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Backyard Birding in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas:
Surrounded by great birding destinations, our favorite patch is still the backyard (or the front), where we've seen more than 270 species of birds. Sit awhile, and watch the river and yard with us!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Spring Fling

On spring nights, thousands and thousands of songbirds are aloft, streaming north as we sleep, miraculously migrating long distances from wintering forests, streams, and grasslands of Central and South America to their summer homes in North America. Most of these tiny travelers pass on by in the night without our ever seeing them.  I've heard that if you look at the full moon with binoculars you can sometimes see them.  And a few years ago an ornithologist put microphones on the roof of the local high school to record the flight calls of migrating dickcissels. But most people are unaware of the magnitude of life passing not that far above our heads as we lie in our beds.  

If you are lucky enough to live in South Texas, you might wake up one morning after strong south winds have changed to the north, and find your yard alive with tired but hungry migrants that didn't just fly on by.   Hundreds of warblers, buntings, tanagers, grosbeaks, and thrushes are sometimes grounded because of adverse weather.  We call these occasions, when north winds or rain stop the migrating birds, "fallouts." 

I don't exactly wish for fallouts, or "drop days," because their very existence mean  that thousands of birds have been so stressed they must stop their travels until conditions are more favorable.  But  I love the visitors that drop into my yard.  Early this week the wind changed, temperatures dropped to a reasonable coolness, and the migrants dropped in.  

Suddenly I could find Baltimore Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Scarlet Tanagers bathing all together at the saucers.  Without a fallout, I would find migrants in April and May, but not in such lovely, colorful, amazing numbers, each beautiful spot of color bringing out the  beauty of the others.

Early Tuesday and Wednesday mornings my birding friends headed for the World Birding Center and "warbler lots" on South Padre Island, where the birder-to-bird ratio is about twenty to one.  I just walked out to the front yard and sat under a cedar elm tree.

At first I sat in my camouflaged chair-blind, but soon I realized that the birds were not at all shy and I could sit back by the shrubbery in a regular lawn chair and survey more of the yard and the birds that were flying, bathing, and feeding in it.

In the photo to the left, a resident Northern Cardinal looks slightly askance at the crowd of visitors invading his yard.  On the top saucer is a Summer Tanager, probably a first year male.  Splashing vigorously at mid-level are a female Baltimore Oriole and female Indigo Bunting.  At the bottom a green female Painted Bunting finds shallow water.

Don't you love photos of splashing bathers?  Here's a clearer view of the submerged two:

[For good measure, I'll add another image of a seriously intense solo bather,  another spring migrant.  Can you tell what it is?]

Right!  It's a male Indigo Bunting that stopped by the yard in April. The color is gorgeous. (I'm tempted to get out my Color Snap app.  See this post for some more coloring fun. ) I don't know if the bunting's lighter tint is because it's earlier in the season or if the lighting makes it look different.  Usually Indigo Buntings look darker blue to me.  I have read that the color of Indigo Buntings is a function of light refraction  on black feathers rather than the pigmentation of the feathers themselves. In other words, the feathers are not really blue but black.  (I just looked this up to make sure what  I was saying was right and found an article that explains it clearly here.)

All buntings are beautiful, even the less colorful females and young males.  But it's the Painted Bunting that makes many people, birders or not,  catch their breath. Whenever someone starts to say,  "The bird I'd really like to see is...", I can usually complete the sentence for them:  Painted Bunting.  Like Indigo Buntings, they are mostly spring migrants here, though they occasionally breed in south Texas.  (A female Painted Bunting and a brown Indigo Bunting also spent the winter with us this year. I've seen a Varied Bunting in the yard just once, in 2002 on the day of the Big Sit in October.)

Buntings are not the only Spring stunners that visited us in large numbers this week. When I think of a fallout, I think of warblers.  A five-warbler day I consider exciting, but on  Tuesday alone we had twelve warbler species bathing and flittering around the front yard.  (Since the wind was strong and cool from the north, most birds and I avoided the back yard. )

The stunning bird at the top of this post is a Bay-breasted Warbler.  I don't see them every spring, but this week we had several, bathing and drinking at the baths and eating  berries of the fiddlewood and brasil trees.   I like these inquisitive-looking little guys.

The most flittery of the warblers are American Redstarts.  Their color and movement remind me of butterflies.  The tail pattern makes these guys unmistakable whether its the black and red male or the more subtle yellow and brown female. 

I have more warbler photos to show but I think I'll go ahead and post these.  I'll add a postscript tomorrow morning--unless the spring migration show continues into the weekend.  In that case, I'll be sitting in the yard.


Wanda..... said...

What an assortment of visitors you have. Some of these have arrived back to our property. The Wood Thrush always arrives within the same 4 day period each year. The Grosbeak and Indigo Bunting have returned to our feeders and the Eastern Bluebirds are nesting but I haven't spotted a Tanager yet.

Enjoyed your post of you enjoying the bird baths!

Grizz………… said...

Wow! You sure have a colorful crowd. What a treat! And you're right about indigo buntings not having blue feathers; it is just a trick of refracted light. In fact, there are no blue feathers on any bird—just a sort of steel-gray to charcoal that changes the way the light (and thus the color) appears.

Loved this post.

texwisgirl said...

those are fantastic shots. you added a lot of good information in this post too. really enjoyed it!

eileeninmd said...

WOW, you get to see all the great warblers there. I am envious of your Painted Buntings too. Great photos and I love the bath bird set up. Great idea.

Kay said...

your tanagers must be on the way--we haven't seen one for two days.They may be landing at your place today!

Thanks for the added info! You are a wealth of knowledge (and have your own beautiful blog! I love to visit it.

Glad you liked it. I'll add part three soon!

I use whatever I have to add more water features. The saucers attract smaller birds. A couple of days ago I added pea gravel to one of them to make it even shallower.

Thanks, everyone, for stopping by!

Suz said...

oh be still my heart!