What to watch for in April: Birds on the Wing

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.

Dark Skies for the Birds

For millennia, birds have been migrating from their wintering grounds to their breeding grounds each spring. They do this to find seasonally abundant food and nesting sites, which allow them to raise their young. Did you know nearly two billion birds will migrate across Central Texas skies, and many of them fly at night? At night the atmosphere is calmer, and they can orient by the stars. Reducing outdoor illumination and sky glow will let us enjoy the stars that birds use to get their bearings. For reasons not well understood, nighttime migrants are attracted to 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 bird-window collisions kill up to 1 billion birds annually across the United States (the estimate is from the American Bird Conservancy based on Smithsonian data in 2014).

What can you do to help? Turn off all nonessential indoor and outdoor lighting from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. through June 15 but especially during peak migration from April 22 to May 12. Please shut off porch, garage and landscape lighting, use motion sensors so lights are on only when needed, and close your curtains and shades. Ask your office building management to shut off their lights at night, too. You’ll be protecting birds while also saving money on energy. Learn more at Travis Audubon’s Lights Out Texas

Minimize Daytime Collisions

You can take steps to reduce bird window collisions at your residence, whether it’s an apartment, townhome or house. The American Bird Conservancy estimates that “homes and other buildings one to three stories tall accounted for 44% of all bird fatalities.”  

Place bird feeders and bird baths where birds are less likely to fly into windows if they are spooked. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology recommends placing bird feeders within three feet of windows. That way, if a bird accidentally hits a window it probably won’t be flying fast enough to be killed. Ornithologist Daniel Klem, who studies window-caused bird mortality, recommends putting feeders more than 30 feet away if you can’t put them within three feet of windows. Avoid feeder placement which puts birds on a direct path with windows reflecting trees or the sky, or windows that have a track record of collisions. Berrying plants that are close to reflective windows can be problematic for birds like Cedar Waxwings and American Robins. In cases like this, 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.

What Birds are Migrating through Central Texas in April?

Lots! It might be easier to ask which birds are not migrating. Our permanent residents like cardinals, titmice, chickadees and doves have to share resources with many songbirds of various bird families that wintered in Mexico, Central or South America. Depending on your surrounding habitat – wooded, open, creekside, or close to a park, for example –  it’s conceivable that flycatchers, vireos, swallows, kinglets, gnatcatchers, wrens, thrushes, waxwings, finches, New World sparrows, orioles, warblers, tanagers, grosbeaks, or buntings may drop in. And that’s ignoring other species also on the move that are not songbirds, like ducks, cuckoos, nightjars, swifts, hummingbirds, and shorebirds. While Sandhill Cranes mostly migrated through during March, April is the time to be on the lookout for the much rarer Whooping Crane. Seeing one in Travis County is about as rare as winning the lottery, but a lucky person may look up at just the right moment in the first three weeks of April to see one or two big white birds with black wingtips, extended necks and legs trailing behind flying over. 

Whooping Cranes
PHOTO COURTESY: Byron Stone

Three vocal April migrants include the Great Crested Flycatcher, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and a night bird, the Chuck-will’s-Widow.

The majority of Great Crested Flycatchers pass through from early April to mid-May. They are large flycatchers that mainly eat insects, but also small fruits. Local breeders are arriving now, setting up shop in leafy woodlands. You might find them in cemeteries, wooded parks, and golf courses—anywhere where there are enough trees. They need cavities for nesting, which they seek out in dead and dying trees. They are tolerant of humans and have been known to use nest boxes. Great Crested Flycatchers forage high in the canopy, where they sit and wait until they spot prey. They swoop out, catch it and often return to the same or closeby perch. Their distinctive call, a rising “wheep” will alert you to their presence. 

Great Crested Flycatcher
PHOTO COURTESY: Jane Tillman

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo, related to the roadrunner, is an elusive bird of the treetops, often heard first, when it gives a croaking call. It’s been called the rain crow for its propensity to call when it thunders. The cuckoo’s top prey item is caterpillars; it will eat thousands while it is here. Cuckoos are athletes—long-distance migrants coming from South America to spend the summer primarily in eastern North America. Migration continues from early April to late May for eastern birds. There is a western population which arrives even later, from mid-May to mid-June. Unfortunately habitat loss along river corridors in the West is contributing to its steep decline there. In Austin, look and listen for it in deciduous woodlands such as those at Big Webberville Park, Commons Ford Ranch Metro Park and Circle Acres adjacent to Roy Guerrero Park.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo
PHOTO COURTESY: James Giroux

The Chuck-Will’s-Widow is a vocal night bird that says its name at dusk and sometimes through the night. It winters from Mexico down into northwestern South America and summers across the southeast U.S. Local breeders should be showing up soon while others will continue to move through until mid-May. Unfortunately they are a historically common bird in steep decline, possibly due to the use of pesticides which reduces the abundance of its insect prey. 

Chuck-will’s-Widow
PHOTO COURTESY: The Online Zoo

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. 

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. 

Travis Audubon Monthly Meeting (Virtual) on Thursday, April 21 at 7:00 p.m. features Dr. George Archibald of the International Crane Foundation. His topic will be Whooping Cranes. If you would like to attend but do not receive the Travis Audubon e-newsletter, please contact Caley@travisaudubon.org at least a day in advance to get the Zoom link.

Compiled by Travis Audubon volunteer Jane Tillman.