As winter turns to spring the numbers of wintering ducks like Bufflehead and Northern Pintail taper off, Sandhill Cranes call as they fly high overhead towards their staging grounds on the Platte River in Nebraska and you might get a glimpse of geese, gulls and pelicans on the move north. Short distance migrants like some populations of the songbirds mentioned below will be arriving from wintering sites in coastal and south Texas or Central America to get an early start as breeders here, while the temperatures are mild.
Return of the Warblers
The beautiful, endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler males will be showing up any day now, from Mexico and northern Central America. The males usually arrive about a week before the females. They will be setting up and defending their territories in the old growth, oak-juniper woodlands of western Travis County. Golden-cheeks as they are affectionately called, have an interesting relationship with the bark of old-growth Ashe Juniper (known colloquially as cedar or mountain cedar.) The females always use this bark to make their cup-shaped nests. Much of west Austin is built on former prime Golden-cheeked Warbler habitat, but fortunately there is land set aside in our Balcones Canyonlands Preserve system and at the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge where the birds can successfully raise their young. The male has two main song types. One is used to attract the female, and has the rhythm of “la cucaracha” and the other is used to defend its territory. Even though the name “warbler” connotes a really musical, rich song, the Golden-cheek’s song is buzzy. Listen to a recording at allaboutbirds.org before venturing out on your next Hill Country hike and you may be able to spot this small warbler singing from the top of an oak or juniper.
Another warbler that arrives just about the same time as the Golden-cheeks is the striking Black-and-white Warbler. Some are just passing through on their way to eastern and northern forests, but a few will stay and nest here. Interestingly they nest on the ground, usually close to the base of a tree or tree stump, or under a log or shrub. This makes their young very vulnerable to predation by all sorts of mammals and snakes. The Black-and-white does not have a musical song. Instead it sounds like a high-pitched creaky wagon wheel.
The Yellow-throated Warbler is a stunning bird that begins to migrate through central Texas in late February, with breeding birds arriving in mid-March to early April. Those that are migrating further northeast continue to pass through Texas into early May. This aptly-named bird with its yellow throat and chest forages high in the canopy. At first glance you might mistake it for a Black-and-white Warbler since they both creep along tree branches investigating nooks and crannies for insects, and both sport some black and white plumage. In Travis County the Yellow-throated Warbler is a rare and local breeder, with a seeming preference for cypress trees along Lake Austin.