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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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]