Spring! Migration! Game-On!

SWK

Mother Nature gives us many gifts!  Everyday, her bounty is all around us if we take notice.  The cycle of the seasons is one of the most amazing and constant possessions of nature.  Man, for eons has marked life by these natural rhythms.  Nature’s children have imprinted instincts that are tuned heedfully to the seasons and this cadence of life.  One spectacle of the changing season is the migration of birds worldwide.  If you really studied what is known of bird migration, you would be awed!  In fact, despite the fact that seasonal migration is as old as time, the real facts have only recently began to emerge from the world of science.  Bird migration has represented a mystery to man, yet to those in-tune with natural rhythms, an awareness has existed for thousands of years.

The master of the seasons and migration is our beloved sun.  Of course, other factors come into play, but the sun and our little blue planet’s rotation are the primary drivers.  Suffice to say that as we spin around in a slight wobble, that great giver of light, the sun, triggers massive change in nature through the course of every year.  Almost all the creatures of earth are tightly tuned to this annual cycle.  Genetic imprinting of thousands of generations motivate many behaviors of God’s creatures.  And of course, my favorite subject, the birds, are not exempt!  All is a symphony that plays out in four parts offering man quite a show.

Here in the Coastal Bend, it is absolutely Spring!  In fact, the mesquite trees bloomed on Live Oak Peninsula in late January.  These blooms signal, no more freezes for the area.  As always, the mesquite blooms were right again.  Every day since, those subtle signs of Spring have emerged.  We have had a very wet winter and as of now, the wild flowers are beginning what will be an explosion of color.  My best guess is we are within 10-14 days of an absolute outburst of wild flower beauty.  Another gift from dear old Mother Nature.  In the avian department, much has been happening with this turn from Winter to Spring along the Gulf Coast!  Slowly but surely over the past 30 – 45 days, any observant birder has seen the unfolding of a great spectacle.

The first signs I noticed were the change over of plumage with the Laughing Gulls.  Winter plumage quite quickly changed to the breeding plumage, especially for the males.  Some birds have left, and new species are arriving daily with onslaught of the Spring migration.  For myself, this is one of the high points of nature’s cycle.  Spring migration offers daily entertainment in the Coastal Bend if one takes the time to enjoy.  On 10 March 2015, a sure-fire sign appeared that Spring is game-on appeared in Rockport – the Swallow-tailed Kite drifting north.  I saw two of these beauties that day for the first time this season.  Several other birding friends around town saw the same birds and noted to our community this arrival.  Not the greatest distance flyer, the Swallow- tailed Kite does cover some serious mileage!  For example, there are some species that winter in the far southern reaches of Chile and breed in the summer near the Arctic Circle.  Now that is quite a journey, twice each year, my friends.

But back to our friend, the Swallow-tailed Kite.  According to science, the entire US population of this beautiful bird are migratory.  Here is where it gets interesting.  These science folk are not completely sure as of 2015 the routes and destination at the southern end.  It is believed as of now that these birds winter from Southern Mexico into Northwestern South America.  Summer breeding of the US population of these birds is in Florida and a couple other points along Atlantic just north of Florida.  Thanks to citizen science which report sightings in near real-time, it is known that the Kite does not fly across the Gulf of Mexico.  Instead they drift mainly over land around the Gulf of Mexico and other short land hops headed to wetlands of the Southeastern US.  They prefer swamps, lowland forests along with freshwater and brackish marshes living in loose colonies nesting near each other typically.

Here is a Species Map of the Swallow-tailed Kite which shows sighting (year-around for past 10 years) that illustrates their range both north and south.  This map is courtesy of the eBird system of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology  (http://www.ebird.org). Another great tool for monitoring migration from Cornell Lab is BIRDCAST (http://birdcast.info).  Check it out!

SWTK_Sightings

Science has hinted that the range of the Swallow-tailed Kite may be expanding northward thanks to climate change.  However, I believe that these beautiful birds are wanderers too.  The entire US population does not breed each year, so am thinking they are just tourists along the Atlantic corridor. Have seen annual appearances of this bird at the epicenter of American Birding, Cape May, New Jersey each summer as well.  And of course, this is quite a bit north of the traditional breeding range!

So, Spring is here!  The Swallow-tailed Kite and hundreds of other species are on the move.  Many of these birds will pass through Aransas County and the Coastal Bend.  About a month from now, the trees will look as if they are decorated for Christmas with colorful warblers and other birds. Phenomenon such as migratory fallout may or may not occur along the Texas Gulf Coast.  I think this year looks potentially good for a fallout due to rain.  But, the cool fronts have moderated and do not think strong north winds will ground the birds this Spring.  I may be dead wrong with my prediction. Because Mother Nature is ALWAYS full of surprises!

And a saying I have adopted along the trail which is “My favorite weather is bird-chirping weather” comes to life with the spectacle and color of Spring!