A Water Bird Summer

Great White Egret on the morning of August 16

As I walked down my front walk yesterday morning to visit the vegetable garden, I was stopped in my tracks by unexpected beauty. A small bluish warbler with a yellow throat and chest and a greenish back was frolicking in a front bird bath not more than five steps from me. It ignored me, finished its bath, then jumped to an adjacent shrub to preen. I was so gobsmacked by its delicate beauty that it didn’t occur to me to pull my phone from my pocket to attempt a photo. It was a Northern Parula. We see them in our lichen-abundant floodplain forest every year at least once or twice, but not this close, not so intimately. Though not a water bird, this warbler does prefer moister habitats, which is probably why it visits my yard. I imagine the absence of recent rain drove it to my bird bath.

Pileated woodpeckers are not water birds, but they do like wetland environments.

It hasn’t rained adequately in over a month. Trees are abandoning their summer green and dropping leaves early, conserving resources for another round of green next spring. Native flowers and shrubs wilt by day, pull themselves back together overnight, then wilt again when the sun hits them. I do not have enough water in my wells to begin to quench the thirst of all green ones that share my five acres with me.

Unlike many parts of the country, especially those states west of the Mississippi, my drought is quite recent, and if a few tropical systems come close enough to drop some rain (tis that season), odds are good that my land will head into winter in relatively good shape. Even if the rains don’t manifest, I am better off than many, thanks to the beaver-built wetland that has swallowed my creek, half of our floodplain, and much land on the other side.

Industrious beavers have built numerous dams – too many to easily count without getting very wet – on every side branch of the creek downstream, including a couple on our land. Until recently, their efforts were keeping the water level of the creek at record highs for this time of year – easily six or more feet in the deeper spots, and at least a foot in the shallow spots that in past years have been dry sand bars by this time.

Buttonbush flowers still blooming last week.

The perched water table on the floodplain was almost at ground surface level in many areas, making every water-loving native growing there very enthusiastic. Black willows (Salix nigra) have marched from the far side of the creek to our floodplain, covering at least an acre so far. I welcome them. The green ashes they grow beneath are dying quickly from the ravages of non-native, invasive Emerald Ash Borers. The willows will soon be the new dominant species, soaking up – I hope – some of the high water, their leaves and branches feeding deer and beavers, their flowers delighting abundant pollinators.

The big buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) I planted beside the creek 20 or so years ago has never been happier. It bloomed for two months, attracting all sorts of pollinators and the critters that eat them. Numerous seed balls are maturing – food for wood ducks and other seed-loving wildlife. Vegetation is now so high and thick – a combination of non-native invasive Japanese Stiltgrass and an array of native grasses, sedges, rushes, and water-loving shrubs – that I am not comfortable walking through them. I can’t see the ground and therefore can’t guess what might be lurking there. I must wait for winter cold to brown and shrink the growth before I can do any mud-tromping.

A closer view of a buttonbush inflorescence. The tiny tube-shaped flowers are visited by hummingbirds and butterflies.

That would frustrate me more if not for our wildlife cameras strategically placed along and beside the creek where native animals must fly, swim, and walk to go about their business. Those cameras provide a peephole into the beaver-built oasis. They show me how important this wetland has become to local wildlife, including species of water birds that we have never seen here until this year.

The Great Blue Herons have always been around. I love to watch their graceful stalking through shallow water, and it is eternally amazing to watch them catch and swallow fish. We have videos of them doing this in daylight, but my favorites are videos of their moonlit fishing efforts. This year, this species surprised us by building a nest high in a snag standing in the wetland – within view of our birding scope in the house! Herons generally nest in groups, building nests in wetlands together in spots called heronries. But our herons must have decided they were better off starting fresh here. We watched through the scope as they fed two long-necked chicks. Alas, we are fairly certain only one made it to adulthood. We’ve watched videos from the cameras of the juvenile heron learning to fish, often being displaced by an adult, with much raucous croaking from both birds.

A Green Heron hunting along the creek edge.

By mid-summer, we started seeing Green Herons in videos. They are smaller. Instead of wading out into the creek, they skulk along the edges seeking prey. Several times when I walked down to admire the buttonbush, I unintentionally startled a Green Heron. Each time, it flew up into a nearby tree and croaked at me until I left. I apologized for disturbing it, but I don’t think I was forgiven.

A Great Blue Heron watches as a Great White Egret beats it to a fish.

At about the same time the Green Heron appeared, we started seeing a large white bird flying through the trees of the wetland, but we never got a good look with the scope. Finally, it revealed itself via the wildlife cameras – a Great White Egret! This beautiful bird is about the same size as the Great Blue Herons, and they are not friends. We have one video of the egret catching a fish while a Great Blue Heron watches, then struts toward the egret. The egret flies away with breakfast, leaving the heron to stalk the shallows with its head pointed uncharacteristically beak-up, making a vertical line with its body. We couldn’t decide if it was attempting to look more menacing to the egret or if it was merely trying to watch for its return.

One of two juvenile White Ibises that spent several weeks along our creek.

The most astonishing species of water bird to show itself appeared on the cameras a few weeks ago. We were so befuddled by what we saw that we showed the videos to birder friends for their expert analysis. They confirmed that the pair of birds we saw on video dabbling in the mud were juvenile White Ibises! It was their motley plumage that confused us. Only their under parts were white. The birders confirmed that this species had been seen in our county this summer, but it is unusual for these coastal birds to be so far inland. We haven’t seen them lately, so we assume they’ve headed back to the coast.

It’s safe to assume we can thank the work of our resident beavers for the uptick in water birds this growing season. They are also the reason river otters live here, along with the many mammal species that favor this habitat: skunks, raccoons, opossums, deer, bobcats, coyotes, rabbits, mice, marsh rats – all have been caught at least once by our cameras, and we delight in watching them.

But this summer will always stand out as the Summer of the Water Birds. When the rains return – and I pray that’s soon – water levels should rise, perhaps encouraging these birds to return again in future years. I will continue to do all I can to create welcoming habitat for all the natives, and the cameras will be ready to record their stories.

Great White Egret dawn patrol

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