AUSTIN (KXAN) — March marks the beginning of spring migration for millions of birds, and Central Texas plays an important role in our feathered friends’ journeys. Central Texas lies in the main corridor for migrating birds in the spring season, and there are ways in which we can make our homes less harmful and yards more helpful for these travelers.

Meteorologist Kristen Currie spoke with the Executive Director of Travis Audubon, Nicole Netherton, to find out what to look for as we enter migration season and how we can help these birds safely make the trip.

Below is a transcription of their interview. (Note: edits were made for clarity)

Kristen Currie, KXAN News: Spring migration is here, which is an exciting time of the year. So let’s dive into it. What are we seeing in our skies right now?

Nicole Netherton, Travis Audubon: Spring migration is when the birds who have been south for the winter, which for us tends to be in South America and Central America, are moving back up to come to their breeding grounds. They’re very motivated.

Spring migration tends to be really compressed because they’re excited to get back, pair up and have babies. And the birds that are here in Central Texas for the winter will start to depart. So some of those ducks, you might have been seeing Ruby-Crowned Kinglets in your backyard, those birds will start to move away and everything will be in motion. We will start to have lots and lots of activity, usually overnight. And we’ve already been seeing some early migrants start to show up reports of purple martins, which a lot of people know and love.

Purple Martins, the beautiful dark purple birds who use gourd-shaped nesting boxes to have their babies, are some of our earliest migrants. Those are a really special birds that only breed in Central Texas. They really are dependent on us for their habitat here. The males sing their heads off, a song that’s a little like La Cucaracha.

We’ll start to see more Golden Cheeks heading back to start making their nests as well.

Currie: Is there anything Central Texas residents can do to help the birds making that trip to and from ?

Netherton: Yes. We are in the ‘Central Flyway’, which is a superhighway for birds. In fact, a lot of birds, we think, use I-35 as part of their as part of their roadmap for their breeding grounds.

Two things that come to mind that are very easy things for folks wanting to draw birds to their yards – I would really recommend focusing on planting native plants, plants that are well adapted for our area, because that means they’re also well adapted for the organisms that live in our area. They have co-evolved together, and the birds that are looking for insects can more easily find them on native plants.

Feeding birds with birdseed is really enjoyable, but they are great at finding everything they need in the buffet table of nature. So the more you can provide for them that way, the better off they’ll be and the more enjoyment you might have in your yard being able to see them.

And then the number one thing I recommend for folks, it’s super easy, it saves you money, is to turn off your lights at night. Any non-essential lights – turn them off between 11pm and 6am. Like I said, that’s the main time when birds are migrating through and a lot of times they’re drawn to the light pollution of urban areas, which just increases the likelihood that that next day, when they’re looking for food and water, that they’ll encounter glass either on our buildings or or at our homes. Glass is a huge mortality issue for wild birds in North America. So turning off your lights at night is a way to help make their journey safer.


March’s bird forecast – Compiled by Jane Tillman, Travis Audubon Volunteer

Bird Forecast 

What to watch for in March:  Early Spring brings Changes in Bird Life

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 or by calling 512-300-BIRD. Follow us at

People, plants and wildlife are tuned to the changes that increasing day length and warming temperatures bring. Shorts are coming out of closets, plants are budding out and even blooming, like native coral honeysuckle. You may notice birds singing from prominent perches – Bewick’s and Carolina Wrens normally forage and live in the understory, but they do sing from high perches. They are trying to attract a mate or defend a territory. The upright posture of a bright red Northern Cardinal with its body shaking as it sings, and its long tail tucked slightly downwards, is a common sight this time of year, perched on wires in the open.

Carolina Wren singing from high perch
COURTESY: Jeff Osborne

March also means winter Texans are beginning to depart for northern climes. The numbers of Ring-billed Gulls taper off, as do duck numbers of Canvasback, Bufflehead, and Gadwall among others. If you are lucky to be outdoors during the day, listen for the primitive high lonesome call of migrating Sandhill Cranes, perhaps en route to a staging area in Nebraska along the Platte River, before they continue northward.

March arrivals include early Purple Martins, our largest swallow, often going back to the same gourds they used last year. These early birds are taking a gamble that our coldest winter weather is behind us. Other swallow species will repopulate the underpasses which have been birdless during the winter months. We will be welcoming our summer resident Black-chinned and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds before long. If you want to help birds thrive, check out Travis Audubon’s plant list and look for them at garden centers that carry native plants.

Male Purple Martin – COURTESY: The Online Zoo
Male Black-chinned Hummingbird
COURTESY: Jeff Osborne

March also signals the return of the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler. Good places to look and listen for this small songbird with yellow cheeks, otherwise black and white, include St. Edward’s Park off Spicewood Springs Road, Turkey Creek Trail at Emma Long Metropolitan Park, and the Warbler Vista Trail at the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge.

Pectoral Sandpiper
COURTESY: Jeff Osborne

Frequent (and Fit) Flyers

While Austin is short on shoreline, several different shorebird species pass through Austin in spring migration. They make do with pond and lakeshore edges, short grassy habitats, farm fields (both plowed and fallow) and sod farms. In fact many shorebird species prefer moist grassy habitats to the sandy shores that their name evokes.

The Pectoral Sandpiper is one that gives fitness buffs a run for their money. Its “upper body strength,” so to speak, is needed for its almost 19,000 miles round trip journey each year. According to The Shorebird Guide by O’Brien, Crossley and Karlson it is the “longer-distant migrant than any other North American shorebird.” It flies from its winter home in southern South America to its breeding grounds in the wet coastal tundra of eastern Russia, Alaska and far northern Canada. Although it does have impressive pectoral muscles it is named for the male’s throat sac which it inflates and deflates during display flights over interested females on the breeding grounds. The male flies in low undulating circles over his territory making an ascending rapid hooting sound reminiscent of a pulsed laser sound effect. Males try to mate with as many females as they can, and then leave the females to build the nests and raise the young.

Pectoral Sandpipers have a protracted spring migration with early individuals in March, but others migrating through in April and May. Their feeding style is to walk steadily, while pecking and probing for invertebrates. The grassy habitat gives them some protection from predators. Because of this grassy habitat preference, they are often called “grasspipers.”

Another long distance “grasspiper” that begins to show up in Austin in March is the American Golden-Plover. This shorebird is a plover like our year-round Killdeer. Plovers are visual feeders, running and stopping periodically to pluck up insects. They have an upright appearance compared to the more horizontal posture of the Pectoral Sandpiper, with which they may loosely associate. The American Golden-Plover winters in southeastern South America, and summers in northern Canada and Alaska. It’s slightly larger than the 8.5 inch Pectoral Sandpiper. Its small head gives it a dovelike look.

American Golden-Plover in transitional plumage
COURTESY: James Giroux
American Golden-Plover in breeding plumage
COURTESY: James Giroux

Spring migration through the U.S. and southern Canada involves stopovers, so the American Golden-Plovers don’t arrive at their breeding grounds until mid-May and early June. Count yourself very lucky if you see one of the later arriving migrants that has molted into its full breeding plumage. I.N. Gabrielson and F. C. Lincoln, in The Birds of Alaska, said “The Golden Plover is an aristocrat among birds. Everything about it is distinctive. The jet black breast and belly, the golden yellow back and striking head markings of the breeding plumage would in themselves be enough to set it apart … In addition it has rather stately and dignified movements…”

Where do you look for shorebirds in Austin? The location with the most varied habitat is the Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant. Bob Wentz Park at Windy Point on Lake Travis is another spot to check. Shorebirds are in steep decline due to alterations in the habitat they need in winter, summer and migration. You can help them by refraining from disturbing them as they forage for much needed calories to further their journeys.

Lights Out, Austin!

One way you can help birds like shorebirds is to limit outdoor lighting, especially during migration. Learn more at Lights Out Austin.

Upcoming Travis Audubon Events – Check the events calendar for upcoming events, field trips and classes. Most field trips are free and require reservations. Classes are fee based.