Tag Archives: black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)

Tropical haven

There is a place where spring calls forth all the magic of the tropics …

White ibises (Eudocimus albus) flying overhead (2009_05_17_019243)

A place where white ibises circle overhead …

A great egret (Ardea alba) collecting nesting material in the understory (2009_05_17_019056)

A place where great egrets lurk in the understory …

A little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) perched on a branch (2009_05_17_019428)

A place where little blue herons keep watch at eye level …

A black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) perched in a tree (2009_05_17_019912)

A place where black-crowned night-herons peer back from their ligneous perches …

A snowy egret (Egretta thula) perching on a limb (2009_05_17_019767)

A place where snowy egrets observe the observers …

Close-up of a tricolored heron (a.k.a. Louisiana heron; Egretta tricolor) perched in a tree (2009_07_12_026569_n)

A place where tricolored herons remain vigilant even at rest …

A cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) standing in a tree displaying its mating plumage (2009_05_17_019354)

A place where cattle egrets display their beauty …

It’s amazing that this tropical haven rests just a few miles north of downtown Dallas.

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Photos (taken at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center campus in Dallas’s hospital district):

  1. White ibises (Eudocimus albus)
  2. Great egret (Ardea alba)
  3. Little blue heron (Egretta caerulea)
  4. Black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)
  5. Snowy egret (Egretta thula)
  6. Tricolored heron (a.k.a. Louisiana heron; Egretta tricolor)
  7. Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis)

It has begun

Less than four miles/six kilometers north of downtown Dallas.  Nestled within the hospital district with towering university and medical buildings quite literally a stone’s throw away.  Surrounded by major thoroughfares and the constant din of automobiles and airplanes.  A motte only 3.5 acres/1.4 hectares in size.  Yet at the height of summer, it will host more than 70 bird species.

A great egret (Ardea alba) standing on winter grass (2010_02_06_049479)

Some species will travel hundreds of miles from their usual nesting territories just to play a part in what can only be described as the most powerful and profound example of opportunism in the whole of North Texas.  Thousands of nests will be built, thousands of eggs will be incubated, thousands of chicks will be hatched, and from late winter through early autumn it will be a place of unimaginable beauty and awe such that all those who see it will be left struggling to comprehend how it could be real.  And all this will take place in a grove of trees much smaller than your local supermarket.

A black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) perched on a branch (2009_06_20_024000)

I’m of course speaking about the colonial wading bird rookery that continues to thrive on the grounds of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center campus.  Older than the oldest records, all we know about the rookery is that it hosts a congregation of species so diverse and so vast that it engenders an otherworldly sense of reality, as though one has been transported to the most remote place imaginable where mystic creatures thrive.

A snowy egret (Egretta thula) hunting in the shallows (2009_06_01_021362)

Yet this is anything but remote.  The rookery lives in an urban jungle.  Six lanes of concrete surround it on two sides and multistory buildings and parking garages surround it on the other two.  Nevertheless they will come, the birds, and some will travel far outside their usual nesting territories just so they can join thousands of other pairs who will mate, nest, brood and rear young in a place that seems accidental at best.

A cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) resting in a tree (2009_06_13_023406)

Already the largest nesters, the great egrets (Ardea alba), vie for prime real estate, these giant birds wandering the still barren woods plucking up twigs and sticks with which to build a home for their newest generation.  Soon the black-crowned night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax), little blue herons (Egretta caerulea) and snowy egrets (Egretta thula) will join them.  Following quickly behind them will come the anhingas (a.k.a. water turkey or snakebird; Anhinga anhinga), the cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis) and the tricolored herons (a.k.a. Louisiana heron; Egretta tricolor).  And when it all seems too much, white ibises (Eudocimus albus) will arrive.

A tricolored heron (a.k.a. Louisiana heron; Egretta tricolor) standing in a tree (2009_07_12_026569)

Meanwhile, flycatchers, cardinals, grackles, woodpeckers, kingbirds, mockingbirds, jays, swallows, wrens, hawks, thrashers, sparrows, robins and a legion vast of species will settle in where space is available.  Simultaneously the opossums and woodrats and raccoons and snakes and tree frogs and other animals will begin making appearances.  The air will fill with insects, the ground will move with crawling things, and the transformation will be complete: the rookery will once again be alive, will be thriving, will be full of so much life that it boggles the mind.

A white ibis (Eudocimus albus) looking out from the treetops (2009_07_12_026496)

I will make every effort to visit regularly and document reliably this most fascinating natural wonder.  As I did last year, I hope to follow the progress of the rookery and observe its inhabitants as much as possible.  I hope you’ll come along for this journey through the wonderland of an urban rookery where life abounds, where magic abides, and where city dwellers can lose themselves in nature’s demonstration of alien life.  One cannot say they know birds in North Texas without visiting this place, for this place holds more bird species and more individual birds per square yard/meter than anywhere else in this region.

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[1] Great egret (Ardea alba)

[2] Black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)

[3] Snowy egret (Egretta thula)

[4] Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis)

[5] Tricolored heron (a.k.a. Louisiana heron; Egretta tricolor)

[6] White ibis (Eudocimus albus)

A sunny December weekend

I began today thinking it an appropriate time to compile part 4 of my winter visitors series.  Then I lost interest about three pictures into it and decided instead to revisit the spiders with part 3 of that series.  Having failed to relocate the first arachnid image before deciding it too much work for my lazy attitude, I thought perhaps I would toss out a few impressive images of a red-tailed hawk in flight, a gorgeous adult raptor who avoided me at all costs as I stalked the bird in its various perches but who still gifted me with an afternoon takeoff and upward spiral directly overhead.  For some reason, even that effort became tedious before it began.

And yet through all the floundering in ideas, I kept coming back to something less intentional, something less focused on the thought of the matter and more focused on a celebration of simple things.  This past weekend offered cold mornings and sunny springlike afternoons, cool enough to start the day with plenty of activity to get the blood flowing and comfortable enough by lunchtime to have the lizards out hunting insects and the turtles resting on sun-soaked logs.

In the midst of such comfortable December days, I find myself standing motionless in places where the ubiquitous stand like lighthouses, where stopping to see the commonplace feels like discovery made flesh.  At the woodland edge, in the depth of the forest, along the shore of a lagoon, atop a simple hill…  These places and more offer the open eyes a feast of beauty waiting to be seen.

A black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) hunts beneath riparian flora (2009_12_20_045635)

A black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) hunts beneath riparian flora.

A great egret (Ardea alba) stands like a beacon against a backdrop of russet and shadow (2009_12_20_045641)

A great egret (Ardea alba) stands like a beacon against a backdrop of russet and shadow.

A male house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) indulges in the fruit of blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) (2009_12_20_046028)

A male house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) indulges in the fruit of blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) and forgets to wipe his beak afterward.

A tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) plays peekaboo (2009_12_20_046042)

A tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) plays peekaboo.

A blue-gray gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) tries to play peekaboo and fails miserably (2009_12_20_046414)

A blue-gray gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) tries its hand at peekaboo.  It goes without saying this poor bird entirely missed the idea of the game.

A juvenile red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) holds a pecan in its beak (2009_12_19_045344)

A juvenile red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) captures a wily pecan.

A Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) pauses to look at me (2009_12_19_044881)

A Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) pauses to observe the observer.

[Update] I should have included in the original post that these photos are from White Rock Lake in Dallas.

The rookery – Part 3

Humans seem inclined to lens the world through vision focused on self.  Thus becomes the agony of aloneness, separation from the world that nurtures us despite our intent to destroy it and all it births.  Too long have people scampered about in hurried endeavors to own, to acquire, to master.  And in response to our anthropocentric ways, too many lives have been brushed from the face of the planet that will never again be seen.

Long before sunrise on July 23, 1998, the city of Carrollton, Texas, began work on what it dubbed “Operation Remove Excrement.”  Huge industrial lights invaded the darkness at 4:00 AM and a motte at the city’s Josey Ranch Park came to life with the sound of bulldozers.  By 4:30 AM as resident Jack Laivins drove to work, the sky above the trees roiled with billowing smoke.  Upon closer inspection, though, he realized the smoke was actually thousands of heron and egret adults circling in the night sky above the municipal park.  Carrollton had decided to raze an active bird rookery while parents and offspring remained in the nests.

The official cost was staggering: several hundred birds killed, many hundreds more injured, thousands forced to abandon the area—most likewise abandoning their young, and an entire breeding territory decimated at the height of migratory bird nesting.  The city’s reason?  They had received “numerous complaints” about the noise and odor.  The town claimed it studied the area for several months, took its time in planning the action, and needed no permission to remove inconvenient birds. 

Acting lawfully, responsibly and humanely explains why the devastation took place during the overnight hours such that it would be complete before daybreak.  Unfortunately for Carrollton, it could never be completed before citizens noticed the dead bodies, the orphaned chicks, the wounded animals left in piles of rubble, and the panicked adults searching desperately for their children.  Three days later, hungry and parched birds were still being pulled from twisted and crushed debris, many with broken wings or legs, many more with neck or spine injuries, and some with limbs nearly severed.

The Josey Ranch Park rests on land donated by Don Josey, father of Melissa Gribble, a federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator.  The city’s sense of irony was fully intact.  They paid nearly $200,000 in rehabilitation costs and federal fines—an amount profoundly lacking under the circumstances.  And the public backlash reached international proportions as news of the incident spread.

The horror of Carrollton’s actions represents the worst of human society, a place where wildlife already pushed from most of its native habitat must face yet another harrowing obstacle course: trying to survive in those tiny plots of land still available whilst simultaneously hoping to go unnoticed by those who see such things as nuisances, inconveniences to be wiped from the planet’s surface.

Now leap forward to February 2009 at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center rookery in Dallas.

One-year-old little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) nesting for the first time as it transitions from the juvenile’s all-white plumage to the adult’s all-dark plumage (2009_05_17_019779)

After great egrets began arriving and building nests, maintenance staff decided to “landscape” around the tree grove that hosts a surprisingly diverse group of birds.  The school called it brush clearing.  Photos of the aftermath showed nests on the ground; saplings, snags and small trees felled; significant understory clearing; the pond wholly exposed to sunshine and human activity; and a lot of plant removal beneath and inside the drip line where birds actively roost.  Images also captured egrets wandering through a stark landscape that once hid them from prying eyes and predators.

Recently fledged male house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) perched in a tree (2009_05_17_019810)

“They didn’t know the birds were there.”  Thus constitutes the brevity of the university’s response when asked about the incident.  Given the birds fly in and out of the trees on wings that span nearly six feet/two meters, and they make a great deal of noise during the breeding and nesting season, they could hardly go unnoticed.  After all, even the children at the daycare center across the street already had noticed the birds, small kids intoxicated by the exotic magic of the area where flying giants and colorful creatures spend many months from late winter through early autumn—and where these mystical beings have done so for at least half a century.

Male common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) collecting insects for his chicks (2009_06_20_023983)

Many feared this represented a precursor to a Carrollton-like assault on the rookery.  Vocal citizens and organizations spoke up and the local media responded.  The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department got involved.  Yet I spent an insightful morning speaking to UT Southwestern administrators and walked away with an impression not of imminent doom but of palpable fear of bad press coupled with a sense of obligation and promise.

Little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) chicks still in the nest (2009_06_13_023108)

“It’s about the birds, not the people.”  No other statement from university officials struck me like that  one.  The UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas has “officially” hosted the rookery on campus grounds since at least 1966.  Circumstantial evidence suggests the rookery existed as far back as 1959 and anecdotal evidence indicates herons and egrets have nested in the area since at least 1938.  Regardless of the exact date, fifty years of the school’s own records stand as significant tribute to the longevity of this urban wildlife haven.

Recently fledged black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) perched in a tree (2009_06_20_023813)

Dr. Charles Sprague, the first president of the university, asked that the birds be allowed to use the area for as long as they chose to nest there, essentially requesting of UT Southwestern that they respect and protect the site ad infinitum.  The school agreed.  Perhaps their readiness to accept that challenge stemmed from “knowledgeable sources” who claimed the rookery would self-destruct within ten years due to the volume of guano and the impact it would have on soil acidity and flora.  Contrary to that prediction, susceptible plants died while a host of other plants thrived—and the rookery goes on.

Great egret (Ardea alba) chick peering down from the nest(2009_06_13_023179)

An ongoing grassroots effort hopes to convince the UT System Board of Regents and the Texas Legislature to grant official recognition and protection to the rookery.  UT Southwestern appears inclined to host the birds, even if as an act of tolerance only, and as state property and a state organization the campus cannot blindly destroy the area without putting Texas in the position of having wiped out a long-lived nesting site for protected birds.

Nevertheless, many agree more can and should be done, especially in light of the greatest threat the birds now face, a relentless and insidious foe whose unimaginable power is matched only by heartlessness.  This adversary is responsible for the death of a great many birds this year, and the villain has caused the failure and abandonment of more nests in the rookery than has ever been seen before.  Even nests with chicks have been left to suffer under the skeletal hand of this monster.  The attacker remains bent on destroying what little of nature remains unscathed by the spread of civilization.

The enemy is at the gates.  You will come face to face with the ghoul in the final part of this series.

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[1] One-year-old little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) nesting for the first time as it transitions from the juvenile’s all-white plumage to the adult’s all-dark plumage

[2] Recently fledged male house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)

[3] Male common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) collecting insects for his chicks

[4] Little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) chicks still in the nest

[5] Recently fledged black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)

[6] Great egret (Ardea alba) chick peering down from the nest

[cross-posted to The Clade]