by Jim Stevenson
We have a huge selection of migrant songbirds each year that cross the Gulf and pass over the Gulf Coast, with a small number of their kind dropping in for rest, food and water. Some are small, like warblers and vireos and small flycatchers, but most are medium-sized birds. Quite a number have vivid coloration. These are the less colorful groups and not all migrate much.
Flycatchers are primitive songbirds with strong insectivorous tendencies. They do eat berries and fruit in the migration for the carbs, although they are almost uniquely adapted for grabbing flying insect. This is an immature Eastern Kingbird.
Eastern Kingbirds are easily told from the rest of the kingbirds as they are essentially black and white, with a white tail tip. They twitter a lot and often sit near roads, as they prefer open areas. They are the only kingbird to be expected over the entire Eastern United States, and they even extend west to Washington.
Kingbirds are in the huge family of flycatchers, often identified by their erect posture and rictal bristles around the bill. Other groups of flycatchers include pewees, phoebes and the bewildering Empidonax and Myiarchus flycatchers. Those are genus names (always in italics) and may be found just under the bird’s name in the field guide.
It is unusual to see a wild bird with such a physical handicap but this young Eastern Kingbird is fighting for its life. It may have been struck by a car, but neither leg is functioning very well. I tried to catch it for a rehabber but it was having none of that. I suppose that’s a good sign, and I wished him well upon take-off.
Out West, especially the Desert Southwest, there are several species of kingbirds with yellow bellies. The one that migrates up and down the Great Plains, and ventures into the East some, is the Western Kingbird. They have more gray on the chest than the others and have a squared-off, black tail with white edges. Curiously, they have the same call as a scissor-tail, a pip pip pip.
Scissor-tailed Flycatchers join a small group of North American birds that live in windy areas, and employ a long, forked tail to help gain aerial stability. Their range is unusual, a circle encompassing North Texas and Oklahoma. Males have a longer tail than females, and it grows gradually until it heads south in October, when it molts. For weeks now I have been awakened by the ascending chirps of the male.
Pewees are a small group of flycatchers, hard to tell from each other and also from various of the Empidonax. Their vests help set them aside from empids and the voice best separates the eastern and western species. And then there are other pewees in the Tropics! Pewees also are longer and slimmer than empids, somewhat crested, no eyering or real wingbars and they make long forays over open areas (unlike empids).
Mockingbirds are a group of six species of mimic thrushes in the New World, with some on the Galapagos. They are quite similar to each other and most people would pass this individual up for our Northern Mockingbird. However, this is the Tropical Mockingbird that ranges from southern Mexico down well into South America. This individual, which is staying at Sabine Woods, is the first for North America. You might notice it has no white in the wing, and in flight, you’d see a wide, white tail band.
Catbirds of multiple species are also New World mimic thrushes, also family Mimidae. Ours is this Gray Catbird, a widespread species but quiet singer. As a dark bird, they hide in the undergrowth well and only occasionally show off the reddish undertail coverts. They are a successful species which has expanded its range in many places.
Thrashers are the last group of mimic thrushes, but while there is only one species in the East, there are several in the Desert Southwest. Our bird above is the Brown Thrasher, a terrestrial bird of semi-open lawns and gardens. Like many eastern songbirds, they do not nest on the Upper Texas Coast (like Galveston), but do nest just a few dozen miles inland. Their song is often thought to be a mockingbird’s but it has repeated multiple syllables regularly, like a Red-eyed Vireo. They and catbirds are not nearly the imitators mockingbirds are.
Cowbirds are seed-eating blackbirds which have become way too abundant because of our agricultural fields. Worse, as brood parasites, they are threatening certain rare species with extinction, as their eggs become young cowbirds that take over the nests of other species. This male on top is wishing to mate with the female, and frankly the gals don’t have nearly the consequences most female birds have after mating.
Bronzed Cowbirds are tropical in range but visit the Upper Texas Coast in spring to dump eggs in unsuspecting birds’ nests. They are easily recognized by their red eyes and Dracula-like nape. At present, they are not nearly the threat brown-heads impose, but give them time. This species is much more common in the Desert Southwest.
The most abundant bird in North America is the Red-winged Blackbird, the first non-wintering spring migrants in many areas (ours is the Purple Martin). They have also taken advantage of our species’ agriculture but they are not as harmful ecologically as cowbirds. Many people love the red-wing’s congaree song, and their call note is a chack that sounds like an Orchard Oriole. Still, with the absence of much color and song, most blackbirds court more by contorting their bodies and making bizarre sounds than any real singing and nice colors.
Abundant over much of Eastern and Central North America is the Common Grackle, itself an enemy of young songbirds and eggs. Here it is trying to find water to wet its quarry, a larval arthropod of some kind. Their light eyes remind one of the Great-tailed Grackle (or boat-tails on the Atlantic Coast), but these are smaller birds without the gargantuan tail. In the Far West, Common Grackles are replaced by the Brewer’s Blackbird.
This Great-tailed Grackle is making its usual AK 47 calls, among the weirdest notes in North America. The eyes really help to eliminate Boat-tailed because this courting bird has temporarily raised his crown feathers. That shape is more like the typical rounded head of a Boat-tailed Grackle.
Here is another male GT, crown up and light eyes flaring. Don’t use the tail shape to separate the two grackles with big tails as it can get very confusing (IMHO). Even the females follow the rules, and forget telling THEIR tails apart! This species is found about everywhere but boat-tails are just in marshes, like in several wildlife refuges.
Here you see two male boat-tails, pointing their bills skyward and lifting their wings above the level of the body. They emit a loud buzz that great-tails don’t make and I have used that many times to find this species. These were at Anahuac NWR, but they are also in High Island, Brazos Bend SP and some other refuges in Brazoria County.
Whenever you see the wings above the body, that’s a Boat-tailed Grackle. You can also see the dark eyes, actually brown. This male may have several females on his territory, as most blackbirds are polygynists. That’s because there is an abundant food source so males aren’t needed to gather food for the chicks. Ergo, their job is simply stud and defending the territory.
This male Eastern Meadowlark is broadcasting his e-hormones, stunningly on one foot. You can tell he’s an Eastern by the amount of white in the outer retrices (tail feathers) and a few other fine points. They nest in my neighborhood and I hear their descending whistles almost every day. Meadowlarks are related to blackbirds but not much else. The yellow front with a black bib is reminiscent of several unrelated songbirds of grasslands around the world.
Shrikes are nearly a worldwide family but we only have the Loggerhead Shrike here in the Deep South. This individual has just pounced on an arthropod but in winter they will take mice and small birds. These are the “butcherbirds” that hang carcasses on thorns and barbed wire fences for tomorrow’s meal. Note the black mask, a sure sign of a predator.
Most thrushes, besides robins and bluebirds, have subtle colors with spots underneath on the chest. They are highly migratory, usually passing much further east in fall (like Florida) and west in spring (like Texas). This is the Swainson’s Thrush, a wide-ranging bird which nests to Alaska. The buffy eyering is an excellent field mark, but from behind, they lack the rich color of Wood Thrushes or Veery (next).
This is a Veery at my drip. You can see the rich back color (not true on west coast birds) and very light spotting on chest. All thrushes have lovely songs but few sing on their migration pathway. Too bad. Thrushes are also great fliers and motor across the Gulf before most other songbirds. Guess you could say they fly veery fast. Or not.
Our least common member of this family is the Gray-cheeked Thrush and the plainest as well. Note the absence of the Swainson’s buffy eyering and this one is actually a little colorful for this species. GC are late spring migrants and almost never seen in Texas in fall. They can be confused with Hermit Thrushes if you don’t see the reddish tail.
OK, buckle up for the colorful ones to come!
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