What to watch for in January : Flocking Birds and a Rare Duck — 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
Birds of a Feather Flock Together — The old saying is true for many species, including three that show up during the winter months here in Central Texas. Be on the lookout for an influx of chuckling American Robins, frenzied Cedar Waxwings and hungry American Goldfinches as they seek their favored foods. The robins and waxwings are fond of berries; native Ashe juniper, yaupon, and possumhaw berries all fill the bill so to speak, but they will settle for non-native berries of ligustrum too. American Goldfinches, like our year-round Lesser Goldfinches, eat seeds. Their smaller bills handle small seeds of many native asters and other sunflower family plants, like thistles. Resisting the urge to cut back spent flower blooms is almost guaranteed to attract a mixed flock of seed enthusiasts. Goldfinches eat grass and tree seeds too – check sycamore trees where you might see them hanging from the seed balls.
American Goldfinches have a wide range across the U.S. and southern Canada. They are considered short-distance migrants, with most Texas birds being winter residents. There is a lot of fluctuation in the number of birds seen from one year to the next based on food abundance. One fun way to enjoy them is to familiarize yourself with their bouncing potato chip contact call, often given in flight.
Resolve to Keep Your Feeder Birds Safe — If you decide to feed birds like American and Lesser Goldfinches, make a New Year’s resolution to first do no harm. Last winter there was an outbreak of a fatal bird disease called salmonellosis that especially affected another finch called the Pine Siskin, but killed other species too. Recent research shows that cleaning feeders with soap and water to remove debris, followed by soaking them in a weak bleach solution for at least 10 minutes, is the most effective way to reduce the amount of bacteria present. Sweep up seeds underneath bird feeders that can get moldy and attract rodents. Learn more about Safe Feeding Environments to prevent bird-window collisions and keep birds safe from predators.
Wintering Ducks — Some typical duck hotspots like the ponds at Southeast Greenway at Mueller seem to have fewer ducks this winter, perhaps due to droughty conditions on the ducks’ breeding grounds this past summer. The prairie and pothole region of the Dakotas is nick-named the Duck Factory as many duck species breed there. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s 2021 summer survey compared the 200,000 water areas counted this year to over a million water areas recorded in 2020. This had to affect duck numbers heading south. You can still find ducks though, and here are some places to look: Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory, Lake Pflugerville, Walter E. Long Lake, Lake Travis, and Granger Lake. If you are boating, remember that ducks appreciate social distancing. Disturbance requiring them to fly, dive and otherwise avoid boats is stressful and can cause them to abandon otherwise good habitat.
One unusual sea duck that showed up in Austin late this fall is the Surf Scoter. There were two females seen at Lake Travis Bob Wentz Windy Point recently, and one that has been at Lake Pflugerville for about three weeks. These are migrants that eventually should end up along the Gulf coast for the remainder of winter. Surf Scoters breed on freshwater lakes all across northern Canada. They winter on the west coast from Alaska to California, down the east coast and along the Gulf to Corpus Christi. These are diving ducks, with distinctive bills and a triangular head shape. The females are dark brown with two white patches on their heads. The male is much more striking with a black body, white head patches on the nape and above the bill, and a brightly colored bill. Interestingly, the species is typically observed in fall, but not spring migration here.
Oh, Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada! — While the Surf Scoter may think of its summer home when our days are chilly, the White-throated Sparrow pines for it, with a plaintive whistled tune reminiscent of the above. This common wintering sparrow loves thick undergrowth, greenbriar tangles and areas of fallen leafy trees and brush which give it good cover. You won’t find it in tidy “green spaces” devoid of shelter. Natural areas such as the fringes of parks left to go wild, greenbelts and some preserves provide habitat. The Grow Zones at Onion Creek Metro Park are good places to look. White-throated Sparrows are flocking birds, so you usually will get more than one chance to see one. Listen for their song (substitute “Oh Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” to get the rhythm) or listen for a sharp chink. The White-throated Sparrow is slightly bigger than our non-native House Sparrow, with a very white throat, a bright yellow dot between the eye and the bill, and often a white eyebrow. Next April will find this species winging its way north to Canada.
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.
Three field trips that may have openings are one January 15 and another on January 23 at Commons Ford Ranch Metropolitan Park, and one to Enchanted Rock on January 23. The monthly Hornsby Bend bird walk, where you will get to enjoy lots of ducks, and maybe even a Bald Eagle flyover, does not require registration and takes place on January 15.
Travis Audubon is excited to have Nathan Pieplow speak at our January Member Meeting on Thursday, January 20 at 7 p.m. Nathan is an expert at identifying birds by their songs and calls. He will speak via Zoom on The Language of Birds. 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.
Compiled by Travis Audubon volunteer Jane Tillman