By Eric Duran
One of my favorite winter wildlife occurrences along the Gulf Coast of Texas is the appearance of winter waterbirds. The lakes and other bodies of water in our area receive millions of ducks, but we also get a variety of other non-duck water birds, like grebes, loons, coots and cormorants. To view some of these birds, you need to head down to the coast or out to a large state park or wildlife refuge.
In this month’s article, however, we’re going to look at three species you can see at lakes and ponds in our area.
We’ll start with one of my favorite ducks. Wood Ducks live in swamps and lakes bordered with trees across much of North America. They nest in East Texas but only really venture into the city in the winter (when they’re not breeding). Female Wood Ducks nest in tree cavities, like old woodpecker nest holes, as high as 60 feet. The ducklings usually jump from the nest and into the water or (leaf padded) ground below within 24 hours of hatching. The females are mostly brown, and the males have gorgeous green and white heads. The lake and reflecting pond at Hermann Park are a good place to see them in winter.
American Coots are often mistaken for ducks, but a quick look at their pointy wedge-like beaks and flanged toes (as opposed to webbed toes) show you that they’re different birds. They are actually more closely related to rails and cranes. We have Coots in the area year-round, but their numbers greatly increase here this time of year, as birds from the North migrate down to overwinter. These noisy water birds can be found at many parks in the area with ponds and lakes and are very common, often being the only waterbird around.
Cormorants, like the Double-crested Cormorant, are also not ducks but are related to gannets and frigate birds. These birds are well adapted to dive deep for fish and other small aquatic animals. Unlike ducks, who waterproof their feathers, cormorants have feathers that become water-logged, thus keeping their buoyancy low, allowing them to stay underwater for awhile. Cormorants are not found in our area during the summer breeding season but show up around town in larger lakes and along the bayous in winter. Buffalo Bayou Park and Hermann Park are good places to view them.
If you head out to any parks with lakes and ponds this winter, you should be able to see some of these wintering water birds. Some recommended locations outside of the city for water bird watching are Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, San Bernard NWR, Anahuac NWR, Brazos Bend State Park and the Baytown Nature Center.
If you’d like to go out and look for water birds with one of our Nature Discovery Center naturalists, join Mary Ann Beauchemin on the third Saturdays of January and February at the Willow Waterhole. More info about these bird counts can be found at naturediscoverycenter.org/activities/willowwaterhole/ or by calling us at 713-667-6550.
Duran is the head naturalist at the Nature Discovery Center, 7112 Newcastle Dr., Bellaire.