the Acrobatic Flight of “Butter-Butts”

Yellow-rumped Warbler in Dallas County (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Yesterday was sunny and clear, and Southwest Nature Preserve was the right place to take a walk. Its 52 acres are hemmed in by a major freeway and suburban development, and many visitors walk its trails and drop fishing lines into its waters. Despite all that, it’s a pretty resilient little remainder of the oak woodlands and sandstone that are the calling cards of the Eastern Cross Timbers.

There’s something about winter-bare oak woodlands, with the sun shining through branches and lighting up the layer of leaves on the ground. And ponds, with clear water shading into a deeper gloom with aquatic plants and the waterlogged wood of fallen branches, hidden in the dark. Depending on where you stand, the pond’s surface may be a sapphire reflection of sunlight, and the surface may have shifting rough patches where cold winter breezes blow across it. Southwest Nature Preserve has those things. 

The north pond

It also has birds, and this winter there have been a lot of them. I have paid better attention, or this has been a season with good bird numbers and diversity, or both. And as a result, I’ve learned more about them this year, although I’m no expert. I’m also better able to put aside the old herpetologist’s habit of active searching. Instead of staying on the move, I can sit and blend in with the habitat for a while. Mindfulness and advancing age have helped with that.

I visited the smallest pond, expecting a little dried mud bowl because of the very dry conditions. Instead, it had several inches of clear water. As I watched, several small nondescript birds took turns flying out over the water. Often one of them would fly into the breeze and momentarily be held there, fifteen feet above the water, until it turned and in a ball of wind-splayed feathers it was pushed back to a nearby tree. 

I sat on the banks of the pond for a while, watching these birds and listening to their calls back and forth: a single “cheet” repeated frequently. In my binoculars I would see gray-brown on the head and wings, with white and dark wing bars, and then that little patch of yellow on the side of the body. When one perched on a nearby twig, the binoculars showed a highlighter-yellow patch of feathers on the rump, more than justifying the name “butter-butt” that some birders give them. More properly, they are Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Yellow-rumped Warbler half-hidden in vegetation

As I watched, my naturalist’s reasoning suspected that they were catching insects too small for me to see. I imagined them to be having fun, as if their forays out over the water might start with a call to their neighbor to “watch this!” Sometimes they found a place to perch very close to the surface of the pond, but mostly they flew out above the water and returned to the winter-dry stalks of vegetation or up into the branches of an oak. A later check with some birding sources, including Cornell’s All About Birds site, seemed to confirm that their flight would have been in pursuit of insects. I don’t think this negates my suspicion that they were enjoying themselves.

Red-eared Slider, basking at one of the ponds

There were other things to see on this sunny afternoon. In an adjacent pond, a male Red-eared Slider was basking on a log at the water’s edge, across from the fishing pier that extends out over part of the pond. He was unconcerned about my photographing him. In warmer circumstances, these turtles are shy and quick to drop into the water, but this guy was unwilling to give up the bright sunshine of a cool winter day.

Mallards

Nearby, a couple of pairs of Mallards were cruising across the surface of a small pool, periodically going “tail-up” to dabble through the material along the bottom and extract whatever was good to eat. In contrast, there was no activity on the surface of the north pond, which often has its share of ducks and turtles. Today not even the cricket frogs were out, despite plenty of sunshine along the northeast banks of the pond.

It was a good day to wander along the ponds of the preserve and up over the ridge and through the woods. I learned more about its birds today and got to visit with the willows and oaks and pay my respects to the boulders and grasses. 

Late afternoon on the trail

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