February 23, 2021 ~ Here along the upper Texas Gulf Coast, there are so many huge parks and reserves, that it is easy to overlook the little parks tucked in between busy streets and crowded neighborhoods. Cullinan Park is one good example.
Cullinan is a 750-acre park (of which only about 10% is easily walkable) tucked into 5 square miles bordered by three multi-lane freeways… and an airport! And while the rush of the freeway generates no more noise than a 30 mile per hour wind over a broad open pasture, that airport, with its air-braking small jets, is sometimes so loud, you cannot hear a socially-distanced friend speaking loudly. A wide paved trail leads 500 feet from the parking lot to the observation piers and tower, so there is comfortable access for everyone.
This park is often crowded with families fishing or looking for a brief view of an alligator, but with a little patience, I was able to see some of my favorite birds.
The big freeze in our area last week torched all the water plants with their heads above the water, but down below, there is still fresh greenery. This Common Gallinule was one of several snacking on the lake. This is his (or her) winter plumage; you can see the wear along the edges of the wing feathers. For the breeding season in just a few months, he will molt to replace his worn feathers with a satiny black head and body, and burnished dark brown wings.
I walked south through the woods toward Oyster Creek, and found a hive of activity along the top of the high sandy berm 20 feet above the water. Red ants were crawling all over! Here I was able to get a shot of two parallel columns of Texas Leafcutter Ants, using my 500mm lens – the only lens I had with me. (Well, I didn’t want to get on my knees and crawl close enough for a phone photo!) One column was cutting and transporting the leaf fragments to their nest, while the other was returning empty-handed to the harvesting site for more. They didn’t appear concerned about whether the leaves had been frozen. In a fascinating study published in 2018, scientists from Rice University, Houston, University of Texas, Austin, and Sao Paulo State University, Brazil, documented the unique method the Leafcutter Ants use to cultivate their food, a particular fungus, on green leaves (instead of thoroughly decayed dead leaves). Because of this ability to use fresh leaves, the Leafcutters can grow much more food than other types of fungi-growing ants, and their nests are many, many times larger.
Returning through the woods toward the piers I heard the familiar rapid thunk-thunk-thunk that told me a woodpecker was working nearby. Sure enough, this male Downy Woodpecker was working in the shade circling around a branch. They can actually hear bugs chewing the wood below the bark. Three days of below-freezing weather apparently hadn’t made a dent in the active bugs that are his food supply.
Back on the pier, I was intrigued by the sound of something crunching through the dried reeds at the edge of the pier. A couple peering avidly in that direction were happy to point out a bird about as big as a chicken hiding in plain sight among the reeds. He appeared to be deliberately bending and breaking the reeds to walk upon.
It was my first time to see an American Bittern at suburban Cullinan Park. This bird appeared to have a distended craw, and I walked past him several times taking photos for over an hour, as he slowly and deliberately made his way from near the pier to the north end of the patch of reeds, his rounded belly preceding him.
I was tickled to see his pink tongue in this shot… but I have to remember that a heron’s tongue is a specialized tool for swallowing a big fish, frog, snake or crawfish. As his intent orange eye reminded me, herons are not soft and cuddly, they are expert hunters.
Out on the pier, I watched the indigo Tree Swallows dash and dip over the water, and brought home lots of totally out-of-focus shots. They are a real challenge, but I’m willing to keep trying. Later in the afternoon, I walked back to the observation tower pier to shoot a “documentary” phone photo of the bittern’s habitat. You can see the darker brown freeze-burned water weeds on the surface of the lake, and the pale reeds at its edge. Above, the bird is in the band of reeds, about half-way up the photo, and about one quarter of the way across the photo from the left edge. He is only about 70 feet away. This gives you an idea of how difficult they are to spot.
The black shading along his upper bill, and down the side of his neck perfectly emulate the long shadows of the reeds.
I have a handful of shots with the settings left over from the Tree Swallows. No way this guy needed the 1/4000 second for his near-stationary pose, and the f/9 aperture revealed details in the shadows behind him that should have been avoided. But I like the angular arrangement of the reeds around him, so here he is with a bit more of a crop, ready for an evening of quiet digestion as the crowds and the airplanes settle for the evening. I too headed home, feeling that my afternoon in little Cullinan Park had been full of interesting observations, and was well worth the visit.