What to watch for in May:  Songbirds Sporting Yellow

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

Nature is not shy when it comes to painting some birds yellow. Take the Yellow Warbler. The adult birds are satisfyingly yellow. The males have red streaks on the underparts, which are fainter on the females. These plump warblers have a lovely song, “sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet.” They have a large breeding range across the continental U.S. and Canada. Their preferred summering habitats are wet woods, thickets and next to streams, so look for them in similar surroundings during migration.

Yellow Warbler – COURTESY: James Giroux

The Wilson’s Warbler is another yellow songbird, and the male has a jaunty black cap that looks like a beret. The female’s cap is much more subtle. It’s named for an early naturalist, Alexander Wilson, who is considered the father of American ornithology. One of the smallest warblers, it nests in dense woodlands, thickets and boggy areas in Canada all the way to Alaska. To learn more about migration routes and breeding areas of various subspecies of Wilson’s Warblers, scientists are studying DNA from their feathers.

Wilson’s Warbler- COURTESY: James Giroux

If you were a bird, and were migrating to Canada, you might delay until you were sure the weather up there is tolerable before making the trip. That’s the case for the Canada Warbler, an aptly named long distance migrant (3,000 miles one way). It is one of the last to arrive on its primarily Canadian breeding grounds. The striking male bird wears a black necklace set off by its yellow breast, and it has a slate gray back. The female’s necklace is fainter. Both sexes have yellow eye rings. In Austin watch for movement low in dense vegetation or understory where they may give a loud chip note as they flick their wings and tails. Canada Warblers will flock with other birds such as American Redstarts and Wilson’s Warblers.

Canada Warbler- COURTESY: James Giroux

There are many other warblers passing through Austin that wear yellow well. The Blue-winged Warbler, a bird of the northeast, has a yellow head, breast and belly. The wings appear grayish-blue. The Prothonotary Warbler, associated with swampy lowland sites, is brilliant yellow on its head and breast. A few of them breed along the Colorado River by Webberville. The male Common Yellowthroat has a bright yellow breast and belly and a black mask. It is one of the easiest warblers to find in a variety of habitats during migration.

Blue-winged Warbler- COURTESY: James Giroux
Prothonotary Warbler – COURTESY: James Giroux
Common Yellowthroat – COURTESY: James Giroux

Western Kingbirds are large flycatchers and one of the easiest summer breeders adorned with yellow that you can see around Austin in summer. They are almost twice the size of warblers and often perch out in the open. They are partial to big box store parking lots with live oak trees they like to nest in. Western Kingbirds are very vocal with sputtering notes that some people say sounds like an old tape recording run backwards. Look for birds with upright posture, pale gray heads, whitish throats and breasts, greenish dark backs, brownish wings, white in the outer tail feathers and pale lemon yellow bellies. Western Kingbirds are well-named as they have a big breeding range across the western U.S.

Western Kingbird – COURTESY: The Online Zoo

Where can you find these and other migrants during May? Parks and greenbelts around town, especially those that have a natural water source, appeal to migrants. Songbirds usually migrate at night, and drop down as dawn comes. They are looking for food — insects and spiders fill that bill for many of them. Water is critical for feather care, and creek and pond edges that allow birds to approach unseen to access the water are very popular with birds. Shelter in the form of shrubs, vine tangles, native grasses and low branches give them a sense of security as they preen after bathing.

There are many places to around Austin to go for a walk during May migration to see if you can spot brightly colored birds.  Try this tool from eBird, run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, to see what parks close to you are designated birding hotspots. Looking at their bird lists will help you begin to learn the birds of the area.

It’s amazing how millions of birds fly from their winter homes in Central and South America each year to breed in the U.S. and Canada. 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. There’s a new feature called the Migration Dashboard  that gives estimates of the number of birds in the air on any given night, for your state or county.

Texas is on a major flyway for birds both flying across the Gulf of Mexico and flying around the Gulf to get to their summer homes. Don’t let Texas be their final destination! They face daunting challenges, and we can 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-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.

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. Most field trips fill quickly, and most require registration.

Beginners Bird Walk at Champions Park, Saturday, May 7, 8 a.m. until 10 a.m. Walk part of the Brushy Creek Regional Trail in search of thrushes, warblers and resident birds.

World Migratory Bird Day, Saturday, May 14. Join Travis Audubon at Hornsby Bend, Austin’s premier birding spot. Register for the beginner’s bird walk from 9 to 11:30 a.m.

Travis Audubon Monthly Meeting (Virtual) On Thursday, May 19 at 7:00 p.m. Juan Diego Vargas will share his story of transitioning from bird poacher to professional bird guide in Costa Rica. 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