Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

A welcome return

with 46 comments

A bit before 5:30 on January 28th, on the way back home from a concert, as we passed through the intersection of US 183 and Braker Lane I noticed that grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus) were gathering in good numbers on the power lines there.

Five minutes later we were home. I got my camera equipment and headed back out for a welcome chance to play with the birds, photographically speaking. As dusk gradually came on, I found myself in the best congregation of grackles I’d witnessed in a long time—in fact, with one brief exception in 2016, it had been years since I saw any large group there. Why they showed up again two days ago, I have no idea, just as I never knew why they’d almost completely stopped coming to this intersection after 2012.

One difference from before was that this time some of the birds landed in groups on the road, and drivers were honking to try to get the grackles to fly out of the way and let the cars pass. At one point a guy who’d been begging for money at the intersection walked past me and said he was leaving because everybody was paying attention to the birds and not to him. No nature lover he.

The second photograph shows a phenomenon I saw repeated many times: lots of grackles would settle on one section of the power lines, then something would trigger them to suddenly take off en masse.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 30, 2018 at 4:47 AM

Posted in nature photography

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46 Responses

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  1. What luck, to have such tall power poles to encourage their perching. That’s a fabulous vertical photo — much more interesting than where they have only a line or two to decorate. It shows off their spacing well. I’ve seen both grackles and cormorants exhibit the same behavior; when a new bird flies in to join the group, everyone shifts to maintain just the right amount of space between birds.

    They showed up at my local HEB a few weeks ago in numbers like these. I noticed the same odd behavior you mentioned. They not only covered the store’s roofline and the surrounding power lines, they were perfectly content to perch on cars and grocery carts, and hundreds just walked around the parking lot. When I returned to my own car, three were perched on its roof. They didn’t seem eager to fly away, so I just got in and drove off. By the time I got home, they were gone.


    January 30, 2018 at 6:52 AM

    • The tall pole stands on the west side of the intersection. There used to be more of the tall in the northeast in conjunction with a fenced-off collection of transformers or whatever that electrical conglomerate is, but the structures got redone some years ago. The vertical photograph makes for an agreeable change from the large majority of my grackle pictures.

      The lower power lines of the other picture lie in the southwest quadrant of the intersection. There and across US 183 in the southeast quadrant is where I’ve taken most of my pictures of grackles over the past decade.

      It’s good to hear that grackles showed up en masse at your local HEB [people from outside Texas: that’s the biggest grocery store chain in the state]. Last year at


      you showed individual portraits of grackles. Have you headed over to the HEB, or are you planning to, to take some pictures of grackle masses?

      Similar to your experience, I noticed that some grackles had landed on one car that was waiting at a red light. I didn’t watch to see how fast the car had to be going before they flew off.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 30, 2018 at 7:43 AM

      • How kind of you to mention my posts. I did go back to HEB the next evening to take some photos but, alas, the birds had moved on. I didn’t count the stragglers, but there couldn’t have been more than a couple dozen. The unpredictability of nature strikes again.


        January 31, 2018 at 7:32 AM

        • Ah yes, here today, gone tomorrow. I talked to someone from the neighborhood who said he saw masses of grackles at this intersection last Friday. I haven’t been back since Sunday to see if they’re still there.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 31, 2018 at 7:39 AM

  2. Sometimes we get flocks of starlings like that. I always enjoy watching them in flight, the whole flock swooping and swerving in concert.


    January 30, 2018 at 7:37 AM

    • From my very limited knowledge of birds, I have the impression that starlings are especially well known for those murmurations. Grackle formations aren’t as large, but they’re still impressive.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 30, 2018 at 7:45 AM

      • The one you showed certainly looked impressive. Maybe even a little scary. Prairie restorationists wax poetic over the olden days, when the sky would be darkened for days with flocks of birds. Me, I don’t think that would be so wonderful. (I’m careful not to say that aloud in their company!)


        January 31, 2018 at 9:30 AM

        • The main hazard of working beneath power lines with all those grackles on them is getting “rained” on by a bird. At one point when I was out I felt a splat on the back of my jacket. I’ve put the jacket in the washing machine.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 31, 2018 at 12:21 PM

          • One time I was going out in the field on a dreadfully hot day so I parked my car under the only tree so it would be a shade cooler. There wasn’t a bird in sight, but when I returned, a whole flock of blackbirds come to roost in the tree and my blue car was fairly white washed. Yuck.


            February 2, 2018 at 9:08 AM

            • Yeah, I’ve seen cars like that. I had a similar experience, not as bad as yours, when I parked under a tree for less than two hours a couple of years ago. At other times I’ve seen warning signs on the ground and avoided parking in those places, but that time there hadn’t been any warning signs. I made a quick trip to the car wash.

              Steve Schwartzman

              February 2, 2018 at 10:45 AM

  3. I noticed their uniform spacing in the top photo as shoreacres observed. Our bird watchings are of large V flights of Canada Geese. They go over our neighborhood to the NW for their daily feed. Then, come back over in the evening where they roost for the night. Sometimes is looks to be over 1000.

    Jim R

    January 30, 2018 at 7:58 AM

    • That sounds impressive. Have you photographed or filmed those large formations?

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 30, 2018 at 8:01 AM

      • No attempts have been successful. By the time I grab a camera and go outside they are mostly past.

        Jim R

        January 30, 2018 at 8:03 AM

        • Well, there’s always hope for success next time. Maybe one day you’ll happen to be outside when the first of the geese tip you off to what’s coming.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 30, 2018 at 8:10 AM

  4. I’ll bet you didn’t witness any mid-air collisions, despite that dizzying scene – – isn’t that impressive? I was curious about their diet, and looks like there’s a simple answer – – they eat anything and everything. Grain, seeds, berries, bugs, crayfish, small bats, etc.

    Robert Parker

    January 30, 2018 at 8:05 AM

  5. I will show my husband, Forrest, these photos at lunch today. He works in the electrical power industry. That first photo of the transmission line is outstanding! The second image of both transmission and distribution lines is amazing too. I dislike the cacophony of cackling grackles, but I remember a couple of years ago I was in a Lowe’s parking lot and watched several grackles perching on the grills of vehicles to peck out dead insect roadkill. You gotta hand it to them for being resourceful!


    January 30, 2018 at 9:29 AM

  6. Me gusta mucho la primera fotografía. Gracias.

    • También le gustó a una mujer cuyo esposo trabaja en la industria eléctrica. La primera foto ejemplifica el orden, y la segunda el caos.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 30, 2018 at 4:31 PM

  7. The blackbirds have shown up here as well. Not a lot to eat yet mid-winter, do they hang around humans who tend to leave regular scraps for opportunists. You’ll see gulls at the same spots here in Houston.

    You may need a subscription to view this, but this months NG Magazine has a great spread on bird flight using high speed video. Like bird contrails, each pattern differs by the flight path of the species. It’s fascinating … and art. Blackbirds look like tornadoes.



    January 30, 2018 at 5:31 PM

    • Thanks for the link, which worked fine. I expect the interesting patterns showed up much better, and certainly larger, on my good monitor than on one of the magazine’s pages. My first impression was of a kind of dense razor wire.

      When you mentioned blackbirds, did you mean grackles or a different kind of dark bird?

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 30, 2018 at 7:43 PM

  8. Love those photos, Steve. Awesome sight! Do the grackles fly en masse in a murmuration like Starlings at all?


    January 30, 2018 at 5:51 PM

    • Yes, it’s a great—and noisy—sight. To answer your question: I’ve seen grackles flying in what I would have to call a murmuration. I’ve seen it infrequently, and with many fewer birds than the great numbers that people have observed in starling murmurations.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 30, 2018 at 7:46 PM

  9. […] As you heard last time, grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus) had returned en masse to the intersection of US 183 and Braker Lane in my part of Austin near dusk on January 28th. Here are a few more pictures of them. […]

  10. Oh my! The BIRDS! That was filmed just up the coast from here.


    January 31, 2018 at 11:01 PM

  11. Wow I would have whizzed indoors for my camera too. Top shot Steve .. 🙂 We have blackbirds in NZ, but no grackles. Reminded me of Hitchcock ..


    February 3, 2018 at 1:16 PM

    • Thanks, Julie. In an earlier comment on this post, Tony Tomeo said that he lives close to the place in California where Hitchcock filmed “The Birds.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 3, 2018 at 4:35 PM

  12. Great images here with the power lines too. The grackles in P.R. also had the tendency to gather like this but not in such massive proportions. They would congregate in power grids also.


    February 8, 2018 at 8:51 AM

    • And power plants.


      February 8, 2018 at 8:53 AM

      • I never thought about grackles as far away from here as Puerto Rico. As you know, I rarely include human elements in my nature photos, but in this case the power lines are so much a part of the grackle phenomenon that I was happy to include them. They and the poles add lots of geometrical elements to the composition.

        Steve Schwartzman

        February 8, 2018 at 9:11 AM

        • You nailed it! It’s definitely a grackle phenomenon. They could be perching elsewhere but their congregation patterns apparently make them behave like this. Yes, the caribbean grackle is an endemic species to the region.

          I have issues including human elements in my images, but end up having to do it because of the botanical “habit” photo I end up taking, just to show the surroundings or growth pattern in which the plants may be found, and those may include walls or fences.


          February 8, 2018 at 11:15 AM

          • Right. If you’re documenting where and how the plants commonly grow, you may have to include those otherwise undesirable elements in a picture.

            Steve Schwartzman

            February 8, 2018 at 12:50 PM

  13. I love that top photo – and wow, I can imagine the noise!


    February 11, 2018 at 8:43 PM

    • I included the top photo to set the scene. You’re the second person to favor it. (You can see the same tall pole as a minor element at the left in the second picture, which suggests the noise that’s heard when so many grackles congregate.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 11, 2018 at 9:50 PM

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