What to watch for in February Purple Martines and outdoor birds
Here’s Central Texas’ bird forecast for the month, courtesy of Travis Audubon. Learn more about Central Texas birds and bird-related events for all ages at travisaudubon.org or by calling 512-300-BIRD. Follow us on www.facebook.com/travisaudubon
Is spring on the way? Purple Martins, our largest swallows, seem to think so. These swallows spend the winter in South America and now the first migrants have started to return to North America to breed. They have already been registered in Florida, Georgia and Alabama. By the time you read this, it’s very likely some will have been seen in Texas as well. What drives these adult birds to risk their lives by returning in February, which may have one of the worst winter weather conditions in central Texas? These birds want to obtain the most attractive nesting sites for females. If they come too soon, starvation and hypothermia are real possibilities. If the weather cooperates, they get a jump on nesting so their offspring have more time to mature before migrating south again.
Let’s look at a timeline for the arrival of Purple Martins. Adult males and some adult females, born in 2020 or earlier, begin arriving on the upper Texas coast in late January and in much of Texas between February 1 and February 15. Subadult birds, those born last year, do not arrive until 4 to 12 weeks later. Once the birds arrive, they need 4-6 weeks to recover from their journey before they start building their nest. The construction of the nest can take another 3 to 4 weeks. If you have friends in the northern states, they have a lot longer to wait for “their Martins” to arrive. For example, the Great Lakes Purple Martins won’t get there until mid-April.
Fun Facts About Purple Swifts
- They are very social birds. It’s rare to see just one. They nest in colonies, using gourds or other dwelling units provided by humans. They form large pre-migratory roosts in late summer before heading south.
- At the nesting colony, birds often fly over the colony in groups to attack potential predators such as hawks, gulls or blue jays. Together they will chase the predator out of the area, diving just above them but rarely making contact. Cats and dogs are also blacklisted. Purple Swallows may abandon a colony if a Great Horned Owl discovers it.
- Purple Martins get their name from the appearance of adult males which are iridescent purplish-blue all over their bodies. Adult females and subadult birds have varying amounts of purple, but appear grayish below.
- It took a Purple Martin about 3 weeks to travel 5,000 miles from Brazil to Pennsylvania.
- Purple martins eat flying insects – they are called aerial insectivores, catch insects in flight and depend on insects all year round.
- They also drink water in flight. Triangle Pond is a good place to watch them skim the surface of the water, scooping up water with their lowest bills.
- A University of Oklahoma study found that purple swallows eat a lot of fire ants. When a fire ant colony is ready to reproduce, it sends queens and winged males into the air to mate and then found new colonies. Purple Martins take advantage of this bounty and feed them for their young.
- There are several Purple Martin colonies in Austin. The best known is at the Environmental Research Center at the Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant. Another is near the covered gazebo at the south end of the Mills Pond Recreation Area, off Doria Drive in North Austin. There’s also one at Balcones Canyonland National Wildlife Refuge headquarters. They are long-lasting colonies thanks to groups of motivated volunteers who maintain them, dismantle the gourds over the winter, clean and raise them in January, then manage and monitor them throughout the breeding season, removing the nests of sparrows and starlings. A colony would be a wonderful community addition to a park near you! This requires commitment, as the birds are extremely site-fidelity, returning to the area where they were born or managed to nest previously.
Take a walk in the countryside
February is a good time of year to visit northeast Travis County, where there is still farmland. A few long-winged raptors with white rumps are often seen there, flying low over the fields. These are Hen Harriers that seek out and listen for prey such as small rodents. They have an owl-like facial disc that helps amplify sounds. Adult males are studies in white and gray with the nickname “Grey Ghosts”. Another bird reliably observed during the winter months is the Loggerhead Shrike, the subject of our February membership meeting. Shrikes use power lines to search for prey, before swooping down to pounce. The Loggerhead Shrike is nicknamed the “butcher bird” because of its habit of hiding its prey for future consumption on thorns and barbed wire. This distinctive black, white and gray songbird with a hooked beak is about the size of a Mockingbird and is often mistaken for it.
Upcoming Travis Audubon Events Check out the Travis Audubon Events Calendar for details on field trips, classes, and other events. Beginners are welcome on all field trips. Step out with an experienced guide and learn more about our beautiful Austin area birds. Birdwatching walks are free, fill up quickly, and most require registration. Field trips may be added or canceled, depending on Austin’s COVID status.
Travis Audubon is pleased to have Sue Heath of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory lined up to speak at our February Members Meeting on Thursday, February 17 at 7 p.m. Dr Heath is involved in numerous coastal bird research projects and will speak via Zoom on Charismatic Shrike. If you would like to attend but are not receiving the Travis Audubon email newsletter, please contact [email protected] at least one day in advance.
Compiled by Travis Audubon volunteer Jane Tillman