What to watch for in March: Early Spring brings Changes in Bird Life
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.
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.
Pectoral Sandpiper. Courtesy: Jeff Osborne
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.
Compiled by Jane Tillman, Travis Audubon Volunteer.