The Peter Pan of the Pond

One out-of-focus but very special pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

Nothing brings a smile like the sight of pied-billed grebes bobbing and diving their way through our ponds and wetlands. Small, skittish and shy,  they seem to be everywhere and nowhere at once: floating on the water, bobbing for vegetation, and fleeing at the first sign of human presence. They’re divers and swimmers, not flyers; not once in all my years of watching them had I seen one take flight.

When I noticed this one in middle of a Brazoria Refuge pond,  it seemed typically grebe-like in its behavior, until something strange began to happen. As I watched, it appeared to grow smaller, drawing into itself until only half its original size. Its feathers, no longer smooth, began to ruffle, and its wings seemed to flutter above its back.

Before I could readjust my camera’s settings for a clearer photo, the grebe suddenly raised itself, stretched out, and began running along the suface of the water like a coot attempting to gain altitude. In fact, that’s precisely what the grebe was doing: gaining altitude, and beginning to fly.

I’d always known grebes could fly, but I’d never seen it happen. Neither had Mia McPherson, until she witnessed flying grebes at her local Utah pond in February, 2017, and posted photos on her blog. As she described it in On the Wing Photography :

Pied-billed Grebes only migrate during the night, which is why until yesterday I have never photographed them in flight. I’ve even written a post here on On The Wing Photography bemoaning the fact that I would never photograph them in flight. I was wrong, delightfully wrong.
Yesterday afternoon I was at my local pond where I photographed not one but two Pied-billed Grebes in flight. This is rarely seen and rarely photographed. I might never get the chance again. 

After admiring Mia’s photos and envying her experience, I left a brief comment, wondering as I did if I ever would have the same opportunity. I didn’t think so, until January 5 of this year when, like an ecstatic Peter Pan, this grebe took flight.

Like Mia, I might never be granted such a sight again, but I’ll be watching our grebes much more closely in the future. They’re not as predictable as I thought.

I can fly!


Comments always are welcome.

Marsh Babies


On July 14, 2017, I found a family of common gallinules (Gallinula galeata) settling in for the night among broken reeds at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge.  Their chosen spot may appear uncomfortable to our eyes, but at least four chicks seemed happy enough to disappear under their mother’s protective feathers.  

For the rest of that summer and throughout 2018, I hoped for another glimpse of the young birds (sometimes called moorhens, or marsh hens). Adults were plentiful, but any babies remained well hidden within the ponds’ vegetation.  Finally, last Sunday, I discovered a mother and seven chicks busily feeding and exploring the world.

At first glance, I thought the chicks were contortionists, and that the bits of red near their wings were feet or legs. Instead, newly hatched gallinule chicks have ‘spurs’ on their wings that help them climb into the nest or capture vegetation. Able to swim within a day of hatching, they still need a little help with life on the land, and the spurs function admirably.

The floating vegetation may not seem appetizing to us, but it clearly appealed to the birds, who spent the better part of an hour cruising the buffet table.

With chicks swimming every which way, it wasn’t easy to get a photo of the group, but this pair came fairly close, and stopped their foraging long enough for a portrait.

Eventually, the mother had enough, and began leading her brood toward the other side of the pond. During the crossing, only six of her seven stayed close.

It’s common for every group of young mallards to have one straggler in the group: a baby who’s always too busy exploring to keep up with the family. At least in this instance, it was the same with the gallinules. This little one dawdled, until its mother began calling from the other side of the pond.

After some enthusiastic paddling, the straggler made the passage safely and, almost beyond reach of my camera, mother and chicks disappeared into the sheltering grasses. With luck, I’ll see them again before they’re teenagers.


Comments always are welcome.


The Watchers In the Shadows

In the early 1980s, during another partial solar eclipse in Houston, the sight of crescent-shaped shadows beneath live oak trees enchanted me. The memory never faded, and I was eager to revisit the experience during this week’s eclipse.

As neighbors gathered, buckets of water, colanders, saltine crackers, and even Pringles potato chip cans worked perfectly well as viewing devices.

Still, the trees were my favorite.

Even on concrete, the little crescent moons they shed were well-defined.

When rising winds tumbled their branches, the shapes shifted in unpredictable ways. Here, a school of angel fish crosses their concrete reef.

Captivated by shadows on the ground, I hardly noticed the murmuring above my head until it grew louder and more insistent.

Scanning the branches, I discovered I wasn’t alone. Other watchers had awakened and had begun to stretch, scratch, and perhaps even think about fishing.

Green heron (Butorides virescens)
Black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)

Whether the herons felt the rising wind, sensed changes in the light, were attuned to the slight drop in temperature, or simply were curious about the humans below, they chattered and stirred until, as the moon moved away and the bright afternoon returned, they settled in again on their branches.

Tonight, the humans have gone, the slivered moon has set, and the herons are calling through the darkness. At first light, they will return to the trees and spend the day drowsing there among the branches. While their habits are less predictable than an eclipse, no glasses are needed to see them, and no years-long wait is required.


Comments always are welcome.