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.
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) 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]