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.

When It’s Snake for Supper

 

Because of its size, a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is easy to spot, even at a distance. When I noticed this one standing in the middle of a salt flat at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, I knew it was well beyond the reach of my camera, but I was interested in the ‘something’ it was shaking with its bill. Assuming it was a large fish, I took a closer look through my camera’s lens, and discovered the heron was dealing with a snake.

At that point, the snake seemed to be in charge, but after a few minutes of tussling it unwrapped itself and dropped to the ground. Clearly still interested, the heron took only seconds to re-enage with the reptile.

After a quick stab toward the ground, he had the snake by the tail: a situation the snake seemed to be evaluating as it raised its head for a better look at its opponent.

After getting a better grip on the situation, the heron paused, then lifted off and flew deeper into the flats, the snake still dangling from its bill. I felt some sympathy for the beautiful (as yet unidentified) snake, but was pleased that I’d been able to witness the sight. I presume that, in time, the heron overcame the snake, and enjoyed an unexpected treat for its supper.

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Patient Poser

Perched alongside a Brazoria County road, this Crested Caracara (Caracara plancus) had chosen to survey its territory from the tallest tree in the neighborhood: typical behavior from a bird that’s equally willing to walk a country mile in search of grasshoppers or lizards. A large bird, caracaras in the open are hard to miss, so I stopped for a closer look.

Despite being classified as a falcon, caracaras often are mistaken for eagles; in Texas, it’s not uncommon to hear them called ‘Mexican eagles.’ That said, their flight differs from that of an eagle. Rather than soaring high in the sky, caracaras tend to fly low across the land, wings flat and nearly motionless as they search for prey.

One of their most delightful characteristics is their occasional willingness to tolerate human presence. After a few quick photos taken from inside the car, I decided I had nothing to lose and stepped out onto the road. The bird, seemingly impervious to my movements, never stirred. Finally, I called out to him. In response, he stopped staring into space and turned to look at me while the wind ruffled his head feathers.

On a whim, I continued the conversation. “You know you’re handsome, so how about a better view of that shiny blue beak?” Why he raised his head I can’t say, but it’s fun to imagine that he knew he was being admired, and wanted to show off one of his most unique features.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Boys (and Girls) Are Back in Town

 

Dry conditions have meant fewer birds in spots that I normally visit, but last Sunday there was activity at the San Bernard refuge. A small flotilla of what appeared to be Blue-winged Teal (Spatula discors) was accompanied by a pair of American Coots (Fulica americana)  and — to my amazement — a single Scaup: the bird with the solid brown head on the right.

The Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) and Greater Scaup (Aythya marila) are easily confused. One field mark is the shape of the head; after much pondering, I decided this one’s head is more round than peakèd, indicating a Greater Scaup. Clicking to enlarge the photo will provide a closer view of these beautiful birds.

The Coots, easily recognizable by their black bodies and white bills, are a common winter bird that sometimes appear at the refuges in great numbers. With a strong front predicted for this coming weekend, I expect to see many more. Other species — Gadwall, Bufflehead, and Pintail — are arriving now, and the unmistakable sound of Sandhill Cranes filled the air as I watched these ducks. The season is turning, indeed.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Importance of Names – The Birds

Osprey ~ Wikipedia

 

Oh, large brown, thickly feathered creature
with a distinctive white head,
you, perched on the top branch
of a tree near the lake shore,
as soon as I guide this boat back to the dock
and walk up the grassy path to the house,
before I unzip my windbreaker
and lift the binoculars from around my neck,
before I wash the gasoline from my hands,
before I tell anyone I’m back,
and before I hang the ignition key on its nail,
or pour myself a drink—
I’m thinking a vodka soda with lemon—
I will look you up in my
illustrated guide to North American birds
and I promise I will learn what you are called.
                           “Osprey” ~ Billy Collins

 

Comments always are welcome.
Image courtesy Wikipedia. For more about poet Billy Collins, please click here.