Bird Notes from West Houston

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Birdfeeding Tips - Variety

Variety can be the spice of life in your backyard. Birds have different habits when it comes to feeding. Some prefer to feed on the ground. Others prefer to feed on a feeder. Others will feed both places. Offering a variety of feeders will help you attract the widest variety of birds to your yard.

Hanging feeders include seed tubes, peanut feeders, suet feeders, finch feeders, and some wooden feeders. Birds that are comfortable feeding in trees will use these feeders. These birds include chickadees, titmice, woodpeckers, and finches. Ground feeders can be anything from throwing seed directly on the ground to offering seed in a platform feeder on legs. Birds that prefer feeding on the ground are doves, sparrows, grackles, cardinals, jays and blackbirds. Some birds such as cardinals, jays, House Sparrows, grackles, and blackbirds will feed at both types of feeders. White-winged Doves will also get on some hanging feeders although they prefer to feed on the ground.

By offering a variety of feeders, you will be sure to have feeders that will attract the birds no matter what their feeding preference is. Knowing your habitat (see the post from Jan. 19) and what birds to expect will determine the types of feeders that are appropriate.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

First Purple Martin

I suppose all it takes is to write about usually seeing Purple Martins in the area during the first week of February for one to show up at my house today, Jan. 25. It was an ASY male singing joyfully as he flew over. I guess he's really enjoying our "winter" weather!

- Paul

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Species Profile - Purple Martin

Nearly seven years ago, I was introduced to the joys of being a Purple Martin landlord. Well, it wasn't my colony. I began working at the Wild Birds Unlimited in Dallas where there was a very active martin colony and was able to take an active part in performing nest checks and keeping records of the martins. Before that, the Purple Martin was a spring migrant that lacked the color of the other migrants and was only a "tick" on my springtime list. In the spring of 1999, my view changed completely about Purple Martins. I would now list them as one of my top five favorite birds. I find myself this time of year looking up a little more often and straining my ears to catch even the slightest hint of the martins' song announcing their return.

The Purple Martin is North America's largest swallow species. From beak to tail, adult martins measure eight inches and have an eighteen inch wingspan. Adult males, or ASY (after second year) males, look black much of the time unless the light reflects just right off their feathers showing the purplish iridescence for which they are named. Females, as in most bird species, lack the color of the male. Females plumage will be black to dark gray on the back with dingy gray on the breast and belly. She will have a gray collar and gray forehead. Young males, or SY (second year) males, will look very similar to females.

Martins almost exclusively nest in man-provided housing in the eastern United States. Before man-made housing was available, martins nested in old woodpecker holes in trees. Deforestation significantly reduced the number of trees available. Native Americans would put up hollowed-out gourds to attract the birds because of their insect-eating nature. That seems to be where the transition from nesting in natural sites to man-made houses occurred. Purple Martins in the western United States still use natural nesting sites. Nesting material consists of leaves, mud, twigs and feathers. Many times a mud barrier will be built at the front of the nest. Both the male and female take part in nest construction. The eggs are white with no markings. Three to seven eggs are laid. The female incubates the eggs for fifteen to eighteen days. When the babies hatch, they are altricial (eyes closed, featherless, immobile and dependent upon the parents for food.) The young will fledge after 26 to 31 days. Both the male and female take part in feeding the young. Normally martins have one brood per year, although some have been documented having two broods in southern states. In the eastern United States, martins will nest in colonies, so having more than one compartment available for them will greatly increase your chances of attracting these beautiful birds.

Martin habitat is especially important when considering where to place a house or gourd rack. Martins require at least 30 feet radius around their housing free of anything that stands as tall or taller than the housing (i.e. your house, trees, large bushes, etc.) Most other birds like to be as far away as possible from human activity when nesting. Not so with the martin. Research has shown that martins are much less likely to use housing over 100 feet from a human dwelling. Your chances of attracting martins increase if you are near a pond or lake.

Martins return to the same colony year after year. A man who banded Purple Martins in Duncanville told me one time that he had a male martin return to the same house and same compartment for fourteen years! As long as there is not a major disruption in nesting, the martins you have nesting at your colony are likely the same ones that nested there the year before. While the adults return to the same colony, less than 10% of the young that hatch in a colony will return. Those birds will start new colonies or join other established colonies.

Purple Martins have the reputation of being voracious mosquito eaters. Unfortunately for those of us in Southeast Texas, research hasn't backed that up. Usually no more than 3% of the martin's diet consists of mosquitoes. What the martins do eat are insects that fly hundreds of feet in the air such as dragonflies, butterflies, cicadas, flying ants, bees, wasps, damselfies and mayflies. Any airborne insect is at risk of becoming a meal for a Purple Martin.

Martins usually arrive in Southeast Texas during the first week of February. Many of those birds are migrants heading further north. Many will be returning to their colonies here to begin establishing their territory. Typically the SY birds will return four to six weeks after the ASY birds. If this is your first year to have martin housing up, have it ready by the first week of March since the SY birds will be the ones to set up a new colony. Check the website for the Purple Martin Conservation Association (link to the right) to check the status of the arrival of martins in North America.

Being a Purple Martin landlord has responsibility beyond putting up housing the in proper habitat. House Sparrows and European Starlings are non-native nest competitors and will nest in martin housing if they are allowed. I have personally witnessed the damage done by these birds to martins, both adults and chicks, and eggs. At the least, their nesting material should be removed when they start building. Sparrows and starlings use a lot of grass in their nest easily distinguishing it from a martin's nest. Many traps are available for martin landlords who choose to remove the sparrows or starlings from their property.

I have had people ask, "What is the big deal about Purple Martins?" I used to ask that before I had experience with them. My answer is usually very vague because I believe you just have to experience martins at a nesting colony to understand. If you have too many trees around for martins, hopefully you know someone who has them and can take part with them while the martins are here. Some people will purchase martin housing to put up on golf courses, at churches or parks and maintain them. I wish everyone could experience the joys of the Purple Martin as I have.

- Paul

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Birdfeeding Tips - Habitat

"Why can't I get woodpeckers in my yard?" is a question we sometimes hear. I usually follow that question with a question of my own - "Do you have large trees in your yard and in your neighborhood?" If the customer answers, "No," then I know the problem immediately. Woodpeckers are usually found in areas with large trees. Understanding habitat is key to knowing which birds to expect in your backyard.

There are five different birdfeeding habitats. Within those habitats, there are microhabitats, but for the most part, five covers them. Listed below are the habitats, a description of the habitat, the Houston-area birds you could expect and what to feed them.

Woodland - In a woodland habitat, you will have mature trees standing 50+ feet tall. There will be some understory plants that provide cover. Not many grasses grow due to the lack of sunlight. The types of birds you could expect to find in a woodland habitat are woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, cardinals, Blue Jays, warblers, grosbeaks and wrens. Seed like oil sunflower, safflower and peanuts are popular with these birds. Suet will provide non-seed eating birds something at your feeders.

Forest Edge - Smaller trees than a woodland habitat and more understory such as bayberry, yaupon and blackberry vines characterize a forest edge habitat. Birds to be expected in this habitat are cardinals, Blue Jays, chickadees, wrens, woodpeckers, blackbirds, sparrows and doves. Oil sunflower, safflower and millet will work well in this habitat. Peanuts and suet may be less successful than in a woodland habitat.

Grassland/Pasture - Grassland is a habitat virtually void of trees. In unmowed pasture, the grasses will grow about eight to twelve inches high and wildflowers usually bloom in the spring and summer. Birds that you can find in a grassland habitat at feeders are doves, sparrows, blackbirds, grackles and cowbirds. Seed that has a lot of millet and is offered on the ground works well in this habitat.

Urban - The urban habitat is what you will find around shopping malls, strip centers or many office buildings. There is a lot of concrete and the trees are usually small. Birds that would visit feeders in an urban habitat are pigeons, doves, grackles, blackbirds, grackles and House Sparrows. Seeds like oil sunflower and millet will draw many of the birds listed above.

Suburban - The suburban habitat is one of the harder ones to define. It can range from a newly created neighborhood where the trees are very small to more established neighborhood with older, more mature trees. Since the birds will be different in both, we will look at both habitats here. Those living in a new neighborhood can expect doves, grackles, blackbirds, House Sparrows and native sparrows. Seed with oil sunflower and millet will work well. Those in more established neighborhoods with larger trees can expect the birds mentioned above as well as cardinals, Blue Jays, chickadees and Downy Woodpecker. Oil sunflower, safflower and suet can be utilized to feed the birds in this habitat.

One bird that is not mentioned above is the American Goldfinch. From December through April, the goldfinch can be found in virtually any habitat. Feed goldfinches nyjer (thistle) in feeders designed specifically for nyjer.

The habitats and birds listed above are not absolutes in those habitats. Birds have wings and are able to move from one habitat to another. If you live between habitats, you may have birds that are not typically from your habitat. I live on grassland and forest edge, but have woodlands about 200 yards from me. I will get woodland birds flying from that habitat to the forest edge at my feeders. Take notice of your habitat. Also look at the habitats that surround you as well.

Unfortunately, birds are not usually enticed by certain foods if they are not in the proper habitat. If you live in a new neighborhood with little trees, putting suet out will probably not attract woodpeckers. Identify your habitat and learn about the birds living there. Know which seeds will provide you with the greatest chance to attract those birds to your feeders.

Birdwatching Site - Brazos Bend State Park

Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP) is one of the treasures of the Upper Texas Coast. It is site UTC 117 on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. Opened in 1976, it has become a popular birdwatching destination. The park covers 4,897 acres and has 21 miles of hiking trails. Habitats include lakes, marsh, creek, bottomland forest with live oaks, water oaks, pecans and elms, and tallgrass coastal prairie. With the diversity of habitats, it is not surprising to find several species of birds in any season.

Spring migration (late March through early May) can be a great time at BBSP. Migrants such as warblers, vireos, tanagers, grosbeaks, buntings and flycatchers will use the park as a refueling spot to head further north to their breeding grounds. Birds that nest in the woodlands include White-tailed Kite, Mississippi Kite, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Barred Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher, Great Crested Flycatcher, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Northern Parula, Prothonotary Warbler, Summer Tanager and Painted Bunting. Waterbirds that nest in the park include Pied-billed Grebe, Least Bittern, Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Green Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Black-crowned Night-heron, Yellow-crowned Night-heron, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Black-bellied Whistling-duck, Wood Duck, Purple Gallinule, Common Moorhen and Black-necked Stilt. Winter is a great time to visit BBSP because of the abundance of ducks that can be seen on the lakes and in the marshes. Winter visitors also include American White Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, American Bitterns and King Rails. Look for native sparrows in the grasslands and American Goldfinch, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Northern Flicker and Brown Thrasher in the woodlands in the winter season.

Wildlife other than birds can be easily observed. American Alligators will lie quietly in the water. Be cautious of them because they can move with surprising speed if they are provoked or if a female feels you are too close to her young or nest. Keep your distance and do not fed the alligators! Other wildlife to be expected, although not always easily seen, are turtles, bullfrogs, snakes, coyotes, gray fox, bobcat and nutria.

An observation tower is at the northeastern corner of 40 Acre Lake where you can scan the lake for different ducks or to observe rookeries. For visitors with disabilities, the Creekfield Lake Nature Trail is a paved, interpretive trail that circles a wetland. Observation platforms and benches are provided on the trail.

There are a variety of programs presented by the park throughout the year. There are bird walks and classes for both beginner and advanced birders. For the dates of the classes, visit the volunteer website at

To get to BBSP, go to SH 288 and go south. Exit FM 1462 and go west (right.) Take FM 1462 about 14 miles to FM 762. Turn north (right) and follow the signs to the park entrance. There is an entry fee of $3/person for those 13 and older. Children 12 and younger are free. Seniors 65 to 71 are admitted for $2 and seniors 72+ enter the park for free. Park hours are Sunday through Thursday, 8 a.m. until 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. Maps are available at the entry booth.

The physical address of the park is:

Brazos Bend State Park
21901 FM 762
Needville, TX 77461
(979) 553-5101

Friday, January 13, 2006

Species Profile - American Goldfinch

What makes the American Goldfinch such a popular bird in the Houston area? Maybe it's the way they flock to feeders and feed together. Maybe it's their high-pitched calls. Maybe it's their unique plumage with the muted yellow and black-and-white wing pattern. Whatever it is about the goldfinch, it is one of the most anticipated migrants to come to the Houston area.

The American Goldfinch is a small bird, about five inches long. The winter plumage is a yellowish-brown to a dull brown. The wings are dark with white wingbars. The tail is short and notched. The goldfinch's winter range is from the Canadian border into Mexico. Goldfinches arrive in the Houston area usually mid-November and will leave early in April. While here, goldfinches eat mainly seeds and very few insects.

Unfortunately in the Houston area, we do not get to see the goldfinch in breeding plumage very often. Usually about the time the males turn the bright yellow with the black cap, they migrate north to breed. The southern limit of the goldfinch's summer range is along a line that runs from mid-Nevada, through Tulsa, OK and covers the northern half of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. Nests can be found in a tree, usually from one to thirty feet off the ground. The nest is placed in a branch fork made of vegetation and lined with plant down. Goldfinches will often weave their nest so tightly that it will actually hold water! Spider webs and caterpillar webbing is used to secure the outer rim. Three to seven pale blue or bluish-white eggs are laid. The female incubates the eggs for ten to twelve days. When the chicks hatch, they are altricial (immobile, featherless, eyes closed, dependent on the adults for food.) The young fledge after eleven to seventeen days.

Some interesting facts about the American Goldfinch:

The goldfinch is one of the latest nesting birds in North America. It usually does not start nesting until late June or early July. This is probably timed for the greatest availability of nesting material and seeds for the young.

The change from winter plumage to breeding plumage requires a complete molt. The American Goldfinch is the only member of the finch family in North America to have two molts during the year.

The goldfinch is gregarious throughout the year. In the winter it is found almost exclusively in flocks, sometimes with 200+ birds. In the summer, the flocks are smaller.

The American Goldfinch is mostly monogamous. However, some females will switch mates after the first brood. She will leave the young in the care of the first male and will start another brood with a different male.

It is fairly easy to attract goldfinches to your yard. Have a finch feeder filled with fresh nyjer (often called thistle seed.) Finch feeders come in several varieties from tube-style to cloth mesh bags. It is usually a good idea to separate your finch feeders from your regular birdfeeders as the goldfinches are often timid and will leave when a larger bird comes to the feeder. Put the feeders in the open as much as possible. To help attract the goldfinch's attention, tie a bright yellow ribbon to your feeder. Cut the ribbon about six to eight inches and tie it where the ends can flap in the wind. The general rule with feeding goldfinches is the more perches you provide, the more finches you'll have.

Sources used for this article:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds

The Birder's Handbook by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin and Darryl Wheye

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Where are the goldfinches?

One question we've been hearing a lot lately is, "Where are the goldfinches?" The answer: "They're here!" They just may not be at your feeders in good numbers yet. According to the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) results from this year, the goldfinches numbers are the same as last year. When I have been out birdwatching, I hear goldfinches everywhere. "So why aren't they at feeders this year like they were last year?" you say? The answer could lie with the weather - not the temperature, but the lack of rain. Goldfinches eat available natural foods when they migrate into the area. When that supply is depleted, they will start seeking out new sources - many times, your feeders. Rain knocks much of the seed in trees and on weeds to the ground usually causing the goldfinches to make the feeding transition from natural to feeders earlier in the season. However, you may have noticed that we haven't had much rain in the past few months, so the trees and weeds are holding onto their seeds a little longer. Don't give up hope! After seeing 10 to 20 goldfinches at my feeders for the past few weeks, I had about 40 yesterday (1/11) and today (1/12). That trend should continue until the trees bud out again in the spring.