The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Spectacular Songbirds
by Ro Wauer

A scarlet tanager is one of our most striking birds. Adult males are scarlet red with contrasting coal black wings and tail. A truly spectacular songbird! When a friend recently found one of these birds in downtown Victoria, he was understandably impressed. But there currently are numerous other outstanding songbirds in our neighborhoods, either passing through as northbound migrants or as full-time or summer residents preparing to nest and raise families. While scarlet tanagers are migrants only in our area, the closely related summer tanager often nests. Males are overall rosy red with only faint black streaks on the wings. This songbird prefers tall trees, especially along rivers and in park-like areas. They often are detected first by their robin-like songs and very distinct chips that are loud staccato "ki-ti-tuck."

One of the most colorful of our breeding birds is the little painted bunting, a songster that is surprisingly common in brushy areas from April through most of the summer. Male painted buntings are rather gaudy with their purple-blue head, red breast and rump, chartreuse back, and blackish wings and tail. Females are a subtle grass green color. And they are extremely vocal on the breeding grounds, singing during most of the day, a rapid series of sweet phrases. Almost as colorful is the indigo bunting, with the male's overall indigo blue coloration, although the wings have hints of brown. This songbird is a migrant only in South Texas, but nesting not far to the north. Migrants often appear in small flocks, when both the brilliant males and brownish females can often be found together. First year males often show a weird combination of indigo and brown colors. But that juvenal plumage stage is not unusual in a variety of birds, including tanagers.

This time of year is when we can expect lots of colorful warblers, tiny songbirds that seldom stay with us for long, but often make themselves known by singing full or partial songs. As many as two dozen species of warblers are possible in our neighborhoods, but most sightings are limited to eight or ten species. At least in my yard, Nashville and black-and-white warblers are most likely. While black-and-whites are just that, Nashville warblers possess yellow underparts, a dark brown back, and a gray face with a noticeably white eyering. And they are one of most vocal migrating songbirds, singing a series of thin rapid notes often ending with lower notes.

Some of the other regular migrant warblers to be expected include: The northern parula has a yellow breast that is crossed by a reddish band and two white wingbars against dark gray wings. The black-throated green warbler has a black throat, yellow face, and two white wingbars. The yellow-throated warbler has a yellow breast, black and white facial pattern, blue-gray back and wings with two white wingbars. The yellow warbler is mostly yellow with obvious black eyes, and males possess reddish breast streaks. The yellow-breasted chat also has a bright yellow breast, dark brown upperparts, and a white spectacle; the chat is larger than any of our other warblers. The ovenbird is also larger than most of the other warblers, but easily identified by its streaked breast, brownish upperparts, distinct white eyering, russet crown, and long pinkish legs.

Other warblers that are possible this time of year include blue-winged, golden-winged, Tennessee, chestnut-sided, magnolia, blackburnian, bay-breasted, blackpoll, cerulean, Kentucky, mourning, hooded, and Wilson's. Orange-crowned and yellow-rumped warblers, two species that have overwintered in our area, are probably already moved northward. The Louisiana waterthrush has already passed through. And two additional warblers nest in our area, and already are on their breeding grounds. Prothonotary warblers nest in swampy areas, and Swainson's warblers utilize thickets at a few isolated locations such as Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

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