Ordering à la Carte

When avians dine out, the ponds, sloughs, and prairies of the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge offer a little something for everyone.

Sometimes the choices seem surprising, as when this Boat-tailed Grackle selected a nice crawfish as an appetizer.

Herons and egrets love their fish, of course, and this Great Egret (Ardea alba) found an especially nice one: so fresh that its tail still is flapping in protest against finding itself on the menu.

Without herring to enjoy, this Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) has adapted, landing a small crab for its meal. Like the Whooping Cranes that also feed on crabs, this gull is a winter visitor; by summer, it will have flown northward.

Although omnivorous, these American Coots (Fulica americana) often choose to feed on pondweeds, sedges, and grasses along the bank.

Other dabblers, like this Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata) are willing to go off-menu for their wintertime meal.

Despite the abundance of treats, savvy birders know to bring their own snacks from home. There’s no guarantee these birds would be willing to share.


Comments always are welcome.

53 thoughts on “Ordering à la Carte

    1. Absolutely. It would take a bird like an ibis, heron, or egret to get a crawfish out of its hole or to pluck one from the water, but if the grackle found a broken shell with bits of flesh inside, it would be willing to nibble. I often see grackles fishing from lines in the marinas; they’ll catch and eat small baitfish like shad. The first time I saw it, I thought it was an odd, one-time occurrence, but I’ve seen it many times since.

        1. You’re welcome. It’s interesting how much I’ve learned about birds while working; they don’t care if they’re in a marina or a refuge. Water’s water, and everyone likes a good fishing spot.

  1. It’s good you were able to get that photograph of the grackle with a crawfish in its bill. Maybe birders have seen pictures of it from that low vantage point; I haven’t. Crawfish are non-existent in HEB parking lots—at least in Austin—which is where I most often see grackles up close.

    1. That vantage point is one you’ve made use of. The grackle was sitting on an auto tour route sign just a little distance down the road from the one where you photographed the cormorant. I suspect if I’d left the car, the grackle would have flown, unlike your more cooperative subject.

      I have seen crawfish shells in our HEB parking lot, but only at the height of crawfish season, when they keep the pots boiling outside. People occasionally drop a shell — or even a crawfish — and the birds swoop in: grackles and gulls alike. Since birds don’t have taste receptors for capsaicin, they don’t mind the spiciness.

  2. I just love it when I am able to capture a photo of a fish (or similar) in the mouth of Harry. I’ve never had much luck with the other birds. Your photos are terrific, as always, Linda, with super clarity. Wonderful captures, all.

    1. I thought of you while I was watching that heron stalk its prey. I wasn’t sure what it would come up with, but when I saw the fish, I thought of Harry and his friends. I don’t often get a photo of ‘the catch’ — only of the catching. The little crab was a bonus; I was glad that I managed to get all its little legs to show.

    1. Northern Shovelers are among my favorites. They’re colorful, and their antics are great fun to watch. Naming them for a children’s story would be fun, too: Tommy Tiptail comes to mind.

    1. I’ve seen other dabbler species do the same thing, but the Shovelers seem to stay ‘bottoms up’ a little longer, making photos easier. They never fail to make me smile.

    1. I spent a few minutes watching a live stream from Plymouth: my goodness. I hope you didn’t get two feet; that’s enough snow to wear a person out. As for the grackle, I was surprised when I learned they’re omnivores. I guess a crawfish puts the ‘omni’ into omnivore, but so do the baitfish that they’ll actively go after. I suspect the crawfish was leftover from some other bird’s dinner, or perhaps from a raccoon’s.

      1. We had about 16 inches, and that was enough to wear me out! I think jays and crows are omnivorous as well.
        It’s going to warm up to the 40s later in the week, so a lot of the white stuff should be gone. The snow was pretty today, bright in the sunshine, still pristine.

        1. You’re warming up to the 40s, and we’re plunging ‘down’ into the 40s. We’ll be sharing the same temperatures; the difference is that you’ll be happy and we’ll be whining! You’re right about the jays and crows. I thought so, but wasn’t sure, so I looked it up. It just seems so odd to think of a blue jay eating a lizard, but it seems they do.

    1. I love the days when the birds are out and active. Being able to get photos like this depends on a number of factors, like water depth. When the water’s too deep, the wading birds go elsewhere, and when it’s too shallow, other species disappear. It’s the avian version of the old fairy tale: there can’t be too much or two little. It has to be ‘just right.’

    1. Your comment made me laugh. It brought to mind the dozens (hundreds?) of photos I’ve captured of things like the back end of a roadrunner leaving the scene, or an osprey blurred beyond recognition as it captures a fish. Patience is key, along with a willingness to “shoot now, sort later,” especially with birds and insects. Even ocean waves are unpredictable. You may have missed the orcas, but a great wave is its own achievement.

  3. Great set of shots and it’s good to see so many choices for the hungry birds out for their meals. I clicked on the link you had of the grebe with its beak quite full. That’s a chuckle!

    1. Grebes are great birds, but hard to photograph. They can go from ‘pretty floating bird’ to ‘ripples on the surface’ in a flash. I think that one got slowed down by the fish: prevented from diving by its need to figure out what to do next!

      I decided not to include a sort-of-decent photo of a caracara with a grasshopper it had caught along the road edging the ponds: since these are ‘surf’ photos, I’ll include ‘turf’ later.

  4. Seagulls are now so cheeky, that at the waterfront cafes lining the harbour next to Sydney’s famous Opera House, waiters provide their customers with water pistols to try and prevent the birds from scooping down pinching the food from plates.

    There are signs; do not feed the birds!

    1. Water pistols? That made me laugh. Nothing short of a Howitzer’s going to deter the gulls, and I’m not sure about that. Along the seawall in Galveston, some restaurants have taken to incorporating a fine netting into their outdoor decor. That seems as effective as anything, and during midway, it helps to shade human diners, too.

      The ferries that go between Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula finally stopped trying to persuade people to not feed the gulls. Now, they just ask people to feed them from the back of the ferry, and that keeps the nuisance factor down a good bit.

  5. The Latin name of the Northern Shoveler gave me a giggle. One reason the grackles as a clade are so successful is that they are opportunists. They might take in a front lawn brunch buffet, and meet for a pick-up lunch at a Wal-mart parking lot. Also, I wonder if herons are hatched knowing that the fish has to go down head first? If not, I bet they learn quickly!

    1. Somewhere I have a photo of a Northern Shoveler with that spatula-like bill draped with pond weeds, but I couldn’t find it just now. Like the bills of the Roseate Spoonbills, they’re perfectly designed for a certain kind of feeding: scooping and sieving, depending.

      Omnivore and opportunist not only begin with the same letter, they describe similar behavior. As for the herons, the ones who don’t learn that lesson about fish are going to be in trouble. A similar ‘face forward’ behavior can be seen with the osprey, who always fly with their fishy catch parallel to their body, head first.

      A Hawkwatch page says, “Ospreys have specialized feet for grasping fish: all four talons are curved moreso than on other raptors, and the toes have tiny spines or “spicules” on the bottom that help them hang on to its slippery prey. Most raptors have three toes in the front, and one in the back, but Osprey can rotate the outer toe backward to help them carry fish, which they typically do head-first for optimal aerodynamics.”

  6. Wonderful photographs full of bird personality! I certainly wouldn’t try to argue a Herring Gull into sharing its lunch, hehe! They’re called ‘Scorries’ where I come from in Scotland and regarded as a noisy pest. (But that’s not their fault really!)

    1. You might not try to argue a Herring Gull into sharing, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few who’d give it a try! I’m not sure of the identity of the other bird, but it spent a good long time trying to move in on that crab before it gave up the effort.

      That’s an interesting name they’re known by over there. They aren’t at all common in my area, and this is the only day I’ve seen one at the refuge. On the other hand, we have Laughing Gulls galore, and when the start their ‘laughing,’ even the grumpiest people join in.

    1. So to speak! Thanks, Derrick. It’s interesting that crabs, crawfish, and fish generally all are favored by people, too. The only thing missing here is shrimp.

  7. It’s fun watching birds eating, especially when you can watch them catch their prey. That grackle is a great one, seems such an unusual catch so it’s interesting you’ve seen it several times now. I’ve always enjoyed watching great blue herons catch fish that seem way too big to swallow, and sometimes they are, but often they manage to get them down, deforming their throat until the fish goes all the way down.

    1. It can be tricky ‘catching’ a bird making a catch, too. With that Great Egret, I spent a good bit of time watching it stalk, and I still missed its lightning fast stab that gained it a fish. I considered myself lucky to get the fish in its bill before it was down-the-hatch time. As for those too-big-to-swallow incidents, how about this wonderful shot of a nonplussed Grebe? There’s just no end to the wonderful things happening out there on the water.

    1. Patience can be as important as a fancy camera, that’s for sure — although I’d not turn down a newer camera or a bigger lens. Yesterday, patience was key. I spotted a bittern, and it took a good while for it to move into a spot where I could get a photo of more than its bill or a foot!

  8. How wonderful that we all like different things to eat! Can you imagine fighting say, a tiger, for meat if that was the only thing you could eat?!? These are great photos, Linda. You’re a very patient photographer, and you must be as still as a mouse to not spook these critters!

    1. Isn’t that just the truth! It’s a good thing that we humans are omnivores, and that there’s room in the world for our preferences. I like a nice vegetable as much as anyone, but I’d be unhappy if there wasn’t a bit of chicken or fish on my plate from time to time. And you’re right about the need for patience. It doesn’t necessarily mean sitting around in the same spot for hours, but it does mean moving slowly, and taking time to stop and look occasionally. There’s just no predicting what might be going on out there.

    1. I’ve been so pleased to have The Birds showing up at last. Whether there’s been too much water for the waders, or better feeding grounds elsewhere: who knows? I have heard reports of thousands of Sandhill Cranes down around Beaumont, but that’s a little out of my range. Still, who could complain with these guys around?

  9. The world is their buffet.

    Birds (indeed, all wildlife) must adapt to taking advantage of what’s available or perish. This is a terrific series of birds doing what they must in order to survive.

    Any resemblance of me at the salad bar to that Shoveler is purely coincidental.

    1. I wonder if mama Shovelers tell their young’uns what my mama used to tell me: “Stop shoveling that food in!” Probably not — in their world, it’s considered perfectly acceptable.

      I didn’t want to turn this into a Surf and Turf post, so I didn’t include the Caracara that finally caught his grasshopper. I had no idea that they’d run around the prairies scooping up insects. Live and learn!

    1. It depends on the bird. Yellow-crowned Night Herons are especially fond of crabs; they’ll swallow them whole, but if their prey is too large, they’ll shake it until the legs and such come off, and then eat it in pieces.

      I’ll often come to work in the morning and find the dock covered with empty Blue Crab legs and bodies, and it’s quite common to find disassembled crabs around the water. If there are raccoon prints around, they probably are the culprits, but herons will leave crab, crawfish, and shrimp shells in their wake, too. They’re strong enough to crack the shells.

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