The Little Blue Slow Change Artist

Juvenile Little Blue Heron ~ Laffite’s Cove Nature Center, Galveston Island

It’s taken time, but eventually I came to understand that not every smaller, white wading bird I encountered at the edge of ponds or on the tidal flats was a Snowy Egret. In the first year of its life, the Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) is white, showing no more than dusky blue or gray shadows on the tips of its feathers.

Greenish-yellow legs and feet, together with a bill that tends toward pale gray rather than black also helps with identification. The Sibley guide mentions that many immature Little Blue Herons show a short pointed plume or two on the back of their heads; I may have captured that feature in the first photo.

As the bird matures, it takes on a mottled, or piebald, appearance as white feathers are replaced.

Maturing Little Blue Heron ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Adult birds may seem uniformly dark at a distance, but in fact their feathers present a pleasing combination of maroon and a dark slaty-blue. Their legs remain green; combined with their yellow eyes and a pale blue bill tipped with black at the base, they’re fairly easy to identify.

In the past, I sometimes confused adult Little Blue Herons with Reddish Egrets, despite their color differences; Reddish Egret feathers have been described as cinnamon and steel.

Apart from those color differences, behavior helps to distinguish the birds. The Reddish Egret is a frenetic forager: chasing fish by running back and forth, opening and shutting its wings, and stirring up sediment with its feet. The Little Blue is a sedate stalker: as elegant on the hunt as in moments of rest, and equally beautiful.

An elegant pair at the Brazoria refuge

 

Comments always are welcome.

One Sweet December Day

Camphor Daisy (Rayjacksonia phyllocephala)

While frost, snow, and colder temperatures make their way across Canada and into the United States, those of us who live on the Texas coast continue to enjoy our own autumn-into-winter transition.

On December 4, I spent a few hours exploring the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, where a remarkable variety of flowers continued to bloom and increasing numbers of birds were appearing. The camphor daisy shown above, though in decline, still threaded through the mud flats and ditches, and one of our tiny asters (perhaps properly identified, or perhaps not) still was being visited by butterflies and other insects.

Panicled Aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum)
Water Lettuce (Pistia stratiotes)

The lotuses are gone now, but an assortment of aquatic plants remain, including mosquito fern, duckweed, and this pretty water lettuce. Its soft, slightly fuzzy leaves suggest those of common mullein.

Away from the ponds, wading birds scattered across the sloughs and flats. I crept as close to these spoonbills as I could, shooting from behind a thick screen of reeds to keep them from taking flight. It appears this is a group of juveniles; youngsters are a paler pink than the adults, and their heads are fully feathered.

Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja)

Lavender bespeaks autumn on our coast as much as red or gold. Here, tiny flowers of Texas vervain offer the smallest butterfly in North American a sip of nectar. Given the Pygmy Blue’s preference for cruising close to the ground, I was happy enough for this upside down view.

Texas Vervain (Verbena halei) and Western Pygmy Blue  (Brephidium exile)

Meanwhile, the Carolina wolfberry displays an equally pretty lavender. In time, it produces the bright red fruits that help to feed newly-arrived whooping cranes.

Carolina Wolfberry (Lycium carolinianum)
Scarlet Pimpernel Anagallis arvensis

Our version of the scarlet pimpernel generally is orange, although blue and sometimes red flowers will appear. Low-growing and only a half-inch or so across, it’s delightfully detailed for such a small flower.

I rarely see the Ailanthus webworm moth, but when I do, I think of drapery and upholstery fabrics popular in the 1940s and 1950s.

Ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea)

Past the prairie and back at the slough, I found these ibises and egrets sharing a bank that offered protection from the wind.

White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) socializing with White Egrets (Egretta thula)

They didn’t seem at all disturbed by the numerous alligators sunning themselves on the same banks.

The obligatory alligator

Bright yellow cowpeas were everywhere, bringing a bit of visual warmth to the landscape.  I’d never before noticed the resemblance of their buds to those of the bluebonnet, but this time it was impossible to miss: a reminder that both are classified within the pea family, or Fabaceae.

Hairypod cowpea (Vigna luteola)

Today, a frontal passage with colder temperatures, rain, and wind has passed through, but soon enough the winds will switch to the south, and our typical December cycle will begin again.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

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.

Father’s Day on Olney Pond

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis) form life-long pair bonds, and this couple has their wings full with fourteen young ones to keep watch over.

The ducklings had roamed away from their parents as they fed, but when it was time to move toward the shelter of the grasses and reeds, the mother and father lined them up like a group of kindergartners on a field trip. With such attentive parents and such a nice pond to live in, more than a few of these babies probably will survive.

 

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.