Making The Turn

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“I have an affection for those transitional seasons, the way they take the edge off the intense cold of winter, or heat of summer.”  ― Whitney Otto

Here we stand in South Texas at the real crossroads of the passing fall season and the impending winter. Of course, winter here typically is not something that makes life so uncomfortable as it is in the northern climes. However, we do see the by-products of a more remarkable fall and winter season through the ever-changing cycle of nature. Birds that spent the breeding season near the Arctic Circle pass through South Texas heading to their winter destinations for example. Just like the Winter Texans that migrate to the Texas Gulf Coast for the season, many of the winged ones make their move throughout the flyways of the world.

There are a number of the North American birds that choose South Texas and the Gulf Coast for their winter grounds. Largest group of which, are the Redhead ducks of the Central Flyway. Most spend the summer in the Northern Plains and Southern Canada across a vast area. Yet for some reason, 70 – 75% of the population comes to Aransas County area for the winter. Thousands upon thousands of them move around in the bays of the Coastal Bend. Am still amazed how so many of these ducks from a widespread breeding range end up in a relatively small area. A giant flock rafting on Copano Bay is quite the sight.

The famous last flock of Wild Whooping Cranes in the world also migrate to Aransas County for the winter. 2500 miles to the north-northwest they breed and spend their summers in a remote area of Canada. The first Whoopers of the flock, estimated around 330 after breeding this year have already arrived. New arrivals will land almost daily in the coming month to spend winter on the Texas Gulf Coast indulging in a tasty diet of blue crab. Many eyes are trained on these Whooping Cranes. Visitors to Aransas County from all over the world will come to see them in the winter months as they are one of the rarest sights in all of the avian world. To us here in the Rockport area, they are friends, neighbors and treasured guests.

Our fall season this year can be described as pretty average or typical. I personally have spent much time in the field this fall season. The excitement of migration and shifting characteristics of resident birds always make for good birding. My rarest find of the season was a female Lark Bunting on 24 September 2015. Though we will see more around South Texas in the deep winter, an arrival in late-September was very early and unusual. My species seen per month of course, increase from summer months with the variety of migrants. October will probably be the peak of the variety of species seen per month until March or the earnest spring migration.

Outside of the extremely early arrival of that one Lark Bunting, everything else bird-wise was pretty typical and right on-time based on historical records. An interesting seasonal observation for me, still relatively new to South Texas, was the fall migration of the warbler species. Spring brought a large variety of warblers and dramatic abundance to the Coastal Bend. The warblers and other species were making a beeline for their breeding grounds in the Spring driven by an intense sense of instinct. Their return seemed to me much more leisurely. Their passage seemed more drawn out and the number of birds seen was quite a bit less than Spring. This tells me that they are not as driven to the wintering grounds as strongly as they were heading north in the Spring. The birds were not moving in large flocks as in Spring. Overall, the passage lacked the intensity that I personally experienced in the field just six months ago.

Here at the tail-end of October and the doorstep of November, the changes continue just like always. The ducks are increasing daily. The host of sparrow species that winter here have begun to arrive in the past two weeks with the first cool fronts. The migrant shorebirds, waterbirds and warbler species that are heading much further south for winter have most all passed through our area. A few lingering birds may still be seen, but for the most part, the movement of fall has happened for these types of migrant birds which by the way includes 100’s of species.

The focus from now until mid-January when the first northbound shorebirds begin to pass these parts will be the winter resident birds. Species of all types make the Coastal Bend and South Texas home during the more intense winter of the northern US. Looking at historical data it is clear to see that here in Aransas County, birding can still be excellent from December to February. Over 300 species can be observed here in winter. Compared to the annual average of just over 400 species, even winter months offer great opportunities for the birder here in South Texas. In other words, there are plenty of reasons to be outside in nature during North America’s coldest months.

It is this coming winter season that marks one year since my arrival here in Aransas County from North Texas. Am close to experiencing daily, the entire cycle in this important bird area for North America. Have learned so much and observed birds as never before in my life. As the cycle continues, will share much more of this experience which has been so different from living in a major metropolitan or totally urban environment. The perspective I have been given through these seasons is a gift. I feel at home.

Aransas County and the Southbound Bird Flight!

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“I need the seasons to live to the rhythm of rain and sun.” – Sophie Marceau

Fall has arrived!  As I write this little piece, the first real shift to north wind is upon us.  Is a familiar smell that has been missing for quite a while down here in South Texas.  Those string of blistering hot days and high humidity along the Texas Gulf Coast have begun to turn over within the past couple of weeks.  The mosquitos which have been absent during the hottest weather are back. Yes, the season is changing.  And the shift is especially welcome for my time in the field with the birds!

Nature’s spectacle which is bird migration is well-underway.  By mid-July, the shorebirds were arriving back along the Live Oak Peninsula.  In reality, barely a month since Spring Migration ceased, the earliest migrants where headed south again for points as far away as Argentina.  You hear birders around here say that from June to August, there is nothing happening beyond the resident summer birds.  In reality, by mid-July, southbound migration is going strong and can be easily noticed around the wetlands and shorelines of this great migratory crossroads.

In Mid-September, it is the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird is the star.  These little creatures have been arriving in Aransas County over the past month.  Over the past 10 days, they have just poured in to be seen at feeders, their favorite native plants and the coastal live oak trees.  eBird data from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology indicates that the average peak of these amazing hummers will be this week.  Which is just in time for the 27th Annual Rockport-Fulton HummerBird Celebration that starts in the coming days.

The Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds are here fueling up and building up fat before they make the flight across the Gulf of Mexico.  These are the smallest birds known to fly directly across the Gulf.  They will almost double their weight from feeding in our area, then one evening at dark with a favorable wind, take off for a 20 hour, non-stop flight into Mexico and Central America.  An absolutely amazing feat!  Some stay here in Aransas County for the winter.  Some actually circumnavigate the Gulf of Mexico rather than take the perilous flight directly across.

The passerine species such as the warblers and flycatchers are also beginning to arrive, right on schedule.  In recent weeks, we have seen some of the early migrants of these types of bird as they feed among the live oaks.  The peak of migration for the warblers is still roughly a month away.  Many more are due to arrive in the coming weeks. Just this past weekend, we were blessed with our first real cool front and wind shift from the north.  New migrants rode the north wind into to Aransas County and are enjoying the food source which our live oak trees provide. Another group of migrants passing through the Coastal Bend heavily over the coming month are the raptors such as hawks, falcons and eagles.  Action at the Corpus Christi Hawkwatch is building by the day.

The final round of in-bound migrants due are the ducks, waterbirds and sparrows.  Many of these choose Aransas County to winter. The Blue-Winged Teal is the earliest arrival.  Right on time, they have landed among the wetlands and ponds of our area.  A few Northern Shovelers and Pintails have been reported too.  But we are really about 45 days from the big rush into the area of ducks.  One species, the Redhead Duck population really favors Aransas County.  It is estimated that 75% – 80% of the entire flock from the Central Flyway choose the bays and estuaries of the Aransas to make their home for the winter. Also in late-October and November, the famed Whooping Cranes and Sandhill Cranes fly in to make us home for the winter.

All appears to be normal for the season from a bird migration point of view.  This past Spring, migration flights were delayed by 2-3 weeks.  Probably due to the excessive rain and the cooler temperatures we had.  Yet, the amazing spectacle which is bird migration looks to be just as most years according to data from the field. Even though the temperatures may not have cooled much, the birds show us quite a bit of change as we transition from summer to fall along the Texas Gulf Coast.  The cycles that nature gives us are a true gift.  Subtle changes demonstrated by birds and wildlife are amazing markers of time.  And we are in a time of the year where there is much to see out there.  Which reminds me why the best prescription for humankind is time in nature.