Cover your ears! The grackles are here: December bird forecast

Weather Blog

AUSTIN (KXAN) – This month, as part of the December bird forecast, Meteorologist Kristen Currie speaks with Nicole Netherton from the Travis Audubon. She tells us about the warbler and galls in the area, plus the return of the noisy, roosting grackle. Watch the full interview above and learn more about the warblers in our area below.

Bird Forecast : What to watch for in December — Winter Warblers and One Noisy Vireo

Yellow-rumped Warbler at Red Pepper Suet- COURTESY: Bill Sanford

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

Winter has chased our breeding warblers south, but in their place has sent us three species that will grace our neighborhood parks and greenbelts until spring.

Enter: the Yellow-rumped Warbler

The most commonly encountered wintering warbler in Travis County is the aptly named Yellow-rumped Warbler. It does have a yellow rump (even in the drabbest plumage), variable yellow patches on the sides of its breast, white tail spots and a white throat.  In winter it has brown upperparts. The Yellow-rumped Warbler is able to switch from insects and spiders to berries if winter weather limits its preferred food availability.

In addition, Yellow-rumps are facultative migrants, meaning they are ready to make significant moves in winter due to changing food abundance. This gives them a survival advantage. It’s typical to see small flocks of Yellow-rumps as they forage in open woods and shrubby habitats, often with chickadees, titmice and kinglets. We get to enjoy them into April, when this widespread warbler returns to breed in northern states, Canada and the montane west.

Yellow-rumped Warbler’s Rump- COURTESY: The Online Zoo

The second most commonly seen wintering warbler here is the Orange-crowned Warbler. It’s a ground-nesting wood warbler that breeds in Alaska and across Canada, on the Pacific Coast and in the mountains down into New Mexico and Arizona. It then moves to the southern U.S. and the lower elevations of Mexico for the winter. Orange-crowned Warblers leave the higher latitudes later than other warblers possibly due to slightly better cold tolerance and their skill at probing crevices for food. Like the Yellow-rumped, they are able to switch from invertebrates to berries when the numbers of spiders, beetles, larvae, gnats, etc. decline.

Perched Orange-crowned Warbler – COURTESY: James Giroux

Orange-crowned Warblers can be challenging to identify as they are drab, without much in the way of features that catch your eye. They are olive-colored above and paler below, with yellow under the tail, and with blurry streaks on their breasts. Some birds have grayish heads. If you get a good look, you might see a pale eye-ring broken by a black eye-line. Does it have an Orange-crown? You are not alone if you have never seen it. The vivid orange patch is visible when an adult raises its crown feathers if it is excited. Spot one bathing for a great opportunity to see the crown.

Look for Orange-crowned Warblers foraging low in dense shrubs, vine tangles, and short trees. They often make a loud chip note to stay in touch with others.

Bright Male Pine Warbler- COURTESY: James Giroux

The third warbler that winters here is the Pine Warbler, but it is much less common than the two already mentioned. Pine Warblers are common residents in the pines of East Texas and the southeastern U.S., living year round as far west as the Lost Pines in the Bastrop area. Wintering Pine Warblers begin to arrive in October from their summering grounds in the northern U.S. and southern Canada. In Travis County, not known for pine trees, look for them in treed areas where they sometimes forage very close to the base of tree trunks.

These birds will be here until the end of February with a few stragglers into March, as they are early migrants. Pine Warblers have some flexibility in their primarily invertebrate-based diet which allows them to winter in the U.S. rather than further south. According to All about Birds, the Pine Warbler is the only warbler to eat large amounts of seeds, so you may see one visit a feeder. Millet, cracked corn, sunflower seed and peanut pieces are all fair game in winter.

Drab Female or Immature Pine Warbler – COURTESY: James Giroux

Like the Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers it will eat fruits and berries of native plants like sumac and Virginia creeper. A bright Pine Warbler is a sight to see. The male is greenish olive above, with a bright yellow throat and breast, and bright white under the tail. Females and immatures are drabber.

Are you wondering if there is a great holiday gift to give these warblers? If you garden, waiting until late winter to cut back your plants’ stalks and spent blooms provides lots more places for them to find the caterpillars, pupae, ants, flies, beetles and spiders they depend on. If you are so inclined, a suet feeder also may attract them. Hang it so it hugs a tree trunk, and try red pepper suet if squirrels are a problem.

The Blue-headed Vireo

A Blue-headed Vireo is a warbler-sized bird, but unlike a warbler it has a hooked bill, which it uses to nab prey as large as grasshoppers and dragonflies. Like the wintering warblers it also will eat berries. While most of the vireos in Travis County are summering birds, many Blue-headed Vireos migrate through in spring and fall and a few will winter here. Look for a bird with a blue-gray head, greenish back, white spectacles, clean white underparts and yellow flanks. It will often be found in the interior of trees on large branches where it forages slowly and methodically. When it is upset it has a loud raspy scold call which attracts other small birds wanting to know if a predator is lurking close by.

Blue-headed Vireo  – COURTESY: James Giroux

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. The bird walks are free, fill quickly, and most require registration. Field trips may be added or canceled, dependent on Austin’s COVID status.

Two field trips that are not yet full are one December 13 at Silverado Springs Park in Cedar Park, and one at Reimers Ranch in far western Travis County on December 15. A Young Birders Club field trip to Barkley Meadows, suitable for ages 8 and above, is scheduled for December 11.

Compiled by Travis Audubon volunteer Jane Tillman

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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