Dateline – June 20, 2014
Today’s urban wildlife roundup will take us to the far extremes of the metroplex—both north and south. The first set of photographs were taken around Lewisville Lake in Denton County over the course of several days. The next section contains a collection of pictures recorded just last weekend in south Dallas County. Remarkably, many of these pictures were taken inside the boundaries of the Dallas city limits. It often amazes me the kinds and quantity of wildlife that can be found in the ninth largest city in the United States.
The first observation of note is a group of what I believe are Cliff Swallows congregating on a lone bush atop the Lewisville Lake dam. A couple of dozen of these birds were gathered on this plant, and periodically a strong breeze or some other disturbance would send the birds into the air. There, the swallows would buzz around for a minute or two before finally settling back down on the bush again. This pattern repeated itself over and over again while I watched. I am not sure how to explain the appeal of this bush to the swallows.
I always enjoy watching the antics of Raccoons. One afternoon in mid-June I arrived at the river just in time to see a Raccoon enter the water and wade across to the far side. The Trinity River is very shallow at this spot—never more than about belly-deep on the Raccoon. The water flows across a solid gravel base, and intrepid Raccoon was able to make it across without difficulty.
In addition to the Raccoon, herons and egrets were working the spillway as well. These long-necked wading birds were taking advantage of this spot to nab fish as they are swept along by the shallow and fast flowing water. Herons and egrets come in many shapes and sizes. Here is how Wikipedia describes the heron family of birds in general:
The herons are long-legged freshwater and coastal birds in the family Ardeidae, with 64 recognised species (some are called “egrets” or “bitterns” instead of “heron”). Within Ardeidae, all members of the genera Botaurus and Ixobrychus are referred to as “bitterns”, and — including the zigzag heron or zigzag bittern — are a monophyletic group within the Ardeidae. However, egrets are not a biologically distinct group from the herons, and tend to be named differently because they are mainly white or have decorative plumes. Although egrets have the same build as herons, they tend to be smaller.
The classification of the individual heron/egret species is fraught with difficulty, and there is still no clear consensus about the correct placement of many species into either of the two major genera, Ardea and Egretta. Similarly, the relationship of the genera in the family is not completely resolved. However, one species formerly considered to constitute a separate monotypic family Cochlearidae, the boat-billed heron, is now regarded as a member of the Ardeidae.
Although herons resemble birds in some other families, such as the storks, ibises, spoonbills and cranes, they differ from these in flying with their necks retracted, not outstretched. They are also one of the bird groups that have powder down. Some members of this group nest colonially in trees, while others, notably the bitterns, use reed beds.
In the pictures below you will find three different kinds of herons, the Snowy Egret, The Great Egret and the Great Blue Heron. The Snowy Egret is the smallest of the three. This bird is covered in all white feathers. They have a long, dark bill that terminates with a patch of yellow the extends to the egret’s eyes. The snowy’s legs are long and black with bright yellow feet.
Snowy Egrets typically feed on small aquatic animal life, and seem to prefer minnow-like fish. I recently recorded a video of a Snowy Egret using the tip of his beak as a lure for small fish. You can see that video here: Snowy Egret – Fishing
The Great Egret is another all white heron. Although the Great Egret and the Snowy Egret are very similar in general appearance, a few key differences makes it easy to tell the two birds apart. The Great Egret is considerably larger than the snowy. The Great Egret has a yellow bill which is distinctly different from the dark bill of the Snowy Egret. And while both birds have black legs, the feet of the Great Egret are entirely black, while the feet of the Snowy Egret are bright yellow in color.
The Great Blue Heron is the largest heron species in North America. These birds feed primarily on fish, but will also eat a variety of aquatic animals. Small rodents, reptiles, and amphibians round out the Great Blue Heron’s Diet.
Great Blue Herons nest and breed in rookeries. Here in North Texas breeding usually begins in late February and concludes three or four months later. These birds prefer to nest in isolated areas with trees that are taller than the average. Nesting colonies are unique in that in most cases they are made up exclusively of Great Blue Heron. Many other birds in the heron family make use of communal rookeries, where multiple different species nest together.
I found one other species of heron and a few other heron-like birds in far south Dallas this past weekend. I will discuss them a little later in this article.
Moving into the woods, I soon came across the unusual metallic green bug seen in the pictures below. This insect is known as the Texas Bumelia Borer. This is the first of these striking looking insects that I have ever seen, and it is my understanding that they are becoming more and more common in the North Texas area. It has been difficult locating good information about this insect, so I will make a point of keeping an eye out for more examples, and will do more research next time I photograph one.
Moving from the woods out into a more open area near a creek, a female Widow Skimmer did me the favor of landing nearby and holding very still. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about this variety of dragonfly:
The Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) is one of the group of dragonflies known as King Skimmers. The species can be found commonly across much of the United States (except in the higher Rocky Mountains areas) and in southern Ontario and Quebec. Adults have a steely blue body area but juveniles are yellow with brown stipes. Wings of both sexes are marked with prominent black basal bands. Adult males develop broad white spots at midwing. The nymphs live in the water, molting and growing until they are ready to emerge from the water and then molting a final time to reveal their wings.
A brief rain shower passed through at this time, which made the rest of the afternoon very interesting. Moving through the woods with a light rain masking your scent and the sounds of your footfalls opens up all kinds of new wildlife observing opportunities. My first encounter was with the rain-soaked Armadillo in the picture below. These guys are never super-alert, but the rainy conditions allowed me to approach to within just a foot or two of this Armadillo without him detecting me.
Later, I had a couple of nice encounters with White-tailed Deer, including a near collision at a sharp bend on the trail I was hiking. The rain encouraged the deer to become active earlier in the afternoon than they would have normally, and it also made it harder for them to detect my presence!
The rain stopped just before sunset, but the wildlife activity continued unabated. The temperature cooled significantly with the wet weather, and many of the animals here responded by starting their nightly routines early. In the photographs below you will see a group of four Wild Turkeys going to roost in a large dead tree located in the middle of an open prairie. Most, if not all, of the Wild Turkeys living in North Texas are here as the result of a successful reintroduction program that took place in the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area in 2005.
As I mentioned earlier, White-tailed Deer became more active as the day wore on. I photographed several of them while I was making my way to the park’s exit.
A few days later I made my way to south Dallas County. I had a number of stops that I wanted to make along the way, and I managed to fit most of them in. A nature preserve in the Great Trinity Forest, a park in Wilmer, and a bird sanctuary in Hutchins rounded out my visit to this part of town.
The first stop was the Great Trinity Forest nature preserve. All of the following pictures were taken inside Dallas city limits.
The extended drought in North Texas is catching up with even our most resilient ponds and lakes. Many of the remaining small bodies of water in the Great Trinity Forest are rapidly going dry this summer. At a few of these ponds some of our more rare and exotic wading bird have developed such a connection with the location that they continue to return even as the water features virtually disappear before their eyes.
Fortunately, there is a brief period of time before the water dries completely that some of these small lakes are still able to provide a bounty of food for wading birds. Prey animals get concentrated into the small and easy to hunt puddles. The White Ibises in the pictures below are taking advantage of just such a situation. Wading through a slurry of saturated mud and silt, the Ibises probe the remaining puddles for any surviving aquatic lifeforms.
Other birds also taking advantage of the bountiful—but temporary—conditions were a dozen or more Snowy Egrets and at least one rare Tricolored Heron.
The most pleasant surprise of the day was finding this extremely rare juvenile Wood Stork feeding among the other wading birds. There are a good number of Wood Storks that spend the summer in Dallas County—maybe a hundred or more on a good year—but they tend to congregate in places that are difficult to access, and are therefore rarely seen. It is always a special privilege to get to observe one of these unique birds!
Here is what Wikipedia has to say about the endangered Wood Stork:
This is a subtropical and tropical species which breeds in much of South America, Central America and the Caribbean. The wood stork is the only stork that presently breeds in North America. In the United States there is a small and endangered breeding population in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, along with a recently discovered rookery in southeastern North Carolina. On the other hand, in the state of Santa Catarina, Brazil, its decline seems to have been reversed: after an absence between the late 1960s and the mid-1990s, the species is now again regularly encountered there, in particular in the Tubarão River region. It is likely that the Paraná River region’s wetlands served as a stronghold of the species, from where it is now re-colonizing some of its former haunts. Globally, it is considered a species of Least Concern by the IUCN due to its large range.
The wood stork is a broad-winged soaring bird that flies with its neck outstretched and legs extended. It forages usually where lowering water levels concentrate fish in open wetlands; it also frequents paddy fields. Walking slowly and steadily in shallow water up to its belly, it seeks prey, which, like that of most of its relatives, consists of fish, frogs and large insects. It catches fish by holding its bill open in the water until a fish is detected.
At the bird sanctuary we were greeted by the two friendly Blue Jays that I first reported on last week. These two guys are a very engaging and they followed us around as we made our way through the property. At one point, we entered the woods to investigate a possible mammalian den site, and the Blue Jays came along with us. They flew from branch to branch as we walked down the trail.
Once at the den I busied myself examining the site, and the Blue Jays began exploring the immediate area investigating the kind of things that interested them. After a few minutes I became so preoccupied that I let the Blue Jays slip my mind.
But soon a cacophony of angry Blue Jay calls reminded the birds were still around. The two jays were in the bushes just down the trail from us belting out their harsh alarm calls, and we quickly moved to investigate. The Blue Jays had discovered a large Texas Rat Snake crossing the trail just minutes after we had passed by, and they did not like it one bit. As I knelt to take a picture of the snake one of the jays landed on my shoulder and continued his relentless taunt of the confused reptile.
A minute or two passed before the snake composed himself. He quickly turned and slithered back into the forest from which he had come, and the two jays followed after for as long as they could, giving him what-for the whole way. I believe they wanted to make double sure the snake was going to think twice before crawling out onto the trail again!
Back at the sanctuary’s clinic we discovered some interesting activities, and an intriguing new visitor. A rare albino House Sparrow fledgling had been dropped off while we were out. Albino birds do not usually survive long in the wild, but hopefully this one will have a long pleasant life in the safety of the sanctuary.
We also arrived in time to watch the feeding of an orphaned juvenile hummingbird. This little bird was so tiny and delicate-looking that it struck me as really remarkable that people are able to assist him in this way.
Afterward, we again headed south just a few miles down the highway. I had spotted a pair of Least Terns at a park in Wilmer the week before and had hoped to find them again. I had no luck with that endeavor, but I was still able to make a couple of interesting wildlife observations nonetheless.
The main feature of the park is a pair of ponds, and as you might expect these bodies of water attract an abundance of dragonflies. Of note this time were a pair of mating Halloween Pennants. Dragonflies and the like have an odd mating technique that requires the pair to fly in tandem, as you can see in the picture below. I found this article on the New york Times website that does a nice job of explaining the process: It’s Complicated – When Dragonfly Love Comes Calling. Here it is in a nutshell:
The general requirements of dragonfly sex are elaborate enough: Before mating, the male contorts itself to transfer sperm from its manufacturing site at the end of its abdomen into a slit in the penis, which is mounted toward the front half of its body, just behind the thorax. When love comes calling, the male uses appendages at its tail end to grab the female at the back of the head. She, in turn, wheels her abdominal tip forward to allow penetration.
I also made time to check up on the Giant Canada Goose and his family while I was at the park. I made my way around to their side of the pond just in time to see the entire group scamper into the water!
Killdeer are interesting birds. They nest on the ground and have a unique way of protecting their eggs and offspring. If a Killdeer feels its nest or offspring are threatened, it will attempt to draw the attention of the predator by calling out noisily and pretending to be injured. Once the Killdeer has the attention of the would be marauder, the bird will use its simulated wing injury to entice the predator to follow it. Once the threat has been lured far enough away from the nest, the Killdeer’s wing miraculously heals, and the bird flies away to safety, leaving the confused predator far behind.
While I was walking the perimeter of the pond, I inadvertently came too close to a Killdeer nest and inspired a similar protective performance from a pair of birds. Not wanting to disturb the Killdeers unnecessarily, I quickly moved on. I never did locate the nest, but the behavior if the adult birds made it clear that there was certainly one nearby.
Red-winged Blackbird pictures follow below. I watched these birds for quite sometime as they engaged in what I considered some interesting behaviors. Many blackbirds congregate in the reedy areas around the perimeter of this pond. While I was there I photographed many different individuals. Some were adult males and some were adult females. I also managed a few shots of fledglings at various stages of development.
A one point I watched an adult female fly in with an insect in her bill. Nearby a fledgling called out to her to be fed, but she did not respond—perhaps he was not her offspring. Seconds later an adult male flew in and landed next to the adult female. He seemed to be interested in having her insect for himself.
The pair flew up and down the shoreline several times with the male following the female every time she moved. I watched the activity for nearly 15 minutes but I never did see the female feed the bug to another bird—not the adult male and not the fledgling juvenile. The whole episode struck me as slightly unusual.
In conclusion, I would like to share a few amusing odd juxtapositions that I inadvertently photographed on this outing. Sometimes when you are clicking away on the shutter button, your subjects will pose themselves in ways that seem to illustrate something that is not actually happening. Below you will find pictures of a seemingly voracious Wood Stork, and also a few of Canada Geese doing tricks with a very clever Killdeer.
The pictures above may have left some of you wondering just what is up with the wing feathers on the goose on the right. This young goose is just beginning to grow in his flight feathers. A closer look at the pinfeathers can be had in the photograph below.