Life Among the Lotuses

A familiar sight at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, the Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) is popularly known as the Moorhen. Thanks to its red bill and shield, it’s an easy bird to spot, and it clearly finds the lotuses at Brazos Bend State Park as congenial as the reed-covered banks of Brazoria ponds.

Wading in lotus-leaf ponds seems equally appealing to Purple Gallinules (Porphyrio martinica). The chicks can walk quite soon after hatching, but depend on their parents for food during the first few weeks of life.

While they aren’t as colorful as adult Purple Gallinules, hints of the color-to-come are obvious, and their seemingly oversized feet allow them to range easily and quickly through the vegetation.

Adult Purple Gallinules have quite a limited range in the United States, but their vibrant colors make them welcome residents wherever they appear.

Gallinules aren’t the only species that appreciate the advantages of a nice lotus pad. Green herons (Butorides virescens), one of our smallest herons, will secret themselves among the leaves while fishing. Stealth isn’t their only weapon, however. The Cornell birding site notes that:

The Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. It often creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, and feathers, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.

Perhaps because of its tool-using abilities, it’s equally willing to wait in the open for its next meal. Green herons are quite common even in our marinas, where they perch and wait just above the water on dock lines.

While the thick covering of duckweed might seem to be an obstacle to waterbirds in search of a meal, this Great Egret (Ardea alba) plucked two  fish from the water while I watched. In addition to fish, they’ll willingly consume frogs, snakes, birds, small mammals, and invertebrates such as crawfish.

This Yellow-crowned Night Heron was especially well-hidden at the edge of Elm Lake: the yellow feathers atop its head an almost perfect match for the flowers of the rattlebush (Sesbania drummondii).

Like the Green Heron, the Yellow-crowned is accepting of human company; I often see them fishing in the median of South Shore Boulevard, one of the most heavily traveled thoroughfares in my neighborhood.

Soon enough, the lotuses will decline and winter birds will join these year-round residents. It’s another reason to welcome the turning of the seasons, and a reason to return to Brazos Bend.

Comments always are welcome.

The Whistlers of Brazos Bend

 

Black-bellied whistling ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis) are described by the Cornell birding site as ‘boisterous,’ and a better word couldn’t be chosen. Whether in flight or calling to one another from the treetops, their loud, piercing whistle is unmistakable, and their tendency to form large groups only increases the racket.

Although they will nest on the ground, their preference for nesting in tree cavities and perching on open branches makes them relatively easy to spot. Their brightly colored bills often can be seen even when the birds are hidden away in reeds or grasses.

At Brazos Bend, the few dead and dying tree trees allowed to stand at the edge of Elm Lake provided a resting spot for these birds after a night of foraging among the abundant lotuses, duckweed, and smartweed.

Seen at close range, these large, colorful ducks are among my favorites: their appearance seems as bold and brash as their behavior. Their breeding range extends somewhat to the north, but they can be found throughout the year in coastal Texas: a fact that pleases me greatly.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Boon Companions

Black-bellied whistling ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis) ~ Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve

According to various dictionaries, both the word ‘boon’ and the phrase ‘boon companion’ are tending toward obsolescence.  Nevertheless, ‘boon companion’ is exactly the phrase that came to mind when I encountered this assortment of avian pairs on Sunday afernoon. They certainly seemed to fit the definition of ‘boon companion’ from the 1560s:  “a convivial friend or close intimate, someone with whom one enjoys spending time or sharing activities.”

Foraging white-faced ibis (Plegadis chihi) & snowy egret (Egretta thula) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

While it makes sense that members of the same species would enjoy hanging out together, cross-species companionship isn’t unknown. Many waterbirds engage in what’s known as commensal feeding, practices that benefit both members of the pair:

In commensal associations, members of one species assist the foraging of another, but incur no significant costs and receive no benefits. One of the more common commensal associations involves “beaters,” which stir up prey, and “attendants,” which simply follow in their footsteps taking whatever comes their way.
Many waterbirds, marsh birds, and shorebirds attend particular beater species. Great and Snowy Egrets attend cormorants; Snowy Egrets, Tricolored Herons, and Great Egrets attend mergansers. Some attendants will follow more than one beater species. Enterprising American Coots attend Canvasbacks, Tundra Swans, Mallards, pintails, and Redheads. In water of swimming depth, Wilson’s Phalaropes will follow Northern Shovelers; where they can wade, they will often forage behind American Avocets.

Simple proximity doesn’t always guarantee that a pair of birds are feeding commensally, but after watching this ibis and egret for a half-hour, I became certain they were sharing a meal.

Napping double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus)
On the other hand, most of the cormorants seemed ready for after-dinner naps. When I stopped to admire this pair, they deigned to look at me once before re-tucking their heads into their feathery pillows: perhaps to dream of fish in the afternoon warmth.

Comments always are welcome.
Click to enlarge any image for greater detail.