By: Jim Spencer
What to Watch for in November — Ducks and Sparrows
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.
Look What the Wind Blows in!
One of the best places to watch winter ducks is at the Hornsby Bend in east Austin, just east of the airport. On a recent day in mid-October, October 13 to be exact, things were pretty quiet on the ponds, but that all changed with the north winds that began on Monday, October 15.
The numbers of ducks of various species including Northern Shovelers, Ruddy Ducks, and Gadwall swelled. For example, there were 15 shovelers on the ponds on October 13, but on October 18 there were 500. Ruddy Duck numbers increased from 3 to 160 and where one lonely Gadwall was present on Saturday it was joined by 49 others on the 18th. American Coots, not ducks but often confused with them, arrived back in numbers, going from 6 to 650. There are more on their way – mid-November usually shows a big bump in the numbers of these and other swimming birds.
Diver or Dabbler?
Even if you can’t identify ducks’ species you can at least determine whether they are diving ducks or dabblers (sometimes called puddle ducks). Diving ducks disappear from view as they forage underwater. Their feet are set fairly far back which helps with diving, but makes them awkward on land. To get airborne they patter across the water first. The Ruddy Duck is a diving duck. It is also a stiff-tailed duck, using its tail feathers as rudders. Look for a compact duck, often with its dark tail erect. The male has a very visible white cheek patch set off by its dark cap. The female has a dark cap extending through the eye and a brown horizontal line in the middle of its cheek. As we get closer to breeding season the male will have a russet brown body and an astonishingly blue bill. Dabbling ducks pick food from the surface or tip up to feed (so that only their rear ends are visible.) Dabblers can spring into flight without first running along the water, and they can walk easily on land.
Northern Shovelers and Gadwall are dabblers. Shovelers have an interesting feeding strategy. A group of shovelers will join together in a large group or raft and swim in tight circles. The foot action churns up tiny invertebrates and seeds, which the birds filter through their large spoon-shaped bills. The Gadwall has subdued tones and an elegant air, with the male sporting distinctive black feathers underneath its tail.
While in some bird species males and females look alike, in many duck species the males are very showy and the females are mottled blends of browns and tans. Pay attention to details like bill color, bill shape, head shape, body size, and tail shape and length. Take into account that in some species the male and female pair up on the wintering grounds. For example, most Gadwall have selected their mate by November. Two dissimilar ducks swimming together, which give you the same general impression of size and shape, have a reasonable chance of being the same species.
Song Sparrows Left Their Songs Up North
Song Sparrows are one of fourteen species of wintering sparrows in central Texas that are arriving now. They join seven species of sparrows that live here year-round. Song Sparrows are streaky, dark small birds found in open woodlands, marshy areas, and overgrown pastures. Look for them in parks all around town where there is some understory for protection.
There is not much for them to sing about in the winter since they are not trying to attract a mate at this time of year. Instead this little songbird whose Latin name is Melospiza melodia most commonly makes a diagnostic contact call like “wimpf” or “chimp” while it is here. Listen for it and look for a bird with alternating gray, brown, and gray markings on its head, and a long tail that it pumps sideways in flight. They will stay until late March when you just might get lucky and hear their “maids, maids, maids, put on the teakettle ettle ettle” song as they tune up before migrating north for breeding.
Travis Audubon November Events — Check the calendar. Events often fill quickly and some require registration.
Hornsby Bend Monthly Bird Walk November 17, 7:30 until about 11 a.m. Join us to explore Austin’s premier birding site. This event is sponsored monthly by the Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory. All levels of birders are welcome. Meet in front of the Center for Environmental Research.
Two-Hour Tuesday Plus at Commons Ford Park November 20, 7:15 to 10:30 a.m. Commons Ford Park in west Austin is the site of a restored 40 acre prairie which is excellent habitat for wintering native sparrows and less common Sedge Wrens. It also features riparian habitat and an old pecan grove.
Two-Hour Tuesday at Cedar Breaks Park in Georgetown November 27, 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. Bird along the shore of Lake Georgetown and look for Rock and Canyon Wrens.