Christmas Eve. Warm weather and plenty of sunshine beckoned me to the lake for an afternoon walk following yet another day of laborious boredom in the office. Someone has to pay the bills around here…
In the minute plus a few seconds it took me to walk down the private drive into the park, already I had to stop, had to take notice.
Have I mentioned how enamored I am of the tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)?
Something about such small bodies full of such attitude, full of such piss and vinegar.
They enthrall me.
This one clinging to the bottom of a large tree bellowed its opinions upon the still air as I stood beneath.
I love the attitude. I love that they join in the mobbing of predators even when all other participants dwarf them by leaps and bounds. I love that they scream their superiority upon the wind sans consideration for the size of all challengers.
I love their bigger-than-life personalities.
After watching this one pillage the trunk to which it clung, I moved on a bit, although I didn’t make it far before I came across a beautiful man who likewise yelled at me as I invaded his space.
A male red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) flitted from branch to branch prior to landing in the tree under which I stood.
I backed away from both plant and animal the moment I saw him so I could get a better view.
And he immediately complained about the encounter.
I’ve stood beneath this species as two of its kind tussled from high up until they fell to the ground with a thud.
A loud thud, one that worried me as I set my gaze upon the birds wrestling in winter grass.
Both took to wing as I tried to sneak closer, so no serious damage was done, although I feared for both of them with how far they fell and the rather abrupt stop that sounded like a bowling ball hitting the ground.
But on this day, this warm Christmas Eve, no challengers save me could be found, so no tussle ensued.
Yapping the whole way, he climbed further up the tree at which point I left him to his day.
While American black vultures usually play hard to find, turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) rarely miss an opportunity to be seen. They’re rather conceited that way, thinking themselves awfully pretty and awfully worth looking at.
After leaving the woodpecker to his quest for lunch, I stopped near the confluence in Sunset Bay to watch some people feeding the waterfowl. Sure, the city frowns on that practice and posts signs declaring as much, but people still do it. All the time.
I knelt in the brittle winter grass and wallowed in the sound of it crunching beneath my knees.
Then a shadow passed over me, a large one sweeping across the ground like a paint brush dripping with darkness wielded by a true artist.
I looked up.
The vulture had just started its climb into the air.
Despite being mostly behind trees from my perspective, a tiny space between two ligneous leviathans gave me the room needed to take a photo.
Such beautiful creatures these vultures, these seekers of death who can inflict it as easily as they find it inflicted by others.
Then a brief sound arose from the hoard jockeying for a bit of bread from the old couple feeding the wildlife. A raspy, throaty, scratching sound I know all too well.
A male great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) finished his declaration of supremacy with a downward sweep to inspect some shiny bauble that caught his attention.
Actually, it was a bit of bread tossed to him by the elderly man. He seemed to appreciate grackles as much as I do, a feeling rare in these parts where most feel grackles are a nuisance only.
The female grackle who remained close to him made less of a photographic subject as she darted to and fro.
Too bad, too, as she was as lovely as he in very different ways.
I think it’s unfortunate that people have released so many domestic swan geese and domestic greylag geese (Anser anser) at the lake.
Whether Chinese or African, these poor birds can hardly fly and have such a limited diet available that they require daily feedings from humans, something teaching other wildlife to depend on us for sustenance.
Yet would I wish them harm? Clearly: No.
What I do wish is for people to be responsible, to understand the repercussions of their actions, to appreciate the delicate balance this lake requires for it to sustain the biological niche it serves: a full and vigorous wildlife refuge surrounded by some of Dallas’s most inner reaches.
If you can’t stop feeding the wildlife, at least stop feeding them processed foods like white bread. It’s bad for them; it shortens their lives.
So when peripherally I saw this goose swimming by in the creek, I turned away from the grackle, shifted my knees on the ground, snapped this photo, and then wondered: How can you survive without people feeding you? How much living will you miss because you need whatever humans provide in the way of sustenance? How much sympathy can you expect from those who mindlessly tossed you here to eke out a living in a place that can’t support your kind?
Before welling up in tears, thankfully more swift movement from another direction helped me look away, helped me put those thoughts aside.
This American coot (Fulica americana) dashed at full speed toward where I knelt.
But not so much at me as by me.
For I knelt in the brittle, dry grass only an arm’s length from where the elderly couple stood feeding the birds.
I regret that the coot was moving so fast and was so close that I couldn’t get a good photo.
I don’t regret that it was moving so fast and was so close that I captured this full gallop image as it raced headlong toward a free meal ticket.
Unlike the geese, coots do just fine on their own and survive here sans handouts. But they’re thankful for the treats nonetheless.
It was then I tried gracefully to explain to the well-intentioned man and woman that feeding the animals doesn’t help, and I danced around and finally plunged headlong into saying the dinner rolls they offered made a terrible lunch for these animals, an unhealthy tidbit for humans and animals alike.
Blank stares mixed with offense drifted before me.
So I stood, my knees popping and cracking their complaints, and I turned away and walked to the pier.
American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) created perpetual motion with their comings and goings.
Some flew back to the bay after feeding while others flew out of the bay searching for lunch.
Catching this one winging its way back to the sandbar for some preening and rest gave me an opportunity to memorialize the pre-breeding beak.
You’ll notice there is no “horn” on top of its beak. That horn begins growing in January or February as breeding season approaches.
As each bird prepares to woo a mate and secure a chance at procreating, a growth forms on top of the bill that eventually becomes the pelican version of a rhinoceros horn.
I always know the pelicans will leave soon when all of them sport this neat little accoutrement.
For now I can see they’ll be here a while longer.
Although Sunset Bay is my favorite place at the lake, large crowds on a welcoming pre-holiday afternoon made it too busy for my tastes.
I headed south along the east shore.
The northern edge of Winfrey Point gave me a moment to stop and appreciate a perched double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus).
My approach caught its attention and it turned to watch me, its jewel-like blue eye capturing the sun with splendor.
But then I realized I was on the wrong end of the bird.
Immediately after I snapped that photo, it’s tail went up.
I pressed the button again.
Then the reason for the lifted tail become clear: This one was clearing its bowels.
I turned away at the last minute considering I was quite close and didn’t have much interest in seeing that from the business end of the bird.
Instead, I moved on.
I rounded Winfrey Point and saw gobs of people lining the shore as far south as Garland Road. Apparently visiting the lake had become a major draw.
Facing the horde totally stepped on my buzz; therefore, I circled around the point and moved uphill back toward Sunset Bay.
Walking through a winter field of dry grass around these parts can scare up some interesting creatures.
The most common field inhabitant is the killdeer (Charadrius vociferus).
I must have thrashed the afternoon nap of at least a dozen of these plovers.
When they’re resting in brown ground cover as they’re wont to do, they become marvelously invisible until they start moving.
And when they start moving, they put a sharp eye on the interloper—in this case, me!—and they make a ruckus to let the invader know a sacred territory has been breached.
I left them to their siesta and continued back toward the bay.
Feeling a bit like a lost child making loops through a store to find a parent only to keep seeing the same places over and over again, I passed boisterous crowds of people while trying to make my way through Sunset Bay and toward what I hoped to be quieter places near Stone Tables and places further north.
Along the way I couldn’t help but stop and appreciate some of the winter flora, like skeletal trees holding up the bones of the world for all to see.
And resting upon one such bone was this European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) in nonbreeding plumage.
I can agree with many that this species is invasive and that it has upset the natural order of North America.
I can also agree with many that this species makes life a lot more difficult for our native wildlife.
But I have to add this: We can’t undo what has been done.
Humans loosed the European starling onto this continent in an asinine attempt to introduce all the birds of Shakespeare upon the New World.
That didn’t go so well, at least for native birds who found a great deal of unhealthy competition suddenly set upon them by these aggressor species.
Nevertheless—and I repeat myself—we can’t undo what has been done, and we did it to ourselves.
So I accept the European starling as a disruptive element in our ecosystem.
I don’t like what it does and I don’t like the damage it inflicts, but I wouldn’t kill them all even if I could. They can’t be blamed for our actions.
I left the starling to its lonely afternoon.
And where did I end up again?
Right back at the pier in Sunset Bay.
The thick mass of humanity had cleared a bit. But only a bit.
I took the opportunity to crouch on the creaky wooden planks above calm water.
Lesser scaups (Aythya affinis) delight me to no end. The Daffy Ducks of the world, they tickle me with their cartoonish looks.
Yet animated and childlike though they might seem, they’re also quite beautiful.
These two males floated carefree not too far from where I dangled myself over the lake trying to take photos.
Do they look concerned?
Stand to leave.
Hear shrieking from the air.
Turn to look.
Busybodies fly all around ready to swoop from the sky and nab tasty goodies from anyone who offers—or who can’t withstand the assault.
This juvenile ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) screamed its way by me.
I seriously doubt it had any clue why it was screeching or what it thought it might get in return for the yelling.
Well, truth be told, people expend a lot of effort feeding the wildlife here.
The gull probably thought it worth asking if I had a little something to share.
But I had nothing but the camera.
The bird swept easily through the air and circled the pier for a moment or two, then off it went in search of other trouble.
Still too crowded for my tastes, I again left the pier, only this time I headed east along the creek. The riparian landscape heavy with trees and thickets always offers a different smorgasbord of creatures.
Where I had first photographed green herons and yellow-crowned night herons, only naked branches stood in the afternoon warmth.
But something else was there as well.
Tucked back in the many islands of the confluence perched this white-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica).
Okay, let’s be honest: I scared up a litany of animals. And I was on the opposite side of the creek!
Foraging in the crunchy, leaf- and twig-filled barren wasteland that is the winter ground, this dove became startled as I approached. It then flitted into a tree where it felt safe watching me.
In turn, I felt bad for bothering it and walked away as quietly as I could.
Which was about three steps before something else caught my eye.
Leaping from branch to branch as it nibbled at winter fruit and seeds, this Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) paused only briefly.
Its afternoon was full, you see, what with the whole chasing down lunch in winter thing that was going on.
Kinglets, titmice, woodpeckers, doves and other birds filled the area with the business of being busy, yet something about this little conspicuous critter held my attention.
It never moved closer to the edge of the creek where I might have had a clearer view.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed watching it through a barrier of naked limbs from where I perched on the opposite side of the waterway.
But then I had that feeling of being watched.
Strange how that works, how we somehow know when eyes are fixed upon us.
And I knew there were eyes resting all over me, intent and unflinching eyes.
So I turned.
I commented at Mary’s place recently about northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) being my always companions when I take walks.
No matter the weather, no matter the surroundings, no matter the time of day, it never fails that a member of this species will be nearby keeping close tabs on me. Even when all other birds scatter and hide, a mockingbird will fly in close and land in a place where it can watch me.
It’s become a sort of game, at least on my part. The challenge is to find the bird.
And I always find one.
This particular mockingbird chose a bright sunny branch dangling over the creek that gave it a clear view of my position.
To test its mettle, I walked intently back toward the lake. It hopped a bit further out on the branch to keep me in sight.
So I turned and walked back the other way, back toward the floodplain and Dixon Branch. Its eyes tracked me like a predator watching a meal.
I laughed and thanked it for keeping everyone safe from the dangerous man with the camera.
Walking at the creek’s edge toward the bridge that would let me cross to the floodplain, flashes of gold punctuated each step. Common dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) stood upright and showy, some still flowers while others had gone to seed.
A bit of movement on one of them drew me in closer.
A nymph. More specifically, a young eastern boxelder bug (Boisea trivittata).
With a telephoto zoom lens on the camera, macro photography was out of the question. In fact, I had to back away a few steps to get the scene in focus.
Sometimes I wish I could carry the whole camera store with me when I go for walks.
A true bug and not just an insect, these little critters can form rather large colonies when food is abundant. Just ask xocobra: He and his family had a massive group of them take up residence outside their front door.
I grinned as I left the child to its investigation of the dandelion.
The sound of claws scampering on wood drew my eyes up to the treetops.
A fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) ran from limb to limb, jumping from tree to tree, then paused when it realized I was watching it.
From my perspective, I knew it carried something in its mouth and I wanted to know what it was.
A bit of zoom and a button click made it clear: a wad of black plastic.
Nesting material I bet. Or at least hope. Yet also a sign of our lack of care and management. I’ve seen too much garbage harm too many creatures at this lake.
It always disappoints and angers me.
Seeing this little tree rat leaping about with this material made me hope it didn’t pose a threat later.
I crossed the bridge and left the path as quickly as possible to escape the growing throng of people. Who knew Christmas Eve was a major let’s-go-to-the-lake event?
Twigs and grass cracked and crackled beneath my feet as I walked onto the floodplain south of Dixon Branch.
Once I made it to the dry gulch that runs into the woods, I scared up a murder of crows perched in the trees above me.
Why crows are so skittish is beyond me. They were so high up in the tree and I was still some distance from them, yet they panicked.
I followed their progress through the treetops and slowly turned until I saw another fox squirrel joining an American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) for a spot of afternoon foraging.
I was too far away for a good photo, so I walked slowly toward them with one eye looking through the viewfinder as I clicked and clicked.
As if I had leaped upon it from nearby, the crow suddenly took to the air and headed right for the trees.
I wasn’t even close enough to throw a stone at it, let alone pose a risk.
I tried capturing the escape even though I knew I was too far away.
What I captured was something else.
Telephoto lenses aren’t particularly good at wide landscape shots. Still, this image tells a story.
In the upper-left corner is the crow landing in the trees. That’s simple enough.
Let’s talk about perspective: The branch that runs from the crow’s position to the right side of the picture actually juts out quite some distance above the floodplain. It’s a large, heavy branch.
Now follow that branch to the right side of the photo just about centered from top to bottom.
See a hint of red and brown perched amongst the branches?
A juvenile red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) sat in the tree in a place where it was perfectly camouflaged, a place that gave it a clear view of the birds and squirrels foraging in the open, a clear line of attack if only one of the animals would move far enough away from the thicket to give the hawk time.
I never realized the hawk was there as I walked toward the crows and squirrels. In fact, it wasn’t until I was within about five yards/meters that the hawk finally saw me as a nuisance and left its perch.
It scared the heck out of me, took me completely by surprise.
The predator made a quick leap into the air and turned immediately into the dense woodlands. Unlike its adult counterparts, it was still small enough to make a quick getaway through the branches, one replete with sharp turns and easy avoidance of the obstacles.
I wanted to kick myself for not seeing it sooner.