Spring Birding in the Texas Hill Country

The morning was just beginning to lighten in the overcast skies at Kerville-Schreiner Park. It had been dark by time we had arrived in Kerrville the night before, but even in the dim morning light, I was amazed at the jagged hills and greenery. The Hill Country, or Edwards Plateau, was a different Texas that I had seen before.

The dawn chorus began. The unmistakable what-cheer, what-cheer song of the Northern Cardinal stood out above the other emerging songs and chatter. Sue and Barb recognized the rich, rollicking song of a Carolina Chickadee – such a strong voice from such a little bird.

As it got lighter, the grass next to the parking area was buzzing with the activity of sparrows: White-crowned, Clay-colored, Chipping, and Vesper. There was a sparrow we didn’t immediately recognize. After studying our field guide, we were delighted to discover that it was a Grasshopper Sparrow.

Our target bird was the Black-crested Titmouse. We saw a small bird flitting in the foliage; however, it was only a chickadee.

“Read the location of the titmouse again, Barb,” I suggested.

“It says that the best place to find it is above the camping area,” she read.

We could see what appeared to be a camping area below, so we began systematically checking out the trees – with no luck. Finally the office opened. The attendant didn’t know anything about birds; however, when we repeated the guide book’s suggestion, she said, “Oh, that is across the highway.”

We paid our fee, got our gate code, and headed up to the top of the camping area, just as it started to drizzle.

“Be prepared to get your life bird,” Sue told Barb. “ I’m going into the rest room,”.

Black-crested Titmouse

Black-crested Titmouse

No sooner had Sue disappeared inside than the titmouse popped up on top of a moss-covered snag. Fortunately, it was still there when she emerged. It was a life bird for all of us.

After taking in some old favorites, e.g. Western Scrub Jay, Chipping Sparrow, Lesser Goldfinch, and Northern Cardinal, we left the park to head to the Kerr Wildlife Management Area, about half an hour west of Kerrville. The road wound through canyons cut through multi-layered limestone and lined with shin-oak, and then opened into green pasture land and horse farms.

Just past Mo Ranch, we turned into the wildlife management area. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife, the Edwards Plateau is the “crown jewel of Texas, and the Kerr Wildlife Management area teaches landowners how to keep it polished.”

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow

When we arrived at the park office, there was no one there; however, a Barn Swallow was perched on its reserved parking space.

“The ranger told us that Painted Buntings have been coming to the feeder,” a birding couple relayed. We didn’t have to wait long before a pair flew in, grabbed seed, and then were off. Even though they are relatively small, the male, with its lime green, red and royal blue plumage, was even more spectacular than I had imagined.

We headed to the Doe Pasture area which was designated as a prime area for sightings of the endangered Black-capped Vireo. There was a couple from Bellingham, WA already stalking the vireo.

“Someone who was here before us said they had seen one here,” they told us. “We have seen some fast fly-bys, but haven’t gotten a good look.”

The only sound was a plaintive whistle. “A Field Sparrow,” Sue told us. It is a year-round resident in the mid-Atlantic where she has done most of her birding. Pretty soon one flew into view and we could see its rusty cap and pink bill.

There were periodic bursts of activity as mixed flocks would fly into a nearby bush, engage in a furtive, feeding-frenzy and then were off. It was hard to focus on individual birds, most of which stayed deeply buried in the bushes.

It drizzled off and on, and when it would stop, there was a stiff breeze.

“I saw a Golden-cheeked Warbler,” Barb said excitedly. We hadn’t expected to see them in this location.

An occasional Mourning Warbler was identified in these mixed flocks. Sue saw a Black-throated Green Warblers.

Finally, we all got good looks of both the male and female Black-capped Vireo, a bird that can primarily be seen on the Edwards Plateau.

Satisfied, we moved on in pursuit of the Golden-cheeked Warbler, which is also endangered. It meant parking our car on the side of the road, figuring out how to unhook the chain across the gate closing, and then walking a ways up a trail to an area with dense oak trees.

As we approached the trees, there was a buzz of activity, and Sue caught a good look at the warbler. It was then quiet. We tried phishing to stir one up for me, to no avail. I was hopeful that I would see them the next day.

The following day, we headed south to Lost Maples State Park. Our guide book stated that “Los Maples has one of the largest populations of Golden-cheeked Warblers on publicly accessible lands.” However, when we arrived the park staff told us that the birds had started nesting and were much harder to spot.

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

We took a few minutes to watch the birds at the feeders outside the Visitor’s Center, where Black-chinned Hummingbirds were buzzing in and out from the nectar feeder and Indigo and Painted Buntings made quick trips to the seed feeder.

Lost-Maples---crossing-stre We parked near blind and an array of feeders and set off on one of the trails, stopping to scan the tops of each oak tree. It rained off and on. When we got to a fork in the trail, we met another visiting birder, who advised us to keep to the right, where he had heard a Golden-cheeked Warbler singing.

The cascading song of a Canyon Wren echoed off the limestone walls of the canyon. We spotted a White-eyed Vireo, and then a Summer Tanager. A Black-and-White Warbler was busy in some low bushes along the stream.

All of a sudden, I noticed a bird dart across the trail, land in an oak tree, and then heard the distinctive five note and buzz song of the Golden-Cheeked Warbler coming from the dense foliage. It sang for awhile, but didn’t show its face, and then it was off again across the trail like a flash.

We crossed the stream and then walked further up the trail. “I see a Louisiana Waterthrush,” Sue said.

“I saw it too,” Barb said. I missed it while I was scanning the tops of the trees for the warbler.

As we headed back, a kettle of Black and Turkey Vultures circled overhead. We checked to make sure a Zone-tailed Hawk wasn’t hiding in their midst, but there wasn’t.

Painted Buntings and White-crowned Sparrow

Painted Buntings and White-crowned Sparrow

Back at the parking area, we found a picnic table under a tree with dry seats and sat to watch the birds at the feeders. Almost 20 different species visited the various feeders. Our favorites were the Painted Buntings.

Wildflowers along I-10

Wildflowers along I-10

We passed through the Hill Country again on our return to Albuquerque. The sides and medians of the freeway were blanketed with wild flowers in various shades of yellow.

“You must go back sometime when the Blue Bonnets are in bloom,” a friend said.

While I didn’t see the Golden-cheeked Warbler, except in a flash, it was delightful birding in the Edwards Plateau hilly terrain. I guess I’ll just have to go back sometime.


One thought on “Spring Birding in the Texas Hill Country

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review « It’s a bird thing…

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