What to watch for in September – It’s Transition Season

Here’s the Central Texas bird forecast for the month, courtesy of Travis Audubon. Learn more about Central Texas birds and bird-related events for all ages at travisaudubon.org or by calling 512-300-BIRD. Follow us at www.facebook.com/travisaudubon

Migration is in full swing, and September brings the departure of several species that spent their summers in the US or Canada, and arrival of some wintering birds that may stay here or move further south. Let’s take a look at four species that are all distinctive and use different habitats.

One Good Tern

Black Terns can be seen occasionally in the Austin area from late July through the end of September. These broad-winged small terns have a large summer range. They nest semi-colonially on marshy ponds and wetlands across most of prairie Canada and the northern U.S. from Washington down to northern California extending east beyond the Great Lakes region. In fall migration these terns are molting from their black and gray plumage into non-breeding white-headed birds with gray bodies and white underparts. It’s common and confusing to see them in various stages of molt. The juveniles look scaly dark gray on their upperparts. After the fall molt, both adults and juveniles look like they are sporting black ear muffs on white heads. Black Terns spend the winter along the Pacific coast of Mexico, Central America and northern South America. In summer they forage over ponds catching flying insects like dragonflies and mayflies, as well as aquatic insects, freshwater fish, frogs and tadpoles. In the days before pesticides, it was not unusual for them to forage over land where farmers were plowing or threshing. In 1986 one observer, Chapman Mosher, kept track of breeding foraging adults and found that they obtained 5.1 insects/minute. In contrast, it took 3-4 tries to catch a fish, averaging about .5 fish/minute according to another observer. During winter months Black Terns eat more small fish, often concentrating where predatory fish force smaller fish to the surface, but insects are still on the menu.

Black Tern in Breeding Plumage – COURTESY: Jeff Osborne

The Black Tern is an enchanting bird – it appears, often with others, swooping down to pick food off the water’s surface – then disappears almost as quickly as it arrived. Here’s how one early ornithologist, A.C Bent, describes it: “a restless waif of the air, flitting about hither and thither with a wayward, desultory flight, light and buoyant as a butterfly…as it skims swiftly over the surface of the water it reminds me of a swallow; and its true relationship to the terns is shown as it hovers along over the billowing tops of a great sea of tall waving grass, dipping down occasionally to snatch an insect from the slender, swaying tops.”

Black Tern in Fall Molt – COURTESY: James Giroux

Since these striking birds are associated with water, spending time by a lake or large pond increases your chances of seeing them.  Lake Travis, Lake Walter Long, and the ponds at the Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Facility are good places to check.

A Long-winged Long-distance Flycatcher

If you enjoy walking in a park or greenbelt and see a medium-sized very upright bird perched alertly at the very top of the tree, often on the highest twig, there’s a good chance you are seeing an Olive-sided Flycatcher. With a closer view, you’ll see a large-headed barrel-chested grayish-brown bird smaller than a cardinal, sporting a dark vest on a white breast and a white throat. This migrant summers in coniferous forests of the Rocky Mountains and across the boreal forests of Alaska, Canada and northern Appalachia. It is a long-distance migrant who winters in Panama and the Andes of South America. Some of these birds fly 7,000 miles from Alaska to Bolivia!

Olive-sided Flycatcher – The Online Zoo

On their breeding grounds, it’s not unusual for both the male and female of a pair to aggressively defend a large territory of around 100 acres, which is large for a songbird. Olive-sided Flycatchers like high perches with unobstructed views, from which they fly out to catch flying insects, with their favorite prey being bees. They then often return to the same perch (sometimes referred to as Yo-Yo flight). Count yourself lucky if you see one of these striking birds.

Night-Herons all Around Town

The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is a common summer resident in Austin, and you don’t have to be out after dark to see it. It’s a slender heron, about half the height of the Great Blue Heron. The adult has a distinctive black head with a white cheek and yellow or white crown. Its body is gray and it has yellow legs. Young birds are brown with distinct streaks on their buffy breasts. This heron likes the shallows along shaded creeks and ponds and moist areas like ditches. After rains or irrigation, it can be found in wet lawns. Watch for it perched on branches or tree stumps over water, on the lookout for crayfish, its favorite prey. Good places to look for this species include Shoal Creek, Mills Pond at Wells Branch, and along the river at Roy Guerrero Park. Often it is quite tolerant of humans. Be aware that the Black-crowned Night Heron does occur here too, but is much less common. If you see a bird with, you guessed it, a black crown (also a black back, and a much stockier appearance) you’ve stumbled across one of them. The number of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons will taper off through the end of October as the birds move further south across the Gulf of Mexico to Central and South America. Their migration pattern is not well understood, but we expect them to return next March!

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron foraging – COURTESY: James Giroux
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron juvenile – COURTESY: James Giroux
Black-crowned Night-Heron adult  – COURTESY: James Giroux
Swallow-tailed Kite – COURTESY: Jane Tillman

Eye Candy

There’s a rare migrant that passes through our area that you just have to get lucky to see. eBird records indicate that the first and last weeks of September are good times to be on high alert while doing yard work, sitting at a stop light, or taking a walk. Take a moment to look up. Maybe you will spot one of our most elegant, distinctive and sought-after North American birds, the Swallow-tailed Kite. Most likely it will be catching high-flying insects like dragonflies.

Upcoming Travis Audubon Events Check the Travis Audubon events calendar for details on field trips, classes and other events. Beginners are welcome on all field trips.Get outdoors with a knowledgeable leader and learn more about our beautiful Austin-area birds. Most field trips fill quickly, and often require registration.

Hornsby Bend Monthly Bird Walk, September 16 from 7:30 to 11:00 a.m.

Check out this monthly field trip to the best birding spot in Austin! The bird list for this solid waste treatment plant is an astonishing 355 species. The walk is guided by an experienced Hornsby birder, and all levels of birders are welcome.

Meet at the Center for Environmental Research building, which is the first building on the right after you enter the front gate. All visitors are required to present ID at the guard house to enter Hornsby. No registration required. Contact Kevin Anderson (Kevin.Anderson@austintexas.gov) for more information.

Young Birders Club: Commons Ford  September 23 from 8:00 to 10:00 a.m.

There are always some easy-to-see birds at this restored prairie on Austin’s west side. We recommend ages 8 and older who can demonstrate appropriate birding etiquette. A parent or guardian must accompany their child(ren) at all Travis Audubon Young Birders Club events. This event is free but registration is required. 

Compiled by Travis Audubon Volunteer Jane Tillman