Winter is a haven for birds


(Photo: Black-bellied Whistling Duck. Courtesy of Cornell Ornithology Lab.)

It’s literally freezing outside, but I took some moments to do a little bird watching. Since my office borders the waterway, I see a great many waterfowl around.

Last year, I saw an eagle catch a fish, land about 100 yards away and proceed to feed. Awesome sight. Today, despite the freezing temperature  – or perhaps because of it – water birds are congregating.

Herons, both great blues and whites, mallards, black-bellied whistling ducks, cormorants, a few terns and a gull all depending on the water for a meal.

 Mallards are migratory, but some live here all year long. Along the waterway, there are four drakes, one of which is an albino, who have masterfully kept all other drakes out of the area. I have seen fewer hens, although twice mallard hens have built nests in our parking lot and hatched eggs…waddling to the water with the ducklings in tow. Once, a duckling was left in the nest. One of the caring souls here took it home and added it to their small flock of domestic ducks. The little fellow grew to adulthood, only to be eaten by a hungry fox.

While cormorants and black-bellied whistling ducks tend to be around all year, there are more of them flying around in the winter. Both species are migratory.

Cormorants tend to spend their winters along the southern coastal states, but also winter in Oklahoma, Arkansas add eastern Tennessee. They spend summers in their breeding grounds of the northern states (Idaho, Montana, The Dakotas, and Canada – although they might extend east into Minnesota and Michigan.) However, some cormorants live along the Gulf Coast all year as well. People often see them on the edges of waterways with their wings outstretched. Because they are diving birds, their feathers tend to become waterlogged. They stretch their wings to dry the feathers. Cormorants can dive up to 25 feet.

Black-bellied whistling ducks are native to the valley and to Mexico, but they do like to overwinter here. As with all the migratory birds however, some live here all year long. These birds nest in mesquite, hackberry, willow, live oak and other trees. They especially like cavity nests in dead trees. They actually do whistle, and look more like geese than ducks. Ornithologists are recording that they are expanding the northern part of their range.

Great blue herons. These large birds feed on just about anything they can catch and swallow. While their favorite food is fish, they will eat ducklings, rats, mice, and other small mammals, frogs, and other birds. Although some are migratory, many of them do not migrate. Last year, a great blue with a broken wing wandered into as parking lot near here. The animal was almost as tall as me. A park ranger and myself finally cornered him, and with the help of a cast net, finally capture it. I took it to animal rehab where they repaired its wing and released it back into the wild. Great blues are a federally protected bird.

Great white heron. Also federally protected, the great white, unlike its more sedately colored cousin, tend to not migrate, although even if they do, their range is limited. Those along the Gulf Coast are generally permanent residents.

There are several elegant common terns in the lake as well. They spend their summers mostly in Central Canada, but their winter migratory regions encompass most of the coastal United States and Mexico. Terns will fly over water, hover there, and them plunge to catch prey. Sometimes they will also pursue insects on the fly.