AUSTIN (KXAN) — What to watch for in October: Migrating Songbirds and High-flying Raptors
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
Weather forecasters are predicting a warmer and drier October, which means birds will be looking for water. Keep it fresh and shallow, making sure that you are not luring birds into areas where cats and other predators lurk. You might see warblers come in for a drink, or even a bath, if they feel safe. Transient brightly colored Nashville Warblers will continue to move through all during October, while most Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers will have passed through by mid-October. Our wintering songbirds are beginning to appear including Orange-crowned Warblers, striking Common Yellowthroats, House Wrens, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Blue-headed Vireos. Most of those will venture further south, but, for some, Austin is the destination.
To single out one species, migrating Nashville Warblers are heading south to Mexico. They often visit bird baths. What does a Nashville Warbler look like? It is a small songbird, about 4.75 inches long. The adult male has a gray head and a pronounced white ring around the eye, and a stunning sunflower-yellow throat and breast. Its back and wings are greenish. The throats on adult females are pale yellow. Birds that hatched this year may look a bit drab. All are bright yellow under the tail. They were named for Nashville by Alexander Wilson, a naturalist who first saw them in that city in 1811. Nashville Warblers breed much further north than Nashville, primarily in Canada and the northeastern U.S.
Nashville Warblers enjoy sunflowers, but not for the seeds. Sunflowers support insects that are their preferred food. You can find these striking birds low to the ground in areas with understory plants like American Beautyberry and tall groundcovers like Inland Sea Oats. They also love our live oak trees. Nashville Warblers generally stay out of view, eating insects from the stems and leaves that they meticulously inspect. This foraging behavior is referred to as foliage gleaning, a behavior shared with many warblers and some of our permanent resident birds like acrobatic Carolina Chickadees.
A bird-friendly, sunflower family plant that blooms prolifically in October around Austin is Plateau Golden-eye. Look for its blaze of color along RM 2222 between Mopac and Loop 360. Resident Lesser Goldfinches (this has been a good year for them, with many, many young birds) will eat its leaves, seeds and the insects that are attracted to it. Plateau Golden-eye does well in full sun to dappled shade and is drought tolerant, managing to bloom even when its leaves are wilted. You can buy this plant at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center plant sale which occurs every weekend in October, from Friday to Sunday, for limited hours. Reservations are needed.
It’s only in the last few years that people have started regarding the sky as bird habitat, not just empty airspace. Migrating raptors, like Turkey Vultures, Broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks, are some of the species using it to migrate to Central and South America. They hitch rides south, alternately soaring upwards on rising columns of hot air called thermals and gliding downwards to catch the next thermal. Tail winds also help them save energy. They also take advantage of the updrafts created by differential heating on hill and mountain slopes.
According to the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary website, “radar studies suggest that many raptors migrate at altitudes of 700 to 3000 feet while soaring in thermals.” No wonder the birds sometimes look like floaters in your eye; they are up so high! A group of hawks soaring like this is called a kettle. Trained hawk watch counters can identify species by field marks like wing and tail length, wing shape, and flight style. Counting them is a real challenge. Learn how they do it in this article by a counter at the Hazel Bazemore Hawk Watch just north of Corpus Christi.
To maximize your chances of seeing some raptor migration in Austin, pick the day of a cold front or the day just after, and head to a spot with a wide open vista to the north and scan the skies. You don’t have to get there at the crack of dawn, as thermals start forming as the ground heats up. Hawk watchers suggest the hours of 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. as good times to look, although in later afternoon hours you might see birds coming in to roost, and earlier morning observers may see an exciting liftoff. Here in Austin you won’t see 80,000 Turkey Vultures as were recorded at the Hazel Bazemore Hawk Watch one day in late October, 2015. It’s unlikely you will see anything close to 11,534 Broad-winged Hawks documented at the Smith Point Hawk Watch east of Houston this past September 22. Would you settle for a repeat of 5,000 Swainson’s Hawks as seen at Austin’s local birding hotspot Hornsby Bend on October 9, 2009? The chance of a spectacle like that is worth several tries.
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 October 21 at 7:00 p.m. featuring Dr. Tim Brush who will speak on “Birdlife of a Shifting Tropical Frontier.”
Tim Brush is a recently retired professor of biology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, based in Edinburg. He has published many articles on birds and their habitats, focusing on the changes that have occurred in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Although well-known as a prime birding area at all times of year, the Valley also supports a unique breeding bird community which has been less studied. Dr. Brush will discuss some case studies, and will try to put the Valley into perspective within the broader region. You will need to contact email@example.com at least two days in advance to get the meeting credentials.
Compiled by Travis Audubon volunteer Jane Tillman