Migratory Machinations

My garden enjoyed an extended fall bird migration as the the feathered travelers made their way southward for winter. I didn’t catch photos of most of the migrants I saw, either choosing to simply observe or (more often) lacking quickness in the utilizing of my camera. It’s gratifying to see so many birds resting–if only for a day–and that my garden serves as a respite along their long and dangerous journeys.

Typically, bird watching is more fulfilling during spring migration, as there are not only a reasonable number, but also a greater diversity of birds who temporarily visit my garden from early April, stretching to early June. Historically, fewer migratory birds have come through my garden during fall, though this year, that wasn’t the case. It’s hard to say why there were more migratory birds in September and October: perhaps it’s the drought we’re experiencing, making the urban garden scene a better bet for food and water sources than the open areas of rural Texas. Or maybe it was just the right weather or wind stream pattern that allowed for sufficient numbers on a path that brought them to my garden.

I was fortunate to host a female Black-throated Green Warbler, Setophaga virens, for the better part of a day.

Like most migratory birds (as well as the native birds), it’s the promise of a refreshing bath and cooling drink that lured this cutie in and allowed me to appreciate her beauty.

The first time I saw one of these birds I thought it was the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler, Setophaga chrysoparia, who nests no where else in the world except here in Central Texas. If you click on that link, you’ll see that, at a quick glance and if you’re a novice bird watcher, the mistake is an easy one to make. I’ve never seen a Golden-cheeked, but I’m oh-so glad that the Black-throated greens have seen fit to visit my garden space, even if those visits are ever-so-brief.

I like this cheeky am I not adorable? pose!

I hope she has safely made her way to southern Mexico/Central America and that her winter is spent eating well and resting.

For the last few springs, I’ve seen Nashville Warblers, Leiothlypis ruficapilla, in my garden. They always come as a troop of 4 or 5, never as a single bird, like so many migratory bird species. Nashvilles are feathered friends who enjoy another’s company!

In mid October, I was entertained for most of a week by a group of 5, both males and females, until a strong cold front sent them on their way south.

They’re shy and skittish at first, perching in the trees above and alighting on the plants below and beside the pond before they’re comfortable getting into the pond.

This Firecracker plant, Russelia equisetiformis, well-placed by the pond, serves as both perch and protection, before and after a bath.

Usually, there’s some time sitting on top of the pond rocks, nervously surveying the surrounding area for safety’s sake.

This one is a female,

…and this one is male. How can I tell? Check out the dab of rust-colored feathers topping his little head–it’s guaranteed to charm the ladies, or at the very least, one special lady.

In time, relaxed and ready, they take the plunge! I like these two, canoodling in the bog area.

Isn’t that sweet? Bird love in the bog! Most of my bird visitors favor the bog: the water is shallow, perfect for fluffy, flitty bathing and plants grow for cover from predators.

That said, there’s always a character lurking around, ready to disturb the peace, like this not-a-bird!

This Eastern Fox Squirrel, Sciurus niger, skittered up the rocks and scattered the birds, taking its turn for a drink at the waterfall. When disturbed, the birds disappear for a time, but they come back when all is quiet and they can bathe and drink in comfort.

Migratory season is mostly over. I did see a Nashville Warbler at the pond twice in this past week. Was it a tardy migrant, winging as fast as possible toward its warm winter digs? Or will it stay here until spring fever hits, joining several Yellow-rumped Warblers, Orange-crowned Warblers, and at least one Ruby-crowned Kinglet for bog baths, pond parties, and insect/suet munchies? Whatever they decide to do, they’re all welcome, temporary or permanent: these seasonal birds, along with the year-round resident birds, add their particular beauty to the diversity that is a wildlife garden.

Daddy Downy

Here’s a handsome Downy WoodpeckerDryobates pubescens, enjoying a peanut meal at a feeder in my back garden.  Downy Woodpecker dads are wings-on dads, teaching their offspring the woodpecker skills required for living in trees and finding food.

His offspring, this fledgling Downy practices her tree climbing maneuvers.   Hang on, little Downy!  I think this fledging is a female as she has no suggestion of red at the top of her darling head.

Her tree climbing landed the young one at the top of the limb, ready to survey the landscape and take in some lessons from Dad.

Dad is nearby, ready to teach,

…and deliver a snack.

 

Fledgling Downy has learned well.  I now see her almost daily, high up in the foliage or at the feeder, nibbling peanuts–just like her dad.  Baby had a good teacher and an excellent dad.

Daddy Downy–the best dad any woodpecker could chirp for.  Happy Father’s Day to all great dads who love and take care of their babies!

Mob

No, there isn’t a mob in my garden; no large group of kangaroos have arrived for March in my garden. But there are lots of Cedar Waxwings.  Lots and lots and lots.

A migratory bird that winters in Central Texas, the Cedar Waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum, is gregarious, always as a part of a group, rarely seen alone.  In the last few days, I’ve had more of these birds visit en masse than ever before.

I usually hear them before I see them as they’re rapid, high flyers, and they whistle while they work.

Typically, I see dozens at a time, flying from treetop to treetop in flocks of 10 to 30, vocalizing with their signature shrill calls, flitting in to settle along the branches of my trees,  and maybe, contemplating a dip in the pond. As a group, they’ll swoop down to take the bath and also grab a drink while they’re at it.

Recently, their numbers are in the hundreds and they’re certainly making their presence known:  garden feature-hopping, whistling as they go.

 

This little group (fella at the left notwithstanding–he’s telling the others how it’s done) are head-down, front-facing as they drink from the bog.

And this group, not wanting to follow along with the crowd, strike a similar, but different pose:  head-down and tail-facing.

I wonder if this waxwing is engaging its partners in conversation as to whether front-facing or back-facing is best.

 

Cedar Waxwings are stunning birds.  Soft and elegant tan-to-grey colors their back and wing feathers, morphing to butter yellow bellies.  Dramatic black masks which are rimmed in white, accessorize their jaunty faces.   Atop their lovely heads is a crest, but often it lies flat.

The name ‘waxwing’ comes from the brilliant red tips at the ends the secondary flight feathers, which may be related to attracting mates.  Not all waxwings have these red tips.

The tips of the tail feathers are bright yellow, a well-appointed echo of the yellow belly.

When I first downloaded the photos of these merry birds, I noticed that this individual,

…appears to have orange, rather than yellow, tail feather tips.  If you click on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology link at the beginning of the post, under “Cool Facts” there is a mention that starting during the 1960s, it’s been observed that some birds in Canada and the United States sport orange, rather than yellow, tips on the tails.  Apparently, if a waxwing eats berries from a certain non-native honeysuckle during growth of the tail feathers, the tip will be orange.  Cedar Waxwings winter here and southward, but they breed and raise chicks in the far north of the U.S. and well into Canada, so this orange-tipped Cedar Waxwing must have come across the honeysuckle berry at some point during its adolescence.

Photos don’t adequately capture the exuberance and energy of these flighty birds as they whoosh to the pond from the trees and flap in the water with verve.  Always on the move, they regularly change places and positions with one another, chatting all the while. 

Back and forth they go–tree to pond, pond to tree–eventually settling together along limbs, sociably fluffing and drying with their comrades.  

Then, at some signal I’m not privy to, they dart away with wings aflutter and calls sharp.  Sometimes they circle round again, not having had quite enough of my garden’s offerings, but often, they fly away–as a mob–to their next adventure.

Cedar Waxwings enjoy perching in the trees.  They like to preen and look pretty, and it’s a good time to get a quiet shot of these beauties.  Catching one alone?  That’s a real feat.

Eating fruit almost exclusively, when they decide that it’s time to for a meal, a group of Cedar Waxwings will strip a tree or shrub of berries in a matter of an hour or two.  In my own garden, they eat the berries of the native Possumhaw holly, Ilex decidua and the non-native Burford holly, Ilex cornuta.  I’ve never witnessed it, but many folks in Austin (and elsewhere, I’m told) report seeing drunk Cedar Waxwings after consuming overripe berries.  Tipsy birds might seem comedic, but in fact, waxwings can die because of fermented berries.

Here’s another, less dire, but still obnoxious, result of the berry diet.  Do you see it?

And in this photo.

And in this photo.

These rocks are not polka-dotted, they’re bird poop-dotted, as is a good portion of my back patio and several walkways in my neighborhood.

Perhaps when I’m out, I should don a hat.

Despite the less-than-appreciated output of these birds, I’m thrilled at their visits in winter and early spring. Their high-pitched calls from the sky, their penchant for companionship wherever they go, plus their gorgeous good looks, brings cheer my heart and a smile to my face.