Tag Archives: American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)

Bad birds – Part 3 (with bonus alligator)

I generally avoid people when I stroll around White Rock Lake (or anywhere else for that matter).  Nothing chases away nature faster than a legion of yammering halfwits or a crush of unobservant dweebs.  Yet I’m not always antisocial: I rarely turn down an opportunity to talk to like-minded or sincere parties if they offer real interest, such as asking questions about what I’m photographing or pointing out a worthwhile subject.

But children tend to be a wholly different animal, up to and including teenagers.  They simply lack the awareness of nature’s needs, and often they lack any semblance of humanity (especially when traveling in packs, though individuals can surprise me).

So imagine the shock I felt during a walk in January 2009 when a family strolling along the norther floodplain of Dixon Branch towed along a young boy who couldn’t stop stopping.  He had to point out everything of interest, from simple flowers to birds to the neat design of sunlight dappling the ground as it passed through naked branches.  I heard this from quite a distance and made an effort to watch them indirectly.

Once they caught up to me, which I allowed against my better judgment, the boy wandered over even as his parents told him not to bother me.  I had been watching some birds in the barren canopy, so he followed my gaze and immediately asked, “What are you looking at?”

Before I knew it he was sitting on my knee looking into the treetops through the camera.  I should point out that the camera, from viewfinder to lens hood, was almost as long as he was tall, so we’re not talking about a large kid.  He couldn’t hold the camera due to its weight, so I held it for him as he snapped photos and scanned the area.  (I didn’t mind if he took pictures since he was only wasting digital space, not film.)

His mother said repeatedly that he should leave me alone and let me enjoy the day.  I countered that he wasn’t bothering me at all—a truth that shocked me.  How could I not feed his hunger to know about nature, to notice all it had to offer?  It would have been a crime had I turned my back on that opportunity.

A nonbreeding male American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) perched in a tree (2009_01_17_004505)

The spark of a true naturalist seemed to be lurking inside him.  I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity to throw fuel on the fire.  I answered his questions and identified the various birds, plants and insects he pointed out.  But finally his parents insisted that they should move on.  So with a downtrodden expression the boy thanked me, then the group of them continued east toward the bridge.

Imagine my surprise to see in all the various haphazard images he captured that somehow he’d focused on this nonbreeding male American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis).  Some of the other photos seemed to be close to the mark as well, but this one really showed that he was in fact looking at something and not just intrigued by the 400mm zoom.

Other than cropping it, I left the picture just as he took it.  Sure, the camera settings were wrong and he’d actually focused on a branch just above and to the right of the bird, but the bird was almost centered and no doubt was precisely the object he was interested in.

His parents seemed genuinely supportive of his naturalist’s heart, answering his questions as best they could and often pausing longer than they’d like so he could look—really look.  If he’s an example of the next generation, perhaps there’s hope for the world yet.

In early May 2009 we suffered torrential rains that flooded the entire area.  So much water washed into the lake that the Sunset Bay sandbar vanished as the confluence ripped it apart with rushing rapids.  But floods always mean something interesting here, always mean the standing water on the floodplains will bring all sorts of life to the once grassy fields.

Two white-faced ibises (Plegadis chihi) standing in a flooded field (2009_05_04_017730)

I drove by slowly on my way home and immediately noticed two white-faced ibises (Plegadis chihi) strolling through the deep pond that sat along the southern edge of Dixon Branch.  Wow!  I rushed home and grabbed my camera and tripod, then I ran the short distance back to the park.

But here’s where the frustration of the day materialized.  There was simply too much water to get close to them; they stayed on the opposite edge of the field.  Each time I stepped into the water, I’d sink, lose a shoe—or both, or the tripod would sink (even with tripod coasters).  Sometimes all three happened at once.

The only way to take photos was to keep moving, to stay ahead of the constant sinking.  The tripod stayed upright no longer than a few seconds before one or more legs would plummet (several times I thought I lost the coasters).  I slipped and fell more often than I’ll admit.  My shoes had more mud inside than outside.  It just wasn’t working out the way I’d hoped.

Wilson’s phalaropes (Phalaropus tricolor) swimming in shallow water (2009_05_04_018178)

But ibises weren’t the only floodplain visitors, so I wasn’t giving up no matter the obstacles.

A large flock of Wilson’s phalaropes (Phalaropus tricolor) swirled and swam in a temporary waterworld.  Along with mallards and blue-winged teals, the phalaropes seemed to be having a swimmingly good time.

I knew there had to be plenty of food available since the standing water would bring loads of invertebrates to the surface.  No doubt all of the birds appreciated the veritable buffet.

Just like the ibises, however, the phalaropes remained far across the floodplain.  This plethora of avian visitors was proving difficult to photograph due to the environmental issues.

A lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) wading through shallow water (2009_05_04_017651)

By the time I saw them, I was drenched, muddy up to my knees, struggling to keep the camera from falling in the water, and starting to curse not having a canoe or kayak.  Still, half a dozen lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) wandering about the swamp put a smile on my face.

They and the phalaropes tended toward the same areas, though not always.

I do have additional photos of both which I’m hoping to fix.  Some of them show the proximity of the two, including one that looks like the yellowlegs are acting as advanced guards for the phalarope flock.  Hopefully I can fix those images (which is not one of my strengths).

After walking out of both shoes simultaneously, kneeling in the mud and deep water trying to locate two of the three tripod coasters, and finally realizing I was losing the battle, I decided to head to the opposite side of the lake.  So off I went…

But things didn’t improve when I got there.

Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flying across White Rock Lake (2009_05_04_018113)

I saw two Canada geese (Branta canadensis) standing along the edge of the lake just beyond the paddle boat house.  They seemed unconcerned with my presence, so I slowly approached hoping for some great snapshots.

That’s when I slipped in the mud and landed flat on my butt.

Do you think the geese remained unconcerned?  Hardly.  The litany of vulgarities streaming from my mouth coupled with my loud and graceless crash to the ground caused them to immediately take to wing.

I rolled over in the mud and snapped one picture as they glided above the lake’s surface.

A common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) standing in a marsh (2009_05_16_018929)

Probably my favorite bad bird photo: a common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) standing in a marsh at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in May 2009.

What makes it my favorite?  The circumstances, of course!

I had just spied the moorhen swimming amongst the reeds.  After finding a usable opening in the surrounding brush, I focused on it to get a feel for the scene, then decided to change a few settings to get the image I wanted.

From behind me came a rather abrupt crash in the thicket lining a tidal marsh.  I pressed the shutter button as I turned to see what was approaching.

A large American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) was climbing up a gator slide and in my direction.  It couldn’t have been more than six feet/two meters away.

Knowing how to move through nature without being seen, heard or smelled is an advantage in that it allows you to get closer to wildlife than most people can imagine.  The flip side of that coin is the disadvantage of wildlife not knowing you’re there and stumbling upon you with little or no notice.

As for the alligator, yes, I got a photo.  In fact, several.  Mind you the large reptile entered the trail then did an immediate u-turn when it saw me swing around in its direction.  A quick slide back down the hill and into the water gave it an easy escape.

Without missing a beat, I aimed and fired the camera sans worry for the settings.  Here’s the u-turn sequence for those interested in close calls.

An American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) turning around (2009_05_16_018627)
An American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) turning around (2009_05_16_018628)
An American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) turning around (2009_05_16_018629)
An American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) turning around (2009_05_16_018630)

I immediately followed the critter.  After stepping over to the slide and finding a clear view through the brush, here’s the alligator retreating back into the marsh.

An American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) swimming into a tidal marsh (2009_05_16_01)

It quickly disappeared behind the reeds.

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge – Part 3

“A top climate scientist warned [in October 2007] that Texas faces a dual threat from floods and drought if global warming is left unchecked.”  Additionally, “scientists’ computer models indicate that the pattern of drier weather has already begun.”

Texas almost certainly faces a future of perpetual drought as bad as the record dry years of the 1950s because of global warming, climate scientists said in a study published Thursday [April 5, 2007].

The trend toward a drier, hotter southwestern U.S., including all of Texas, probably has already begun and could become strikingly noticeable within about 15 years, according to a study led by Richard Seager of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Drought conditions are expected to resemble the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s and Texas’ worst-ever drought of the 1950s, Dr. Seager said.  Unlike those droughts, however, the new conditions won’t be temporary, the study found.

The warning is bleak: Prepare for an “imminent transition to a more arid climate.”

“In 2006, drought-related crop and livestock losses were the state’s worst for a single year, totaling $4.1 billion.”  In July 2007, “the state was declared drought-free for the first time in at least a decade” following the “wettest January to August period on record…”  By February of the following year, however, and despite “hurricanes Dolly, Gustav and Ike soaking Texas in 2008, almost every part of the state — nearly 97% — [was once again] experiencing some drought…”

Just this past week “it was noted that the most recent rains over the last several months have had little to no impact on the hydrology in the state, with rivers, streams, and reservoirs lagging as some locations have had improvements.  Many changes were made across the state this week, with [abnormally dry and moderate drought] expanded in the northern panhandle, [severe drought] improved in the southern tip of the state, [severe drought, extreme drought and exceptional drought] expanded in south central Texas, and [abnormally dry] expanded in central Texas.  Even in areas where some good rains fell during the spring months, agricultural and hydrological concerns are still having issues related to the long-term dryness in the region.”

In fact, “drought conditions … are so bad cattle are keeling over in parched pastures and dying.”  State agriculture officials pointed out in March 2009 “that ranchers in the nation’s largest cattle-producing state [had] already lost nearly $1 billion because of [the] ongoing drought.”

But what of nature’s own, the flora and fauna in the state?  Of more than 800 bird species in the U.S., “the official Texas State List [contains] 632 species in good standing,” and of “the 338 [bird] species that are listed as Nearctic-Neotropical migrants in North America (north of Mexico), 333 of them (or 98.5%) have been recorded in Texas.”  The state provides the only migratory route for the entire eastern population of monarch butterflies.  More species of North America’s wild cats live in Texas than anywhere else north of the Mexico border.  93 endangered species reside in the state.

Black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) hunting in what remains of the freshwater ponds (2009_05_16_018789)

“The lack of rainfall means freshwater marshes … that were inundated by Hurricane Ike are not being flushed of salt water.  That lack of flushing is killing plants and damaging soil chemistry.”

“…[W]ildlife die-offs of whooping cranes and deer have been reported.”  This past winter “the only migrating whooping-crane flock that exists in the wild lost 23 of its 270 members to hunger and disease brought on by the dry weather, said Tom Stehn, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whooping-crane coordinator.”  And that loss came despite “the fact that the cranes’ diet was supplemented for the first time in 60 years…”

“…[L]ittle fresh water is available for use by mottled duck broods, and that will likely lead to a very low production of mottled ducks this season. […] They’ve been declining for the past 30 years due to habitat loss and other factors, so drought effects are adding stress to an already stressed population.”

American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) trying to remain submerged in what has become a salty mud puddle (2009_05_16_018767)

“…[A]lligators and amphibians are unable to recolonize areas inhabited before Hurricane Ike because of the salt water, and populations of these animals will likely remain depressed for the next several years.”

“Lack of salt-flushing winter rains along the upper and middle Texas coast have much delayed recovery of wetlands hit hard by Hurricane Ike and could … negatively impact health of estuaries crucial to marine life.”

“The coastal fishing industry also has been hit hard as salty conditions shrink populations of shellfish such as oysters and crabs.”

“Siltation from Ike smothered approximately 60 percent of Galveston Bay’s oyster beds.  Increased salinity caused by lack of freshwater runoff from rivers allows salinity-loving predators such as oyster drills and ‘dermo’ to prey upon remaining oyster beds.”  “Any further loss of oysters will have a hugely detrimental impact on the bay’s ecosystem…”

Male chital (a.k.a. cheetal, chital deer, spotted deer, or axis deer; Axis axis) searching for food on barren ground (2009_05_22_020413)

“…[T]here were reports of non-native axis deer dying from starvation coupled with cold weather earlier this year.  TPWD wildlife biologists report range conditions are in poor shape, prickly pear is thin because of the lack of water and feral hogs are looking very thin and drawn down.”

“…TPWD wildlife biologists observed a considerable drop in the pronghorn antelope population…”

Pregnant white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) grazing (2009_05_16_018596)

“Dry conditions threaten to negatively impact wildlife because of a lack of forage and cover from which to avoid predation.  Lack of ground cover could significantly limit nesting efforts of ground-nesting birds such as turkey and quail and reduce survival of deer fawns.”  “Native whitetail deer still appear in decent condition but may not last long if the situation continues.”

“If parts of Texas remain parched, particularly the south, experts say Rio Grande turkey breeding activity and nesting effort will be greatly reduced or nonexistent.”

Female pipevine swallowtail butterfly (Battus philenor) laying eggs on a dying sprout (2009_05_16_018875)

“[T]he bare ground — a lot of it covered only with dirt and rock — can’t support the microorganisms and insects that form the base of the food chain.”

Yellow-bellied bee assassin (Apiomerus flaviventris) in search of food (2009_05_16_018907)

This spring has resulted in “minimal rebounding of the ‘good’ vegetation necessary to support thriving natural systems.”

“Even weeds are having a hard time flourishing.”

Great southern white butterfly (Ascia monuste) feeding from bushy seaside tansy (a.k.a. sea ox-eye; Borrichia frutescens) (2009_05_16_018862)

— — — — — — — — — —

Houston Chronicle (1, 2)
Associated Press (1, 2, 3, 4)
U.S. Drought Monitor
Dallas Morning News
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University
Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (1, 2)
Texas Birds Records Committee
Wild Cat Species of North America
The Wall Street Journal


[1] Black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) hunting in what remains of the freshwater ponds; the newly exposed ground is covered with crystallized salt

[2] American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) trying to remain submerged in what has become a salty mud puddle; a dozen alligators once occupied this brackish pond; now there’s barely room for one—and a juvenile at that

[3] Male chital (a.k.a. cheetal, chital deer, spotted deer, or axis deer; Axis axis) searching for food on barren ground; half the trees in this area are dead

[4] Pregnant white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) grazing in front of the refuge’s administrative buildings; I worry for her offspring’s future

[5] Female pipevine swallowtail butterfly (Battus philenor) laying eggs on a dying sprout; no pipevine (Aristolochia sp.) could be found by me or by the butterflies, so her eggs will probably give rise to caterpillars that will starve

[6] Yellow-bellied bee assassin (Apiomerus flaviventris) in search of food; with so few insects at a time when they should be plentiful, this predator will have a hard time locating sustenance

[7] Great southern white butterfly (Ascia monuste) feeding from bushy seaside tansy (a.k.a. sea ox-eye; Borrichia frutescens); the shrub now fills what used to be a salt marsh full of blue crab

[cross-posted to The Clade]

[Update] David Crossley brought to my attention an incorrect date reference in the original text.  That reference has been corrected.

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge – Part 1

Hank Fox said this to me once: “The idea of waiting for days in a mosquito-infested swamp for that rare pic of a reticulated dingfoozle just boggles me.”  Although I saw no dingfoozles—reticulated or otherwise—I did spend days in mosquito-infested swamps, woodlands and marshes.  Mosquitoes and deer flies munched on me without pause.  Internal dialogue about the problem quickly turned to under-the-breath external dialogue punctuated by vulgarities that would strip paint off a wall.  “Ouch!” became the weekend’s key phrase.  Hank’s comment made me laugh through it all, so I dedicate the rest of this series to him.

The time I spent in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas left me with almost 100 mosquito bites and an innumerable collection of wounds inflicted by deer flies[1].  (Thankfully the horse flies left me alone.)  I even drove home with more than a dozen mosquitoes in my car, a collection that I began early in the morning on my first day and that grew throughout the weekend.  Many more perished than survived, I’m sure, given the heat in the car as it sat idle for hours, but I hurt myself chuckling as the six hours home turned into a quest to find—and perhaps agitate—the bloodsuckers riding with me.  Even the morning after I arrived back in Dallas, two of them escaped into the garage as soon as I opened the door.

The threat of anemia notwithstanding, I enjoyed every minute of my stay on the Gulf Coast.  All things considered—oppressive heat and humidity included—it could not have been more invigorating or eye opening.  And though the critical drought strangling Texas left an indelible mark on the Aransas NWR, one that changed a predictable visit into one of troubling discovery, I wouldn’t swap the experience for anything.

So in these next few entries let me share with you two things: (1) thoughts and observations on the worrisome condition of this area, and (2) photographs showing the undeniable magic that is the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

I already discussed the ongoing drought’s impact on Aransas.  Prior to gaining that knowledge, I arrived at dawn and felt certain the effects of Texas’s sorry condition somehow had been tempered in this place.  I drove through the gate and stopped to soak up the first signs of life within the reserve’s boundaries.  Perhaps all I feared had been for naught; perhaps Aransas had escaped so much of the devastation the lack of rain had caused elsewhere in the Lone Star State.

A white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) grazing (2009_05_16_018618)

A large herd of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) openly grazed in the shadows.  Like this doe, they focused on breakfast and ignored me.  I rolled down the passenger window and took some photographs.  Throughout my visit I saw more deer than anything else—including birds—and that’s when I realized how much things had changed.  The cervids moved about even through the hottest part of the day.  I suspect the dwindling food supply and lack of fresh water caused this change in normal behavior.

An American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) resting in a clearing (2009_05_16_018626)

Near Thomas Slough, an American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) perched comfortably where sunrise would soon drop a sixpence of sunlight.  About ten feet/three meters long, it remained stationary when I rounded the treeline yet vanished the moment I tried for a second picture[2].  This area showed the most damage from lack of fresh water.  What had been a lush, verdant, tropical environment showed more browns than greens, more dry earth than ponds.  Where numerous alligators once filled every bit of water and carved lasting paths through dirt and foliage, I saw only four of the reptiles across a wide area of the refuge.

A ittle blue heron (Egretta caerulea) in breeding plumage perched in a treetop (2009_05_16_018640)

Little blue herons (Egretta caerulea) had a respectable presence—unlike most other birds.  Aransas NWR boasts more than 400 bird species with a maximum count of 33 species in 15 minutes (mileage varies depending on time of year).  While I saw birds at every turn, the number of species and number of individuals appeared muted.  Significantly.  Let me put it this way: I’m more than a photographer when it comes to nature and rare is the time that anything goes unnoticed by me.  Thus has been my success at locating and photographing a variety of life that others never see.  Yet within the confines of Aransas’s borders, I saw and heard no more than 18 avian species.  An older couple birding the area met me at the observation tower with binoculars in hand and put it more succinctly: “Slim pickings.”  Indeed…

A lone greater angle-wing katydid (a.k.a. broad-winged katydid; Microcentrum rhombifolium) resting on a roadway (2009_05_16_018652)

A lone greater angle-wing katydid (a.k.a. broad-winged katydid; Microcentrum rhombifolium) fluttered onto the service drive as I wandered deeper into the refuge.  Insect numbers shocked me.  Cicadas were hard to find.  Few butterflies moved about where vast numbers could be seen in years past.  Wasps and hornets seemed nonexistent.  Even horse flies and midges had a limited presence.  Mosquitoes and deer flies notwithstanding, the lack of arthropods made the refuge feel abandoned.

A black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) marching along the drying edges of a slough as two blue-winged teal (Anas discors) drakes rest in the background (2009_05_16_018681)

A black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) marched along the drying edges of a slough as two blue-winged teal (Anas discors) drakes sat in what amounted to a mud puddle.  Wading and aquatic birds were all but gone.  Only two heron species could be found where more than half a dozen should be common.  I saw no spoonbills, storks, pelicans, bitterns, ibises or other regular inhabitants.  Only one species of duck and one species of plover made appearances, and I saw only one white-tailed hawk and one crested caracara.  I expected more grackles, cardinals and sparrows, and I saw no vireos, warblers, flycatchers or woodpeckers.  There were more terns and gulls at my hotel than at the refuge.  Black and turkey vultures, on the other hand, seemed plentiful.

A close-up of Texas pricklypear (a.k.a. Texas prickly pear, Nopal pricklypear, Lindheimer pricklypear; Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri) with dry plants surrounding it (2009_05_16_018722)

Texas pricklypear (a.k.a. Texas prickly pear, Nopal pricklypear, Lindheimer pricklypear; Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri).  In many places it became a green boat floating on a sea of brown.  Cordgrass, bulrush and common reed all seemed stunted; for the first time in my life I saw Spanish dagger with wilted leaves.  The dwarf palmetto looked positively parched.  And so many trees remained barren and leafless, stark outlines made of empty promises.  Vast grasslands of mostly bluestem looked like raw kindling waiting for a match to set them ablaze.  Burn bans and the associated signs are ubiquitous.

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] For the obvious question, the answer is simple: No, I don’t use insect repellent when in the field.  Our standard issue human smell causes enough problems on its own, let alone if it’s coupled with shampoo, soap, deodorant, laundry detergent, and whatever else we carry with us without realizing it.  But insect repellent is a whole different story.  The chemicals used to keep insects from landing create a noxious cloud of toxic fog that surrounds us and follows us and whistles on the wind at every opportunity.  If you want nature to shun you and retreat before you even realize an animal is around, wear insect repellent.  Oh, and it was too hot and too humid for an insect suit, so I played commando and suffered the beating.

[2] That problematic twig of bluestem bothered me, that brown stick rising up in the foreground across the alligator’s snout.  I’m no photography snob, mind you; I don’t think “technically perfect” images are the only presentable images.  Still, I wanted a second chance at the photo.  So ever so slowly I took one step to the left and began to kneel down, but I was within the alligator’s charge radius and its comfort zone.  Surprising it the first time was one thing; adding to that invasive injury the insult of more movement caused it to spin on its hind legs and slide down the hill into the swamp.  I wanted to kick myself.

[cross-posted to The Clade]