Marvelous Migration

Spring bird migration is ongoing in my gardens, birds visiting as they wing their way north to their breeding grounds. I usually observe these far-flung-feathered-friends at or near my pond in the back garden; it’s a draw for these weary travelers and they love to splash. Near the pond are are several small trees/large shrubs where birds (both migratory and resident) take refuge when startled, or hop through, nibbling at whatever they find on foliage and limbs. The pond and garden beckons, so the migratory birds visit–sometimes for a couple of days, often only for a brief time.

The migratory birds don’t typically spend time at the feeders, but occasionally, that’s the main focus of their interest. This seems the year of the Red-winged Blackbirds, Agelaius phoeniceus. I’ve never seen so many in my gardens and they’ve never stayed around for so long. I observed a handful of males and lots of females. I usually hear these birds, their melodic, high-pitched call crystal clear, before I see them. They’re mostly gone now, but while they visited, they were interested in feeding.

I’ve never been successful at capturing the stunning red and yellow markings under the wings of the males–until this spring. This guy was on the prowl, trying to impress a gal! He fluffed his feathers, the bright spots shone, the camera clicked!

That red against the rich, velvet black is swoon-worthy!

This was the object of the handsome male’s interest; she’s good-looking too, if less interested in him than he was in her. She ambled through the garden, seed-eating as she skillfully maneuvered away from the amorous male.

I think he finally gave up his courting attempt. A couple of honeybees kept him company on the water source, while the rejected male soothed his bruised ego with a cool drink and bath.

Probably my favorite of the migratory birds are the Lincoln’s Sparrows, Melospiza lincolnii. If not the flashiest of birds, they are nevertheless elegant in marking and form. Additionally, they have a line of feathers on their heads that stick up, suggesting birdie mohawks! They’re shy little things, zipping through the garden’s foliage, successful at not being seen. I have learned to recognize their call, and if I’m patient, sometimes catch them in a contemplative moment.

A truly flashy bird is the male Summer Tanager, Piranga rubra. Every spring, I see several in late April and early May. They hang out in the back garden where the beehives are located and hunt honeybees. Tanagers are known as bee and wasp hunters, catching the insects on the wing. This shot of an adult male with a honeybee snack was a dumb-luck photo. The tanager and I are thrilled with the capture, the poor bee probably less so!

A week or so later, I heard another Tanager calling and saw this juvenile male, also hunting near the hives, his yellow and red coloring easy to spot in the leafy Mountain Laurel. He was also successful in honeybee snacking. During the tanagers visits, I saw only one adult female, but could never get a clear photo of her. The females are a rich, golden yellow and are just as fascinating to watch as their male counterparts.

A male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Pheucticus ludovicianus, spent a couple of days going between my garden and my SIL’s garden. Cornell Lab of Ornithology shows their migration ranges from most of Texas (excepting far West Texas), through the eastern half of the U.S. They breed in the Great Lakes region, northeast, and Canada. Most years I see one or two, but I wouldn’t mind if more hung out for a while.

My new, full-sun front garden has proven to be another safe place for the migratory birds to spend time and eat. There isn’t a water source in this garden, but the native plant growth is welcoming for food and safety. Another bashful, super-flitty little warbler is the Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas, and they’re abundant in the front garden this spring. Hard to catch perching still, this male stayed long enough in my Desert Willow for me get a shot. I love the male’s rakish mask, he looks like a daredevil bird! As I write this post, there are two couples bopping around in my front garden, dashing through the plants, eating small insects as they go, sneakily avoiding the gardener and her camera.

It’s been a good year to see Painted Buntings, Passerina ciris. Sightings over several weeks have allowed regular viewing of this most beautiful bird. This male wouldn’t cooperate and show me all of his colors, or the whole of his cute face, but I still like the shot of him resting in the tree after a bath.

His mate was more willing to be out in the open and spent time fluffing her feathers on the rocks bordering the pond after her bath, camera and human notwithstanding!

Another female Painted Bunting perched for a time while I was Yellowthroat watching. I couldn’t decide which photo I liked the best: her good side,

…or her other good side!

This shot is less clear, but demonstrates the magnificent colors of this gorgeous male. My cat, Lena, was watching him through our front window, no doubt wishing she could say a feline “hi” and maybe relieve him of his stunning plumage. That’s why she’s an indoor cat!

I’ve only seen one Nashville Warbler, Leiothlypis ruficapilla, this spring, which is unusual. I like these tiny, busy birds and they’re fond of the bog section of the pond. This fella is identified by his rusty cap a and white eye-ring. I hope more Nashvilles come through the garden to rest as they have a long way to travel. Their non-breeding area is in Central America and they nest in Canada.

One White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys, spent several days noshing on fallen safflower seeds. It hung out with the White-winged Doves, who didn’t object to its presence. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology map, White-crowns’ nonbreeding area encompasses Central Texas, but I’ve only seen them during spring migration. He definitely needed to fuel-up; his breeding grounds are in the northern most part of Canada and Alaska and it’s a long flight.

I was thrilled that a flock (gaggle? pack? gang? murder?) of Baltimore Orioles, Icterus galbula, spent a couple days between SIL’s and my gardens. Coincidentally, I happen to have some oranges, which is great because they love oranges. There were several males and females, adults and juveniles, each one gorgeous!

They adore oranges! They also enjoy grape jelly, though I don’t have any of that to offer. I don’t own an official orange feeder, but I stick the cut orange pieces on the cylinder feeder and on nails that I’ve hammered into our back fence. The birds seem satisfied with their treat.

Female Baltimores aren’t the orange-n-black-n-white show stoppers like the males, but are eye-catching birds nonetheless.

Orioles are adept at getting into the sweet spots of oranges with those pointed beaks.

Another of the sparrows tricky to identify is this Clay-colored Sparrow, Spizella pallida. This isn’t a great shot as these petite birds feed on seeds in the undergrowth, with lots of interfering plant material. They’re only in the clear as they wing swiftly upward to hide in trees or taller shrubs. I’ve seen several of these, usually feeding in pairs.

Like most sparrows, their colors are often considered drab, but I find the subtle colors and markings quite lovely.

I’ve had quick glimpses of other migratory birds, too, including one Black and White Warbler, a couple of Orchard Orioles, and an itsy-bitsy yellow thing that was too fast for me to identify. Birds are quick, bird watchers (at least this one) aren’t always so quick. It’s about halfway through migratory season, so there’s still plenty of time to observe the remarkable birds.

This weekend, Cornell Lab of Ornithology sponsors its annual Global Big Day of bird watching. Birders all over the world–serious and casual–will spend a few minutes (or a few hours) noting the birds they’ve seen. Participating doesn’t take much time, and it’s fun, educational, and it helps science and those who study birds. What’s not to love about that? Click on the above link to find out how to participate and become part of Team Bird!

Happy backyard birding!

Juvenile Summer Tanager

Winter Birds

As spring is almost upon us and wildlife is ever more active, I realize that it’s been a while since I’ve published a variety-of-birds post. I’m still an active Project Feederwatch participant and remain interested in the urban bird population here in Austin, especially those who spend time in my gardens. I haven’t taken as many photos of birds as I typically do during winter as cataract surgery with down-time afterwards, followed by a gardening year’s worth of winter pruning has kept me busy and away from the camera. But avian antics are ongoing and I’ve caught a few of those to share.

For the first time in several years, I’ve enjoyed the presence of more than just one Yellow-rumped Warbler, Setophaga coronata and one Orange-crown Warbler, Leiothlypis celata. These charming song birds over-winter in warmer climates of North America and I always have at least one of each hanging out in my garden. This winter, I’ve observed as many as four Yellow-rumps together, all nibbling nicely under the peanut feeder. I should have grabbed the camera, but opted to simply watch and appreciate. Mostly, it’s been two or three, zooming around the garden, perching in the trees and chasing off competitors. One in particular–this guy,

…is the self-appointed Badass Bird King of the Garden, chasing the other Yellow-rumps and Orange-crowns away from “his” feeder. The little stinker dominated the icicled suet feeder during the ice storm in January.

Lots of birds were active during the ice storm and I made certain that they had plenty of seeds during those cold days. I also dripped outdoor faucets so water remained available.

This Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, safflower-seed-in-beak, brightened those dull days of ice. All of last year, two different Cardinal couples were regular visitors to my garden, though both couples nested elsewhere. So far this year, I see only one male and one female.

Both common woodpecker species show up for their daily dose of peanuts. This male Downy Woodpecker, Dryobates pubescens, comes rain or shine, warm or cold. I haven’t seen the female in a while; is she already on the nest? I can only tell them apart as the female lacks the red hat that the male sports so handsomely.

Year-round there are always plenty of chatty House Finches in my garden. The House Finch, Haemorhous mexicanus, ranges throughout the U.S., Mexico, and parts of Central America. They may be common birds, they’re fun to watch and are, wings down, the most talkative of any of my resident birds.

This couple didn’t mind dining amongst the icicles. Their favorite food are safflower seeds, but they also eat sunflower seeds and sometimes, peanuts.

Like the Yellow-rumped Warbler, the Orange-crowned Warbler, Leiothlypis celata over-winters here in Central Texas. Both Orange-crowns that have spent winter in the garden are females; they don’t have the orange “crown” of the male. Males flash their crowns to impress females, establish territory, and warn predators. I really like this tiny bird. It’s not as colorful as many other warblers, but it’s lovely to observe as it flits through shrubbery or in trees looking for insects and takes offerings from the peanut or suet feeder. Look at that sweet face!

In these next two photos, you can see bits of yellow underneath the tail feathers on the Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Birders have affectionately nicknamed Yellow-rumped Warblers Butter Butts because of these yellow feathered bums. This winter I hadn’t made much effort to photograph the yellow rumps, but before these cuties migrate north to their breeding grounds in the central part of the U.S. and southern Canada, I really should snag a shot of a butter-colored butt.

Of course I should!

One last showy resident bird, the Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata, is noisy, gregarious, and typically I see seven to ten of these characters everyday, snitching the peanuts-in-the-shells that I put out each morning at sunrise. Later in the day, they settle for the shelled peanuts and sunflower seeds–and spend time yelling at other birds.

The Eastern Screech Owl couple were in the garden until their nest box was raided. I suspect that a Grey Fox (I’ve spotted one, or more, in our neighborhood) is the egg thief. I grieved for the couple’s loss, but they started their family very early this year and still have plenty of time for another clutch. I hoped they might return our nest box, but so far, except for two days, mama owl hasn’t chosen to spend time in our nestbox, trying it out for her next family. I doubt that they’ll return to our garden this year and it’s likely they’ve found another, safer place to raise their chicks. I wish them all the best–but I’ll miss watching them.

Spring is on its way and change is inevitable. Migratory birds have begun their movement northward, local birds are wooing and nesting. Winter, the dormant time of year, sees the garden active with birds, but spring brings new life and the promise of a future.

Pond Party

It’s time for a party in the pond! At least the Cedar Waxwings, Bombycilla cedrorum, think so.

On a roughly every-other-year cycle, these winter migratory birds swoop into the garden, always as part of a large group. They gab, preen, and fluff in the trees, and splash and sip at the pond.

The second bird from the right looks like it might be sticking out its tongue. In fact, like many birds, waxwings scoop their beaks into water, then lift their heads to swallow. The photo simply captured the scoop-with-tongue-engaged-before swallowing.

Cedar Waxwings are beautiful birds and a joy to observe. Their plumage is soft beige with blue-grey shading, complemented by a buttery yellow tummy. Wing tips are dabbed in brilliant red in one spot and sunny yellow in another. A jaunty black mask completes their avian dress, highlighting bright eyes with a dramatic dash of white eye liner. The mask suggests a mischievous, rakish look. Sociable and flighty, it’s rare to see one waxwing on its own, though it does happen. They usually fly and perch in large groups, singing together with high-pitched calls. I usually hear them before I see them and I love that sound.

The tail feathers of Cedar Waxwings are tipped in bright yellow, except on some birds whose tail tips are orange. If a young waxwing eats enough berries from a non-native honeysuckle species, its tail tip will be orange, rather than the typical yellow. Orange-tipped waxwings were first seen in the 1960s and are fairly common. In the photo below, you can see the tail feather of a bird (or more accurately, part-bird…) to the left. Its companion has the “normal” yellow. I think both are fetching.

Cedar Waxwings will pop in for group visits and splashes in the baths for the next month or so. Then, they’ll wing their way northward to their breeding grounds in northern U.S. and southern Canada. I hope to see Cedar Waxwings in their breeding area one day, but until then, they’re most welcome to enjoy their winter vacations at my home.