The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Early Spring Days Means Early Wildflowers, Birds and Butterflies
by Ro Wauer

Although we all know that there is a good chance that the Golden Crescent will still experience some really cold and blustery days before spring truly arrives, it is very pleasant to sit back and enjoy these pre-spring conditions. My viburnum shrubs already are in flower, and the groupings of tiny white blooms are attracting a variety of nectaring insects. Besides the numerous bees, gray hairstreak, dusky-blue groundstreaks, checkered-skippers, and a few other butterflies are taking advantage of these early nectar sources.

Our resident birds also are responding to the early spring conditions. Although bird activity is largely the result of increasing day lengths, they readily react to sunny days. Birdsong increases significantly during these warming periods. And there is no more eager songster than the northern cardinal. The bright red males and paler females have taken center stage, singing their loud and throaty “wheer wheer wheer” songs. The Carolina wrens seem to compete very well with their “tea-kettle” or “wheedle” songs. And the bell-like calls of the tufted titmice and the “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” songs of our Carolina chickadees are all part of the backyard chorus.

Red-shouldered hawks have also become more active, flying about and calling their distinct shrill calls, a screaming and drawn out “kee yar.” Since this neighborhood raptor usually maintains a set territory year-round, I suspect that on warm days they already are inspecting previous nesting sites. And the adult male that often sits on a tree within easy viewing distance from my house, appears to already be in breeding condition.

Migrants have not yet begun their northward movement, although there seems to be considerable restlessness in those species that are with us only during the winter months. For instance, eastern phoebes and yellow-rumped warblers are far more active than usual. If our warm weather continues, it would not surprise me if some of these individuals begin to drift northward. Maybe, like some songbirds, they could move out but return with the next cold front. Oftentimes for some species there is almost a tidal response.

There also are a few species that overwinter in the greater Golden Crescent area, wandering about in search for adequate food supplies, and are now rechecking sites they visited previously. One of the best examples of these birds is the American robin. Although robins were present in my yard during November and early December, they moved elsewhere for a number of weeks, but have now returned in small flocks. Probably one of the major attractants in my yard is the ground-level birdbaths. Robins love to bathe. And cedar waxwings, also avid bathers, usually appear at about the same time.

It is always interesting to guess when the first purple martins will appear in our area. Although the earliest visitors usually are reported first along the Gulf coast, more inland visitors can arrive as early as mid-February. Will our changing weather patterns mean that martins will appear at our inland martin houses much earlier?

And what about the vast array of other spring migrants? Will many of those species reach South Texas earlier than usual? It would not surprise me if the majority of the northbound migrants appear earlier this year. I already am looking forward to seeing some of our more colorful Neotropical songbirds. Their marvelous spring songs are one of our most welcome signs of spring.


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