By: Jim Spencer
With each new cold front in November more birds should arrive, many with plans to spend the winter. Our rivers and lakes which were largely empty of big, noticeable birds other than herons and egrets will once again teem with life. Lady Bird Lake will fill with American Coots, Pied-billed Grebes and many species of ducks. Ponds may attract different ducks and waterbirds that prefer the slightly different vegetation and water depths they offer.
During the month, watch for silent flocks flying over in somewhat irregular lines or v-shaped formations. They may be Double-crested Cormorants, returning from places as far away as southern Canada. These cormorants are coming to slow-moving rivers and ponds to fish. A good place to look for a roost is in the cypress trees on the south side of Lady Bird Lake.
Cormorants are dark brownish-black birds with long necks. They are 32 inches in length with a wingspan of over four feet. They stretch their dark wings to dry after a dive since their feathers are not as waterproof as ducks. The immature birds have pale throats and undersides while the adults are all dark. Cormorants paddle with webbed feet but their hooked bills are one feature that sets them apart from ducks. If you can get a close look or photo, check out their stunning aquamarine-colored eyes.
Other overhead flocks of large birds you might encounter in November are Snow and Greater White-fronted Geese (the latter known to hunters as speckle-bellied). These birds are often noisy in flight, with lots of honking. Northeast Travis County is a good place to look and listen for them, although you might see a flock flying over any part of town. Most of them are en route to points further south in Texas where they favor the coastal prairies for the winter. It’s much less common to spot these geese species foraging on land or loafing in the water in Travis County, so you have to be quick to make an identification as they fly past. Taking a photo and then consulting a field guide or the excellent All About Birds website will help.
Rule out the cacophony of calling Sandhill Cranes which are bigger birds with longer necks and larger wingspans up to 7 feet. American White Pelicans will be silent. They are birds with huge wingspans of 9 feet, and heavy long bills viewed from below. Many pelicans will be passing through Travis County during migration and some will winter here.
A bird associated with creeks, rivers, lakes and ponds that often announces itself before you see it is the Belted Kingfisher. Listen for its loud dry rattle as it flies along waterways. While you can spot them occasionally in the summer, many more come to winter here. Belted Kingfishers are dependent on having clear water so they can see their main fish prey, and then dive in to catch it. They are stocky blue-gray birds about 13 inches in length, with crests and dagger-like gray bills. Sometimes they perch on wires over water bodies, but also can be found conspicuously perched on branches. Belted Kingfisher females are more colorful than the males, sporting a rust colored band around their bellies. The reason for this is unclear. See if you can determine the sex of the bird you find, to challenge your birding abilities and impress your friends.