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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

Comments always are welcome.