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In West Texas, A Whirl of Birds Announces Spring's Return

photograph by Michelle Lynn Reynolds. Broad-tailed hummingbirds – their backs iridescent green, the males adorned with rose-red throat markings – winter in Mexico and Central America. They're among the first migrants to arrive here in spring, and many summer in the West Texas mountains.

“Febrero loco y marzo otro poco” – “February is crazy and March a little more so” – a popular saying in Mexico and the borderlands has it. There are upheavals in the weather here – swings in temperature, days of wind and dust. March, indeed, is a dynamic month in West Texas. 

That dynamism extends to the creature world. Migratory birds are on the move. Our year-round avian residents are stirring, turning toward courtship and nesting. This is the time to watch the earth and sky, and glimpse the winged signs of spring's return.

Cecilia Riley is an ornithologist, and a founder of the nonprofit Trans-Pecos Bird Conservation. 

“March is fun,” Riley said. “I love to look out in the backyard during March, because every day there is a little something different.”

Riley watches the changing cast of characters from her Davis Mountains home, but similar patterns apply across West Texas, from Midland to Terlingua.

The action begins in early March, Riley said, as ducks, geese, pelicans and other waterfowl and shorebirds depart. Stock ponds and water holes – like Lake Balmorhea – have provided winter sanctuary here. Now these birds head for the prairie potholes – an expanse of the northern Great Plains, from the Dakotas to Alberta, where thousands of shallow wetlands dot the landscape. There, these birds will summer, and raise their young.

The next round of travelers are incoming swallows, who've wintered in Mexico or Central America. Some are passing through. Tree swallows – the males have glossy blue-green feathers – are bound for the Rockies and other points north. Others will stay. Violet-green swallows nest in tree holes and cliffs – and find the habitat they need in the Chisos, Davis and Guadalupe mountains.

On the West Texas interstates, keep your eye out for another March arrival.

Michael Nickell is museum scientist at the Sibley Center in Midland. 

“Sibley is close to our loop around the city,” Nickell said, “and it's got several bridges. I'm always looking for the cliff swallows. Those are really cool – the swallows are back.”

The cliff swallows are an abrupt marker of seasonal change, Nickell said. An entire colony will arrive on a single day, taking up residence in mud nests beneath a highway overpass – or on a cliff or canyon wall in the outback. 

Mud is a valuable resource in the arid West, and cliff swallows will reuse a complex of nests if they can. But house sparrows often squat in the nests in winter, and the cliff swallows are obliged to rebuild and tidy up.

Then there are barn swallows – who arrive here from as far away as South America, and often nest under the eaves of homes. They can leave a mess by your doorstep – but they help control insects, and the chatter among parents and young is a charming sound through the summer.

The plains, desert grasslands and home gardens of West Texas are wintering habitat for a host of sparrows – clay-colored and Brewer's sparrows, lark buntings, dark-eyed juncos. As swallows arrive, these sparrows take their leave, heading for northerly breeding grounds.

All well and good – but what about the flashy stuff?

“The most exciting thing,” Riley said, “and the thing that most people are asking me about is: When are the hummingbirds coming? That actually happens in March. They're coming back to their breeding grounds right now. People should go ahead and get their feeders all cleaned up really well, and put your hummingbird feeder back out.”

Hummingbirds migrate through West Texas – but the region, and especially its “sky-island” mountains, are also a nesting destination.

Broad-tailed hummingbirds – their backs iridescent green, the males adorned with rose-red throat markings – arrive first, in early March. Black-chinned and Rivoli's – or “Magnificent” – hummers follow, and nest in the high country. Lucifer hummingbirds are beautiful – and true desert creatures. The Big Bend desert suits them for breeding – and as soon as it's available, they'll choose the nectar of agaves and ocotillo flowers over feeders. 

A close observer will note that male hummers appear first – seven to 10 days before the females. The males are fiercely territorial – in both summer and winter habitat – which means they secure the best of the food in wintering grounds. The females must wait for the males to leave, to get the nourishment they need for the long migration.

Then, in mid- to late-March, there's another seasonal milestone, one that's hard to miss. 

“The skies, to me, are lonely with no vultures in them,” Riley said, “because in the winter you don't see anything flying around. So I get really excited when they come back, and I know most people do, even people who aren't bird watchers. I'll see it on community chat board: Hey, the turkey vultures are here!”

Turkey vultures are year-round residents in most of Texas, but for reasons scientists don't understand, they forsake most of West Texas in winter. Some head east. Others linger on the Rio Grande in Big Bend. A lone vulture may appear in February – scouting the scene. But their return en masse in March announces spring's arrival. 

West Texas' most famous avian traveler also returns this month. The Colima warbler is a forager in oak woodlands, and, in the United States, nests only in the Chisos Mountains. Birders from around the world come to Big Bend National Park to see the bird.

Among birds of prey, there's a changing of the guard in March. Eagles, ferruginous hawks, sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper’s hawks head north, while Swainson's hawks and elf owls arrive. Midland-Odessa is at the western edge of the nesting range for Mississippi kites. These small, graceful raptors can be spotted in town.

“I love it when we get our Mississippi kites,” Nickell said. “They will nest here – they will set up housekeeping in the trees around the golf courses. Of course, they're fairly territorial, and don't like the golfers much. I'm real excited to see the Mississippi kites – that's one of my favorite birds.”

The scene will only grow more dazzling as spring continues – and orioles, grosbeaks and buntings return to the deserts and plains.

March also means changes for our year-round residents. Scaled, Montezuma and Gambel's quail emerge from hiding. Curve-billed thrashers and cactus wrens sing their courtship songs. Yet these birds are wise to desert ways – and time their nesting not to seasons, but to local rainfall. If rainfall and insect populations are insufficient, they may not raise young at all.

“Whirl is king,” the Greek poet Aristophanes wrote. In the shifting weather, and in the whirling changes in wildlife here, nothing embodies that like March in West Texas.

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.