Portraits of Migratory and Resident Birds in the Hill Country
By E. Dan Klepper
Birding enthusiasts recognize the Texas Hill Country as one of the most outstanding bird-watching destinations in the country. The region serves as both a migratory pathway and nesting habitat for hundreds of species of birds making their way between continental locations north and south. This abundance is also the reason so many field biologists take the opportunity to conduct bird banding, bird counts, and avian studies in the Hill Country during spring and fall migrations. The diversity of habitat—arid grasslands, riparian canyons, and dense woodlands—guarantees ornithologists a sizable number of species as well as a large quantity of birds to study.
The images in this piece were captured in the early-morning hours during a netting and banding session conducted by Texas ornithologist David Cimprich, with help from a bevy of his assistants and fellow field biologists. The session took place in some of the westernmost habitat for a number of Texas Hill Country species, although all of the birds pictured here are regular visitors to the region or are residents.
Great care was taken to ensure each bird’s safety during handling. The birds were in captivity for only a brief period, enough time to record data, secure an identification band, and take photos. The birds were set free, of course, but the research gathered by Cimprich and his crew remains, helping to advance our understanding of how best to conserve the state’s rich and vital avian world.
In the March 2012 issue, see more of E. Dan Klepper's related photographs, as well as his suggestions on where to find these birds and recommended places to stay.
Black-capped Vireo (Vireo atricapilla)
The Black-capped Vireo is a migratory bird averaging about four-and-a-half-inches long. It arrives in the Hill Country in late March from its winter habitat on the western coast of Mexico, and nests in Texas from April through early July. The Black-capped favors a nesting habitat comprised of shrubby patches separated by open grasslands. Over-browsing by deer or livestock can impact this habitat and is a primary cause of its endangered status. The Black-capped, named for the male’s distinctive black hood, can live as long as six years and will return to the same nesting area annually. It’s also the smallest vireo that birders will see in the United States.
Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris)
The Painted Bunting is a favorite among birders because of the male’s stunning coloration. Deep blues, dark reds, and brilliant greens all feature in the Painted’s feather palette. The Painted arrives in the Hill Country in late April and will often remain until August. Its song is a sweet variation of pitch and phrasing and is easily recognizable when heard in the field. Despite its bright coloring, this spring migrant may be difficult to spot because it prefers dense thickets, spending much of its time singing from high, well-hidden perches. How-ever, it descends to the ground to feed along the edges of brush and woodlands, plucking bugs from spider webs and snatching seeds, giving birders a better shot at spotting it among the open vegetation.
Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra)
The Summer Tanager arrives in the Hill Country in late April. The Summer male is the only completely red bird on the continent. However, males in their first summer of life display a mix of red and yellow, but will turn solid red by their second year. Females are also easy to spot with bright yellow crowns and rumps and duller yellow plumage. This medium-sized songbird eats fruits and insects, and has a particular taste for bees and wasps. After snatching a bee in mid-flight, the Summer will rub the stinger against a branch to remove it before eating the bee. The Summer prefers a juniper-oak woodland while nesting and breeding and its song, some birders claim, contains a phrase that sounds a lot like “peanut butter.”
Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens)
The Ash-throated Flycatcher is a member of the tyrant flycatcher family (Tyrannidae), the largest family of birds on the planet. Tyrant flycatchers are likely named for their aggressive foraging habits. The Ash-throated, a medium-sized flycatcher, sports a bushy crest, rust-colored tail, and pale yellow belly. It arrives early in the spring to the Hill Country and is often one of the first migratory birds to show up. Favorite foods include insects, fruits, and the occasional small reptile. By summer, the Ash-throated is relatively common and easy to see. They are unusual among flycatchers in that they are cavity nesters, preferring nesting sites in human-made structures such as barns, fence posts, porches, and laundry left too long on the clothesline.
Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens)
The Yellow-breasted Chat is a big warbler with big traits, including a brilliant yellow breast, a noisy song, and animated behavior. The Chat arrives in the Texas Hill Country in early April and prefers dense, brushy thickets, making it difficult at times to spot. The warbler’s vocal antics and entertaining display, however, usually give its location away. The Chat’s loud whistles, squawks, cackles, and chirps are typically accompanied by running, hopping, flying, diving, and tail-wagging in and out of hiding places. This combination of cacophony and clownery make the Yellow-breasted Chat one of the Hill Country’s most entertaining birds to watch. A long-running debate about its place in the warbler family is ongoing at this time and continues with DNA study.
Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus)
The dramatically plumed Pyrrhuloxia is a year-round resident in arid habitats in the western and southern Hill Country. Its odd name is attributed to the French ornithologist Bonaparte (nephew of Napoleon), who first described the bird using a collected specimen from Mexico. The etymology of “Pyrrhuloxia” includes roots for “flame-colored” and “crooked,” referring to the bird’s bright orange-red highlights and its somewhat hooked bill. The Pyrrhuloxia is most often found in upland areas such as arid scrubland, open mesquite grasslands, and oak or juniper savannahs. It dines on a variety of seeds, fruits, and insects and, like its Northern Cardinal relative, is not shy about dominating a feeder. In springtime, look for breeding pairs. The female is only slightly less striking than the male. In winter, foraging flocks can number in the hundreds.