The Beasties and Their Besties

Cattle egret ~ Bibulcus ibis

I’d never seen a cattle egret until I moved to Texas in the 1970s, and the reason’s quite interesting.

Unknown in North America prior to 1940 (or 1952, or ‘the 1950s’, depending on which source you choose) the so-called ‘cow bird’ spread via natural migration from Africa to northeastern South America in the 1870s and 1880s. Eventually, it reached the southern United States and began spreading northward. By the 1960s, it had appeared in California and Canada; presumably, today’s children in Iowa are familiar with the bird.

Often found on the backs of cattle, like these I photographed near a water tank on the Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge, the birds will pluck ticks and other insects from the backs of cattle, but they feed primarily on grasshoppers and crickets disturbed by grazing livestock.

If no cattle are available, the birds are happy to follow anything capable of stirring up the insects they favor: plows, tractors, or even a homeowner mowing the lawn. They often collect around prescribed fires, feasting on insects escaping the flames.

Smaller than other herons and egrets — less than two feet tall — and rather nondescript even in breeding plumage, cattle egrets do offer some advantages for beginning birders: they tend to flock, and they’re easily observed.

I assumed four birds were lurking around this handsome black steer, but when I stepped out of the car, five took off.

Then, out of the grasses, the rest of the group appeared. Missing so many birds gathered around a single steer would seem unlikely, but there they were; no doubt they were hidden at ground level, enjoying a grasshopper brunch.

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Big Bird, Helping Endangered Birds

During a visit to the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge last fall, I was surprised to see a small plane passing repeatedly over areas of the prairie. Its color — yellow — is one I usually associate with crop dusters, but I couldn’t imagine dusting refuge prairies with herbicides. Mosquito-spraying was my next guess, but there was no one around to ask, so I went on my way.

Early yesterday morning, I happened to be in the neighborhood, and took time for a quick drive around the auto loop. While I was busy stalking a Crested Caracara on the road, a low hum in the distance made me look up. It was the same yellow airplane, and a quick change of camera settings allowed me to catch an image of it.

I had been headed out of the refuge at the time, but curiosity demanded that I turn around, go back to the refuge headquarters, and look for an answer. The visitor center has been closed for months, but eventually a ranger spotted me nosing around the outbuildings, and came to see what I was up to. Her explanation of the work being done by the plane was both fascinating and wonderful.

The plane wasn’t spraying; it was dropping fire ant bait. [NOTE: after talking with a refuge employee this morning, I learned that the product being used is called Extinguish Plus, and it’s commercially available.] Fire ants are immensely annoying to humans, but they’re lethal to hatchlings. The young woman explained that, since the bait-dropping project began, the number of other insects on the prairie has increased, and so has the number of ground-dwelling birds. I didn’t see any of the prairie chickens during my visit, but an exceptionally large covey of quail crossed in front of me on Sunday: a visible token of the project’s success.

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Blue Bird that Brought Happiness

When I spotted a bit of bright blue along the edge of a Brazoria County mudflat, newly filled with water from recent rains, my first thought was, “I wish people would stop dumping their trash.” Then I glanced back, and realized that the bit of blue wasn’t plastic; it was joined to eyes, a body, and legs.

I’d never seen anything like it and, to be quite honest, I’m not sure I could have imagined it. But there it was: a tricolored heron (Egretta tricolor) in full breeding plumage. For most of the year, it’s feathers are a subtle mix of blue-gray, lavender, maroon, and white, but in breeding season, it develops a bright blue bill with a black tip, cobalt blue lores (the area surrounding the eye), bright red eyes, and white head plumes. Most descriptions mention pink legs as well; these don’t seem particularly pink, but the color transformations might not have been complete.

For a few minutes it remained partly visible, stalking its way down the flat amid the grasses. I suspect some lady tricolored heron already has joined me  in noticing and appreciating its fine appearance.

 

Comments always are welcome.

It’s the Early Bird, With Its Catch

This Great Egret (Ardea alba) probably wouldn’t have rejected the proverbial early bird’s worm as a snack, but it was morning at Brazos Bend, and time to search for something a little more substantial.

After scanning the skies for several minutes, the egret began scrutinizing the surrounding water with that wonderful intensity common to wading birds.

Predictably, its strike was fast and unpredictable: so much so that I nearly missed it.  Egrets prefer fish, but within the thick foliage a frog, snake, crawfish, or shrimp might have been its target.

Given the strength of its bill and the speed of its attack, the bird’s success was understandable, although the prey it pulled from the water wasn’t easy to identify.

No matter. The bird seemed pleased with its catch, and I was more than pleased to have caught its image in the early morning light.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Sign of the Butcher Bird

In early February, I happened upon a bird known as the Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) sitting atop a windmill at the Brazoria Wildflife Refuge, scanning the land below for a tasty snack.

It intrigued me to learn that, although part of songbird family, shrikes behave more like raptors. Certain of their habits have earned them the nickname ‘Butcher Bird,’ and I included this brief description of their odd but effective practice in my post:

A sharp, falcon-like hook in their beak allows Shrikes to attack and capture prey, but they lack the talons and strong feet of hawks and owls. Unable to hold their prey while eating, as raptors do, Shrikes carry their meal to a thorn bush, cactus, or barbed wire fence, where they impale it in order to dine at leisure, or store it for later consumption. 

Had I found this beetle impaled on a barbed wire fence in late January, I never would have imagined it had been left there by a ‘butcher bird.’ Now, it seems reasonable to think that a Shrike had experienced a successful hunt and, true to its nature, had stored its prize on the fence surrounding a field of bluebonnets.

I passed by the same fence two days later, and the beetle was gone. I hope it wasn’t stolen from the bird who left it there.

 

Comments always are welcome.