The Nature Writers of Texas

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

Winter Songbirds Are Starting to Appear
by Ro Wauer

Most of the migrating hummingbirds and many of the other fall migrants have passed our area by late September. The millions of fall migrants are moving southward toward their wintering grounds in Mexico, Central America, and some even into South America. And the majority of the Neotropical birds that nested in South Texas have also moved on, joining the hoards of other southbound migrants. Their departure leaves a vacancy that soon will be filled with a variety of other songbirds. Within a very few days we can look forward to the arrival of our winter residents.

One of our very earliest arrivals will be the fly-catching eastern phoebe, a little perky flycatcher that over winters in our yards and pastures. Loners will spend their winter days perched on post and branches from where they will chase down whatever flying insect passes their way. Then they will return to the same perch, swallow their prey, jerk their tail, and wait for the next passing tidbit. Eastern phoebes are one of our hardiest flycatchers, able to survive the South Texas winters, while the vast majority of the other members of the flycatcher family have gone further south.

Brown thrashers also return in early fall. Their presence is often detected by their distinct call, a sharp spuck and low churr notes. This larger, reddish-backed bird is usually shy, staying in brushy areas and only coming into the open to feed and drink. And they love to bath; most of the sightings in my yard have been at one of my birdbaths. Brown thrashers are long, skinny birds, about robin-length, but with a reddish-brown back and streaked underparts.

Loggerhead shrikes also return to their wintering grounds fairly early. This short-tailed, black-and-white bird with a black mask, has a harsh "shack-shack" call. It prefers open areas where it can perch on a low snag to see prey. Unlike most songbirds, shrikes prey on other birds, as well as various insects and even lizards. They have a habit of impaling their prey, usually hanging them head-down, on a thorn or barb. Their method of storing food allows them to feed at their leisure, a unique feature among songbirds.

Two of the smallest of our winter residents can also appear in September, the house wren and the ruby-crowned kinglet. House wrens love thickets, and often their presence is only detected by their almost constant chatter, like rapid scolding notes. When seen in the open, it is a little, long-tailed, brownish bird, with a buff throat and eyebrows. Its wings and tail are barred with black lines.

Ruby-crowned kinglets are even smaller, and they usually are found in the upper foliage and shrubs, rather than in brush. And it is one of most nervous of songbirds, jittery-like and always moving about. Its small size and nervous behavior often is enough for identification. It has greenish-olive upperparts, paler underparts, and a broken whitish eyering. And when it is excited, it may show a bright red crown patch. It, too, calls constantly, emitting husky "did-it" notes.

Chipping sparrows can also appear in September. Another very little songbird, it is best identified by the adult's reddish crown and grayish underparts and collar. Usually seen in small flocks on the ground, it spends most of its daylight hours searching for seeds. It readily comes to birdseed feeders.

Some of the other early (by mid-October) songbirds to be expected in our neighborhoods include gray catbirds; yellow-rumped and orange-crowned warblers; field, vesper, savannah, Lincoln's, swamp, and white-throated sparrows; Brewer's blackbirds; and American goldfinches. Some of our other wintering songbirds arrive somewhat later, although so much depends upon winter conditions further north as well as the availability of food locally. But birds we usually can expect by November include American robins, cedar waxwings, pine warbler, eastern towhee, LeConte’s sparrows, and pine siskins.

For now, be on the lookout for our very earliest wintering songbirds.

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