Tag Archives: ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis)

Winter visitors – Part 3

Like sheets of rain they arrive, waves of life washing over the land in downpours of sight and sound.  Even within the confines of a hectic city, the torrent of wing beats can drown out the cacophony of metropolitan noise, and the flood of songs and calls can fill a cloudless sky with a storm of beautiful music.

More appear each day.  Great billowing tempests borne of feathers in flight roil over the horizon.  Thunderous roars fill the air as the winter landscape takes form and innumerable species come to fill the barren trees.

For those parched and in need of nature’s bounty, no better flood can be found.

A western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) perched in a treetop (2009_11_01_036709)

Where eastern meadowlarks abound, a singular voice grabbed my ear.  A western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta).  Just looking at it I would have assumed it to be its eastern cousin.  The bluestem and wildflowers hid many of their kind, yet this bird came with a song that could be from no other species.  I stood and photographed it in the treetop where it came to rest…then heard another further across the meadow.  Though both meadowlark species live yearround in Texas, only the western meadowlark migrates into Dallas for winter, coming to spend the cold season with eastern meadowlarks who are always here.

An American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) feeding in a withering thicket (2009_11_26_041988)

Drab little American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis).  Winter is a mix of breeding and nonbreeding plumage, with ducks arriving in their impressive best while finches and warblers arrive in the drab clothes of disinterest.  But while they stay and feast and wait for spring, they change their outfits until early next year they have donned the gayest apparel of bright colors and stunning patterns.  So for now we don’t blame the goldfinch for visiting in such a mundane outfit, for we know these next few months will contain marvelous transformations resulting in the freshest and brightest hues.

A Forster’s tern (Sterna forsteri) flying overhead (2009_11_01_036572)

Though in time for breeding season its head will take on a stunning black cap and face and its beak will turn brilliant orange with a black tip, this Forster’s tern (Sterna forsteri) still demonstrates that a dash of color is better than no color at all.  And these birds will freshen their plumage in time for spring migration.  Until then, however, they dive and dine and outrun the gulls who try to take their meals.

A cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) perched in a treetop (2009_11_28_042792)

Intoxicating.  No word better describes the cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum).  A creature airbrushed with subtle hues and transitions coupled with a bold mask and lively crest.  Flocks of a few birds to many dozens flit from tree to tree.  They swarm into the air and move like a single organism, the whole of their numbers rolling and banking, little voices calling all the while.

A marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris) hunting through withering reeds (2009_11_26_040944)

It took more than an hour of sitting in wet grass to finally capture a photo of this marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris).  Like all its wren cousins, it’s a chatty critter who talks constantly while it hunts.  The reeds in which it stands kept it nothing more than a voice occasionally mingled with a shadow hidden deep.  Then suddenly it exploded into the open, perched, stared.  One click of the shutter was the amount of time it took for the bird to return to its search for sustenance.  Delightfully energetic little thing, and one whose yammering makes it easy to locate—though not necessarily see.

A ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) flying overhead (2009_11_26_041010)

The most numerous and in-your-face gull species to settle here for winter: the ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis).  Opportunistic bullies they are, giving chase and mobbing anyone with food.  So it was with a sense of cosmic justice that I watched the tables turned by great-tailed grackles who kept chasing the gulls away from a spot of bread tossed to them by a passerby.  And in the rare instance when a gull succeeded in grabbing a piece, the grackles swarmed the larger bird and forced it to flee, often without the food in question.  Gulls are fun and gregarious creatures, though, and their personalities make a walk at the lake as entertaining as it can be.

Some flew this path before

The crystal river flows south these days.  Winged ones swim from home and hearth toward winter vacations in warmer climes.  Some journey to the end of the river while others find respite along its shores.  I watch some dive in and leave, not to be seen again until next year; I watch others arrive from upstream who only stay until spring; and I see those who do not travel the winding path of the migration flow, but who instead live all year upon the banks we call home.

A male wood duck (Aix sponsa) in breeding plumage as he floats on still waters (2009_02_13_008550)

Unlike most birds, ducks molt twice per year: once in late summer to early autumn as they don their breeding plumage, then again in late spring to early summer as they dress in eclipse plumage.  This male wood duck (Aix sponsa) has just finished putting on his breeding best, and the result is what I consider to be the most beautiful duck plumage on the planet.  Though this species lives here all year, wood duck numbers grow dramatically in winter as northern populations move south.

Two juvenile ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis) arguing atop a light post (2009_02_13_008370)

Two juvenile ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis) disagree about how many birds can comfortably sit atop the light post.  Along with a variety of other gull and tern species, these birds spend winter here before returning to homes that don’t get as hot.  Only the interior least tern lives and breeds at White Rock Lake in summer, though many gull and tern species visit regularly; those numbers grow dramatically in winter.

An Eastern kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) perched in a tree (2009_04_16_015208)

Eastern kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) live and breed here, but as most other flycatchers do, they must head south in winter lest they starve for lack of food.  Yet even as innumerable insectivores like these move away, others fill the void—for our weather limits but does not prohibit insects in winter.

A clay-colored sparrow (Spizella pallida) sitting in an evergreen tree (2009_05_04_017996)

Clay-colored sparrows (Spizella pallida) stop only to grab a meal and some rest, then they wade back into the airborne river and swim southward.  For them, deep South Texas is as far north as they will stay in winter.  This one nibbled on evergreens with some friends before taking flight.

A female barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) standing on the side of a bridge (2009_05_04_018028)

This female barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) no doubt will return in spring to mate and nest.  Perhaps she will return to the same bridge where I found her, a footbridge under which barn swallows brood and raise young every year.  In spring they will fill the air with song and aerobatics.  For now, however, they drift on the currents that move steadily away, always toward warmth, a mass of life following autumn’s progression toward the spring that lies just beyond the equator.

A male common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) rustling his feathers (2009_05_04_018317)

This male common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) stood on the pier and rustled his feathers as if shaking off the gloomy prospect of migration.  This species is a yearlong resident, though populations further north move here in winter to escape the colder weather.  By December at least two grackle species will fill the mornings with noise and antics, hundreds of them perching along overhead wires at nearly every road intersection.  And when they move to find food, they move en masse in a boisterous cloud that would embarrass whole flocks of European starlings.

A western kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis) perched on a branch (2009_05_17_019847)

Like their eastern cousins, western kingbirds (Tyrannus verticalis) thrive in the warm months that provide bountiful invertebrates for flycatchers.  But the buffet dwindles as cooler weather prevails, hence the kingbirds take flight and join the army of life heading south.  They will be gone only until spring when autumn filters into the southern hemisphere.  I already miss their voices.

A female red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) perched in reeds (2009_05_31_020987)

Not a day goes by when I can’t see a red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus).  This female watching me soon will be joined by more of her kind who arrive on the crystal river and come ashore to overwinter with friends.  In the coming months these birds will fill every reed bed around the lake, a cacophony of life filling the dormant winter browns with vigorous antics and delightful song.  Many faces will join hers, and walks around White Rock Lake will proffer scenes like this multiplied a thousandfold.

[more migration photos coming]

put on your faces – ring-billed gull

Close-up of a ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) at dusk (2009_02_13_008347)

Ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis); adult

[interesting note: the darker bird in the background is a juvenile ring-billed gull; both sitting on the pier at dusk, they moved like they were attached to each other, always looking in the same direction; it made for an interesting series of images where it looked like the background bird was a young reflection of the foreground bird]

Nature’s handiwork

One need not look beyond nature’s own doing to find beautiful things, exquisite and lovely forms so picturesque that they must be the purest variety of art ever known.

A knot clinging to the base of an ancient colossal tree (20080224_02332)

A knot clinging to the base of an ancient colossal tree.

Morning thunderstorms moving in from the west (2008_12_27_003468)

Morning thunderstorms moving in from the west.

A ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) at sunset (2009_02_13_008424)

A ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) at sunset.

An American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) landing on the water (2009_02_14_008604)

An American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) landing on the water.

A white fawnlily (a.k.a. white trout lily; Erythronium albidum) in dappled sunlight (2009_02_22_010626)

A white fawnlily (a.k.a. white trout lily; Erythronium albidum) in dappled sunlight.  (Yes, the flowers always lean down.)

Large, woolly vines grow on some of the larger trees around the lake (2009_03_07_012204)

Large, woolly mature poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) vines grow on some of the larger trees around the lake.

Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) creates its own alien landscape (2009_03_07_012194)

Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) creates its own alien landscape.

A mallard drake (Anas platyrhynchos) rests at the base of a reed bed (2008_12_25_003334)

A mallard drake (Anas platyrhynchos) rests at the base of a reed bed.

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.