Tag Archives: American coot (Fulica americana)

The magic hour

With the sun already slipping below the horizon, I packed up my gear and headed out the door for the minute or so walk to the lake.  By the time I reached Sunset Bay, all but the last vestiges of sunlight had vanished and what little remained offered nothing more than the soft, warm glow of a distant fire reflected in the clouds.

Yet something magical happens at dusk, at that time after sunset but before darkness settles in completely, those precious and scarce moments when the world seems torn asunder with night full to the east and day grasping at its final seconds to the west.

The orange embers of day faded quickly as I approached the shore.  A chill settled over the land, a quick cutting of the air that seemed hurried to reclaim from daylight all that it could touch, so I pulled my jacket a bit tighter about me.

Cool winds slid over the water and rushed ashore.  The bay offered no protection.

I considered turning back, going home.  What possible opportunities rested in dark times?

Then an armada of shadows came near such that I felt I could reach out and grasp their lightless forms.

A covert of American coots (Fulica americana) swimming near shore (2009_02_13_008288)

At first I believed them to be alike, creatures of one form forever clad in the dark armor of dusk, yet my feeble human eyes grew accustomed to failing light and with that newfound strength, I began to see a menagerie of ghostly figures.

Some danced in pools of reflection that captured day’s end and sent it back heavenward in ripples of color.  Some took flight on ethereal wings and floated effortlessly on air.  Some walked the earth with the likeness of corporeal substance.

A rock dove (a.k.a. common pigeon; Columba livia) walking toward me (2009_02_13_008300)

All shapes and colors materialized, wisps of smoke manifest in fleshly forms, whispers from the dark only dreams could create.

How soon I realized the bewitched armies of dusk were on the move.  Battalions and regiments and squadrons and fleets took shape from what moments before had been the empty evening.  And finally the horn players appeared and sounded the trumpets of advance.  The march had begun.

A brown domestic swan goose (a.k.a. Chinese goose or African goose; Anser cygnoides) floating just offshore (2009_02_13_008307)

Up from the depths and out of the sky came hordes of spirits in guises both familiar and alien.  Whether from the cold or fear, I could not escape the tremble whose skeletal fingers ran down my spine, the specter of death in the face of such monstrous beauty as took shape before me.

Cloaked in white save the crimson of her face, the high priestess of this gathering flitted upon the breeze to a station nearby where she glowed as though capturing all light and bringing it unto herself.  All around her dimmed in her presence.

A white female Muscovy duck (Cairina moschata) standing quietly (2009_02_13_008462)

Then the sky became one with the lake, a powerful act she wished into being without the slightest gesture, and upon the water’s surface the heavens fell.  What hues!  What patterns!

The magic she wielded summoned yet more demons, yet more powerful beings, yet more fantastic works of the gods.  And where the elements beckoned to her call and became one, the waters parted for the royal court who would this night stand before the armies of dusk and bow to the god and goddess of royalty.

A female lesser scaup (Aythya affinis) swimming in the shallows (2009_02_13_008503)

A hush seemed to fall.  I found myself holding my breath and wondering.  Would I survive this encounter with those of this other world, this place betwixt the realm of light and the realm of dark?  What hides such power from the witnesses of life?  What was yet to come?

Even then they arrived, the royal guards whose voices chase away devils and whose approach sends challengers fleeing.  With them they ushered in the last inhalation of the hour, and then they exhaled the mystic thought that chased the day away.  And the light hurried over the horizon.

A ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) enjoying the sunset (2009_02_13_008419)

Then they came.  I tried not to look, tried not to meet their gaze.  My attempts were futile.  My humble soul could not refuse the deities who slipped between worlds and ruled the dusk.

First the god-queen who herself was made of light and shadow and all that exists in between.  She floated from place to place, a body in the guise of spirits and a soul in the guise of flesh, and she took her place where land and sea and air joined as one.

A female wood duck (Aix sponsa) paddling slowly close to land (2009_02_13_008560)

In her eyes I found eternity, the burning depths of the universe filled with stars and conquest, her reach forever and her will undeniable.  Yet even she knew subservience.  I saw a goddess bow her head, and in that instant I revered what was to come.

And finally, the god-king.  Eyes of crimson rage and fiery passion, cloaked with colors no being could imagine, the order of all that is became apparent while in the presence of such power.  He seemed to draw strength from the worship that flooded over him, from the absolute knowledge of all those gathered that he was the first and would be the last, that he breathed life into the cosmos for his own entertainment, that he demanded unwavering trust and unflinching allegiance.  The sanctity of the encounter grew as I realized trepidation followed heartfelt devotion: this shadow cast felt such ardor for their gods, such deference.  They would follow them unto the end of time and would sacrifice their lives for them.

A male wood duck (Aix sponsa) drifting in the lake with full breeding plumage on display (2009_02_13_008554)

Only the hour that is neither day nor night could contain such magic.  Only dusk could give stage to beings such as these.

I watched as they marched onward, a legion vast before which all fell, a countless army of shadows before which a wave of triumph washed over the land and brushed aside all challengers.  I watched as the god-queen and god-king empowered the innumerable to unstoppable success; they vanquished all who stood in their way.

Then the last drop of light fell into the cupped hands of the world.  Nightfall…

I shook myself lose from the imaginings that had filled my mind.  I still wanted to take pictures.

Ah, but the day had ended, dusk had been eclipsed by dark, and I stood at the shore of Sunset Bay where I had begun my walk.  I hadn’t even lifted the camera from my side.  I felt there was no sense in trying after night enveloped the area.  I turned and walked home.

Only the next day would I discover the memory card full of pictures I never took, of creatures I never saw, of encounters I never had.  Only the next day would I again wonder about the armies of dusk.  Only the next day would I ponder an encounter with gods made of shadow and light, of armies before which light itself would retreat.  Only the next day would I wonder…

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] A covert of American coots (Fulica americana) swimming near shore.

[2] A rock dove (a.k.a. common pigeon; Columba livia) walking toward me.

[3] A brown domestic swan goose (a.k.a. Chinese goose or African goose; Anser cygnoides) floating just offshore.

[4] A white female Muscovy duck (Cairina moschata) standing quietly.

[5] A female lesser scaup (Aythya affinis) swimming in the shallows.

[6] A ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) enjoying the sunset.

[7] A female wood duck (Aix sponsa) paddling slowly close to land.

[8] A male wood duck (Aix sponsa) drifting in the lake with full breeding plumage on display.

All in a day’s walk – December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve.  Warm weather and plenty of sunshine beckoned me to the lake for an afternoon walk following yet another day of laborious boredom in the office.  Someone has to pay the bills around here…

In the minute plus a few seconds it took me to walk down the private drive into the park, already I had to stop, had to take notice.

A tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) clinging to the underside of a large branch (2008_12_24_002691)

Have I mentioned how enamored I am of the tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)?

Something about such small bodies full of such attitude, full of such piss and vinegar.

They enthrall me.

This one clinging to the bottom of a large tree bellowed its opinions upon the still air as I stood beneath.

I love the attitude.  I love that they join in the mobbing of predators even when all other participants dwarf them by leaps and bounds.  I love that they scream their superiority upon the wind sans consideration for the size of all challengers.

I love their bigger-than-life personalities.

After watching this one pillage the trunk to which it clung, I moved on a bit, although I didn’t make it far before I came across a beautiful man who likewise yelled at me as I invaded his space.

A male red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) perched on the side of a tree (2008_12_24_002697)

A male red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) flitted from branch to branch prior to landing in the tree under which I stood.

I backed away from both plant and animal the moment I saw him so I could get a better view.

And he immediately complained about the encounter.

I’ve stood beneath this species as two of its kind tussled from high up until they fell to the ground with a thud.

A loud thud, one that worried me as I set my gaze upon the birds wrestling in winter grass.

Both took to wing as I tried to sneak closer, so no serious damage was done, although I feared for both of them with how far they fell and the rather abrupt stop that sounded like a bowling ball hitting the ground.

But on this day, this warm Christmas Eve, no challengers save me could be found, so no tussle ensued.

Yapping the whole way, he climbed further up the tree at which point I left him to his day.

A turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) soaring overhead (2008_12_24_002721)

While American black vultures usually play hard to find, turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) rarely miss an opportunity to be seen.  They’re rather conceited that way, thinking themselves awfully pretty and awfully worth looking at.

After leaving the woodpecker to his quest for lunch, I stopped near the confluence in Sunset Bay to watch some people feeding the waterfowl.  Sure, the city frowns on that practice and posts signs declaring as much, but people still do it.  All the time.

I knelt in the brittle winter grass and wallowed in the sound of it crunching beneath my knees.

Then a shadow passed over me, a large one sweeping across the ground like a paint brush dripping with darkness wielded by a true artist.

I looked up.

The vulture had just started its climb into the air.

Despite being mostly behind trees from my perspective, a tiny space between two ligneous leviathans gave me the room needed to take a photo.

Such beautiful creatures these vultures, these seekers of death who can inflict it as easily as they find it inflicted by others.

A male great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) foraging on the ground (2008_12_24_002733)

Then a brief sound arose from the hoard jockeying for a bit of bread from the old couple feeding the wildlife.  A raspy, throaty, scratching sound I know all too well.

A male great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) finished his declaration of supremacy with a downward sweep to inspect some shiny bauble that caught his attention.

Actually, it was a bit of bread tossed to him by the elderly man.  He seemed to appreciate grackles as much as I do, a feeling rare in these parts where most feel grackles are a nuisance only.

The female grackle who remained close to him made less of a photographic subject as she darted to and fro.

Too bad, too, as she was as lovely as he in very different ways.

A domestic greylag goose (Anser anser) swimming in the creek (2008_12_24_002737)

I think it’s unfortunate that people have released so many domestic swan geese and domestic greylag geese (Anser anser) at the lake.

Whether Chinese or African, these poor birds can hardly fly and have such a limited diet available that they require daily feedings from humans, something teaching other wildlife to depend on us for sustenance.

Yet would I wish them harm?  Clearly: No.

What I do wish is for people to be responsible, to understand the repercussions of their actions, to appreciate the delicate balance this lake requires for it to sustain the biological niche it serves: a full and vigorous wildlife refuge surrounded by some of Dallas’s most inner reaches.

If you can’t stop feeding the wildlife, at least stop feeding them processed foods like white bread.  It’s bad for them; it shortens their lives.

So when peripherally I saw this goose swimming by in the creek, I turned away from the grackle, shifted my knees on the ground, snapped this photo, and then wondered: How can you survive without people feeding you?  How much living will you miss because you need whatever humans provide in the way of sustenance?  How much sympathy can you expect from those who mindlessly tossed you here to eke out a living in a place that can’t support your kind?

Before welling up in tears, thankfully more swift movement from another direction helped me look away, helped me put those thoughts aside.

An American coot (Fulica americana) running by me (2008_12_24_002738)

This American coot (Fulica americana) dashed at full speed toward where I knelt.

But not so much at me as by me.

For I knelt in the brittle, dry grass only an arm’s length from where the elderly couple stood feeding the birds.

I regret that the coot was moving so fast and was so close that I couldn’t get a good photo.

I don’t regret that it was moving so fast and was so close that I captured this full gallop image as it raced headlong toward a free meal ticket.

Unlike the geese, coots do just fine on their own and survive here sans handouts.  But they’re thankful for the treats nonetheless.

It was then I tried gracefully to explain to the well-intentioned man and woman that feeding the animals doesn’t help, and I danced around and finally plunged headlong into saying the dinner rolls they offered made a terrible lunch for these animals, an unhealthy tidbit for humans and animals alike.

Blank stares mixed with offense drifted before me.

So I stood, my knees popping and cracking their complaints, and I turned away and walked to the pier.

An American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) flying above the lake's surface (2008_12_24_002784)

American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) created perpetual motion with their comings and goings.

Some flew back to the bay after feeding while others flew out of the bay searching for lunch.

Catching this one winging its way back to the sandbar for some preening and rest gave me an opportunity to memorialize the pre-breeding beak.

You’ll notice there is no “horn” on top of its beak.  That horn begins growing in January or February as breeding season approaches.

As each bird prepares to woo a mate and secure a chance at procreating, a growth forms on top of the bill that eventually becomes the pelican version of a rhinoceros horn.

I always know the pelicans will leave soon when all of them sport this neat little accoutrement.

For now I can see they’ll be here a while longer.

A double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) perched in a tree (2008_12_24_002790)

Although Sunset Bay is my favorite place at the lake, large crowds on a welcoming pre-holiday afternoon made it too busy for my tastes.

I headed south along the east shore.

The northern edge of Winfrey Point gave me a moment to stop and appreciate a perched double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus).

My approach caught its attention and it turned to watch me, its jewel-like blue eye capturing the sun with splendor.

But then I realized I was on the wrong end of the bird.

Immediately after I snapped that photo, it’s tail went up.

I pressed the button again.

Then the reason for the lifted tail become clear: This one was clearing its bowels.

I turned away at the last minute considering I was quite close and didn’t have much interest in seeing that from the business end of the bird.

Instead, I moved on.

A killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) standing in an open field of dry grass (2008_12_24_002801)

I rounded Winfrey Point and saw gobs of people lining the shore as far south as Garland Road.  Apparently visiting the lake had become a major draw.

Facing the horde totally stepped on my buzz; therefore, I circled around the point and moved uphill back toward Sunset Bay.

Walking through a winter field of dry grass around these parts can scare up some interesting creatures.

The most common field inhabitant is the killdeer (Charadrius vociferus).

I must have thrashed the afternoon nap of at least a dozen of these plovers.

When they’re resting in brown ground cover as they’re wont to do, they become marvelously invisible until they start moving.

And when they start moving, they put a sharp eye on the interloper—in this case, me!—and they make a ruckus to let the invader know a sacred territory has been breached.


I left them to their siesta and continued back toward the bay.

A European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) in nonbreeding plumage perched on a branch (2008_12_24_002837)

Feeling a bit like a lost child making loops through a store to find a parent only to keep seeing the same places over and over again, I passed boisterous crowds of people while trying to make my way through Sunset Bay and toward what I hoped to be quieter places near Stone Tables and places further north.

Along the way I couldn’t help but stop and appreciate some of the winter flora, like skeletal trees holding up the bones of the world for all to see.

And resting upon one such bone was this European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) in nonbreeding plumage.

I can agree with many that this species is invasive and that it has upset the natural order of North America.

I can also agree with many that this species makes life a lot more difficult for our native wildlife.

But I have to add this: We can’t undo what has been done.

Humans loosed the European starling onto this continent in an asinine attempt to introduce all the birds of Shakespeare upon the New World.

That didn’t go so well, at least for native birds who found a great deal of unhealthy competition suddenly set upon them by these aggressor species.

Nevertheless—and I repeat myself—we can’t undo what has been done, and we did it to ourselves.

So I accept the European starling as a disruptive element in our ecosystem.

I don’t like what it does and I don’t like the damage it inflicts, but I wouldn’t kill them all even if I could.  They can’t be blamed for our actions.

I left the starling to its lonely afternoon.

Two male lesser scaups (Aythya affinis) floating on calm water (2008_12_24_002868)

And where did I end up again?

Right back at the pier in Sunset Bay.

The thick mass of humanity had cleared a bit.  But only a bit.

I took the opportunity to crouch on the creaky wooden planks above calm water.

Lesser scaups (Aythya affinis) delight me to no end.  The Daffy Ducks of the world, they tickle me with their cartoonish looks.

Yet animated and childlike though they might seem, they’re also quite beautiful.

These two males floated carefree not too far from where I dangled myself over the lake trying to take photos.

Do they look concerned?


A juvenile ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) flying by me (2008_12_24_002897)

Stand to leave.

Hear shrieking from the air.

Turn to look.

Busybodies fly all around ready to swoop from the sky and nab tasty goodies from anyone who offers—or who can’t withstand the assault.

This juvenile ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) screamed its way by me.

I seriously doubt it had any clue why it was screeching or what it thought it might get in return for the yelling.

Well, truth be told, people expend a lot of effort feeding the wildlife here.

The gull probably thought it worth asking if I had a little something to share.

But I had nothing but the camera.

The bird swept easily through the air and circled the pier for a moment or two, then off it went in search of other trouble.

A white-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica) perched in a tree (2008_12_24_002951)

Still too crowded for my tastes, I again left the pier, only this time I headed east along the creek.  The riparian landscape heavy with trees and thickets always offers a different smorgasbord of creatures.

Where I had first photographed green herons and yellow-crowned night herons, only naked branches stood in the afternoon warmth.

But something else was there as well.

Tucked back in the many islands of the confluence perched this white-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica).

Okay, let’s be honest: I scared up a litany of animals.  And I was on the opposite side of the creek!

Foraging in the crunchy, leaf- and twig-filled barren wasteland that is the winter ground, this dove became startled as I approached.  It then flitted into a tree where it felt safe watching me.

In turn, I felt bad for bothering it and walked away as quietly as I could.

A Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) perched in a tree (2008_12_24_002963)

Which was about three steps before something else caught my eye.

Leaping from branch to branch as it nibbled at winter fruit and seeds, this Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) paused only briefly.

Its afternoon was full, you see, what with the whole chasing down lunch in winter thing that was going on.

Kinglets, titmice, woodpeckers, doves and other birds filled the area with the business of being busy, yet something about this little conspicuous critter held my attention.

It never moved closer to the edge of the creek where I might have had a clearer view.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed watching it through a barrier of naked limbs from where I perched on the opposite side of the waterway.

But then I had that feeling of being watched.

Strange how that works, how we somehow know when eyes are fixed upon us.

And I knew there were eyes resting all over me, intent and unflinching eyes.

So I turned.

A northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) perched in a tree (2008_12_24_002979)

I commented at Mary’s place recently about northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) being my always companions when I take walks.

No matter the weather, no matter the surroundings, no matter the time of day, it never fails that a member of this species will be nearby keeping close tabs on me.  Even when all other birds scatter and hide, a mockingbird will fly in close and land in a place where it can watch me.

It’s become a sort of game, at least on my part.  The challenge is to find the bird.

And I always find one.

This particular mockingbird chose a bright sunny branch dangling over the creek that gave it a clear view of my position.

To test its mettle, I walked intently back toward the lake.  It hopped a bit further out on the branch to keep me in sight.

So I turned and walked back the other way, back toward the floodplain and Dixon Branch.  Its eyes tracked me like a predator watching a meal.

I laughed and thanked it for keeping everyone safe from the dangerous man with the camera.

An eastern boxelder bug nymph (Boisea trivittata) on a common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) (2008_12_24_002990)

Walking at the creek’s edge toward the bridge that would let me cross to the floodplain, flashes of gold punctuated each step.  Common dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) stood upright and showy, some still flowers while others had gone to seed.

A bit of movement on one of them drew me in closer.

A nymph.  More specifically, a young eastern boxelder bug (Boisea trivittata).

With a telephoto zoom lens on the camera, macro photography was out of the question.  In fact, I had to back away a few steps to get the scene in focus.

Sometimes I wish I could carry the whole camera store with me when I go for walks.

A true bug and not just an insect, these little critters can form rather large colonies when food is abundant.  Just ask xocobra: He and his family had a massive group of them take up residence outside their front door.

I grinned as I left the child to its investigation of the dandelion.

A fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) in a tree holding a wad of black plastic in its mouth (2008_12_24_003001)

The sound of claws scampering on wood drew my eyes up to the treetops.

A fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) ran from limb to limb, jumping from tree to tree, then paused when it realized I was watching it.

From my perspective, I knew it carried something in its mouth and I wanted to know what it was.

A bit of zoom and a button click made it clear: a wad of black plastic.

Nesting material I bet.  Or at least hope.  Yet also a sign of our lack of care and management.  I’ve seen too much garbage harm too many creatures at this lake.

It always disappoints and angers me.

Seeing this little tree rat leaping about with this material made me hope it didn’t pose a threat later.

A fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) and an American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) foraging in winter grass (2008_12_24_003027)

I crossed the bridge and left the path as quickly as possible to escape the growing throng of people.  Who knew Christmas Eve was a major let’s-go-to-the-lake event?

Twigs and grass cracked and crackled beneath my feet as I walked onto the floodplain south of Dixon Branch.

Once I made it to the dry gulch that runs into the woods, I scared up a murder of crows perched in the trees above me.

Why crows are so skittish is beyond me.  They were so high up in the tree and I was still some distance from them, yet they panicked.

I followed their progress through the treetops and slowly turned until I saw another fox squirrel joining an American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) for a spot of afternoon foraging.

I was too far away for a good photo, so I walked slowly toward them with one eye looking through the viewfinder as I clicked and clicked.

As if I had leaped upon it from nearby, the crow suddenly took to the air and headed right for the trees.

I wasn’t even close enough to throw a stone at it, let alone pose a risk.

I tried capturing the escape even though I knew I was too far away.

What I captured was something else.

An American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) landing in a tree with a red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) hiding in the branches (2008_12_24_003034)

Telephoto lenses aren’t particularly good at wide landscape shots.  Still, this image tells a story.

In the upper-left corner is the crow landing in the trees.  That’s simple enough.

Let’s talk about perspective: The branch that runs from the crow’s position to the right side of the picture actually juts out quite some distance above the floodplain.  It’s a large, heavy branch.

Now follow that branch to the right side of the photo just about centered from top to bottom.

See a hint of red and brown perched amongst the branches?

A juvenile red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) sat in the tree in a place where it was perfectly camouflaged, a place that gave it a clear view of the birds and squirrels foraging in the open, a clear line of attack if only one of the animals would move far enough away from the thicket to give the hawk time.

I never realized the hawk was there as I walked toward the crows and squirrels.  In fact, it wasn’t until I was within about five yards/meters that the hawk finally saw me as a nuisance and left its perch.

It scared the heck out of me, took me completely by surprise.

The predator made a quick leap into the air and turned immediately into the dense woodlands.  Unlike its adult counterparts, it was still small enough to make a quick getaway through the branches, one replete with sharp turns and easy avoidance of the obstacles.

I wanted to kick myself for not seeing it sooner.

Views from my belly

Mary and I discussed in the comments once how sometimes we have to lie on the ground to get the kind of photograph we want.  Whether it be flowers or lizards or something else entirely, a great deal can be said for a prostrate approach.

Milling about on two legs and taking pictures of anything that seems worthwhile is a practice requiring little forethought.  Although I hardly think myself an artist, I have discovered that looking at things from a point of view contrary to our own lends itself to results that stand out from the pack.  Not only does such imagery offer something more appealing than the subject alone, but it also seems more natural, as though we could sneak in and watch the world unfold without interfering with it.

Another piece of the puzzle is stability.  When shooting hand-held, stabilizing the camera means putting as much foundation beneath it as is possible.  Snapping pictures during a walk is one thing; having time to really focus on the subject is something else entirely.  Lying on the ground means I’m not wobbling on tired legs, not shifting my weight back and forth, not swaying in the wind.

Photographing wildlife demands that we become as small as possible.  The smaller we appear to creatures great and small, the less of a threat we seem to be.  That means we can get closer or, as my experience has shown, that wildlife is willing to get closer to us.  Much closer in some cases.  Being relatively tiny and using small, slow movements has afforded me not just the opportunity to snap some presentable images, but it’s also given me the chance to enjoy many close encounters that can only be described as magical.

But perspective leaps to mind as the most important factor, at least in my case.  A great deal of nature photography oozes from a standing position, a view always looking down on the subject in a way that diminishes it, reduces its impact, hides the intricacies of its presentation.  This approach works fine for those spur-of-the-moment images captured when some fantastical creature is fleeting by without interest in stopping to pose.  But when the opportunity arises, I think the best results come from looking at things from their own level.

So with all that in mind, I want to share some experiences from an autumn walk not too long ago.  All of these capture nature from ground level.

American coots (Fulica americana) gathered on the bank of a creek (20081127_14864)

These American coots (Fulica americana) gathered on the bank, some preening, some standing about looking bored, and others grabbing a quick bite to eat from what few morsels could be found in the dormant grass.  A few times they looked at me with curiosity, but mostly they ignored me.

A rock dove (a.k.a. common pigeon; Columba livia) with highly unusual plumage coloration and patterns (20081127_14908)

Despite its highly unusual coloration, this beautiful rock dove (a.k.a. common pigeon; Columba livia) stayed with the dule as the entire group had breakfast and tried to avoid the rather unruly grackles.  In fact, the doves were so comfortable with my presence that, even standing, they walked right up to me, one of them even daring to walk across my foot.  This one especially caught my eye, however, for I had never before seen one with plumage like this.  Although rock doves often display a wide range of colors and patterns, most demonstrate the classic form.

A close-up of a rock dove (a.k.a. common pigeon; Columba livia) as it forages (20081127_14910)

And speaking of a more classic rock dove, this one walked right up to the camera at one point—so close that I couldn’t take a picture without switching to macro mode.  The charcoal color it shows usually comes through as a lighter gray in most of its kind, yet this morph is far more common than the (IMHO) one-of-a-kind bird in the previous photo.

A close-up of a common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) that has gone to seed (20081127_14945)

A world full of stars held high atop a thin arm.  The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) has a bad reputation as the scourge of gardeners and groundskeepers around the globe.  Nevertheless, I think both the golden flower and the feathery seed head offer more than weeds; their beauty, in my mind, is unquestionable, and they also represent the single most recognizable set of memories stretching right through my childhood.  Who doesn’t remember holding one of these and blowing on it just to watch the seeds take flight?  What a simple act, sure, but I bet a right of passage for most kids.

A male great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) looking down his beak at me (20081127_15007)

Lying on the pier in Sunset Bay at White Rock Lake, I held the camera down near the water’s surface hoping I could somehow grab a bit of the magic happening all over the lake, from pelicans and cormorants to ducks and gulls.  That didn’t work out very well due to the wind blowing my hands about and the choppy waves threatening to splash water on the camera.  Yet as as I tried, this male great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) landed nearby and screamed.  A stone’s throw from where I was, he bellowed time and again, often doing so as he looked right at me.  Perhaps I was in his favorite spot.

(And check out the flattop on that bird!  It gives him an almost Frankenstein look, at least from that angle.)

A shimmering, very small white unidentified flower seen at White Rock Lake (20081127_15024)

I’ve yet to identify this tiny flower, but it and its kith and kin permeated every step I took.  So short that most stems held their flowers below the dry grass and so small that a single bloom disappeared completely beneath my fingertip, only in their vast numbers did they become apparent.  The ground shimmered as sunlight danced across their varied hues.  Some were brilliant white and others were varying shades from lavender to cyan.

A mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) glancing at me as it forages for food (20081127_15132)

My adoration for mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) is second only to that for the red-winged blackbird.  The soulful voice of these birds always stops me cold.  It’s the sweetest lamentation one can ever hear.  When I found several wandering beneath a canopy of trees as they rounded up something for breakfast, I had to stop and enjoy their company.  Several of them came quite near (within an arm’s length).  The blue jays were more skittish than these stunning creatures.

A female fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) sitting up on her haunches with her front paws crossed in front of her (20081127_15177)

“Pardon me, sir, but have you seen any acorns?”  Well, that’s what I thought this female fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) was asking when she stopped right in front of me, sat up, crossed her hands in a fretted manner, and looked right at me.  Realizing as a prey animal that squirrels see best to the sides and not in front of them, I knew she was watching me as I lay there snapping a few pictures of her.  Eventually she went on with her business, and so did I.

Exotic isn’t necessary

I don’t always know what I will see, let alone photograph, when I go for walks.  Although the rare occasion pops up when I set out on a quest to find a particular something or other, mostly I let my body and eyes wander aimlessly so I don’t miss the artwork of the mundane.  Well, that’s assuming any of nature’s handiwork can be called mundane.

Something in the ordinary, the usual, too often goes unnoticed.  “Oh, it’s just a duck.”  “Sparrows?  How boring.”  “We don’t see autumn foliage in Texas like you see up north, you know.  Down here it just goes from green to dead in a few days.”  The list goes on.

Truth be told, so much beauty rests unappreciated in what too many call pedestrian.  If only they’d look closer.

Domerstic swan geese (Anser cygnoides) and domestic greylag geese (Anser anser) paddling about a local creek (20081025_14134)

I myself sometimes fail to notice what should be seen yet passes right before my eyes with nary a glance.  And shame on me for that!

Even a gaggle of our local domestic geese deserves more than apathy.  They bring verve and vigor to the lake, their loud voices ringing across the water’s surface and echoing in defiance of the woodlands.  Would that I could gift them for the splendor they bring to my life.

A pekin duck (a.k.a. domestic duck, white pekin duck, or Long Island duck; Anas domesticus) taking a bath (20081101_14213)

Of all the ducks in all the world, White Rock Lake boasts a year-round population of many species, not the least of which can be found bathing in early morning light in the shallows of Sunset Bay.  I stand upon the pier which beckons to me all too often, and there I see a familiar vision which even to me seems nothing short of routine.

But then I look closer, look with eyes intent on devouring the majestic hidden within the unexciting.  Even as I look on, snap photos, appreciate, others glance here and there, perhaps mentioning the water thrown this way and that by a simple white duck, and finally seek more exciting fare.

And I wonder what might be more exciting than this…

Rock doves (a.k.a. common pigeon; Columba livia) perched on the juts of a pier (20081101_14249)

The common pigeon.  They draw their beauty from their forefathers, the rock doves, the progenitors of all pigeons, and they carry to this day an iridescent beauty and unmistakable aura that rarely is as admired as it should be.

I sat upon my favorite pier and let these birds join me, along with dozens of their friends.  Some allowed me to touch them, others allowed me to serve as a perch, and yet more scampered about me as though I didn’t exist, ducking beneath my legs, walking over my hands, standing next to my arms.  Almost an hour burned away in the autumn sun as we enjoyed the morning together.

A male house sparrow (Passer domesticus) clinging to the branch of a shrub (20081020_13882)

Rested upon a branch within a shrub so near that I might reach out and touch him, this male house sparrow accepted my presence, my invasive spirit as I poked my camera in his face, and he never budged for all my commotion.

What a ubiquitous marvel he is.  What a common artwork he proffers to those willing to notice.

American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) and American coots (Fulica americana) preening on a sandbar (20081101_14233)

Pelicans and coots preen upon the desolate sandbar jutting across the bay.  Busy with their grooming, they fail to notice the autumnal canvas nature paints behind them upon what was just a few weeks ago a lush, verdant, green landscape.

I bear witness to the changing of the seasons, to the changing of the guard.  Like these birds, I feel the warmth of a cool day whilst enjoying a potent magic offered up for our enjoyment.  I notice the magnificent display, however, much unlike my avian counterparts.

Golden autumnal foliage sheltering an uphill path at White Rock Lake. (20081101_14476)

Golden canopies stretch endlessly as they mix with reds and browns and greens and hues untold.  Simple yellows, some claim, although they fail to see the truth of the moment.

The trail leading up the hill toward my home snakes its way beneath a sky contrasted by trees intent on showing their autumnal best.  I scarcely knew a moment of peace as I walked this path.  Sunlight falling against and through the gorgeous arms of life succumbing to seasonal sleep brushed upon the bones of the world a gorgeous shelter of color, a shelter beneath which I lost myself.

I’m left feeling satisfied and bewildered all at once.  The everyday can be so exquisite, so delightful.  It can also be terribly ignored.

I wonder why…

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] Domestic swan geese (Anser cygnoides) and domestic greylag geese (Anser anser) paddling about a local creek.

[2] A pekin duck (a.k.a. domestic duck, white pekin duck, or Long Island duck; Anas domesticus) taking a bath.

[3] Rock doves (a.k.a. common pigeon; Columba livia) perched on the juts of a pier.

[4] A male house sparrow (Passer domesticus) clinging to the branch of a shrub.

[5] American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) and American coots (Fulica americana) preening on a sandbar.

[6] Golden autumnal foliage sheltering an uphill path at White Rock Lake.


The American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos).  Quite large.  Cooperative fishers.  Gregarious.  Blindingly white but for the stark black trailing edge of the wingtips.

American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) sleeping and preening with some American coots (Fulica americana) milling about in the foreground (20081025_14097)

They visit year after year.  When the whole gang comes together, it can be a fantastical sight as these behemoths glide in silently for a smooth water landing.  They soar near the water’s surface with the grace of a ballerina and the power of a jet airplane.

Two American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) standing over two other pelicans trying to sleep (20080114_01174)

Consummate and gifted fishers who do not dive like their brown brethren but instead swim along and dunk their heads underwater to catch fish, often doing so in a group effort that herds fish together for easy pickings, these birds have also been known to consume the occasional pigeon—and to try to consume an occasional cat.

American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) preening at sunrise with another group far in the background (IMG_0109)

Overwintering at White Rock Lake but not living here the rest of the year, these gentle giants offer a splendid cold-weather diversion from gray skies and chilly temperatures.  Their magnificence shines through even when the world around them is barren and desolate.