AUSTIN (KXAN) – Spring bird migration is underway in Central Texas and our skies are being filled with thousands of birds nightly.
Meteorologist Kristen Currie spoke with Travis Audubon’s Executive Director, Nicole Netherton, to find out how long our feathered friends will be around and how we can help prepare our yards for their stay.
Below is a transcript of the interview. Edits have been made for clarity.
Kristen Currie, KXAN News: We’re well into April. We’re excited to see our skies filling up with birds. Anything we need to be watching for or you think we need to be paying attention to?
Nicole Netherton, Travis Audubon: Yes, this is the best time of year if you are noticing birds or listening to birds. Spring migration is a fantastic time to get outside and really learn more about our avian friends.
Our area’s peak spring migration tends to be the last week of April into the first week of May. And I thought I would tell you one fun fact. There are species all across the vertebrate kingdom that migrate that you might not know about, like butterflies and other insects and birds certainly. But whales migrate, bats migrate, it’s something that’s a an interesting behavioral evolution.
We know that there are 338 species of North American birds that migrate and we have records of 95% of those species in Texas. So surprise, you live in an amazing place to really get to enjoy bird life!
Right now, birds are coming up to their breeding ground. So they went south for the winter, and now they’re done with their vacation and heading up. So like I said, thousands of bird species, thousands of birds, moving through our area in the coming weeks.
Currie: So what can we do to help? What tips do you have for us?
Netherton: Sure! I have three very easy things that are great for your budget and easy ways for you to help birds.
The first thing is to plant native species in your yards. Those are the plants that will harbor the insects that our birds need, provide the nectar that they are evolved to eat and to need. If you plant native plants in your yard, you allow insects to thrive in your yard, that’s great for birds. If you see a caterpillar, resist the urge to squish it, because that’s baby bird food.
Second thing you can do is keep your pet cats inside. Cats are an incredible threat to wild birds. So keeping your pet inside, maybe building a patio, is a great thing you can do.
And then the easiest thing and probably the best thing, especially as we’re heading into peak migration, is to just turn your lights off overnight, between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. That’s when the majority of birds are flying through and they are attracted to our light pollution, the light dome of urban areas. So if you can keep that light pollution down by turning off your lights, it helps them not encounter so many hazards in urban areas, especially glass. Turning off your lights off – you save money on your electricity and you really help our bird friends. Very easy to do.
Currie: And just last question, when does spring migration typically wrap up?
Netherton: So it moves pretty fast, March – April – May we’ll see the majority of the traffic here in the Central Flyway. But there will be some later species that are also moving through towards the beginning of June. So it’s a great idea to turn those lights off year round. But spring migration will taper off as we get to the end of May beginning of June.
April bird forecast
What to watch for in April: Migration!
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
Many different animals migrate, including whales, bats, elk, sharks, dragonflies, and Monarch butterflies. Birds are at the top of the list in terms of distance traveled. Three hundred thirty-eight species of birds annually migrate between North America and the New World tropics (Central and South America). They are often referred to as Neotropical migrants. Ninety-five percent of these 338 species have been documented in Texas! They rely on food, water and shelter provided naturally by the landscapes they visit en route to their summer homes. Some will breed in Texas, but many will travel long distances, as far as Alaska and the high latitudes of Canada.
Avian Highlights this April
Birds go the distance! Take the Franklin’s Gulls that we see every year in Austin especially during April and May and again in October. You might hear them before you see them. These gregarious black-headed gulls pass through Texas on the way to and from the prairie and pothole regions of the Dakotas, Montana, and prairie Canada. Their summer home is freshwater marshes, but in winter you will find them along the coasts of Peru and Chile! Franklin’s Gulls look similar to the Laughing Gulls of the Texas coast. In the breeding season though, many of the Franklin’s Gulls have a rosy blush on their breasts and bellies which stands out, even on birds in flight. Compared to Laughing Gulls they have slightly smaller bills and larger white spots on their wing tips. Good places to look for these gulls are Bob Wentz Windy Point on Lake Travis, and at Lake Walter Long, where they may drop in to spend the night. You might encounter them resting on soccer fields, and they are known to follow farmers plowing up fields.
The largest group of Franklin’s Gulls recorded in Travis County eBird data was seen on October 17, 2022 when 1300 were spotted at Windy Point.
In North America they primarily eat insects and other invertebrates, but on their wintering grounds they eat crabs, insects and small fish, venturing up to 30 miles offshore.
On their breeding grounds, both the male and female build their nest on floating vegetation. As it decays, they add more to it so it might grow from 17 inches diameter to 40 inches! They sometimes nest within two feet of other gulls, and a colony of a thousand birds is not unusual.
The Hooded Warbler is another Neotropical migrant on the wing in April. The Texas population breeds in the eastern part of the state, with many more passing through to destinations in the eastern U.S. The Hooded Warbler is one of the birds that gives bird migration its reputation as a not-to-be-missed annual event. The male has an olive green back and wings, with bright yellow plumage below, and yellow cheeks set off by a black hood. It can be found flitting along forest floors, preferring the understory to the canopy of trees. The Hooded Warbler flashes its tail to reveal white outer tail feathers. Research has found that the white patches startle insects into flight. Birds with feathers temporarily darkened did not have the same success in catching insects. Like most warblers it has a slender bill suited to the insects it hunts.
The Hooded Warbler has a loud song that it uses to defend its winter and breeding territories. It sounds like a clear weeta-weeta-weet-tee-o with an emphatic ending. A loud chip note often lets people know one is around.
The Painted Bunting is a tropical looking bird with its blue head, electric green back and red underparts. If it’s on your bucket list, they typically arrive in mid-April and the males announce themselves with a song similar to the House Finch. The females and young males are green. The Wildflower Center, Commons Ford Ranch Metro Park, Milton Reimers Ranch Park, and St. Ed’s Park are good places to look, although sightings occur all around Austin. Try the free Merlin app from Cornell Lab of Ornithology to recognize their song and then look for the male perched high in a cedar or oak tree.
Unfortunately, many species of birds are declining as the habitat they rely on is altered, perhaps converted to farmland or to development.
There are several things anyone can do to help migrant and year-round birds survive in a changing world:
Keep cats indoors It is estimated that free-roaming cats in the U.S. kill 1.4 to 4 billion birds each year! The cats are indiscriminate. They will kill a colorful Painted Bunting as easily as a non-native House Sparrow. Try a cat patio, a catio for short, if your kitty enjoys the outdoors. Learn more about one local catio builder’s experience here.
Turn lights out especially during migration. Did you know that nearly two billion birds will migrate across Central Texas skies this spring, and many of them fly at night? Reducing outdoor illumination helps birds get their compass bearings from the stars. For reasons not well understood, nighttime migrants are attracted to the light domes of urban areas. Foggy or stormy weather further disorients them. At sunrise when birds drop down to rest and feed, they find themselves in habitats full of windows, directly putting them in harm’s way. It’s estimated that bird window collisions kill up to one billion birds annually across the United States (The estimate is from the American Bird Conservancy based on Smithsonian data in 2014).
Make your windows safer for birds. There is nothing worse than hearing a clunk at your window, only to see a stunned or dead bird right outside. The American Bird Conservancy recommends solutions ranging from painting designs in tempura paint on the window’s exterior, to creating “Zen wind curtains” made of parachute cord, to more expensive solutions like professionally installed bird tape.
Add native plants to your landscape, park or greenbelt. Native plants have evolved with wildlife over millennia to provide their food throughout the seasons. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s plant sale is going on now through May 7. Find a list of recommended bird-friendly plants and create your shopping list.
When to Go Birding during Migration?
If you want to know exactly how many birds might be in the air, night by night, during migration, check BirdCast, a collaborative effort to understand and predict bird movements based on weather radar surveillance. You can even check to see whether birds will be migrating over Austin in low, medium or high densities with the local migration alert feature. Keep in mind that even though a large number of birds might be moving through, they may not stick around the next day. Birds are in a hurry to get to their breeding grounds to get the best territories.
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. While most bird walks are free, in April Travis Audubon has several Birdathon events which are fundraisers for the organization. Most field trips fill quickly, and most require registration.
Compiled by Travis Audubon volunteer Jane Tillman.