This is the time of year when outdoor activities slow down for us people. Planting is over until spring, lawns quit growing and mowing stops. Nights are longer, days are shorter, and the cold winds hustle us humans inside. And a large number of our land birds head further south for winter. Yet this is the season when thousands of water birds from the north fly down to our region, join up in large flocks, and settle into the lakes and rivers of East Texas.
Although some of these same birds are here in small numbers during the summer, in winter cormorants, white pelicans, gulls, and terns all come to the local waterways in enormous numbers. Each flock is like a giant bird party with nonstop gabbing, socializing, squabbling, and feeding.
Cormorants come in by the thousands! Some people cringe because these big goofy duck-like birds foul their docks and coves, and turn the trees white with droppings! But they are amazing underwater acrobats, chasing and catching fish while diving and swimming 30’ below the surface. Although silent during the summer, in large winter flocks they grunt like pigs! It is an amazing sound!
Majestic American White Pelicans arrive by the hundreds, each devouring several pounds of fish per day. They paddle and fish on the lakes and rivers during the winter days, and during the evenings they usually roost in coves or down behind the reservoir dams, protected from the harsh north winds.
Forster’s Terns are pert little scissor-tailed birds that love the open water. Sitting far out in the lake they hunt for small fish. Terns hunt by plunge-diving into the water, stunning and eating small surface fish. They smack into the water so hard it seems as if their bones would break!
Gulls of all kinds swarm into the area for winter. Laughing Gulls, Bonaparte’s Gulls and Ring-Billed Gulls are the most common. They mass together on sand bars or along protected shorelines. Terns often roost with them. During daytime the gulls flit about over the open water, swooping down on surface fish using a grab-and-go technique, or stealing other birds’ catches.
When spring comes around and the cold weather breaks, these water loving flocks pick up and migrate to their various northern breeding grounds, leaving us behind until the next winter. Be aware that these birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act which makes it illegal to harass, possess or harm them, or their nests and eggs. Learn more about the incredible nature in our area by joining a chapter of the Texas Master Naturalist organization. To find a chapter close to you, or to read about the state program, go online to www.txmn.org. Volunteer and get involved!