By Kristen Currie
Will the February Freeze affect Early Migrants?
It is too soon to know the impacts of the freeze on birds. The good news is that most short-distance neotropical songbirds winter further south in Mexico and Central America. With the exception of some early Purple Martins and Barn Swallows (and a few migrants that decided to gamble on overwintering here), they were out of harm’s way during the freeze. Critical caterpillar pupae, that sustain most resident and migratory songbirds, overwinter underground or in deep leaf litter. Entomologists are optimistic that most of them survived since they had not emerged yet. What we can hope for is a wet spring that encourages budding leaves and plant growth for hungry caterpillars, and no late freezes that could depress caterpillar and other insect numbers. The birds will be coming regardless. We can welcome them by taking steps to make Austin a bird-friendly community.
Endangered Golden-cheeked Warblers Return
A bucket list bird for many people, Golden-cheeks will be here any day now, with the males setting up and defending territories. They will woo females with their buzzy song that sounds like “te te te te zee chee” with an upslur at the end. Visit All About Birds to familiarize yourself with the song before you go for a walk in the juniper-oak woodlands of western Travis County. You will have a reasonable chance of hearing one, especially in March when they sing a lot and sometimes from an exposed perch. Turkey Creek Trail at Emma Long Metropolitan Park is a good spot to listen for them, as is Warbler Vista at the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. The live oaks in the parking lot at St. Edward’s Park are often part of a Golden-cheeked Warbler’s territory too. Get there early in the day and be patient. Golden-cheeked Warblers will switch their song after they find a mate. That song reminds some of “la cuu-ca-raach-a.”
The Golden-cheeked Warblers were on their wintering grounds when the big freeze hit. The Golden-cheeked, like 96% of North American’s land birds, depends on caterpillars to raise its young. Unfortunately the Texas Red Oaks which supply significant caterpillars for Golden-cheeks early in the season were budding before the freeze, and we are optimistic that enough leaves will emerge to feed the caterpillars these birds need to set up territories and nest successfully.
Test your observational skills. A quick impression of a Golden-cheeked Warbler is that it is primarily yellow, white and black and small. We have a year-round bird, the Lesser Goldfinch male, that is primarily yellow and black, and is sometimes confused with a Golden-cheeked. If you have a bird visiting a seed feeder, it’s not a Golden-cheeked. Check its bill. A Golden-cheeked has a slender bill like tweezers, and the goldfinch has a small triangular seed-eating bill. The black and yellow are in different places too. The Lesser Goldfinch has a black back and yellow front, while the Golden-cheeked male has a yellow face, black back and white undersides that are streaked with black. The other bird that can be confused with a Golden-cheeked Warbler is a beautiful warbler in its own right- the Black-throated Green Warbler. It has a much larger breeding range than the Golden-cheeked (which only breeds in Texas), and fortunately is not endangered. One distinctive difference between the two species is their song. The Black-throated Green Warbler sings a song that reminds one of “trees, trees, murmuring trees.” Take a minute to compare the males of each species and you will note the back is greenish on the Black-throated Green vs. black on the Golden-cheeked, both have black throats and the facial patterns differ.
It’s time to make up some sugar solution (1 part sugar to 4 parts water) and hang your feeder, as both Black-chinned and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are on their way. The February deep freeze slowed down early nectar sources such as native Cedar Sage, Coral Honeysuckle and Red Buckeye so feeders can help tide them over until plants start blooming. Be sure to maintain your feeder though, as fermented hummingbird nectar and a dirty feeder are extremely detrimental to their health. Make a commitment to change the nectar every three days now, and every other day in the heat of summer. If that sounds like too much work, take steps to add hummingbird plants to your yard or neighborhood park for these flying jewels to enjoy later this year.