Rainbows in the Blacklands
DUNCANVILLE, TEXAS — Headed south on I-45 this morning, I noticed flooded, muddy fields near the town of Wilmer. My shorebird radar kicked into gear (ah, mixed metaphors), and when I saw a couple of white birds in the air, I swerved off at the exit, which was very nicely placed I must say.
Dozens of Franklin’s Gulls (Larus pipixcan) — dressed in their breeding finery — were resting in the fields. Occasionally, I heard their laughing calls, and I could see a faint pink tinge on the underparts of some birds. These gulls are en route from their wintering grounds in South America to their breeding grounds on the northern prairies.
This is a poor-quality detail of a much larger photograph, but it does illustrate the unique white-black-white wingtip pattern of the Franklin’s Gull.
The gulls were not the only birds taking advantage of all that mud and water. Besides hundreds of Brewer’s Blackbirds and cowbirds, I also found American Golden-Plovers (who, unlike the gulls, showed barely even a hint of their breeding colors), a single distant bird that I took to be an Upland Sandpiper, Killdeer, and peeps.
As I looked at them, I felt fairly confident calling the smaller sandpipers Baird’s, but when I got home and checked the books, I lost most of my confidence, wondering whether they might have been Semipalmated Sandpipers instead. I was looking at the dark-centered feathers on the birds’ backs, but apparently Semipalmateds also show that feature in breeding plumage. Baird’s, of course are noticeably larger than semis — but only with a size reference, which I didn’t have. I did try to observe the birds’ wingtip projection, but they were a little too distant to be certain of a feature like that. Ah well, just when I was feeling better about my sandpiper skills….
My next stop was Kachina Prairie in Ennis. It is one of the few patches of Blackland Prairie remaining in the world. A few early wildflowers, like these gorgeous, sweet-scented bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) were blooming. The bluebonnets weren’t as common in the prairie remnant as I’d expected. Perhaps because they are annuals, they thrive only in disturbed areas and are unable to compete with dense, established perennial cover.
They may be scarce on Kachina Prairie, but bluebonnets put on a spectacular show along the highways and country roads, carpeting huge swaths on the medians and right of ways. It’s little wonder that these plants are Texas’ state flower. Here, a few paintbrushes (Castilleja sp.) mingle with the bluebonnets, but all is not as cheerful as it seems. Paintbrushes are hemiparasites (i.e., partial parasites) and may well be taking advantage of these bluebonnets.
Shouldn’t these woods be teeming with warblers of every color and description? Hmm, not yet. But, I was very happy to hear two Northern Parulas (and see one) and a Yellow-throated Warbler (which I did not get to see). I also had four Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, including one male who hung around on a fence just above a drift of bluebonnets — magnificent!