Wintering Waterfowl in North-Central Texas


A Hooded Merganser swims through water reflecting remnant fall color in Post Oaks lining a wetland in North-Central Texas.

“Why am I doing this?” I couldn’t help but ask myself as I lay flat on my side in the muck, piles of duck feces inches from my face.  I was cold and wet, and tired – so very tired.  We woke up at 3:30 that morning and were on the road by 4, just so that we could arrive at our destination at first light.  I had come all this way and endured all this suffering for the chance to take pictures of ducks.  To many, ducks are those familiar, pesky waterbirds that harass them during a day at the park or a picnic near a pond.  To me, however, they are a diverse, fascinating group of some of the most beautiful birds on the planet with incredible life histories full of harrowing journeys, dramatic performances and tales of incredible hardship.  Yes, the world of ducks extends beyond the familiar Mallard and its domesticated descendants.  In this blog I will explore a slice of the diversity of ducks that spend the winter in North-Central Texas.

In Texas, the northern portion of the Blackland Prairies and Cross Timbers serves as an important wintering ground for a variety of waterfowl.  Wetland complexes adjacent to the Red and Trinity Rivers provide excellent habitat within a matrix of woodlands and prairies.  It is also located near the boundary of the Central and Mississippi flyways.  These factors help make the region a haven to ducks and geese that have traveled from as far as the Arctic Circle.

So this winter, I took three trips to the region in hopes of observing and photographing some of these beautiful birds.  I researched the region extensively, looking for promising locations.  We took our first trip on a grey, bitterly cold day in late December.  We would end up seeing many ducks at a few different locations, but the light was not with us.

Disappointing light aside, I did leave with a few image of one of my favorite ducks, and a species I had long wanted to photograph – the Canvasback (Aythya valiseneria).  With it’s long, broad black bill, characteristically sloping forehead, rusty head and bright white wings and flanks, the drake Canvasback is one of our most elegant ducks.  A black bib and tail help complete its dapper plumage.

There are four basic tribes of ducks: dabbling (Anatini), diving (Aythyini), sea (Mergini), and stiff-tailed (Oxyurini) ducks.  Canvasbacks are diving ducks.  Members of this tribe have legs set farther back on their bodies to aid in diving.  They feed by diving and foraging from the bottom of waterbodies.  Canvasbacks feed heavily on underwater tubers as well as snails, mollusks, and other aquatic invertebrates.  Most Canvasbacks winter in and around the Chesapeake Bay, and are generally uncommon elsewhere along the coast and inland.


Drake Canvasback


Drake Canvasback

On our next trip in early January, Caro and I were up and out hours before the sun came up.  My main target for this trip was the Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), my favorite duck and in my opinion, one of the most beautiful birds in the country.  We arrived at our first location, a forested pond in the Cross Timbers, for the day just as the sun was cresting the horizon.  Sure enough, there we spotted a pair of mergansers along the distant shoreline.

I made my way to the water’s edge and lied in wait.  Unfortunately, the drake never warmed up to my presence, and stayed well away.  The image below is the only time he ever raised his crest, and after just a few minutes he took off and never returned.


Drake Hooded Merganser

The hen remained, however, and eventually she and the other ducks in the pond became accustomed to my presence.  She swam in close and provided several nice looks at her understated plumage.


Hen Hooded Merganser

As I was admiring the merganser, a group of American Wigeon (Anas americana) flew in.  I had recently photographed these stunning ducks near Austin on Christmas Day.  Not one to pass up a good photo op, I captured the drake below mid-preen, as he showed off his wing coverts, scapulars, tertials, and just a hint of that iridescent speculum.


Drake American Wigeon

The sky was cloudless that day, and soon the sun was too high and the light too harsh for photography.  So we grabbed lunch and traveled east, to a series of prairie ponds.  Here we found a variety of ducks, including both of our Scaup species.

Scaups can be tricky to differentiate, but there are a few good characteristics to look for.  Despite bearing the descriptors “Lesser” and “Greater”, size is generally not a reliable method to differentiate species, unless they are seen together.

In general, the Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) is smaller, however it is more readily identified by head shape and plumage detail.  Lessers generally have a more raised forehead, often having a crest-like appearance with the point near the back of the head.  The barring on Lesser Scaup’s feathers also extend all the way down its flanks.  Other, less reliable characteristics for identification include the iridescent sheen on the head, which is generally purple in Lesser Scaups, and the black at the tip of the bill, which is generally less extensive in Lessers.

Lesser Scaups are a common winter resident on waterbodies throughout the Lonestar State.  I photographed the drake below as it swam through waters reflecting the brilliant blue skies, with the muted browns of prairie grass in the background.


Lesser Scaup

Much less common a winter visitor is the Greater Scaup (Aythya marila).  In Texas, they can be found sporadically along the coast in winter.  Inland, they are only observed with any regularity in a small area in north-central and northeast Texas.  They have journeyed here from the far north, where they breed in small ponds on the tundra and in the boreal forest.

True to their name, they are larger than Lesser Scaup, though this is only a useful diagnostic when both species are observed together.  They are more reliably differentiated by their more rounded heads, pure white flanks, broader bill with more prominent black marking at the tip, and greenish sheen to the feathers on their heads.

After spending some time among the scaups, and fruitlessly stalking a Bufflehead pair, we returned home, tired but satisfied from a long day in the field.


Greater Scaup

An alternate name for this blog post could have been “My Quest for a Hooded Merganser”.  Since I was a child I have been enamored with this peculiar yet spectacular sea duck.  They lack the brilliant colors and iridescence of other species, but their bold black, white, and chestnut patterns along with that remarkable crest that is raised during courtship rituals sets them ahead of the pack.  It also doesn’t hurt that they are one of just a few duck species to breed in forested wetlands and nest in tree cavities.

I don’t see Hooded Mergansers very often, and most sightings consist of them rapidly disappearing on the wing after having spotted me at a great distance.  Though I had captured a few images on my previous visit, I wasn’t successful in getting the image I wanted – a drake with his crest raise, displaying the full glory of his breeding plumage.  So despite already having made the 6-hour round trip just twice in as many weeks, I rose again before 4 AM, and hit the road to the Cross Timbers.  This time I was joined by my good friend and photo buddy James Childress.

We arrived before first light, to a shallow pond nestled within a Post Oak – Cedar Elm woodland.  We donned our camo and settled in, laying flat in the mud at the water’s edge.  It wasn’t long before the ducks started coming in.  And sure enough, we spotted a lone drake Hooded Merganser.  Unfortunately he was sitting at rest, eyes barely open and crest laid flat.  Much to our disappointment, he would spent most of the morning in this state.

But he was not alone.  And there were plenty of other gorgeous ducks to occupy our time.  One of the most striking was the Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata).  A few drakes passed by fairly closely in waters reflecting the browns of dried leaves and greens of evergreen vines lining the shore.


Northern Shoveler

I also took this opportunity to photograph a species I had long avoided, the ever present Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos).  It’s not a lack of beauty that kept me from photographing them, as they are undeniably striking birds.  Instead, it was the prevalence of domestic ducks, descendants of Mallards bred in captivity that have since escaped, or been released, and are now naturalized throughout much of the country.  I simply have no interest in photographing feral domestic descendants, and many are virtually indistinguishable from the wild type.  There are still plenty of wild Mallards in the country, however, though there are concerns that the gene pool is being diluted by these free ranging domestics.  The birds we saw that day seemed to fit into the wild phenotype, and I was fairly confident and hopeful that the animals I photographed were from wild, naturally migrating populations, but there is really no way to be sure.





The real star of the morning however, was the American Wigeon.  Some of the beautiful drakes passed close providing us with a variety of settings in which to photograph them, each better than the last.  Wigeons are known for their bully-like behavior, and despite being much smaller than the Mallards, they chased them out of the best feeding grounds.  In some cases they act like pirates, stealing hard-earned meals from diving ducks who, unlike the wigeons, are equipped to swim to the bottom of the pond to choose the most succulent, nutrient rich aquatic plants like Wild Celery (Vallisineria americana) We enjoyed their antics and the constantly whistle like call of the drakes.


American Wigeon


American Wigeon


American Wigeon

The sun was getting high, pushing the envelope of what I consider good light and I was beginning to worry that I would again be heading home without a decent Hooded Merganser shot.  But just as we were starting to give up hope a second drake flew in.  This caught the attention of our first male, and both became active, diving in search of prey, and actively preening.  In the same moment a wispy veil of clouds crossed the sun, creating one of my favorite qualities of light.  I captured them in some truly bizarre, yet interesting poses.


Hooded Merganser


Hooded Merganser

I captured one of the drakes as he yawned, showing of the narrow, serrated bill specially adapted for capturing fish, crustaceans, and small aquatic animals.  I was certainly capturing some memorable images, but I still had failed to capture a pose with the crest raised.  I missed out on two opportunities as my camera’s auto-focus failed to lock onto the subject.


Hooded Merganser

And then it happened.  After a short preening session, one of the drakes raised its crest and began to really show of its spectacular plumage.  It continued to preen and raise up to flap its wings and dry off its feathers.  I was thrilled to check off a subject that has been on my photographic bucket list for years.


Hooded Merganser


Hooded Merganser


Hooded Merganser

While one drake was putting on a show in the distance, the other passed by close, and I was able to capture the image below in still, flat water – perhaps my favorite of the trip.


Hooded Merganser

“That’s why I’m doing this!” I thought to myself with a smile.  It’s easy to lose sight of the prize while suffering in the cold and wet, and while every muscle in your body is screaming from the awkward contorted position you’ve taken up to get the perfect angle on one of the ducks.  But all of the misery seems to fade away while these beautiful animals appear within range of the lens, and the suffering seems a small price to play for these images that we may enjoy and reflect on for a lifetime.  I dare say, that these moments of unpleasantness only serve to enhance the experience, and I don’t think I would be rid of them, even if I could.

Looking Back: 2018 Highlights in Biodiversity

This year I did not focus on my biodiversity list with the same gusto that I did in 2017.  That is not to say, however that I gave up on my quest for biodiversity!  Lists aside, 2018 was one of my best years yet as a biologist, naturalist, and photographer.

I did, however manage to check a few species off my list including:

Tapertip Trillium (Trillium viridescens)

Downy Yellow Violet (Viola pubescens)

Clasping Jewelflower (Streptanthus maculatus)

Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle (Habroscelimorpha dorsalis)

Ringed Salamander (Ambystoma annulatum)

Rich Mountain Salamander (Plethodon ouachitae)

These addition of these species puts me at over half of my list complete (45 of 80 species).


Beyond the list, this year I was able to photograph nearly 100 species that I had not previously photographed before, at least not to my current photographic standards.  In doing so I made many incredible observations, had good times in the field with family and friends, and found innovative new ways to photograph many familiar species.  It was hard to whittle down such a productive year, but I did my best to select a few highlights:

Perhaps the most exciting venture of 2018 was getting back into bird photography, thanks in part to my friend James Childress.  In January, James, his wife Erin and I found ourselves pursuing birds along the Upper Texas Coast.


Blue-winged Teal


American Bittern

We also spent some time chasing after local birds.

In early February, as winter began to slowly turn to spring, my friend Scott and I found this beautiful Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum).


Spotted Salamander

Many of my favorite spring ephemeral wildflowers begin to appear by mid February.  Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) may be my favorite of these fleeting beauties, and each year I try to find different ways to photograph them.



In March, Caro and I traveled to the Lower Rio Grande Valley with James and Erin.  During our trip James and I were able to photograph many South Texas specialties, as well as other more widespread species.


Altramira Oriole


Cactus Wren


Reddish Egret

During this trip I was also able to finally see the Federally Endangered Star Cactus (Astrophytum asterias) in bloom.


Star Cactus

We also had the opportunity to photograph a beautiful old Texas Tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri).


Texas Tortoise

Back in East Texas, Carolina and I spent many a spring day exploring the Pineywoods.



We were rewarded for our efforts on many occasions, such as this group of Kentucky Lady Slippers (Cypripedium kentuckiense).


Kentucky Lady Slippers

In 2018 I made a concentrated effort to visit several of our great state’s ecoregions.  For the first time we explored the Cross Timbers and Prairies.  We found many beautiful landscapes in the Grand Prairie and Lampasas Cut Plain.


Light Paints the Prairie

This region is home to some of the most spectacular displays of wildflowers in the country.  A highlight was finding several populations of Eastern Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia).


We also found several large colonies of Nuttall’s Death Camas (Toxicoscordion nuttallii) on limestone ridges.


Death Comes to the Prairie

And on a later visit we found fields of Narrow-leaved Purple Coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia), a species characteristic of the Great Plains.


Narrow-leaved Purple Coneflower

As the weather warmed, we found ourselves taking several trips to the Upper Texas Coast, where I spent time on my belly photographing the local bird life.


American Avocets


Purple Gallinule

I have been fascinated with beetles since childhood, and few are more impressive than the Ox Beetle.  The animal below is Strategus aloeus, one of two local species of Ox Beetle.


Ox Beetle

In July we met long time Flickr friends Jim Fowler and Walter to help them check a couple orchid species of their bucket list.  The species were the Texas Crested Coralroot (Hexalectris warnockii), also known as the Texas Purple Spike…


Texas Crested Coralroot

…and the Giant Coralroot (Hexalectris grandiflora), which we found deep in the Davis Mountains of West Texas.


Giant Coralroot

In the semiarid grasslands at the base of the Davis Mountains I was able to photograph several Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana).



Back in East Texas we sought out orchids, like the Crested Fringed Orchid (Platanthera cristata) pictured below.


Crested Fringed Orchid

In early September I had a chance encounter on a river sandbar with a Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius) in basic plumage.


At the end of September, after many failed attempts over several years, I was finally able to find and photograph an adult Ringed Salamander (Ambystoma annulatum).


Ringed Salamander

When I forgot my camera on a visit to James and Erin’s farm, James was kind enough to lend me his when we found this Carolina Mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) hunting Common Eastern Bumblebees (Bombus impatiens)


Seconds from Disaster

In December I was lucky enough to photograph a Northern Raccoon (Procyon lotor) on a trip to the Upper Texas Coast with Caro, James, and Erin.


During that trip we also encountered several cooperative Seaside Sparrows (Ammodramus maritimus).


My year reached its pinnacle on Christmas Day, when I shared a pond with some American Wigeons (Anas americana).


American Wigeon

2018 will be a hard year to top, but I intend to give it my all in 2019.  I wish all of you the best in this new year.