By Kristen Currie
What to watch for in April: Safe Passage for Migrating Birds
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 travisaudubon.org or by calling 512-300-BIRD. Follow us at www.facebook.com/travisaudubon
Dark Skies for the Birds
For millennia birds have been migrating from their wintering grounds to their breeding grounds each spring. Did you know that nearly two billion birds will migrate across Central Texas skies and many of them fly at night? We want to make their journey as safe as possible. To that end, Travis Audubon and a coalition of other local and state organizations ask us to flip the switch for birds this spring! Artificial lighting can cause birds to become disoriented and collide with buildings, and these avoidable collisions kill up to one billion migratory birds annually in the United States.
Reducing outdoor illumination and sky glow will let us enjoy the stars which birds use to get their bearings. The good news is that everyone can help. Let’s turn off all nonessential indoor and outdoor lighting from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. through June 15, but especially during peak migration from April 19-May 7. Please shut off porch, garage and landscape lighting, use motion sensors so lights are on only when needed, and close your curtains and shades. Ask your office building management to shut off their lights at night, too. You’ll be protecting birds while also saving money on energy. Learn more at Travis Audubon’s Lights Out Texas.
If you want to know exactly how many birds might be in the air, night by night, during migration, check BirdCast, a collaborative effort to understand and predict bird movements based on weather radar surveillance. You can even check to see whether birds will be migrating over Austin in low, medium or high densities with the local migration alert feature.
According to Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Frequently Asked Questions about Migration “Weather is one of the chief external influences on migration…In the spring a warm, moist mass of air (low pressure with higher or rising temperatures) moving north over the Gulf of Mexico can start a wave of migrating birds to move northward from the American Tropics or southern United States. A southward moving cold front meeting such a warm air mass can result in heavy rains and high winds. This can stop migration immediately or within 24 hours. These spring “fallouts” or “groundings” of migrants may occur when the migrating birds literally fall into sheltered areas seeking food and refuge. This can be disastrous if the migrants are forced down into the ocean drowning thousands of birds. Resumption of southerly winds and rising temperatures starts migration northward again.”
So What Kinds of Birds are Migrating through Central Texas in April?
Lots! It might be easier to ask which birds are not migrating. Our permanent residents like cardinals, titmice, chickadees and doves have to share resources with many songbirds of various bird families that wintered in Mexico, Central or South America. Depending on your surrounding habitat – wooded, open, creekside, or close to a park, for example – it’s conceivable that flycatchers, vireos, swallows, kinglets, gnatcatchers, wrens, thrushes, waxwings, finches, New World sparrows, orioles, warblers, tanagers, grosbeaks, or buntings may drop in. And that’s ignoring other species also on the move that are not songbirds, like ducks, cuckoos, nightjars, swifts, hummingbirds, cranes, and shorebirds.
Just to highlight three striking April migrants, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak male is a mix of black and white with a red breast. It migrates through the eastern half of Texas, with the closest breeding population in northern Oklahoma, but its breeding range extends into Canada and the northeast. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are partial to mulberries and most bird watchers look for those trees in late April and early May in hopes of seeing one. Their sweet whistled song is somewhat similar to the American Robin’s. Female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks share the large bills of the males, but otherwise look very different.
A small songbird that is fairly commonly encountered since it has a protracted spring migration from mid-March to mid-May is the Nashville Warbler. It has a distinctive white eye-ring, gray head and bright yellow underparts and yellow under the tail. There is not too much difference between the female and male’s appearance. The Nashville does not breed in Texas, setting its GPS for Canada, the Great Lakes area and other northern climes.
The Kentucky Warbler is a sought-after, elusive songbird that likes to play hide-and-seek with birders. It stays on or close to the ground, and on its breeding grounds even nests on the ground. You probably won’t get long looks at this greenish backed bird with yellow spectacles and bright yellow underparts. It’s on its way to the eastern quarter of Texas or the forests of eastern North America.