Birders live for the time our summer residents begin to return from their tropical winter habitats in Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean Islands. Their return is somewhat like a faucet that develops a leak – a slow drip that increases slowly to a steady trickle and finally to a gushing output of water. Here in the Hill Country the bird drippers are the Purple Martins, Barn Swallows and Golden-cheeked Warblers. The martins start drifting in during January, followed by the swallows in February and the warblers in early March. The first to arrive are the older experienced males who are seeking the prime territories for their breeding grounds.
Unfortunately the Purple Martin numbers are declining and a number of you have inquired about their absence, or very low numbers. The recent drought period has likely been a factor when food sources are at critical lows and the breeding pairs have only one brood. As many of our summer residents return to the territories in which they were born and raised; the reduced numbers reflect these recent dry years when fledglings were lower than normal. The cumulative effect over a five or ten year period can have significant impact on current populations.
What would help turn these lowering numbers around would be several years of higher than normal, or just normal, precipitation. Song bird survival is predicated on breeding pairs having several clutches during the breeding season to offset the shorter lifespans of songbirds because of their position on the lower rungs of the food chain ladder. These birds can survive if the wet and dry years have short durations, but as these cycles stretch out, keeping their numbers up becomes more difficult. The net result of lower numbers is what many areas of the country are facing at the moment.
The numbers of Golden-cheeked Warblers and their fellow endangered species, the Black-capped Vireos reflects an additional circumstance affecting their survival – nest predation by the Brown-headed Cowbirds. Extensive trapping of the cowbirds throughout the rather narrow and limited breeding ranges of these two songbirds has been effective in increasing their populations in the Hill Country. The vireos seemed to be the more successful of the two species, but I have heard reports of sightings of golden-cheeks in areas well outside of their normal breeding habitats in cooler deep canyons in the Hill Country. Our hope is that both birds might be one day removed from their endangered status.
I heard that the first golden-cheeks were on territories around the first of March this year, a couple of weeks earlier than normal. This past weekend, while returning home from a short trip to my hometown of Gonzales, I saw two Scissor-tailed Flycatchers chasing insects from power and fence wires. I would expect a few scissor-tails to be in the area this week. Normally they arrive in the last quarter of the month of March, but as I reported in the past weeks, the start of migration season seems to be earlier than normal this year. Hummingbirds are also trickling in and before long your feeders will be buzzing with the hungry tykes.
Yes, if you have not put at least one hummingbird feeder out, you might have a disappointed little guy who returned early form the tropics. The sugar water ratio is four parts water to one part granulated sugar. Start with one feeder and increase them as the need arises. Too many feeders out early might get the attention of hungry bees. If bees become a problem, place a saucer of higher sugar content away from the feeders to divert the attention of the bees. If it rains soon, bees might not be a problem this spring as wildflowers will get their attention.
As you prepare for the summer returnees, do not forget the current winter residents who will need food for at least six more weeks (early May). As long as we have low morning temperatures, it is important to have suet feeders up to give the non-seed eating species, wrens, titmice, chickadees and warblers, food to help them through the cold nights. As the days get warmer, expect the “drips” to become “trickles” and finally “gushing” as the spring migrants pour into and through the Hill Country. It is my favorite time of the year.