Tag Archives: little blue heron (Egretta caerulea)

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)

Competition for resources

So I’m watching a snowy egret (Egretta thula) as it hunts in the shallows.

Snowy egret (Egretta thula) fishing in the shallows (2009_07_26_027911)

Several times I blow the picture I’m trying to take because I’m laughing too hard to hold the camera still.  Why?  Because the lively bird continually engages in a hunting dance similar to what the reddish egret does.

Snowy egret (Egretta thula) trying to scare up fish (2009_07_26_027884)

Suddenly the wings spread and flutter a bit, the bird runs and hops and dashes madly from place to place, and then it stops abruptly and watches, waiting to see if it scared up a fish or two.

Snowy egret (Egretta thula) fishing in the shallows (2009_07_26_027877)

Back and forth it goes as it repeats this entertaining behavior.

Little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) standing in the shallows (2009_07_26_027978)

Then along comes a little blue heron (Egretta caerulea).

Snowy egret (Egretta thula) chasing a little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) (2009_07_26_027934)

The snowy egret doesn’t like the competition and gives chase, its plumage flared up as it fusses at the dark bird.

Snowy egret (Egretta thula) stalking a little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) (2009_07_26_027973)

Not wanting any drama, the little blue heron moves away to give the snowy some room.  But the snowy follows…

Snowy egret (Egretta thula) watching a little blue heron (Egretta caerulea)(2009_07_26_027965)

And from then on, the little blue gets no peace whatsoever.  Each time it pauses, the snowy rushes over to harass it and make sure it doesn’t steal any fish.

Snowy egret (Egretta thula) following a little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) (2009_07_26_027964)

I watch this interaction for nearly 10 minutes.  Eventually, though, the little blue heron tires of the snowy’s bothersome antics and moves on.

Having secured its territory, the snowy flies away as well.

That leaves the great blue heron and the great egret to enjoy the bay all to themselves.

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]

The rookery – Part 2

It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know of wonder and humility. (Rachel Carson)

A torrid sun simmers from a cloudless sky.  Moist air rests on the skin like wet cotton.  Where the shade of trees gives respite from the heat, it likewise proffers habitat for a handful of mosquitoes looking to feast on unsuspecting people.

Hover flies dance in dappled sunlight filtering through the treetops.  Ants march one by one.  A robin flits to the ground to feed its squawking child as a squirrel nibbles on a newfound treat.  From somewhere deep within the motte a blue jay screeches.

A cacophony of alien voices fills the area, a menagerie of languages reminding me of the cantina scene in “Star Wars.”  Birds as large as space ships and as small as stones seem anchored to the ground by eerie shadows dragged beneath gossamer wings.

All the while, the sound of automobiles rumbles from every direction…

When nature learns to thrive where concrete and steel have replaced grass and trees, the aware mind can discover great magic.  The spell cast by such places provides urbanites a glimpse of what has been forgotten.  The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center rookery brings within the city walls a source of awe and power unlike any other place in the DFW metroplex.

The school reports annually to Texas Parks and Wildlife on the nesting season.  This is an excerpt from last year’s summary:

2008 nesting summary for the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center rookery

Multiply those numbers by two for an understanding of the total bird population before chicks are born.

A white ibis (Eudocimus albus) perched in a tree (2009_06_13_023014)

Although the UTSWMC rookery lies 300 miles/480 kilometers from the the Gulf of Mexico, it still attracts coastal species like anhinga, tricolored heron and white ibis.  They join year-round residents such as great egret, black-crowned night-heron and cattle egret, as well as summer residents like little blue heron and snowy egret.  But only the gregarious need apply: the solitary great blue heron and the secretive green heron visit only in rare cases, and neither would dare nest in the vicinity of such a boisterous crowd.

A brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) lurking in the understory (2009_05_17_019865)

Large birds account for the most obvious inhabitants even though smaller birds occupy the area as well.  Hawks also know of the UT Southwestern Medical Center rookery and the smorgasbord it offers, and it can be a sight indeed when a buteo sweeps in and captures a meal.

A little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) in thick foliage (2009_05_17_019677)

Already there is new life.  And death.  Nesting boils down to a numbers game: the more children you have, the more you can lose while still being successful at procreation.  Accidents, predation, disease, environment and competition take their toll on adults and chicks alike.  Thus is the way of things.

A cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) in the treetops (2009_06_20_023922)

In this tiny plot of land surrounded by urban mayhem, habitat loss has given rise to adaptation.  So little natural space is left for such creatures.  That might explain the glut of species packed tightly together in the middle of the city, each vying for a chance at survival as seen through the eyes of future generations.

An anhinga (a.k.a. water turkey or snakebird; Anhinga anhinga) on its nest (2009_06_13_023050)

To again quote Rachel Carson: “Like the resource it seeks to protect, wildlife conservation must be dynamic, changing as conditions change, seeking always to become more effective.”  The birds in the rookery seem to understand this concept.  But do we?

[While I have sent multiple requests to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center asking for comments about the rookery, I have yet to receive a response.  I’m now utilizing the back door for that effort.]

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[1] White ibis (Eudocimus albus)

[2] Brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum)

[3] Little blue heron (Egretta caerulea)

[4] Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis)

[5] Anhinga (a.k.a. water turkey or snakebird; Anhinga anhinga)

[cross-posted to The Clade]

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge – Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[cross-posted to The Clade]