Sunday’s walk was punctuated with strong winds and bright sunshine. As I’ve developed a great deal of respect for the wind and what it can do while I’m trying to take photographs, not the least of which is knock me on my butt, I tried to direct my walk toward those areas where gusty onslaughts would pose the least problems.
I headed out my front door and walked to the north shore of Sunset Bay to see if I could find my kestrel friend (which I did), and from there I wandered south to Garland Road, then west to the spillway and into the Old Fish Hatchery Nature Area. Before I even reached Winfrey Point, however, I ran across some rather unique ducks.
Jenny once mentioned she walked at the lake and found herself in awe of the “baffleheads” swimming about near shore.
I corrected her on the name, and thereafter we both laughed uproariously in agreement that it probably wasn’t the ducks who were baffled.
I generally find buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) all along the eastern shore of the lake, and this time was no different.
As diving ducks go, they spend a great deal of time away from land where the water is deep enough for them to get below the surface and search for food, so getting close to one for a good photograph isn’t an opportunity that presents itself.
Add enough wind to create white caps that can hide in its troughs this small waterfowl and you can imagine the difficulty had with capturing an image.
No visit to White Rock Lake in winter can be complete without seeing the American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos).
Watching this one ski in for a landing was a delight indeed.
Having flown from the spillway where a great many pelicans remained engaged in a cooperative hunt, this one came in with direct aim at a cormorant carrying a fish.
The pelican pursued the other bird for a brief time, but the cormorant won.
Having escaped the much larger pelican who had set its sight on a free meal, this double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) scurried away from the gaping maws with a daring bit of fast swimming, after which it was left in peace to enjoy its catch.
While the fish might seem small, a cormorant seen earlier held a much bigger prize: a catfish at least three times as large as this one.
When it comes to how these birds eat, one thing is true: Nothing is too big or too small, especially in winter when more competition fills the lake with hungry mouths.
By the way: Although cormorants swim low in the water, this one is more than swimming low; it’s in a trough between high waves pushed across the lake by blustery winds. You’d normally see at least part of its back and the whole of its neck. Not this time, though.
Childlike, pied-billed grebes (Podilymbus podiceps) are so small and delicate that I always think of them as juveniles tossed out into the wild to fend for themselves.
This one struggling to swim against the onslaught of wind and wave beckoned for help solely by its appearance.
Don’t you want to just swim out there and help it? I know I did.
Photographing this species is one of the most difficult prospects imaginable. At the first perceived threat, they dive underwater and swim for all they’re worth, often moving several yards/meters in a random direction.
When they dive, all I can do is watch the entire area in hopes of spotting it when it surfaces. That’s assuming, I mean, that it surfaces within sight. That’s not always the case.
Great egrets (Ardea alba). Ubiquitous throughout the year along with a litany of other heron and egret species, these birds help define the essence of this lake. I can’t recall a single walk along its shores that didn’t offer at least one encounter with this large, stunning avian creature.
Perched on a bamboo float drifting against the ground, this beautiful adult captivated me with its grace, its agility, its pure essence defined by majestic white plumage.
It tolerated so many humans who passed by unaware of its presence. And a shame that was, too, for it remained there for quite some time, posing as it were, and anyone witnessing it from nearby was all the better for it.
At least until some nitwit let his dog chase the bird away. That’s a travesty of this lake: Too many careless people with unattended canines, and I’ve seen more than a few of those free-running dogs kill more than a little of the wildlife that lives here. Watching a mindless git pat his dog cheerfully as it holds a dead duck in its mouth is one of the more disgusting things you can ever see…
When I finally made it around the southern end of the lake to the Audubon park behind the spillway, I lost myself in dense woodlands and impassible marshes. The Old Fish Hatchery Nature Area remains one of my favorite haunts at White Rock. It provides year-round exposure to a plethora of nature’s marvels. Here I’ve seen many species of owl, hawk, eagle, egret and heron, chickadee, warbler, thrasher, duck, goose and many other birds, not to mention opossums, raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, two species of fox, snakes and turtles and lizards galore, and a litany of other denizens most would be surprised to find in the heart of DFW. Yet here they are and here they live.
The tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) is a mouthy little bird.
This one cried ad nauseam from dry marshlands as I circled on the trails and followed it through naked trees and evergreen shrubs.
Many times it became nothing more than a voice in the forest, a chattering life leading me from one footstep to the next.
It never lost sight of me, I suspect, as each time I found it again it was staring at me, yelling at me even. How delightful!
Because it lives here throughout the year, I fear I might take it for granted more often than I think (like so many other species that become mundane and ordinary). What a shame that is. This bird is such a joy to watch and hear.
As woodpeckers go, the northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) remains an enigma.
Less evident than the red-bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers yet still more obvious than the yellow-bellied sapsucker, this species seems easier to find at backyard feeders than within its natural habitat.
Well, perhaps it’s more visible at feeders than it is within its normal habitat given the density of trees within which I’ve always found it, not to mention its marvelous camouflage. A back yard is an easier viewing platform than is a forest overflowing with ligneous, verdant obstacles.
I stalked this poor female like a hapless teenager circling the block where my latest love lives. I’m not sure she made the distinction between that and a general nuisance.
What can be said about American robins (Turdus migratorius)?
They live here all the time, digging their way through yards looking for worms in the morning and flitting about trees and shrubs searching for fruit in the evening.
I scared up a handful of these birds when I stumbled—literally—and fell into a dry marsh replete with doves, robins, squirrels, flycatchers and sparrows.
They never saw it coming. Neither did I, especially as I brushed myself off and tried to act as though I meant to be in the dirt at that very moment.
Not even I believed as much.
Our winter has been anything but predictable.
Green anoles have come out of hibernation early to find insects scarce; some insects have arrived early to find the environment less than welcoming.
Some days are very warm; others are very cold. Mostly it’s warm, and the lack of rain worries everyone.
One of the marshes offered a great deal of wildlife, but it also protected them with dense reeds and shrubs that offered only a small hole here or there through which I could see.
Nevertheless, a log near shore seemed almost busy with a red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) warming itself alongside an unidentified turtle.
I wondered about them, wondered about what the weather would give them, and wondered how they might survive this distressing and confusing deluge of this and that.
Pushing my way through a thicket that had overgrown the trail, a menagerie of birds hailed my arrival with all manner of insults.
They didn’t like me forcing my way through the natural fence that protected them.
Yet even facing into the sun, I recognized this house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) who perched on a branch and screamed at me from behind a cloak of blinding sunlight.
His mate, only a wee bit to my right, held her own from behind an impenetrable shield of branches I eventually turned away from.
Later, as I wound my way through trails that hardly seemed used in ages, I appreciated more and more the position the finches held.
My every effort focused on protecting my eyes and the camera lens from assault by the world’s bony fingers, yet the finches rested comfortably within those skeletal hands.
I left the nature area after wandering for hours, all the while never seeing the same trail twice. I scampered back out into the bright sunshine and noisy city and returned the way I came, circling back around the south end of the lake toward home.
I marched along Garland Road with the lake sprawling out to the north with a host of waterfowl swimming in what looked like a large collection of flotsam.
Mixed in with the other birds was a handful of northern shovelers (Anas clypeata).
Although they hide quite well, this duck species can usually be found here in all but the hottest months.
Smaller than mallard ducks, they pass unnoticed for all but the careful observer.
I’m a careful observer.
They haunt the places where few go, skulk about in silence and shadow hoping no predator will notice.
I found this male swimming about with a few of his brothers and sisters.
Tired, my back aching from such a long walk, even I had to stop and take notice of this migrant.
The sun beating down on me, wind howling in my ears, my legs begging me to stop and let them rest, I stumbled along the edge of the lake many hours after I began my journey.
The flotilla of avians greeted my every step.
I noticed a paddling of gadwalls (Anas strepera) amongst the birds swimming and hunting.
Three males and two females all but escaped notice as they pretended to be detritus on the water, a bit of nondescript debris surfing the harsh waves.
The everyman of the duck world, these birds inspire me with their subdued colors.
It goes without saying that almost every encounter I have with a ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) is when it’s sleeping, usually large groups of them floating carefree with heads tucked beneath wings.
Finding this male swimming, his eyes open, excited me to no end.
That he and several others of his kind were so far away in rough water frustrated me to no end.
Thus is the curse of nature photography, I suppose.
And yet the other piece of the puzzle that enamored me of this moment is that another pied-billed grebe can be seen just behind the duck.
Oblivious to me since I was so far away and up high on a ridge overlooking the lake, for once the little critter didn’t vanish beneath the waves.
Instead, it just preened and floated along sans a care in the world.
When I finally made it back to Winfrey Point just south of Sunset Bay, I knew home was a few minutes away.
My feet had already started thanking me while my thirst had already started feeling quenched.
But as I walked through dry grass and listened to dry reeds play a woeful yet invigorating song as they danced in the breeze, I noticed a handful of birds flying back and forth along the shore.
I was facing south into the sun, yet even that didn’t stop me from recognizing the Forster’s terns (Sterna forsteri) hunting the shallows and occasionally skimming the water’s surface for a drink or plunging in to catch a small fish.
They spent most of the time cruising, though, passing me both coming and going as they repeatedly flew to and from territorial markers only they could see.
I passed through Sunset Bay without stopping as the warm weather had beckoned crowds of people to the park.
Throngs jogged and rode bicycles, others picnicked, some meandered as though lost, a few walked dogs or pushed strollers, a handful jockeyed for positions along the shore where they could snap a few pictures, and many engaged in whatever activities would keep them from facing the tumultuous city hidden behind the enclosing woods.
Not wanting to be mobbed in the virtual chaos, I shoved off and let my feet carry me toward home by way of following a creek.
When a belted kingfisher flew by me at top speed, a blue-and-white blur recognized only by its call, I noticed a smaller bird as it landed in a tree nearby.
A female yellow-rumped warbler (a.k.a. myrtle warbler or Audubon’s warbler; Dendroica coronata), dressed in the myrtle form plumage, perched on a limb and watched the goings on with an almost sad indifference.
Projection notwithstanding, she sang a bit as I stood beneath her and watched, after which she went her way and I went mine.
I returned home by early afternoon and began the quest to do some chores, download and process the images from my walk, read a bit, and spend time with The Kids.
Oh, but wait! You want to know about the encounter with “a creature rare in these parts that sent shivers down my spine for having seen it in the heart of Dallas“.
Let me tell you about that.
Near the beginning of my walk as I marched along the southeastern edge of the lake behind the arboretum, I noticed a large bird circling over the trees to the east. The treeline was too near and too dense for me to see it clearly, but I could see it was large.
Probably a vulture, I thought given its size, yet the colors vexed me a tad. With the bright sunny sky and where the sun was in relation to the bird and my viewing angle, I tossed off the issue as an optical illusion.
But I couldn’t take my eyes of the creature because its size and colors couldn’t be reconciled with any of the usual suspects, even if I considered the hues to be deceptive due to the sunshine and where I stood.
And something about the way it held its wings with the ends swept back a bit, not out straight like a hawk, eagle or vulture would do while soaring.
So I watched it as it circled nearer and nearer. It seemed to be heading directly for my position, and I knew that would mean I’d have about three seconds to snap photos once it came out from behind the treeline. After that, it would disappear into the bright sun.
Just as I realized my opportunity for a clear view would be extremely short, it finished its last arc and moved southwest. Right over me.
I pressed the button as quickly as I could while the bird flew overhead. The moment lasted a few seconds only, after which the massive creature vanished behind a curtain of bright light.
But I already knew what it was.
Ospreys (a.k.a. seahawk, fish hawk, or fish eagle; Pandion haliaetus) migrate through this area but don’t normally hang around long. Seeing one is a momentous occasion since the lake is in the middle of Dallas proper.
Neither an eagle nor a hawk, ospreys fill a biological niche that no other creature fills. It’s the only species in its family and genus, a bird of prey that inhabits all continents save Antarctica and that has no taxonomic siblings or cousins—only distant relatives.
This one had a wingspan of about two meters/six feet, so it was a fully grown adult.
After it disappeared in the sun’s brilliance, I had a new bounce in my step and an ear-to-ear grin on my face. Others around me who looked up to see what I was photographing didn’t appear to realize what they had seen, or they just didn’t care. Too bad.