Autumn Birds

The annual autumn bird migration through Central Texas is mostly completed. I typically observe fewer birds coming through my garden in fall than in spring, but there are always a few who spend time in the trees and shrubs and splish-splash in the pond.

This fall several male adults and at least one female adult Yellow Warbler, Setophaga petechia, popped by for visits. These sunny critters are hard to miss: dashes of yellow through the air, pops of yellow in trees and shrubs, flashes of yellow in the shallows of the pond. These bright streaks-n-spots in the garden are busy, busy birds–they don’t stay still for long! I’m glad this one wanted some warmth from the sun after his bath; he perched long enough for a quick photo.

Male Yellow Warblers are brilliantly yellow, with lovely burnished breast streaks. Females and juvenile males are yellow in a softer hue, but lack the markings on the breast. These beauties winter in Central America and northern parts of South America.

I took plenty of photos of “Yellow Warblers” but as I downloaded the shots, it happened that some birds were Yellow and some were just yellow. The two just yellows are female or immature Wilson’s Warblers, Cardellina pusilla.

Several years ago, I enjoyed the visit of a male Wilson’s Warbler, his little black cap a signature accessory. This fall, the two who bathed in the pond and bopped through my garden didn’t rock black hats, but instead, attractive arches of yellow over their eyes–the clue to their identities. These birds are heading for Central America, to rest, eat well, and prepare for next year’s breeding season.

An Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe, graced my garden for several days, dipping in the pond, fluffing in the trees, catching insects on the wing. This bird is a flycatcher and some of its winter non-breeding range is located in Texas, though south of where I live in Austin. I see one or two almost every spring during migration, though I don’t recall ever spotting one in fall.

The Phoebe has a charming way of tilting its head back and forth, as if listening for important news. As insects are its main food source, the Phoebe is a fast and agile flyer, and an excellent hunter of many kinds of insects.

From November to April, I’m fortunate to host several kinds of warblers and I’m eagerly awaiting their settling in the garden. It’s always a thrill to observe them for the first time, but I never grow tired of their presence; their beauty and calls are a joy in the winter garden. I’ve already seen a couple of Orange-Crowned Warblers, but both moved on to other places, other spaces. Neither were my warblers.

C’mon little warblers: there’s plenty of food and water, trees and cover, and the cats are in the house. What are you waiting for??

Winter Texans

There’s a term for northern folks who come to Texas to enjoy a milder winter: winter Texans, also known as Snowbirds.

Some actual birds are winter Texans too, and in my Austin garden they’re unlikely to see snow (not impossible, but less common in these past few decades). Nonetheless, these winter birds are here for rest and good food sources, and to gear up for spring/summer breeding season. In my garden, they enjoy the pond and its surrounding trees and shrubs.

No snowbirds here, but the warblers are warbling and the phoebes are phlying.

Groan. That was bad. Really bad. Apologies.

As these winter Texans settle in for the next months, joining local, year-round birds, they’ve been active in their everyday lives, which thankfully provides nice a distraction for my everyday life.

I’ve seen a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Regulus calendula, and have observed one–or more–Orange-crowned Warblers, Leiothlypis celata. But the stars of my wildlife garden show recently have been a crew of Yellow-rumped Warblers, Setophaga coronata. I’ve counted as many as 8 at a time, all fluttery and flighty in the trees and zippy around the pond. They come, hang out, and eventually make their way to the public bath–a favorite spot for birds of all kinds. It’s hard to count the Yellow-rumps as they’re in nearly constant motion, but I have been lucky with the camera a few times, capturing some brief, quite moments in between the winged energy that defines these busy birds.

I was excited when I downloaded this photo. It’s a nice capture of an adorable little Yellow-rumped Warbler face, avian colors complementing arboreal hues. But what interested me is the shading of the throat.

There are two subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warblers: Audubon’s and Myrtles. Audubon’s have a yellow throat, Myrtles’ throats are white. I’ve seen both kinds of Yellow-rumps in the past, but in winter and spring, it’s the Myrtles I see around here. I thought that the shading might indicate that this one is a juvenile Audubon’s, the yellow coloring just beginning. Yellow-rumps here during winter and lack their breeding plumage, so they’re softer in coloring, less showy than during the spring and summer when they’re attracting a mate. After looking at photos on Cornell’s site, I’ve decided that this one is a Myrtle and probably a juvenile, its adult white throat not quite established.

It’s a cute face, though–and Myrtle or Audubon’s–nothing changes that! Until my Red Oak tree loses its leaves (soon!), the little warblers are hard to see. It’s movement I look for, and I was pleased to follow this one as it darted, hither and thither, in the tree. Once it landed, I trained the camera to its perch.

This one waited in the wings for a dip in the pond, but landed closer to its target as it checked out the surroundings for crafty cats or other dangers. Two years ago I planted a Rough-leaf Dogwood, Cornus drummondii, by my pond and, while still only shrub sized, it’s proven itself as a good stopping-off point for birds going to and from the pond.

Here we are–arrived at the pond and rocking the yellow rump! The yellow dab of feathers, noticeable at a quick glimpse when the birds are in flight, are more challenging to see once the bird lands. Unless they turn just so, I don’t always see their namesake.

I like these three bathing beauties, each with their yellow highlights, under the wings and at the rump.

I think the one at the left is a mature female, mostly because of white streak along her eye and patch of beige across its cheek. The one at the bottom/middle is probably a juvenile female. She looks similar to the first one, but lacks the eye streak and defined beige ear patch. All I know about the one on the right is that she has a yellow butt.

Butter butts. That’s what wacky birders call Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Not that I’m a wacky birder.

Here’s a couple with differing views. The female, looks left and the male, looks right.

The male is definitely not in its breeding colors; his dark eye patch would be more obvious and dramatic. He’s probably another juvenile, spending his winter here as he matures. As much as I like to see the yellow side patches and yellow rumps, I like this shot because none of those spots of butter yellow are visible on either bird. One may appreciate their pretty faces, graceful forms, and dark/light markings.

This adult male Myrtle Yellow-rump Warbler splashed with vigor and fluffed his feathers with fanfare.

While he’s not in full breeding regalia, you can see that his plumage is richer in color than the other birds of these photos, females and juveniles all.

The Yellow-rumped Warblers enjoy the pond, but they also bop along the branches of trees and shrubs, nibbling insects as they go. They’re known as birds who catch insects as they fly (both the birds and the insects). Impressive as their aerial antics are, they’re outmatched by the flycatcher acrobatics of the Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe. One of these has been looping about my garden, diving here, perching there, for several days.

I often see one or two during spring migration, but have never had one in my garden at any other time of year. The maps suggest that Central Texas is in the ‘nonbreeding’ area, bordering the ‘year-round’ region, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m thrilled to see this swooping charmer and even happier when he rests. Then, aside from admiring his flying skills, I can appreciate his good looks.

I hope you find time to go outside, weather permitting, or just look out the window. Even in this dark time of year, as plants go dormant, days grow shorter, and we all hunker down, it’s remarkable how much wildlife activity there is in the garden. That activity wants only observation.

This post ends my garden blogging meme, ‘Wildlife Wednesday’. I’ll still post-n-photograph wildlife in the garden, but not necessarily on a first-Wednesday-of-the-month schedule or as a formalized garden meme, but rather, as I’m inspired.

I hope that hosting this meme was enjoyable and educational for participants and readers alike. I hope that learning how easy and gratifying bringing nature to your own garden inspired some gardeners to abandon dependence on chemicals and limit turf in favor of a healthier ecosystem. How, by gardening with native plants and plants which increase and sustain diversity of life, the novice and experienced gardener helps heal the world.

Thanks for reading!!