By Kristen Currie
Departures and Arrivals
October is a month of lows and highs for a bird watcher. Farewell to the birds moving out, seeking warmer weather and more food further south. The skies will soon be completely devoid of the friendly chittering of Chimney Swifts and twitterings and clickings of Barn Swallows. With the cooler weather and north winds in September many birds took the opportunity to leave. It seems to be the time when backyard birds abandon feeders for a while to forage elsewhere. The upsides exist too though. As October marches on, be on the lookout for aggregations of noticeable Scissor-tailed Flycatchers that are getting ready to leave. Tune your ears upwards and welcome migrating Franklin’s Gulls and Sandhill Cranes. They are pretty vocal as they pass overhead. Fortunately, these species are two of the easiest species to see, since they often travel in flocks. Unfortunately for nature lovers, sometimes the migrants will be flying high, and in the clear bright blue sky they are almost impossible to see. Hope for some clouds to provide contrast. If you are very, very lucky you might see an endangered Whooping Crane accompanying the Sandhill Cranes. Often Whooping Cranes travel as a family unit with the two adults and their one juvenile offspring. Based on past Whooping Crane sightings in Travis County the third and fourth weeks of October are the best time to be especially vigilant. Realistically the odds of seeing a Whooping Crane are pretty slim since there are only about 500 cranes in the population that migrates between Canada and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge close to Rockport.
The best field marks to distinguish Whooping Cranes from Sandhills in flight from below are the high contrast black primaries that should be visible in any light conditions, and the birds’ larger size in direct comparison. The Sandhill Cranes look uniformly gray compared to the white of the Whoopers. The Whooping Cranes could be confused with Snow Geese which are also white with black wingtips, but are much smaller and have faster wing beats. (In Travis County Snow Geese are more likely to be seen in November.) Other birds that you might see in October with black all along the trailing edge of their massive wings are the silent American White Pelicans. Rural northeast Travis County is a good place to look for these birds on a day with a north wind.
Ducks are beginning to trickle in, adding winter interest to our area ponds and lakes. The pond on the eastern edge of the Mueller development, at Manor Road and Tilley, across from the Morris Williams Golf Course, is a great place to see ducks fairly close up. Eight species have been recorded there in past Octobers. The ducks aren’t particularly skittish there, and people can easily view them from an elevated trail.
Devine Lake in Leander is another accessible duck hotspot, where binoculars or a spotting scope help considerably to see the more distant birds. Any retention pond with vegetation is worth checking especially for Ring-necked Ducks which tolerate more confined spaces.
A songbird to watch and listen for is the Gray Catbird, passing through. Like its cousin, our resident Northern Mockingbird, this bird mimics other birds to string together a song. Look for a gray bird with a jaunty black cap and rusty-orange feathers under its tail. You might hear a catbird’s mew before you see it, or you may just have to content yourself with hearing it as it likes to skulk in thickets.
Another relative of the Northern Mockingbird and Gray Catbird that is migrating and may winter here is the less encountered Brown Thrasher. It’s the largest of the three and is the champion songster, clocking in at 1100 different song types. All three of these birds are very fond of berries, so plant native plants like yaupon, possumhaw, and American beautyberry and create a thicket of shrubs and vines to help them thrive.