The melody of wheezy whistle-like calls pulled my eyes upward in search of the Black-bellied Whistling ducks that broke through my daydream.The sound of my shoes crunching along the pebble strewn path, the throaty grunts and croaks of the nesting Great Egrets and Neotropic Cormorants, and the intermittent humming of the bees that flit from one honeysuckle vine to the next had lulled me into a pleasant state of serenity.
Embodying both the spirit of discovery and tranquility, Shangri-La Botanical Gardens & Nature Center nurtures the concept of a harmonious relationship with nature and man. Located in the historic Southeastern Texas town of Orange, nestled on the banks of the Sabine River, Shangri-La offers nature enthusiast an unhampered glimpse at the workings of mother nature. The transition from winter to spring brings about an opportunity for young and old alike to witness the nesting, mating, and hatching of the winged residents that have turned a manmade lake into a heronry. At about 15 acres and in the heart of the botanical garden, Ruby Lake plays host to more than 5,000 birds annually and as many as 17 species seasonally. Along with the Egrets and Cormorants mentioned earlier, Anhingas, Roseate Spoonbills, and a variety of ducks call Ruby Lake home. Built from cypress logs that lay at the bottom of the river for decades, the Bird Blind provides birdwatchers of all ages and mobility a chance to observe nature unimpeded. Reaching the blind and this sanctuary is much easier than one might imagine. Just a short stroll down a gravel path dappled with sunlight and flowers that branches off the main path running through the gardens will get you there. The path is expertly maintained and with a wheelchair ramp into the blind, no one is denied access to this natural spectacle.
You are offered your first glimpse of the secluded lake and it’s inhabitants off to the right as the winding path leads up to the bank where there lay a handful of turtles basking on a fallen cypress log. In this small alcove, there are a sprinkling of Great Egret nests amongst the cypress trees, but the truly impressive views come from within the Bird Blind, which is just a little further up the path. Located just next to a stand of cypress trees flocked in white with hundreds of Great Egrets and their nests, the blind presents the observer with views of new hatchlings still bobbing and bumbling, trying their best to gain control of their head, wings, and legs. Open Tuesday-Saturday 9am-5pm, there is more than enough time to grab a seat on one of the sinker cypress benches, refresh yourself from the water fountain provided, and watch the comings and goings one of the most majestic creatures to grace the waterways of the south. For more information on Shangri-La Botanical Gardens & Nature Center visit starkculturalvenues.org or call 409.670.9113.
Article contributed by: Jessica Pickett
Considered by many to be the most beautiful of all waterfowl, the colorful Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) is somewhat unique in that it is one of the few North American ducks that nest in trees. Also known as the Carolina Duck, the Wood Duck can be found in eastern North America and the west coast of the US, as well as in western Mexico. They usually select wooded swamps, marshes, ponds or shallow lakes as a breeding habitat and will nest in tree cavities close to water. Despite their popularity, these birds are shy and skittish and they are quick to make an escape if disturbed or threatened.
The average Wood Duck is 47-54 cm in length with a wingspan of 66-73 cm. This makes them a medium-sized duck with long, broad wings. They also have a crest on their heads and a long tail. The male is most spectacular during breeding season. Between fall and summer he has a red bill, red eye and green head with striking white stripes around his face and chest. These stripes start as a white throat patch which then grow into ‘finger-like’ extensions which can be found at the base of the neck and the bottom of the cheek. His breast becomes a strong chestnut colour and there is a white vertical strip at the lower margin. His flanks are a golden colour which are bordered at the top with a white flank stripe. His belly is also white and his wings and back become a shiny dark green-blue. There is also an iridescent blue-green speculum on the rear of his wings with a white edge. When he is not breeding, the male looks quite similar to the female, except that he retains his distinctive white neck patch and red bill. The adult female is much less colourful and has a grey bill, a white teardrop patch around her eye and a white throat. Her head and neck are a grey-brown colour and her grey-brown breast is stippled with white which fades into a white belly. Her back and wings are a dark brown.
Generally speaking, the Wood Duck eats seeds, acorns, fruit and both aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates. They peck and dabble on the surface of the water and may dive under for food. When they nest, they may make use of nesting boxes if these are available. The nest is lined with down from the female and she lays between 6 and 15 eggs in a clutch. Soon after hatching, the down-covered ducklings jump out the nest and make their way to the water where they put their natural swimming talent to good use.
A common sight in Central America, South America and Mexico, the Muscovy Duck (Cairina moschata) is popular both as a captive and wild animal. It is said that Muscovies originated in Brazil but today small populations can be found as far away as California. Muscovy Ducks are non-migratory creatures that prefer to live in forested swamps, lakes and trees due to the abundance of food present at such sites. They generally eat plant material and some small vertebrates and insects. Muscovy Ducks get most of their food by grazing and dabbling in shallow water. When they are not nesting, these ducks often choose to roost in trees at night. Domesticated Muscovy Ducks are the only such ducks not to originate from mallard stock.
The average bird is 64-86 cm long with the male being quite a bit bigger than the female. Traditional wild Muscovies are strictly black and white in colour though domestication has resulted in several color variations. Hence, you may find blue, blue and white, brown, brown and white, white, black, lavender and calical coloured ducks amongst the traditional black and white colored birds on farms and at zoos. It is interesting to note that domesticated Muscovy Ducks are commonly known as ‘Barbary Ducks’. The male Muscovy Duck has a bare red face and a low crest of feathers which he can raise and lower at will. There is a pronounced caruncle at the base of the bill and his bill is yellow in color. The feet of the Muscovy have strong, sharp claws which can be used for roosting in trees and which are webbed for swimming. However, the Muscovy Duck does not swim as much as other ducks do because their oil glands are not as well developed as other those of other duck species.
Muscovy Ducks are not particularly monogamous and males and females do not form stables pairs. Hence, sexual intercourse between the two sexes may on occasion be forced. The hen will usually make use of a tree hole or hollow for a nest and in certain countries, such as Mexico, nest boxes have been frequently used. The average clutch size varies from 8-21 eggs which are incubated for a period of 35 days. The hens are capable of having three broods a year. Many consider these birds to be of value as they consume pesky insects in their natural environment. However, they are even more popular as a food source and this has resulted in them becoming quite scarce in some parts of their natural territory.
Wild birds are found throughout the world. They vary in shapes and sizes from tiny finches to the majestic condors of America.
Each species of wild bird is adapted to thrive in its own evironment. For example, hummingbirds are adapted to feed on nectar from tubular flowers, while eagles are adapted to prey on animals using their strong talons. Ducks are adapted to swimming and vultures are adapted for flight by using thermals.
Wild birds also differ in how they nest. Weaver birds will create intricately woven nests that hang from the branches of trees. Certain birds, such as plovers, will build nests on the ground. Doves will often build very messy nests. Wild birds need to protect their nests and themselves from predators. They will do this by swooping down upon predators whilst issuing alarm calls to other birds in the area. Wild birds will sometimes form mob attacks on predators.
When it comes to breeding season it is important for male birds to establish and maintain their territory. This is done by means of song. Males will also attack intruders into their territory. Wild birds have many strange and wonderful mating displays. Male birds of paradise will perform an intricate dance to attract females. They will sway and bend or stand upright, and certain species will even hang upside down.
It is likely that the wild birds you will see will be those in your garden. To attract more wild birds to your backyard, you may want to provide a variety of feeders and types of food, some shelter and a bird bath.
In increasing number of people are joining the ranks of enthusiastic birders and taking pleasure in viewing wild birds. Perhaps you too would enjoy this popular activity.
When seeing a cute little duckling, many an animal-lover is tempted to pick it up, cuddle it and take it home. This urge can become almost impossible to resist if the animal-lover is accompanied by children. Ducks make wonderful pets, but before making a commitment to care for a pet duck that could be around for up to twelve years, it is wise to give the matter careful thought, weighing up (and even writing down if necessary) the pros and cons of adding this fluffy little bird to the household.