When I learned that this year's conference of the American Theological Library Association (I was scheduled to make a presentation at it) was going to be held in Austin, I began to salivate and scheme. The scheming involved tacking on a trip to the Lower Rio Grande Valley after the conference (see my recent posting) and the salivating the prospect of seeing Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler (never numerous, both are found for the most part only in central Texas) and perhaps a couple of other life birds in the Austin area. With the latter possibility in mind I sent a request to Texbirds hoping that someone in the area might be willing to take Eric Friede and me out for a morning of birding on the 15th of June. I received three (positive) responses (!) the first of which was from Roy Reinarz. Roy had seen both species recently and said there was a 100% chance of our seeing the vireo.
Roy picked us up at our hotel at 5:00 a.m. after driving al the way from Lago Vista. As we packed our gear into his car we could hear White-winged Doves cooing and Western Kingbirds chattering as they worked the graveyard shift flycatching under the lights of a nearby parking lot. The great-tailed Grackles were beginning to stir as well.
As we drove north on highways 35 and 281 I mentioned to Roy that I had heard about the threats posed to the warbler in particular by the cutting down of cypress trees. "I feel like choking people who say that!" was his impassioned response. All in good fun, and I thanked him for keeping his hands on the wheel. He proceeded to explain that the Golden-cheekeds can get by with a minimal number of cypress trees (the source of their nesting material) and that overgrazing by deer (which ought to be kept in check by more liberal hunting regulations) is a much greater problem than tree-cutting. He went on to describe how the vireos actually needed to have their oak shrub habitat thinned out from time to time for optimum breeding success. This task used to be carried out by foraging buffalo and wildfires, but now has to be done by human intervention. Ironically, both birds seem to thrive in the Fort Hood area, thanks in part to maneuvering tanks that thin out the vegetation, and to the scheduling of maneuvers to coincide with the birds' non-breeding season. Roy's explanations made sense: much harm has been done by zealous but uninformed environmentalism.
We arrived just before sun-up at The Shin Oak oservation deck, which is on the north end of the Balcones Canyonlands NWR. There was plenty of birdsong, especially from Northern Cardinals, and Roy was confident that the vireos would emerge. There was movement from time to time in the low bushes surrounding the deck, and Roy figured that these were indeed vireos. Meanwhile, I was hearing what I thought was a House Finch (but which I later realized was a Painted Bunting) and Eric and I were getting distant scope views of Painted Buntings and larger, chunkier birds that turned out to be Canyon Towhees. The buntings were stunning, and if I hadn't had the incredible fortune of seeing one last May during a visit to Regina, Saskatchewan, they would've been lifers. A CRESTED CARACARA flew over, a bird I'd had a fleeting glimpse of in Mexico, but this was an ABA-area first. We saw at least one more that day. A Common Raven appeared in the distance, and then we got some excellent looks at one of the Yellow-breasted Chats that had been providing goofy background vocals all morning.
At around 7:00 Eric, who'd been patiently panning the bushes to the south of the observation dome, called out to us, and sure enough, A BLACKCAPPED VIREO was foraging just a few meters in front of us. It paused for a couple of seconds on a bare branch and dipped back down into the brush. A few minutes later another male (Roy thought it might've been a juvenile), flew onto an exposed perch and must've sung a couple of verses and the chorus of his song. Roy said he'd never seen a Black-capped perch for so long out in the open like that.
An Eastern Wood-Pewee that flitted low across the boardwalk was our last significant bird before we left for Doeskin Ranch.
We turned left out of the parking lot and followed FM-1869 until it dead-ended into FM-1174. We turned left again, and at the bottom of the first hill we parked at the entrance to the Flying V Ranch. After tentatively identifying an accipiter perched on a nearby power pole as a Cooper's Hawk we made our way to a culvert that drained an arroyo. Here Roy showed us the nest of both Cliff and Cave Swallows, pointing out the goblet-like shape of the latter. An Eastern Phoebe and a Red-eyed vireo were singing in the background as we began to scan the flock of swallows overhead for the light-chinned and dark-crowned CAVE SWALLOWS, which we soon found.
We then followed FM-1174 west to Doeskin Ranch, noting the Scissor-tailed Flycatchers on the wires overhead. Once we'd parked, I headed to the biffy, scaring up a pair of Lark Sparrows along the way. Roy led us along the short route aroung the sanctuary, the one that loops around the meadow and back to the parking lot. He was happy to see several young oak trees flourishing by the streamside. The deer had finished off most of the rest. The herd really needed to be thinned out, he said, if the young growth was to survive and if the deer themselves were to look less like German shepherds and more like deer. I saw something yellow fly across the field and into a tree. "Some kind of flycatcher!" I called out, and then changed my mind once I'd seen its un-flycatcher-like bill and round head. It turned out to be a female Summer Tanager. The walk also produced Lesser Goldfinch, Black-crested Titmouse, House Finch, and a great view of a Painted Bunting.
Continuing west on FM-1174, we turned left where it dead-ended into FM-1431. During the 10-15-minute drive to our next location Roy recounted incidents from his family history. His ancestors were the first German immigrants to settle in Texas (back in the 1840's) and had somehow survived both cholera epidemics and the hostility of the local native tribes. After 10-15 minutes of winding our way around the Balcones Escarpment we crossed a stream that flowed under the road through a culvert. Immediately at the top of the next hill was the turnoff to Warbler Vista. It’s a sharp turn and easy to miss, especially if you have a car on your tail. Roy drove us up the white limestone-gravelled road to an observation deck. On the way we flushed a Greater Roadrunner.
The observation deck was supposed to be in the breeding territory of a couple of sets of Golden-cheeked Warblers. We got some up close and personal views of both Black and Turkey Vultures; Yellow-billed Cuckoos called a couple of times; and there was motion from time to time in the foliage, but it was always Northern Cardinals, Black-creasted Titmice, or Bewick’s Wrens. After about an hour we decided to pack it in, bird a bit along the road, and then head back. Part way down the hill we noticed an elderly couple (from Mississippi, as it turned out) getting into their car in a gravelled parking lot. Roy stopped to ask them if they’d seen the warblers. “Yes, we saw a couple of pairs of them down by marker number 10,” said the man. I was surprised; it was already 10:30 and quite hot: what warbler in its right mind would still be active at this time of day?
We headed down the shady trail, which Roy had helped build, admiring the fine likenesses of our target species that had been painted onto the large flat numbered rocks that served as markers. After the switchback at about marker 8 or 9 we started hearing the sound of avian activity. Then there they were: there must’ve been about four or five of them. I was puzzled by the one I happened to train my binoculars on. It was all black and white, with not a trace of yellow. I looked at some of the others, and they all had the characteristic yellow face and black eyeline of the GOLDEN-CHEEKED WARBLER. The birds weren’t at all skittish, and they allowed us to observe them for about three or four minutes. “There’s a Black and White Warbler,” cried Eric, “look, it’s even going down the tree trunk headfirst!” Mystery solved. The Black and White was a nice bonus, and we had seen both of our main target species! I’d thought we’d be lucky to see just one, especially since my pre-trip reading had mentioned the elusiveness of the Black-capped Vireo and the fact that the warbler might be hard to find because it wouldn’t be singing. On the return hike (about 15-20 minutes) Roy mentioned that he’d spent his navy career chasing Russian submarines all over the map and that he and his wife had determined that they would spend their retirement seeing Texas. Not a bad choice for a birder.
We popped down to a private park in Lago Vista to try to scare up a Red-bellied Woodpecker, but managed “only” a Carolina Chickadee, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, a couple of species of doves, and a pair of Green Herons. After a quick lunch at Wild Willie’s in Lago Vista, Roy drove us the 70 miles back to our hotel. A memorable day with a memorable Texan, and it would not be our last taste of the hospitality of Texas birders.
I could've ended my Austin birding experience on that positive note, but I just had to try for Monk Parakeet.
The American Birding Association (ABA) guide for the region said that the parakeets could be found in the ball fields just south of the Colorado River and just east of Lamar Blvd. I got off on Congress Ave. and walked a couple of sweaty kilometers west and over the bridge to the ball diamonds. Plenty of Great-tailed Grackles, but no sign of the parakeets or of the stick nests that the book said they were in the habit of building on top of lamp standards.
I’d struck out at the ball field, but at least I saw the bats. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican Free-tailed Bats. They issued nightly at sundown from three roosts beneath the Congress Ave. bridge. A memorable occasion, a social event; and they were, after all, flying life mammals—the next best thing to birds. So why was I frustrated?
I lamented my miss to Melody Mazuk the next day. “We saw lots of them yesterday afternoon over at Central Market on Lamar and 55th!” she replied. So on Saturday (18 June) Eric and I headed over in our newly acquired rental car to try to see them. On the drive over I saw a couple of parakeets fly past, their pointed tails streaming behind them. The market turned out, after some searching, to be at 37th and Lamar, and the parakeets also turned out to be somewhere else. But what about the ones I saw fly over? A quick look at the list of psittidae among the 50 or so exotics listed in Birds of the Austin, Texas, Region convinced me not to make any snap judgments.
Oh well, next year's conference will be held in Chicago, a reputed Monk Parakeet stronghold. And besides our trip to the Lower Rio Grande Valley was just a day away.
Trip List (includes sightings from 19 June return trip to Balcones)
Great Blue Heron