Spring Migration: “One of the greatest gifts of life on earth”

By John Bloomfield

In his 2019 memoir, A Season on the Wind, Kenn Kaufman describes spring migration as a magical world unnoticed by many but totally captivating for those who know its secrets. “With its bountiful myriads of colorful sprites just arrived from tropical shores,” he wrote, “it has to be one of the greatest gifts of life on Earth.”

In Texas, we are fortunate to experience spring migration like few other places. Between March and June every year, one out of every three birds that migrate through the United States will pass through Texas skies, nearly 2 billion birds in all.

So as birders we journey to High Island in hopes of witnessing a fallout. We go to Mills Pond and convene with friends new and old to catch a fleeting glimpse of a Golden-winged or Cerulean Warbler. We watch and wait at Warbler Woods. And we set up water features in our backyard and watch for birds over a coffee or a glass of wine.

We recently spoke with a group of Central Texas birders about the 2022 migration and their best experiences.  Here is what they told us.

No Birder is an Island

Bobolinks by Lance Felber.

Like many of us in Central Texas, Lance Felber made the annual spring pilgrimage to Bolivar Peninsula in April. “We were surprised to see a small group of Bobolinks hanging out in a vacant lot,” said Lance. “I’ve only seen them once in Central Texas so it was nice to get good views of these distinctive blackbirds on the peninsula taking a break during their long migration from South America up the Northern US and Southern Canada.”

Colby Watkins and Lauren Stokes were also on the peninsula in April. “Our most exciting experience during spring migration was probably when we managed to find a Black-throated Blue Warbler (a lifer) that was being seen at Smith Oaks on High Island,” Colby recalled. He immediately called fellow Austinites Matthew Law, Richard Deulofeut, and Allison Stokes, who he had run into earlier that day, to let them know to hurry back to Smith Oaks so they could also see the Black-throated Blue.

“Shortly after, we received a call from Matt letting us know that a Cape May Warbler (another lifer) was being seen near the water drip at the front entrance, so we high-tailed it over there. In the end, all five of us got to see both birds. It was some great instant karma, great teamwork, and a fair trade!”

And in Wilco

Brown Booby by Rich Kostecke.

For Rich Kostecke, there have been several highlights this spring, but two that stand out for him were Wood Thrush and Brown Booby, both new birds for his Williamson County list. “It’s not easy to add new birds to my WilCo list at this point,” said the veteran of a WilCo Big year. “The Wood Thrush was a long time coming, whereas the Brown Booby at Lake Georgetown made up for the one I missed earlier in the spring at Granger Lake, which was a five-minute wonder, if that.”

Meanwhile Back in Austin

Worm-eating Warbler by Jason Garcia.

The Worm-eating Warbler is a fairly rare visitor to Austin, so Jason Garcia was excited to discover this bird on four separate occasions at the same park, Nicholas Dawson in south-central Austin. “A couple of times it hung around for good looks and a few photos, and many birders got to observe it hunting for insects at eye-level in vines and clumps of dead leaves,” said Jason. “It is not our most colorful warbler, but certainly one of the most unique!”

Celeste Treadway did not have to venture far for her favorite. “My most exciting find this spring happened as I was enjoying the evening from our porch. I heard a song that was new to me, coming from an area of thick foliage at the edge of our yard along the creek. I grabbed my bins and went to find it… it kept moving around, but finally got my eyes on a handsome Blackburnian Warbler. New bird for our property! Times like that, when I can get caught up in the flow, just listening and looking for a bird – especially tracking down a sound that I don’t know,  and everything else gets pushed out of my hamster-wheel brain for just a few minutes – that’s one of the things I love the most about birding. Nothing else grounds me in the present like birding.”

Advait Marathe had some trouble narrowing down his favorites. “I have had 24 warbler species at Mills Pond alone this spring, but if I had to choose it has to be the Cerulean Warbler. Not only was it a lifer but finding the bird was a super thrilling experience for me. The bird was found that morning and someone re-found it in the evening while I was at Mills Pond. I quickly got to the spot where it was reported but the bird had already moved on. Teaming up with another birder I was with at that time, we decided to search for the flock it was seen in.

“Following the directions on where the bird was last seen we tracked down the flock of Chickadees, Nashvilles and Black-throated Greens. It took us half hour to find the flock and there it was, feeding with these other species, a bright male Cerulean Warbler! We spent about 10-15 minutes watching the bird and finally decided to leave it alone. I always say that you know you had good looks at a bird when you decide to leave it alone and move on.”

And moving on is what migrating birds will do. As these springtime visitors move north, we welcome the birds of summer: Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Orchard Orioles, Painted Buntings and perhaps even a late Northern Parula… until the cycle reverses and we welcome back our migrating friends in the fall.