The beginning of February found us seemingly in the dead of winter, with the likelihood of more chilly weather. We also began the month with plenty of wintering birds filling our refuges and marine areas.
Gulls, terns, sandpipers and plovers highlight the clouds of light-colored beach birds rising and falling in amazing confluence. Ducks of a dozen or so species fill our refuges with amazing colors and patterns.
But as February begins, numbers of waterfowl begin to drop slightly, and not as many hawks are seen sitting on poles and wires. Changes are taking place. Laughing Gulls are getting darker heads, gradually moving toward the dark hood they wear all spring and summer.
Songbirds like cardinals and mockingbirds begin welcoming the warmer days with their glorious songs. And sometime in the first half of February, a very special newcomer flies northeast, up the coastline, appearing black. What could it be?
That black is actually deep purple, and our guest is a male Purple Martin, the first spring migrant from the tropics this year. Overhead it chirps, heralding spring and our love of trees laced with warblers.
By the end of the month, we may see a Louisiana Waterthrush, incoming Lesser Yellowlegs or maybe an early Northern Parula. Indeed, the promise of spring excites us all!
February also brings the great, late-spring confluence of Common Loons, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Eared Grebes and Forster’s Terns, all working together for fish in Offatts Bayou and off the west side of the Texas City Dike.
The loons dive underwater, and while chasing a meal, some fish come to the surface where the terns and gulls are waiting. This is a great example of cooperative feeding, like you might see on some TV nature shows.
Those loons can only swim during this time, as they molt their flight feathers all at once. Occasionally they are joined by the rare Pacific Loon, or some other species visiting. As the Common Loons molt into their breeding plumage a little later, the majestic colors and pattern seen on “Golden Pond” is here for us to marvel over.
One of the most profound rules of biology is that nature is organized in gradients. Each day of the early spring, birds with seasonal change make infinitesimally small plumage modifications, until they finally reach their amazing breeding colors.
Each day the sun creeps slightly higher in the sky, and the temperature slowly climbs. Every day, gonads of male and female birds grow minutely, bringing on that plumage change, the drive to migrate and mate, all providing the fuel for a species to continue.
This is the renowned cycle of life, with birds showing its complication more than most animals, as their amazing migration trumps all other groups of animals. The vocalizations are more complex, the plumage more vivid and even their eyesight exceeds all fellow members of the animal kingdom. This is why we have countless bird clubs, untold field guides and other bird identification aids.
And this is why our species migrates all over the country and the rest of the world to see its ornithological richness, and why one of the most popular destinations on earth for birders is Galveston. You should consider attending Galveston FeatherFest and experiencing the wonder of bird migration. It’s here in your backyard!