By Kristen Currie
What to watch for in July: Water Birds and Sunflower-loving Birds
It may be hard to motivate yourself to get outdoors in July to enjoy birds and other wildlife, but there are ways to get around the heat. Even though the humidity is often high in the early morning, at least the temperature is lower and many birds will be active. Bird watching in the evening has the advantage of lower humidity, and with a breeze it can even be enjoyable. Bird watching next to water might make you feel cooler and birds tied to that habitat will be visible.
Besides the expected water birds around, like Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Green Herons and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, there are some less common to rare coastal birds that have a tendency to show up in July. It’s a good time to watch for a wandering Tricolored Heron, Roseate Spoonbill, or White Ibis. Let’s take a look at each of them.
The Tricolored Heron is a long-necked, long-billed heron with a white line on its neck from its throat down to its breast and long yellow legs. The white contrasts nicely with the bluish lavender neck of the adults and the reddish neck of the juvenile birds. The bird is about 26 inches tall, just a little taller than the Snowy Egret. Generally solitary, it actively hunts in shallow water and marshy areas for fish. If it flies note the bright white leading edge of the underwing, and the white belly. A good place to try for one is at the pond at Southeast Greenway at Mueller, across from the Morris Williams Golf Course.
The Roseate Spoonbill is a pink-bodied wading bird about goose-sized, with a unique spoon-shaped bill and white neck. The bird swishes its long grayish bill back and forth through shallow water, to sense and catch invertebrates, some of which contain carotenoids that gives it its pink color. The pink should really catch your eye, although the juveniles and immature birds are pale pink in contrast to the rich pink of the adults which takes about three years to attain. Young birds have fully feathered heads while the adults are bald. Look for it foraging with a horizontal posture. Although these birds are social and form flocks on their coastal breeding grounds, they are a rare sight in Travis County. In past years single birds have been sighted at Hornsby Bend, on Post Oak Road leading into Webberville Park in east Austin, at McKinney Falls State Park, and at Lake Creek Trail in Williamson County.
A third wading bird to be on the lookout for is the White Ibis. It is a large football-shaped bird, smaller than a spoonbill. Adults are white, true to their name. Juveniles (born this year) are brown, while next year during their first summer they will be splotchy brown and white. Bill and leg color are different too, with the adults having red bills and legs, and immatures having orange or pinkish bills and yellow to reddish legs. White Ibis have curved bills which they use to probe wetlands, shallow ponds, and flooded pastures for prey such as crayfish, worms, fish, frogs, lizards, and snails. In Texas they occur from coastal Texas from Port Arthur to the Valley. Some good places to look for them around Austin include Hornsby Bend, Walter Long Lake, Barkley Meadows, Roy Guerrero Park from the Colorado River overlook on the west end, and Meadow Lake in Round Rock. Flyover birds are all white from below, with tiny black wingtips. They fly with their necks outstretched and the drooping bill is distinctive.
Take a Walk on the Sunny Side
This is a banner year for sunflowers, and several birds are appreciating their bounty of nectar, insects and seeds. One of the best sunflower stands is at the retention pond at Southeast Greenway at Mueller mentioned earlier. Sometimes the sunflowers just shake with bird activity! A stroll may yield Red-winged Blackbirds, House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches, Mourning Doves, Great-tailed Grackles and Black-chinned Hummingbirds. Even charismatic green Monk Parakeets have been seen perching in them recently, necessitating cell phone photos by passing joggers. The cardinal-sized Red-winged Blackbird male is well-named. It’s black, and when it wants to display to a female or defend its territory, it shows off a red patch on its wing (often with a stripe of yellow at the base.) The female is a streaky dark brown and she can be mistaken for several other species. House Finch males are pretty easy to identify as they have red on their heads, breasts and rumps. The females are streaky grayish-brown with blurrier streaks than the blackbird. House Finch bills are differently shaped too, more rounded than the pointed blackbird bill. Male Lesser Goldfinches are distinctive with their black backs and bright yellow underparts. Females and young birds are much drabber with olive to green backs. Watch for young birds still begging to be fed.
Check out a pond or sunflower patch near you. Even in the heat of July the birds are out there.
Compiled by Jane Tillman, Travis Audubon Volunteer for KXAN Weather Blog