By: Jim Spencer
What to watch for in January – Unusual Birds at your Feeders
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
Are you feeding the birds? If so, keep an eye out for two uncommon species that have shown up this winter.
Purple Finches and Red-breasted Nuthatches are two northern species of birds that are considered irruptive species. The Texas Ornithological Society Handbook of Texas Birds defines irruptive species as those that are “normally absent from the state or a given area, but subject to large-scale non-annual incursions.” Often there are variable numbers of years between these events. Usually the irruptions are due to food shortages in their normal range.
Of the two, the Purple Finch is rare in the Austin/Travis County area, while Red-breasted Nuthatches seem to show up in very low numbers every year. For Purple Finches, there are scattered records in 2015, 2014, 2011, 2004, 2003, 2002, 1979, 1976 and 1974. So far this late fall and winter they have been seen or heard at locations including Emma Long and Commons Ford Ranch Metropolitan Parks, at a private residence northwest of St. Edward’s Park and in Travis Country, and at McKinney Falls State Park.
Purple Finches have large conical bills and will visit backyard feeders, particularly enjoying black oil sunflower seed. They are House Sparrow sized, about 6 inches long, with notched tails. The males and females look very different from each other. The female has a brownish back and tail, with crisp short, dark streaks on a white breast and belly. The most distinctive head features are the strong white eyebrow mostly behind the eye, and the brown cheek patch.
She could be confused with the very common House Finch, less common Pine Siskin, or some native sparrows. Be sure to check your field guide. One way to make the identification is to take a decent photo and use the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin Photo ID App.
A House Finch female will have blurry grayish streaking on her breast and flanks and a plain head. While it seems that most Travis County records are for female Purple Finches, you may get lucky and see a male. No, it is not purple. Compare the male’s extensive red coloring on its back and head, and red on its flanks, with the brown blurry streaking on the House Finch’s flank and less red on the head.
The Red-breasted Nuthatch is the life of the party with its endearing tooting calls. It is a shame we don’t have more of this northern bird. It could be mistaken for a Carolina Chickadee if you only get a quick look, but is quite different. The Red-breasted Nuthatch is a little smaller than a chickadee. It has a long pointed bill it uses to probe for insects in bark as it busily moves down, up and around tree trunks and branches. It has almost no neck, and a flat head, with a white eyebrow and throat and strikingly black eyeline. Its belly is pale orange and the top of its head, its back and tail are bluish gray. These nuthatches are generally solitary, but will follow mixed flocks of chickadees, titmice, and other small songbirds.