Winter visitors – Part 3

Like sheets of rain they arrive, waves of life washing over the land in downpours of sight and sound.  Even within the confines of a hectic city, the torrent of wing beats can drown out the cacophony of metropolitan noise, and the flood of songs and calls can fill a cloudless sky with a storm of beautiful music.

More appear each day.  Great billowing tempests borne of feathers in flight roil over the horizon.  Thunderous roars fill the air as the winter landscape takes form and innumerable species come to fill the barren trees.

For those parched and in need of nature’s bounty, no better flood can be found.

A western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) perched in a treetop (2009_11_01_036709)

Where eastern meadowlarks abound, a singular voice grabbed my ear.  A western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta).  Just looking at it I would have assumed it to be its eastern cousin.  The bluestem and wildflowers hid many of their kind, yet this bird came with a song that could be from no other species.  I stood and photographed it in the treetop where it came to rest…then heard another further across the meadow.  Though both meadowlark species live yearround in Texas, only the western meadowlark migrates into Dallas for winter, coming to spend the cold season with eastern meadowlarks who are always here.

An American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) feeding in a withering thicket (2009_11_26_041988)

Drab little American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis).  Winter is a mix of breeding and nonbreeding plumage, with ducks arriving in their impressive best while finches and warblers arrive in the drab clothes of disinterest.  But while they stay and feast and wait for spring, they change their outfits until early next year they have donned the gayest apparel of bright colors and stunning patterns.  So for now we don’t blame the goldfinch for visiting in such a mundane outfit, for we know these next few months will contain marvelous transformations resulting in the freshest and brightest hues.

A Forster’s tern (Sterna forsteri) flying overhead (2009_11_01_036572)

Though in time for breeding season its head will take on a stunning black cap and face and its beak will turn brilliant orange with a black tip, this Forster’s tern (Sterna forsteri) still demonstrates that a dash of color is better than no color at all.  And these birds will freshen their plumage in time for spring migration.  Until then, however, they dive and dine and outrun the gulls who try to take their meals.

A cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) perched in a treetop (2009_11_28_042792)

Intoxicating.  No word better describes the cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum).  A creature airbrushed with subtle hues and transitions coupled with a bold mask and lively crest.  Flocks of a few birds to many dozens flit from tree to tree.  They swarm into the air and move like a single organism, the whole of their numbers rolling and banking, little voices calling all the while.

A marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris) hunting through withering reeds (2009_11_26_040944)

It took more than an hour of sitting in wet grass to finally capture a photo of this marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris).  Like all its wren cousins, it’s a chatty critter who talks constantly while it hunts.  The reeds in which it stands kept it nothing more than a voice occasionally mingled with a shadow hidden deep.  Then suddenly it exploded into the open, perched, stared.  One click of the shutter was the amount of time it took for the bird to return to its search for sustenance.  Delightfully energetic little thing, and one whose yammering makes it easy to locate—though not necessarily see.

A ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) flying overhead (2009_11_26_041010)

The most numerous and in-your-face gull species to settle here for winter: the ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis).  Opportunistic bullies they are, giving chase and mobbing anyone with food.  So it was with a sense of cosmic justice that I watched the tables turned by great-tailed grackles who kept chasing the gulls away from a spot of bread tossed to them by a passerby.  And in the rare instance when a gull succeeded in grabbing a piece, the grackles swarmed the larger bird and forced it to flee, often without the food in question.  Gulls are fun and gregarious creatures, though, and their personalities make a walk at the lake as entertaining as it can be.

Walking with spiders – Part 1

I used to take three kinds of walks: (1) without a camera so I could enjoy myself sans worrying about capturing this scene or that critter; (2) with a simple point-and-shoot camera I could drop in my pocket so I didn’t have to drag around too much camera equipment but could still snap a photo or two if the mood struck; and (3) with my dSLR, various lenses, filters, tripod and/or monopod, and all manner of equipment so I could focus seriously on capturing images of my experiences and encounters.

All of these photos stem from the second type, one with a point-and-shoot camera, a kind of walk I no longer take.  (I figure if the effort warrants carrying a camera, it warrants carrying the whole shebang.)

A female common hentz jumper (Hentzia palmarum) clinging to the side of a picnic table (20080629_08309)

I sat at a painted picnic table some years ago and watched as beautiful creatures scampered about, none of them worried for my presence because I sat still as a stone rests upon a shore.  That’s when this female common hentz jumper (Hentzia palmarum) walked up to me on the side of the metal structure.

Like all jumping spiders, she demonstrated that marvelous curiosity that makes them turn to face movement, turn to face anything that approaches, turn to face whatever might be out of the ordinary.

Together we played a game: Each time I moved the camera near to her for a photo, she would leap to the lens, investigate it for a moment, then leap back to the table.  This was a delightful encounter despite it not being conducive to good photography.

A male common hentz jumper (Hentzia palmarum) clinging to the side of a picnic table (20080629_08313)

Following close behind her was this male common hentz jumper (Hentzia palmarum).  Were they an item?  I would never know, of course.

Unlike his female counterpart, the male displayed a shy form of curiosity, never jumping to the lens but always turning to look.  If I moved the camera too near, he backed up beneath the edge of the table and took quick glances to see if it was safe to come back out.  Perhaps he had a rough childhood…

The table surface moved constantly with the comings and goings of acrobat ants (Crematogaster sp.).  It seemed the spiders had a nice selection of feast material…assuming they could capture one without eliciting ire from all the others.

A male bold jumping spider (Phidippus audax) hanging on the side of a house (20080809_10721)

At the family farm in East Texas, Mom and I watched this male bold jumping spider (Phidippus audax) climb the wall around the back door.  Each time I moved the camera for a better view, the arachnid lurched this way or that way, always putting the support pole between us before turning to gaze at the camera with serious intent.

I felt amazed at how large this specimen was compared to the same species when found in Dallas.  Their size indicates their age, hence I concluded Dallas had a colder winter than did East Texas (which is generally true).

When we have a mild winter with limited freezes, adult spiders can survive into the next year; they then become the granddaddy spiders whose size makes them intimidating for anyone with even limited arachnophobia.

A long-jawed orbweaver (Tetragnatha sp.) walking along the side of a concrete wall (20081004_13018)

Upon the White Rock Lake spillway where a colony of ants busily focused on relocating their colony, this long-jawed orbweaver (Tetragnatha sp.) continually looked for a way to cross the raging river of insects.  I watched it attempt this several times, and each time the spider found itself the uncomfortable subject of much ant attention as guards protected the larvae being moved by workers.

Part of me suspects this is a Guatemalan long-jawed orb weaver (Tetragnatha guatemalensis).  The reason for this is twofold: (1) that species is common in Dallas, and (2) I am forever enamored of the Guatemalan long-jaw for the giant spider web they built two years ago at Lake Tawakoni State Park.

That leviathan silken construct no doubt represents the most powerful and magical nature moment I have ever experienced.  To walk for acres and acres without leaving the inside of one massive web…  To see a species act communally when such behavior is rare for them…  To look in any direction and see thousands of spiders, many millions of them covering a vast swath of forest…  To see an entire peninsula transformed from verdant woodlands to shimmering web, from the ground to the treetops, silk stretching in every direction and spun so thick that it blocked out the sun…  To witness so many spider species taking advantage of the enormous insect-capturing capabilities of the phenomenon…  To stand silently in the midst of something so rare outside the tropics, something profound and powerful built in such a short time that even park rangers were taken by surprise when the scope of the web was finally realized…

I could go on for days trying to describe that experience.  Let me just say that anyone who has never been inside such a thing cannot understand.  Words do it injustice.  Standing in the midst of many millions of spiders who built a web that encompassed a massive plot of land and everything in it, and built the web to capture prey and not as part of a dispersal event…  Well, let’s just say the encounter was spiritual.

But I digress…

A funnel-web spider (Barronopsis texana) sitting at the entrance to its web (2009_09_27_029766)

Near a bit of woodlands separating White Rock Lake Park from a nearby residential area, I stepped behind an old rusty sign to peer into the understory.  Just in case something of interest might be hiding there.  A few common birds flitted about the canopy, but otherwise the area seemed devoid of skunks or rabitts or snakes, the kinds of things I hoped to find, so I turned to walk away.

That’s when I noticed this on the back of the sign: tucked quietly in a corner full of webbing, this funnel-web spider (Barronopsis texana) hid quietly in the shadows.  I retrieved the little point-and-shoot from my pocket, tiptoed over to the sign, and snapped one picture before my presence sent the arachnid scampering into the web.

A twinflagged jumping spider (Anasaitis canosa) looking at me (2009_04_26_016642)

The delightfully entertaining twinflagged jumping spider (Anasaitis canosa) remains common, ubiquitous in fact.  When the weather is warm, I can find half a dozen or more as they race about my patio looking for food.

Like all jumping spiders, their insatiable curiosity leads to much amusement and interaction.  I often put a hand down and let them jump to it, then lift them up for a close look before lowering them so they can continue their hunt.  And if I want to stare into their eyes, I simply need to move near them and they immediately turn to face me.

They’re called “twinflagged” because of the white visible on the palps (the small appendages on either side of the mouth).  When moving about, they oscillate the palps up and down opposite each other.  The white being terribly visible makes this constant motion look like white flags being waved on either side of the face.  It’s quite intriguing to see and quickly makes clear precisely where they got their name.

Grebe grabbing some grub

I intended to post spiders today.  No, really I did.  I’ve quite a pile of arachnid photos I felt I should offer seeing as the weather finally appears intent on cooling off enough to send insects, arachnids, reptiles and other cold-unfriendly critters to the deepest recesses of memory—at least until the next warm day (which technically will be later this week, after it rains and maybe snows, but anyway…).  Despite my intentions, however, this morning’s walk at White Rock Lake gave me something I just have to share.

I walked along the creek that runs by my home.  It often provides a variety of wildlife.  As I neared Sunset Bay where the creek joins the confluence of Dixon Branch and other flows running to the lake, a splash of water caught my attention.  I paused to watch.  Warm temperatures meant it could be anything, from a snake to a turtle to a host of birds…or even some detritus falling from the surrounding trees.

Even in the weak light of early morning, I knew the moment a pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) surfaced that it had submerged long enough to capture breakfast in its beak.  And breakfast appeared to be a very large crayfish.

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) holding a crayfish in its beak (2009_11_28_042150)

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that this bird species remains one of the most skittish animals one can encounter.  The moment these grebes think there’s a threat, they vanish beneath the water’s surface and swim for all they’re worth, eventually surfacing some distance in a random direction.  So I dared not flinch as I photographed this one.  It knew I stood on the bank and it seemed well aware of my proximity.  If I moved, even if I tried to crouch for better photos, the scene would unravel.  Hence I didn’t even move the camera to change settings; instead, I let the shutter fly.

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) with a crayfish in its beak (2009_11_28_042162)

Pied-billed grebes over these past few years have grown predictable to me.  If they vanish underwater, I usually know where to run so I can be right where they pop up.  And I know they don’t like people, but what they dislike even more is moving people.  That means once they see you, the best option is to freeze and hope for the best.

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) with a crayfish in its beak (2009_11_28_042170)

That approach worked just fine in this case.  I barely moved the camera as I followed the grebe along the creek.  When it paused to slay the mighty crayfish (meaning when it stopped to tear off the imposing claws), I might as well have been a tree swaying in the breeze.  Sure, the bird looked at me repeatedly to make sure I wasn’t making my move to steal its breakfast, yet I knew moving as little as possible would keep the scene right there in front of me.

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) with a crayfish in its beak (2009_11_28_042180)

Much thrashing ensued as the bird did battle with the crustacean.  Each time I viewed the two in stark detail, the idea of that little bird eating that huge leviathan seemed laughable at best.  I’ve seen cormorants choke to death on fish too large to swallow.  Several times that vision ran through my head as I watched this childlike, fragile feathered creature as it worked to subdue breakfast.  And each time another claw came off or the crayfish was tossed around to knock it senseless, I realized what I had always viewed as an innocent bird really was a capable predator.

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) with a crayfish in its beak (2009_11_28_042187)

With its threatening pincers removed and its body still (and maybe lifeless already), the crayfish hung unmoving as the grebe took a final hold on it and headed back toward the lake.  I followed.  Slowly.  And clumsily.  The wind remained quite gusty and the 400mm lens acted like a sail; that meant I had little chance of being surreptitious in my pursuit and observation.  Instead, mostly I swayed trying to keep the camera steady as I clicked away.

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) with a crayfish in its beak (2009_11_28_042196)

Meanwhile, the grebe swam on with its prize held firmly in its bill.  Though I’ve seen them eat fish (whole), I haven’t a clue how they eat something with an exoskeleton, especially something as large as this specimen.  What I did know as they drifted off toward open water was that the grebe certainly had a hefty breakfast to enjoy this fine Saturday morning.

[I’ve not been able to identify the crayfish yet; it appears little research has been done on Texas crayfish (a.k.a. crawdads, crawfish, yabbies, mudbugs, etc.); though I can find a list of all known crayfish species in the state, I’ve yet to find a key that would allow for the identification of this particular individual; I’m still working on that]

Winter visitors – Part 2

Quiet.  Even at this hour, it blankets the world around me.

Feeble sunshine winks through wisps of cirrus as a distant star lingers over the horizon.  Soon it will cast no more light except what bends and bounces through the atmosphere.

A male redhead (Aythya americana) swimming in White Rock Lake (2009_11_15_039836)

Nightfall comes soon these days.

Overhead, silently as though nothing more than apparitions of the mind, three American white pelicans glide effortlessly, their wings slightly bent to slow their momentum.  They come to join their brethren at the lake for what the season brings.  Shadows against a sky dimly lit by dusk, they do not speak and do not waver.  Soon they will rest with familiars in a place wherein they are protected, welcomed, enjoyed in their natural state.

A crisp, autumnal cool front passed by recently.  The air feels dry as it brushes my cheek with soft caresses promising winter’s impending arrival.

A male northern pintail (Anas acuta) sleeping near the shore of White Rock Lake (2009_11_15_040011)

And in the week ahead, my beloved friend seems perched behind falling leaves and a landscape turning bare, for even though the hour is late, cooler temperatures now prevail—though cooler only than yesterday and last week and last month, but not cool enough yet.

What can I say but from my love of such things comes great joy.

The brisk touch of icy fingers born on northerly winds…

Air cleansed by squeezing hands wrought of arctic intent…

A male lesser scaup (Aythya affinis) swimming in White Rock Lake (2009_11_14_038655)

Huddled masses of humans seeking every bit of sunlight in which to stand, afraid of what shivers shade might bring…

The smell of cold, even by Texas standards, that rests sweetly on the tongue…

Visitors from far off places blessing me with their arrivals, their taking shelter here from what besets their homes elsewhere…

A white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) perched in a tree at White Rock Lake (2009_11_14_038971)

Trees shed their summer clothes in favor of the stoic dress of winter, bare limbs standing like skeletons against brief days and long nights…

The rustle of leaves carried to and fro tickles my ears…

These things and more carry beauty to the very heart of me.

A female dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) foraging on the ground at White Rock Lake (2009_11_01_036852)

This is my season, this season of cold, this season of change.

A song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) perched in reeds along the shore of White Rock Lake (2009_02_03_006432)

Let winter come.  Let Nature bring her chill upon the land.  I’m ready.  I’m wanting.

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] A male redhead (Aythya americana).  He and his mate arrived early one morning under the cover of heavy clouds.  Less gregarious than their scaup and mallard cousins, the two ducks remained far out in the middle of the lake and visited the shore only briefly.

[2] A male northern pintail (Anas acuta).  Never have I seen a female pintail at the lake, though one or more males often spend winter here.  A truly global species, pintails occupy the entire northern hemisphere as one vast population with no known subspecies.

[3] A male lesser scaup (Aythya affinis).  Before autumn gives way to winter, he will be joined by many of his friends, both males and females, and the group of them will mingle with coots and ducks and cormorants and pelicans and a host of other waterfowl and shorebirds who overwinter at White Rock Lake.

[4] Though I recently covered many of the sparrow species visiting for the season, the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) was not included.  These birds, like spotted towhees and brown thrashers, spend a great deal of time rummaging through dense brush and thickets, hence they aren’t always easy to photograph—though they certainly are easy to hear.  I lucked out when this one perched high in a tree and sat patiently while I tried to snap a few photos.

[5] Another sparrow species not covered in my previous entry is the dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis).  Juncos are in fact sparrows, though unlike most of their brethren they lack the typical sparrow colors and patterns.  Their clean markings and small size make them a delight to see.

[6] An additional sparrow that overwinters in Dallas is the song sparrow (Melospiza melodia).  Their soft call and distinctive song fill the marshes and reed beds around the lake.