Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Baytown Nature Center photos, July 5th 2014 - whistling ducks, mosqutioes, & more

A perfect summer afternoon: cloudy, relatively cool, a nice slight breeze. And as far as I could tell, I had the entire no-fishing section of the park to myself!

Something I'm interested in creating is a super-simple, short but effective guide to identifying the herons of this area, for the use of folks who don't typically leave the house armed with a heavy pair of binoculars and multiple field guides. With only a little bit of luck it's not hard at all to see nine species of herons on any given trip to this nature center, and if you know which key points to look for -- overall size, leg and beak color, body color -- they're not hard to distinguish. All these herons can be seen in my own backyard, too, and so I'm aiming to make something my non-birding family can use to easily identify species they see in the yard.

So I walk into the nature center with that goal in mind: getting used to looking at herons from that perspective, thinking about their shapes and identifying markers, and hopefully snapping some pictures I can use for reference.

I luck out by stumbling across a pair of usually-elusive Green Herons. Often these guys are thick in the foliage, and I don't get to observe them for more than a few minutes. They're one of the smallest heron species we see around here. One awesome thing about this pair was that I could actually tell them apart; even in this admittedly-not-very-great photo you can see that the skin between eye and beak (the lore) is much thicker in the lower individual.

They look very different with their necks stretched out!
Zoomed in.
While I was watching the herons, I noticed Black-bellied Whistling Ducks were gathering at a nearby tree and sticking around. When one of the herons flew to the ground beyond my sight, and the other spent the remaining 10+ minutes of my attention simply preening and observing the scenery, I moved closer to the ducks so I could see what was going on there.

Whistling ducks! ...and one White Ibis! The ibis was hanging out there before the ducks arrived.

Landscape shot, to set the scene. I just sat across the road. At first the ducks were tense, watching me, but it didn't take long for them to relax, to start preening and whistling softly amongst themselves.

A young Yellow-crowned Night Heron, startled by my presence, flew up from the marsh to perch between the lone ibis and one of the ducks.

Another night heron, in a tree across the marsh from the ducks.

Now while I was watching these ducks, I noticed an unusually large and colorful mosquito, perched on my sleeve:

I have no idea what kind of mosquito this is. Pretty neat, though!

Also saw this cool bug. Again, no idea what it is! Bugs, they're overwhelming! It kept moving around to the underside of leaves whenever I tried to get a closer look at it, but it did hold still long enough to get this picture.

Now the ducks are relaxed. Every once in a while a new duck or two flies in, giving its loud whistly call, and the other ducks return that loud whistly call, and if the new duck perches too close to one of the original ducks a slight squabble might ensue, with the original duck giving what looks like a somewhat gentle nip, maybe two if the other duck isn't quick enough to get the message, and there will be some wing flapping and quick shuffling away. Sometimes one duck will move over to a different part of the tree. Sometimes they'll all just sort of whistle and murmur, the soothing, gentle hum of a duck crowd. But mostly they just sat there and preened. One time the ibis displaced a duck by simply moving towards it.

The ducks are all incredibly pretty and soft-looking through binoculars. And unlike those two herons, they all look exactly the same to me. Eventually I tired of watching the duck hangout tree and moved along. The ducks watched me go by, without flying away. By then the ibis was long gone, having flown far out of sight.

I stopped to photograph these wild flowers in front of a pond, and to my delight, some BABY WHISTLING DUCKS swam into view!

They were accompanied by two adults (the other adult trailed a ways behind), and there are, at least, thirteen ducklings there. The two adults hurried these youngsters to the edge of the pond, the other adult catching up to swim at the rear of the group, where they sat next to a bunch of reeds, and simply stayed there, watching me and certainly waiting for me to leave. I didn't want to bother these duck parents too much, so I went ahead and left. This pond is, by the way, just around the bend from the Duck Hangout Tree. And I have seen baby whistling ducks before, at this nature center, last year at a different pond. It was great to see more of them this year! A day with baby ducks is always a good day.

I thought these flowers were cool; they're about the size of my thumb, and I'd never noticed them before. I know even less about flowers than I do about bugs, so once again I have no clue what they are.

More wetlands are being created in the park, so there are these large empty pools of water by the bay. I stopped to watch and take pictures of the Great Blue Heron and Great Egrets that were wading around in this pool, but then I noticed, on the far shore, three Black Skimmers, just resting on the dirt:

I love Black Skimmers, but I don't see them all that often, so whenever I do, it's a treat! They're both beautiful and funky-looking, with long, sleek wings, and bright orange uneven beaks. I think this is the first time I've ever seen them just resting, and not flying and skimming the waters of the bay. They were quite far away so I couldn't see them very well, but it's just nice to know that they're in the area.

That Great Egret I mentioned. I tried to get a lot of quick photos like this, to get a sense of what herons really look like in the field, and how I can translate this into a guide for easy identification. You know it's a Great Egret, not just because it's the largest of any of the solid-white herons you're likely to see, but because it is the only solid-white heron with black legs and a yellow beak. White body, black legs, yellow beak = Great Egret.

I got glimpses of many cardinals in the more forested areas of the park, and a photo of this male singing.

Lastly, my favorite photo of the day from a purely artistic standpoint, another White Ibis: