Ducks return to Central Texas; November bird forecast

Weather Blog

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Migration season is coming to an end as fall arrives and winter closes in. Meteorologist Kristen Currie spoke with Nicole Netherton of Travis Audubon about what birds you can expect to see in the area. Watch the full interview above.

What to watch for in November: 

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

Look What the Wind Blew In!

Southbound birds are coming our way, helped along by north winds and blustery cold fronts. On October 26 one lucky couple heard and saw three Whooping Cranes fly over their home down in Hays County, and others in Austin heard Sandhill Cranes’ lonely cry as they moved south in mid to late October. The numbers of ducks, coots and cormorants will continue to build during November, so now is the time to take a walk around Lady Bird Lake, Lake Pflugerville, Lake Walter E. Long or the pond at Southeast Greenway across from the Morris Williams Golf Course in the Mueller development. Then check again in a month or so, and see what changes you can spot in the diversity of species and their numbers. Smaller ponds, especially those with vegetated edges, are also attractive to water birds needing a winter home or respite.

One of the more charismatic ducks that are winging our way is the petite Bufflehead. Buffleheads are North America’s smallest ducks, measuring roughly 13.5 inches in length. They are coming back from Canadian provinces where they nested in tree cavities. Buffleheads will winter on coastal bays and larger inland lakes, often in small flocks. In Austin many people spot them along Lady Bird Lake. They might remind you of rubber duckies, except they are black and white, not yellow. The striking males sport a white patch on the backs of their heads which prompts some to call them “Marshmallow Heads.” The females are an understated grayish brown with small white cheek patches. Since they are diving ducks, Buffleheads provide a “now you see them, now you don’t” experience; be patient and they should emerge, bouncing to the water’s surface like corks.

Male Bufflehead – COURTESY: James Giroux
Female Bufflehead- COURTESY: James Giroux

A duck whose numbers increase in November with little fanfare is the Gadwall. It’s not hard to understand why it does not get the attention of a snazzy Hooded Merganser or large-billed Northern Shoveler. It is “superficially nondescript” according to one field guide. A closer look reveals intricate patterns on the male’s head and breast, a black bill, shades of silver and browns on its back, and a black rear set off by a white patch that is often visible. The female is brown, somewhat resembling a female Mallard. Gadwalls pair up in fall migration, so one way to identify a female Gadwall is to see who she is associating with. Gadwalls are dabbling ducks, tipping up so just their rears are visible, grazing on submerged plants. They are known to steal food from other water birds, such as American Coots and diving ducks.

Male Gadwall – COURTESY: James Giroux
Gadwalls Tipping up to Feed – COURTESY: James Giroux

The Pied-billed Grebe is an often over-looked small swimming bird, about 13 inches in length. It is brown, with a compact body, a broad pointed bill, and hardly any tail. It doesn’t have webbed feet like a duck; instead it has lobed feet set far back on its body, making walking on land difficult. Rather solitary, Pied-billed Grebes prefer small ponds with emergent vegetation like cattails for breeding, but in migration and winter they can form small flocks on larger bodies of water. (Fourteen and twenty-one were recently recorded from Lake Pflugerville and Walter Long Lake respectively.) Southeast Greenway at Mueller is a great place to see them close up. Right now they are fairly drab. In February see if you can spot a bird transitioning to breeding plumage. Its bill will get silvery and sport a black ring around it, and its chin will become black. Males and females are both quite vocal all year round, with duets between members of a pair on territory.

Pied-billed Grebe in Non-breeding Plumage – COURTESY: James Giroux

To find a Pied-billed Grebe you may have to scan across a pond several times, as these birds can be elusive, diving and surfacing frequently. They sometimes swim with ducks, and blend right in. If they are alarmed, Pied-billed Grebes often sink quietly below the surface, like submarines, rather than flying away. They have the ability to trap water in their feathers which allows them great control over their buoyancy. Here’s another fun fact about Pied-billed Grebes: According to All About Birds, a Pied-billed Grebe eats a lot of its own feathers. This behavior prevents prey parts, like the exoskeleton of a crayfish, from going into its intestines. Instead, the hard, indigestible parts are regurgitated.

The Common Yellowthroat is a small warbler that is olive colored, with a bright yellow throat. The male is dressier than the female and immature birds, with a black mask bordered by a white band above. Both sexes have yellow under their tails. It winters from the southern states down in to Central America. In Austin during the winter, it can be fairly reliably seen around ponds with emergent vegetation and in shrubby wet areas. Patience may reward you with a view. In winter they keep in touch with a smacky call note. Listen for it, and you may see one sneaking around low in the vegetation, sometimes coming out to perch on top of a bush or reed. October had an uptick of sightings as Common Yellowthroats migrated through, and by December those that plan to winter here should be settled in.

Male Common Yellowthroat – COURTESY: Jane Tillman

Upcoming Travis Audubon Events Check the Travis Audubon events calendar for details on field trips, classes and other events. Beginners are welcome on 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.

Travis Audubon Monthly Meeting Join us via Zoom on November 18 at 7:00 p.m. featuring Dr. Cin-ty Lee, who will speak on The Migration of Shorebirds. Dr. Lee is a professor of geology who also has been teaching field ornithology at Rice University for 15 years. If you are not on the Travis Audubon mailing list contact caley@travisaudubon.org at least two days in advance to get the meeting credentials.

Compiled by Travis Audubon volunteer Jane Tillman

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