Beautiful Birds in Disturbed Places

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Indigo Bunting

Generally speaking, when I set out to explore nature I’m seeking the most pristine places I can find.  These places are ancient – old growth forests with towering trees or virgin prairie on a bed of soil that has never been plowed.  I like to see things the way they may have looked prior to European settlement, and transport myself to a distant, wilder time.

But if I chose to ignore those more disturbed habitats, I would be robbing myself of a wealth of beauty and diversity.  In fact, there are many species that have evolved to take advantage of early successional communities created in the wake of some disturbance.  Historically, these habitats may have formed by a variety of means.  For example, when a massive tree falls in an old growth forest.  Imagine ten tons of timber crashing to the earth.  A tree like this could take out a swath of forest totaling a third of an acre or more, especially if it brings adjacent trees down with it.  This new gap in the canopy would undergo the process of succession, responding much the way a fallow field does when it slowly reverts back to woodland.

The patch of disturbed land could increase significantly in the face of some natural disaster.  A tornado could take out a swath of forest hundreds of feet wide and miles long.  A severe hurricane could level acres of forest near the coast, and a wildfire could remove forest cover on the scale of thousands of acres.

Events like this are particularly important in the eastern United States, where much of the landscape was historically forested.  There existed, however, a multitude of non-forested communities interspersed among the old growth timber.  These included prairie inclusions, barrens, and similar habitats that were kept open by a variety of factors including soil conditions, grazing by American bison, and regular wildfire.  If one of these communities went too long without the introduction of some natural disturbance, it would begin to revert back to forest through the process of succession.

Today, however, the U.S. is far removed from the natural eden it was just a few hundred years ago.  That is not to say, however, that suitable habitat for these disturbance dependent species no longer exists.  Take the Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor), for example.  The “Prairie” in its name is misleading, as this is not a species of prairie or grassland habitats, but rather one of those early successional habitats described above.  They breed throughout much of the eastern U.S., from Maine to east Texas.  Here I most frequently observe them in regenerating pine stands 5 to 10 years after harvest.

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A male Prairie Warbler sings in defense of his territory.

These sites undergo succession much in the way a forest would following some natural clearing event.  First a variety of grasses and forbs will invade.  Soon after the pines will sprout.  Before long, however, the trees will grow to tall, the canopy will close, and the habitat will no longer be suitable for the Prairie Warbler.

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Prairie Warbler

The ephemeral nature of these ever changing habitats means that species like the Prairie Warbler do not have a reliable territory to return to each year, and must seek out new breeding sites once their old territories are no longer suitable.  I speculate that, given a certain element of unpredictability with their preferred habitat, Prairie Warblers, and other disturbance-dependent bird species likely experience local cycles of “boom and bust”, potentially increasing in numbers following large disturbance events, and decreasing as the disturbed areas reach later successional stages.

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A Prairie Warbler forages for invertebrates on a pine sapling.

Another species found in these disturbed habitats is the Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens).  The chat was once considered our largest warbler species, but recent research indicates that is more closely related to blackbirds, and it has been placed in its own family (Icteriidae).  Chats are well known for their loud, varied songs which consist of a variety of raucous warbles, whistles, rattles, and more.  The males perform elaborate courtship displays on the wing, slowly descending in choreographed fashion.

Yellow-breasted Chats can be found throughout much of the contiguous U.S and portions of Mexico and southern Canada.  They are less specific in their habitat preference than prairie warblers, and can be found in a variety of disturbed habitats.  They are easy to hear, but difficult to see, often skulking low in dense vegetation.

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A rare glimpse of a Yellow-breasted Chat in the open.

Unlike the chat, the Painted Buntings (Passerina ciris) maintain a visible presence in their territory, frequently singing from the highest perches available.  These sparrow-sized songbirds are considered by many to be among the most beautiful birds in the country, and they certainly leave a lasting impression on those fortunate enough to encounter them.  I’ll always remember the first one I saw birding with my mom.

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Male Painted Bunting

The Painted Bunting breeds in the south-central states, along the Atlantic coast in the southeast, and portions of northern Mexico.  They can be found in a variety of disturbed habitats, as long as there is some shrub or small tree component.

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A male Painted Bunting sings in defense of its habitat.

Though it lacks the varied color scheme of its cousin the Painted Bunting, the Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) is no less striking.  With its metallic cyan plumage, this is one of my favorite birds to observe in the spring and summer here in the Pineywoods.

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Indigo Bunting Male

Indigo Buntings breed throughout much of the eastern U.S. with a few isolated populations in the southeast.  Though I most often associate this species with disturbed areas, I also frequently observe them in high quality habitats such as mature longleaf pine savannas.  This is not entirely surprising, however, as these once vast longleaf pine forests depend on regular disturbance to maintain an open understory and rich herbaceous layer.

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A male Indigo Bunting sings in the understory of a mature pine savanna.

Another disturbance loving blue beauty is the Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea).  They are quite similar to the Indigos, but can be differentiated by their heavier bill and chestnut wing bars.  To me, the blue of the grosbeak is more cobalt, and the bunting more cyan.

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Male Blue Grosbeak

One might encounter Blue Grosbeaks across the southern and central United States and northern Mexico.  They can be found in a variety of shrubby habitats.  In the eastern U.S. this usually means areas that have undergone some recent or continuing disturbance, however further west this can include mature desert scrub and woodlands.

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When hit with direct sunlight, the Blue Grosbeak’s plumage takes on a metallic sheen.

The image below is of a regenerating pine plantation where I observed Prairie Warblers, Yellow-breasted Chats, Painted Buntings, Indigo Buntings, and Blue Grosbeaks.  Also present in the area were White-eyed Vireos, Northern Cardinals, and Northern Mockingbirds.  In East Texas, Northern Bobwhites may also utilize habitats like this, though they have all but disappeared from the Pineywoods.

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Regenerating Pine Plantation

When a disturbed habitat occurs in close proximity to water, additional bird species may be encountered.  The Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus), for example, inhabits disturbed areas such as marshes, shrublands, forest edge, and riparian areas, and are generally closely associated with water.  Kingbirds are so-named for the voracity with which they defend their territories against intruders of all shapes and sizes.

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Eastern Kingbird

Perhaps our most familiar denizen of wet, disturbed habitats is the Common Yellowthroat – the little masked crusader that announces its presence to the world with its trademark wichity-wichity-wichity song.  Though they can be found away from water, yellowthroats are most commonly associated with weedy or scrubby habitats on the margins of marshes, ponds, and streams.

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A male Common Yellowthroat announcing his presence to would-be competitors. 

The Common Yellowthroat is a member of the Warbler family (Parulidae).  They are widespread in the U.S., Canada, and portions of Mexico.  We are lucky enough to have a few birds present year round in the southern half of the Pineywoods and on the Upper Texas Coast.

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Male Common Yellowthroat

In modern times, areas of significant disturbance have increased dramatically as old growth forest has been cleared to make way for pasture, agriculture, development, and managed timber.  It is clear that having some early and mid successional areas on the landscape is beneficial to biodiversity on a macro scale, however it becomes a concern when this occurs over a large scale, which is too often the case.  They key, like in so many things in life, is moderation.  Fortunately, modern forestry practices have improved dramatically, and programs like the Sustainable Forestry Initiative promote managing the landscape as a patchwork of successional stages.

Despite an increased abundance of disturbed areas across the U.S., many of these bird species remain uncommon and some are declining.  The problem is, disturbance in and of itself is not enough.  The nature, and method of the disturbance is important.  Areas that undergo intensive herbicide or pesticide use, for example, are not suitable breeding sites for birds.  Additionally, areas that are too heavily managed, where woody vegetation is not allowed to reach appropriate heights are similarly unproductive for all but the most generalist of species.

As lovers of biodiversity, it is important that we support and promote best management practices in land disturbing activities, so that we can simultaneously provide a sustainable resource and enhance local biodiversity.

 

 

The Prairies Forever Changed

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Prairie Hyacinth and Prairie Paintbrush bloom in a Fort Worth Prairie remnant 

Imagine, for a moment, that you are standing with your feet firmly planted in the dark soil atop a gentle knoll, surveying an undulating sea of grass that stretches as far as the eye can see.  You are somewhere north of Fort Worth, in a time before the land was forever scarred by asphalt, steel, and an insatiable need to bend the land to meet the will of man.  At a high point, you may be standing only a few feet higher than your surroundings, yet your view is unobstructed.  A lone, gnarled oak or mesquite may stand here or there in defiance of the forces that break any woody invader that tries to set roots in the prairie, and far in the distance a dark line of trees lines a gully that drains the plain.

The sky is darkening and rising columns of clouds in the distance give you pause.  Yet you wonder, for a moment if the faint roar that you hear is the advancing thunder, or the furious poundings of thousands of hooves as a herd of bison takes flight.  The wind hits, borne by the impending storm, and sends the countless wildflowers into motion, creating a kaleidoscopic blur of color.  If you could transport yourself to this place and time, you would be standing in the once vast tallgrass prairie of north-central Texas that served as a southern extension of the Great Plains that fueled and shaped our developing nation.

The truth is, we will never be able to know what these prairies were like prior to European settlement.  We can piece it together to some degree based on the journals of early explorers and settlers, however there were no doubt aspects of the landscape, flora, and fauna that were not captured in what they scribed.  When Anglo cultures first arrived, the landscape had been shaped by centuries of inhabitancy by Caddo, Wichita, Kichai, Osage, and other indigenous tribes.  Though their impact on the land was more harmonious than the people that succeeded them, they helped maintain the open nature of the prairie by setting fire to control vegetation and direct game movements, supplementing the naturally occurring lightning-ignited conflagrations that were common in the region.  Many of the tribes of the region also practiced small-scale agriculture, which would have no doubt altered the nature of the plains.

It has always been a fantasy of mine to experience Texas in these pre-settlement times.  If I could, I would start in Galveston, and make my way north, through the extensive coastal prairies, where the only variation in elevation were minuscule wind-sculpted mima mounds, and a matter of inches resulted in an entirely different cast of plants, and meant the difference between dry and wet feet.  Continuing north, I expect I would watch the timber hugging the larger streams become broader and broader, piercing the prairie until I was immersed in a wet savanna surrounded by towering longleaf pines.  As I hit the Kisatchie Wold, the terrain would change to become rolling, with steep ravines and exposed geologic outcrops.  Here the forests would become diverse, and stratified based on slope position.  I may still encounter a prairie here or there, particularly in the form of a sandstone barren over the Catahoula Formation, or a Blackland inclusion on the Fleming Formation.

As I reach the northeastern corner of the state, the trees would begin to thin again as I transition into the Post Oak Savanna.  In Bowie, Red River, and Lamar Counties I might be lucky enough to break into a silveus dropseed prairie.  It would be interesting to know if certain species that are now exceedingly rare in the state, like Castilleja coccinea, Parthenium integrifolium, and Platanthera lacera were more common then.  Eventually the sandy soils of the post oak would give way to the fertile black clays of the legendary Blackland Prairies.  This narrow band of tallgrass prairie is perhaps the most altered of all of Texas’s ecoregions, forever changed by development, agriculture, and the removal of bison and fire.

It wouldn’t be long before the black clays began to lighten and the influence of chalky limestone became evident.  Scattered trees would begin to return as I entered the eastern Cross Timbers.  My journey through this mingling of prairie and stunted woods would be short-lived as well, and soon I would come to my little knoll in the Fort Worth Prairie, the northern expression of the expansive Grand Prairie, which also contains the Lampasas Cut Plain to the south.

The adventure of this blog begins in the Blackland Prairie of Collin County, above virgin soil in what my friend David Bezanson of the Nature Conservancy calls “the best Blackland Prairie left in Texas.”  These blacklands once stretched 300 miles across the Lonestar State, and occupied over 10 million acres of her surface. They sustained massive herds of bison, prairie chickens, Texas Horned Lizards and numerous other species that have vanished from the region in the face of westward expansion. The black clays that lent the region its name formed as underlying cretaceous marine sediments were broken down through weathering and erosion over millions of years. This resulted in the formation of some of the most fertile lands in the state – lands that were quickly exploited for their richness and within a matter of generations, all but a fortunate handful of sites were forever changed. By most estimates, less than one percent of the historic Blackland Prairie contains soil that has never been broken by the plow. Of those precious remaining places, few are protected and even fewer receive the regular disturbance that they need to thrive.  This was one of those precious few remaining places where one can imagine the way things once were.

On a gray day in mid April, the towering blooms of Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis) reached skyward and brightened the gloom.  Native cultures utilized this striking member of the pea family for a variety of purposes.  Some portions of the plant are toxic, however the roots were used to treat a variety of ailments, including nausea, toothaches, and inflammation.  The milky sap from the roots was also used to make a bluish dye.

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Blackland Prairie with Blue Wild Indigo

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Blue Wild Indigo

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Blue Wild Indigo

The Prairie Penstemons (Penstemon cobaea) were just coming into bloom.  Their showy flowers may reach over 2 inches long and can be various shades of white, pink, and purple.

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Prairie Penstemon

Engelmann’s Daisies (Engelmannia peristenia) were also beginning to unveil this season’s flowers to the pollinating world.  This member of the sunflower family is a classic open country plant of the southern plains, and is still common in prairie remnants and areas that are not too aggressively managed with plows and herbicide.

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Engelmann’s Daisy

Each azure bloom of the Prairie Celestial (Nemastylis geminiflora) lasts only a few hours, opening in late morning and closing by late afternoon.  This member of the iris family is a true prairie gem that must have left an impression on early naturalists visiting the region.

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Prairie Celestial

Just west of the Blackland Prairies lies the Eastern Cross Timbers, where a band of sandy soils supports Eastern Redcedar and a variety of oak species.  Accounts from early settlers to the region indicate that this was not a homogeneous region of timber, but rather a varied landscape with numerous prairie inclusions, savannas, and areas of nearly impenetrable woodland.  Pre-settlement, this woody intrusion into the prairie was short-lived, and west bound travelers would soon reach the Grand Prairie.

The plant and animal species that occurred in the Grand Prairie are similar to those of the blacklands, though certain species are more common in one or the other.  The geology, however, is markedly different.  Chalky limestone substrates are more prevalent in the Grand Prairie, and deep clays are infrequently encountered.

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The Texas Yellowstar (Lindheimera texana) is a species commonly encountered in both the Blackland and Grand Prairies.

Like the Blackland Prairies, the Grand Prairie has been altered almost beyond recognition.  In many areas the prairie here would have stretched from horizon to horizon, and beyond.  Massive herds of bison occurred here, as evidenced by this excerpt from Narrative of an Expedition Across the Great Southwestern Prairies: From Texas to Santa Fé, a work by George Wilkins Kendall with many references to the prairies of north-central Texas:

“I have stood upon a high roll of the prairie, with neither tree nor bush to obstruct the vision in any direction, and seen these animals grazing upon the plain and darkening it at every point. . . . In the distance, as far as the eye could reach, they were seen quietly feeding upon the short prairie grass. .”

The Grand Prairie also marked the western extent of the Pronghorn, a prairie icon now long gone from the region.  Other species, like the Texas Horned Lizard have much more recently disappeared, and some species that are still common, like the Woodhouse’s Toad, show signs that they may be soon to disappear.

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Tharp’s Spiderwort (Tradescantia tharpii) occurs in a small area of the south-central U.S., where it can be found in calcareous prairies.

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Drummond’s Skullcap in a prairie inclusion within the Eastern Cross Timbers.

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A Clearwing Moth (Hemaris sp.) rests on a Prairie Penstemon in a Grand Prairie remnant.

Being from the Pineywoods, I’m used to photographing species that are at the western edge of their range – species typical of the vast deciduous forests of the eastern U.S. In the Grand Prairie, however, a number of species reach the southeastern extent of their range.  One such species is the Purple Locoweed (Oxytropis lambertii) which occurs in the Great Plains and portions of the Rockies.  I first photographed this species over a decade ago in a Moraine Prairie in Rocky Mountain National Park, and I must say it was even more exciting finding them in perfect bloom in the Grand Prairie just three hours from home.

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Purple Locoweed

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Purple Locoweed

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Purple Locoweed in the Grand Prairie

The northern expression of the Grand Prairie is often referred to as the “Fort Worth” prairie and occurs in a relatively narrow band between the Red River to the north and the Brazos River to the south.  These once vast expanses of grass and wildflowers were said to be virtually devoid of woody vegetation, and likely bore a striking resemblance to the stark setting of the Great Plains familiar to most of us.  The “big three” prairie grasses – Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) were prevalent here.  And occurred alongside a diverse host of forbs and other grasses.

In mid-April, vast drifts of Eastern Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia) appeared, like thousands of meteors bearing down on earth spurning pink flames as they clash with the atmosphere.  The prairie-dwelling shooting stars of Texas are bright pink, in contrast to the white they display throughout the majority of their range.  Dodecatheon meadia occurs across much of the eastern U.S., occurring in a variety of habitats over calcium-rich substrates.  They reach the western extent of their range in the prairies of central Texas.

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Eastern Shooting Stars in the Fort Worth Prairie

It is hard to imagine a more photogenic wildflower than an Eastern Shooting Star in prime condition.  But like the meteors that dissipate before they can reach the earth’s surface, their appearance each spring is far too fleeting.  Though uncountable populations have undoubtedly been lost, there are still a few places where one can glimpse the splendor of a meadow with thousands of tiny pink meteors descending into the prairie.

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Eastern Shooting Star

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Eastern Sh

Among the shooting stars were the blooms of a complicated little plant, the Prairie Paintbrush (Castilleja citrina).  This hemiparasitic plant derives some portion of its energy and nutrients from the roots of other plants.  C. citrina is part of a complex of paintbrush species that includes the closely related Purple Paintbrush (Castilleja purpurea) and Lindheimer’s Paintbrush (Castilleja lindheimeri).  In fact, C. citrina and C. lindheimeri were previously considered varieties of C. purpurea, however subtle differences in flower color, plant morphology, and habitat preference has resulted in the designation of distinct species.

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Prairie Paintbrush

There are certain areas, however, where these species occur in close proximity.  In the Fort Worth Prairie, the area separating C. citrina and C. purpurea occurs right along the Wise/Montague County line.  North of this line, nearly all individuals observed are C. citrina, and to the south C. purpurea abounds.  There is a narrow band of hybridization, as evidenced by the variety of colors and shapes in the image below.

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Hybrid Paintbrushes

Just south of this line, however, the Purple Paintbrush paints the prairie.  Seeing the beauty above, it is easy to forget the tumultuous battle occurring below the soil as the roots of the paintbrush wage war on other prairie plants.

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Another charming prairie plant is the Fringed Bluestar (Amsonia ciliata), its blue blooms echoing the sky.  The bluestars’ tubular flowers are pollinated by a variety of moths and butterflies, and migrating hummingbirds.

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Fringed Bluestar

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Fringed Bluestar

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Fringed Bluestar

Though the Fort Worth Prairie is generally flat, topographic relief does occur in the form of cuestas – small hills that rise gradually to one side, and drop off abruptly to the other.  Cuestas are formed as more erodible geologic layers have weathered away, revealing the ends of more durable adjacent layers.  The vegetation varies from the top of the cuesta, down the slope to the bottom due to a variety of factors including soil conditions, moisture levels, and natural fire patterns.

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Looking up at a cuesta in the Fort Worth Prairie.  Historically shielded from fire to a degree, the tops of cuestas were one of the few places in the prairie where woody vegetation could be found.

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It was easy to imagine a massive heard of bison sprawling over distant cuestas

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The rocky prairie at the cuesta’s edge is the perfect place for the Texas Sage (Salvia texana).

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Texas Sage

The rich prairies near the Red River once served as breeding grounds for the Upland Sandpiper.  This once abundant prairie shorebird suffered precipitous declines at the hands of market hunters in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  As their numbers dwindled, so did their habitat, and the bird faced a very bleak future.  Fortunately, conservation laws were enacted early in the twentieth century that put an end to market hunting, and their numbers appear to have been slowly rebounding since.  Despite this, they have still yet to return to much of their former breeding range.  Upland Sandpipers were known to nest in the Fort Worth Prairie in the nineteenth century.  On our visits to the region, Caro and I have seen many during migration during April and May.  I hold out hope that over time, this special prairie bird will again colonize the region.

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Upland Sandpiper in the Fort Worth Prairie during Migration

The beauty of a vast prairie abloom with wildflowers is a thing of pure beauty.  Few species are as showy as the Prairie Hyacinth (Camassia angusta) blooming en masse.  This prairie dweller is a close relative of the more familiar Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), and is best differentiated by bloom time, and the persistent sterile bracts present on C. angusta.

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Scenes like this prairie with thousands of Prairie Hyacinths in bloom provide a glimpse into what once was.

Our journey through the prairies of North-Central Texas ends much as it began, pondering their past, present and future.  Caro and I had spent a few glorious spring days in these prairies, and before we returned to the forests of East Texas, we stopped at one final meadow, adorned with blooming shooting stars.  I made an effort to immerse myself in the moment; to take in all aspects of the prairie:  Her sights – gently swaying hues of pink, green, and brown; Her smells – damp earth and chemical compounds exuding from fragrant leaves; Her sounds – the subtle tune of grass in the breeze and a distant Meadowlark’s song.  Moments like this stir something within me.  They inspire me, and they make me feel a deep connection to the natural world.

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Eastern Shooting Star

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Storm clouds build over a prairie decorated with thousands of shooting stars in bloom.

As I sat there, watching the shooting stars sway in the wind as storm clouds coalesced and darkened the distant sky, I imagined the countless dramas that unfolded over the expanse of this prairie.  I imagined that surely a tornado or two passed over this spot.  It was hard to imagine such a placid place turned deadly by such an awesome force of nature capable of ripping the very grass from the ground.  And though I preferred to dwell on dramas natural in their nature, my mind couldn’t help but wander to those dramas wrought by man.  Like the wanton, systematic elimination of the American Bison – an icon that helped shaped our nation essentially extirpated in a single generation.  And they weren’t alone.  It was hard to miss the disappearance of wolves, bears, and mountan lions.  Less obvious were the prairie chickens that slowly vanished, or the Upland Sandpipers and other migratory birds that became less numerous each summer until one year they simply failed to return.  And we will never what botanical wonders were lost before they could ever be documented.  It was easy to despair and wish for what was once and will never again be.  But it was also easy to hope.  On our prairie tour, Caro and I had seen many incredible things – inspirational results from dedicated conservation efforts; rare plant communities that were thriving; and promising signs that some species that have vanished from our Texas prairies may one day soon return.

If prairies are important to you, as they are to me, please consider donating to conservation organizations like The Native Prairies Association of Texas and The Nature Conservancy in Texas.

Escaping the Quarantine Blues in the Big Thicket

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Cypress – Tupelo Swamp

We are living in strange times.  An invisible invader has infiltrated our society and changed our way of life.  For many the results have been devastating – closed businesses, lost jobs, financial ruin, or in the most unfortunate of cases loss of life and loved ones.  So far Carolina and I have been very fortunate.  We continue to work from home and bought a large stash of toilet paper just before the pandemic hit.

I also consider myself very lucky that the things I love to do have been relatively unaffected.  Stores and bars, sports fields, and event halls have closed down, leaving many to go stir crazy confined to their homes.  Most natural places, however, have remained open in some capacity, and a visit to the more remote of these is by its very nature social distancing.

A couple of weeks ago Caro and I set out to the Big Thicket and embarked on a long day hike to see what spring scenes might await us.  Aside from a couple of fishermen sat, legs dangling off a bridge on drive to the trailhead, we saw not another soul in the woods.  The trail began in a floodplain and gradually rose to a low ridge.  From this higher position we could see where stream scarred the land as it changed its course over millennia.  In these old clay-bottomed oxbow scars, swampy forests of towering Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) and Water Tupelo (Nyssa aquatica) formed.

While discussing the formation of oxbows with Caro, she taught me something new.  I had never given much thought to how these old stream bottom remnants got their names.  Caro informed me that oxbows were named for a u-shaped collar that was placed around the necks of oxen so that they may pull a plough or other heavy load.  Oxbow lakes and sloughs often form in a similar shape as an old stream bend or meander is cut off and the main channel migrates, leaving an empty u-shaped scar to be filled with soil, organic material, water from precipitation, and in the case of these swamps, towering timber.  When dominated by Baldcypress and Water Tupelo, these interesting habitats are often referred to as cypress-tupelo swamps.

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Cypress – Tupelo Swamp

The dark, tannin-stained waters in these swamps are home to a variety of plant and animal species.  We saw a number of Broad-banded Watersnakes cutting through the water, leaving the tiniest of snake wakes.  I imagined that a big ‘ol Alligator Snapping Turtle might be in the deeper reaches of one of these swamps.  A different swamp denizen soon greeted us, however, and as their tiny probosces pierced our skin and drew our blood, we quickly retreated back to the trail on the ridge.

The trail cut through a variety of forest types, including moist, rich woods, and dry sandy uplands.  Blooms were generally scarce, but we did see a few spring wildflowers showing off in the shade.  The White Milkweed (Asclepias variegata) was just coming into bloom.  Also known as the Redring Milkweed, this is one of my favorite local species of milkweed.

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White Milkweed

A bit further down the trail I spotted an unassuming little wildflower on the forest floor.  Despite the humble nature of its blooms, I was excited to find it, for it was a species seldom seen in this part of the country: the Meadow Parsnip (Thaspium trifoliatum).  This member of the carrot family is scarce in Texas, where it can be found in scattered populations in the southeast portion of the state.

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Meadow Parsnip

Further still, and Caro spotted a red toad hopping away from the trail.  Due to its regal appearance and nature, we named this handsome amphibian Rudolfo the Red, Duke of the Big Thicket.  The identity of these East Texas toads is controversial and mysterious.  It is a variable group, and individuals seem to be in some ways intermediate between Bufo woodhousii (Woodhouse’s Toad) and Bufo fowleri (Fowler’s Toad).  They were at one time considered to be Bufo woodhousii,  but it was later postulated that they were in fact a unique species endemic to the West Gulf Coastal Plain of East Texas and western Louisiana: Bufo velatus – the East Texas Toad.  More recent works have put them with the eastern species Bufo fowleri.  It seems there is still some debate and uncertainty as to where, taxonomically speaking, they should be placed.  No matter what their name, they are beautiful, charming creatures.

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Rudolfo the Red

A few miles into our hike, we finally reached our intended destination: one of only a handful of populations of Wild Blue Lupine (Lupinus perennis) left in Texas.  Here they grow in a sandy upland, where pockets of deep sand exist in close proximity to more fertile, loamy soils.  These lovely lupines are peripheral here in Texas, and were likely never common.  Like so many other species, they suffered heavily in the face of development and land use change.

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Wild Blue Lupines

Lupinus perennis was one of my 2017 biodiversity targets, and I found, photographed, and featured it in my blog that year.  They are a beautiful, special part of our state’s natural heritage, and while I take comfort that this population is on protected land.  I can only hope that they continue to brighten the Big Thicket for many generations to come.

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Wild Blue Lupines

In all we would hike close to 7 miles that day.  In addition to the relentless swarms of mosquitoes and previously mentioned herptiles, we saw a Tan Racer, Eastern Coachwhip, and dueling Hooded Warblers.  It was a fine day spent in the woods, and a great way to brighten the generally bleak state of affairs as of late – reminding us that life continues on, and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

A Naturalist’s Journey Top 10

It’s been over three years now, since I first started this blog project.  It started with a goal in mind – to create a list of plants and animals that I wanted to see and photograph, and to document the journey to find them.  It evolved into something more, however, and has been a place to share images from my various forays into the natural world and a therapeutic outlet that gave me a purpose to write.

Along the way the actual list sort of fell to the wayside as new species and natural communities appeared on my radar and my quest for biodiversity broadened.  In these past three years, Carolina and I have been to every corner of the state and have shared more incredible experiences, and encountered more incredible wildflowers, curious creatures, and breath taking vistas than I could ever have imagined.

In honor of reaching 100 posts on “A Naturalist’s Journey”, I decided to share my personal “top 10” posts.  It was no easy task paring these down, but in the end I selected the following based on a variety of factors including diversity, uniqueness, poignancy, and response from readers.  Without further ado, I present the Naturalist’s Journey Top 10.

10. Cure-All

I think this was the first post where my blog really started coming into its own.  It reported on a day filled with rare and medicinal plants, archaeology, and prehistory.

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9. The Meaning of Life (For a Ringed Salamander)

This was perhaps my most personal, and certainly my most philosophical post.  It was well received, and tells the story of a special adventure that elicited an emotional and introspective response.

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8. Back to my Roots: Fun with Bird Photography

This post tells the story of how my good friend James Childress rekindled a passion for wildlife photography, which added another layer of depth to subsequent posts.

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7. An Encounter with a Vanishing Prairie Icon

This post tells the tale of a rare prairie denizen and the adventure we embarked on to find it.  It is a tale of a sad history, but a promising future.

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6. Are we in East Texas or Appalachia

Over four years ago now, Carolina and I were introduced to Susan and Viron.  They introduced us to land that has been in Viron’s family for generations, and contained one of the finest examples of rich calcareous slope forest left in the state.  We have returned every year since to experience spring in this special place.

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5. Spring in the Desert Part 2: The Superbloom.

Many of the scenes I have witnessed since starting this blog have left me awestruck, but none so much as the desert bloom in Big Bend in the spring of 2019.  We timed our visit just right and experienced a diversity of wildflowers beyond what I could have imagined.

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4. Autumn in the Pineywoods

Most years I post a seasonal summary of my outings in the Pineywoods.  The fall of 2018 just happened to be one of the finest in recent memory.

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3. Return to Sky Island

Carolina and I have fallen in love with the Davis Mountains.  There is no better time to visit these sky islands than during the summer monsoons.  When the desert is parched and sweltering, the mountains are cool, lush, and full of life.  In August of 2017 we visited with our friends James and Erin Childress, in what turned out to be one of our most memorable trips to the area to date.

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2. Vernal Pools: The Kingdom of the Amphibians

Amphibians, particularly salamanders, played a huge role in shaping my love for the natural world.  One of my earliest memories was looking under some discarded piles of plywood at a local park in the suburbs of Chicago to find six Eastern Tiger Salamanders.  This sparked a lifelong love for all things that many consider “creepy crawlies”, but I consider beautiful and fascinating.  This post wasn’t describing any particular adventure, but rather the culmination of countless trips searching for amphibians, and countless hours spent learning about their ecology, evolution, and life histories.

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1. An Ode to Longleaf

Like the entry above, my personal number one blog post does not describe a particular day in the field, but rather takes the viewer on a narrative and photographic journey through an imperiled ecosystem that helped to shape the nation, and in doing so all but disappeared.  It is a landscape near and dear to my heart, and through this post I hoped to share just a hint of the incredible beauty and diversity that abounds in the great longleaf pine forests of the southeastern United States.

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Late Winter and Early Spring on the Upper Texas Coast

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American Avocets

Carolina and I have made three separate trips to the Upper Texas Coast year – one each in January, February, and March.  In January we rented an AirBNB in Galveston with our good friends James and Erin Childress.  We’ve really come to like this way of finding accommodation, and have stayed in some great places for very reasonable prices.  But I digress.

The weather was generally gloomy and gray during out visit.  This doesn’t make for a fun trip to the beach, however it’s usually pretty good for photography.  So while Caro and Erin combed the beach, James and I got down on our bellies and started looking for things to point our cameras at.

One of the first subjects was a banded winter-plumaged Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus).  Initially a victim of market hunting, this Federally Threatened species continued to experience significant population declines after the practice was outlawed, as the shorelines it depends on have rapidly disappeared to development.  Thanks to legal protections and various conservation initiatives, populations appear to be slowly rebounding.

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Piping Plover

We were also lucky enough to observe several Long-billed Curlews (Numenius americanus) foraging along the surf.  The beaks on these guys are otherworldly.  They use them to probe tiny burrows in the earth in search of hidden invertebrates.  The curlews are winter residents along the coast.  They nest primarily in shortgrass prairie and meadows in the intermountain west.  Their breeding range barely enters Texas in the extreme northwest corner of the Panhandle, where Caro and I were lucky enough to see them last year.

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Long-billed Curlew

In a remote stretch of undisturbed beach I came upon an avian extravaganza that I won’t soon forget.  Thousands upon thousands of American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana) had congregated on a narrow spit of sand just offshore.  The faintly sweet smell of uric acid greeted my nostrils, and a cacophony of bird chatter filled the air.  To my surprise, they were not wary and allowed a close approach.  I enjoyed playing with various compositions.  I was happy for this rare opportunity to create images that were more artistic than diagnostic.

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American Avocets

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American Avocets

The avocets seemed indifferent to my presence, so I was surprised when through my viewfinder I saw that they all suddenly took flight with a deafening roar of alarm calls.  Surely I hadn’t spooked them.  The culprit responsible soon revealed itself, as a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) shot into the undulating sea of feathers like a bullet.  The falcon worked the avocets, pushing them farther out to see.  Eventually, the avocets returned, but the falcon soon struck again.  The scenario repeated itself several times, yet for all its speed and brawn, the Peregrine was unsuccessful in capturing one of the avocets.  Perhaps with such a huge group of birds moving as one, the confusion is too much and focusing on a single target is too difficult.  Then again, perhaps the raptor wasn’t really hungry, and just felt like messing with the poor shorebirds.

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Peregrine Falcon

The next day we spent the evening exploring the Saltmarsh.  While I was slowly creeping toward some ibises foraging in the incoming tide, I heard James call out “Nelson’s!”  He had found and successfully photographed a Nelson’s Sparrow (Ammodramus nelsoni), an elusive lurker that tends to remain hidden in the grasses.  I was admittedly jealous as I rushed to his location.  We waited for some time, but the sparrow never gave us another clean look, and the best I could manage was a shot through the tangle of saltmarsh grasses.

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Nelson’s Sparrow

I wasn’t aware, but Galveston has a crane festival, of sorts, celebrating the annual return of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) to the island.  We missed the festival, but we were lucky enough to see a number of cranes.  I generally see several large groups of Sandhill Cranes each winter, but have thus far been unsuccessful in obtaining a shot I was happy with. It has been my experience that they are either foraging in a heavily modified pasture or they are too skittish to approach. Last weekend while on a birding trip to the coast we spotted a small group in a little coastal prairie remnant. I was able to utilize dense vine cover along the fence to creep closer to the birds until i reached a gate that I could shoot through. In the end I was happy with my images of this incredibly elegant species.

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Sandhill Crane

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Sandhill Crane

Watching the cranes, I immediately drew similarities to Ornithomimidae, a family of therapod dinosours that bore a striking resemblance to a number of long-legged, long-necked birds. Perhaps the most famous of these are members the genus Gallimimus which were featured in the movie Jurassic Park. Something about the pose I captured below reminded me of those prehistoric creatures.

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Sandhill Crane

Carolina and I returned to Galveston in late February.  While driving through one of my favorite marshes, Caro spotted a little gathering of Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata).  These common yet elusive shorebirds have long been a nemesis of mine.  On their northern breeding grounds they can often be seen displaying in the open from fence posts, shrubs, and other elevated perches.  On their wintering grounds, which include Texas, however, they stay hidden in the grasses of wet prairies, marshlands, and the margins of various water bodies.  95% of my snipe encounters consist of me getting to within 15 feet of the bird and not realizing it until the snipe explodes from the grass and flies off out of reach.

The difficulty of capturing them on film (card?) has drawn me to this species.  After Caro spotted them, I was able to park, and use my truck as a bit of a blind as I got out and crept toward them on my hands and knees. Once I got within range I sat and waited.  I took the image below as one of them began moving about in search of prey. To me, this provides a sense of how I normally see the species (those rare times when they don’t fly off): superbly camouflaged and well hidden among the senescent brown leaves of Distichlis or some other grass species deep in the marsh.

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Wilson’s Snipe

Shortly after I captured the image above, the snipe actually moved out to forage in the open of the mudflat. The light was improving and things were looking good for capturing the snipe image I’ve always dreamed of. Unfortunately due to my position I was unable to get to the angle I wanted, and some vegetation along the ditch was obscuring my view, despite the fact that the bird was out in the open. I captured a few images I was relatively happy with, and then made the foolish mistake of slowly trying to move into a better position. As I did I spooked this snipe as well as several others, who all flew well out of reach behind a fenced pasture.  Satisfied with our snipe encounter, we went to eat at our favorite local restaurant and spent the afternoon at the beach.

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Foraging Wilson’s Snipe

In the evening we returned to find the snipes once more.  I was able to capture a few more images before we pushed deeper into the marsh.

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Wilson’s Snipe

In one of the numerous tidally influenced pools I spotted a pair of Mottled Ducks (Anas fulvigula).  The male was kind enough to pose in the open for a shot that showcased a bit of the surrounding habitat.

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Drake Mottled Duck

Where the marsh met the bay we found a group of White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) coming into breeding plumage.  It’s always a joy watching these goofy wading birds probe their decurved beaks into the mud.

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White Ibis

On the other edge of the marsh, where it met pasture that was once coastal prairie, we spotted a lovely male American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) perched on an old sign post.  It was a lovely way to end a great day on the coast.

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American Kestrel

The next week, Caro and I returned to Galveston.  We saw many birds, but photo opportunities were few and far between.  That is, until we returned to my favorite marsh.  Here a Solitary Sandpiper provided me with some incredible photo ops as it foraged in the shallow brackish water at the marsh edge.  Initially I spotted a Great Yellowlegs in this roadside pool.  I thought I had spooked all the birds in the area when I approached, but shortly after laying in the shallow water of the ditch, this Solitary Sandpiper crept out from behind a big clump of mud, and I watched it forage for nearly an hour.

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Solitary Sandpiper

The Upper Texas Coast is right at the extreme northern end of the wintering range for this species. I only occasionally encounter them, much less frequently than most other shorebirds in the region, so it was a real treat to get such a good photo op. Solitary Sandpipers breed in the taiga and tundra of Canada and Alaska. I read up a bit on the species after photographing it, and learned that it is one of the only shorebirds to nest in trees. Pretty interesting, if you ask me!

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Solitary Sandpiper

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Solitary Sandpiper

The next day we went with my mom to visit Anahuac.  I always enjoy birding with my mom, and the trips I took with her to the coast all those years ago helped to forge my love for birding and coastal ecosystems.  The day was cool and fairly slow, however a notable highlight was observing a pair of Northern Crested Caracaras (Caracara cheriway) near their nest.

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Northern Crested Caracara

Over the past few weeks I spent a lot of time laying in marsh muck, taking in my surroundings.  Coastal marshes, especially the saltmarsh, are magical places.  Among the muck, stabbing needlerush, and squadrons of mosquitoes, one can find a unique cast of plant and animal characters that are found nowhere else in the world.  The Mottled Ducks, Solitary Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipes, and other species pictured here share the marsh with Saltmarsh Snakes, Diamondback Terrapins, Seaside Dragonlets, Clapper Rails, Seaside Sparrows, and a whole host of other interesting species.  Northern Harriers and White-tailed Kites patrol the air and hermit and blue crabs scour the shallows. In my book, that makes for pretty good company.

Mixed Seasons, Mixed Emotions

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A Pine Warbler forages for caterpillars, grubs, and other invertebrates among the leaf litter.

This January seemed to have it all.  From lingering fall color to nights in the 20s and days pushing 80.  The diversity of climatic conditions brought with it a diversity of photographic subjects.  For my first photographic outing of the New Year I was joined by my pal and frequent photo companion James Childress.  We went to one of our favorite bird photography haunts in Nacogdoches County.  Here I turned my lens to a handsome White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) perched before a large Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) in a full display of “autumn” foliage.  Some of these sparrows spend the winter in East Texas, and as the days lengthen and the temperature warms, they will return to their breeding range in the northern U.S. and Canada.

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White-throated Sparrow

Our next subject was a resident bird, though many are unaware of its presence as a low density breeder in the Pineywoods.  The White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) is a lovely bird that inhabits mature hardwood and pine-hardwood forests, and forage by scampering up and down tree trunks and large branches, often flicking off bits of bark in search of tasty insects hidden beneath.

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White-breasted Nuthatch

A week later James and I returned to this wonderful patch of woods.  We were intent on targeting a Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) that we had spotted during our previous outing.  The thrashers’ propensity to lurk in dense thickets of vegetation presents a real challenge for capturing a good image.  I hoped to capture one on the ground, as it is my experience they spend much of their time here, flipping through dense leaf litter in search of food.

James and I pursued the individual below as it made its way through a dense understory of Florida Maple and Carolina Laurelcherry saplings.  We weren’t having much luck getting a clear shot through the undergrowth and downed branches, so I opted to advance ahead in the direction that the bird was moving, and position myself low on the forest floor with a clear shot of a clearing into which I hoped it would pass through.  I waited and watched through my viewfinder as it approached.  Finally it hopped into the clearing and paused just long enough for me to capture a few frames of this furtive mimic among the fallen maple leaves and emerging wood sorrel.

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Brown Thrasher

Not far from the thrasher I spotted a young male Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus) foraging among the leaves.  It would routinely hop about, capture some juicy grub, and fly to a more protected perch to enjoy its prize.

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Pine Warbler

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Pine Warbler

Deeper into the woods I was surprised to see the bright white blooms of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).  This year there were already some in fruit on January 25.  This is notably earlier than I typically see them emerge, which used to be around the second week of February but seems to get earlier and earlier each year.  The Bloodroot is one of my all time favorite wildflowers, and I’ve featured it in many past blog posts.  It is one of those magical components to an ephemeral vernal flora that make spring such a wonderful time to be out in the woods.

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Bloodroot

The next week Carolina and I returned to meet with a professor at my alma mater (Stephen F. Austin State University) to discuss a research project.  After my meeting I met up with James again and we set out to see what we could find.  While James and I had our eyes focused on the branches, Caro stopped us dead in our tracks to point out a snaked stretched out near an old stump.  It was a nice Eastern Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum), soaking in some of the unseasonable warmth.

Snakes may be the single most hated, feared, and misunderstood group of animals on the planet. The reason may be in some small way evolutionary programmed, however the vast majority of this animosity comes from misconceptions and ideas that are not grounded in truth. It is a shame, too, because as a group snakes are beneficial to us in so many ways – from pest eradication to cancer treatment. It is important that those of us who understand the true nature of these special animals spread the word, and work toward dispelling the myths that surround them, even if it is and always will be an uphill battle.

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Eastern Coachwhip

Eventually the coachwhip retreated to the refuge of a downed tree.  It was there we spied a little Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) perched among the tangle twigs.  These are one of our most familiar area birds.  Despite this, I have very few images of them, so on this occasion I decided to snap a few.

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Carolina Wren

I say mixed emotions in the title, because though I enjoyed the diversity of subjects and conditions, I can’t help but feel concerned by what seems to me to be a trend of more erratic weather patterns.  Granted, the weather in Texas has rarely been stable, but I have noticed a trend of greater frontal temperature variations and each year Spring seems to come just a tad earlier.  Climate change is one of the most controversial, divisive issues we’re facing today.  I don’t pretend to know the intricacy of this process, nor to have the solution, but I am certain that it is important, and certainly warrants our attention.  I hate to think of some future scenario where something precious is lost, and we could have done something to prevent it but didn’t.

Chasing Scoters

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Black Scoter Drake

I’ve never been one to “chase” birds – that is, to make special trips just to see some vagrant rarity that has appeared in some place significantly outside its normal range – a common occurrence in the Lonestar State.  I don’t mean to say that I have an issue with those folks make a habit of chasing birds to add to their life, country, state, or county lists.  In fact, it seems like a fun and potentially highly rewarding activity.  It’s just not something I’ve personally felt inclined to do.  That is, until I heard that a group of Black Scoters (Melanitta americana) that had shown up at lake in a state park less than two hours from our home.

The Black Scoter is an uncommon sea duck that breeds on the arctic tundra in three disjunct populations: one in eastern Canada, one in Alaska and extreme northwestern Canada, and one in eastern Siberia.  They winter almost exclusively on the Atlantic Coast of North America and the Pacific Coasts of North America and Asia.  Here they show a preference for cold water and rocky shorelines where abundant populations of mollusks, crustaceans, and other aquatic invertebrates occur.  They only occasionally turn up in the Gulf off the Texas coast.  Observations inland anywhere are generally rare, and virtually unheard of in Texas.  That is not to say it doesn’t happen – in 2018 a few were observed in a pond in Austin, and there have been sporadic sightings prior to that – but I must stress, it is a VERY rare occurrence.

A couple weeks ago, however, I saw a post by a Facebook friend with photos of a raft of 18 Black Scoters at Fairfield Lake State Park.  What’s more, is that they seemed to be fairly approachable.  Given my affinity for waterfowl, and the joy that photographing them brings me, I could not resist the promise of photographing these rarities.

So on Superbowl Sunday I opted out of watching the Big Game, and Carolina and I left the house just before dawn to try our luck at finding the scoters.  We had never been to Fairfield Lake State Park, which is nestled in the Post Oak Savannah about an hour and a half south southeast of Dallas.

I really didn’t know what to expect when we arrived.  I knew where the scoters had been observed, and I hoped that when we arrived we would see them right away.  As is almost always the case, we did not.  It was a clear day, and I really hoped to photograph them in the early morning light, before the sun rose too high and her light grew too harsh.

When we pulled into the parking area I did see a small raft of ducks.  Hoping it was the scoters I rushed for a closer look, but it turned out to be a group of Ruddy Ducks, their tiny tails sticking straight up.  I positioned myself behind a large clump of Phragmites near the last known location of the scoters, and hoped something might turn up.  Before long a large raft of American Coots (Fulica americana) appeared.  Then a Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) drake arrived, accompanied by a trio of hens.  A drake Bufflehead, in my opinion, is one of the most beautiful birds in the country, particularly when the light catches the iridescent plumage of its head.  This species is a bit of a “nemesis” for me, at least photographically speaking, as I have yet to capture a good image of one, despite exerting considerable effort.  As I watched the drake draw closer through the viewfinder, I began to think that I would finally have my chance.  But to my dismay, in a flash, the drake and his hen escort took to the air, as did all other waterbirds in the immediate vicinity.  I soon learned the reason why, as I turned around and saw Carolina frantically waving to capture my attention.  Apparently a River Otter had just passed less than 50 feet behind me and entered the reeds that I was using to conceal my presence.  Despite not getting as close as I hoped, I ended up with my best Bufflehead image to date.  We would not see them again that day.

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Bufflehead Drake

My attention quickly shifted from waterfowl to semi-aquatic mammals, as I entered the water and scoured the reeds for the otter.  The water was frigid, and it felt like tiny ice knives were piercing the skin of my legs, but I quickly put it out of my and continued my search.  I could see the reeds moving, and hear the otter fervently sniffing the air.  I moved about, circling the entire patch of reeds.  In doing so, however, I gave the otter the chance to slip out behind me, and I caught sight of it quickly swimming away.  We watched as distant rafts of coots took to the air as the otter swam through them.  Knowing their playful nature, I couldn’t help but think that it was deriving some form of satisfaction from this.

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American Coots

With the otter gone, the coots soon began to return.  I laid on the shoreline and tried to capture a few images of the group.  My focus was disrupted when I caught sight of something bouncing in my peripheral vision.  It was an American Pipit working the shoreline in search of food.  I turned my attention briefly to the little songbird until it left the area.

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American Pipit

While I was on my belly with the birds, Carolina was at the picnic table enjoying her Yerba Mate.  As I approached, she asked if the bird I was after was black with a black and orange bill.  I said that it was, and she pointed to a lone Black Scoter drake a couple hundred yards away by the boat ramp.  Excited, I began quickly making my in its direction, until a boat launched and the scoter took off flying clear across the lake.  Disheartened, I decided to take a break from the water.  We had a snack and enjoyed a flurry of bird activity in the picnic area.  Eastern Bluebirds, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Downy Woodpeckers, Dark-eyed Juncos, Carolina Chickadees, and more bounced around.  I tried my luck at photographing an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), but found it difficult to get a clean shot.

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Eastern Phoebe

When I first heard about the Scoters I called my mom to see if she’d be interested in joining us in our pursuit.  Much to my delight, she and my dad decided to make the trip up from the Houston area to meet us.  They arrived mid-morning, just as the Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) were beginning to open.

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Spring Beauty

We visited for a moment, and then Carolina noticed that the scoters had returned.  This time there were six of them.  Again I began my approach, but again the birds were disturbed – this time by a canoe.  Fortunately this time they only flew a short distance away.  I entered the water again, this time getting as deep as my chest.  The cold took my breath away, but the day was turning out to be unseasonably warm, which helped a little.  In the water I could approach fairly closely but not close enough to get the shots I was after, so I devised a plan.  The scoters seemed to be returning to the same area to forage.  It was adjacent to a shoreline comprised entirely of softball to baseball sized rocks.  Just off shore was a dense layer of woody vegetation.  I moved over to the shore and laid down on the rocks half in the water, and hoped that the vegetation would help break up my outline.

It worked, and I watched through my viewfinder as the scoters came in at high speed.  They drew closer and closer until they were within 25 feet or so.  Then they began to forage comfortably, diving and probing the rocks for prey.  At this time it was around 11:30 and the light was quite harsh, but I wanted to make the most of the encounter so continued taking photos until another boat interrupted the scene and the scoters vanished once more.

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Black Scoter Drake

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Mature (Foreground) and Immature (Background) Black Scoter Drakes

With the birds gone again, and the light conditions worsening, I gave up on photography for a while.  We went back to the picnic area to have lunch and visit, and then set out to explore the rest of the park.  We were impressed with the facilities, which included a variety of trails and excellent campgrounds.  After a couple of hours my parents left and Caro and I visited the entrance station/gift shop.  We then went back to the boat ramp in hopes that the scoters had returned.

They were back!  By now it was 3 PM, and boat activity had dropped of significantly – presumably because people were getting ready for festivities associated with the Superbowl.  I repeated my strategy from the morning, enduring the pain of laying on a bed of uneven rocks.  It was miserable, but it paid off, and once again the scoters came in close – at times too close for my camera to focus.

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Black Scoter Drake

I found this mid-afternoon light to be the best for photographing these handsome ducks.  The bluebird skies were reflected brilliantly in the water, and the bright light bounced off the water’s surface to a degree, and helped to draw out the detail in the drakes’ deep black plumage.  They do not appear glossy or matte, but rather an almost metallic jet black, much darker than the coots foraging nearby.  The Black Scoter may lack the bright iridescent coloration of many other species of its family, but in my humble opinion the combination of its solid black plumage and bright yellow/orange bill makes it one of our most beautiful ducks.

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Black Scoter Drake

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Black Scoter Drakes

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Black Scoter Drake

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Black Scoters

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Black Scoter Drake

I spent hours that day laying on the rocky shore.  Slowly the sun crept toward the horizon.  The quality of light began to improve, at least in the traditional sense.  In most other circumstances I would favor this evening light, however in the case of the Black Scoter I found it less preferable than the light earlier in the afternoon.  I still took advantage of the last of the available light and captured a few more images before the day’s end.

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Black Scoter Drake

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Black Scoters

With the sun all but gone, I left the shoreline and went to change into clean, dry clothes.  As soon as I left the bathroom I could hear Caro calling for my attention.  She had seen the otter again.  We spent our final moments in the park following the Mustelid as it patrolled the shoreline.  The otter is part of a developing success story for Texas wildlife, as its numbers have been steadily increasing in recent years, and it is slowly repopulating areas where it had been previously extirpated.

On the drive home, at a time when most were probably enjoying the game and its associated commercials, I found myself pondering the Black Scoters.  Encountering this species inland in Texas during pre-settlement times would have been virtually impossible.  Today they turn up on man-made lakes, reservoirs, and large, deep ponds – features that were created through human alterations to the habitat.  The most likely scenario for these birds, in my opinion, is that they were blown off their normal migratory route by some inclement weather, and desperate for rest dropped down to the first large water body they spotted.  Hungry and exhausted, they tried their luck at foraging and found the area to be a productive feeding ground.  Slowly they began to regain their strength and a few at a time have been departing for familiar territory.

If any of my readers are interested in trying your luck at finding them, I read a report that there were still four remaining as of yesterday.  They have been located in the day use area, between the swim beach and the boat ramp at Fairfield Lake State Park, in Freestone County, Texas.