By Kristen Currie
What to watch for in May: Migrating and Summering Flycatchers
Late April saw the arrival of Western and Eastern Kingbirds, and lots of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. They are large enough to be noticed, and like to perch in the open quite often, looking for insects. The Western Kingbirds and Scissor-tails are both very vocal too, which helps people locate them for a better look. Gray-headed, yellow-bellied Western Kingbirds are often found in parking lots with trees (such as grocery store lots), where they raise their young. They don’t look or sound a bit like the typical parking lot grackles and pigeons. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are ridiculously long-tailed birds found in parks with wide open spaces such as Roy Guerrero Colorado River and Commons Ford Ranch Metropolitan Parks. You are not imagining it if you notice that some birds’ tails seem shorter than others. The females’ tails average thirty percent shorter. Although they do breed in Texas, most Eastern Kingbirds, known for their striking pattern of black heads, white throats, dark gray backs and bright white bellies, are just passing through. They have a large breeding range across much of the U.S. and southern Canada.
May brings even more flycatchers to central Texas. Most of these later-arriving flycatchers are on their way north, and they only stop and refuel en route. The reason they are later migrants is the fact that they rely on insects, so it has to warm up enough for their prey to emerge and become active. The easiest one of these to identify is the Olive-sided Flycatcher. The Olive-sided Flycatcher does not typically call during migration, but if you hear a “quick, three beers” look for a bird on the highest exposed limb or twig of the tallest tree around. That is its preferred perch. From there it sallies out to catch insects, typically returning to the same perch to subdue and eat them. This 7.5 inch grayish flycatcher has a big-headed look and a pointed bill that is fairly long. It has long wings and a short tail. Last, it looks like it is wearing a vest, with dark sides to its breast and a pale to white central breast.
A flycatcher with a plaintive call is also arriving this month, and if you hear it you may recognize it immediately. The Eastern Wood-Pewee is a “name sayer,” with a call like “pee a weee, pee-yurr.” Some do breed in central Texas, but most will continue further north to mixed and deciduous forests in much of the Midwest, Great Lakes region, southern Canada, and the Northeast. Like the Olive-sided Flycatcher it will use exposed perches, but it won’t necessarily choose the highest one. It often will be tucked into the mid-story of trees. The Eastern Wood-Pewee has a slimmer profile than the Olive-sided. It also has grayish sides to its breast, but the contrast between the breast sides and pale breast center is not as pronounced as on the Olive-sided. The Pewee is about 6.25 inches in length.
There are several difficult-to-identify small flycatchers migrating through. The problem is that these flycatchers in the genus, Empidonax, all look pretty much the same to the average bird watcher. The name Empidonax comes from the Greek for empis (gnat) and anax (master). Insects of all types are the mainstay of their diets. In Austin the most regularly encountered are Least, Alder, and Willow, with a smattering of Acadian and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers. They range between 5.25 and 5.75 inches in length, are greenish to olive-brown on their backs, with off-white to shades of yellow on their breasts, two whitish wing bars and white eye rings. They are best distinguished by their calls. Visit allaboutbirds.org and see if you can distinguish the “free beer” of the Alder Flycatcher from the “fitz bee” of the Willow. The best way to spot an Empid is to walk slowly through a wooded area (willows are especially good), and look for a bird hawking insects in flight. Take a virtual tour of south Austin’s Blunn Creek Nature Preserve with a professional birding guide to begin to learn key features of the various Empids here.
The Benefits of Dark Skies for the Birds
For millennia birds have been migrating from their wintering grounds to their breeding grounds each spring. Did you know that nearly two billion birds will migrate across Central Texas skies and many of them fly at night? We want to make their journey as safe as possible. To that end, Travis Audubon and a coalition of other local and state organizations ask us to flip the switch for birds this spring! Artificial lighting can cause birds to become disoriented and collide with buildings, and these avoidable collisions kill up to one billion migratory birds annually in the United States.
Reducing outdoor illumination and sky glow will let us enjoy the stars which birds use to get their bearings. The good news is that everyone can help. Let’s turn off all nonessential indoor and outdoor lighting from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. through June 15, but especially during peak migration from April 19-May 7. Please shut off porch, garage and landscape lighting, use motion sensors so lights are on only when needed, and close your curtains and shades. Ask your office building management to shut off their lights at night, too. You’ll be protecting birds while also saving money on energy. Learn more at Travis Audubon’s Lights Out Texas.
Noted entomologist E.O. Wilson calls invertebrates, including insects “the little things that run the world.” Insects around the world are declining rapidly for a variety of reasons, from increased pesticide use to habitat loss. One contributing factor that is getting attention is the impact of light pollution on insects’ behaviors, such as foraging and mating. Moths and other insects drawn to outdoor lights at night are affected, exhausting themselves and disrupting their life cycles. Since most land birds raise their young on insects this matters; to highly insectivorous birds like flycatchers, swallows and swifts the decline in insects is cause for concern. It’s clear that dark skies are a win-win in more ways than one.
Compiled by Jane Tillman, Travis Audubon Volunteer for KXAN Weather Blog