Sloughing Off at the Slough

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One of my favorite Texas sayings, common as cornbread, certainly applies to turkey vultures. Hopping along roadsides, guarding their carrion, or awkwardly flapping away to cluster on the branches of dead trees, they’re so common they’re rarely noted, and more rarely remarked.

Vultures tend to feed and roost in small flocks, so this pair, relaxed and sun-saturated atop an old tank, seemed unusual. I stopped the car and stepped out, browsing the landscape for more birds. The skies were empty. So were the fence posts, the windmill, the ditches, and the roof of a small, nondescript shed.

At the time, I didn’t know that turkey vultures often seek solitude during mating season. Foregoing nests, pairs separate themselves from the larger flock in order to lay their eggs in the shelter of rocky ledges, hollow trees, or even deserted buildings. I may have found a mated pair: birds who’d found a cozy, out-of-the way place to raise their family. On the other hand, since it’s hard even for experts to distinguish girl vultures from boy vultures, the birds could have been a couple of hens trading gossip, or two dudes, just hanging out.

Unwilling to disturb them, I lingered at the ditch’s edge, toying with other explanations for their behavior. Maybe they’d found a nice, big carcass, and were indulging in a post-dinner nap. We’d had a stretch of wet, gloomy days; perhaps they’d found the warmth of the metal appealing. Then, it occurred to me. Perhaps they were the lazy ones of the flock: birds who’d decided to spend Sunday afternoon just sloughing off.

All around the sloughs and ponds of the wildlife refuge, it did seem as though sloughing off was the order of the day.

Seemingly captivated by a growing conflict across the water, this plump American coot (Fulica americana) and colorful Northern shoveler (Anas clypeata) could have been watching Netflix.

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In fact, they were watching a determined and quite noisy grackle harass a sleeping white ibis (Eudocimus albus). I watched, too, until the ibis woke with an expression that seemed to say, “Who let this guy into the hotel?”

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Stretching one leg, then the other, the ibis unfolded with a sigh, gave the grackle a look of consummate irritation, and headed for the water. I swear I heard him saying, “Well, as long as I’m up, I might as well get a snack.”

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This little pied-bill grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), was more courteous to his sleeping neighbor. Circling a coot, the grebe caused barely a ripple. Even its dives — for a fish, a crawfish, perhaps for an insect — were neat and tidy.

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Eventually, the coot awoke and began to preen, and the grebe slipped quietly away.

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A pied-bill grebe decked out for mating season is a delightful sight. Its thick, silver and black-banded bill is the reason for the pied in its common name. The word comes to us from Middle English, where it referred to the black and white magpie. Later, the word came to mean “decorated or colored in blotches,” as in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, “Pied Beauty”:

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough
     And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

The pied-billed aren’t particularly sociable, and rarely flock. Shy and solitary, they’re quick to dive, often hide in vegetation, and sometimes respond to perceived threat by sinking down into the water until only their head remains visible. Water trapped in their feathers gives them a good bit of control over their buoyancy, so they can expose as much or as little as they please.

Like dabbling ducks, (mallards, teal, widgeon, and others) coots also “tip tail” when searching for food.

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More closely related to sandhill cranes than to ducks, coots belong to a family (Rallidae) which includes rails and gallinules. Awkward in flight, they’re even more graceless during take-offs and landings, and the long, running starts necessary to get them airborne are faintly ridiculous. They do migrate, but guidebooks say they travel mostly at night: perhaps to avoid embarassment.

Among their favored foods are the stems, leaves, and seeds of sedges and grasses, and a variety of algae. They’ll often dive down to pull fresh sprouts, and sometimes find themselves tangled in dinner when they resurface. In Cajun country, where coots are known as poule d’eau, or water hens, they may find themselves on the dinner table, served up in a tasty poule d’eau gumbo.

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Like coots, common gallinules (which used to be called moorhens) also dabble and dive. They’re quiet and secretive birds, but those candy-corn-like bills and facial shields tend to give them away. Even in a stand of thick reeds or other vegetation, it’s not hard to see the flashes of red, yellow, and orange that signal their presence.

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While vultures snoozed and other water birds dabbled, dove, or waded their way through the afternoon, this pair of Northern shovelers (Anas clypeata) were rousing themselves for an afternoon swim.

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Among the most elegant of water birds, the shape of the shoveler’s bill makes clear how it received its name. 

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the shoveler’s bill has about 110 fine projections called lamellae along its edges. It “forages by swimming along with its bill lowered into the water. Seeds of sedges, bulrushes, saw grass, smartweeds, pondweeds, algae and duckweeds, as well as aquatic insects, mollusks and crustaceans, are consumed by filtering the water, which is taken in at the bill tip and expelled from its base.”

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Several guides, including Audubon, note that the shoveler doesn’t commonly tip its head and upper body forward into the water. According to other guides, it seldom dives, and rarely up-ends.

Seldom and doesn’t commonly are ambiguous, of course, and rarely doesn’t mean never.

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Ogden Nash may have been thinking of other dabblers — particularly the mallards — when he wrote his verse, but it applies equally well to this pair of shovelers:

Behold the duck.
It does not cluck.
A cluck it lacks.
It quacks.
It is specially fond
Of a puddle or pond.
When it dines or sups,
It bottoms ups.

Meanwhile, back on land, grackles chattered and chirred.  One, obviously out of sorts, flew over to voice a complaint.

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“You think it’s all sunshine and shrimp dinners around here?” he said. “You think it’s easy, living among these preening water birds? Let me tell you — there are times this isn’t such an easy world.”

“What’s the problem?” I asked. “It can’t be food, since you don’t eat what a duck eats. Is it a territorial squabble?” “Unfortunately, not,” he said, “though I hope to find a girl to fight over. Right now, it’s getting a bath that’s the problem.”

That stopped me. “There’s as much water as land around here,” I said. “Can’t you find a suitable pool?” “I suppose I could,” he said, “but I have a favorite, and I can’t use it. Look.”  He tipped his head, pointing with his beak to the bank across the road.

Following his gaze, I stared at the bank. “I think it’s time for Plan B,” I said. With just the slightest tremor of a wing and a spread of his tail, he said, “I don’t have a Plan B.”  “Well,” I said, “I think you need to make one.”

(Part 1 of 2: to be continued)

As always, comments are welcome.

124 thoughts on “Sloughing Off at the Slough

  1. Your photography complements your writing. Very nice images of the waterfowl, but my favorite is the grackle. What an attitude. And incidentally, the vultures have returned to Big Bend for the summer, right on schedule, and common as cornbread.

    1. San Juan Capistrano may have its swallows, but we have our vultures. Ungainly as they are on land, there’s no better sight when they begin to kettle. On the other hand, our coots began flocking up a few weeks ago, and my sense is that they’re already in the process of leaving. One day I’ll look over the water, and most will be gone until next fall.

      Isn’t the grackle fine? I really do love the little grebe, but that grumpy expression is priceless.

  2. What lovely sightings! Did you take these with your new camera? They are sharp and colorful. I don’t usually see these ducks except the shovelers. Wonderful that you have a sanctuary for them. Looking forward to Part 2.

    1. Arti, the Texas coast is dotted with sanctuaries. Here’s a one-page summary of the habitats found at the Brazoria refuge, where these photos were taken.

      I’m glad to know you have the shovelers, too. They’re beautiful birds, and fun to watch.

      I was using the new camera. The grackle photos were taken on a separate trip, with the 18-135mm lens. The rest were from a trial run with a new 70-300mm lens. I realized pretty quickly that photos of birds a good distance away just weren’t going to be possible with my first lens. Now I have the equipment, and it’s time to practice and learn.

    1. You think the grackle was cranky? Just wait. He was willing to express his displeasure even more directly.

      The shoveler is the only actual duck here. The coots, moorhens (sometimes called a water-hen) and grebes belong to different families. Curious, I found that there are three species of grebes in Australia. I must say, they’re just as cute as ours.

      1. You might be pleased to learn the Green Party has managed to close down a huge water and wet-land area to the annual bird-shooting event in Victoria. A win for birds especially the ducks.

        1. I don’t know anything about that event, so I can’t really comment. At this Brazoria refuge, and at nearly every other refuge I visit along the coast, both fishing and waterfowl hunting are allowed. Since wildlife management and conservation are the primary purposes of the refuges, target populations and season length often change from year to year, as do bag limits.

          A combination of factors led to the duck population in Texas hitting a 60-year high in 2015. Given the fact that Texas overwinters 90% of the duck population of the central flyway, that’s a lot of ducks! If you’re interested, there are more details here.

          Not everyone agrees with every decision made by the State when it comes to limits, seasons, and target species, but there’s no question that, through droughts on one hand and hurricanes on the other, the duck population has thrived. It’s nothing short of a miracle that the upper coast refuges are open, populated, and thriving, after what they went through with Hurricane Ike. I’m not a hunter myself, but I’m glad those who are have the opportunity.

  3. Linda,
    You’ve been out and about and very observant. Your photos are beautiful. The pair of upended shovelers made me laugh. Fun post!!

    1. Aren’t those shovelers something? I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get a decent photo of that dual-dabble, but it worked. I hadn’t thought of Esther Williams for years — decades, maybe — but when I read that the shoveler isn’t “supposed” to do much bottoms-up diving, I thought, “Well, may Esther’s been around to teach some synchronized swimming.”

      I’m glad you enjoyed the little trip through the refuge. I’m certainly enjoying my time there.

  4. How fortunate that you caught the upended shovelers; especially since they rarely upend themselves. What is going on in the cranky grackle’s bath? I’m anxious to find out. Lots of information given in such a charming and delightful way.

    1. Oneta, there were so many shovelers “tipping tail” that day, both males and females, that I wondered about the descriptions in the books. Perhaps conditions at the refuge were just right for that technique to be favored: lots of luscious greens at the right depth. In any event, they were doing it, and I saw it, and now you’ve seen it, too.

      And next, you’ll see what the grackle’s problem was, and how he solved it. I hope you’ll find that part of the story just as delightful.

  5. They are all so beautiful photographs, dear Linda, and how amazing story, and how fun, I loved. Poetry, thoughts, photographs, they are all so impressive. Thank you dear Linda, have a nice weekend, Love, nia

    1. I thought of you, Nia, when I learned that the “pied” in pied-bill grebe is a word related to your beautiful magpies, with their striking black and white markings.

      Even though I deleted plenty of mediocre-to-bad photos, I’m glad I had some that showed off our wonderful birds. I’m even happier that you enjoyed the post. There still is beauty and peace in the world!

  6. Linda, beautiful post! So many interesting characters that we do not see around here. The grackles are quite opinionated here as well (love the look on his face in your photo), we had seen them harass the great blue herons so intensely, until the heron just leaves.
    My favorite was the grebe.
    I had never seen flocks of turkey vultures in Illinois, just lone ones eating up carcasses on the roads.
    I love your stories. I told your squirrel story to my kids, and they loved it. I think your children’s book on the pet squirrel is due. :)
    I am off to check out the heronry of great blue herons.
    Have a wonderful weekend!

    1. Those grackles — they’re not exactly shy and retiring. Around here, it’s the squirrel/grackle or mockingbird/grackle confrontations that are providing entertainment just now. The competition for mates and territory is heating up, and sometimes I think the grackles simply are feeling feisty, and are ready to take on anything that moves.

      I love that grebe, too. I often see least grebes, but finding the pied-bill was a surprise and a real treat.

      I’m glad the kids liked the squirrel story. The natural world’s filled with stories, and too many children never get to hear — or experience — them. Clearly, you’re making sure that’s not the case for yours.

      I’ve not seen many great blues this year, but I’ve been spending time in different places. It’s interesting, how even slight changes in habitat will attract different species. Enjoy your herons.

  7. Morning Linda:

    What a wonderful way to start a new day. Your blog post was the first thing I read on the Web this morning.

    Your pictures are as good as you can possible get them. Of all the creatures depicted, I loved the white ibis. It is so graceful.
    We don’t have such a wide variety of ducks or other similar birds here, so it’s pleasing to see them eat in their own liquid dining table.

    Being able to enlarge the pictures is a wonderful way to enjoy them better. Wanted to do that in my WP’s theme, but it won’t work. Thinking about hopping over to another theme more oriented towards photographs.

    Thank you for such a nice post. Enjoy the rest of the weekend.


    1. The ibis is a beautiful bird. We also have the glossy ibis and white-faced ibis. I’m not sure which species this one belongs to, but I think it’s a glossy ibis, because of the dark legs and brown eyes.

      I was pleased with these first photos, and your compliments are very kind, but I’ll be happy to improve. It is hard to get a fast-moving bird wholly in focus, but it can be done. There are some truly great photographes who prove that, over and over. Time and patience is the prescription for improvement, no?

      Every now and then I think about changing themes. What’s stopped me is the fact that my current theme is considered a legacy theme. It will be supported, but the last time I checked, it’s no longer available. If I let it go, I never can get it back. Having the ability to enlarge photos has made the decision to stick with the theme much easier.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Omar. A good weekend to you, too.

  8. When I lived in a home on a large lake in central IL we always had a huge variety of ducks. Then gradually, not so many. I learned a lot about ducks then, kept a list of all I spotted. Coots galore, grebes, loons, many, many more.

    Then I lived on the passage of Lake Michigan and Green Bay where there were far fewer ducks (the waters are diabolical!), but there were Arctic terns, plenty of lovely gulls and a few mergansers and golden eyes. Now, in Madison, I see a few mallards when I walk near Lake Monona.

    When I visited AZ I spotted some delightful birds I have yet to look up! Thanks for reminding me! And I got to keep company with some boat tailed grackles in a parking lot. I am one of the few, I think, who actually like grackles.

    The first time my mother spotted a turkey vulture high in a tree, she felt a wave of doom come over her. Imagine now all the people who never see what and who is out there sharing our daily lives all because of mobile phones…

    Great photos. Thanks for sharing them.

    1. I was so surprised to see three male and one female hooded mergansers this week, swimming in a protected channel that leads to Galveston Bay. Every now and then, something truly uncommon shows up, and it’s always a delight. A couple of years ago, I saw a single loon. I wondered how it came to be here. Perhaps the old saying applies to birds, too: “not all who wander are lost.”

      We have terns and gulls, of course, as well as the herons and egrets, and a whole variety of shorebirds. It’s going to be fun to add them to the “let’s go look for” list this year. And just this weekend, the High Island sanctuaries are opening, across the bay. It’s time for the annual songbird migration, and it’s one of the best places in the country to see a great variety of birds, in huge numbers.

      Just for fun, look at this photo blind that’s available. It’s not for me, but for people who have the skill and equipment to really make use of it, what a great resource it is.

      Grackles are fun. They tend to be accepting of people, they’re smart as can be, and their babies are hilarious. Long, long after they fully fledge, they still trail their parents around, begging for handouts. Of course, they’re willing to accept bits of toast from people, too. Trust me on that.

        1. Isn’t it amazing? And for a photographer with big lenses and tripods and all of that, what a wonderfully useful place. It looks comfortable, too. Do you remember the old childhood song? “In a cabin in the woods, little man at the window stood…” That’s what the place reminds me of.

  9. During the past week or ten days we were invaded by huge flocks of grackles. Most went farther north. Many are still hanging around. I’ve quit putting seed in the feeders for a while.

    Last fall, we noticed one solitary coot on a pond we passed on a walk. It was likely headed south and stopped for a rest.

    I noticed on the calendar a note on March 26 that said vultures 2015. That was when I saw the first one last year. I will keep my eyes open for them this year.

    1. During the past week or ten days, we’ve seen quite an increase in grackle activity, too. I suspect you’re seeing the common grackle, “Quiscalus quiscula.” We have those, too, but I most commonly see the boat-tailed grackles ( “Quiscalus major”), which are salt-water marsh birds, and limited to the coast and Florida waterways.

      Your calendar note about the vultures reminded me to write down when I first spotted our swallows: March 12. That’s just a week prior to their famous return to San Juan Capistrano Mission, on March 19. I need to keep track of the comings and goings of ours, just to see if they might be in synch with the others.

        1. It could be, but I don’t believe it is. The boat-tailed grackle’s range is quite limited, and this one was in a coastal salt marsh (which they prefer). Beyond that, the great-tailed has a flat crown and yellow eye; this one had the dark eyes and rounded crown of the boat-tailed. I looked at several photos showing it from different perspectives, and I’m willing to stick with boat-tailed.

          On the other hand, I’d also bet that the huge flocks that gather inland, especially around our grocery store parking lots and stands of live oak, are the great-tailed. Steve Schwartzman captured a great photo of that sight in Austin here.

    1. Myra, I first heard “common as cornbread” from a woman who lived in the Panhandle before moving to Houston. She was born in Oklahoma, then moved as a child to the Paducah/Childress/Quanah area.

      Some of her Panhandle relatives used the term, too, though I’ve never heard it anywhere else, except from a waitress serving pie in Camp Wood. Out of curiosity, I did a search, and up popped an old “Texas Monthly” article that uses the phrase in the very first line.

      Words and images certainly can complement one another. I’m glad you enjoyed this, and thanks for the kind words about the photos. It’s fun to be able extend my “reach” a bit.

  10. I hate grackles but other than that, I loved all your photos, descriptions and imaginary conversations. Spring in Texas must be a very special place to be.

    1. Truth is, Jean, I’m not entirely fond of pigeons — particularly when they’re running off all the other birds from the feeder. They’re like feathered vacuum cleaners. If I put out five pounds of feed each day, it would all be gone by day’s end. They are pretty, but goodness: what appetites.

      Our spring is delightful, although it’s a little less dramatic than in places where everything’s been covered up with snow, or freezing, for months. But it’s a lovely one this year, with enough rain and warmth that the flowers and trees are going to be gorgeous. Are gorgeous. I hope you’re well on your way to some gorgeousness, too.

      By the way, what are these “imaginary” conversations of which you speak?

  11. That’s quite a fine collection of species you have at your photographic service, Linda. And also a fine collection of images. Not bad when you can capture some “seldom and doesn’t commonly” seen behavior.

    I take it you were not amongst a crowd, as conversations with birds can cause a few looks askance.

    1. Steve, your comment reminded me that another word for “seldom and doesn’t commonly” is “rare.” That in turn reminded me of an old, old joke about a fellow trying to rid himself of a pet bird called a Rare-y. Suffice it to say, the punch line finds them at a cliff’s edge, with the bird eyeing the guy and saying, “It’s a long way to tip a Rare-y.”

      I was pleased that there wasn’t a crowd at the refuge. In fact, I’ve never seen it crowded. Usually there are the park rangers, a few people taking the auto tour, and maybe a couple of families hiking the trails. That may change when school’s out — or not. From June until September or so, the rangers said they don’t do trail walks, because of the hordes of mosquitos. This is the time to be there, for sure.

      1. During our period of “courting”, Mary Beth and I tried to camp at the Bombay Hook NWR in Delaware during July of 1983. When we arrived there no one was to be seen and the guest book’s last entry was early June. There wasn’t anyone at the gate, so we let ourselves in with a sense of dread and curiosity. Well, the reason for the absence of more sensible humans were the green heads. Not knowing any better, I drove with the window down which wasn’t a problem until I rested my arm on the side of the car. After a few chunks of skin disappeared painfully, I closed the window. We went back to our campsite, packed up the tent and spent the rest of the week camping in the woods in central Pennsylvania. Ever since then I have considered mosquitoes to be minor pests. :-)

        1. Horseflies. Oh, gosh. I remember one summer in the late 80s when a different species but equally lethal fly made it impossible to anchor out in Galveston Bay. You’d think flies would keep to the shoreline, but they didn’t. It truly was awful.

          And then, of course, there are the no-see-ums that ought to be showing up in a couple of months. Pollen today, insects tomorrow. It’s a rough world out there.

  12. It is always interesting and surprising when you find that a species is more closely related to a group that looks nothing like you perceive it to look like, and unrelated to what you thought, as the swamp chicken’s more related to the Sandhill crane than a duck. I was surprised to find the American Black Vulture more related to the stork than to a bird of prey. Taxonomy is definitely a mutable thing but the seemingly unlikely connections are fun.

    I still remember what was probably my first bird picture. I was wandering around on Naples beach and saw what I thought was a cute duck. The bird had webbed feet and its neck was all scrunched down and it stood there on the sand, just like a duck. Examining the picture later, I realized its beak was more like a gull’s. And, my Naples duck was really a cormorant. Who knew!! I got a lot of things wrong then. It is sort of like thinking you know the meaning of a word merely from context. You saw, you filled in the blanks with relative knowledge, and you were just plain wrong!!

    I truly enjoyed the pictures and the narrative taking us through the avian community. Its not just facts but personality too. And you gotta give it to Ogden Nash for the humorous clever take on things!!

    1. What you say about “filling in the blanks” and coming up wrong is so true. When I met my first camellia, I called it a rose. It had many petals, beautiful colors, and a lovely scent, so it made sense to me that it was a rose. Eventually, I learned that they’re not related.

      Clearly, the same problems arise with birds. It may walk like a duck, quack like a duck, and swim in the water like a duck, but it could be a gallinule, or a grebe. It seems to me that knowing a bird (or a flower or a rock) — its individual characteristics and where it belongs in the grand scheme of things — is an important prelude to photography.

      On the other hand, who wants to be limited to sitting at a desk, memorizing categories? One of my favorite naturalists, John Tveten, once wrote, “We enjoy seeing uncommon birds, but we also enjoy seeing common birds doing uncommon things. And, most of all, we simply enjoy birds being birds uncommonly well.”

      That’s another way of making your point: that it’s not just facts, but personality that counts. It’s true with people, so why not with birds?

      1. I had not encountered that quote before..and love it!! The third part is my favourite I suppose..enjoy birds being birds uncommonly well…. I use that idea sometimes. When trying to capture a great pose, I often do say how beautiful they are just going about being themselves. No pretense, a beautiful movement melding into another. Although I have to say what is common for the bird is uncommonly breathtaking for the human observer.

        1. I’ve had John and Gloria Tveten’s book on Houston area wildflowers for some time, without realizing they’d done a bird book, too — not to mention a good bit of other writing. I’m busy catching up with their work, and you’ll be hearing more about them. It’s always a neat experience in life to form conclusions about how to go about this or that, and then to find a well-regarded “someone” echoing your thoughts.

    1. Thanks, Terry. I swore that I wasn’t going to miss Spring this year, and it’s a good thing I got rolling, because Spring isn’t waiting — despite the 30-degree temperatures in our forecast. I don’t think we’ll have ice on our buttercups, but it’s going to be a nice pause.

      I took a look at the Audubon list of birds native to Montana, and was interested to see that you have every bird shown here, except for the white ibis. You do have the glossy ibis, though, which I’ve also seen at the preserve. It’s such fun to compare territories!

    1. That’s all right, Janet. A cooing dove is a fine sign of spring, and one of my favorites. I’ve not heard many yet this year, but they’re around. We’re suddenly awash in redwing blackbirds, and the meadowlarks are singing. It’s a wonderful season — I’m glad to share a little Texas spring with you.

  13. Linda, another great story with stunning photos … the last is my favorite! I am so glad you share your creative gifts with us! Have a fantabulous weekend. It may be the Eve of Spring, but there’s definitely a nip in the air!

    1. Isn’t that grackle a fine, funny bird, Becca? He reminds me of the famous “mad bluebird.” I was sitting in the car, looking at something else, when he flew over, and I started taking photos.

      Apparently, what they say about a car being a fine mobile bird blind is true, because that little “photo session” went on for about five minutes. To say I was surprised would be an understatement.

      After the heat and humidity of last week, I’m perfectly happy with the cooler temperatures. They’ve revised our forecast, and now are saying we’ll be in the 40s — and you, too. Happy weekend!

  14. What splendid photos you’ve captured here, Linda! Although I confess grackles might be my least favorite bird — always noisy, pushing and shoving others, and pigging out at my feeder!

    And now you’ve got a continued story? Don’t worry, I’ll be back to hear the conclusion. I’m positive you’ll wrap things up tidily, with a most satisfying conclusion.

    Nor did I realize “common as cornbread” was a Texas expression. Of course, cornbread isn’t exactly a popular delicacy in the Midwest. I imagine most folks prefer pancakes, waffles, or biscuits-n-gravy to the taste of cornbread. Fascinating stuff!

    1. Debbie, I grew up eating cornbread, corn muffins, corn cakes and cornmeal mush — but never encountered biscuits and gravy until I got to Texas. Since I grew up in Iowa, which prided itself on being the Corn State, maybe all that cornbread was inevitable. I’m certainly fond of biscuits and gravy now.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the photos. I understand why some people don’t like the grackles — especially if they’re trying to keep a feeder filled. But they have some redeeming qualities, and I’ve come to enjoy them. Of course, they provide a good bit of entertainment for me at work, since they adore boats, so there’s that.

      It’s hard to believe Palm Sunday is tomorrow. I hope yours is blessed. Will Domer be home for Easter?

      1. Gee, it must be my folks’ Mississippi heritage that made me think everybody ate biscuits and gravy, ha! I personally don’t like them much — cornbread seems a bit more sensible somehow — but you’re right in saying to each his own. Not sure whether Domer will make it home for the holiday. He doesn’t get any time off on Friday or Monday, but who knows? Maybe he will splurge!

        1. I once had a customer whose boat was named “Biscuit.” I kept trying to get them to name their dingy “Gravy,” but as far as I know, they never did.

  15. My, what a cliff hanger! I am looking forward to the second installment, and more photographs. It was great fun to learn about your birds, so very different from ours. The moorhen was my favourite by a country mile (do you know that phrase, or is it peculiar to Alberta?).

    At any rate, I am currently reading a book titled “On Looking” by Alexandra Horowitz, who writes of our loss of sight because of our focused vision (my description). You, however,seem to see very well here! Perhaps the camera helps? Or maybe it is the discipline of the writer, or both!

    1. We had country miles when I was growing up in Iowa, and we have country miles here in Texas, too. Just for grins, I asked Ngram to compare a city mile with a country mile, and look what popped up.

      Now, I’m wondering how a New York minute compares to a regular minute.

      I’m glad you like the moorhen, aka the common gallinule. The bird authorities split them a few years ago, putting the moorhen in Europe and the common gallinule in my slough. But most people I know still call them moorhens.

      If I’m lucky, I’ll find some purple gallinules in the coming months. Those are truly splendid birds. See?

      I looked at a review of Horowitz’s book, and had to smile at her recommendation to “put down the electronic devices.” Since I’ve steadfastly refused to pick them up, that surely helps me “see” a little more clearly than I otherwise might. But honestly? I think one of the things that’s helped me the most was taking to heart something Flannery O’Connor said: “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.”

      Between that and Annie Dillard’s chapter on “Seeing” in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” a person could have a graduate-level course in how to engage with the world.

      1. My gosh, what a beautiful bird. Best wishes to you in your search! I’m enjoying “On Looking”. Our book club is reading it, and while I may not be able to finish it before Monday, I think I have caught the spirit of it. And now I have nice Flannery O’Connor quotation to share. I’ll be sure to reference you! Thanks!!

  16. I really like this departure from your usual writing. I like this very much and hope that you will continue writing about birds, wildlife, and nature in general.

    May I ask what brand camera and lens you are using? I need to upgrade desperately and can’t decide what to get.

    1. I’m sure I’ll do more nature writing in the future, Yvonne. In fact, I just looked at my draft file, and there are a half-dozen such posts waiting. I’m glad you liked this post. It certainly was fun to put together — both the time spent at the refuge and the writing.

      I have a Canon EOS Rebel T6s. I purchased it with an EF 18-135mm IS lens. That’s what I used for the photo of the grackle, on my first trip to the refuge. After that trip, it was obvious to me that I needed some sort of telephoto lens, too, so I bought the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM lens. I’d been dithering for some time, but once I took the new lens back to the refuge, I knew I’d done the right thing. The camera and lenses are perfectly capable of doing what I’d like them to do. Now, all I have to do is keep taking pictures.

      By the way, another purchase I made that has been an absolute joy is a book by a fellow named David Busch. It’s 500 pages of well-written explanation on just my camera. There are plenty of diagrams and photos, a good index, and a logical progression through the topics. He’s written books for many different cameras, so it might be worth exploring that, too.

    2. You may want to look at the Panasonic Lumix. It has a lovely long zoom lens but is light and easy to transport. I have never been so happy with a camera as I am with this one.

        1. Gorgeous sharp images and yes, it auto focuses. It’s the Panasonic Lumix FZ200. I bought it last year so I suppose there is a newer model out. My blog is full of photos taken with the Lumix. I have a Canon DSLR with a Tamron lens but lugging it around became more of a burden. This little camera is light.

      1. Thanks for adding that, Cheri. After you got yours, and before I’d made my choice, I tried out the Lumix. It’s a camera I’d consider if I ever were to get one to tuck in a pocket. But for now, I’m happy with my choice — although, after this weekend, I understand why a couple of the photographers I know travel with two camera bodies, with different lenses attached. That’s not anything I would do, but after a day of changing lenses, I can see the advantage. Of course, something like your Lumix could do just as well.

        1. Hi Linda,
          My camera will not tuck in a pocket. It needs a camera case but is light. I am so glad you are pleased with your choice. My solution to the hassle of changing lenses on my Canon was to buy the Tamron 18-270 lens. Now, when I use my “big camera” I have only one lens that does it all.

  17. I am, as always, looking forward to Part 2. I am fond of grackles.

    I could also grow fond of shoverlers. In any case, I enjoy watching birds being birds uncommonly well! Trust you to have the perfect quotation at hand.

    1. I’m glad the grackles have another fan. One of these days there will be a grackle poem that shows them in a wholly different light, but that will take more time.

      I was astonished by the shovelers when I first saw them. A couple of years ago, I visited the Anahuac Wildlife Refuge on the other side of Galveston Bay, and discovered “Shoveler Pond.” I hadn’t a clue why it had that name. Now, I know. I had hoped to find some roseate spoonbills at the refuge, but they’ve evaded me so far. I expect you already know, or can figure out, why they’re called “spoonbills.”

  18. Darn. I forgot all about how I had to go and look up the pronunciation of “slough” as in a wet place. I say “sloo,” but I have often heard the alternate which sounds like cow and cannot be satisfactorily written out for clarity. (Perhaps I have eaten entirely too much firehouse chili. You would have liked the winning entry even if it did have beans.)

    1. That’s funny. Believe me, I had to spend a bit of time making sure that I had it right with this title. I’ve heard the expression “sloughing off” all my life, but never had written it. Likewise, I knew the word “slough” — but suddenly wasn’t sure about its spelling, either. As it turned out, the wordplay was just fine.

      It’s chilly enough here tonight that chili would have been just fine. It sounds like a good time was had by all. I could have tolerated the beans.

  19. This post makes me realize that I haven’t seen a turkey vulture in years. They once were a bird that was commonly seen around here whenever there was road kill, but they seem to have vanished. Even though I never thought of them as an “attractive” bird, it saddens me that they are gone.

    1. I took a look at the Cornell bird page to see what their status is, and there’s no problem with their numbers declining. They can fall victim to poisons or lead shot left in carcasses abandoned by hunters, and apparently some are killed because people fear they spread disease (of course, they don’t) but the population generally is healthy.

      Do you still see road kill on a regular basis? If not, it may be that an absence of carrion has sent the birds in other directions, looking for dinner. Or, has urbanization reduced the animal population so much that the birds have moved on? I almost never see them here until I get away from the city (or even towns) and into the country.

      1. Thanks for researching this. Now I’m really befuddled about why I never see them. I live in suburbia, but get to rural areas with some frequency. I think that the highway department may pick up road kill on a regular basis, so that may be why I don’t see them.

  20. What sharp images Linda, I’m wondering if you got a new lens. When I went to work in Florida, they sent me to Lake County which is full of marshes and alligators. There I saw my first Coots since here we don’t have them, we have the Moorhens though. We also have the Pea-billed Grebe too. I really enjoyed your narrative also.

    1. You’re pretty sharp yourself, Maria. Yes, there’s a new lens in my life. The last photo, of the grackel, was taken with my 18-135mm lens. But, on that same day, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to get many of the images I wanted. I already had studied the lenses, and so it’s the 70-300mm I used to take the rest of these photos. It’s such a pleasure to use.No more blaming equipment for bad photos!

      I’ve been in Lake County. I had a cousin in Lakeland, and went over to visit. I’d only been in the Keys at that point, and was surprised by how different that part of the state can be.

      I saw more grebes today. I think they’re the cutest things. I saw a pair of blue-winged teal, too, and the biggest flock of ibis I ever have seen. I came upon a deer, too, but I just enjoyed looking at him.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the images and the little tale. It was fun to put together.

      1. This is the only Grebe I’ve been able to see:
        It’s a “Least Grebe”, a very common Grebe here. I regretfully sold a 70-300mm lens I had once had, now I find myself missing that range. I still have the 100-400mm monster but I rarely use it.

        Anyway, this was supposedly a “vagrant” Grebe because he was all alone in that pond at the botanical garden. He’s lived there for more than 5 years I would say, all alone. The picture shows his stretching his hind leg which is supposed to be a “grebe” habit.

        1. I noticed that leg stretching right away, Maria. I also read that it’s a grebe habit. There’s a lone coot who stays here in my marina each summer — or a series of lone coots, I suppose. I always feel a little bad for it, alone like that, but it certainly doesn’t seem bothered by its solitude. Maybe it just decided that migrating business was too much trouble. It’s a long way to Minnesota and points north, after all.

          “Monster” is the right word for that 100-400mm lens. A woman had one at the wildlife refuge the first time I was there, and it just looked like too much. She had so much gear, she was hauling it in a wagon. I think what I have is just fine.

    1. Thanks so much, db. I do try for quality, here — for myself, as well as for you. Sometimes I I miss the mark, but there’s always next time. And some things can be fixed up, after the fact, as when I discovered I’d misspelled “grackle” here and there. Ah, me.

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. I still laugh every time I look at that grackle.

  21. Love the disgruntled grackle.

    The ducks made me think of the ‘Duck Ditty’ from “Wind in the Willows.”

    All along the backwater,
    Through the rushes tall,
    Ducks are a-dabbling,
    Up tails all!

    Ducks’ tails, drakes’ tails,
    Yellow feet a-quiver,
    Yellow bills all out of sight
    Busy in the river!

    Slushy green undergrowth
    Where the roach swim–
    Here we keep our larder,
    Cool and full and dim.

    Everyone for what he likes!
    WE like to be
    Heads down, tails up,
    Dabbling free!

    High in the blue above
    Swifts whirl and call–
    WE are down a-dabbling
    Up tails all!

    1. Gué, can you believe I’ve never read that? It’s the perfect addition, and reminds me again that I must read “Wind in the Willows.” It’s the source of so many good quotations, including that great one about messing about in boats, which was the first one I ever heard.

      It just occurred to me that we have both positive and negative associations for tail-tippers. On the one hand, there’s the ostrich that puts its head in the sand, but on the other, there are the eager little dabblers who never cease poking around to see what they can find. I suppose when you get down to it, we all have a little of each in our makeup.

      Between work and so many learning curves, life’s been pretty focused (so to speak). The next big decision is a new computer, with all the attendant complexities that brings. Then, I’m hoping for a nice, settled summer, after a trip sometime in the medium future to see my aunt. I’m not quite sure how we’ve made it to the spring equinox already, but here we are.

  22. Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the words “I’m as corny as Kansas in August” but I have to wonder whether, New Yorker that he was, he’d ever heard the expression “common as cornbread” that someone growing up in Iowa might indeed have found common. And I, having grown up in New York and not ever having heard “common as cornbread” till now, wondered what a New York equivalent might be. I didn’t come up with one, but the idea of New York foods inspired my brain to pop up (as if in a toaster) the alliterative phrase “as bent as a bagel,” which I’m happy to say Google has no record of (even without the first “as”).

    Speaking of b’s, your mention of a Plan B, which I have a feeling was politically inspired, reminded me of one of history’s most audacious lacks of a Plan B: the scuttling by Cortés of his ships so that none of his men could leave the Mexico expedition.

    1. And your bent bagel brings to mind one of my favorite bluegrass tunes: “I’m Not Broke, But I’m Badly Bent.” Now that I think of it, bagels do bend: at least, when they come to us in the form of bagel chips.

      After I got done laughing over Cortés’s foray into the land of unintended consequences, I started thinking about the expression itself. I’ve always used “Plan B” as a sort of humorous idiom, without a clue as to where it might have originated. I found this entry that grounds it rather nicely. As for politics, I think we’re about to Plan Q at this point. I’m eagerly anticipating X, Y, and Z.

      On an entirely unrelated matter (except that it does involve architectural plans), there have been ads galore on Houston radio for a snazzy new residential development in Galveston called The Strand Historic Lofts. I happened to catch Nicholas J. Clayton’s name in the ad, and I believe the building that’s been renovated is one you wrote about, back in the day. Here’s the link to the developers’ page.

      1. I was thinking of the bending of a bagel in terms of its ring shape, so that the dough in a bagel bends a full 360° and closes on itself. The word bagel is related to the English words bow (rhymes with show) and bow (rhymes with how).

        I had no idea the notion of a Plan B goes back to the 1800s. I think of it as such a modern expression.

  23. Most relaxing and entertaining post of the day. I can just hear the sound and bird conversations from your writing. Perfect capture of their personalities (That grackle – that’s them, all right) Nash’s verse always gives a smile
    (Hey – Watched a Robin couple making a nest in Houston oak last week – guess they came as tourists and decided to stay – I can’t remember seeing them settle in before)

    1. It was a relaxing and entertaining day, so I’m glad some of that came through in the post.

      That’s really something, about the robins. In her comment up above, Maria mentioned the term used for birds “out of place” — vagrants. Maybe that’s what the robins are. I’ve never heard of them settling here before. On the other hand, when I got out my Sibley and looked, it does show robins as year-round residents. That surprises me. I love robins, and so rarely see them. Maybe we’re not brushy enough down here. The only time I’ve seen them in our area was over on Old Kirby, in those woods across from the Bay Area Meat Market. They were there for three days — hundreds of them. It was wonderful.

  24. Oh Linda, you do exactly what I do — create wonderful conversations with critters — either with you in the picture or just between them! The photos are remarkable.I’ve not seen most of these. When I see “duckrobatics” it is usually two mallards! I have only once or twice seen coots and grebes and I think they’re really cute. Did the expression “old coot” come from that, I wonder?

    It looks like you’ve been wandering by a “ditch” of your own and I’m so glad you shared all these!

    Is this your new camera? Very nice photos! Great clarity!

    The turkey vultures remind me of when we bought an afternoon with a naturalist to go raptor watching about ten years ago. I’d seen turkey vultures for years but never known their names! I had no idea about the quiet mating part, but good for them!

    A most delightful visit — I’ve been saving time for it so I could savor and not disappointed!

    1. It seems I’ve always known, and sometimes used, the phrase “old coot,” but I couldn’t find any explanation of how the bird and the codgers got connected. On the other hand, I found this reference to a British expression: “bald as a coot.”

      “Coots are water birds whose heads have the appearance of baldness. This doesn’t refer to the lack of feathers on the bird’s head, but to their white markings. ‘Bald’ has several meanings, one of which is ‘streaked or marked with white’. That’s the meaning here, as in ‘piebald’, used to describe the black and white markings of a horse or other animal. [And, of course, the bill of the pied-bill grebe.]

      The phrase “as bald as a coot” is very old, and is referred to in John Lydgate’s “Chronicle of Troy,” 1430: ‘And yet he was as balde as is a coote.'”

      It’s amazing to think that was written nearly six centuries ago.

      I did, indeed, put the new camera to use. This “ditch” actually is 44,000 acres or so, which could keep a person busy for a weekend or two. But I didn’t see a single one of Harry’s cousins. Maybe they go into town for the weekend!

  25. What a wonderful glimpse into your corner of the world! :) I just love ALL of these guys… That last grackle shot, with his expression, is simply wonderful. I’m partial to the vultures, though — such an integral, but little appreciated part of all of our ecosystems. (All of my raptor wildlife rehabilitator friends ADORE them, for so many reasons.) YAY vultures!!

    1. I knew someone would be willing to offer a word on behalf of the vultures. They’re wonderful birds, and once they get into the air, not nearly so klutzy. I was watching some riding the thermals yesterday afternoon. I don’t know what the experts say, but I’m convinced there are times when birds fly for the sheer joy of it.

      I was thrilled yesterday afternoon to see a pair of hooded mergansers. I happened to have my camera with me, so I have some pics. It was cloudy, and the water is remarkably brown and ugly right now, so the scene wasn’t especially attractive, but it’s still worth having a record of them.

      One thing is certain. It’s impossible to predict what’s going to show up next in the swamps and sloughs — that’s a good part of the delight.

  26. What an entertaining post, you do paint a marvelous picture of the comings and goings of all these birds, lovely photos too, I must say my favourite is the pied-bill grebe, I could watch grebes forever, I’ve seen them almost sink to hide themselves too, and they always seem to swim low in the water. Loved the Pied beauty poem and the “bottom’s up” pic! Looking forward to part two!xxx

    1. I’ve always thought grebes were simply very small birds, Dina. Now, I’m wondering if those I’ve seen didn’t seem even smaller than they are because they were partly submerged. Being somewhat wiser to their tricks, I’m going to watch more closely.

      I saw my first bird babies yesterday, and thought of you. It was a Muscovy duck, with four ducklings. Their clutches always are amusing. She had one that was dark brown, one a lovely, pure yellow, and two that were the more typical yellow and brown mix.

      Spring’s fling is on, that’s for sure. I’ve seen wisteria blooming already — a sure sign, down here. And babies are out and about. One of these days, I’ll show you some swampish mother love.

      1. Oh… lovely! Sadly though, from my days on the canal, I noticed that the yellow ducklings were always the first to be picked off by predators….but those who made it always had pure white

  27. A wonderful post Linda and terrific comments. I’m late jumping in but I have kept coming back to enjoy it all. I still have a closet of cameras from my photography days which are useless now that we have digital. They are my dinosaurus cameras. I loved all the water birds.

    1. Ah, yes. In the hands of an artist, film continues to be a wonderful medium, but for most of us? Not so much. I remember those long waits to get film back from the developer, and the disappointment over not-so-good photos. And even though I can remember the smell of the chemicals in the darkroom, and the excitement of seeing an image emerge in the darkness, at this point in my life, I’m happy with digital.

      Have you done any sculpting or painting of birds? I think you surely have — you may even have posted some, and I’ve forgotten. They do lend themselves to the arts. Ah — the eagle. I’ll bet you have done some images of Native American dances.

  28. Glory be to God for dappled things –
    For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
    One of the few poets me Da’ quoted.

    1. Isn’t it neat the way snippets of verse stay with us? One of the things I like about that poem is the way it makes room for everyone. I mean, who includes fish in a poem? But they belong here.

      I hope your spring’s well underway by now. The pleasure of our warm temperatures has been somewhat undermined by a better-than-average dose of pollen, and entirely too much wind for my taste, but so it goes. After all, as my own folks liked to remind me:

      “March winds and April showers
      help to bring May’s pretty flowers.”

  29. I’m way late here–sorry!–but have to tell you I love your fabulous shot of that cranky grackle! I hope you have a significant blowup displayed in a prominent place of honor! -Gary

    1. There is no “late” around here, Gary. I leave comments open on posts, and often have comments three or four years after publication. Sometimes, they come in even later.

      Isn’t the grackle wonderful? I brought home about a hundred shots of him, in a variety of poses. The photographic gods smiled, for sure. I’d stopped on the road to look at something else, and he flew over and perched only feet from the car. I had no idea what I had until I got home. Honestly, I couldn’t believe it. I kept thinking, “I took THAT?”

        1. It’s not so much a matter of giving myself credit — or not — as it is simple amazement at what the camera can do. The grackle’s just one example. When I came home after that windy day and started sorting through images, I was perplexed by one series. The first photo showed a pretty spiderwort bloom. The next in the series showed the bloom and a bud. The third showed only the bloom. The next? Bloom and bud both.

          I finally figured out that, as I was using the continuous shooting mode, the danged camera was picking up the image of a bud that was being blown by the wind into the field of view. I never imagined that could happen, either.

  30. We have coots up here, old and otherwise, and ruddy ducks, which were my dad’s favorites. The geese have gone. I need to do a lake stroll.

    You take good bird pics. Tricky unless you have cooperative birds, or a good zoom lens.

    1. I’ve never heard of the ruddy duck: or, if I have, it’s only been in passing. I certainly never have seen one. I went over to the Cornell page to look, and I can see why they’d attract attention. And I laughed at this descriptive paragraph:

      “The bright colors and odd behavior of male Ruddy Ducks drew attention from early naturalists, though they didn’t pull any punches. One 1926 account states, ‘Its intimate habits, its stupidity, its curious nesting customs and ludicrous courtship performance place it in a niche by itself…. Everything about this bird is interesting to the naturalist, but almost nothing about it is interesting to the sportsman.'”

      They didn’t provide an attribution, but I found that the description is from John Charles Phillips’ book, “A Natural History of the Ducks” (1922). It seems ruddy ducks show up in our area in winter, and they hang out with coots. Next year, I’ll look for them.

      The grackel was most cooperative. For the rest, it was the new telephoto lens that did the trick. It will be fun learning how to use it to best effect. At least I know what the various buttons do, now.

    1. We’re one of the best areas in the U.S. for birding, Otto. It’s spring migration time now, and many of the species heading north from Central and Latin America will land here after their long flight across the Gulf. They’ll spend time feeding and resting, and then start traveling again.

      I’m happy you enjoyed this. I think you’ll be even more impressed by the reason the grumpy grackle lost his pool. And I’m glad you liked the photos. Some of the tips you’ve offered about photographing people seem to work rather nicely for birds, too.

  31. Stories and photos of birds are always of interest to me. I especially love to watch them in flight.

    Your “exchange” with the grackle was hilarious, and pretty creative.

    Another great post!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Andrew. I’m working on the conclusion of the grackle’s story now — and admit to a certain eagerness to post it. If you liked his photo here, you’ll really laugh at the next.

      I love the birds, too. Here’s a flock of ibis on their way to somewhere. I think they’re among the most graceful of our birds.

  32. Oh, I love the back and forth with Mr. Grumpy and happy to know I’m not the only one who chats with the birds! I really enjoyed your photos. I still call them marsh hens, by the way. Look forward to reading Plan B.

    1. No, you’re not alone. Birds have a lot more to say than most people give them credit for — and they’re much more responsive to people than I used to realize. I’ve got a bluejay who’s been around for a couple of years, and who comes for pecans every morning. If I haven’t put them out yet, he sits on the rail and whistles until I produce. He’s trained me well!

      It’s funny that you called the grackle Mr. Grumpy — that’s the name I gave him in the title for Part 2. It looks like tomorrow will be a writing day. Drizzle showed up this afternoon, and they’re forecasting rain for tomorrow. We’ll see.

  33. Every spring, a pair of Canadian honkers takes over my pond. Every year they produce a hatch of goslings, every year the coyotes get them.

    It is traumatic, I understand that… but they take it out on Scooter and me. Whenever we walk by, they honk, hiss and refuse to share the pond. I have tried reason and kindness but like bad neighbors, it is just something a person (and his dog) is forced to live with.

    1. We had a bit of duckling drama here last night. I heard frantic peeping from babies, and desperate maternal quacking, and went down to see what was up. What was up was Mama and two babies on the dock, and one baby swimming in the water — five feet down. My guess is that one fell into the water, and the racket ensued. After a bit, another baby took the plunge, and then the mother and last baby jumped in. All were fine, and they swam off together.

      At least they escaped the seagulls and cats on land. Whether they survive the gators and gar — well, who knows.

      What’s true is that, even in the face of trauma, mallards aren’t as grumpy as your geese. I’ll confess to giving geese a wide berth myself. I tried to be friendly once, and regretted it. Being nipped by a goose is no fun.

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