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

The rookery – Part 1

Farms and ranches.  Urban and suburban sprawl.  Highways and byways.  Throughout the “civilized” world, these anthropogenic artifacts have gone to great lengths in reducing the availability of natural habitat for plants and animals.  Traveling some distance from humanity seems a prerequisite just to see nature doing its thing in what little space we’ve left for it.  This explains why most people in developed areas rarely see anything more than a handful of bird species, the occasional rat or mouse or ant or wasp, and almost no flora save that planted in manicured lawns and decorative gardens.

Conversely, nature has an interesting way of taking advantage of what few opportunities we provide it.  These oft overlooked silos of life accommodate surprising diversity where it’s least expected.  And that creates an opening for discovery, a chance a lot of people won’t otherwise have.  Therein lay the seed of appreciation that can make a city dweller comprehend the beauty beyond—and the need to protect it.

As the crow flies, it’s less than four miles/six kilometers north of downtown Dallas: the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center campus, a large complex of health facilities and college buildings smack-dab in the middle of the hospital district.  For miles around, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a doctor or nurse or medical student—and winding up in court for the trouble!  Yet nestled in the middle of a bustling urban landscape and located on the campus grounds lies an example of nature’s irony and majesty.

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A small wooded area at the intersection of two major roads.  It covers approximately 3.5 acres/1.4 hectares and serves as respite for students, faculty and patients, a breath of verdant escapism outside cold stone walls.  To leave the sterile smell of the hospital for a few minutes and listen as gentle breezes whisper through the trees probably has as much a medicinal effect as any prescription drug.  (Recent studies showing the impact of nature on the human mind and body certainly agree.)

But that humble area of trees and brush also serves another purpose, one protected by state and federal laws.  It’s a rookery for migratory birds.

A great egret (Ardea alba) perched in a tree (2009_04_19_015737)

I visited the site a few weeks ago.  I’m embarrassed to admit it was the first time in my life…and I’ve lived here almost 40 years.  It seems I’ve spent too much time running here and there, always looking for the exotic or out-of-the-way opportunities, and in the process I ignored what should be a cherished Dallas landmark.

Two black-crowned night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) perched in the treetops (2009_04_19_015683)

Like an imaginary world, the rookery presents as a surreal oasis in the middle of the city.  To get close to it, one must stand within a cluster of multi-story buildings and heavy traffic, yet the number of species nesting here defies belief.  Great egrets flit across six-lane roads.  Anhinga circle above the treetops.  Snowy and cattle egrets busy themselves with collecting twigs for their nests.  Green and little blue herons lurk in the shadows trying to remain invisible.  Once in a while a tricolored or great blue heron shows up.  And white ibises sometimes nest here as well, although they tend towards the middle of the woods, a forbidden realm that offers them escape from the city around them.

Two snowy egrets (Egretta thula) building a nest (2009_04_19_015774)

Then there are the robins and kingbirds and flycatchers, and the sparrows and wrens and finches.  Starlings, grackles, mockingbirds, doves, woodpeckers and an endless parade of other species likewise dwell or hunt here.  The magnitude, the volume of life in this tiny patch of land seems incomprehensible at best.  That’s never more true than when one considers that it’s a small green dot in the middle of a gray concrete jungle.

A tricolored heron (a.k.a. Louisiana heron; Egretta tricolor) perched in a tree (2009_04_19_016082)

Birds aren’t the only inhabitants.  Fox squirrels and Virginia opossums scurry about the branches and understory while trying to avoid the angry retribution of nesting herons.  If you’ve never seen a great egret wallop a squirrel for being too close to its nest, I assure you the squirrel always loses.  And it ain’t pretty.

A green heron (Butorides virescens) perched on a branch over a pond (2009_04_19_016309)

Signs around the periphery of the grove adamantly declare the obvious: “Bird Nesting Area: NO TRESPASSING.”  These manifest the university’s responsibility…but not necessarily its wishes.  Controversy surrounds this wonder, this beguiling gem amidst mundane people and their ways.  While so many pass by without noticing, even the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department pays attention.

An American robin (Turdus migratorius) standing in dirt looking for food (2009_04_19_015993)

I contacted UT Southwestern about the rookery.  I asked for more than the usual press release: I added several specific questions related to historical treatment of the area and what plans exist for the future.  I have yet to hear back, although I hope to include their response in future installments of this miniseries.

A Virginia opossum (a.k.a. possum; Didelphis virginiana) looking down from within a tree (2009_04_19_016229)

Meanwhile I’m left with a sense of awe and intrigue.  I’ve seen alligators and crocodiles, killer snails and killer snakes, rodents larger than most dogs and rodents smaller than a thumbprint, whales and wasps of many stripes, and countless birds that fill every niche of nature’s womb, yet still I find myself beguiled by the bounty of life that finds home and safety in a wee bit of woods hidden within a concrete jungle.  It’s a testament to life that many hundreds of nests will be built there—again.

The rookery calls me back while the spring nesting season continues.  I intend to return as often as I can to document this marvelous dichotomy, a simple little spot that reminds me of what Rachel Carson penned in The Sense of Wonder:

For most of us, knowledge of our world comes largely through sight, yet we look about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind.  One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?'”

Indeed, what if…

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] Great egret (Ardea alba)

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

[3] Snowy egrets (Egretta thula)

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

[5] Green heron (Butorides virescens)

[6] American robin (Turdus migratorius)

[7] Virginia opossum (a.k.a. possum; Didelphis virginiana)

[cross-posted to The Clade]


To finish what I started for dearest nathalie with an h, who claims vehemently—and overmuch—that she sees only ducks when visiting White Rock Lake, I thought it time to share some of the other waterfowl who live here but who are in fact not ducks.  To be more precise, these are herons[1].

A cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) perched in winter trees (2009_02_14_009307)

A cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) perched in the trees across the lagoon[3].

A green heron (Butorides virescens) standing in verdant spring foliage (20080629_08323_n)

A green heron (Butorides virescens) hiding amongst branches draped over a creek.

A black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) perched on fallen limbs (2009_02_03_006217)

A black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) trying to sleep on a sunny afternoon.

A snowy egret (Egretta thula) perched on a log in Sunset Bay (20080701_08757)

A snowy egret (Egretta thula) perched on a log in Sunset Bay.

A great egret (Ardea alba) standing along the banks of a creek (2009_03_07_012299)

A great egret (Ardea alba) standing along the banks of Dixon Branch near the confluence.  (I think the mallard drake is there for decorative purposes.)

A great blue heron (Ardea herodias) standing in the treetops (2008_12_28_003901)

A great blue heron (Ardea herodias) perched high in the treetops[4].

A yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea) resting in the middle of a pond thick with vegetation (2009_04_16_015547)

A yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea) resting in the middle of a pond thick with vegetation.

A little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) stalking the shallows of a plant-filled swamp (2009_04_16_015585)

A little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) stalking the shallows of a plant-filled swamp[5].

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] While these are all herons by definition, some are called egrets.  ‘Egret’ is the name given to heron species that is normally all white[2] and that grows long, showy plumes in the breeding season.

[2] The term “all white” does not refer to color morphs, forms of albinism or those species that demonstrate white plumage only during adolescence.

[3] The cattle egret perched in trees some distance from me.  Given its small size yet high reflective properties when matched against barren winter trees, I assumed at the time that it was a great egret curled up sleeping near the water’s edge.  Only when I processed the images much later in the day did I see it clearly enough to recognize my error, after which I cursed myself for not taking more than one cursory photo.

[4] Undoubtedly the most difficult heron species to photograph, great blue herons are flighty creatures who avoid humans at all costs.  It’s more likely for me to see one take to the skies and disappear behind treetops than it is to see one standing still near enough and long enough for me to capture a good picture.

[5] Little blue herons are anything but little, yet they are smaller than great blue herons.  This has to be my favorite heron species given its color, something I failed to capture in this image as I was looking at a dark bird in the middle of verdant foliage covered with water, water reflecting sunlight right into my face and the camera lens.  Nevertheless, you can see this bird’s plumage is a vaporous menagerie of my favorite color: purple.

[6] As for the title, see the bottom of this post for an explanation.

Flights of fancy

What fantasies rest upon dreams made of feathered wings…

A female red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) soaring high above the family farm in East Texas (2008_12_06_000193)

To take flight, to swim naked through the ether under the power of my own mind…  Ah, such is the foundation of hope.

A dule of rock doves (a.k.a. common pigeons; Columba livia) circling above Sunset Bay at White Rock Lake (2008_12_07_000543)

Envy fills the space betwixt the flying bird and mine eyes.

An American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) taking off near the sandbar in Sunset Bay at White Rock Lake (2008_12_07_000681)

Tiptoeing across the lake’s surface becomes the godlike fantasy of all men: to waltz upon the water without sinking.

A juvenile black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) flying in front of autumnal woodlands (2008_12_13_002065)

For something so ethereal as air to hold me aloft, for something so invisible as atmosphere to defy gravity…

A great egret (Ardea alba) soaring above the western shoreline of White Rock Lake (2008_12_13_002352)

Stretching my arms unto the ends of the earth only to find them capable of holding me above the ground rests within the confines of powerful magic.

A juvenile ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) turning sharply as it flew over my position on the pier in Sunset Bay at White Rock Lake (2008_12_07_001460)

The world would fill my sight with vistas profound and indomitable.  Every tiny thing moving upon the ground and every flying beast flitting through the cosmos would bring to me visions meant for more powerful beings.

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] A female red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) soaring high above the family farm in East Texas.  She spent a great deal of time arcing beyond sight where the treetops shielded her from prying eyes, yet once in a while she came into view as she circled, climbing higher and higher with each pass, moving further into the distance as she began her hunt.

[2] A dule of rock doves (a.k.a. common pigeons; Columba livia) circling above Sunset Bay at White Rock Lake.  Seen at top left is the marvelously unique dove I first encountered in November.

[3] An American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) taking off near the sandbar in Sunset Bay.  Other pelicans remained wholly unimpressed with the giant bird as it skipped across the water’s surface while its powerful wings carried it aloft.

[4] A juvenile black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) remained unseen until it took flight, its plumage offering superior camouflage amongst the autumnal limbs already stripped naked by powerful winds and seasonal change.  The bird remained unnoticed while I visited the inlet that herons and egrets frequent, and it caught me by surprise when it took to the air.

[5] A great egret (Ardea alba) soaring above the shoreline.  I surprised it as I rounded the corner that provided it a reed-filled hiding place, but I found myself fortunate enough to suspect its presence before I stepped into the clearing where it hid.

[6] A juvenile ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) turning sharply as it flew over my position on the pier in Sunset Bay.

Facing east

I should know better than to take morning walks on the western shore of White Rock Lake.  It places me at a distinct disadvantage since I must spend most of my time facing into the morning sun.

Sometimes that works well, such as at the precise moment when the sun begins climbing over the trees perched on the opposite shore.

The sun rising over the trees blanketing the eastern shore of White Rock Lake (20081004_12985)

Like the otherworldly emissaries in “City of Angels,” as I watched this marvelous display I felt that perhaps I could hear music in the sunrise, an orchestra of harp and piano and violin expertly played to usher in a new day.  No maestro could compare.

And yet not too distant from that scene my path took me around a grove of trees and brought me face-to-face with a danger that hid openly in the rising sun.

A female orb weaver (unidentified; Araneus sp.) suspended in the center of her web as she waits for a meal (20081004_13097)

Its orb of silk spanning almost three meters/yards from ground to tree limb, this beautiful predator floated just above eye level where she disappeared in the brightness.  Mind you, had I not been looking down chasing a monarch butterfly, perhaps I would have seen her before my nose brushed against her web.

Nevertheless, I didn’t stick and she didn’t move.  No damage done, and she politely stayed put as I snapped a few photos from the only angle afforded me.  When I returned only a short time later, however, she had consumed the web in its entirety and retired for the day.

When at last I found myself standing on the bridge that spans White Rock Creek at the bottom of the spillway, I felt a thrill at sighting this marvelous creature.

A black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) hunting from the spillway steps at White Rock Lake (20081004_13124)

The sun damned me by lingering over my right shoulder.  Forced onto the footbridge so that I might keep the light from hitting the lens, I discovered why that bridge offers little hope of good photography: It’s made to give under the weight of traffic, to absorb the constant pounding of walkers, joggers and bikers through the simple act of bouncing.

That can be quite disconcerting, I assure you, as the whole bridge vibrates up and down with only a single person walking across it.  During this busy morning, it supported constant traffic.  Taking a picture while bobbing up and down uncontrollably proved more frustrating than I could tolerate, and it certainly forced me to utilize faster shutter speeds and higher ISO settings than I normally care for.

I left the heron to its stoic stance, impressed though I was with its immobile hunt that screamed of more patience than I could ever demonstrate.

Rambling beyond the old water treatment plant finally brought me to a surprise: Bird feeders right in the heart of our parakeet colony.

Monk parakeets (a.k.a. quaker parrots; Myiopsitta monachus) perched on a bird feeder (20081004_13169)

Although I can’t say for certain that they are maintained by the city (which would be quite a surprise), I do know they are on city property and nestled against the maintenance entrance to the old fish hatchery.  Dallas would score brownie points with me if I were to discover these feeders are in fact tax-payer funded; I’m sure many Dallasites would vehemently disagree with me on that point.

My options were to either stand in the lake or face into the sun in order to capture an image or two.  I chose the latter.  I didn’t have my waders with me, after all, so that seemed the best option despite the outcome.

I walked north to the old paddle boat area.  Ah, what fond memories I have of this place.  More than 30 years ago I enjoyed renting the boats and peddling my way across the water, feeling like a king in a raft for all the effort it took to move but a short distance while being surrounded with spectacular vistas and nature’s bounty.

But that was long ago.  Paddle boats disappeared from these parts decades ago, although one can still find kayaks available for those who arrive without their own water transportation.

My nostalgia ended abruptly when I discovered myself in the midst of one of the most fantastic migrations imaginable.

A monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) (20081004_13203)

With flora aplenty to satiate their need for sustenance and shelter, and with a whole lake full of refreshing water to drink, White Rock offers an autumnal show fit for royalty: a central place for monarch butterflies migrating to Mexico for the winter.

I spent hours in their presence, letting them perch upon me, snapping their portraits, walking through clouds of whispering wings, dancing beneath the canopy of a bald cypress where dozens of them had gathered to rest but were frightened into momentary flight by my presence…  That truly was like standing in the middle of a fantasy film, what with the cypress limbs hanging heavily around me like an umbrella of green and brown, and the air filled with butterflies swimming in lazy circles through the shadowy air.

No movie, no imagination, no special effects could ever capture that moment in its fullness.  Neither can words do it justice.

When finally my body screamed for relief from the heat of the day and the weight of my walk, I returned to the spillway for one last moment.  I stood once again on the trampoline bridge, my view damaged by the constant up-and-down motion—almost as much as was my patience—and I decided to call it a day.

At that very moment I heard the cries, the harsh, shrill call of a hawk.  Yet not one hawk.  The dissimilar voices echoed across the water, blanketed me with the challenge of locating whose fierceness drifted on the wind.

Too far away for me to recognize from where I stood and in a position that offered me only one clear view, I saw a large predator land in the treetops.  In thick woodlands that protected it from all angles save where I stood.

I knew I could not zoom in close enough to see it, yet I tried nonetheless.

A female red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) calling out from a treetop limb (20081004_13293)

By proportions alone I knew she was a female.  Her male brethren could never embody such leviathan size.

Sunlight pouring into my eyes and camera lens as I peered between treetops, she screamed upon the world harsh challenges to an unseen foe.  Who stood a chance against such a large predator?  Who made her feel the need to bellow war cries from atop the world?

I rushed to and fro looking for a better vantage.  None could be found.  The tree upon which she stood held her well over the water, well within the confines of dense forest resting at the foot of the spillway.  I lost her each time I took a few steps in either direction, although I tried strenuously to find a closer and better view.  The only one offered placed her as a silhouette in the disk of the rising sun.  No good.

So I remained where I could watch her, and watch her I did.  After several minutes of demanding peace from a cloaked enemy I could not find, she took flight, her strong wings flapping a few times as they lifted her body toward the heavens.

Then the challenger appeared.

An unidentified accipiter hawk chasing a red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) in flight (20081004_13296)

While not of her kith and kin, the pursuer was indeed another hawk, a smaller predator by any stretch of the imagination.  An accipiter, perhaps a Cooper’s hawk or a sharp-shinned hawk, its identity mattered little; that it pursued her relentlessly as she rose on the thermals made all the difference.

Though more maneuverable than she, the smaller bird of prey knew the most it could do was chase, pursue, challenge.  It could never overpower its larger cousin.

Erratic moves and countermoves punctuated their ascent, the smaller bird’s assaults ultimately meaning little as the female behemoth presented her strength in terms of climbing effortlessly despite the attacks.

The sky would be the field upon which they would do battle.

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] The sun rising over the trees blanketing the eastern shore of White Rock Lake.

[2] A female orb weaver (unidentified; Araneus sp.) suspended in the center of her web as she waits for a meal.

[3] A black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) hunting from the spillway steps.

[4] Monk parakeets (a.k.a. quaker parrots; Myiopsitta monachus) perched on a bird feeder.

[5] A monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).

[6] A female red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) calling out from a treetop limb.

[7] An unidentified accipiter hawk chasing a red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) in flight.