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Ears to the Night Sky

Here is a list of five common species you can see and hear during spring in Texas, using Houston eBird data for Harris County.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Dan Vickers/Macaulay Library (S55087581)
This sometimes skulking species occurs regularly in Houston, as evidenced by the eBird range maps (including current reports in orange). During migration, you may see it much more frequently than during breeding seasons, when individuals can be especially hard to see. This cuckoo is a loud and distinct nocturnal vocalizer, with a vocalization reminiscent of individual or sequential chuckling gurgles; and often it is MUCH easier to hear during nocturnal migration than it is to see during the day! Here are some examples of nocturnal calls: 1, 2, 3. Here are some additional examples as recorded by observers submitting to eBird and Macaulay Library.

Upland Sandpiper
Luke Seitz/Macaulay Library (S36282564)
This wonderful shorebird is a frequent feature of native short-grass grasslands or other similarly open country in the Texas coastal plain and Hill Country during spring and fall migration. This species also occurs regularly in Houston, check the eBird range maps (including current reports in orange), and it too is a loud and frequent nocturnal vocalizer. Here are recordings of the species' calls from eBird. Listen for a rapid, almost fluttering and sometimes quivering, series of notes, all on the same pitch.

Green Heron
Marky Mutchler/Macaulay Library (S44267449)
This heron is regular as a spring and fall migrant and breeder in Houston, as evidenced by the eBird range maps (including current reports in orange). Any small pond with vegetation, especially small sticks protruding from or into the water, makes a perfect spot for this species, in migration and as a potential nesting location. They can be seen stalking even in much drier areas, seeking lizards rather than their more typical diet of fish and frogs. Flight calls of this species are explosive, loud, sounding like a yelled "skeow!," and may be heard, in Texas at least, in rapid succession or in aggregation, for example from small, loose groups of this species migrating together.

Swainson's Thrush
Sabine Woods/Macaulay Library (S54784234)
Another regular, though often much less frequently seen migrant in Houston, as evidenced by the eBird range maps (including current reports in orange). The flight call of this species is perhaps one of the most recognizable of any sound from the night sky, reminiscent of a spring peeper with its rising pure note, with an occasionally burry finish; before dawn, this species can be a frequent and loud vocalizer, at times represented by hundreds of calls during a several minute period. This species, and other thrushes, are often cited as one of the primary reason that we need acoustic monitoring for nocturnal migration - the sounds of this group are salient features of the night, but seeing thrushes in their true abundance during the day is very difficult!

Dickcissel
Brad Imhoff/Macaulay Library (S29940867)
Roiling flocks of this species are commonplace day and night during migration in Texas, so much so that at times this species may dominate all others on radar and represent a huge percentage of the avian biomass on the move! A regular migrant in Houston, eBird range maps (including current reports in orange) show it occurring in many areas - most likely, open lands and scrubs are its primary haunts. Dickcissel calls are reminiscent of some sort of electric buzzer or alarm, given frequently during day and night, with numerous examples here and here.

By Dr. Andrew Farnsworth, Research Associate, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
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Learn how you can help our spring migrants by simply turning off your lights. 

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