By Kristen Currie
What to watch for in May: Flycatchers
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
With Warmer Weather Come Beautiful Flycatchers
There are several kinds of flycatchers showing up in the Austin area now, including the elegant, showy Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. You can identify them easily due to their ridiculously long and aptly named scissor-tails. According to allaboutbirds.org Scissor-tails are especially fond of grasshoppers, crickets and beetles. In common with other flycatchers they perch and wait for prey, and then fly out to catch it in mid-air or on the ground, often taking it back to the perch to eat it. Listen for their distinctive “pik” calls or sharp squeaky notes. Then look for gray birds, with dark wings and salmon-colored flanks. The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher has a distinctive silhouette, and is easy to see perched on utility wires and fences, even at 60 miles per hour. Two places in Austin to see them are Roy Guerrero Park on the east side and Commons Ford on the west side. Listen for their “kip” call.
The striking Western Kingbirds are back too, setting up territories and often nesting in big box store parking lots as long as they have some trees. Look for an 8 inch bird with lots of yellow on its belly, and a gray head and chest. It does not look a bit like a grackle or pigeon. Western Kingbirds can be quite vocal.
If you hear a loud “wheep” and live in an area with tall deciduous trees, you might be hearing a Great Crested Flycatcher. It has a gray throat and breast, a lemon yellow breast, and some rufous in the tail. The Great Crested is a canopy dweller, so it will take a little discipline to find it. Watch for movement as it searches for insects and feeds on fruit.
There is also an uncommon big yellow-bellied flycatcher, Couch’s Kingbird, that is similar to the Western Kingbird. It is expanding its range here in Austin. It is most reliable in the area around Longhorn Dam and the east end of Lady Bird Lake. Recently it has been seen in north Austin at Mills Pond at Wells Branch, along Lake Creek Trail in west Austin, and at Central Market in central Austin. Unlike the three flycatchers listed above, this one lives in Austin year-round. Look for it sitting up on a high perch and listen for its “breeer” call.
Confusing Flycatchers are Migrating North
Our May forecast also predicts frustrated bird watchers, as the confusingly plain, somewhat drab Empidonax genus of flycatchers move through Austin migrating north for the summer.
These small flycatchers seem big headed, with wing bars and usually white eye rings. Take a look at an Acadian Flycatcher, a localized Austin breeder with the classic Empid look. It is just shy of 6 inches long, with a pale belly and olive-greenish back. This could describe the other five too, with gradations of gray, green, and brown to be considered, along with bill length, shape and color, and wing length.
Even when an “Empid” cooperatively sits out in full view for a minute or two, it can be difficult to determine which of the five expected species you are looking at. Take a picture and it still may not clinch the identification. Some species are best identified by voice, but migrants may not be very vocal until they reach their breeding grounds. If you hear its explosive PEEET-sah, you can add it to your life list as an Acadian. But if it is silent, just enjoy it for the Empid that it is, and wish it a safe journey north.