Now What?

 

If you’ve ever felt as though you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, you might feel some kinship with this pied-billed grebe, who seems to have caught more than it can swallow.

Field guides note that grebes consume aquatic insects, crustaceans, leeches,  tadpoles, mollusks, and ‘small’ fish, but when this grebe popped up in front of me, fish firmly clenched in its bill, I was surprised by the fish’s size: it looked more suited to a heron than a grebe.

On the other hand, the fish wasn’t struggling to get away, perhaps because the grebe already had begun the process of repeatedly pinching the fish with its strong bill, killing it by damaging its internal organs.

What happened next I can’t say, since after only a few seconds the grebe spotted me and dove beneath the surface of the water. I never saw it again, and presume it surfaced in the midst of some nearby reeds, where it could continue dining in peace.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Home, Sweet Nest

Nesting black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Whether calling in flight, searching for food, or patrolling their territory on long, improbable legs, black-necked stilts always bring a smile. Their delicate, even fragile appearance is belied by their preferred habitats: fresh and saline marshes, mudflats, flooded agricultural fields, ponds, and drainage ditches.

During their mating season, which lasts from April through August, they construct ground nests near water, adding sticks, mud, grass, or shells to simple scrapes in the ground.

Both parents incubate three or four tan-colored eggs for 22-26 days; females often incubate by night, while both sexes take turns by day. Because even birds have to cope with the heat, on very hot days the parents will go to the water to wet their belly feathers before returning to the nest to cool the eggs.

After hatching, chicks run, walk, and swim as soon as their down has dried: usually within twenty-four hours. Their parents remove any tell-tale eggshells from the nest, and the chicks begin hiding in the water at night; both actions help to prevent predation by disguising their scent.

Nesting Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Like the stilt, pied-billed grebes forgo trees for nesting purposes, but they prefer water instead of land. Shallow water will do, but depths greater than nine inches are best, since they allow the bird to approach or escape the nest underwater.

Usually found singly or in pairs around ponds and saltwater marshes, pied-billed grebes tend to dive at the slightest provocation, but they also possess the ability to squeeze air from their feathers and sink beneath the water’s surface without leaving so much as a ripple. Once underwater, they can stay submerged for some time,  swimming great distances to the safety of the reeds, or they can remain just below the surface, with only their eyes or nostrils visible.

Their tremendous swimming skills have a downside, of course. Barely able to walk on land, the grebes prefer to dive and swim when they sense danger, instead of flying to escape.

The water that protects them also facilitates construction of their nest platform: a dense mass of plant material that either floats or is anchored to standing vegetation, like the stems of bulrushes and water lilies. Both male and female participate in selecting the site and building the platform and nest, a bowl-like structure four to five inches in diameter and about an inch deep.

Eventually, both also join in incubating four to seven eggs for about twenty-three days, covering the eggs with nest material when they leave to feed. The young are able to swim almost immediately upon hatching, although I was surprised to learn that they sometimes ride on their parents’ backs like loons; adult pied-billed grebes have been known to swim underwater with their chicks on their backs. 

Ground-nesting birds are quite common, of course, but the black-necked stilt and pied-billed grebe are remarkably public about their nesting process. The next time I glimpse a nice, round clump of floating vegetation, or see a stilt just sitting around, I’ll take a closer look. There might be a new family waiting beneath the wings.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Hey, There, Bright Eyes!

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

As winter-weary humans begin roaming parks, cemeteries, and back roads in seach of spring wildflowers, the creatures who call those places home watch attentively. Cautious, perhaps even a little bemused, they’re keeping an eye on us, and the sense of being watched can be strong. 

Not far from the Rockport, Texas cemetery, this pied-billed grebe floated in solitude and perfect serenity at the edge of human activity. Surprised to find it there, I was even more surprised to find it willing to endure my attention. Shy and given to diving at the slightest provocation, grebes can be hard to photograph, but this one seemed willing to pose. “Hi, there, Bright Eyes,” I said as I snapped away. “I’m happy to see you.”

At the cemetery itself, another pair of bright eyes watched from a hollow limb high in a tree. Fox squirrels create two types of shelters, leaf nests (dreys) and tree dens, and often use natural cavities as dens for winter shelter or raising young. Given the apparent depth of this cavity and the obvious unwillingness of the squirrel to move as I walked closer, I suspect I’d found a mother with babies in a nest.

Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger)

Two hundred miles away and a week earlier, I found another fox squirrel watching from high in a different tree.  On the old Varner-Hogg plantation in West Columbia, this little sweetheart remained equally motionless and attentive. In a few weeks, I suspect youngsters will emerge from this hollowed limb to begin exploring the world around them.

The squirrel mama needs to be attentive, since being in a tree isn’t necessarily a defense against another plantation resident — the Texas rat snake. This one, over four feet long, is typical; the snake is among the largest in the state, reaching as much as six feet in length, and it’s known for its tree-climbing abilities.

Texas rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri )

Finding it among some flowers was appropriate, since the specific epithet lindheimeri honors German-American naturalist Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer. Better known as a botanist, Lindheimer collected the first specimen of this non-venomous snake in New Braunfels, Texas.

When I found a yellow-bellied water snake curled up at the base of a tree on this same plantation, it seemed somewhat apprehensive. But this sweet creature appeared to be more curious than fearful. Eye to bright eye, we regarded one another for a few minutes, and then went about our business. Whether the encounter delighted the snake I can’t say, but it certainly delighted me.

 

Comments always are welcome.