The Poets’ Birds: Wood Storks

 

Despite the wide variety of birds I’ve featured in this series, I never thought to include the wood storks (Mycteria americana). Having seen them only once, in August of 2016, I always assumed their visit to the Brazoria Refuge was an aberration. The Cornell birding site supported that conclusion, noting that the species occurs in only a few areas of the United States: particularly in wetlands or preserves along the Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia coastlines.

On the other hand, storks believed to originate in breeding colonies in Mexico and Central America have been reported in the lower Mississippi River Valley, Louisiana, and Texas during the late summer and fall. That could help to explain my second sighting of the birds in early July of this year — in the same area of the Brazoria preserve where I first encountered them.

I assumed that the pair shown above, and a half-dozen others wading among the grasses, soon would be gone, but by July 21 an impressive group of a hundred or more — both juveniles and adults — were roaming the flats, perhaps attracted by the falling water levels in the freshwater ponds and the consequent heavier than usual concentrations of fish.

The bird’s fishing technique is unusual, and fun to watch. Dipping its open bill into the water, the stork waits for a passing fish. Once it senses a fish, the stork snaps its bill shut, and dinner is served. According to National Geographic, the fish don’t have much of a chance; wood storks are capable of snapping their bills shut in as little as 25 milliseconds.

Despite the group as a whole being almost beyond the range of my camera, a few individuals were close enough for me to capture some of the oddly appealing details of their appearance. On both occasions the storks were accompanied by flocks of roseate spoonbills, but those photos can wait for another day. Here, it’s the wood storks’ time to shine, along with William Logan’s memorable poem.

 

Behind the movie theater’s neon beau monde
cooled the dank waters of a retention pond,
cyclone-fenced, palm-guarded, overgrown.
You walked there when you wanted to be alone.
For weeks nothing stirred the blackened reeds,
which were enough, those days you felt in need.
Then, one evening through the gathered gloom,
as if something uncanny had entered a room,
across algae green as an Alpine meadow,
eight white ghosts floated faintly through the shadows,
pausing, worrying, then slowly moving on,
the waters like a chessboard scattered with white pawns.
When bankers review their fat portfolios,
they draw such dark beaks open and closed,
great shears to cut some invisible thread.
The pale birds stalked like something newly dead.
One lifted a black-edged wing, in search of food,
and somehow that broke your somber mood.
Yet on they marched, like Dante’s souls through Hell,
awaiting the Last Judgment’s redeeming bell,
working their way in silence, fallen aristocrats.
You said they looked like ladies’ hats,
white as the color of love, if love has color —
bright white, you meant, only a little duller.
                                                            “On the Wood Storks” ~ William Logan

 

 

Comments are welcome. For more information on poet William Logan, please click here.

The Poets’ Birds: Great Blue Heron

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So heavy
is the long-necked, long-bodied heron,
always it is a surprise
when her smoke-colored wings
open
and she turns
from the thick water,
from the black sticks
of the summer pond,
and slowly
rises into the air
and is gone.
Then, not for the first or the last time,
I take the deep breath
of happiness, and I think
how unlikely it is
that death is a hole in the ground,
how improbable
that ascension is not possible,
though everything seems so inert, so nailed
back into itself —
the muskrat and his lumpy lodge,
the turtle,
the fallen gate.
And especially it is wonderful
that the summers are long
and the ponds so dark and so many,
and therefore it isn’t a miracle
but the common thing,
this decision,
this trailing of the long legs in the water,
this opening up of the heavy body
into a new life: see how the sudden
gray-blue sheets of her wings
strive toward the wind; see how the clasp of nothing
takes her in.
“Heron Rises from the Dark, Summer Pond”
~  Mary Oliver

 

Comments always are welcome. The photo of the great blue heron (Ardea herodias), taken at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, is mine.

The Poets’ Birds: Egrets

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Where the path closed
down and over,
through the scumbled leaves,
fallen branches,
through the knotted catbrier,
I kept going. Finally
I could not
save my arms
from thorns; soon
the mosquitoes
smelled me, hot
and wounded, and came
wheeling and whining.
And that’s how I came
to the edge of the pond:
black and empty
except for a spindle
of bleached reeds
at the far shore
which, as I looked,
wrinkled suddenly
into three egrets —
a shower
of white fire!
Even half-asleep they had
such faith in the world
that had made them —
tilting through the water,
unruffled, sure:
by the laws
of their faith, not logic,
they opened their wings
softly and stepped
over every dark thing.
                   Egrets, by poet Mary Oliver

According to Billy Collins, “Love of language and a sense of gratitude would be two ingredients in the recipe for making a poet.” Few poets use language more lovingly, or respond more gratefully to the world surrounding them, than Mary Oliver.
Continue reading

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.