Portraits of Wildflowers

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They’re back again too

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Grackles Flying and on Wires 1522

For several years in a row, until about three years ago, in November and December large groups of grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus) would gather at dusk each day on the power lines at the corner of US 183 and Braker Lane, then with the coming of darkness settle into adjacent trees to spend the night alongside the noisy highway. For whatever reason, the birds returned to their former haunt and habits in January of this year. Here’s a view of the spectacle at the southwest quadrant of that intersection on January 23rd. Last night I noticed many fewer grackles there, so perhaps the birds are already moving on.

ยฉ 2016 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

February 2, 2016 at 5:16 AM

81 Responses

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  1. They must have all flown to where I am- they were perched in some trees squawking away the other day- I find them fascinating! Sometimes they land in my yard-blanketing it, so many you can’t see the grass. I love these photos!


    February 2, 2016 at 6:34 AM

    • Even if the grackles are moving on from this location, I’m guessing that they’re still in Austin. Where are you that you see so many grackles?

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 2, 2016 at 6:44 AM

      • I’m in New Jersey the grackles are here all year


        February 2, 2016 at 10:01 AM

        • They seem to be here year-round too. I grew up not that far away from you, on Long Island, but I don’t remember seeing swarms of grackles. Perhaps they were there and I just wasn’t paying attention.

          Steve Schwartzman

          February 2, 2016 at 10:24 AM

  2. First of all, thanks for revisiting the frostweed. Amazing plant and shots.

    We have infrequent visits of grackles at the feeders. We are grateful for that as they toss most of the seed on the ground. Their glossy feathers make a spectacle when the birds are clustered together. Your photo makes all of them sharp. Great shutter speed.


    February 2, 2016 at 6:40 AM

    • You’re welcome for the return to frostweed, which you can tell I enjoy experiencing and photographing each winter.

      I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a grackle at a bird feeder (I don’t have one), but I often see them in parking lots scrounging for bits of food that people have accidentally dropped or purposely thrown away.

      From the metadata I see that I used a shutter speed of 1/500 of a second to try to stop the movement of the flying grackles. That speed, combined with the fact that the birds were far enough from the camera, did the trick here. In a few of the other pictures that I took, some of the birds came out with motion blur.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 2, 2016 at 7:08 AM

  3. Oh, yes, since the fields are covered in snow, they raid my feeders. I become crazed.


    February 2, 2016 at 7:12 AM

  4. Hmm, and here I was noticing swallows today in this end of the world !

    Nature on the Edge

    February 2, 2016 at 8:36 AM

    • Did you photograph any of those swallows?

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 2, 2016 at 10:14 AM

      • Managed to capture a couple in flight, but not so easy as they flit by so quickly. Have a spot I must visit where they perch. That will be an easier quest :0

        Nature on the Edge

        February 3, 2016 at 12:40 PM

  5. Hi Steve,
    These Grackles! We – jokingly – call them H.E.B. birds, because they swarm in masses around the supermarkets. ๐Ÿ˜‰
    I just happened to come from a blog that talked about counting the birds in swarms. Maybe you’re interested: http://tinyurl.com/gtlu6no
    Have a great day,


    February 2, 2016 at 9:06 AM

    • They’re H.E.B. birds here too, and Fiesta Birds, Central Market birds, Whole Foods birds, etc.

      Photographing a swarm of birds against the sky and then using the photograph to count the birds is a good suggestion. I’ve got pictures like that (including today’s) but I confess I’ve never counted the birds in any of those pictures.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 2, 2016 at 10:20 AM

  6. Great photo! Wouldn’t want to be parked near there

    Art at Hand

    February 2, 2016 at 9:06 AM

    • Yeah, that’s an occupational hazard of urban bird photography. I make sure to park a good distance from a flock of grackles, but of course I still run some risk myself when I’m down below taking pictures,

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 2, 2016 at 10:16 AM

  7. That picture reminded me of an unusual sight about 60 yrs ago. There was a strong lightning storm Sat. night. The next morning we drove to church across the farmland. We came upon a power line with dozens of dead starlings hanging by their feet. Apparently, they were killed by a lightning strike. As many were dead on the ground. I have a picture somewhere. I wonder if I can find it.

    Jim Ruebush

    February 2, 2016 at 11:37 AM

    • I can understand why you’d remember a sight like that. How do you think some of the starlings came to be hanging from the power line by their feet rather than falling to the ground like the others?

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 2, 2016 at 3:07 PM

  8. What a sight!! Reminds me of when our starlings gather together before migration. We call their undulating group flight a murmuration ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Once at this location a few years ago the grackles were numerous enough that when they flew around they looked like the murmurations of starlings I’ve seen videos of, though there weren’t tens or hundreds of thousands of them like the starlings. You’re fortunate to have seen a true murmuration; I hope I’ll get to see one someday too.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 2, 2016 at 3:13 PM

      • It’s an extraordinary sight!! I haven’t managed to see one inland but there’s often really great ones at Brighton off the pier ๐Ÿ™‚ We get gatherings around me but not the masses that you’ll have seen on videos! Starlings are under threat, particularly the resident birds. I hope that they keep migrating here even as the climate changes!

        • Oh, I didn’t know that starlings are threatened. It would be a shame to lose such large murmurations.

          Steve Schwartzman

          February 2, 2016 at 7:55 PM

          • They’re on the amber warning list at the moment! It’s hard to conceive of them being threatened but it’s often when we get complacent about the sights and sounds of wildlife that something goes wrong! I saw my first bumblebee of the year today so I hope he wasn’t too far from his hidey hole for when it suddenly goes cold again. It made me happy to see him though ๐Ÿ˜€

            • By coincidence, after you left your comment, I read in The Thing with Feathers that starlings are thriving in North America, where they’re not native, but having trouble in Britain, where they are native.

              Happy first bumblebee.

              Steve Schwartzman

              February 4, 2016 at 7:14 PM

              • It’s all shifting climates and habitats I guess! I hope the bees that were out all safely tucked themselves away again as we’ve got one hell of a storm (for Surrey that is!) going on out there. I hate horizontal rain and strong winds when I have to bring the wheelchair in from the car! Very soggy indeed ๐Ÿ˜‰

                • I’m sorry for your soggy. Here we’ve had plenty of sunshine and today I saw my first butterflies of the year.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  February 7, 2016 at 6:55 PM

                • Well I should think you’d be a bit ahead of us!! First butterfly is always a joy ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m looking forward to our early spring species!! In the meantime I’m back off to see the tropical ones ๐Ÿ™‚

                • A small one even landed on a flower near me but as soon as I lifted my camera up it darted away.
                  Happy tropical viewing.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  February 8, 2016 at 7:31 AM

                • Happens more often than not!!! What butterfly was it? We were foiled by the weather today! Met my friends at lunchtime and it was already very windy with the weather set to get worse. They’d blocked access to the woodland areas in case of falling branches or trees but we thought it would be alright for the glasshouse. Anyway, the moment we walked in through the doors, staff came around saying sorry, they were closing the whole site early due to the weather! Gutted ๐Ÿ˜ฆ Two of my friends had driven two hours to join us! I understand that they have to be cautious when it comes to health and safety but it was a bit over the top I thought. We spent the afternoon in the pub instead ๐Ÿ˜‰

                • It was some kind of skipper, but it took back off so quickly I didn’t get a good look at it.

                  I’m sorry the weather interfered with your day, especially as friends had driven two hours to join you. When we visited Fort Davis in west Texas a few months ago, a grove of trees that I wanted to wander through had been cordoned off for the reason you mentioned: fear of falling branches. The weather itself was fine, though, so I found plenty of other things to photograph that day.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  February 9, 2016 at 12:00 AM

                • It’s about making the best of a bad situation!! There’s an avenue of trees in Ireland that has become world famous thanks to Game of Thrones, called the Dark Hedges, that I have wanted to visit for years! One of the storms we had just over a week ago brought down several of the ancient trees ๐Ÿ˜ฆ So very sad but the trust that manages it believes that it won’t impact too much on the main view. I love skippers ๐Ÿ˜€ Wonderful fuzzy butterflies!

                  Sarah Longes - Mirador Design

                  February 10, 2016 at 6:22 PM

                • I’m sorry to hear that that avenue of trees got damaged, but glad that there wasn’t even more damage.

                  Yesterday I saw a sulphur butterfly, but once again it flitted off too quickly for me to even attempt a picture.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  February 10, 2016 at 7:02 PM

                • Check it out online! It’s a real fairytale place ๐Ÿ™‚ I was volunteering with two other butterfly fans today at an info stall for Butterfly Conservation UK and we were talking about the European version of the Sulphur which is called a Clouded Yellow! I’ve only ever seen one on the continent. Beautiful creatures and fast fliers too!

                  Sarah Longes - Mirador Design

                  February 10, 2016 at 7:10 PM

                • I checked out the Dark Hedges so I could see what it looks like. One site noted that “This beautiful avenue of beech trees was planted by the Stuart family in the eighteenth century.” Given the age of the trees, I can understand why people hate to see any of them die.

                  We have about two dozen species of sulphur butterflies in Texas:


                  Steve Schwartzman

                  February 11, 2016 at 7:13 AM

                • We don’t have that many Whites!! Some of these are very similar to our brimstone and clouded yellows. I get to see lots of brimstones ๐Ÿ™‚ The early ones will be out be out very soon as will our orange-tips. Some of the whites have quite subtle colouring differences and others are very habitat specific so not often seen! http://www.ukbutterflies.co.uk/family.php?name=Pieridae

                  There are places with much older trees but the wonderful twisting shapes of Dark Hedges is really special ๐Ÿ™‚

                  Sarah Longes - Mirador Design

                  February 12, 2016 at 7:14 PM

                • The trees’ twisting shapes definitely add to the feeling of the site.

                  I see what you mean about your Pieridae looking like ours. I guess your colder climate accounts for the smaller number of species.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  February 12, 2016 at 7:33 PM

                • Yes it would! I think the other thing is that the size of the UK is a tad bit smaller than Southern US and central America ๐Ÿ˜‰ New Zealand has our Large White which we often call the Cabbage White. I bet their farmers curse the name of whoever introduced it!! I really liked the little sulphurs on the list ๐Ÿ™‚ Looked about the size of one of our hairstreaks!

                  Sarah Longes - Mirador Design

                  February 13, 2016 at 6:24 PM

                • I think one of the really striking things is the pinkish outline detail on the Orange Sulphurs! I had liked the Dainty Sulphur but couldn’t fully recall it. A few years ago now!! Really can’t wait to start watching our native species ๐Ÿ™‚ I will find a brimstone for you!!

                  Sarah Longes - Mirador Design

                  February 16, 2016 at 6:27 PM

                • I just hope no devil accompanies the brimstone.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  February 16, 2016 at 7:27 PM

                • Haha, no, but the brimstone has reddish eyes which is quite devilish in itself ๐Ÿ˜‰

                  Sarah Longes - Mirador Design

                  February 20, 2016 at 6:13 PM

                • It may be the red eyes that prompted (or partly prompted) the name.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  February 20, 2016 at 6:43 PM

                • I think it’s along the lines of yours being called sulphurs! “Fire and Brimstone” in the Bible is a volcanic reference. Brimstone is an archaic English word for sulphur ๐Ÿ™‚ I only really discovered some of the ruby red details when I started getting good macro photos of them. Really pretty butterflies!

                  Sarah Longes - Mirador Design

                  February 20, 2016 at 7:04 PM

                • No doubt you’re right. The red eyes are just a little diabolical bonus.
                  By the way, the brim in brimstone has an interesting etymology:


                  Steve Schwartzman

                  February 21, 2016 at 7:26 AM

                • A bonus indeed! Old English is fascinating and complex. So many variations in pronunciation leading to various ways it would be written by those who could write! There’s often a lot that can be learned about places by breaking down the names and looking at the old English meanings. Many of those prefixes mentioned appear in English place names! I grew up in Brockham which means settlement of badgers ๐Ÿ˜€

                  Sarah Longes - Mirador Design

                  February 22, 2016 at 6:48 PM

                • I’ve been advocating for etymology for a long time. The origins of words and the names of people and places add a lot to our understanding. I see that brock entered English from Celtic.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  February 22, 2016 at 8:00 PM

                • There’s often an element of the celtic language in many place names. But there are many different languages that led to what we term as celtic! Cornish, Pictish, Welsh and Irish Brythonic, Scots Gaelic and Cumbric. Latin had some impact but many Roman place names were changed back or renamed completely. Germanic influences came with the Angles and Saxons followed by Old Norse and eventually French Norman which already had many Norse and Latin influences itself. When we use the words Old English it’s really Anglo-saxon that we refer to.

                • It’s a fascinating topic, that’s for sure. I’ve been interested in languages and linguistics since I was a teenager. I even took an Anglo-Saxon course in college. The Celtic languages once covered a good portion of Europe (Gaul, for example), but they’ve suffered a huge retreat and ended up getting pushed to the margins, as you noted. What a contrast with English and the Romance languages, which expanded at the expense of Celtic.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  February 23, 2016 at 1:54 PM

                • I would have liked to actually study Anglo-saxon or perhaps Cumbric! My grandmother was Welsh, Nainie we called her. She was from Holyhead or Caergybi just off Anglesey or Ynys Mรดn. They all spoke Welsh there and my sister and picked up a bit over the years that we used to stay with her during school holidays. Much is lost when you’re not speaking it, especially with a difficult language. My pronunciation is still pretty good though ๐Ÿ™‚ She even took us to the Welsh language church services and the sound of everyone singing in Welsh is a truly beautiful thing! My family heritage is very celtic!! Scots, Irish and Welsh with my mum’s family all living in Devon and Cornwall ๐Ÿ™‚ It shows in my colouring and I’m quite proud of it really. After marrying Simon I finally got my Welsh surname too, Williams!

                  Sarah Longes - Mirador Design

                  February 23, 2016 at 6:14 PM

                • It’s not too late to study one or more of those languages. Go for it.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  February 23, 2016 at 9:15 PM

                • I need to get to grips with Greek first! Modern not classic ๐Ÿ˜‰

                  Sarah Longes - Mirador Design

                  February 24, 2016 at 6:06 PM

                • Then I’ll just wish you ฮšฮฑฮปฮทฮฝฯฯ‡ฯ„ฮฑ.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  February 24, 2016 at 6:45 PM

                • I don’t have a Greek keyboard set up so I shall say Efcharisto polรฝ ๐Ÿ™‚

                  Sarah Longes - Mirador Design

                  February 24, 2016 at 6:53 PM

                • It suddenly dawned on me that the root in Eucharist is the same as in charisma.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  February 24, 2016 at 8:48 PM

                • The ancient Greek stem being Kharis meaning grace or favour I discovered! Interesting to see how it was Latinised with some old French added in to make it into English language but the root still maintained in modern Greek.

  9. Great photo Steve, I had to look up grackle – they are beautiful birds seen close up. I was going to mention a murmuration of starlings, but see Sarah beat me to it. I did post a photo of a solo starling today. Another bird that has gorgeous iridescent plumage.


    February 2, 2016 at 5:21 PM

  10. I have seen that in bird populations on multiple occasions, it is always amazing to see it happen.

    Charlie@Seattle Trekker

    February 2, 2016 at 6:15 PM

  11. It’s strange that I haven’t seen a large group of grackles this fall or winter. They’re around, but in very small groups. The massed birds in your photo make for an arresting sight, and the pastel colors of the sky are beautiful. My favorite element, though, is the intersection of all those angles: the straight, strong poles, the horizontal lines, and the angle of the perching wires. The combination really makes it more than just a photo of birds.

    By any chance, did the author of the book about birds that you’re reading take the title from Emily Dickinson’s poem?

    “Hope is the thing with feathers –
    That perches in the soul –
    And sings the tune without the words –
    And never stops – at all –

    And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
    And sore must be the storm –
    That could abash the little Bird
    That kept so many warm –

    Iโ€™ve heard it in the chillest land –
    And on the strangest Sea –
    Yet – never – in Extremity,
    It asked a crumb – of me.”


    February 2, 2016 at 9:41 PM

    • For the purposes of this blog I’m primarily a nature photographer, and a purist at that, preferring to show nature in isolation, with no human traces in my images. As a photographer more generally, though, other things interest me as well, like the geometry of all those lines. There are some larger electric towers not far away and in plain view from this intersection. For years I’ve been imagining a picture with the grackles, the power lines shown here, and the big towers as well. If I ever did get a photograph like that in earlier years, I’ve forgotten about it.

      I immediately assumed the title of The Thing with Feathers came from Emily Dickinson, but so far I haven’t found any mention of it in the book. I’m not that far in, so the confirmation may well still lie in front of me.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 2, 2016 at 11:59 PM

  12. I am wondering how much damage they do to powerlines? Apparently powerlines do need grackle protection. ” In addition to trimming trees, overhead power lines frequented by grackles and starlings have more rubber protection, he said.

    The birds for an unknown reason roost on the overhead power lines on North Navarro Street at John Stockbauer Drive and at Loop 463.

    “We don’t have an issue when they just roost. The issue is when they all take off at the same time and they cause a rebound,” Janssen said. https://www.victoriaadvocate.com/news/2015/oct/04/procon-should-power-lines-be-buried/ What does a rebound do? Snap the line?


    February 3, 2016 at 6:09 AM

    • Victoria is close to 200 km south-southeast from where we live in Austin. The article you linked to makes clear that grackles are as much at home there as here. If there are many birds on a stretch of power line, as for example in the photograph in this post, and if something startles them, they do tend to take off simultaneously. I had no idea till now that some power companies put extra insulation on the lines in places where grackles are known to congregate. I’m assuming that sudden rebounds, if they occur often enough, could loosen or eventually snap the line. Or maybe it’s the insulation itself that’s being protected: with repeated abrupt takeoffs, the grackles’ claws might scrape away the insulation and expose the wire.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 3, 2016 at 7:19 AM

  13. I can only imagine the noise such a loud flock makes! Their numbers and your photograph are impressive.


    February 3, 2016 at 11:50 PM

    • No question that they can assault the senses, including not only the auditory but also the olfactory because of their droppings where large quantities of grackles have stayed for a while. I can’t record a smell, but someday I should make a video so people can hear the sound.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 4, 2016 at 6:53 AM

  14. The way things are going here, I am surprised our grackles have not returned already. They usually arrive around the same time as the returning robins and come in flocks that include cowbirds and killdeer.

    Steve Gingold

    February 4, 2016 at 4:35 AM

    • Your statement implies that the other birds are already showing up. Do you happen to know where your grackles return from?

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 4, 2016 at 6:55 AM

  15. That sure is a large group of birds. Nice picture Steve ๐Ÿ˜€


    February 5, 2016 at 3:46 AM

    • I happened to pass by a few sundowns ago and was surprised to see even more grackles than this. In contrast, yesterday there were none at all.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 5, 2016 at 7:06 AM

  16. This is a wonderful image, Steve. I really like the trees and birds silhouetted against that pretty sky. I’m not a fan of power lines but without these there wouldn’t have been an event in the first place, so I guess I’ll have to expand my heart to enjoy them, too.


    February 19, 2016 at 10:48 AM

    • As you know, I almost always avoid human elements in my nature pictures, but sometimes there’s no way around itโ€”and as you pointed out, in this case the birds are flocking here because of the power lines. A commenter from Germany years ago said that the birds can sense the electrical current in the wires and enjoy it. I don’t know if that’s correct, but it’s plausible.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 19, 2016 at 1:08 PM

      • I never considered that, but of course it makes sense. The next time I see birds on a wire I’ll think of them buzzin’.


        February 19, 2016 at 5:21 PM

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