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.

Wintering Waterfowl in North-Central Texas

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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.

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Drake Canvasback

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Mallards

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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.

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American Wigeon

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American Wigeon

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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.

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Hooded Merganser

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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.

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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.

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Hooded Merganser

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Hooded Merganser

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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.

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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.