Cross Timbers Wildlife News
Fly Up the Creeks
By Jim Dillard, Wildlife Biologist, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Mineral Wells
Creeks are wonderful places here in Cross Timbers Country during the summer. By escaping to the shadowy canopy of towering pecans, elms, oaks and cottonwoods that hug their banks, one can find at least some relief from the heat that parches this land of sand-rock, woods and grass. Although most creeks here are intermittent, those that run year round or have deep pools of water that persist during dry spells are a Mecca for wildlife and me. Indians that occupied this region in bygone days were also drawn to the creeks for their sustenance. Today, the riparian zones that border these ribbons of life are some of the most ecologically diverse and yet most environmentally sensitive lands in Cross Timbers Country.
I spent a lot of time in my youth tromping up and down creeks in the Blackland Country of Central Texas. Although my motivation for going to the creeks was usually to hunt squirrels or fish for a mess of channel cats, their lure was strong and inviting. There was something magical about them that drew me back time and time again. Now, they’re only creeks in my mind, but the lessons I learned there about wildlife and land inspire me to this day.
One memory is of the fly-up-the-creek bird that I often encountered on my forays to the creeks. At least that’s what old man Springer called them and who was I to question old man Springer. He spent most of his days sitting, spitting and watching my dad pound away on the anvil down at the blacksmith shop. In his youth, he also had done his fare share of hunting and fishing on the same creeks I was then. “Yes sir, those fly-up-the-creek birds always fly up the creek, never down the creek,” he’d said. Why they did he wouldn’t say and I didn’t ask.
Fly-up-the-creek birds go by other more common names such as green heron, little-green heron, green-backed heron, green bittern, crab-catcher, skeow, shitepoke and swamp squaggin – green heron (Butorides virescens) works for me. They’re found primarily from southern Canada to northern South America and throughout the eastern half of the United States and along the Pacific coast to Baja. During winter, most birds migrate to the southern U. S. or south into Mexico.
Feather coloration on their back and wings is dark bluish-green; underparts are brownish-gray. Neck feathers are sorta chestnut-maroon color. Their shaggy head crest is dark and is often erected when they’re alarmed. Their relatively long legs are yellowish or orange. Overall length is one and one-half to two foot and wingspread about 26 inches. With the exception of the least bittern, it’s our smallest heron species, weighing in at five to seven ounces. When sitting motionless, they’re hard to see due to their blend-in coloration. Flush one and they’re likely to fly up the creek with a loud resounding skeowww – skeowww! They also make a series of kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk calls.
Habitat for these crow-size herons is muddy streamsides of creeks and rivers, swamps, marshes, lakes, ponds and other wetlands where they feed on a wide variety of aquatic life. Amphibians, reptiles, small fish, crustaceans, mollusks, insects, spiders, worms and small mammals are on the menu for green herons.
They’re one of the few species of birds known to use bait to lure fish into striking distance. They’ll drop things like insects, earthworms, twigs or feathers on the water surface and wait until a fish comes to investigate and then grab and gulp it down. They’ll also hunt from low branches or limbs over water and catch prey with an explosive jab of their sharp bill or dive right in to pursue their victim. Usually, they’ll just stand motionless along the shoreline waiting for something to pass by or shuffle their feet to stir something up. When walking, they nervously flick their tail while they raise and lower their head crest feathers.
For the most part, they lead solitary lives but may nest in loose colonies. During the breeding season, males will select a nest site and then go through elaborate courtship displays to attract a mate. If he’s the one, he’ll then bring nest building materials to the female and she’ll build a small platform nest to her specifications. In it she’ll lay four or five pale greenish-blue eggs that they both help incubate for about three weeks. Young are fed regurgitated cuisine by both parents and leave the nest in another two weeks. They hang around near the nest for a couple more weeks begging handouts from mom and dad before flying up the creek on their own.
I guess I was lucky to have had several creek bottoms within bicycle-riding distance from the town where I grew up to poke around in. It’s too bad that a lot of young folks these days don’t have access to a creek with critters to help them channel their lives and develop an appreciation for the natural world around them. And by the way, I once saw a fly-up-the creek actually fly down the creek. I wonder what old man Springer would have said about that. I wouldn’t have the heart to tell him. Until next time, I’ll see you down the road and God Bless America!