Life Among the Lotuses

A familiar sight at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, the Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) is popularly known as the Moorhen. Thanks to its red bill and shield, it’s an easy bird to spot, and it clearly finds the lotuses at Brazos Bend State Park as congenial as the reed-covered banks of Brazoria ponds.

Wading in lotus-leaf ponds seems equally appealing to Purple Gallinules (Porphyrio martinica). The chicks can walk quite soon after hatching, but depend on their parents for food during the first few weeks of life.

While they aren’t as colorful as adult Purple Gallinules, hints of the color-to-come are obvious, and their seemingly oversized feet allow them to range easily and quickly through the vegetation.

Adult Purple Gallinules have quite a limited range in the United States, but their vibrant colors make them welcome residents wherever they appear.

Gallinules aren’t the only species that appreciate the advantages of a nice lotus pad. Green herons (Butorides virescens), one of our smallest herons, will secret themselves among the leaves while fishing. Stealth isn’t their only weapon, however. The Cornell birding site notes that:

The Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. It often creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, and feathers, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.

Perhaps because of its tool-using abilities, it’s equally willing to wait in the open for its next meal. Green herons are quite common even in our marinas, where they perch and wait just above the water on dock lines.

While the thick covering of duckweed might seem to be an obstacle to waterbirds in search of a meal, this Great Egret (Ardea alba) plucked two  fish from the water while I watched. In addition to fish, they’ll willingly consume frogs, snakes, birds, small mammals, and invertebrates such as crawfish.

This Yellow-crowned Night Heron was especially well-hidden at the edge of Elm Lake: the yellow feathers atop its head an almost perfect match for the flowers of the rattlebush (Sesbania drummondii).

Like the Green Heron, the Yellow-crowned is accepting of human company; I often see them fishing in the median of South Shore Boulevard, one of the most heavily traveled thoroughfares in my neighborhood.

Soon enough, the lotuses will decline and winter birds will join these year-round residents. It’s another reason to welcome the turning of the seasons, and a reason to return to Brazos Bend.

Comments always are welcome.

83 thoughts on “Life Among the Lotuses

    1. Since I can’t take you and Miriam on a guided tour, David, this will have to do. It’s going to take some practice to get fine photos of the youngsters. For birds that seem so awkward and gangly, they certainly were quick!

    1. It’s a beautiful spot, there’s no question about that. I’ve still only been to Elm and Forty Acre lakes. Once things have cooled down, there are plenty more trails to explore. I need to get back to Brazoria, too. With so many new places to visit, it’s fallen out of the rotation a bit.

  1. Excellent photographs! Boy, the feet on those Gallinules are really something, almost clownish! The spread of their toes must be almost as long as their bodies, beak-to-tail. You really got some top-notch photos.

    1. I can’t tell you how many unfocused photos I dispatched to the trash bin. Those baby Gallinules look funny as can be, but they run like the wind, and they rarely were still. The pretty photo of the adult came after I spent some time listening to it move through all that greenery. It finally broke into the open, and I took my (photographic) shot. They sure are pretty birds!

  2. I have never seen a Gallinule! What feet those babies have! The little green herons are here, hanging around in the Potomac, along with the egrets of various kinds. We have a lot of great blue herons as well. What a lovely tour this is. And such good shots of the birds, as well. I love wandering a wetland!

    1. I knew the Gallinule range was limited, but I didn’t realize until I looked at the map just how small its U.S. territory is. I see plenty of Moorhens, but the Gallinules were a real treat. Now that I know where to find them, I’m hoping to get better photos of the babies and juveniles. There were great blue herons around, too, but they were well out of range of my camera, so I just passed them by. I have one hanging around the boat I’m working on now; he spends his nights on the swim platform. Having a heron as an office mate isn’t a bad deal.

  3. A tool-using bird? How cool is that! Most of these I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting. South Mississippi has herons, of course, but a different species. Those purple babies are just too cute on their big feet, and I like the yellow feathers on that heron’s head. Lovely visit to the refuge today — thanks, Linda!

    1. The feet on the baby Gallinules reminded me of puppy feet; one of their first jobs is to grow into them! Those feet do make it easy for them to navigate the lotus leaves, and I got a kick out of watching them bathing in the little lotus pad pools.

      I’ve seen the green heron ‘fishing’ a couple of times. It’s not much different than the chum fishing that people do: tossing various kinds of bait into the water to attract fish. That the birds learned to do it is pretty amazing, but it beats just sitting around on a dockline if there’s no dinner swimming by.

    1. I suppose we’ve all seen tool use among animals, like the chimpanzees that use sticks to gather ants. Still, learning that birds actually fish with lures was surprising. It’s more evidence that ‘bird brain’ should be a compliment.

    1. From what I can tell, you’re actually a little closer than I am. At the very least, you’d have less traffic. Once I get to Alvin, it’s not bad, but it can be annoying between here and there; there’s a lot of construction going on, and there are detours everywhere.

      I just saw that another tropical system is developing that may head our way. We need to get past this ridiculous summer and move on into fall.

  4. When you saw the picture I posted in 2015 of New Zealand’s pūkeko, you related it to the purple gallinule you know from the Texas coast. Now that I see your purple gallinule, my main connection is still to the pūkeko on the other side of the earth. In contrast to that, your picture of a green heron immediately conjures up the pair I saw in Austin last month. Maybe you can tell more of your coastal birds to fly further inland.

    1. I enjoyed seeing your pūkeko again, and reading the comments. It was good to be reminded about the Takahe, as well. I rarely see any of these members of the rail family — including the much more common coot — in full flight. In the case of the purple Gallinule, they certainly make up for it with speed on the ground; I couldn’t believe how quickly even the chicks could run through the lotuses. Still, they do fly. I’ll see what I can do about getting them to expand their range.

      I noticed that in your most recent post featuring the green heron, one of the photos shows the bird perched on a semi-submerged stick, like the second one here. I suppose it’s an avian version of pulling a chair closer to the dinner table. It certainly makes them easier to photograph.

  5. You got some great stuff!! Could be Florida…same species of birds and same duck weed!! Last weekend I visited my son and family who live on Lake Apopka by Orlando. Sally was sailing around with some bands of rain and breezes…nothing too bad for us…but Sunday was pretty clear so we drove along Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive and saw some nice birds and a big dead alligator. Not sure what got him but he looked pretty sad belly up and frozen.

    We did see a lot of moorhens but no purple gallinules, quite a few Great blue herons, white egrets, snowys, tricolors, little blues etc. No breeding colors or luxurious aigrettes yet.

    Great shots!!

    1. It’s another lesson learned, Judy — an obvious one. The best way to find and photograph purple gallinules is to go where they live! It’s no guarantee, but it certainly does increase the odds. I was just thrilled to find them. My favorite photos of a chick is a series of three that show a chick stretching up to grab a bite of something from the tip of a bud. I probably won’t publish them (they’re too busy and not well focused) but here’s one. Isn’t it cute?

      I’m so glad you had that visit, and a little time out in nature. I’m surprised by the alligator. I wonder if it was a poacher who got surprised and fled. It it were mating season, I’d suspect another alligator. It is strange; I’ve never seen a dead one — only ones that looked dead, except for that one open eye keeping watch!

      1. LOL funny looking dead except for that wary eye!! That chick is adorable…so cute. Funny how the young birds have that innocent and awkward demeanor so recognizable in the young of about any species. How universal some things are.

        It surely does increase the odds when you are familiar with the habitat a bird likes. And, it seems as if once the previous rarity is found, then it gets easier going forward.

        Maybe this weekend I can actually do a new post and be more active again. Bird season is coming up but I fear my favourite haunt will still be Covid closed still…have to see.

    1. These were my first photos of Purple Gallinules, and I’m glad finally to have found them. I’ve envied two friends in particular — one in Florida and one in Ecuador — who are surrounded by the birds, and who often post their portraits. As for that heron, its ability to sit and sit, and wait and wait, is astonishing.Sometimes I think it might be engaged in the avian version of fishing without a hook.

  6. Oh Linda, these are just spectacular. I love the colors and of course the big water birds, but what I never knew was how the green herons used tools! I have this vision of them being the equivalent to the fellow who makes his own trout fishing flies! How very clever they are!

    1. Can’t you imagine a purple Gallinule on a certain calendar? It’s got the right proportions, and of course there are those colors. You might whisper in a certain artist’s ear.

      Your comparison of the heron to the fly-fisherman is perfect. It’s re-purposing bits of nature in the most creative way possible. Apparently it works, or the birds would have stopped doing it!

    1. Here’s the big news of the day: the ospreys are back. I saw one at Lakewood yesterday. Today, I spotted even more, and by late this afternoon, they were calling and flying over the lake. I presume it’s the NE wind that’s brought them down. The egrets are roosting again along the canal on Egret Bay. The season is turning, and the best ‘snowbirds’ are starting to arrive.

        1. I always get excited when they show up, because it means that the avian parade has started. Over at the ditch on egret bay, the egrets and herons have taken up residence in the trees — here we go!

    1. I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right. They are such beautiful birds, and I was thrilled to finally get some photos of them.

      It looks like you may end up feeling some effects from tropical storm Beta. I can’t believe that after escaping Laura, we may be in line for “a little something.” Still, if it throws some rain into the droughty areas of the state, that could be good. There’s nothing to do now but wait for a couple of days and see how it develops.

  7. Fascinating to read about the birds using tools. Making traps and out cunning their preys. My dog Milo does that too. I now have to reward him in order to go outside for toilet breaks. Lovely photos, Linda. Isn’t nature wonderful?

    1. Pet owners often talk about their cats or dogs training them, and it sure is true. Dixie Rose didn’t need to be taken outdoors, but at 10 p.m. every night she expected her before-bedtime treat, and if it didn’t appear on time, she’d fuss.

      It would be fascinating to know how the birds’ fishing behavior evolved. Even if it was a matter of watching and then imitating, it still required a sharper consciousness than many people ascribe to our feathered friends. Nature’s wonder-filled, indeed.

  8. Wonderful nature narrative accompanied by the photos that are excellent. I loved them all. The purple gallinule is such an odd bird but it is pretty none the less. Its hatchling is an ugly duckling but probably not for long.

    1. Both the moorhen and gallinule chicks appeal to me — they’re so fluffy, and so active. If you look at the photo of the chicks, you can see a bit of white on the side of one. That’s a little hook-like appendage that helps them make their way through the foliage — it’s the next best thing to hands for a bird. All of the adaptations like that make bird life especially interesting.

    1. Because of the red shield, your pukeko reminds me of the moorhen as much as the purple gallinule. Of course, they’re all related — those feet are a dead giveaway, although the pukeko may have more of the colorful iridescence than the photo shows. I loved the costume: all purple and blue and red, and with just the right kind of feet!

  9. It is an amazing park. I had certainly never seen birds such as those before visiting there. I am partial to the alligators, though. Have you been able to talk to any of the rangers there? They always have great information.

    1. I’ve not met or talked to any of the rangers, apart from a brief conversation with one who hadn’t known about the plant called alligator flag. I mentioned it was my first time at the park, and she asked what made me decide to visit. When I told her about the flower, she was intrigued. It seems that even the rangers have the same experiences we do — always finding something new to enjoy out there.

      The rain finally started her about a half-hour ago. The squirrels still are hungry, though. They look pretty sodden, but they’re not giving up.

    1. Once they get some feathers, I think all baby birds are cute. It just takes some longer than others. The ones that are ready to roll as soon as they make their way out of their eggs are the best, like the moorhens and gallinules, and my favorites: the kildeer and black-necked stilts. No matter how sophisticated others’ descriptions of them may be, I still think of them as resembling golf balls with legs.

  10. Hey, I see you in this one-sided game of hide and seek. I guess some of these pieces do not take as much research as the longer ones on Task at Hand. However, you want to do it, I’ll follow along. Gallinule – glad I don’t have to pronounce some words on blogs. Love the shot of the feet! Sounds like you are busier than ever. I’ll see if I can see how to follow this site so I’ll get email notification for it.

    1. Yes, and here I am at last. I finally got run in by Tropical Storm Beta, and it looks like it will be two or three days of nothing but rain, now. Tropical storms are easy enough to deal with, especially if they don’t drop feet of rain rather than inches, so I’ll have a few days to get caught up on several things — including housekeeping!

      You can follow just like you do The Task at Hand — either by entering your email address in the sidebar, or clicking the little tab that WordPress provides at the bottom right, that says, “Follow this blog.” I think you’d enjoy it, because I do find a lot of interesting things when I’m out and about.

      What’s funny is that I often end up spending more time on some of these posts, just because I often don’t know what kind of flower or bird I’ve found, and I always try to have an identification for what I post. That’s really the best part of this new endeavor for me — all the things that I’m learning along the way!

    1. Thank you, rethy. There’s always something new to learn about the birds, and the thought of the heron as a tool-user is great. Of course there are other birds with interesting habits, like the collecting done by magpies and crows, and the ‘home-building’ done by the bower birds, but a fishing bird taking it to the next level by using bait amuses me no end!

  11. At home last night, I scrolled through the new-post notifications and smiled when this one appeared! It’s so great to see both species and their neighbors, which prompted me to consider finding similar poses of the cousins down here – as a ‘reply’ to your post. The Green-backed Heron is here on the coast, but it’s not often seen. It’s replaced by the Striated Heron which is a very-close cousin…

    How shocked I was to see Beta’s path tipping in your direction and on toward Louisiana.. Goodness! Weekend Youtube options show few updates. I hope that all goes ok and it’s a quiet storm.. ah, but the moon is still quite new….

    Will be thinking of all of you on the coast.

    1. It pleased me no end to finally have a decent photo of a purple Gallinule. I’ve known they were around, but I just hadn’t gotten to the right spot to see one. I think they might even lurk at the Brazoria refuge, but it’s a much surer thing that they can be spotted at Brazos Bend.

      The striated heron’s interesting. In some of the photos I saw, the colors do resemble those of the green heron, but its shape and stance remind me of the black-crowned heron. I think you have that one, too. There’s a live oak at a local marina that has at least one adult and a pair of youngsters living in it, and they’re great fun to watch — although hard to photograph in the midst of all the foliage.

      I don’t think Beta’s going to be much of a worry. There’s going to be plenty of rain and surge, and consequent flooding, but top winds are only projected to be 60mph or so. We’ll see. The outer rain bands have shown up now, but the winds still are light. We do need the rain, so this could turn out to be a real blessing if it doesn’t ramp up.

    1. The whole coastal region is delightful, and it soon will be awash in the birds we see only in winter, as well as the birds that stay year round. I’d thought the Moorhen chicks were amusing, but once I saw the feet of the Gallinule babies, I was a fan forever. If you’re going to need to run around on lotus leaves from the moment of your hatching, those feet are perfect.

        1. How wonderful! Sea and shore, and all the delights that come with them. I’ll be anxious to see your ‘new’ flowers, and maybe some photos of the sea, too. We didn’t have to go to the sea this week — it came up to meet us, compliments of Tropical Storm Beta. It actually was a fairly well-behaved storm, wtih very little wind, but there needs to be a bit more water draining back into the Gulf before I can get down to the beach and check it out.

    1. Now that the osprey have arrived, we’ll start watching for the white pelicans and whooping cranes. Sandhills, too. It’s early for them, but the teal have come in droves, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the first coots with the north/northeast wind blowing steadily.

      1. I keep forgetting which side of the Continent you’re on, lol. (Apparently most of ‘yours’ summer in The Rockies as far north as Alberta , while ‘ours’ winter in Florida (like so many Eastern Canadian Snowbirds… (Well, until this year, anyway)

        1. From what I understand, many of our birds use the Mississippi flyway. Minnesota, the Dakotas, and the Canadian prairies host a lot of them. Some stop sooner, of course, depending on weather. A lot of our ducks go up to Arkansas and Missouri.

  12. I’d love to spend a week or two hanging around those lotuses, what a wildlife magnet they are. Just loved your purple moorhens, and the huge chick feet. The herons took my breath away, such incredible birds, so many birds use tools, crows are particularly good with them. Your photos are stunning!!!xxx

    1. Until I learned about the herons, the only tool-users I’d read about were the chimpanzees, and birds like the bower birds and crows. On the other hand, my pet squirrel was a tool-user of sorts. He made himself a personal drinking fountain out of the refrigerator’s ice maker, and we had to put a keyed lock on his cage, because he could open a combination lock. Busy hands, those!

      The lotus ponds were beautiful. I’m eager to see them next year, when I can get there a little earlier and witness their emergence.

  13. I’ve never seen a gallinule, purple, immature, mature, or otherwise, so enjoyed you images and a bit of their natural history. Your lotus pond offers a lot more than I could have seen in the little one a few miles from here.

    1. Part of the reason there’s such a wealth of plants and birds is that this isn’t a pond. It’s an honest-to-goodness lake, with a two-mile trail around it. It’s a nice, wide trail, and good for families with kids. There always have been plenty of people around, but most are just looking for alligators. It’s fun to have people stop and ask what I’m looking at. I even got to introduce a park ranger to the alligator flag plant.

      1. I can’t remember if I’ve told the story about someone asking what I was photographing in Quabbin Park once although I did mention it in a comment.

        I was happily shooting this intimate little scene when a couple stopped by in their pickup truck. I’d say most of the folks who cruise through the park are looking for deer and I am sure these people were also. The woman driver leaned out of the window and asked what I was photographing. My 70-200 does look a bit on the longish side so she might have though deer but her jaw dropped and eyes gave away her disappointment when I said “that rock over there”. :-)

        1. It was a pleasure to see that photo again — so nice. I don’t remember that story, and it’s a good one. Most people assume I’m looking for birds. I get that same disappointed look from time to time when I say no, it’s flowers I’m chasing. Sometimes I’ll be completely truthful and say I’m just looking for whatever I can find.

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