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
Austin’s “Hoot Owls”
This month, listen for the deep call of the Great Horned Owl, which can be found all around the Austin area. While it is most commonly are heard at night, this owl can sound off at any time with a deep, rhythmic series of hoots. One call sounds like “hu-hu-hu, hoo hoo.” Often the female and male will duet, calling back and forth. See if you can identify the female by listening for her higher-pitched voice. All About Birds has a wonderful video of a mated pair maintaining their territory with their calls.
Great Horned Owls begin to nest in the cold of winter. Typically they reuse old crow and hawk nests, but they also nest on cliff ledges like those along Lady Bird Lake by Red Bud Isle. They are adaptable – in January 2015 one pair chose a flower pot on a third floor balcony in Steiner Ranch’s Longhorn Village as their nest site. Although they are mostly nocturnal, Great Horned Owls will sometimes hunt in the daytime, especially in winter, if food supplies are low, or they are feeding young. They also are crepuscular hunters, active at dawn and dusk. They have a diverse diet from scorpions and centipedes to rats, rabbits and even skunks.
Another owl that might be referred to as the hoot owl is the Barred Owl. It is slightly smaller than the Great Horned Owl and lacks the ear tufts, instead having a very round head and black eyes, while the Great Horned has yellow eyes. Count yourself lucky if you get to see either owl well enough to determine its eye color. The best way to tell the Barred Owl apart from the Great Horned is by its distinctive deep “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” call. The last part of the hoot sounds like “hooaaaw”. Barred Owl often live near water – a couple of Austin locations they seem to favor are Roy Guerrero Park and the Shoal Creek neighborhood.
Hummingbird Forecast (If Past is Prologue)
What? A January forecast for hummingbirds? Late fall 2020 was memorable for the number of rarely encountered hummingbirds that appeared at feeders around town. Since some were still being seen as of December 31, it is fair to assume that several of these birds plan to stay the winter, perhaps regretting that decision when the weather is not only cold, but wet too.
So what birds are here? The rarest hummingbird is also the most colorful. An immature male Broad-billed Hummingbird has been visiting feeders and blooms of Mexican bush sage and shrimp plant in the Great Hills Neighborhood since at least November 3. It has a long red bill with a black tip, a stunning deep blue gorget (throat feathers) which is what caught the homeowner’s attention, a dark green back and crown, and white under its tail. Typically this species summers in southeast Arizona, and winters further south in Mexico. A few do venture east to Texas for the winter but it is a rare occurrence and this is the first eBird record for Travis County. (Amazingly, a second Broad-billed showed up at a feeder in a subdivision west of Loop 360 in early December, staying at least through December 26.)
Another rare hummingbird species that has been spotted in River Place west of 360, and along Shoal Creek (where there have been two and sometimes three visiting a homeowner’s feeders) is the Anna’s Hummingbird. Typically Anna’s are year-round in western California and Arizona, wintering in Baja California, western Mexico and southern Arizona). While some do make their way to Texas in the winter, typically it is along the Rio Grande to south Texas. This year they have shown up in Llano, Marble Falls, and the Austin area among other places. One of the Austin birds is an immature male, just beginning to get some rose red color on his head. Another is a female. Anna’s are rather short-billed hummingbirds with green backs, and a spotted green vest on their grayish breasts and bellies.
The Buff-bellied is a third very rare species with the typical range being the Rio Grande Valley down to the Yucatan. Only one has been discovered so far this year, in south Austin, feeding on shrimp plant. Adults have red bills, but immatures have mostly black bills. The bird is well-named as it does have a rich buff belly, strongly demarcated from the green upperparts. It has a lot of rufous in its tail.
Other uncommon hummingbirds that are still being spotted around town include Calliope, Broad-tailed, and Rufous. These three are closely related. The Calliope is the smallest hummingbird, and the shyest about coming to feeders. The Rufous is the most expected wintering hummingbird, and the Broad-tailed seems to be showing up in winter more frequently than in the past. A good website to learn more about these hummingbirds is Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds. Snap a photo and ask for help with identification if needed. Hummingbirds, especially immature ones, can be challenging even for experts, but you can enjoy them even if you can’t put a name with the face.
Travis Audubon is often asked whether keeping a hummingbird feeder up over the winter prevents birds from migrating. There are no records of Ruby-throated and very few Black-chinned records during January and February. So any hummingbird you see now is most likely an uncommon species. A clean, fresh nectar solution provided in winter can be a lifesaver in cold, wet conditions, when there are fewer protein-packed insects for these special hummers to eat. That and some hummingbird plants like tropical sage (Salvia coccinea), Turk’s cap and non-native shrimp plant will help these charismatic birds thrive.
Upcoming Travis Audubon Events – Check the events calendar for upcoming classes and other virtual events.
Travis Audubon Monthly Meeting — Join us for the January 21, 2021 virtual meeting at 7:00 p.m. Tania Homayoun, a Nature Tracker biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife, will speak on a topic that is very important to the conservation of birds, “Mitigating Bird-Building Collisions.”
Compiled by Jane Tillman, Travis Audubon Volunteer