On wings

Not long ago Mary spoke about the difficulty of photographing birds.  She wrote:

I recently read a remark from a blogger in New England, “…photographing birds is hard work.” I never thought of it that way. However, truth be told, a few days, weeks, or months pass and maybe several hundred photos get dumped before I nail a glorious, unedited series of shots. Yes, it’s hard work, struggling to maintain the virtue of patience and practicin’ cussin’ skills.

And she’s right.  Like the rest of nature, birds don’t respond well to the “Say cheese!” or “Sit still, damn it!” commands, or any of the other usual suspects in our repertoire of photography directives.

However, circumstances sometimes conspire in a way that provides opportunity to capture an avian moment more difficult than the usual image of something perched on a branch or swimming in a lake.  I mean birds in flight.

A ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) in flight (2008_12_07_001101)

While many gull species overwinter at White Rock Lake, the ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) remains the most common.  Both adults and juveniles spend plenty of time fighting with the coots and ducks and geese for every little tasty tidbit that can be found.

And woe is the unsuspecting person who comes to the water’s edge with a treat hoping to birth an encounter with the other inhabitants.  Gulls will swarm in flight and will challenge almost anything that gets in the way of a free meal.

Three rock doves (a.k.a. common pigeons; Columba livia) in flight (2008_12_27_003639)

Rock doves (a.k.a. common pigeons; Columba livia) enjoy a permanent home around these parts.  Truth be told, after being introduced to North America, they made themselves at home anywhere humans live—just as they have around the globe.  In fact, rock doves are ubiquitous in the world and thrive in urban and suburban landscapes, and they have been involved with humans for thousands of years, something that makes it next to impossible to determine their geographic origin.

A great blue heron (Ardea herodias) in flight (2008_12_16_002433)

A veritable laundry list of heron and egret species live here.  The most elusive is also the largest: the great blue heron (Ardea herodias).  Yet this behemoth tends to stay with the rest of the pack.

There exists a firth stretching inland from behind the old paddle boat building where one these days can snag a canoe or kayak.  The lake’s arm that reaches behind that structure, though, is so far removed from the world of humans that it hardly seems possible to bridge the gap between them.  Egrets and herons of all sorts make this lagoon their home.  At the right time of day, it’s possible to see several dozen birds of many different species, including the great blue.

A double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) in flight (2008_12_25_003220)

Loud.  Obnoxious.  Willing to travel with the pelicans when it’s feeding time in hopes of grabbing a free fish stirred up by the larger birds, a practice that has landed them in the gaping beak of more than one pelican.

The number of double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) explodes in winter as migrants find their way back to this wildlife refuge, an oasis tucked gently in the middle of Dallas’s far-reaching sprawl.  Morning, noon or night, these mouthy, large birds can be found at the water theater behind the Bath House Cultural Center.

A turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) in flight (2008_12_24_002716)

With all manner of wildlife living and dying in the middle of the city thanks to this man-made lake and surrounding park, turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) thrive here alongside their less evident cousins, the American black vulture.  Although it might be hard to believe, I see more vultures here than I do when I visit the family farm in East Texas’s Piney Woods.

Turkey vultures are birds of prey.  Sure, they spend a great deal of time looking for meals that are already dead, but they don’t mind doing the dirty work themselves when circumstances warrant.  Nevertheless, it’s obvious they find it much easier to soar around overhead waiting for nature to set the table and cook the meal instead of doing it themselves.

A great egret (Ardea alba) in flight (2008_12_13_002350)

The first time I discovered the heron and egret sanctuary behind the paddle boat area, at least a dozen great egrets (Ardea alba) sat about in the trees, some offering raucous cries when one of the others invaded their personal space.  Much wing flapping and neck stretching ensued, after which one of the birds would move on to another branch or another tree.

One marvelous trait of the great egrets in this area is that they are far more tolerant of people than the great blue herons.  That’s not to say one can walk right up and pet them; it is to say they’re easier to photograph, and not just because there are a lot more of them.

A juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) in flight (2008_12_25_003356)

Hawks, eagles, falcons, merlins, owls…  When it comes to birds of prey, White Rock has them all.  The only problem with photographing them comes from the challenge of finding them.  While hunting, they stay high or out of sight; while resting, they stay tucked away in the dense woodlands; and when running from the local murder of crows who mob the larger species, they run like the devil no matter who sees them.

Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) perhaps represent the species most often seen.  Why that is I don’t know since there are so many others to be found if one looks carefully enough.

Three ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis) lined up in flight (2008_12_07_001275)

Back to ring-billed gulls.  Why?  Because I really like the way this photo turned out.  Nothing more complicated than perception…

And finally my two favorites from this series…

I stood at the shore in Sunset Bay and took pictures of every little thing that caught my eye.  Bright sunshine did little to assuage the chill wind sweeping in from the north.  Gusts blowing at more than 40 mph/64 kph had me resting against a tree so I didn’t blow over—something that had already happened more than a few times earlier in my walk.

Reeds and brush at the water’s edge swayed back and forth, but mostly the dry plants pressed themselves down while pointing south as the arctic air invading Texas rolled over everything in its path.  Once I realized all the blowing stems would make photography difficult from where I stood, I made my way to the pier jutting into the bay.  The sandbar reaching north from the jetty would keep water from spraying into my face, and at least the lack of plants would give me a clear view.

Regal bald cypress trees stand on either side of the pier’s entrance.  As winter steals their verdant splendor, the foliage puts on clothes the color of rust and falls to the ground, something that creates a soft blanket of deep orange and red.  The planks under my feet eventually became clear once I reached the place where the wind scoured from the surface everything not nailed down.

At the end of the pier where I wanted to plant myself, a young man stood atop his bicycle, his mouth agape as he stared at the American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos).  At least a dozen of them already occupied the sandbar, some sleeping, some preening, some standing and staring aimlessly as though unsure of what to do with their time.

Overhead, sweeping in from their breakfast hunt in the deeper water near the spillway, yet more of these leviathans soared in on wings held still.  Conservation of energy defines their flight, much like that of vultures and hawks and eagles, and windy days can both help and hinder this effort.  Moving from southwest to northeast, the pelicans could use the strong northerly winds to their advantage for both flying and braking.

I finally reached the end of the pier where the young man stood.  His red sweatshirt was pulled tight and the hood provided only the smallest space for his face to see out.  Yet hidden or not, the surprise on his face clearly mixed with glee as he watched a parade of pelicans fly right over him as they circled the bay once or twice before landing (in this sense, the wind didn’t help since many of them missed their first try).

The wood under my feet moaned and creaked as I stepped up beside him.  He immediately turned, his blond hair blowing against his face as his crystal blue eyes devoured the entire landscape before us.  “Wow!” he exclaimed, then he looked up to watch another pelican coast overhead.  “Look at the size of them!  I guess there really are fish in this lake.”

I burst into laughter.  That comment alone meant he was new to the area—or at least new to this season at the lake.

We chatted a bit about the pelicans, for no more than a few minutes, then he spun his bike around and headed back to land.  He quickly disappeared around the north end of the bay as he continued his ride.

Which left me to watch the remaining pelicans arrive for their afternoon bath and siesta.

An American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) in flight (2008_12_24_002761)

I might add I came awfully close to falling in the water more than once as I tried to take pictures.  Bracing against the unrelenting wind with only the viewfinder giving me an idea of the world around me made for a greater challenge than I expected.

Thankfully Sunset Bay is rather shallow, the confluence bringing a great deal of sediment into the area that only gets swept away during spring floods.

An American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) in flight (2008_12_24_002923)

But I didn’t fall in.  Instead, I wallowed in the privilege of seeing pelican after pelican fly close both above and in front of me, each one trying for a soft landing in the face of winter’s chill blow.  Only when my fingers could no longer operate the camera did I turn and walk away, a grateful and overjoyed man who couldn’t have asked for a warmer reception on such a cold day.

2 thoughts on “On wings”

  1. Ok, Jason. Did you have to post those glorious photos of birds in flight? Huh? I’m laughing like a hyena now. Wishing, wishing, I will one day GET IT.

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