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Posts Tagged ‘Texas’

I still remember the first time that I travelled to Austin, Texas.  Running through O’Hare Airport to catch my plane to Florida, where I would spend a couple of weeks with my parents while my husband looked for an apartment.  Being aware, but not afraid, that flights to Florida were being hijacked to Cuba.  The flight to Houston on a jet and then the final leg to Austin on a small prop plane.  It was 1968 and I was 8-months pregnant with my first child.  A month later, my son, David, would be born at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin.

Me shortly before and just after the birth of my son David in 1968 I think the photos were taken at Bastrop State Park.

Me shortly before and just after the birth of my son David in 1968 I think the photos were taken at Bastrop State Park.

This trip in March 2017 was much easier.  I just got in my Subaru Outback and drove to Austin.   The purpose of traveling to Texas this time was to visit Trissie, mother of Dave’s daughter, Amber.  Sadly for me, Dave and Trissie are no longer together.  Dave is still in China, but Trissie is now in the US and engaged to Mike.  Trissie is familiar with my birding addiction from our time together in China, so I knew that I could combine birding with a family visit.

My road trip skills are improving, although I still have much to learn about planning and finding birds.  The first day on the road, I drove through heavy storms for much of the way, but it was clear when I got to Nashville.  I didn’t have time to go to the park that I had originally planned, but I found J. Percy Priest Dam just a couple of miles from my hotel.  I’m easily entertained, so I enjoyed the cutest mongrel Mallard that I’d ever seen, studying the feet on the coots, and watching a Common Loon try to choke down a very large fish.

On day two, I drove to Texarkana and stayed the night on the Arkansas side.  My planned stop near Little Rock hadn’t worked out, so I decided to find some Arkansas birds in the morning before driving into Texas.  The next morning was magical – sunny, perfect temperature, no wind – and Alex Smith County Park proved to be one of my favorite stops of the entire trip.  A dirt road passed the official park, a lake, and a wetland on the way to the river.  A couple dozen Gadwall were on the lake.  When they flew from one side to the other with their white speculums gleaming in the sunlight, I thought that I’d never seen anything so beautiful.

Hermit Thrush basking in the sun at Alex Smith County Park in Arkansas.

Hermit Thrush basking in the sun at Alex Smith County Park in Arkansas.

I drove on to Austin, where it was great to see Trissie again and meet Mike.  On Saturday, our first full day together, my hosts indulged me with a trip to Balcones Canyonlands, where two endangered species, Golden-checked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo, breed.  It was a bit too early for either species, but the landscape was beautiful and I hope that Trissie and Mike found a beautiful place for hiking.

Male Ladder-backed Woodpecker, a species that I saw at Commons Ford Park and again later at Pedernales Falls State Park.

Male Ladder-backed Woodpecker, a species that I saw at Commons Ford Park and again later at Pedernales Falls State Park.

Andrew Dickinson, the son of friends, lives in Austin and we had arranged an outing for Sunday morning at Commons Ford Park.  Trissie and Mike were good sports and got up early to go with me.  It was a nice introduction to Travis County birding and exciting that Andrew found an early Northern Parula.  I also saw my first western birds here – Spotted Towhee, Black-crested Titmouse, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers.

That afternoon, we toured the Texas state capitol because it seemed like something that tourists should do.  We were all a little surprised at how interesting we found the capitol and how much we enjoyed the tour.

Great-tailed Grackles were abundant on the Austin capitol grounds.

Great-tailed Grackles were abundant on the Austin capitol grounds.

Monday was one of my favorite days.  Mike had to go to work, but Trissie took the day off and we went to Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.  A volunteer immediately greeted us and pointed out a Great Horned Owl on a nest right above the entrance to the courtyard.  “Athena,” as she is called by the staff, has nested in the same location for 8 years!  She just sat there watching all the visitors look at her and take photographs, but she must have felt safe from predators.

Look carefully under the sotol to see Athena's eyes just peeking over the edge of the planter.

Look carefully under the sotol to see Athena’s eyes just peeking over the edge of the planter.

I especially enjoyed the butterfly garden where I found a new butterfly, White-striped Longtail.

I especially enjoyed the butterfly garden where I found a new butterfly, White-striped Longtail.

A gorgeous Texas Spiny Lizard.

A gorgeous Texas Spiny Lizard.

Trissie became engrossed in the beautiful books that were available for browsing and we both enjoyed the film about Lady Bird Johnson.  She was an amazing woman who accomplished much good and I now have an increased appreciation for her numerous environmental contributions.

Trissie enjoying the arboretum at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Trissie enjoying the arboretum at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Next it was a trip to the Alamo for Trissie and me.  It’s a place that everyone should go once, but once is enough for most, so Mike was happy that Trissie could go with me.  We enjoyed being tourists and walked the river front after touring the Alamo.

I went to Pace Bend Park by myself on Wednesday and could have spent days there.  I foolishly did not read eBird reports before I went, so I missed a lot of birds, but did find the only Canyon Towhee of the trip, more Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays, and several pretty butterflies.

'Olive' Juniper Hairstreak

‘Olive’ Juniper Hairstreak

That evening Carlos Ross, a new friend made on Facebook, met us at Commons Ford Park to look (well, actually listen) for Common Poorwill.  It was a lovely evening and the four of us were the only people at the park.  We talked about the mysteries of birds and life while we waited.  And, then I heard the soft “Poor will, Poor will” in the distance.  Yay!  This was my only life bird of the trip.

Female Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Female Golden-fronted Woodpecker

I had planned to leave on Thursday, but I couldn’t tear myself away from Texas birds, so Trissie and Mike invited me to stay with them another day.  The volunteer we had met earlier in the week at the LBJ Wildflower Center had shown us some beautiful photos that he took at Pedernales Falls State Park, so we decided to go there on our last day together.  We walked into the bird blind at the park and my jaw dropped.  The bird area contained a large pool/fountain and several tree stumps stuffed with suet – all designed to draw in the birds.  And, did it ever draw them in!  Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers up close.  A flock of Cedar Waxwings in the pool.  Good looks at Spotted Towhee and Lincoln’s Sparrows.  We saw only 16 species, but some like Bewick’s Wren were birds that I had not seen anywhere else on this trip.

Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay

Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay

The next day, Friday, I really had to start heading home, so I reluctantly said goodbye to Trissie.  But I was greedy and drove two hours west to Pedernales Falls before heading east.  The difference from the previous day was astonishing.  It was so quiet that I could hardly believe it was the same place.  But it was still nice to do my last Texas birding at such a wonderful place.

Pine Warbler at an I-30 rest stop in Arkansas.

Pine Warbler at an I-30 rest stop in Arkansas.

The drive home was uneventful.  I have learned to pace myself by not driving too far each day.  I stopped at nearly every rest area and walked around for 20-30 minutes with my binoculars and camera.  I usually didn’t find anything more exciting than robins or chickadees, but sometimes I got lucky as with a lovely male Pine Warbler in Arkansas.  I will definitely be doing more road trips.  One of them is sure to be to Texas again to visit Trissie and Mike and see more Texas birds and butterflies.

Texas Indian Paintbrush

Texas Indian Paintbrush

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Big Bend sunset.  Photo by Warren Jones.

Big Bend sunset. Photo by Warren Jones.

After our group met in Hondo, Texas, it was on to Neal’s Lodges in Concan in hopes of seeing Golden-cheeked Warblers and Black-capped Vireos.  We found the warbler quite cooperative and all had great views at Neal’s and again at Lost Maples SNA.  The vireo, however, did not want to be seen as much as we wanted to see it.  One flashed by a couple of times, but I did not get a look that I could count.  A lovely Tropical Parula was a bonus bird at Neal’s, though, which we all saw well.  Another treat at Neal’s were the plentiful and cooperative Bell’s Vireos.  Unlike their black-capped cousins, these birds perched in the open for us.

The most awe-inspiring experience in Concan for me, though, was our visit to the Frio Bat Cave where 10 to 12 million Mexican free-tailed Bats emerge from the cave and whirl into the sky just before dark.  We stood outside the cave entrance where we could hear the whoosh, feel the breeze created by their wings, and smell the odor of the bats (surprisingly not unpleasant) as they flew a few feet over our heads and ascended into the evening sky.  I found this amazingly peaceful.  An added bonus was a Canyon Wren who hopped around on the rocks outside the cave entrance while we were listening to the guide and waiting for the bats to exit the cave.  It was an unexpected treat to get close looks at a bird that is more often heard than seen.

At Big Bend, a Greater Roadrunner appeared in front of the lodge before we even got the cars unloaded, a sign of the good birding ahead.  The Colima Warbler, the reason that we were in Big Bend, rewarded those of us who climbed the Pinnacle Trail with wonderful views.  It was also great to have quality views of Common Black-Hawks and Gray Hawks.  Another interesting sighting was a Blue-winged Warbler at the Sam Nail Ranch.  We were puzzled when we saw the bird because it should not have been there.  It is a bird of the Eastern US.  But we could not make the bird into anything other than a Blue-winged Warbler.  Later we learned that the bird had been discovered the day before our sighting and was reported on the rare bird alerts.

Seeing a bird really well can be as exciting for me as seeing a life bird.  I suppose you could call it seeing life field marks.  Such was the case with the Vesper Sparrow that I watched in front of the camp store at Big Bend.  The little sparrow stretched its neck upward to reach the grass seeds and seemed to not care at all that I was watching from only 10-15 feet away.  It was exciting to be close enough to actually see the rufous shoulder patch.  Now I could understand why this bird was once called Bay-winged Bunting, and before that, Grass Finch.  The name Vesper Sparrow was first used by New England naturalist Wilson Flagg in 1858 because he thought that the bird sang most fervently during the sun’s decline until dusk.

Christmas Mountains Oasis provided a wonderful stop on our way from Big Bend to the Davis Mountains.  Carolyn Ohl-Johnson, CMO’s owner, was a delightful host who was interesting, energetic, and very welcoming.  I got my 500th ABA bird there – a male Varied Bunting.  Carolyn wrote about our visit on her blog and posted a photo of our group.

Montezuma Quail.  Photo by Warren Jones.

Montezuma Quail. Photo by Warren Jones.

We wrapped up our trip with two days in the Davis Mountains and we were rewarded with incredibly close long looks at the star of Davis Mountains State Park, Montezuma Quail.  On two separate visits, both a male and female came within 10 feet of us.  They also fed surprisingly close to javelinas on one of those visits.  These sightings occurred at the official quail viewing station where the feeders also drew in quite a few other birds.  My favorites were the Green-tailed Towhees who also allowed us wonderful close looks.

Back at the Hotel Limpia, a charming Say’s Phoebe graced the lobby entrance with her constant presence as she attended her nest on the porch.

Say's Phoebe.  Photo by Warren Jones.

Say’s Phoebe. Photo by Warren Jones.

Many thanks go to Warren Jones for permission to use his photos in this post.

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The Rookery at Smith Oaks at High Island

The Rookery at Smith Oaks at High Island

“You should have been here yesterday.”  That’s how my trip in April started out.  Two friends and I drove from North Carolina to Dauphin Island, Alabama, and High Island, Texas, before meeting the rest of our group near San Antonio.  I learned that hot spots aren’t hot every day, even at the right time of the year.

Common Loon - a surprising find at Dauphin Island

Common Loon – a surprising find at Dauphin Island

I don’t have much to say about Dauphin Island except that it did provide my best view ever of a very beautiful Kentucky Warbler.  We also saw so many Prothonotary Warblers that they almost became trash birds.  And, take your own food!  Perhaps being there Easter weekend didn’t contribute to the availability of dining options, but it was so bad that the last night we voted for the hamburgers at the gas station as our best bet for dinner.

At High Island, the bird story was similar to Dauphin Island; we missed the big days before and after our visit.  But High Island did give me my first life bird of the trip, a very cooperative Swainson’s Warbler.  On our first morning at Boy Scout Woods, I asked about finding the warbler and headed in the direction where one had been seen the day before.  After searching a short time, I noticed two men intently peering into the thick underbrush.  I knew that they were looking at a Swainson’s Warbler.  I slowly walked over to the men; they warmly greeted me and then showed me where the warbler was turning over leaves on the ground.  Over the next 20 minutes, a crowd of 10 or so slowly gathered and our local expert did not leave until he was sure that every person there had seen the Swainson’s Warbler.

A rookery is an amazing place with hundreds of birds packed in so tightly that they almost step on each other.  I took the photo at the top of this post at The Rookery at Smith Oaks in High Island.  At the time of our visit, nesting birds were predominately Roseate Spoonbills and Neotropic Cormorants with a few Great and Snowy Egrets.  The Roseate Spoonbills were dazzling with their deep pink shoulders, orange tail, and tuft of pink feathers in the center of their breasts.

Do you remember Dreamsicles?  My friend Susan describes the color of American Avocets in breeding plumage as deamsicle.  The thousand plus Avocets we discovered at Bollivar Flats looked like a colorful sea of dreamsicle, black and white.  What an awesome moment it was to soak in all that beauty and see one of our favorite birds doing so well that they could congregate in groups of thousands.  I have since learned that the American Avocet does indeed have a NatureServe conservation status of G5 (secure) and an IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) status of Least Concern.  The global population is estimated at 450,000 adults.

Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge provided a wonderful break on our drive to meet the rest of our group.  We had only a couple of hours to spare, but could easily have spent an entire day there.  Everything was wonderful – the habitat, birds, butterflies, flowers, visitor’s center.  During our short visit, we were pleased to see the only White-tailed Hawk of the trip, a close-up Crested Caracara, Loggerhead Shrike and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers along with ducks, waders, and meadowlarks.  We all noted Attwater NWR as a place we would like to visit again as we headed west to continue our Texas adventure.

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