Facing east

I should know better than to take morning walks on the western shore of White Rock Lake.  It places me at a distinct disadvantage since I must spend most of my time facing into the morning sun.

Sometimes that works well, such as at the precise moment when the sun begins climbing over the trees perched on the opposite shore.

The sun rising over the trees blanketing the eastern shore of White Rock Lake (20081004_12985)

Like the otherworldly emissaries in “City of Angels,” as I watched this marvelous display I felt that perhaps I could hear music in the sunrise, an orchestra of harp and piano and violin expertly played to usher in a new day.  No maestro could compare.

And yet not too distant from that scene my path took me around a grove of trees and brought me face-to-face with a danger that hid openly in the rising sun.

A female orb weaver (unidentified; Araneus sp.) suspended in the center of her web as she waits for a meal (20081004_13097)

Its orb of silk spanning almost three meters/yards from ground to tree limb, this beautiful predator floated just above eye level where she disappeared in the brightness.  Mind you, had I not been looking down chasing a monarch butterfly, perhaps I would have seen her before my nose brushed against her web.

Nevertheless, I didn’t stick and she didn’t move.  No damage done, and she politely stayed put as I snapped a few photos from the only angle afforded me.  When I returned only a short time later, however, she had consumed the web in its entirety and retired for the day.

When at last I found myself standing on the bridge that spans White Rock Creek at the bottom of the spillway, I felt a thrill at sighting this marvelous creature.

A black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) hunting from the spillway steps at White Rock Lake (20081004_13124)

The sun damned me by lingering over my right shoulder.  Forced onto the footbridge so that I might keep the light from hitting the lens, I discovered why that bridge offers little hope of good photography: It’s made to give under the weight of traffic, to absorb the constant pounding of walkers, joggers and bikers through the simple act of bouncing.

That can be quite disconcerting, I assure you, as the whole bridge vibrates up and down with only a single person walking across it.  During this busy morning, it supported constant traffic.  Taking a picture while bobbing up and down uncontrollably proved more frustrating than I could tolerate, and it certainly forced me to utilize faster shutter speeds and higher ISO settings than I normally care for.

I left the heron to its stoic stance, impressed though I was with its immobile hunt that screamed of more patience than I could ever demonstrate.

Rambling beyond the old water treatment plant finally brought me to a surprise: Bird feeders right in the heart of our parakeet colony.

Monk parakeets (a.k.a. quaker parrots; Myiopsitta monachus) perched on a bird feeder (20081004_13169)

Although I can’t say for certain that they are maintained by the city (which would be quite a surprise), I do know they are on city property and nestled against the maintenance entrance to the old fish hatchery.  Dallas would score brownie points with me if I were to discover these feeders are in fact tax-payer funded; I’m sure many Dallasites would vehemently disagree with me on that point.

My options were to either stand in the lake or face into the sun in order to capture an image or two.  I chose the latter.  I didn’t have my waders with me, after all, so that seemed the best option despite the outcome.

I walked north to the old paddle boat area.  Ah, what fond memories I have of this place.  More than 30 years ago I enjoyed renting the boats and peddling my way across the water, feeling like a king in a raft for all the effort it took to move but a short distance while being surrounded with spectacular vistas and nature’s bounty.

But that was long ago.  Paddle boats disappeared from these parts decades ago, although one can still find kayaks available for those who arrive without their own water transportation.

My nostalgia ended abruptly when I discovered myself in the midst of one of the most fantastic migrations imaginable.

A monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) (20081004_13203)

With flora aplenty to satiate their need for sustenance and shelter, and with a whole lake full of refreshing water to drink, White Rock offers an autumnal show fit for royalty: a central place for monarch butterflies migrating to Mexico for the winter.

I spent hours in their presence, letting them perch upon me, snapping their portraits, walking through clouds of whispering wings, dancing beneath the canopy of a bald cypress where dozens of them had gathered to rest but were frightened into momentary flight by my presence…  That truly was like standing in the middle of a fantasy film, what with the cypress limbs hanging heavily around me like an umbrella of green and brown, and the air filled with butterflies swimming in lazy circles through the shadowy air.

No movie, no imagination, no special effects could ever capture that moment in its fullness.  Neither can words do it justice.

When finally my body screamed for relief from the heat of the day and the weight of my walk, I returned to the spillway for one last moment.  I stood once again on the trampoline bridge, my view damaged by the constant up-and-down motion—almost as much as was my patience—and I decided to call it a day.

At that very moment I heard the cries, the harsh, shrill call of a hawk.  Yet not one hawk.  The dissimilar voices echoed across the water, blanketed me with the challenge of locating whose fierceness drifted on the wind.

Too far away for me to recognize from where I stood and in a position that offered me only one clear view, I saw a large predator land in the treetops.  In thick woodlands that protected it from all angles save where I stood.

I knew I could not zoom in close enough to see it, yet I tried nonetheless.

A female red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) calling out from a treetop limb (20081004_13293)

By proportions alone I knew she was a female.  Her male brethren could never embody such leviathan size.

Sunlight pouring into my eyes and camera lens as I peered between treetops, she screamed upon the world harsh challenges to an unseen foe.  Who stood a chance against such a large predator?  Who made her feel the need to bellow war cries from atop the world?

I rushed to and fro looking for a better vantage.  None could be found.  The tree upon which she stood held her well over the water, well within the confines of dense forest resting at the foot of the spillway.  I lost her each time I took a few steps in either direction, although I tried strenuously to find a closer and better view.  The only one offered placed her as a silhouette in the disk of the rising sun.  No good.

So I remained where I could watch her, and watch her I did.  After several minutes of demanding peace from a cloaked enemy I could not find, she took flight, her strong wings flapping a few times as they lifted her body toward the heavens.

Then the challenger appeared.

An unidentified accipiter hawk chasing a red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) in flight (20081004_13296)

While not of her kith and kin, the pursuer was indeed another hawk, a smaller predator by any stretch of the imagination.  An accipiter, perhaps a Cooper’s hawk or a sharp-shinned hawk, its identity mattered little; that it pursued her relentlessly as she rose on the thermals made all the difference.

Though more maneuverable than she, the smaller bird of prey knew the most it could do was chase, pursue, challenge.  It could never overpower its larger cousin.

Erratic moves and countermoves punctuated their ascent, the smaller bird’s assaults ultimately meaning little as the female behemoth presented her strength in terms of climbing effortlessly despite the attacks.

The sky would be the field upon which they would do battle.

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] The sun rising over the trees blanketing the eastern shore of White Rock Lake.

[2] A female orb weaver (unidentified; Araneus sp.) suspended in the center of her web as she waits for a meal.

[3] A black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) hunting from the spillway steps.

[4] Monk parakeets (a.k.a. quaker parrots; Myiopsitta monachus) perched on a bird feeder.

[5] A monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).

[6] A female red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) calling out from a treetop limb.

[7] An unidentified accipiter hawk chasing a red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) in flight.

4 thoughts on “Facing east”

  1. Stunning photos, Jason! I would say you had a banner day!

    The sun works with or against you when taking photos, I know. It did you a favor and highlighted that orb weaver! I walked through one a year ago and brought the spider inside the house – not knowing it had attached itself to me. I was covered in sticky silk which ruined a pair of eyeglasses :o)

  2. It was indeed a banner day, Mary. That moment when I walked beneath the cypress tree and stood in the midst of so many monarchs fluttering around me will always be a profound memory in my life. I really wish I could describe it…

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