left as a duck’s head. Maybe that’s Nature’s decoy!

    1. When I looked at the series of photos from which the first one came, I didn’t think any were worth posting. It was early; the sky was milky, and the silhouette didn’t have any of the wonderful colors the birds are known for. Then, I decided to take advantage of all that, and try a black-and-white approach. It was fun, and I was pleased with the result.

      The young ones are less colorful, but I suspect the light might have been responsible for the less colorful adult in your photo. The Cornell site says that one of their characteristics is a lack of sexual dimorphism: that is, male and female resemble one another. The last photo shows that; it’s a pair watching their young paddle about in the water.

  2. And to think, it took me weeks if not months to get a good look at the group hanging out in my oaks… and then you were the one who identified them for me.

    1. It’s easier to see them when they’re hanging out on the bare limb of a dead tree. Even when I knew my night heron was parked in my live oak, it could take forever to find him. They’re such fun — I’m glad you have some of them in your area.

    1. I was a little surprised to find them, but I was completely delighted. There were large flocks flying and calling, as well as the ones perched on the limbs. I didn’t realize that they tend to feed at night, so most of the ones I saw probably were coming home after working the night shift!

  3. I’ve always had an interest in these ducks since a Trinity University faculty colleague of mine spent much of his spare time tracking and studying them. He was a biological psychologist from back East who became fascinated with Black-bellied Ducks when another faculty member introduced him to duck hunting. After that introduction the ducks were more interesting to him than any neuropsychological research he had ever done. He’d take groups of psychology students down to the South Texas coast on his duck surveys, giving them an educational experience I don’t think were expecting when they enrolled.

    1. There’s no question that the whistling ducks are fascinating creatures. Their social structure seems to be especially complex — at least, from my perspective. The ‘teenagers’ behavior appears to be much like that of human teenagers: traveling in groups, always with a clown or two in the group, and plenty of jostling around for dominance. On the other hand, even the adults are gregarious. I’ve seen reports of flocks of up to a thousand birds.

      Was your friend interested in ducks generally, or was there something about the Black-bellied that he found particularly intriguing?

      1. He hunted other ducks for sport and was interested in habitat conservation and population management for ducks in general, but the Black-bellied were the only ones he was interested in studying. I never heard him explain why, although I suspect it was for unusual behaviors such as the ones you mentioned. One of the simultaneous strengths and weaknesses of academia is the freedom it grants for someone to go off on tangents with no need for justification, and he took full advantage.

  4. Brazos Bend is really packed with all kinds of animals. It is one of my favorite parks. The last time I was there, we saw an alligator feeding and two eagles, besides all the water fowl. Your photos are fabulous.

    1. I saw even more birds that these, but thought it best to split them up — the herons are still to come. It is a wonderful park. I’m eager to explore more of it, as I’ve only visited a couple of the lakes at this point. Once it cools down a bit, there are some trails I want to hike. I did see a big alligator lying in the shade of the observation platform at one of the lakes. Otherwise, they mostly weren’t visible. It may have been too hot for them, too.

      I was pleased to see so many of these ducks — this time, I had my longer lens with me, and it did well enough. I saw one fellow with a lens that seemed to be as long as my arm. I’m sure he got some fabulous photos.

    1. I think we’re good. I couldn’t believe who I heard interviewed on radio today: Dr. Neil Frank. Was he still on tv when you moved here? He’s 89 years old now, and still talking weather with a twenty-year-old’s enthusiasm.

        1. Same here. We might have had a little rain, but there wasn’t enough wind to blow the leaves out of the breezeway. Now, I’m waiting to hear from Louisiana friends, to see how they fared.

  5. The duo in your last photo look almost stuffed — how do you get them to “pose” like that?!? And don’t tell me food, the way you’d do for a dog who doesn’t want to pose in his Halloween costume, ha! I understand Laura is heading toward Cat 4 status and a slightly different track than they’d originally anticipated. Hope you’re watching and taking care!

    1. That’s funny, Debbie. I don’t get birds to pose — I just wait around until they decide to make themselves available. One nice thing about these critters is their sociability. They seem to enjoy being with one another and with humans. They’re not going to come when you call, but they’re certainly not as skittish as a lot of birds.

      The hurricane hunters are in the storm now, and there are fears they’re going to fine a Cat5. We’re going to be all right here — probably tropical storm level stuff — but a lot of people in east Texas and Louisiana are in for it. It’s going to be a bad one, for sure. I am counting my blessings, believe me.

    1. These birds have slowly moved up from Mexico and Central America. Now, they’re quite common in Texas, and apparently are expanding along our Gulf coast. They’re great fun, especially for someone like me who enjoys noisy birds. They’re talkative as can be.

      It seems as though we’re going to miss the worst of it, thanks to a slight bend to the north that the storm’s taking as it approaches land. Still, I suspect most of us won’t be resting easy until after landfall. Then it’s going to be a matter of helping the people who ended up with that monster storm on their doorstep.

    1. Lucky you! I never see the around here, but a friend in Alvin has them, and of course they’re in all the refuges. I do enjoy hearing them call in flight, although it took me a while to figure out which bird “that sound” belonged to.

    1. Thank you, Derrick. I was pleased beyond words to find the birds in such a nice setting for photos. Even the leaves were kind enough not to overwhelm the birds!

  6. You wouldn’t think they could purse their bills enough to whistle!
    They’re a colorful, attractive bird, and great shots, but I like that first B&W one a lot, very cool.
    “The Lone Duck sat on the the hanging tree, whistling ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ and watching for Clint Eastwood to ride by.” Sergio Leone had another western called “A Fistful of Dynamite,” but the original title was “Duck, You Sucker!”

    1. They like to whistle while they’re on the wing: sort of like whistling while you work, I suppose. And when I was watching these ducks, I noticed that when they’re perched and calling, they raise their heads straight up into the air for each call. Their calls are loud enough that if one has a friend on the other side of the lake, you can hear them chatting to one another.

      I figured the black and white wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, but I like it a lot. I’m glad to know that you do, too. That tree that the ducks are perched on would make a fine hanging tree; maybe that’s why the ducks enjoy hanging out on it.

  7. That top photo looks like Chinese ink and brush work. They are rather colorful. I guess ducks can whistle. I whistle. Why not ducks?

    1. I’ve never encountered mallards and black-bellied ducks in the same area. It would be something to hear a combination of quacks and whistles. I heard moorhens galore last weekend, fussing at one another. I’m not sure yet how I’d describe their sound. I need to do some reading and see what words others have chosen for their vocalizations. It was memorable, that’s for sure.

      I messed with that top photo a bit, trying to get it to be more than a ‘flat’ black and white photo. I was happy with how it turned out, and I like your description.

  8. Those bright reddish bills and feet are quite attractive and must make them easy to spot for sure. I suspect the bill colouring close to the Autumn(?) leaves is the only time they might blend in with the changing leaf colour.

    1. It’s ironic — you’re exactly right about the bills matching the color of autumn leaves, but around here we don’t have many trees that turn those pretty colors. I was pleased to find that perch with a few colored leaves tucked in amid the green; it was exactly the coordinated color that I liked.

  9. These ducks are beautiful. I’ve never seen any quite like them and the photos are lovely. I also love the painting, the starkness of it, the monochromatic feel. It’s really striking. Did you do this? I’m impressed.

    1. The ducks are more akin to swans and geese in some ways: size, for one thing. Their colors are quite striking, too, and their behavior never fails to amuse me. The young ones can be especially amusing — and once you know their call, you always know when they’re around.

      The first image isn’t a painting, it’s a photo that I modified into black and white, and then tweaked a bit. The light on the bird had left it mostly a silhouette, and of course the dead tree was gray, so I thought I’d play around a bit and see what I could do with it. From your response, I’d say the process worked!

  10. The first is my favorite, and the monochrome treatment was just right, in my opinion. I love how the branch at the left reflects the sinuous silhouette of the duck’s neck.

    1. I’ve been especially amused by the fact that I didn’t see the resemblance of that branch to the duck’s neck until well after I posted the entry. Long ago, I learned not to delete images in camera. Now, it seems I need to come back and take second and third looks before posting: to see with new eyes, if you will. I did have fun playing with the image, and like the way it came out.

    1. Their big, flat feet help them considerably, Pete. In fact, their feet look almost pancake-like. I’m going to post a group of them with somewhat different behavioral characteristics from another refuge, and I’ll be sure to add a photo of those feet!

  11. These big tree ducks have certainly expanded their range in recent years. They always appear to have just stepped out of a beauty salon as they look so neat with perfectly defined lines.

    Love all of your photographs!

    Happy to see Laura is tracking a bit farther east than yesterday’s predictions. Our son lives southwest of Houston so looks like no worries. Hopefully, none for you, either!

    Thoughts and prayers for those in her path.

    1. All of us in the Houston area are giving thanks today; had the storm made landfall a hundred miles to the west, and we could have been in the situation of Lake Charles. As you no doubt know, we had light winds and no rain — and no power outages. Entergy is having some problems east of here this afternoon, but I’m sure those are post-storm difficulties.

      It seems that the fulvous tree ducks are in the area, too, but the black-bellied are the most common. You’re right about those clean lines. They’re quite handsome, with all those color patches “just so.”

    1. Isn’t that one fun? That’s a mated pair, and the reason they’re so attentive is that they’re watching their young ones; they’re just outside the frame. They’ve become one of my favorites: partly because they’re so pretty, and partly because of their personalities.

    1. I rarely try monotone, but it seemed right for this one. I had fun playing with it, and I was pleased with how it turned out. I’m pleased by your comment, too — thank you!

    1. I was pleased to find so many birds in such a variety of settings. I thought each photo had a little something different to offer, and the matching colors in the leaves and the ducks’ bills was one of the things I liked, too.

  12. Great shots of these striking ducks, Linda. Even more striking than mine. And not only did we both post tree ducks but we also post ducks in dead trees. I am most impressed with the three on the snag which has some lovely color and you caught them in nice poses but also that he first is monochrome.

    1. I suppose ducks in dead trees are better than dead ducks in living trees. I got a kick out of the trio on the limb. Each was doing its own thing, although the two of the right were more active than the third at the left. It seemed ready for a nap, and never moved. It’s interesting how different Brazos Bend is from the Brazoria refuge. At the refuge, there are plenty of black-bellied ducks, but no trees right around the water.

  13. The colors of the Black-bellied whistling ducks with the blue sky are wonderful. When I tried to shoot them they were so shy, years ago.

    1. I wonder if their environment makes a difference. At Brazos Bend, there’s so much water and so many dead trees in it, they may feel more comfortable there. On the other hand, they’re fairly accessible in other spots, too. Perhaps some groups of them simply become accustomed to humans, and are more accepting. They’re certainly one of my favorites, and great fun to photograph.

    1. They do make a racket. If they’re on the wing, there’s no mistaking their presence. Those bold colors are pleasing, too. Because they’re relatively large, so are the color patches, which makes them favored species for coloring sheets for kids.

    1. Coffee and sweet puns — better than coffee and sweet buns! Not as many calories, at least, and the smiles they produce are welcome! Back into the heat again… this is getting tiring.

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