The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Are You Ready for Migrating Songbirds?
by Ro Wauer

Already a few northbound songbirds have been seen in our area of South Texas. The majority of these Neotropical birds have spent the last several months south of the Mexican border, in Mexico, Central America, or some even in South America. And now as day lengths increase and warming temperatures occur throughout North America, they are heading back to their ancestral breeding grounds. Although a few species, such as purple martins, cliff swallows, black-and-white warblers, and such, may stop to nest in our area, the vast majority of the migrating birds only pass through South Texas and continue northward, spreading out all across the country. A few continue as far north as Alaska.

Finding spring migrants represent the very best in birding for those of us who appreciate these amazing creatures. A tiny hummingbird or warbler, only a few ounces in weight, can fly nonstop in the dark of night for 500 or more miles from the tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula to the Texas Coast. Such a feat cannot help but impress even the most non-outdoors person among us. Only birds possess the right combination of feathers, powerful wings, hollow bones, a remarkable respiratory system, and a large strong heart.

What kinds of migrating songbirds can we expect to see in South Texas during the next few months? The earliest species appear in March and the latest may still be passing through our area in early May. Some of the earliest often include those that over wintered in the northern portion of their wintering range, such as in deep South Texas or in northern Mexico. Examples of these early birds can include eastern wood-pewee; great crested flycatcher; Couch’s kingbird; yellow-throated and red-eyed vireos; Tennessee, Nashville, black-throated green, yellow-throated, worm-eating, and hooded warblers; northern parula; and northern and Louisiana waterthrushes; summer tanager; indigo bunting; and orchard and Baltimore orioles.

The largest number of spring migrants usually occurs in early to mid-April, and they often appear in waves, reaching the Texas coast in early to mid-morning. But those that experience a good tailwind during the cross-Gulf flight may continue inland for a considerable distance. The massive waves of Neotropical migrants are most evident when they experience strong headwinds or a Gulf storm. At times like those, they usually turn westward seeking the nearest land, and that means they can appear almost anywhere along the Texas Gulf Coast. And there are times when dozens of migrants can be found resting on oil platforms far out in the Gulf.

When conditions are right, the cross-Gulf migrants usually reach landfall along the upper Texas Coast. Places like High Island and Sabine Woods have a well deserved reputation as excellent places to see an abundance of migrants. Oftentimes the new arrivals are so exhausted from the all-night flight that they can do little more than rest and feed, trying to gather strength to continue their northward journey. At times one can find 100 or more species in a few hours. Some are so exhausted one can actually pick them up and examine them further.

Some of the most colorful of the migrating songbirds are the warblers. And to find two dozen or more warbler species within an acre or so can make a birder out of almost anyone. Favorite species at times like those include blue-winged, golden-winged, chestnut-sided, magnolia, blackburnian, prairie, bay-breasted, cerulean, Kentucky, and Canada warblers. All also are also possible along the Central Gulf Coast. Spring migrant songbirds are most likely among the oak mottes and shrubby areas where they can find an adequate supply of insects, the protein necessary for their continuing migration. Without an immediate food supply, that can be reduced or eliminated by indiscriminate insecticide spraying or habitat clearing, they simply die. It is up to those of us who care about the environment to save what little coastal habitats that still exist.

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