Winging to Water

Roseate Spoonbill ~ Platalea ajaja

After interminable rainless weeks, the freshwater ponds at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge became little more than mudholes. Maintenance took place in the form of mowing and cutting, but the always-enjoyable birds disappeared. On my last visit before Thanksgiving, I saw only two Great White Egrets and a pair of Pied-billed Grebes, and they were near the edge of a brackish canal.

After substantial holiday rains, the ponds hadn’t filled, but they became float-and-wade-worthy, and some of the usual residents had returned. I was especially pleased to catch the flight of the Roseate Spoonbill shown above. When I searched out its landing spot, I found more juvenile Spoonbills hob-nobbing with some White Ibis. It’s worth enlarging the photo to see their bright eyes.

At the edge of the Crosstrails Pond, smaller wading birds had collected to feed. I’ve tentatively identified these beauties, but any confirmation or correction is welcome. In the case of the Willet, the dramatic black-and-white wing patterns of the bird in flight seemed unmistakable.

Short-billed Dowitcher ~ Limnodromus griseus
Willet ~ Tringa semipalmata

It’s always a pleasure to see the purple and green iridescence of the White-faced Ibis. During the breeding season, this species has pinkish-red to burgundy facial skin, with a striking rim of white feathers surrounding and extending behind the eye. Outside of breeding season, it retains its red eye color and a pinkish tinge to its facial skin, as it has here.

White-faced Ibis ~ Plegadis chihi

Late in the afternoon, I found an assortment of birds feeding at a culvert; the strongly flowing water clearly contained delectable tidbits. Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Boat-tailed Grackels, Roseate Spoonbills, and White Ibis had gathered, but the stars of the show were a pair of Snowy Egrets. Egrets sometimes extend their wings over open water as they hunt, creating shade to increase visibility. Here, a pair were taking advantage of the afternoon shadows; against the darkness, the delicacy of their wind-blown aigrettes, or breeding plumes, was highlighted.

Snowy Egrets neared extinction by the early 1900s because of a brisk trade in their plumes, considered desirable additions to women’s fashions. With the prohibition of the plume trade in 1913, the Snowy Egret managed to recover its population in most regions; today, loss of habitat is the birds’ greatest threat.

Snowy Egret ~ Egretta thula

Human calendars aside, the birds’ plumes serve as a reminder that courtship and nesting aren’t so very far away. While we focus on winter and its holidays, the birds are preparing for spring, and for the new families that will be created.


Comments always are welcome.

68 thoughts on “Winging to Water

    1. Just across Galveston Bay, there’s quite a bit of activity at the Smith Point Hawk Watch site. Houston Audubon has several great rookeries and birding locations in the area, and there’s also the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. As the saying goes, we’re spoiled for choice, and it sounds as though you might be, too.

  1. What beautiful photos of these strikingly beautiful birds! I can’t imagine a better photo highlighting the roseate-ness of the Spoonbill — so, so pretty. I’m pretty sure I saw a Dowitcher on my local beach last year, but I don’t have any record of it on my blog, in order to confirm.

    1. Thank you, Gretchen! Later in the year, I’ll see Spoonbills that are much more pink. I think these are juveniles, which tend to be less colorful than the adults. Someone recently mentioned that Spoonbills and White Ibis hang out together, and that’s been my experience. Ibis and Snowy Egrets will feed together, too. The Egrets stir up the water with their feet, and the Ibis follow along, snacking as they go.

    1. Thanks, Jim. I’ve been putting off finding and moving to a new theme that allows for somewhat larger images, but I think the time has come. It might be a good project for the depths of winter.

    1. Thanks, Mick. Out of curiosity, I checked for the latest numbers, and found this: “Texas officially has 660 bird species accepted on the state list, as of December 2022. This is the second most in the nation, behind California’s 679 species.” That’s a lot of variety to enjoy.

        1. That’s really interesting. I wonder if migration routes have something to do with the difference between the two numbers. There are plenty of birds here that are seen only during migration; they’re not year-round residents.

          1. It might be. We have many birds that fly south for winter, partly balanced by many winter visitors from, especially, Scandinavia. Then again, we get a lot of very occasional visitors, perhaps blown off course during their own migrations.

    1. The wind was coming from directly behind the birds, allowing those feathers to really fly. I had to laugh as I was watching. It reminded me of my school chums and I trying to keep our skirts down on really windy days.

  2. You have been really taking some great bird shots. When I moved to this mysterious place where not much looked familiar, I was extremely excited when I first saw the flamingos only to find out they were not flamingos, but spoonbills.

    1. Trust me; more than a few transplants to Texas have had the same experience. I was one. Until I was introduced to the spoonbill, ‘pink bird’ had only one meaning, and that was ‘flamingo.’ If I want to see a flamingo, I have to go to Moody Gardens; the spoonbills are far more accessible.

    1. Sometimes I think they look like they were put together by committee, but those spoon-like bills can swish up a good bit of food. It’s fun to watch a group of them feeding, moving their ‘strainers’ through the water in unison.

  3. Glad your birds are back. There are several beauties here. I love the fluffiness of the snowy egret, but the first shot of the spoonbill is magic! Actually it’s a bit chimera like with the head of a swan, wings of a flamingo and a beak of, well, a … spoonbill.

  4. Those snowy egrets are just stunning! It’s hard to fathom mating season right around the corner though. Here, we’ll be hibernating for a few months. You’ve found a lot of variety for your post, and I enjoyed learning about birds we don’t see here.

    1. What I don’t know is how long it takes the birds to fully develop their plumes. I imagine there’s some amount of time between growing the plumes and getting serious about mate-finding — sort of like getting dressed for a big date.

      We do have tremendous variety, and I often see the smaller wading birds, but they’re hard for me to identify. I was pleased to figure out the Dowitcher and the Willet; at least, I think I have. The Willet comes close to being unmistakable when in flight.

  5. It’s not surprising that the ladies liked the plumes for their fashions. I can almost imagine some high brow English lady putting an entire egret upon her head and calling it a fascinator.

    1. I thought I read that the “full egret” showed up as a headdress from time to time, and sure enough: the Smithsonian article I linked included this: “The snowy egret—and its slightly larger cousin, the great egret—were similarly imperiled by the late 1800s, when fashionable women began wearing hats adorned with feathers, wings, and even entire taxidermied birds.” Good grief.

      To be honest, the “full egret” sounds a bit like a yoga position, but apparently it appealed to some women as fashion.

  6. These are wonderful portraits, Linda. The Snowy Egret’s aigrettes are spellbinding and the rose-colored wings of the spoon bill in flight completely lovely. I’m glad the area received at least a little rain. Let’s hope there will be more.

    1. Now that I’ve seen these egrets with their aigrettes, I can begin watching the spot in my neighborhood where so many were nesting last year. I found them quite late in the year, but this year I might have a chance to see them engaged in nest building. It would be great fun to see the entire process from start to finish.

    1. The Snowy’s are particularly lovely. Even when they aren’t all decked out for breeding season, they’re elegant. They have black legs and the most wonderful golden feet; they’re said to wear ‘golden slippers’ — like this.

    1. There’s nothing like a few wind-ruffled feathers to add that certain ‘something’ to a bird! I’m so glad that the wind and the light cooperated — at least, sort of. A lot of photos went to ye olde delete bin!

  7. There is an elongate elegance to the wading birds. I imagine a troupe of juveniles who decide to display atypical plumage — “punking out” — just to mess with the birders. trying to identify them. I empathize with the snowy egrets. It’s been cold enough for the heaters to run and the air is on the dry side. My hair is almost too long (yay!) to be overly affected by the static electricity that the dry air induces, but I’ve awoken with my version of egret breeding plummage on more than one occasion recently.

    1. Down here on the coast, static electricity isn’t much of an issue, but I certainly remember those few times when even touching Dixie Rose’s ear would send her toward the ceiling, and her fur would stand up straight. You’re right that these feathers resemble that kind of flyaway hair. The thought of birds trying out a few tricks to fool birders seems improbable — but not impossible, especially with species like the grackles and crows.

    1. The spoonbills are a favorite of mine. When I first moved here, I thought they were flamingos, since ‘pink’ and ‘bird’ meant flamingo in my book. Eventually, I learned better. They’re great fun to watch when they feed, sweeping those bills back and forth through the water, straining out the good bits to eat.

    1. There were a few ducks, especially Northern Shovelers, in the pond too, but they were so far out of range there was no chance for a photo of them. No matter; it was a great to find as many as I did. You’re right about the snowy egret. It wears its feathers as well — or better — than most models or movie stars wear their clothes.

  8. Superb bird images. How lucky you are to catch sightings of the larger birds – ibis, spoonbills etc. I find them far more elegant and photo-worthy than some smaller birds.

    1. Thanks, Vicki. I do enjoy our variety of herons, ibis, and such, but there are some smaller wading birds that I adore, like the Black-necked Stilt. I know there are some gorgeous small birds, but I find them so ‘flighty’ that it’s hard to get a photo of them. On the other hand, another bird blogger was talking about his camera this week, and mentioned that it shoots at 20 frames per second in RAW, and 120 frames per second in JPEG. In the meantime, I’m chugging along at 5 frames per second. No wonder I do better with birds that are willing to stand around!

        1. You just won your bet. It’s a top of the line Nikon Z series, mirrorless. There are some ‘slower’ ones in the line, but I was astonished by this one: and by the photos that are possible with it.

          1. I looked up the latest high fps cameras for 2022 and there was one reasonable one – Canon I think. But I can’t justify the expense of upgrading my camera for bird photography unless I can get outdoors for a nature walk.

            (This morning I’ve been awake since 4.30am in excruciating pain …..again. Must be the way I toss and turn since my back surgery. So far, 4 weeks after surgery, I’m still in too much pain to go for a nature walk).

  9. Man – I miss seeing wading birds. We basically live in the land of hills and hollers so we don’t get the opportunity very often. I’d love to take a trip to Lake Erie and catch up on all our friends…

    1. They do become friends, don’t they? Do you see many herons or egrets when you vacation at the coast? I’d think there would be plenty there, but of course they’re not precisely beach birds, and that would make a difference. Personally, I’d like to take a trip to Lake Erie just to see the lake. I’ve missed seeing any of the Great Lakes, except once when I was a kid and we stopped by Lake Superior.

      1. We do see some of them at the coast, or in the marshy areas close to the coast. And we actually had a heron that lived across the street in our neighborhood for a hot minute – so wild!

        Seeing a Great Lake is something else. We used to take a ferry across to one or the other of the islands near Port Clinton & it was such a great experience.

  10. Wonderful photos of the Snowies and their plumes. And I’m glad you caught the immature Spoonies, their colors are so delicate, and their feathered heads make them a bit more appealing than the adults. I was at Brazoria NWR this past week, and the watery habitats continue. I even saw a Kingfisher hunting, so I know there is enough to keep this wide-ranging hunter happy. Have to wonder though… where did all the fish go when the lakes dried up, and how have they repopulated the waterways rapidly enough to provide good hunting, in just a month or two?

    1. The last time I was there before the rains, the pond behind the Discovery Center was mostly mud, but there were small puddles scattered about. There were a few small disgruntled alligators near some, but looking down from the boardwalk I also saw quite a few small fish: maybe as much as two inches long. Now, they have a chance to grow up a bit and become more satisfying as dinner.

      It may be that some of the birds were after prey other than fish: frogs, small crabs, crawfish. Or the small fish might have been enough to satisfy the smaller birds, like the Willets.

      Speaking of the Kingfishers, I saw three perched on the wires along 227, between Demi John Island and the refuge entrance on my last trip. It surprised me to see so many, but they may still be sorting out their territories.

    1. It was a real treat — almost a relief — to find these birds. I miss them when they’re not in their accustomed places, and even worry a bit, despite knowing that they’re perfectly capable of flying off to better hunting grounds when pickings at their ponds get slim!

      The egret’s feathers are like a “coming soon to a neighborhood near you” announcement. It’s time to start watching for courtship displays and nesting, even though it seems a little early. Birds don’t consult a calendar, after all.

  11. Wow, that snowy egret really is showy! I think I’ve only seen them a few times around here and never with their finery on like this. I love all these birds because of how infrequently, if ever, I’ve seen them. And the smaller shorebirds, there’s just something special about their shape, both body and beak. I always enjoy seeing them. This reminds me how little birding I’ve done this year. Perhaps next year I’ll try to focus on them just a little bit more. But it’s good knowing even if I don’t I can see some of them here.

    1. I’m not a ‘birder’ in the formal sense, but birds are part of the places I visit; I enjoy watching them, and getting decent photos if I can. Like you, I enjoy all the shorebirds, although identifying them is hard for me. They’re so quick, and sometimes the distinctions among the species are too slight for me to figure them out. But the egrets or herons in breeding plumage? There’s no mistaking them! I’m hoping for more photos as the season moves on.

  12. We don’t realize how much we miss something until it’s gone.

    Of course, there is usually a simple explanation. No water means no water birds.

    What a wonderful variety you found celebrating the rains! Roseate Spoonbills are common here but I still seem startled every time I see one. The delicate aigrettes of the egrets are mesmerizing. Reminiscent of fine lace work. The mother-of-pearl iridescence of the Glossy Ibis is amazing in the right light.

    Your tip for the day. About the best way to differentiate between Short and Long-billed Dowitchers in non-breeding season is their call. Now, how you force them to be vocal is a little detail I haven’t yet worked out.

    Your fabulous experience proves the key to successful birding can be as simple as “just add water”.

    1. That’s a good tip about the Dowitchers. I’m not at all good about hearing a call and then identifying it without further information, but I’ve sometimes had success by visiting the Macaulay Library, selecting a species, and then scrolling through the audio files and looking for the highly rated ones. Once I’ve heard a call enough times, I sometimes can identify it in the field.

      When it comes to water, I finally learned to look beyond the refuges when the ponds begin to dry. If the agricultural fields are holding water — especially when they flood the rice fields — it’s not uncommon to find flocks there. Most of the time I can’t manage photos because of my lens limitations, but it’s still fun to see the birds. And after all — it’s the fun of discovery that counts as much as a wonderful photo.

    1. I usually find the spoonbills just standing around, or swishing those spoon-like bills through the water. Being able to get one with the light shining through its wings was such a pleasure. The birds can become much more pink, especially as they mature, but this was enough to put me ‘in the pink.’ They really are something to see.

    1. I think the egrets are especially beautiful in their breeding plumage. I would love to come across some of their mating rituals, or the competitions among them. I’ve been discovering that bird behavior is as interesting as the birds themselves are beautiful.

  13. Glad that you finally got enough water to provide for waders and non waders alike to return to their feeding sources. You saw a fine feathered menagerie and the snowies are just wonderful to witness with their showy snowy plumage, something I’ve only witnessed vicariously in fine images like yours.

    1. Even better, it wasn’t a one time shot. We’ve had more rain since the big Thanksgiving rains, and it’s raining again tonight. There’s increased flow in the rivers, and some of the lakes that I hear fishermen talking about have come up a few inches. We still have a deficit, but we’re no longer in drought. I’m going to get down to Walden West this weekend. So far, there’s been neither water nor birds at the vernal pool, but the ground was soft for the first time in months, so change is coming.

      1. I’ll look forward to another Walden West chapter. Around here, until the serious cold arrives, it is mainly mush. Our backyard is a slushy quagmire and Bentley doesn’t really enjoy his outings nor do we while accompanying him. I am sure the fishermen especially appreciate the higher waters as do the fish that live in them.

        1. I listen to a lot of fishing and hunting reports on a local outdoors show, and learn things there I never would have known otherwise. Currently, the talk’s all about the fish heading for deeper waters: the middle of lakes, channels cut through the bays, and so on. Apparently fish can sense the coming of the cold, and begin gathering in the place that offers greater protection: deep water. It seems that the forecast for our first freeze of the year is on target.

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