Purple Gallinules of Cullinan Park Conservancy
June 23, 2017 ~ One of the closest areas for wildlife photography is Cullinan Park, a 754-acre tract just a few miles away from me on Hwy 6. It has recently been annexed by the Sugar Land and received quite a bit of new money for development. I read they may do more with playgrounds and Nature Walks for The Children but I do hope they spend some of the money on water management. Still, it is a fabulous place to visit for wildlife.
Cullinan Park has some winding trails but the main attraction is White Lake with the connected boardwalks and observation tower. It is kind of a wild setting right in the middle of the suburbs. Fishing is allowed and I have seen non-motorized boating such as kayaks and canoes.
From the safety of the boardwalks (yes, there are alligators in all bodies of water in Southeast Texas) you can get fairly close to wading and diving birds. Green Herons, Little Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Common Gallinules, Great Egrets, and even Roseate Spoonbills are common as well as Anhingas and various kites and hawks. Some have even see Bald Eagles, but I haven't been that lucky. The birds aren't all that skittish being acclimated to the human visitors and the continual overflights to and from the Sugar Land Airport. Small birds and songbirds can be found along the forest trails.
In years past, White Lake has been almost covered with American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) which we thought made photography difficult. The large leaves obscured the feeding birds and the dying vegetation made unattractive backgrounds. This year, the inner part of the lake is covered with Water Lettuce or Pistia. Although it is an invasive species, it is low growing and provides a nicer backdrop for the waders.
Recent trips have produced a lot of great photos of Green Herons, Little Blue Herons and Purple Gallinules feeding in the water lettuce. Today I am going to do the Purple Gallinules and then the others in later posts. I had to break it up or you would have to look through more than 20 photos. Or more. I hardly knew where to stop!
There are still clumps of the lotus in the lake, and this one makes a great frame for the Purple Gallinule. These iridescent birds are part of the Rail family and related to King and Clapper Rails, Common Gallinules and the Poor Little Coot. Notice the strong legs and giant toes, perfect for walking on aquatic vegetation. They are sometimes called Swamp Hens.
I have no idea how deep this part of the lake is but here he is walking about with a tiny frog. Eating on the run risks dropping the prey; a lot of birds will move to a more solid footing to devour the food.
This giant spider almost got away from him, but he managed to retrieve it. It might be a Wolf Spider, but I am not sure. If you have other ideas about identification, please let me know in the comments below. Purple Gallinules breed here in the summer and we are looking for nests and hope to see babies later on. They are omnivorous and eat seeds, fruits, grains and some invertebrates according to the literature.
And frogs, insects and spiders according to direct observation.
And this, my loyal readers, is Purple Gallinule with an Apple Snail. And a pretty large one at that. They are everywhere in the lake; during dry years you see thousands of empty shells on the lake bed. Bill Maroldo and I read up on them after this trip and they are fascinating. Apple Snails have a gill (for breathing underwater) and a lung (for breathing out of the water). They also can seal up the door to their shell (called the operculum) during droughts to avoid drying out while buried in the mud. And the snails are most active at night, eating algae and rooted vegetation.
I found the usual story of introducing Apple Snails to a new area in hopes of establishing a big escargot industry in Taiwan. Lots of literature about how protein rich they are but mostly folks don't like to eat them and of course, they compete with native snails and can harbor parasites. The introduced snails quickly showed up in Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Hong Kong, southern China, Japan and the Philippines and there are indications that they are currently invading Australia. Don't picture hordes of snails on the march; they escape during floods and are often dumped in lakes and streams by tired aquarium or resturant owners. There is some speculation they were introduced to Texas via the pet trade.
So, we were pretty excited to see this Purple Gallinule with his Apple Snail. We had run into our friend and neighbor Dixie Spurling that morning and she told us the snails climb up stalks and piers to lay bright pink eggs around daybreak. Bill Maroldo is so intrigued I think he wants to get up early to check that out.
So our subject carried the snail around to several different locations. He used feet and beak to pry open the door. Note the pink snail eggs on the bottom of this folded over lotus leaf. Personally, the pink eggs are really disgusting and I could never eat an Apple Snail no matter how it was cooked. Eventually he carried the open snail over to his mate and they shared the treat.
Naturally they were behind a big clump of lotus leaves away from our prying eyes.
At one point the pair came up on the boardwalk to check us out. There was a brief squabble over space (which I missed) but they soon made up.
It is hard not to focus on those giant feet. Getting them to land on the railings affords a creamy bokeh background. Otherwise, a lot of your photos will be looking down on them if they are close. Don't forget to change your f/stop if they do come in close.
Birds aren't the only wildlife in this park. We saw an armadillo scurrying off the path and a deer very near the entrance at Hwy 6. Racoons are common; especially close to the trash barrels. This American Bullfrog was happily sitting in the shallow water just off the side of the boardwalk. There are lovely little tree frogs on the reeds, but the ones I saw were within my minimum focus distance. Next time we go we are taking the cart and more lenses.
Just as we were leaving we spied these mating Halloween Pennant dragonflies. I took this with the big 500mm lens from about 15 feet away. Tricky to get focus, but once you do it makes a fine but expensive macro lens. There are thousands of dragonflies hovering over the lake; mating and providing food for the Green Herons. Oh, that is next week's blog!
Have you been to Cullinan Park? Did you know there was a great source of wildlife so close to the city? And what do you think about eating snails? Let me know in the comments below.