Gathering and Going

So far off the road I never would have seen them, a group of twenty Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) caught the eye of the friend who’d accompanied me to the Brazoria Refuge last Sunday. “Cranes!” she exclaimed. “Turn around!” And so I did.

Too distant for clear images, and made somewhat dull by dim, foggy light, two of the birds’ primary field marks — their red crowns and the funny, feather-duster-like tail feathers called bustles — still were visible. If you enlarge the image, even their colorful eyes can be detected.

The cranes are winter visitors to Texas, arriving in October or November and generally departing by February or early March. Gregarious by nature, they can be found feeding in fields, pastures, and coastal marshes. Flock size varies from place to place; this group of twenty is typical of what I’ve seen in our area.

I didn’t expect to see cranes in flight, and wasn’t prepared for the suddenness of their departure. Still, one primary difference between Sandhill Cranes and Great Blue Herons became obvious as they rose above the trees: cranes fly with outstretched necks and legs, while the Great Blue Heron curls its head back and rests it on its body while in flight. As the group gathered more tightly in the sky, I was able to include all twenty birds in a photo.


Another difference helps to distinguish airborne herons and cranes. The Great Blue Heron’s wing beats are slow, and the bird rarely brings its wings above parallel. Sandhill Cranes, on the other hand, are given to sharp, snappy wing movements, and often raise their wings above their bodies.

I hear Sandhill Cranes far more often than I see them. Their calls in flight are  instantly recognizable, and unforgettable. I was lucky on this day not only to see the birds but to hear them as well, as they prepared to join others of their kind in their great migration.


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Bird on a Blade

 

Turkey Vulture ~ January 5

I rarely visit the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge without finding a bird or two perched on the old windmill that stands near the Big Slough. Turkey vultures seem fond of the spot, although black vultures and an occasional hawk will pause there as well.

On February 7, I noticed a different species had taken up residence. A Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) was using the windmill’s vane to scan for the insects, lizards, and small mammals that make up the bulk of its diet.

Shrikes are part of the songbird family, although they behave more like raptors. A sharp, falcon-like hook in their beak allows them 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. 

Their propensity for impaling prey on thorns or barbed wire has earned them the name ‘butcher bird, and their ‘larders’ are sure signs of a shrike’s presence. Because they prefer open areas with short vegetation and plenty of vantage points from which to watch for prey, a windmill vane or blade suits them perfectly.

While I watched, this shrike moved from the windmill’s vane to the top of its blades, and scanned the ground below. Every minute or two, it made another dive to the ground: sometimes returning directly to the blade, and sometimes flying off into surrounding grasses before coming back to perch.

Since I never saw it eating, it may be that it was filling up its larder. Given the extraordinary cold, freezing rain, snow, and sleet that we’ll have for the next week, I hope it’s well-supplied.

 

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Snipe, Hunting

As early as the 1840s, unsuspecting children and newcomers to country life were being duped into trying to catch a nonexistent animal called a snipe. Even today, ‘snipe hunts’ continue, as new innocents are tricked into seeking an imaginary creature whose description varies according to the imagination of the perpetrators.

During my first year at summer camp, after being challenged to find one of the elusive creatures and trap it with a pillowcase, my hunt came to an early end when the older girls watching me fumble about in the dark couldn’t contain their giggles.

That experience led me to believe for decades that all snipe were imaginary, and that being ‘sent on a snipe hunt’ was nothing more than a poetic description for an impossible mission.

Then, I met this creature probing the mud along an isolated refuge road.

Wilson’s Snipe at the Brazoria refuge

While searching among images of sandpipers and dowitchers in an attempt to identify the bird, I emailed Texas Master Naturalist Shannon Westveer, who came to my rescue. Without hunting at all, I’d captured my first Snipe — or at least its image. Only weeks later, I found my second in a pond at the Brazoria refuge.

Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata) breed in our northern states and Canada, then migrate to spend the winter in southern states, as well as in Mexico and Central America. In Texas, the majority are found along the coast and in the blackland prairie region between Waco and the Red River.

The birds prefer the soft soils of moist or wet places, and often are found in harvested rice fields, rain-soaked prairies, or low-lying areas along bayous, creeks, and ponds. Long legs allow them to navigate shallow water, while  long bills allow them to probe for worms, insect larvae, and other invertebrate prey. Their bill’s tip is flexible; because it can open to grasp food while the base remains closed, they can ingest small prey from the mud without having to remove their bill from the soil.

Wilson’s Snipe foraging in a shallow freshwater pond

During courtship, males ‘dancing’ in the sky create a distinctive, winnowing sound as air passes over specially modified outer tail feathers. When flushed, the bird’s call  is equally remarkable. Now that I’ve heard the sounds on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, I know that I’ve heard them in the field. The next time I hear such a call, I’ll look around for a snipe, hunting.

 

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