By Kristen Currie
What to watch for in November: Winter Warblers, Finches and Woodpeckers
During November north winds will bring in more winter Texans, some of which will show up in our parks, greenbelts and yards. Be on the lookout for newly arriving winter warblers including the drab Orange-crowned Warbler, slightly more colorful Yellow-rumped Warbler and the usually much brighter Pine Warbler. The primary foods for warblers are insects and spiders, but these warblers can make it through cold spells by switching to fruits and seeds. You can lure them to your yard with suet. Make your own, or buy suet cakes and hang in a suet feeder. Squirrels like suet too, so if you want it to last longer try red pepper suet available at home improvement and specialty bird stores. Other fans of suet include woodpeckers, titmice and kinglets. Learn more about suet and other human-provided foods at All About Birds.
Look no further than your sunflower seed and thistle feeders to see if any Pine Siskins have blown in. These relatives of the Lesser Goldfinch and House Finch, two year-round regulars, are showing up earlier than usual this year. Various theories for this early arrival include the fires and drought out west, and poor seed crops in parts of the boreal forest where they stay for the winter if conditions are good. All these factors might be forcing birds to forage widely across the lower 48. The Pine Siskin looks somewhat like a smaller version of a streaky female House Finch. However, its bill is pointier, the female has yellow in the wing and the males have yellow wing bars. Unlike the male House Finch, there is no red on the Pine Siskin.
The Red-breasted Nuthatch, another uncommon bird displaced from its favored spruce/fir forests up north, may visit your feeder. You might pass it off as a chickadee until you look closely. Its red breast and pointy bill should be good tipoffs that you have something different. Its call, really a nasal toot, will bring a smile to your face.
In November, our year-round woodpeckers are joined by two expected wintering woodpeckers, the Northern Flicker and the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. The flicker is a large dove-sized woodpecker which often announces its presence with a loud “kleah.” It has a tawny-brown back with horizontal black lines, a black collar and black spots on buff undersides. The most commonly occurring Yellow-shafted (eastern) subspecies has a gray nape and crown with a brown face and neck. When it flies you should see yellow in the underwing. Due to the conditions out west, be on the alert for the Red-shafted (western) flicker which has slight facial differences and reddish underwings. The flicker has quite a varied diet, from insects to fruits and seeds. One backyard probably can’t meet all its needs for the whole winter, but it may drop in to eat a hackberry or sumac berry or even visit your seed feeder. It often forages on open ground for ants, too.
Many Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have already arrived in Texas with more to come in November. Some may migrate all the way to Panama! Although its name might imply cowardice, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker does in fact have a yellow belly, but it’s hard to see. It drills sap wells in trees and then laps the sap along with the insects trapped in it. In late October there were reports of a couple of rare Red-naped Sapsuckers in town that is the western version of the Yellow-bellied. Both sapsuckers have white barring on black backs with distinctive white wing patches visible when the birds are foraging. The subtle differences are in the pattern of black, white and red on their heads and that depends on the sex and age of the birds. Since either one is an unusual treat that might even visit your suet feeder, be ready to take photos and then consult your field guide.
Some of you might keep a list of birds you have seen or heard in your backyard, so be listening in November for Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese. They don’t usually stay in Travis County, and are heading to agricultural fields and coastal prairies further south.