Spring Greening, Birds Winging

My garden has greened-up and color-wowed during these sumptuous spring days, but adding to that beauty are the migratory birds who are daily visitors. Their stop overs in my garden are unpredictable: some visits last more than a day, the migrants fitting in well with the native birds at the pond or baths. Other visits are ephemeral, with a merest flash of bright color or unusual flight pattern. Migratory birds are fleeting in the garden as they hurry northward to meet summer’s breeding season. Both spring and fall migration have become a fun and instructive time of year for me as a backyard birder. I’ve become (somewhat) adept at recognizing that rarer movement–different from the my familiar year-round avian buddies–which means an unusual visitor has landed in the garden.

I’ve seen the odd Western Kingbird, Tyrannus verticalis, around Austin, but never in my own garden. This lovely, sunshiny bird was hunting insects, probably honeybees, but it could have been eating any kind of flying insect. This bird is a flycatcher sort and dines mostly on insects, though will eat some fruit. Many birds require insects in their diets, which is yet another reason to limit or eschew the use of insecticides. Insects are beneficial for all sorts of reasons, there’s usually no need to kill.

The western half of the US, including Texas, is the breeding ground for Kingbirds and they winter in the southern part of Mexico and Central America. While this was my first garden Kingbird, I certainly hope it won’t be the last.

Each spring I’m fortunate to enjoy short visits from America’s most colorful native bird, the Painted Bunting, Passerina ciris. This week, three showed up, two males and a female, all flitting around the pond. This guy enjoyed his bath and posed for his admirers!

Pretty front view:

Pretty back view:

I haven’t yet snapped a photo of the female, lime-popsicle in feathers and skittish in personality. She hung out in the mostly-defoliated trees and noshed at the peanut feeder. In past years, I’ve seen buntings nibbling at Mexican Feathergrass, Nassella tenuissima and munching seeds of Lyreleaf Sage, Salvia lyrata. Buntings are mostly seed eaters, as the strong, slightly curved bill suggests.

Austin lies within their breeding range, but I’ve only ever seen Painted Buntings during breeding season. I know that bird lovers north of Central Texas enjoy observing these beauties throughout summer. Alas, they are strictly a spring treat for me.

I missed the bathing of the second male, but caught him fluffing and sunning and being generally gorgeous in the tree just above the pond.

It’s been several years since I’ve seen a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Pheucticus ludovicianus in my garden, but this fella was a charmer, looking here and there, curious about the feeders and alert to other bird activity. Grosbeaks fly long distances, wintering in southern Mexico and South America and breeding in the northern part of the Midwest and into Canada. No wonder this guy needed a rest!

I’ve seen the less colorful, but still attractive female Grosbeaks in my garden for the last two years, but I was thrilled to see the stunning male. He stood out when he landed at the top of a swing beam, then decorated the Red Oak tree with scarlet, black and white. Grosbeaks eat a variety of foods: insects of all sorts, berries and fruits, and plant matter. The males are equals in nest building and parent partners to their mates. They guard their territory aggressively.

What a cute face!

This male looks northward; he has a long way to go before he chooses a mate and creates a family with her.

Birds-n-blooms are garden delights–check out Anna’s Wednesday Vignette for more garden musings.

Red-n-Black

In my garden, red-n-black doesn’t lack–in bird colors. It’s that time of year, when the colorful migratory birds wing through Texas and (lucky me!) some visit my garden.

In early April, I always see one or more Summer Tanagers, Piranga rubra, who show up to snack on honeybees and native bees. These scarlet hunters are adept at catching the bees on the wing as both birds and bees flit through the garden.

If you look closely at this striking adult male, you’ll see something in his beak–it’s a honeybee.

In this shot, you can see the wings of the bee meal, the red menace in the process of whacking the hapless bee against the branch, effectively killing the bee and making it easier for the tanager to remove the stinger. That’s probably a good idea, considering that the bird is going to have the bee in its beak and down its gullet.

The snack is ready for the eating! I was able to capture these shots because my poor Red oak trees are late in leafing out after the snow/ice storm in February and is lacking in leafy lushness.

In a more colorful photo, the gorgeous guy perches in the freeze damaged, but partially foliaged, Mountain Laurel.

No meal is complete without a complementary aperitif, and what better drink to go with honeybee meal than pond water?

Or, perhaps it was just time to take a bath!

The brief April visits from this species is typically in the form of adult females and juvenile males, who are just as beautiful as this year’s male: golden feathers for the female and splotchy red and yellow for the youngster. Mr. Male was only here for a matter of minutes; I hope more of these tanager treats show up in my garden.

Another annual spring migratory visitor are Red-winged Blackbirds, Agelaius phoeniceus. I have a tough time catching these stunning birds as they’re quick with their seed and peanut eating, plus they fly off at the slightest movement. I was lucky to snap a photo of this handsome chap as he enjoyed a sip at the bar.

The male Red-winged Blackbird is a velvety, deep black, with underwing highlights of deep red and rich yellow. Their underwing colors are more visible when the bird is in flight, but significantly more challenging to photograph. But I’m content with this capture of his profile of midnight black, with bits of cheery color, and bright eye to complete the bird package.

Bird stories, garden stories–get your fill by popping over to Anna at Wednesday Vignette. Happy reading!

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!!