Hawks, falcons, kites, shorebirds, hummingbirds, orioles, and warblers are some of the birds flying south in September. Since Texas is on the central flyway we see a remarkable diversity of species, some of which are going to fly across the Gulf to points south, while others will travel around the Gulf. One has to be paying attention though, as these migrants are not calling attention to themselves. Some species like shorebirds and warblers are much drabber in fall, and hawks may be so high up that they have even been confused with migrating butterflies on occasion. So where can you go to experience fall migration? One of the best known places is the hawk watch at Hazel Bazemore County Park in Corpus Christi. At Hazel Bazemore the peak concentration of raptors occurs between September 23 and 30, depending on the weather. If you are lucky, you might see a hundred thousand birds pass by in one day. Most of the birds are Broad-winged Hawks which are heading to northern South America for the winter. The species composition changes in October, with Swainson’s Hawks, falcons and accipiters (forest hawks) present. During the “hawk watch” season from August 1 through November 15 Hazel Bazemore averages 720,000 raptors.
Although most raptors are solitary much of the year, many species flock during migration. They are just sharing the same air space, using thermals and updrafts to migrate, spiraling upwards on the rising air, then gliding until they pick up another thermal. A group of birds soaring on a thermal is called a kettle, and the birds are “kettling.” If you see a kettle be sure to check all the birds out, as often more than one species is represented. Thermal-dependent raptors won’t lift off from an overnight roost until the air has sufficiently heated up to create strong thermals. Often these birds fast for days as they continue south, so conserving energy by riding on thermals is critical to their survival. Otherwise they would have to resort to energy-expensive powered flight.
To see kettles of migrants in Austin ideally you will have a somewhat cloudy day so you can get contrast between the clouds and the birds. A pure blue sky makes for difficult viewing. If we have stormy weather, it may stop birds in their tracks and the next morning is a good time to look up. Go to a location that has a big vista where you can scan the skies. Even the top of a parking garage works.
Anhinga, the Snake Bird
If you head to Hazel Bazemore Park in mid-September you might see migrating Anhingas. They are striking water birds with long necks and dagger-shaped bills. They are short-distance migrants that are dependent on wetland habitat with good perches. Anhingas are uncommon in Austin, but occasionally can be seen perched in the trees of the pond at Barkley Meadows, a Travis County park.
Two Common Hummingbirds in Austin
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are the spectacular hummer of eastern North America and many are passing through Texas now on their way to Central America. Take a walk around your neighborhood and look for blooming red tubular flowers. Chances are there is a hummingbird close by. As the name suggests, the Ruby-throated has a bright red throat. However, depending on how the light hits the feathers it may look black or orange. If you see a bird with a purple chin, that is its cousin, the Black-chinned Hummingbird.
Again, the lighting will influence the color of the throat or gorget. What about the hummers with no color on their throats? Those are females or young birds. Generally Ruby-throated are brighter green on the back and have some green on the head, and Black-chinned are grayer on the heads. Black-chinned hummers usually pump their tails more while hovering. The best place to see a large concentration of hummingbirds is at Rockport’s annual Hummerbird Festival usually held in mid-September. It is cancelled this year due to extensive hurricane damage, but is an event that should be on every bird watcher’s bucket list.
Looking Back – Did Any Unusual Birds Show up in Austin after Hurricane Harvey?
It is interesting to note that several species of coastal birds were swept inland on Saturday, August 26, and some lingered for a few days before presumably heading back to the Gulf, helped by the strong north winds. Notable sightings included fifteen Magnificent Frigatebirds and a Sooty Tern at Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park in east Austin. Magnificent Frigatebirds are ocean-going birds that soar over the Gulf, looking for opportunities to steal food from other birds. They have long wingspans of 90 inches, longer even than Turkey Vultures or Bald Eagles. The Sooty Tern is a large tern with black wings and back, and white underparts. It was the first time one has ever shown up in Travis County.