The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, October 05, 2003

Winter Birds are Arriving
Ro Wauer, October 5, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

With the demise of summer, many of our wintertime birds are arriving on territories that they will utilize until spring. Although many of the bird species, currently in our neighborhoods that eventually will remain over-winter, are only migrants passing through. But there are at least three species that already have taken up territories that they will frequent all winter. For me, these three species - American kestrel, belted kingfisher, and loggerhead shrike - are good indicators of the coming winter season.

All three of these birds generally are well known, and they can normally be found in numbers throughout South Texas all winter. And American kestrel and loggerhead shrike may even nest in our area in small numbers. But finding them on the same wintering grounds that they use year after year is a pretty good indication that they are back. In the case of the kestrel, the vast majority of the early birds are females. It is the larger female American kestrel that typically arrives on its wintering grounds ahead of the male. Its early arrival allows it to select preferred habitats, so when the smaller males arrive they must take secondary locations. They sometimes attempt to displace the larger female, but rarely succeed. She utilizes open fields with perches from where she can watch for prey. He often frequents grassy areas, such as road rights of ways; we therefore find more males on roadside utility lines. He is the brighter of the two. Male kestrels are gorgeous birds with a rusty back and tail and slate blue wings, while the female is less colorful and lacking the bluish wings. Both possess a white face with two black streaks. And both also are able to hover in mid-air while searching for prey. They also kite against the wind, flying at an appropriate speed facing the wind so they can stay in place.

Belted kingfishers rarely are found away from water areas where they hunt for prey such as frogs, fish, small snakes, and even insects when necessary. They, too, perch on utility lines and poles, when those sites offer views of water hunting grounds. When a prey is found, they quickly dive onto their prey, sometimes becoming totally submerged before "flying" out with their catch clutched tightly in their heavy bill. In cases when a large prey species has been speared, they are able to flip it into the air and catch it so it can be swallowed headfirst. Extremely large prey may stick out of the bill until it is slowly digested and swallowed. Belted kingfishers are mostly blue and white birds, although the female also has a rusty bellyband. And they also have a loud, dry rattle call that can hardly be ignored from up close.

The third bird considered an indicator of winter is the loggerhead shrike. It is only half the size of a kestrel or kingfisher, but it is a very tough character. One look at its rather short, stout appearance is likely to convince anyone that it is one serious bird. It is one of the very few songbirds that is able to capture prey as large or even larger than itself. Although less than eight inches in length, it sometimes preys on larger mockingbirds. It is also known as "butcher-bird," because of its predator habits. Males actually impale their catch on thorns or barbed wire, their method of storing prey and also a way of showing their prowess to female shrikes. And their call is also distinct, a harsh, high-pitched rattle.

There are many other birds that will be appearing very soon in our neighborhoods that will remain for the winter, but for me at least, none are better indicators of the coming winter than the American kestrel, belted kingfisher, and loggerhead shrike. Each in its own way offers a welcome diversion from the abundant migrants passing us by.

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