Wintering Waterfowl in North-Central Texas

4n1a3226b

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.

4n1a2834

Drake Canvasback

4n1a2912a

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.

4n1a3384ab

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.

4n1a3530a

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.

4n1a3494a

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.

4n1a3600a

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.

4n1a3971b

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.

4n1a6036a

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.

4n1a6260

Mallards

4n1a7184

Mallards

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.

4N1A7327.jpg

American Wigeon

4n1a7349

American Wigeon

4n1a6800

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.

4n1a6615

Hooded Merganser

4N1A6848.jpg

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.

4n1a7020

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.

4n1a7215a

Hooded Merganser

4n1a7256ab

Hooded Merganser

4N1A7260.jpg

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.

4n1a6882

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.

Wandering through the Cross Timbers and Prairies: Part II

IMG_7409

Narrow-leaved Purple Coneflower

What a difference two weeks can make.  It was just over two weeks after our first visit in late April when we again made our way to the Cross Timbers and Prairies.  What we found was an almost entirely different cast of floral characters.  Little more than basal rosettes and fruit-bearing stems remained of the shooting stars.  The cactus blooms were all faded, the buds we had seen during the previous trip had already opened and withered.  It must have been the week between our visits.

Before I continue, per request, I’m providing a map of the Ecoregions of Texas.  I’m sharing the EPA ecoregion map, as it is slightly more nuanced and shows more of the areas I discuss in this two part series about the Cross Timbers and Prairies.  The map is too detailed to post here, so click the link below to see just where in the Lonestar State this region can be found.

EPA Ecoregions

Coneflowers (genus Echinacea) are some of those iconic plants whose name conjures images of the prairie.  They certainly stole the show in the Grand Prairie in mid may.  Here the dominant species was the Narrow-leaved Purple Coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia).  This characteristic species of the Great Plains reaches the southern extent of its range in central Texas.

IMG_7322

Narrow-leaved Purple Coneflower

Perhaps the most abundant wildflower of this trip was the Green Antelopehorn (Asclepias asperula).  This unique milkweed was blooming throughout the prairie, within the maintained right-of-ways of roadways and utilities, and even in many yards in the area.  Despite its ubiquity, it is undeniably beautiful and unique, and was a welcomed sight throughout the trip.

IMG_7224

Green Antelopehorns

A. asperula is primarily western in its distribution, occurring in more arid regions of the Great Plains, Southwest, and Intermountain West.  It approaches the eastern extent of its range in central Texas.  Here it overlaps with the more characteristically central and eastern Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridis) in many areas.  The antelopehorns are easily distinguished by their narrow leaves and tight flower clusters.

IMG_7423

Green Antelopehorns

While driving through the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands I noticed a blooming rosebush.  It took some time to key it out, but I was able to identify it as the Climbing Prairie Rose (Rosa setigera) by the glandular pubescence on the flower buds.  This is one of a few species of rose that area native to Texas, and it was a treat finding it in a county where it had not been previously vouchered.

IMG_7463

Climbing Prairie Rose

IMG_7458

Climbing Prairie Rose

Growing low to the ground was the Snake Herb (Dyschoriste linearis).  This pretty little forb was everywhere, often tucked away and obscured by some more prominent plant.

IMG_7467

Snake Herb

Also growing close to the ground was the Trailing Krameria (Krameria lanceolata).  I always enjoy seeing this species, with its orchid-like blooms and spiny fruit which has caused me to utter an expletive or two while sitting, kneeling, or resting my hand on it.

IMG_7489

Trailing Krameria

Another species I was excited to see was the Star Milkvine (Matelea biflora), a member of the milkweed family whose distribution is limited to Texas, Oklahoma, and possibly northern Mexico.

IMG_7504

Star Milkvine

Satisfied with our finds in the Grand Prairie, we opted to head into the Eastern Cross Timbers and Prairies, where we found a more typical mosaic of oak woodlands and prairie openings.  Here I found a plant that is not often observed in Texas: the Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida).  Though elsewhere in its range the may show tinges of purple, the ray florets of Texas individuals are typically pure white.  Other species of Echinacea in the state, most notably Echinacea sanguinea in East Texas are often misidentified as E. pallida, but true E. pallida is quite rare in Texas.  It can be differentiated from other species of its genus in the area by its white pollen.

IMG_7577

Pale Purple Coneflower

The idyllic meadow where Pale Purple Coneflower bloomed was the perfect way to end the second leg of our Cross Timbers adventure.  Though I’m not a native Texan, the more I get to know the Lonestar State, the more captivated I become with its biodiversity and staggering array of landscapes.  I have spent most of my adult life exploring it, and I have still barely scratched the surface.  I don’t pretend to know the meaning of life, but perhaps we all make our own meaning.  And as I drove left the Cross Timbers behind, traversed the Blackland Prairie and Post Oak Savannah, and returned home to the Pineywoods, I was never more confident that the meaning of my time here is to document the beauty and diversity of Texas, and beyond, so that just maybe I might spark in another some semblance of the passion, love, and awe I feel for the natural world.

IMG_7596

Coneflower Meadow

Wandering through the Cross Timbers and Prairies: Part I

IMG_5938

Remnant Chalk Prairie

I must admit, the Pineywoods have always felt like a priority.  Beneath the towering trees is where I feel most at home.  It makes sense, of course, as it is my backyard.  It is where I spent my youth exploring, learning, developing as a naturalist.  But as more time passed, and I gained the means to do so, I came to realize that I didn’t have to limit myself so close to home.  In other words, what if my backyard were to get a lot bigger?

So I started branching out.  Carolina and I made occasional forays to the Edwards Plateau, to South Texas, to West Texas.  There remained one ecosystem, however, that I had left woefully unexplored – the vast prairies that dominated the northern part of the state.  I don’t mean the fingers of Blackland that reach into the Pineywoods, or the vanishing coastal prairies that I fought hard to protect years ago.  I longed to see seemingly endless expanses of prairie, with grasses and wildflowers stretching as far as the eye could see.  Places with names like “Grand Prairie”, that conjured up images of a land spectacular for its desolation, where trees would not hide the sun on its daily journey from horizon to horizon.  As is the story with so much of the state, such places have become rare.  Rare – but not lost.

So in late April Carolina and I decided to set out to explore this foreign land.  Being obsessed with our states natural history, many of the plants and communities we would encounter were already familiar to me.  We made our acquaintance over countless hours spent pouring over field guides, natural history books, inventories, and scientific papers.  But this would be my first time encountering so many of them in the flesh, so to speak.

We began our journey near the southern reaches of the Cross Timbers and Prairies, near where the Lampasas Cut Plains reach their northern extent.  Here we found remnant chalk prairies, some extensive with bare limestone outcrops and a bizarre flora that I was not accustomed to.  Perhaps the most prominent resident this time of year was the Purple Paintbrush (Castilleja purpurea).

IMG_5903

Purple Paintbrush

The dazzling array of color and diversity of plants on the chalk prairies was awe-inspiring.  Below the stately Prairie Penstemon (Penstemon cobaea) can be seen towering above Purple Paintbrush and Engelmann’s Sage (Salvia engelmannii).  The latter is a Texas endemic.

IMG_5913

Prairie View

We stayed in this special place as dusk took hold over the land and the moon shone in the skies above.

IMG_5954

Moon over the Prairie

We left as darkness enveloped the land and drove north into the heart of the Grand Prairie.  I had hoped that we might catch a glimpse of some crawling or slithering thing in the road in front of us, but the hour-long drive was uneventful.  We found a base of operations in a hotel in Decatur.  The next morning I rose an hour before dawn and as Caro caught some extra sleep I set out to try to capture some images in the early morning light.  Before the sun crested the horizon I captured the image below of Purple Paintbrush and Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia caespitosa) in bud.

IMG_5982

Purple Paintbrush

I had no pre-conceived image that I was out to capture that morning; instead I planned to let my eyes wander, and hoped that the scene might present itself.  I enjoy this sort of photography, and it takes me back to part of what hooked me on photography in the first place.  These days I seem to always have a shot in mind, or some target that I’m seeking.  Sometimes it’s enjoyable to let the image find me for a change.  And so this large group of Missouri Evening Primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa) called to me, and I photographed them as the sun crested the horizon.  This classic prairie wildflower has huge flowers, and equally impressive fruits, which I unfortunately did not photograph.

IMG_5990

Missouri Evening Primrose – Chasing the Sun

As the sun rose higher into the morning sky I returned to the hotel.  After breakfast, Caro and I set out to explore the Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) National Grassland.  Akin to the National Forests of East Texas, LBJ Grassland set aside parcels for multiple uses by the public.  Much of the area is suffering from the typical array of factors that result in the ecological degradation of prairies – encroachment by woody species due to a lack of cyclical disturbance such as grazing and fire – but we did find some areas where the prairie was still thriving.  It was in one such recently burned area that I caught a flash of pink.  It was a species I was very much hoping to see – the Eastern Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia).

IMG_6092

Eastern Shooting Star

As we explored the LBJ, we noticed several exposed limestone ridges.  It was here, I hoped, that I might find the Grooved Nipple Cactus (Coryphantha sulcata) and Beehive Cactus (Escobaria vivipara) in bloom.  While we were successful in finding both species, their fleeting flowers eluded us.  We were, however, rewarded with a fine consolation prize: several Missouri Foxtail Cacti (Escobaria missouriensis) in bloom.

IMG_6310

Missouri Foxtail Cactus

IMG_6326

Missouri Foxtail Cactus

As the sun sank once more toward the horizon, we found ourselves on a high grassy ridge that overlooked a series of eroded canyons.  Here we found a large population of Nuttall’s Death Camas (Toxicoscordion nuttallii).  This species was on my 2017 list, and while I did find and photograph one individual the previous year, I found this prairie to yield a far more satisfying photographic experience.

IMG_6420

Nuttall’s Death Camas

IMG_6383

Nuttall’s Death Camas

Descending from the high ridge, we entered the fertile valley below.  Here we found interesting prairie plants like Buffalo Pea (Pediomelum cuspidatum) and Wright’s Skull Cap (Scutellaria wrightii).

IMG_6468

Buffalo Pea

IMG_6512

Buffalo Pea

As the sun retreated for the day, I returned to the ridge to capture some landscape images of the Nuttall’s Death Camas in the pink light of dusk.  It was a beautiful scene, which we breathed in under the darkening sky.

IMG_6553a

Death Comes to the Prairie

The next morning we rose early and pushed north toward the Red River, and deeper into the Grand Prairie.  As we were admiring the gently rolling terrain andorned with a mingling of prairie and woodland, a flash of pink once again caught my eye.  It was another group of Eastern Shooting Stars!  The Eastern Shooting Star is a species of open woodlands, glades, and prairie remnants in the eastern and central U.S. It reaches the southwestern extent of its range in the prairies and woodland openings of central Texas. Elsewhere in its range the blooms may be white, but in the Cross Timbers and Prairies they are deep pink.  In the Lonestar State, the Eastern Shooting Star occurs in remnant prairies and open woodlands in a few counties in the north-central and northeastern portions of the state, with a few isolated populations in similar habitats in the Edward’s Plateau.  It is among the most photogenic flowers I have ever put my lens on.

IMG_6578

Eastern Shooting Star

IMG_6586

Eastern Shooting Star

IMG_6608

Eastern Shooting Star

IMG_6649

Eastern Shooting Star

IMG_6715

Eastern Shooting Star

Growing near the shoting stars were several groups of Prairie Paintbrush (Castilleja citrina).

IMG_6680

Prairie Paintbrush

It wasn’t long before the sun rose high once again, and we had to be setting out on our return journey to the Pineywoods.  We opted to take a series of remote county roads to get back to the main highway.  All around the birds were active.  Lark Sparrows lined the fence rows while several Upland Sandpipers worked the fields on their northward journey to their breeding grounds.  Windows down, I could hear the incessant buzzy call of the Dickcissel.  I have never seen such a dense population of these grassland songbirds spread out over such a large area.  It seemed like every 100 feet or so a male Dickcissel had staked out his territory and was singing from some shrub or dried remnant of the previous year’s vegetation.  Despite the fairly harsh light, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to capture an image of one of these prairie treasures in full song.

IMG_6917

Dickcissel

Standing in some of these remnant prairies, it wasn’t hard to transport myself back in time.  To a time when the Tawakani and Wichita still made their home here, and vast herds of bison and pronghorn dotted the expansive plain.  In these moments it is easy to become frustrated and depressed at what was lost.  As I looked out at the swaying grass and palette of prairie wildflowers, I chose instead to focus on what we still have and ensure that it, too, does not become a story of what once was.  To learn what you can do to help protect native prairies visit texasprairie.org.