AUSTIN (KXAN) — 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 on Facebook.

When mid-December rolls around, bird watchers make plans to get out and count birds, participating in one or more Christmas Bird Counts. The Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running citizen science wildlife census in the world. Administered by the National Audubon Society, the data collected by CBC participants for over a century are among the largest resources informing ornithologists and conservation biologists about how the birds of the Americas are faring over time. Last December, 123 species were recorded on the Austin Christmas Bird Count, 104 species were seen on the Westcave Preserve count and the Round Rock count yielded 114 species. The National Audubon Society reported in the 2021 count, birders conducted “1,842 counts in the United States, 451 in Canada (including St. Pierre et Miquelon), and 166 throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands.”

Whether you are a relatively new birder or an expert, you can participate in the Christmas Bird Count and contribute important data – all you have to do is join a CBC. Participants are divided up into sections to cover the 15-mile diameter count circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day. What if the day is cold and/or rainy? The birds and bird watchers will be outside anyway, but if you live within the count circle and have a feeder or bird bath you can participate from the warmth of your home by counting your birds. Houston Audubon has a list of all Texas CBCs. All CBCs across the nation are conducted from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5.

What wintering birds have arrived in Texas?

If you are a walker at Lady Bird Lake or Lake Travis you’ve probably noticed the uptick in birds on the water. One of the easiest to identify is the American Coot. It’s not a duck, but it associates with them. The coot has a white pointed bill, red eyes and dark-gray body. It’s about 15 inches long and appears plump. Its lobed toes (not webbed feet like ducks) have flaps of skin that extend when swimming but retract for walking. When spooked coots make a running takeoff. In the water, you will see them upend or occasionally dive, showing their white tail feathers, as they eat submerged vegetation. It’s not unusual to see flocks of several hundred together.

Double-crested Cormorants have also arrived, and can sometimes be seen roosting in the cypress trees on the south side of Lady Bird Lake. You may have seen a stream of flying birds in a somewhat V-shaped formation, thinking they were geese, but cormorants are more likely here. Geese typically winter on the coastal plains. These cormorants, about 33 inches in length, are dark brown to blackish, with slightly hooked bills, and orange facial skin outlining their bills. They dive for fish, and when swimming, they appear long-necked with slightly upturned bills. After fishing, they like to perch and spread their wings to dry – a distinctive posture that they will maintain for several minutes.

We typically associate gulls with the coast, but many gulls breed inland in the upper Midwest and into Canada and spend the winter on interior reservoirs and lakes. Larophiles (gull lovers or students of gulls, named for the Larus genus gulls), are happy to spend hours sifting through various molts and ages of gulls to pick out a rarity. For most of us, suffice it to say that the Ring-billed Gull is the default gull here. Ring-billed can be seen overhead or loafing on the water. As omnivores, they have a wide-ranging diet including fish, insects and even garbage. Mansfield Dam and Walter E. Long Lake are good places to look, as is the area above Longhorn Dam on Lady Bird Lake. The other expected wintering gulls include the petite Bonaparte’s and larger Herring, but they are much, much less common.

Adult Ring-billed Gulls are well-named
Courtesy: James Giroux

Attract wintering backyard birds with suet

Many backyard bird watchers are commenting on how empty and quiet their yards are right now, seemingly devoid of birds. Birds like Northern Cardinals and Lesser Goldfinches are foraging far and wide, taking advantage of fall seed crops. They will return when those resources are depleted. American Robin numbers are already up over last winter’s. They will join resident mockingbirds in taking advantage of berries.

Put suet out and you may attract winter Texans like Yellow-rumped Warblers along with resident birds like wrens and titmice. You can make your own. For a special holiday treat many birds love bark butter which is available at specialty bird stores. It basically is spreadable suet.

Carolina Wrens enjoying a suet cake with homemade suet on top - Courtesy: Jane Tillman
Carolina Wrens enjoying a suet cake with homemade suet on top – Courtesy: Jane Tillman

Here’s a recipe for a batch of homemade suet provided by a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. Only provide this suet in cold weather. In our warmer months it will be too oily and mess up birds’ feathers, and it gets rancid. It is meant for short-term use to help birds get through cold winter days.

  • 1.5 cups crunchy peanut butter
  • ½ cup lard or vegetable shortening like Crisco
  • 1.5 cups yellow corn meal
  • ½ cup rolled oats (not instant)
  • ½ cup cracked corn

Stir together peanut butter and lard (or shortening). Stir in dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Put into holes drilled in hanging logs or in a suet holder. Store extra in the refrigerator.

Upcoming Travis Audubon events

Check the events calendar for upcoming events, field trips and classes. Most field trips are free and require reservations. Classes are fee-based.

Compiled by Jane Tillman, Travis Audubon Volunteer