By: Kristen Currie
What to watch for in August: Flashy-throated Hummingbirds and Other Migrants
It might be a hard sell to get outside in the heat of August, but the good news is that some migrating birds will be passing through your yard or local park, and might repay a look out your window or a stroll in the cooler times of the day.
Get a Handle on Hummingbirds
Three expected hummingbird species may pop up at your feeders during fall migration happening now. The uncommon Rufous Hummingbird is quite distinct from the other two. The typical male’s cinnamon-orange back, belly and head, and orange-red gorget (throat feathers) are striking. It has a hint of green on its forehead. In comparison, adult females and juveniles have rufous bellies, green backs and green on their napes and heads. The adult female will sport an orange-red central spot on her throat, the juvenile female will have a white throat with faint spotting, and the young male will have glimmers of its spectacular gorget to come.
Male Rufous hummers are known for their pugnacious attitude at feeders. If you want your other hummers to have a chance at some nectar, hang another feeder very close to the first, assuming that the Rufous can’t guard both feeders at once. Another option is to hang it on the other side of your property.
The Rufous Hummingbird is the world’s smallest long-distance avian migrant (measured by body length), summering in southern Alaska, western Canada, and the Pacific Northwest, and wintering primarily in Mexico. The round-trip journey for some is 7800 miles. Count yourself lucky if you have one winter in your neighborhood.
The adult Black-chinned hummers that may have summered in your vicinity will be joined by juvenile birds and migrants. Adult males are easy to spot if they show off their purple gorgets. When they don’t (for example you see them in profile) it’s hard to distinguish them from the male Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Adult females and young of both Ruby-throats and Black-chinned are a challenge, but one thing to note is the grayer crown on the Black-chinned. Often it’s best just to call them Black-chinned/Ruby-throated and leave it at that. Some Ruby-throated Hummingbirds breed in the Austin area, and they are common summer residents in the eastern third of Texas and the only breeding hummingbird in the eastern U.S. August is a good time to see the males of these species since they often leave the breeding grounds earlier than females and hatch-year birds.
So why can’t you see always see the male hummingbird’s gorgeous gorget? Here’s a simple discussion with Ruby-throated Hummingbird photos, and an in-depth explanation from noted bird artist/field guide author David Sibley.
Get hummingbird feeding tips including a recipe for sugar water from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Unless you have many hummingbird visitors at one time, a small 4 or 8 fluid ounce feeder is adequate, since the solution should be discarded every other day in our August heat. Top-shelf dishwasher safe feeders, with no nooks and crannies where fungus can grow, are a great choice. Buy one with a built-in ant moat to prevent ants from overwhelming the sugar water. Consider hanging feeders within 3 feet of a window or 30 feet away to minimize the chance of a hummingbird flying into a window. Don’t use red food coloring, honey or sugar substitutes.
If you don’t have the time or inclination to maintain feeders properly, plant native plants that hummingbirds like. Three notable ones are Coral Honeysuckle, Turk’s Cap and Flame Acanthus. Of these, Flame Acanthus does well in pots for those with patio or balcony gardens. Travis Audubon has lots of other plant suggestions for hummers and songbirds.
A brightly colored bird on the wing in August is the aptly named Yellow Warbler. It reminds some people of a canary. Like many backyard birds it won’t be attracted to feeders, but will come to water especially in hot, dry weather. Providing water for birds can be as inexpensive as using a shallow plant saucer. The key points to remember are to change the water often, keep it clean, and keep it shallow, about 1 or 2 inches in depth.
A much less common yellow bird that will take some effort and luck to encounter migrates through Austin in August. It’s the Yellow-headed Blackbird. Good places to look for it are pond edges at Hornsby Bend, and other ponds or lake edges with marshy vegetation. The male has a stunning bright yellow head set off by its black body, while the female has much more muted coloration.
As the World Terns
Recent sightings of Black and Forster’s Terns are the harbinger of more to come. The Black Tern is an uncommon migrant, with most local observations occurring in late August. It is returning from breeding grounds in the upper Midwest, and is en route to marine wintering grounds along the western coast of Mexico, Central America and northern South America.
Be on the lookout for a small dark grayish bird with gray wings and a blackish bar on its white head, which makes it look like it’s wearing ear muffs. Birds are molting into their non-breeding plumage now, and some may still have black bellies and heads. Look for individuals or very small flocks in graceful flight across marshy ponds or lakes, with wingspans of about 2 feet, swooping to pick food from the surface of the water.
The Forster’s Tern is larger than the Black Tern, with a 31 inch wingspan. In August it is molting into its non-breeding plumage and is pale gray on its back, with a white head, white underparts and grayish tail feathers. If you see one well, it may have a dark eye patch behind the eye or may still retain the black cap that it wore during the breeding season. While they are more common than Black Terns, Forster’s Terns are uncommon birds in the Austin area. Look for them foraging over sheltered waters at Lake Travis, Walter E. Long Lake, Granger Lake, and Lake Georgetown and along the Colorado River. Forster’s Terns spent their summer on inland wetlands of the upper Midwest and Canada and are returning to Texas and Central America for the winter. A few will winter on our local lakes.