In May of 2014 we visited one of our favorite birding destinations twice – Brazos Bend State Park. This location offers a wide variety of habitats ranging from freshwater lakes, to marshes, woodlands, and open grassy areas. It attracts a wide variety of birds, including ducks, waders, flycatchers, wrens and raptors. And so much more! This edition of the blog presents birds from May 3rd and May 31st.
This is a good example of something that occasionally drives new birders a little bit nuts – a bird with a name that does not accurately match its appearance! So this is a Red-bellied Woodpecker… OK great, so where’s the red belly? If you look closely at this photo you will see a reddish tinge on the lower belly of the bird, just above the Spanish Moss and tree bark this guy is perched on. That’s it! While these woodpeckers are quite common in our area, we are actually near the southwestern limit of their range. The males of this species are known to drum to attract mates, and in urban areas will see out metal roofs and gutters and even transformer boxes to tap out their calls to prospective mates.
Great Blue Herons are quite common throughout the region and have been the subject in previous blogs. They are so darned photogenic though I just can’t resist sticking one in from time to time. They are the largest Heron, with a six foot wingspan. And while they naturally prefer watery habitat where they hunt their dominant prey of fish and other aquatic animals, they may also be seen in open grassy fields. There is a well-known Utube video of one stalking, spearing and then eating a gopher in the middle of someone’s lawn! If I were a little four inch gopher and I saw this guy staring at me I think I’d skedaddle down my gopher hole!
On our late May stroll through the park we found two separate nests with Black-crowned Night Heron chicks. These juveniles have a long way to go in terms of growing into their adult good looks! This was actually quite a warm day, and these young birds were trying to stay cool by pulsating their throats. They looked a little bit like they were panting very rapidly. Young of this species will often disgorge their stomach contents if disturbed. This is convenient for ornithologists wanting to study their diet.
Prothonotary warblers are found in our area in the summer months. They breed here and throughout the eastern United States. In winter they migrate south to the tropics – coastal Yucatan and beyond. This is a medium-sized warbler with beautiful golden yellow, olive green and blue-gray plumage, as you can see in this shot. Their preferred habitat is flooded bottomland, wooded swamps and the like. Sounds like Brazos Bend SP! They eat mostly insects but will also consume fruits and seeds. The Prothonotary Warbler is endangered in Canada, and in the US the disappearance of its favorite habitat, mangrove swamps, may soon present a threat to populations.
Here is another good fit for the swampy habitats of Brazos Bend – a Little Blue Heron dining on one of its favorite prey, a nice tasty crawfish! After snaring a crawfish, the bird will whack it against the ground until it knocks off both of the claws. Then the mud bug will slide down the throat a lot more easily. Yumm! Little blues have a beautiful slatey-blue coloration which grades into a rusty brown around the neck and throat. The bill is also grayish-blue, with a darker tip. They are year-round residents here and all along the coastal southeastern US.
Like many other species, Little Blue Herons appear much different in their immature form. Young little blues are actually 100% white, with lighter bills and legs. Novice birders may initially assume they are seeing Snowy Egrets, but careful observation will reveal differences in bill shape and coloration of legs and feet. As they mature, Little Blue Herons will gradually molt into their adult dark coloration, as this bird is doing. Snowy Egrets actually tolerate the close presence of the white juveniles much more than the darker adults, and the two may often be seen feeding together. This benefits the little blues, as they are more successful at prey capture when they are with snowies.
And last but certainly not least when visiting Brazos Bend, there are the ever-present alligators. In late May the bull ‘gators were feeling romantic and frisky. We heard them growling and roaring in several places and at one point this male emerged from the water hyacinth (or whatever this stuff is – a little help, Enchanted Gardens people?), and huffed and puffed for a couple of minutes. It was a good reminder of what may lurk below the surface!