J R Compton.comSearch
Dallas Observer's 2009
Best of Dallas Best Bird Nerd. See story.
White Rock Lake
I'll try to photo some birds from the Bath House Cultural Center, which is right on the lake. I'll be there hanging an art show for the next couple days, but they have a fabulous back porch overlooking wonderful sunsets and lots of birds. Maybe I'll capture some on silicone. Maybe I'll just be too busy, although I'm always willing to take a turn at photographing birds.
Just in the way of a warning for the first few days of December. After mid-week this first week, it shouldn't be an issue. And after the opening on December 5 evening, I'll be free at last.
These shots were taken this afternoon. Few people were at the lake today. Not mobs, at least. And for the reason you'll see clearly by the end of today's journal entry, there was a subtly amazing variety of birds in Sunset Bay today and evening. I liked the Mallards, because they're just so green today.
I mostly avoiding photographing pelicans this time out, simply because I almost always photograph them maybe entirely too often. I just liked the distortion motion going on here. And the fact that, although you can't really see it in this particular shot, this pelican was often dragging the back of its head down into the water, so intent it was on preening that last, nearly unreachable feather.
He looks sly. He may be sly.
Angry Gull may well be a full redundancy.
With even the hint of food about, they go nuts, needing to get all of it, no matter how many of their fellow birds are about. All of it.
One moment in a million. Full Pause.
Then there's the full, wing-flapping flurry of Full Action.
In most any battle of Who-Gets-The-Bread, guess who wins?
Charles — we're getting to him in a minute, now — pointed this proud bird to me, I identified him and set about getting some decent shots at some unholy high ISO (1,250, I think), which looks pretty fine here. Notice how not so much bigger he is than the coots. Pretty copper face and distinctive swash up the back of his head.
And a flurry of blacks, whites and mid-tone grays on the hind quarters.
Judy pointed this one out to me as "the last Muscovy." None other comes to visit Sunset Bay this far into winter.
Now, at last, we get to why Sunset Bay has such a diversity of species — bird and others.
It's because Charles feeds his gooses every evening. That's him pouring golden corn here. Birds, coots and various ducks know about it and arrive early, often filling the bay with flying and swimming avian species for the best, most nutritious evening meal available on the lake.
Probably I shouldn't have gone to the lake on Friday. I realized my mistake when I saw all those people there. Still I persisted in photographing my beloved pelicans, who'd settled unusually close to shore, right on shore among the tall weeds, in fact.
Usually, I avoid shooting on weekends and holidays when there are so many humans about. Today, once I'd established myself off from the pier, almost in the weeds myself, standing there alone, thinking how nice that everybody else elsewhere, they gathered around me as I concentrated my attentions through my Rocket Launcher lens. Soon I was of a crowd, a condition that rarely obtains for me there. Usually, nobody cares.
But these were lake newbies on the holiday. While I waited for action, the some of them began pelting the pelicans with bread. Not just little pieces, either. They were throwing full slices, sometimes several at a time, at, not to, the pelicans, who are fish-eaters and all but ignore bread. I suggested to one particularly forceful thrower that they eat fish, not bread, but that one really vociferous human insisted that he didn't give a good damn what they ate, he was going to throw bread to them anyway, and I could just go to hell.
I didn't want to leave, because I rarely get to be that close to American White Pelicans, especially in such beautiful light. They, I should note, were much less offended by the stupid humans tricks than I was. They continued milling, preening and beak flapping.
The bread pelters kept pelting, the pelicans mostly ignored it, and after awhile of that one stupid human, yelling at me in forceful non sequitur,
I left. I will, of course, return in mid-week, when humans are more human, and there's far fewer of them.
Finally cold enough today for the pelicans to take wing-flapping-on-the-water baths.
Lotsa splashing going on.
Getting those big birds clean.
Almost can't tell who they are.
So much water in the air.
Now the pelicans have found their "sand bar" again, they're hanging out much closer to the pier in Sunset Bay. Which means so much more detail is possible. It was cold, but not icy, so I did me some serious pelican watching through my Rocket Launcher lens.
Some of the shots were kinda abstract, yet very real.
Some were about very specific pelican behaviors. This shows one jumping. I saw three of them doing this at one time or another today.
They'd sit, down in the water, begin flapping their wings with significant force but not speed — I thought to dry them after their bath, but maybe it was just fun. Looked like a lot of fun. At first rocked themselves up and down in the water.
They'd buoy themselves up onto the water, wings down to push their stretched-out bodies off the surface and slightly into the air, then back down, then up again.
This is another pelican another time. I just happened to catch it doing all this after having seen and photographed that similar action just before. Once it started, it was too interesting to stop clicking the shutter button.
I kept clicking as the action unfolded.
A few splashy hops and the pelican was airborne.
Soon it had unfolded those great long wings full-out and swam through the air toward the pelicans milling around near the island up toward the Hidden Creeks.
A few elegant flaps later, our take-off sequence became a landing series.
And our winged pelican joined his friends in what had to be a fishing party. Step one. Put beaks into the water and keep swimming.
Step Two: dunk heads deep enough to drag pouches for fish.
Dunk deeper and keep them down till the pouches are full, or as full as they're going to get.
Same bunch. A little later. I always thought pelican fishing parties synchronized every action. As this photo shows, however, they're just like us. Only organized when it become necessary.
At which time, they/we get it together, point our beaks in the direction of fish ...
Dunk and get us some fish.
Pelicans weren't the only species that were much closer than normal today. Some of the cormorants were settling in close, too. This is not full frame, but it's plenty close enough for some feathery detail.
Nice to know that our American White Pelicans aren't the only ones who beak each other. And that big beaks aren't required for this game.
Later, after swimming my laps, I drove out to Dreyfuss hoping for ... oh, something. From the top of the hill where the building once stood, I looked down past the couple having a picnic on the grass out toward Sunset Bay proper. There on a post not terribly far off from this side of the bay, was this stubby little heron.
Jason Hogle had been talking about late-season Black-crowns the last several weeks, but as usual with the birds Jason sees and knows by hearing their calls — a skill that entirely eludes me — I hadn't seen one and only wondered. So when I saw this guy out in the bay, I quickly drove down the hill, around the circular drive, parked against the curved stone wall, got out. walked quickly to shore, and started shooting and shooting the little bird who was alternately amber in the setting sun and gray.
Says Jason: "Your heron is a juvenile black-crowned night-heron. Notice the bit of yellow on the beak; that will turn all black when it's fully mature. The usual dark back and head will also become more apparent as it finishes its molt; right now the colors are weak and washed out, but that's changing.
The one I saw a few days ago was a full adult. In fact, in the heron lagoon last weekend I photographed at least six of them, most of them adults. I also saw a green heron perched on one of the logs in Sunset Bay.
I had to look this up in my records to be sure: I have records from the last two winters showing black-crowned night-herons and green herons at the lake. I'm sure I dismissed those as very early migrants. Now I'm of the mind that some of our local population doesn't migrate at all, that instead they remain here. It'll be worth watching closely through winter to see if they're still around; that will answer the question."
Driving toward the lake over the big hill on Grand Avenue overlooking the valley the lake fills, we noticed thousands of birds engaged in what I call Random Compression. Where birds flock together and apart in differing patterns that show the whole of them as dots on a landscape that randomly coalesce, disperse and recombine in differing and undulating shapes.
It's fascinating to watch the shapes form, disperse then rejoin in differing configurations. Liquid shapes dominating the sky.
Probably more entertaining as motion than any series of still shots that don't get near enough the randomness or the amazing momentary shapes.
We got out of the car, wished we were closer to under that amazing ebb and flow, took a bunch of pictures, then drove on over the hill.
Art all day, then birds near dark. These had been eating corn poured on shore at Sunset Bay, when something scared them. Me, maybe, although I'd been stepping carefully, had stopped a ways off.
But when I swung the Rocket Launcher up to my shoulder, they exploded. Next time I do that, I'll swing it up a lot slower and subtler and make darned sure it's in focus before I start clicking away.
Hadn't been holding down on the button much in a while, since then I have to sort through so many shots. But this time it may have been worth it.
But focus got better as I went along, and as the birds got some distance.
That was that sequence, and this is another one, actually earlier, but it's as if it were a continuation. Better focus, because for these last few I was standing on the pier at Sunset, ka-clicking away at an earlier mass escape with more light from that sun thing.
These things happen. Sometimes with discernable cause. Often with no logical reason whatsoever.
Coots certainly are, but coots and ducks together are very very nervous.
Says Jason M. Hogle, who helps me identify birds here — and has a great site of his own that covers all of local nature: "I had to laugh about your November 21 entry with the ducks and coots exploding into escape mode. I've done the same thing--and I'm almost certain it was because I swung the camera up too quickly. Like you, I'd gotten close enough for photos without spooking anyone. Yet the moment I lifted the camera to my face, the birds panicked. I've since learned to be slow with the camera, or to keep it closer to a ready position so I don't have to move it too much."
Last Several Days
Some days I have a few bird shots left over. Ones I like but hadn't fit in to a page. Lately, I've been running on empty, shooting plenty birds, only getting a few on pages.
These top few were shot a day this week when I hadn't got enough lake already, so I came back near dark, after the sun had gone down, just to see what I could photograph. Pelicans, if they're not off fishing, are easy.
But then, at iso 1600, so is grain-like noise and strange blurs above and below.
And now and again, an opportunity to remember that, although pelicans sometimes simply will themselves into the sky without preamble, their more usual method is to hop, two-footed, gaining altitude and flight speed with each hop.
Dallas birders are seeing more exotic grebes. I think I saw one a couple days before but only noted its oddity, didn't bring the camera up for a shot. Stupid of me, but sometimes I like just seeing something, even if I don't make the connections or take the pictures. This, however, is a Pied-billed Grebe, our most common variety.
And these are sunup-ambered Ruddy Ducks, who usually float a long way off shore. Floating, sunning and apparently mostly sleeping when we see them.
Later that same ayem. These so far shot on November 18 late and 19 early. I'd have to look it up to see if that was tomorrow or yesterday. I've become lost in time. Again. Healthy, happy, just unstuck like Billy Pilgrim.
These guys were close. On the shore at Sunset Bay, I think. Visions run together when time ceases its effects.
I like the intermix of nearly pure black and nearly pure white birds whose beaks are in another spectrum, small and big, noisy and quiet.
And in ducks or pelicans or gooses or coots, the one-foot stand with the other stretched behind, often accompanied by a wing-out balance, is a delight to see and photograph.
I didn't think these came to visit until much later in the season, but here one was. Seemingly nonchalant and aloof among a half dozen males in the same vicinity.
Some of whom were folded up inside themselves and all but sleeping.
Anna pointed out this amazing pretzeling preening pelican. So my guess is the dark ones above are from the day before yesterday night. The lights ones down to here were yesterday, and the next one down and below were this morning. Novembers 18, 19 and 20, so far and farther.
Looking for the grebe again, we saw instead a couple hundred cormorants in an fishing armada = cormada. Behind them, you can see where the supposedly financially-strapped or downright broke City of Dallas is ...
... pouring millions of tons of concrete into The Spillway area where water over the dam takes an abrupt left turn to slosh down yet another White Rock Creek past oh-so-exclusive housing developments, past waterfalls and a golf course toward I30 and beyond.
It was raining. This seemed a dark lump on a wire till I overexposed the sky behind it, revealing a wet and probably hungry lump of pretty feathers looking for its next meal, rain or not. Looking through our eyes and binocs, instead of through the lens, this bird was a silhouette. Of course, by this time, the photographer was pretty wet, too. And the camera, which may account for the softness of this shot.
We kept being fascinated by the cormada stretching in a long and slender line out on the other side of the lake, off toward the dam. The landscape grayed by falling rain.
And here are two again far away ducks. The one on the right a indistinguishable brown, probably female, but maybe not, duck. And the one on the left, the one we thought could be a Red-headed Duck, but clearly was not, but seemed to have a red skullcap that extended down the back of its head, must have been somebody else. And the one with it was probably somebody else's mate or friend.
Oh, and there's more, but we'll get to them later. I've got miles to go before I sleep.
Can you imagine it? I'm at a loss for words. I was not trying to take goofy pictures of a pelican. Not that it would be all that difficult. They are elegant birds but with a certain odd-ball look, usually when land-bound.
I usually attempt to hold the camera level. It's even got this lovely gridded lines on the viewfinder, but sometimes I get carried away following the bird. Photographing pelican flights is a many and varied occupation. I love it.
I believe this is the same pelican as above, only at lower altitude.
No idea which pelican this is. I like that it is using its full wing extension as in gets closer to the ground. Feet forming fins to guide it. With wings extended, American White Pelicans have the spaniest wings, second only to Condors.
Feet fully tucked. Long beak breaks the air, which then rushes over that full streamlined body.
This is the best of this series, and I still got it sans part of four feathers .
Then it flew even closer. If it weren't going so relatively fast, there might have been more detail. Still, it was nice to be that close. Relatively speaking.
I've been trying for months to get one shot of a crow flying. This, finally, is it.
This one kept flying over Sunset Bay, out over into the Hidden Creek are, then in great, wide circles, back again. Had to harness my legendary patience to wait it out.
She is not close. But plenty close for the Rocket Launcher (my Sigma 150-500mm zoom lens). These three were shot in a matter of seconds. I feel a special kinship to Turkey Vultures, but then I like birds of all feathers.
I don't think I've ever seen a Juvenile Turkey Vulture before. At least not knowingly.
November 14 & 15
Looks like today is all about birds on poles and sticks and other vertical protrusions, but it won't last.
I thought it was a Neotropic Cormorant, because of the white fuzz behind its beak, but now I think it's just an immature Double-crested Cormorant after all. I think. Then I saw this next shot.
And I decided it was a Neotropic Cormorant, after all. Note the white stripe along the face edge of its beak, white even against the gray. Jason Hogle says no, it's not.
"Your cormorant from the November 14 & 15 entry is actually a double-crested. Here's the catch about the beak and white around it: with a neotropic cormorant the white runs all the way to the eye, but double-crested cormorants can have white just around the bottom. Also, the base of the beak on neotropic cormorants is shaped like a sharp sideways V starting from the eye and reaching a point where the beak splits in two, then moving forward under the chin. On a double-crested cormorant, the base is flatter: it moves back from the eye but then makes a lazy curve that moves almost straight down under the chin."
Neck stripe and black bands along the trailing edge of its wings. Jason says it's a juvenile ring-billed gull (first winter.)
Arlington DryinG Beds
First bird we saw at the beds today was this guy, under whom we drove until we could look right up into 'im. I named the image file Cliff Swallow, then turned unsure enough not to label this, but Jason M. Hogle says, "From the Arlington Drying Beds entry, the first image is a juvenile barn swallow. Though the white forehead might make you think it's a cliff swallow, notice it has a deeply notched tail; cliff swallows have a square tail. The light forehead isn't unusual in young barn swallows."
It was a day of bad exposures and slow shutters, which is sorta the same thing. Exposure was a problem. Took some fixing to fix those. But there was nothing I could do to fix slow flying black birds with red wings.
Oh, they were way overexposed, too, but that was fairly easy to deal with in Photoshop. Just make 'em darker.
As usual when a bird flies by close, I try to follow it. Usually, I do not succeed. But if one does not attempt and thus does not fail, one does not learn very much.
I hope that's what they are. Sure looks like it.
Like most birds at the beds that day, these Northern Pintails were pretty far away. Too far to see much detail. Pintails have been seen at Sunset Bay at White Rock Lake lately, but I didn't even get this close to them there.
I want this to be something else — with that white stripe on the face end of that big beak and the white face strip just a bit back from that seem to belie the Shoveler I.D., but that's what I think it is.
And I wanted this one to be a red-head or something else more exotic. But what it probably is is what it says in the caption above. The dark swath hidden in the head shadows here would be the big give-away, if it were visible.
Franklin Gull? Oh, there's just so much I don't know.
Jason M. Hogle knows: "The "Gullish Tern" is a laughing gull (2nd winter). In that photo, what most easily differentiates it from the Franklin's gull is the size of the beak: a Franklin's beak is small and short, whereas a laughing gull has the more robust beak like ring-billed and herring gulls. The small white primary tips seen at the ends of the wings (in the black area) also help as Franklin's will have larger, more noticeable white spots."
Ruddy Ducks have been reported hanging out in the middle of White Rock Lake. I haven't seen them, but I very probably will. The trick will be to get them up close. Last year, Anna and I "chased" some down. Drove well within the speed limit, back and forth along the Big Thicket, finding one bunch of them or another, till we found some swimming toward shore. That was as close as we got. Not a lot of detail, but more than this.
We didn't see any birds — though we heard some cheapers and peepers — as we drove and walked slowly down the entry road to the beds. Going back, I caught glimpse of this one Great Blue Heron, at some distance from the road, and we stopped and photographed it. Beautiful birds. Sometimes shy. Often still.
White Rock Lake
It's a mixed bag today. I was looking for Western Grebes, and as usual when I concentrate on one bird, I got a bunch of others instead. You're probably about as familiar with these guys as I am. Here's more of them, flying past where the Old Dreyfuss Club was before it burned down, because the fire department couldn't find it.
It's not a great shot of the scoot, but it's nice of the coot, running on water.
I've seen flat-footed ducks running on the water. Gooses, too. But the best water runners have feet like these.
They're called "lobed feet," and they let coots do all sorts of strange things.
From the second coot shot up, down to the hawk below, I shot yesterday when I was not looking for Grebes or for hawks. Probably why I found them. But it's not anything exotic like a Western Grebe. No, this is our regular, old, usual grebe. I was glad to see them — one on each side of the lake that day, roughly parallel north and south.
Named that for those big, long, shoveling beaks. like Mallards otherwise.
Driving back from somewhere up north (Thanks, Mr. D.) and were stopped at a light, when Anna started giving the strangest directional hand signals I've seen. Pointing up and around the corner, I later decided. When I finally saw the bird, I could not stop there in high traffic. Had to pull into a side street, walk back, cross the street, stand in the island and point the Rocket Launcher nearly straight up, and got one good shot before it flew off. It's probably not used to being seen.
I really wanted it to be something special, but what it is, I think, is a Red-tailed Hawk, even if its tail is not visible or red. Everything else but the back pattern matches. Still, I haven't photographed a hawk in awhile, and we took it as a good omen.
The word from Jason M. Hogle: I was just looking at your post from yesterday, J R. You caught some new birds.
The hawk is a j red-tailed hawk. It's an unusual variation that resembles a leucistic [condition caused by reduced pigmentation, not just melanin] red-tailed, but they're not leucistic — just different. Krider's red-tailed hawks aren't considered a subspecies because they nest in the territory of another subspecies, so instead they're considered a "white morph;" that's just silly and anthropocentric, of course, since this kind of red-tailed is unique, has a definable nesting/breeding range and a definable winter range, and has offspring with the same unique traits (lots of white, usually a mostly white head, a partial to mostly white tail, pale eyes, etc.).
Still, they aren't "technically" a subspecies — though they meet every other requirement for being a subspecies save where they nest. They breed and live in the northern part of the Rocky Mountains but spend winter down here: I photographed one at the lake about a month ago and someone who lives in Plano says there's at least one hanging out up there. Good find! And kudos on recognizing it as a red-tailed despite its unusual appearance.
This shot brings us back to Thursday. I thought it looked different. Well, it's a little bit different. But not enough.
LBB = LIttle Brown Bird.
Jason M. Hogle says, and J R listens: The LBBs are all field sparrows. Petite sparrows with long tails, they have clean breasts and bellies with roufous stripes over the top of the head with a single gray stripe right through the middle of it (the crown), and they have a roufous stripe behind the eye — but not in front of it (on the lores). But watch out: There's an all-gray variation that lacks any facial markings save the roufous stripes over the top of the head.
Great job on recognizing the one as a field sparrow! Sparrows can be some of the most difficult birds to ID since there are so many species and the variations can be subtle. For example, at the right time of year a clay-colored sparrow and a chipping sparrow can be impossible to distinguish except that one has dark lores and one doesn't.
Beautiful photos! I really love the coot images especially, with their feet clearly seen beneath the water's surface. Mind you, I don't think coots get the respect they deserve — so maybe I'm biased. J R agrees and is also a coots fan.
I'm guessing — the biggest word on the top of this and all the pages on this suite of bird pages is "Amateur," so I'm eminently identity error-prone. But I think this is a Field Sparrow. It's highly unusual I'd be photographing small birds. I like big ones I can see easier. But I've kinda gone through the local population of those. Though I always go back.
I didn't always get them sharp in focus, but I got them.
Oh, and this. Cormorants are so thick lately, that Cormorant Bay (See map.) is nearly bright white already. Usually doesn't get that light till Christmas. I'm afraid to go there. It likely stinks pretty bad.
Night shots. Mostly taken after anybody with any sense woulda guve up and gone home. But we were talking and it was a gorgeous, cool evening with plenty bird action. Good night to play with the medium.
This odd shot of an egret who's just swallowed something flying over a splotched purple lake is here to remind that what follows, though not grossly manipulated, was experimental in that I even tried to photograph color into the evening and night.
Deep fall colors, too, and beautiful big birds willing to pose in front of them.
And a cast of bright white characters who own the night.
Off to do some Night Fishing, no doubt.
Under the radar.
Another excuse to include the downtown skyline, blurred though it may be.
Dark patrol early in the night.
They flew low, and they flew high.
All across the lake.
Into the trilight.
To fly, American White Pelicans hop with both feet.
Low and away.
Got there late after swimming with a bad case of swimming pool eyes. Still can't quite focus, although that's not entirely why lot of my shots today were soft. Probably more because I was limp from swimming, eyes open or not. Begriming to wish I had a second eyelid like pelicans and many other birds do, to protect them from chlorine vision.
Sometimes they just drop out of the sky and settle where they stop. This time, there was a long, satisfying skid with lots of linearly splashed water. It seemed to go on forever. One of those perfect landings we always strive for but seldom see or experience. A big of magic moment.
My fellow photographer friend Dana was just telling me how the pelicans seem to be following the gooses, back to Sunset Bay from the Bath House, and up onto land in Sunset Bay. This one watched the gooses carefully, and when they stepped onto land, it followed till humans got too close. Still, it was nice to have one come close enough to count feather strands on its head.
Looking up that name, my Mac dictionary says it's "a Eurasian, North American, and New Zealand diving duck, the male of which has a black head with a green or purple gloss. " The variety we get are the Lesser Scaups, and the blue here, as elsewhere in today's journal entry, is mostly from the setting darkness, illuminated not by the sun, but by the clear blue sky.
Scaups visit in dribs and drabs during the autumn and winter here. Mostly males, till at last Nature has mercy, flies in a precious few females, then they all disappear somewhere.
They've either forgot about ten percent of their flock being murdered by coyotes or dogs and humans. But they've come back in recent weeks. Bring
Sounds just like some dumb romantic name till one of those days when we have an actual sun and then late in the day, it sets amid orange and pink.
Today's suite of tern photographs are dedicated to Jason M. Hogle, who tipped me to the Forster's Terns presence and location behind the Bath House. He said, "I noticed at least a dozen Forster's terns using the water theater platforms.
He continued, "I'd bet it will provide a good chance to get decent photos of them, but they won't stay there for long since they're too small to argue with the increasing number of gulls and cormorants."
I spent most of the day watching wonderful and amazing videos at the Dallas Video Festival, but when my eyes were glazing over from too much video, I checked out the Water Theater for Forster's Terns. I didn't see or capture any gull vs. tern action, but there were at least two separate occasions when terns were looking fierce at each other.
Noting that the "attacker" is both times somewhat larger than the "attacked," I wonder if the larger birds are just parental units barking some sort of admonition (authoritative counsel or warning). In spring, a littler bird with beak open like that, often means it expects to be fed. That seems unlikely here, but I'm still the amateur in this journal's title.
I also caught some amazing, to me, at least, flight shots of the Forster's. Here one is jumping off a pole...
... and falling headlong diagonally toward the water before it righted itself and flew off.
Now these just amaze me. I followed several terns circle and loop around Tom Orr and Frances Bagley's White Rock Water Theater poles, hoping like crazy each new shot would be in focus — because each previous one sure hadn't been. I tried all three of my Nikon D300's focus modes, and none seemed to work most of the time I followed this relatively small bird around its large track.
But I kept at it. A lot closer to these guys than to the pelicans I so love to photograph flying. But then they're a lot smaller, too. Much more difficult to capture at all, but perhaps by concentrating, I did pretty good at there for several whiles, getting lots more detail than I've ever captured from a tern.
This especially startles me, because it's so very close to actually being sharp. I also like it, because it looks like it's still running. And because it looks like it's reconnoitering the area while flying around in those great subtended circles. It must be a characteristic flight action for the Forster's, because I saw and photographed it several times today. Just this was the sharpest.
At least it seemed relatively smaller than most terns, which are, in tern, somewhat smaller than Ring-beaked Gulls, with whom they were sharing the poles with today.
Two Forster's Terns — one sitting and one standing.
Two other Forster's Terns — wings up and wings down poses.
I was looking in Keith A. ARnold and Gregory Kennedy's Birds of Texas (The Lone Pine edition that I love so much, that I bought in the little book store at Quinta Mazatlan in south McAllen) for something interesting to tell you about Forster's, and I found this gem, "Feeding: hovers above the water and plunge-dives for small fish and aquatic invertebrates; catches flying insects and snatches prey from the water's surface," none of which did I knowingly see today, even though I was watching carefully.
It's a fishing party. Only they weren't fishing just then, because nobody's seeing any fish. But they're gathered out there, in the crotch of Winfrey Point and Arboretum Drive (See map for an area that needs a proper name.) They must have been seeing fish, because it's the biggest fishing party I've seen since the pelicans arrived in mid-September. I counted 40 pelicans. There must have been two hundred or more cormorants swimming along and disappearing under the water.
Some of the time the pelicans and cormorants were joined by the very excitable gulls, who gave the entire entourage sharp injections of action, even though their participation didn't amount to much but them getting what they want, not an uncommon state with gulls.
Occasionally, one or the other of the three species would break suddenly from the milling pack, swim or fly a short way off, and dive (cormorants) or scream (gulls) or scoop (pelicans) a fish or two, then they'd be gone, and they all would go back to aimless milling. If that long pelican neck hadn't been in just the wrong position here, this would have been a much better photograph.
Disney Studios got it right in that fish animation a few years ago, when they showed gulls grabbing all the food in sight while screaming, "Mine, Mine." Here the big, bold white Pelicans just watch as the gulls grab whatever they're grabbing just under the surface.
Everybody's hungry, or they wouldn't be there, and as multi-species as it might be, there's no sharing.
A more palpable sense of anticipation obtained when everybody faced in the same direction, although there'd always be certain along-for-the-ride pelicans preening, which they do all the time.
When the whole armada would turn toward shore, it was especially exciting to me, because that meant they'd be getting closer, so I could zoom into more detail of bird and behavior.
And when someone broke from the pack for a fish or two, it suddenly — after the long wait while watching them swim back and forth, in and out — started getting a little active. I've seen times when lots of splashing was going on [last February], and everybody I could see was getting fish, and the hopes of those is why I always tune into these floating armadas. But this wasn't one of those.
Here, only several pelicans and darned few cormorants seem interested enough to change directions. One pelican in particular must have seen something from its taller perspective, and is in a big hurry to get it before anybody else figures out the possibility.
This one is very interested. Its pals are along for the ride. The cormorants couldn't care less.
Closer the lead one got, the more interested the others became. When they got there, they went at it with pelican fury. The big one in the middle has its beak wide, the lower mandible (the one they stretch all out of proportion sometimes) flat and sideways, probably in anticipation of putting fish there. The two in front are diving for fish. The pelican on the right's lower mandible is already dragging water or fish and it's stretched for more.
No tellin' what's going on here. Pelican A is charging fast, its head underwater. Pelican B is heading in a similar direction, wings trailing in the speed. One assumes fish are heading that way, too. And Pelican C is draining water from its beak and looks eager to put it down under and around a fish or two.
This is another time in the same armada, another place closer to shore where the ever-patient photographer stands waiting for just such an opportunity. For a remarkable difference, we can even see parts of the fish about to get pouched.
Over the years, especially on my now all-but-defunct New White Rock Lake Journal, that was about the people and places and birds and animals of White Rock Lake, I used to do a lot of skylines. It's a photographer's standby. When I was staff photographer for the Dallas Times Herald, framing an intelligent — or not so — skyline with something was always the right thing to do, an always-rewarded bit of easy kitsch.
I still love them.
When I shot this, I thought I'd found some of those birds Jason Hogle keeps telling me are at the lake in large numbers but that I rarely see, since I've been concentrating on bigger, easier to see and photograph, birds. I no longer wish to disparage them as "little brown birds." But they are essentially little and brown and certainly birds.
First I thought these were sparrows, then I spent a while assuming they were Red-winged Blackbirds. Now I'm just not sure. There were a great many RWBBs around the lake today, the first time I've noticed that many. But these don't match the images in the field books.
Probably about time I spent some time going page to page in my field books again, although I really enjoy finding birds I cannot readily identify, and I really do need to page through my guides more.
Jason Hogle to the rescue: "On your little brown birds, you have two sparrow species. The top one is a Vesper Sparrow and the bottom one is a White-crowned Sparrow. And you got them in one shot! They're the two larger sparrow species around right now, so your image shows a good size comparison (the white-crowned is slightly larger). Very cool!
Even in that light, you can see the stripes on the head of the white-crowned sparrow. That makes the ID easy. The top one could be any number of species given its plumage, the details of which are washed out by the light. But its size compared to the white-crowned — and the length of its tail — makes the ID of vesper sparrow easy to reach. Also note the obvious white eye ring."
I was all ready to declare this some intermediate stage of Red-winged Blackbird — and I still think it is, but I can't find it in the books in this form. So once again, I am stymied.
Says Jason M. Hogle, "Your "Uh..." photo is a male red-winged blackbird. He's wearing the alternate plumage that looks like a female tricolored blackbird (or a very dark female red-winged blackbird). Notice he already has conspicuous epaulets (the shoulder patches).
This plumage variation occurs in both male and female juveniles (though mostly in males from what I know), but it only lasts through their first year. It's highly variable. He'll take on the normal adult male plumage when he molts next year."
Usually I ignore coots, and today was really not much of an exception. Gradually, I'll get around to photographing them scooting across the water on those big lobed feet, and that's always fun. But I've had my issues lately with their white beaks against what is usually rendered as a white sky or, like here, white water. Not today. I gave it some effort, and here you see coots with eyes and almost eyes, whose beaks you can almost and really see.
But beyond a little local color from the other side of the bay, you won't see these guys again until I catch a coot scoot good or something else interesting of their bird-in-ality, which they have in spades.
Then drive down and around the Yacht Clubs up from the Bath House, where I only drove by the gooses and the little dark shapes of coots, of course — no pelicans. Didn't find those till later, back at Sunset Bay when I visited the second time today, after swimming (not in the lake, although they were.). There was the usual array of Muscovy Ducks, however, along Big Thicket.
Lotta neat things about Muscovy. They're gentle creatures. Kinda chummy with humans. Don't run off at the sight of us.
And either incredibly ugly or very distinctive-looking, depending on how you look at it, or them. I go with distinctive, although I'll give you ugly, too. I'm fond of them. One of the interesting things about them is that I have yet to see one that looks like the pictures in the field guides. They are, each and every one, very distinctive.
Driving up the hill to Winfrey Point, I saw a bird atop some plumbing. I sidled Blue alongside and shot out the passenger window to capture this monument to water.
And a little closer for some detail.
It's what they do best. I love this asterisk-like clunk of wood, just close enough to the pier at Sunset Bay to frame a pelican, if ya got one.
After a short, dripping hop. I thought he was coming right at me, but that's the Rocket Launcher's 5-degree angle of view talking. He veered off way before the last second, and landed in the sunlight to my left (west) in Sunset Bay. Flaps down, and little orange feet flat into the wind.
text and photographs copyright 2009 by J
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My favorite answer is, "I don't
am, after all, an amateur.
I'm not kidding. I've only been birding for three years,
although I've been photographing professionally since 1964.
Thanks always to Anna.