By: Kristen Currie
Get Hooked on Vireos!
April brings many songbirds to the Austin area. Some will breed here, and others will just use our trees and shrubs as way stations on their journeys elsewhere. When many people think of migration they think of treetop slender-billed warblers with distinctive songs and vibrant colors. Vireos, on the other hand, operate under the radar for the most part. Why that is the case is a mystery, since some are quite striking, and announce themselves vigorously. April in central Texas is a good time to look and listen for these birds, which are more often heard than seen. Learn their songs and calls to increase your chances of seeing one. What to look for are small, somewhat stocky songbirds with hooked bills and short legs. Some favor the treetops while others prefer low brush and tangles. They eat berries, insects and larvae. Vireos will sing from an invisible perch for minutes on end, instead of almost constantly moving like warblers do, frustrating bird watchers.
In Central Texas, the most commonly encountered vireo in spring and summer is the White-eyed Vireo. They began arriving in late February/early March and will be around through the summer months. Right now, they are in Austin in full force as more northeasterly migrants are hopscotching over the local breeders. What makes them stand out from other vireos? The main features to focus on are the yellow spectacles around the eyes, and white eyes. If you get that good a look, you will see a 5 inch bird with a greenish back, gray nape, pale throat, two white wing bars and yellow flanks. Males and females look alike, to us anyway. Far and away though, it’s their song that will grab your attention. One mnemonic is “Quick, pick up the beer check, quick” which captures the staccato rhythm of their song. But the song can be variable with lots of extra notes thrown in. They are pretty good mimics too, especially of Summer Tanagers’ pit-a-tuck call. White-eyed Vireos are birds of lower and mid-story tangles. Many parks and greenbelts in town will have breeding birds, from St. Edward’s Park and the Bull Creek Greenbelt on the west to Hornsby Bend and Roy Guerrero Park on the east.
The next most common vireo that breeds here is the Red-eyed Vireo. Unlike White-eyed Vireos, Red-eyed Vireos love the treetops of deciduous forests. They differ from White-eyed in several ways. They show up a little later, waiting until deciduous trees are leafed out. They have plain olive-green backs, no wing bars, gray crowns with white eyebrows outlined in black above and below, and red eyes on the adults. (Good luck seeing the eyes.) Their underparts are pale to white, but they have pale yellow under the tail. The males’ repetitious songs will alert you to their presence. The musical phrases go on and on throughout the day, earning the Red-eyed Vireo the nickname “the preacher bird.” It is fun to listen to them as they occasionally will have a turn of phrase that relieves the monotony. Good places to look for them are St. Edwards Park off Spicewood Springs Road, and Commons Ford Ranch Metropolitan Park in the pecan grove.
Three uncommon breeding vireos here include Yellow-throated, Bell’s and the threatened Black-capped. It’s a shame that the Yellow-throated Vireo is more commonly heard than seen, as its bright yellow throat is a knockout. Like the Red-eyed, it favors treetops. Listen for its two (or sometimes three) note burry phrase like “three up, three down” repeated. If you get lucky and see one at St. Ed’s or Commons Ford, look for the yellow spectacles, two white wing bars, yellow throat which extends into the breast, white belly, and yellow-green back.
Bell’s Vireos come through in migration, but are an expected uncommon breeder in western Travis County. Their busy “where’d you go you little snit” rising song will get your attention at Pace Bend Park or the Hamilton Pool/Reimer’s Ranch area. Bell’s have rather muted green and yellow colors with one indistinct wing bar.
Black-capped Vireos were listed as endangered until 2018, and they are not easy to find in the Austin area outside the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. Try for them at the Shin Oak Observation Deck there. Note that it does close for a few weeks in April to let the vireos get settled in for breeding. Sometimes they can be seen and heard at the refuge’s Doeskin Ranch too. Black-capped Vireos like open patchy habitat of native grasses punctuated with low thickets where they nest. These striking birds are elusive too, and much more often heard only. The males have black caps that wrap around under their eyes, white spectacles, and the greenish yellow coloration of other vireos on their backs. The females’ caps are more a charcoal gray color. They are well worth searching out, if only to hear their jumbled songs.
One vireo that has expanded its range and is probably breeding west of Austin is the Hutton’s Vireo. Its very monotonous song “chur ee, chur ee, chur ee” should get your attention. You could mistake this bird for a wintering Ruby-crowned Kinglet, as they are both small, ping-pong ball-shaped greenish gray birds. A fun difference if you get a good look is that the Hutton’s feet are gray but the Ruby-crowned has yellow feet. Remember to look for the hooked bill too on the Hutton’s.
During migration other vireos come through including Warbling, Philadelphia and Blue-headed. (Some Blue-headed do winter here.) Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website All About Birds is a great place to learn more about these. Enjoy this memorable mnemonic for the Warbling Vireo’s song, featuring its favorite food, the caterpillar. “I will see you, I will seize you, I will squeeze you ‘til you squirt.”
Don’t miss this April opportunity to tune into these vocal vireos and other songbirds in full song too!