What to watch for in July: Shorebirds and Herons
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
As July wears on, some of the shorebirds that passed through Texas a few short months ago on their way to breeding grounds as far away as the Arctic tundra and as close as the Great Plains, return to Texas. The earliest arrivals may be adult birds whose first nest attempt failed. Since the Arctic summer is so short they probably did not have time to try again. As a general rule the juvenile birds migrate later than the adults, so look for them to start showing up in August. Migration will continue through late fall.
Some of these globetrotters will continue south to South America while others will spend the winter inland or on the Texas coast. Sandpipers such as Pectoral, Semipalmated, Least, Spotted, Solitary and Stilt may drop in to exposed lake and pond edges to feed. Most people despair of trying to confidently identify these smaller, mostly brown and gray birds. The best place in Austin to see shorebirds is at Hornsby Bend in and around the drying basins and ponds. This best time of day is evening when birds look for an overnight roost, and the lighting softens. (Travis Audubon has a virtual shorebird class in August for those who want to learn more about these avian athletes.)
The 8.5 inch Stilt Sandpiper is an example of a long-distance migrant. It summers in the sub and low-arctic tundra of North America and most winter in central South America’s interior. Rather than tidal mudflats it prefers to forage in ponds and lagoons, where its long yellow-greenish legs allow it to wade belly-deep. Look for a sewing machine feeding style. During spring migration Austinites see it in breeding plumage when it is strikingly patterned with heavy barring on its breast and belly, with a chestnut cheek patch. Depending on the month you see a south-bound bird it might still be in breeding plumage or have molted into drab grays.
Some fun facts about shorebirds:
The Least Sandpiper (pictured above) is the smallest shorebird in the world. It weighs about an ounce and is between 5 and 6 inches in length.
In an interesting role reversal compared to many species, the female Spotted Sandpiper (pictured above) sets up and defends her breeding territory. The male does most of the parenting−incubating the eggs and feeding the young.
Some Semipalmated Sandpipers (pictured above) from eastern populations fly nonstop for 1900 to 2500 miles from New England to South America.
Some powerful Pectoral Sandpipers (pictured above) make a round-trip migration of nearly 19,000 miles annually!
Unfortunately shorebirds are some of the most threatened birds on the planet. Habitat loss and disruption on their wintering territories are two reasons. Climate change affects tundra snow cover, wind patterns, and the frequency of storms and may explain the increasing numbers of breeding Snow Geese which degrade habitat for shorebirds. One small thing we can do when we visit shorelines is to give birds their space. Pick up trash that can be mistaken for food and fishing line that entangles their feet.
Tricolored Herons live year-round on the Texas coastal prairies. Once they are finished breeding, some become “post-breeding wanderers.” Inevitably a few are sighted in Austin, both juveniles and adults. Two records from late June show they are right on schedule. You might see a flyby bird along Lady Bird Lake or one hunting at a retention pond. It is especially striking in flight with bright white on the leading edge of the underwing and a white belly. It’s about 26 inches tall, and has a really long neck, which is reddish in the juvenile and a beautiful purplish gray in the adult. A white streak down the throat to the belly can often be seen.
One fun fact about Tricolored Herons is that the young birds don’t show their parents respect. They lunge and snap when food is brought to the nest. As a result parents bow when they present their offerings.
Travis Audubon Events
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Travis Audubon in-person activities are cancelled indefinitely.
On Thursdays from noon to 1 p.m. the lunchtime lecture series explores Where to Go Birding in Central Texas (July 9), Purple Martins (July 16), Bluebirds in Texas (July 23), and Urban Birds (July 30.)
Join author Jennifer Bristol for a virtual event, Purple Martins & Parking Lot Birding, on July 16 at 7:30 p.m. She will be Zooming from a parking lot where she will talk about the annual phenomenon of Purple Martin migratory roosts, and easy to see parking lot birds all over Texas.
If book clubs are your thing, try the bird-oriented Ruffled Feathers Book Club meeting on July 12.
Compiled by Jane Tillman, Travis Audubon Volunteer