Ducks, ducks, ducks
FORT WORTH, TEXAS — “Taking pictures,” I heard her whisper, but then she revised her analysis. “Binoculars … birdwatching.”
It was my first visit to River Legacy Park, and I couldn’t seem to get away from joggers, cyclists, small children, and college couples. I had found a little track to the bank of the Trinity River, but even there I was the subject of staring and speculation.
Four goldfinches had flown over and landed high in a tree across the river. They were the first I’ve seen in Texas this winter. A healthy population of chickadees carried on overhead, and a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets hung around the fringes of the flock.
I’d heard a couple of bluebirds and flickers, and one particular tree glowed brilliant gold against the deep blue sky. The warmth of the afternoon sun had lured me into breaking my rule of Texas birding: I went out in shorts and sandals. I paid with a couple of mosquito bites, which wasn’t bad all things considered.
I returned to the paved path and walked back to my car, not convinced that River Legacy was worth much attention in the future. Daylight wasn’t gone yet, so I decided to continue west to Village Creek Drying Beds. I’d seen an old website about birding in the facility, but I had no idea whether it was closed, dried up, or even present any longer.
I zipped past the gate on my first try and had to turn around. But I saw it was open, and that was a good sign. When I pulled in, I noticed a sign stating that the site closed at 4:30. It was about quarter to five, but I decided to go inside just a little bit. I certainly didn’t want to get locked in, so I wouldn’t get out of sight of the gate.
A male scissor-tail rested on a powerline, his tail long and splendid. The road went uphill and around a corner, and I saw a glimmering expanse of shallow pools before me. Pintails, shovelers, and — oo — Bufflehead! And what are these down front? Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks! Three, five!
I would simply have to go further, gate or no gate. About that time, I noticed another vehicle up ahead, and I figured I was safe. If we got locked in, at least I wouldn’t be alone, and maybe they’d know what to do.
The sun was bright, and as I stared out across the pools, I saw a rapid movement on one of the distant levees. It held something in its mouth and ran at great speed, stretching a powerful body to its fullest extent. Not a retriever, surely, but what …? Rounded head, white underneath the tail. A Bobcat! It must be. Gone.
The whistling-ducks took flight, joined by four more. Against the glare, I could make out their white wing stripes, and I even heard them whistle. I crept forward along the berm, stopping every few yards to scan hundreds of ducks. Green-winged Teal were dwarfed by the pintails and Gadwall.
The other vehicle pulled past me, headed the opposite direction.
“Did you see the bobcat?”
I said that I had, against the sun. I was glad for the confirmation.
“It must have gotten a rabbit, or something.”
“Yeah, pretty cool. Do you know if they lock the gate?”
“We’ve never been locked in. But it’s a good idea to have a cell phone.”
Oh. I don’t have a cell phone, but I figured that they would follow their own good advice and that I’d be safe as long as they remained in the facility too. Despite that reassurance, light was fading, and I moved relatively quickly, not taking time to get out my scope. The road descended through weedy habitat full of sparrows and Red-winged Blackbirds. I heard Song Sparrows and saw white tail feathers on one fleeing form, a vesper, I suppose.
As I drove along the low levees, ducks scattered, never flying far. The pintails were crisp and handsome, though they still lacked their long central tail feathers. Many of the shovelers were still working on their breeding plumage, and their orange eyes in mottled heads looked rather fierce. One Ring-necked Duck tagged along behind some dabblers.
A large rodent feeding at the edge of a pool caught my eye. I’d seen others from a distance, and I was trying to figure out whether they were nutrias or beavers. It seemed an unlikely spot for beavers, but I don’t know how to separate the species at a glance when the tail is submerged. This burly creature had long orange teeth. More research to do — in my apartment without an internet connection.
Snipe! It fed inconspicuously at the edge of the pool, and I wouldn’t have seen it without that rodent. I always like to see snipe, and this intricately patterned bird was no disappointment, a beautiful amalgam of contrasting streaks and bars.
Striking Redheads eyed me and then sprang from the water, and with that I really did need to be going. The friendly couple was gone, and what would I do if that gate was locked?
It wasn’t, to my great relief, and I left excited by the potential of my terrific new find, so close to home. Who knows what a winter of birding the Drying Beds will bring? Why shouldn’t one of those hundreds of dabblers turn out to be a Garganey? But even if it doesn’t, I’m sure going to enjoy seeing pintails.