Search Nature Watch

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Winter Visitors

A congregation of Cedar Waxwings

Like many people from northern climates, there are several bird species that arrive in central Texas to spend the winter!  Three of the most notable are the American robin, the Cedar waxing, and the American kestrel.

American Robin, Turdus migratorius

The largest of our thrushes, the well-known American robin is gray-brown above, with a brick-red breast, white belly, and black-streaked white throat.  Like all thrushes, it is one of our best singers (“cheerily cheer-up cheerio!”), and was named by homesick colonists for the robin that occurs commonly across Europe.  The two are only distantly related, but both have red breasts.  Robins withdraw from the northern portion of their range in winter and migrate southward to seek more abundant food supplies.  They winter throughout Texas, but remain to breed primarily in the northern and eastern portions of the state and locally in the mountains of the west.  On their southern wintering grounds here in central Texas, they congregate in huge flocks, feeding together mostly on berries, and roosting en masse in trees at night.  Earthworms are an important food source during their breeding season, and because they forage for worms largely on suburban lawns, they are vulnerable to pesticide poisoning and can be an important indicator of chemical pollution.

Cedar Waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum

Gray-brown overall, with a crest on top of the head, black mask edged in white, and yellow tips on its tail feathers, the Cedar waxwing is a beautiful medium-sized songbird.  Gregarious and often flying in flocks, its calls sound like very high-pitched “bzeee” notes.  The waxwing gets its name from the waxy red appendages found in variable numbers on the tips of the secondary wing feathers of most birds.  Waxwings with orange instead of yellow tail tips began appearing in the US in the 1960s as a result of a red pigment picked up by the birds from eating the berries of an introduced (non-native) species of honeysuckle.  One of the few temperate dwelling birds that are “frugivorous” or specializing in eating fruit, waxwings swallow berries whole.  They can survive on fruit alone for months, and unlike many birds that regurgitate seeds from the fruit they eat, waxwings ingest and then defecate fruit seeds.  They are also vulnerable to alcohol intoxication and even death after eating fermented fruit!     

American Kestrel, Falco sparverius

A robin-sized falcon, the American kestrel is a gorgeous bird of prey with a sharp, hooked bill and talon-tipped feet ideal for hunting.  Sometimes called a “sparrow hawk”, the male kestrel is a rust-colored bird with slate blue wings and an unbarred tail while the female, the larger of the two, sports a barred tail and lacks the slate blue on the wings.  Both possess a white face with two black streaks.  Typically, it is the larger female kestrel that arrives on its wintering grounds ahead of the male, which allows her to select preferred habitats, so when the smaller males arrive they must take secondary locations. They utilize open fields and other grassy areas with perches from where they can watch for prey such as flying insects, bats, mice, small birds and reptiles.  They can hover in mid-air while searching for prey and “kite” against the wind, flying at an appropriate speed facing the wind so they can stay in place.

As you enjoy a brisk winter walk in the neighborhood and surrounding areas, keep an eye out for these common but attractive “winter Texans”!