Fall Migration Birding in Austin TX

Swainsons Hawks Migration

photo by Heather Valey Copyright 2018

by Heather Valey  (originally appeared on Travis Audubon’s Smoke Signal blog) 

 

Every spring and fall, over 400 species of birds migrate through Texas skies. Most of them embarking on an incredible long-distance flight from their northern breeding areas in spring to their winter homes in South & Central America.   Why such a long arduous journey every season?  Birds migrate in order to move to more agreeable environments with resources for building nests and raising their young in the spring. In the fall they move to where there is more of an abundance of food in the winter.   Other contributing factors motivating this journey include the decreasing amount of light hours in the north and the colder winter weather.

When is fall migration in Texas?

Fall migration in Texas starts as early as July.  You may have noticed that in August you weren’t seeing some of our early spring birds, such as the Purple Martins, Barn Swallows & Golden-Cheeked Warblers.   They had already made their way south toward their over-wintering grounds. Other birds migrate a little later. For example, by late August we start seeing more hawks moving into the area from the north, peaking by the second week of November.  Whooping Cranes generally start their trip from Canada to their wintering ground in Texas around October.   Different species of birds seem to have different environmental and physical factors that motivate them to migrate at different times, so the exact time a species migrates may vary from year to year.

How can you see migrating birds in Austin?

According to Shelia Hargis, President of the Texas Ornithological Association, “There are numerous places around Austin to go see specific types of migration, but I think Hornsby [Bend] is the best place to see several different types of migration – shore bird migration, hawk migration and passerine migration…”  She also recommends Commons Ford Prairie for witnessing hawk & passerine migration.  Also, you can get lucky just by remembering to look up occasionally wherever you are, as you are driving, or working in the backyard or walking in a park.

Is There A Way I can find out what is migrating now?

Yes! As a matter of fact there is! Cornell Scientists created an online tool called BirdCast, that uses weather radar networks to track birds on their migration routes in the spring & the fall.   The map uses near real-time data to forecast bird migration in the US. It is designed to help keep you informed so you know what to expect in the few days ahead, in order to plan your bird watching trips.  To help you learn to read the BirdCast map and use the tool to your benefit, Cornell has created an online “how to” guide.

Fall and spring migration can be a great time to see birds that aren’t normally in our area.  You can go out birdwatching at our local parks or be more of a casual birder looking to the skies.  Technology can help you get a better idea of where and when to look.  Remember to log your migratory bird findings in e-bird and happy birding!

Sources:

Arnold, Keith A., “The Texas Breeding Bird Atlas: Golden-Cheeked Warbler”, Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, txtbba.tamu.edu/species-accounts/golden-cheeked-warbler/

Oder, Tom, “With these maps, you can track migratory birds in near real time”, Mother Nature Network, 22 August 2018, www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/stories/cornell-updated-birdcast-maps-track-bird-migrations

Powell, Hugh, “Here’s How to Use the Migration Forecast Tools From BirdCast”, All About Birds, Cornell University, 3 April 2018, www.allaboutbirds.org/heres-how-to-use-the-new-migration-forecast-tools-from-birdcast/

”The Basics of Bird Migration: How, Why, and Where”, All About Birds, Cornell University, 1 January 2007 www.allaboutbirds.org/the-basics-how-why-and-where-of-bird-migration/

Shackelford, Clifford E., Rozenburg, Edward R. , The Migratory Birds of Texas: Who They Are and Where They Are Going, Fourth Edition,  Texas Parks and Wildlife, 2005, travisaudubon.org/home/wp-conten/uploads/2011/07/migration-and-the-migratory-birds-of-texas-tpwd-publication.pdf

Fun at Focus in Flight Workshop

Roseate Spoonbill - photo by H. Valey

Roseate Spoonbill – photo by H. Valey

On the weekend of April 6th, I drove up to High Island, south of Houston to Houston Audubon’s Smith Oaks Rookery for Houston Audubon‘s first “Flight In Focus” photography workshop.   The rookery had been on my list of places to visit, but when I saw they were having a 2 day photography workshop I decided that this was something I didn’t want to miss.

Speakers at the workshop were Alan Murphy, Trey Williams, Sonny Manley, Clay Taylor from Swarvoski optics, and Joe Smith. Topics ranged from set ups for bird photography, to digiscoping  to urban eagle photography.

The lighting was overcast and foggy almost the whole time, but all of the photo shoots were fun and the talks were great.  Some of the photographer speakers took more of a studio approach to wildlife photography and talked about their setups and lighting while others took more of naturalist approach and only photographed their subjects in natural light and spontaneous settings.  I found it very interesting to hear talks from both camps and it has given me pause to think about my own photography style and philosophy, which I’m sure I will write more about later.

Some of the birds I was lucky enough to see and photograph on High Island that weekend were:  Roseate Spoonbills, Great Egrets and the Double-Crested Cormorant.  The Houston Raptor Center also brought in some of their educational/rescue birds for a photo shoot, which was fun. I’m starting to have mixed feelings about staged photo shoots though… definitely more on that later.

Enjoy the photos!

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I Just Flew In From the North & My Arms Are Tired…

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American Robin – photo credit H.Valey

This past weekend, the air was filled with the songs of Robins and the whistles of Cedar Wax wings.  Thousands of these birds ascended on the Austin area a few days ago.  I don’t think it’s probably a coincidence that it coincided with the polar vortex up north.  Humans dig in somewhere warm when it gets cold, birds can just fly somewhere warmer!  My hiking accomplice and I also noticed alot of Cedar Waxwings… you often see them with Robins so perhaps they decided to ditch the cold up north and join their compatriots for a Texas vacation.

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Cedar Waxwings – photo credit H. Valey

During a hike in the hill country on Sunday we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of Robins.  The song of the birds were so intense at times that I felt like we were in a rain forest. The birds were flitting from tree to tree and hopping on the ground looking for insects.  We noticed that a few we looked at seemed very tired.

This happened a couple years ago as well, when there was a particularly cold spell of weather up north.  A huge group of Robins headed in to Texas, and that time they all landed in my backyard! Well it seemed that way… see the photo below!

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Robins – photo credit H.  Valey

So in most places the Robin is the harbinger of spring, but sometimes in Austin it’s the harbinger of someone else’s winter.

Banding Golden-Cheeked Warblers – Photo Essay

I tagged along on a Golden-Cheeked Warbler bird banding session with biologist Julie Murray from the Travis County Balcones Canyonlands Conservation office in Austin, Texas. The endangered birds are banded and re-sighted every year during breeding season to help scientists understand how many birds are returning each year, how long they live and how big their territories are, among other things.

Below is a photo essay of the banding experience.

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For more information on the BCCP and the Golden-Cheeked Warbler, check out these resources below:

  1. The Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan
  2. The Golden- Cheeked Warbler

Raven Cam at UT Texas

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Raven – photo by H. Valey

In some parts of the US, Ravens are pretty ubiquitous.  Here in Austin their appearance is a bit more rare, but it seems I see more and more of them every year.  Austin is a bird friendly town and in that fashion the Austin UT campus has set up a couple of cool bird cams this spring.  The first one was the Peregrine Falcon cam on the University Texas Tower and now there is a Raven cam.  A nesting pair of Ravens has set up a nest outside of the Texas Advanced Computing Center on campus and you can watch them raise their chicks online while you’re at work. Pretty cool stuff!

 

Up Close with Whooping Cranes

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Whooping Crane in Flight – photo by H. Valey © 2018

Fulton is just outside of Rockport TX, the place that got hardest hit during Hurricane Harvey last summer.  You could still see the signs of the storm.  Tarped roofs and piles of gathered debris were evident pretty much on every street we traveled in Rockport & Fulton.

When we got to the marina, still more signs of storm recovery.  Bait sho

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