Camp Tejano Jul 06—18, 2007
Posted by Barry Lyon
As a boy growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, my development as a birder and young naturalist centered on weekend outings with my father. Until I was 15, the parameters of my birding were limited entirely to the times when my dad could take me out for part or all of a day. As this was the only way I had ever experienced nature, it never occurred to me that there might be other people my age with a similar set of interests. Everything changed in January of 1987, when my parents showed me an article that appeared in Audubon magazine about a man named Victor Emanuel who was experimenting with an astonishing new concept, the idea of a youth birding camp. Like me and countless others, Victor had grown up a young birder with little or no contact with other young naturalists his age. Through his company, Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, the first youth birding camp was assembled in 1986 with the singular goal of bringing together young people who happened to share this rare passion for nature and the outdoors.
In the summer of 1987 I attended Camp Cascades in Washington state. For the first time in my life I was able to go birding with kids who behaved and acted just like me. I didn't need to make any excuses to anybody for my "weird" hobby. I could actually be myself. Now, 21 years later, the VENT program of summertime youth birding camps is far removed from the days of "experimental," when there were still people who doubted whether such an abstract idea could work. The camps have worked, and better than anybody could have imagined.
In continuing the tradition, 14 boys and girls, ages 13 through 17, gathered at the airport in San Antonio to kick off our 4th Camp Tejano, supervised by Victor Emanuel, Amy Sugeno, and me. As is the case every year, the enthusiasm and energy of our band of young birders was boundless. Immediately after arrival, campers were outside the airport scanning the skies for their first life birds. Cries of "Scissor-tailed Flycatcher" and "Cliff Swallow" were soon heard, while the camp supervisors fielded such questions as, "Do you think we'll get another one?"
Within the United States, outside Southeast Arizona, perhaps only Central and West Texas can provide such an ideal blend of high biodiversity and terrific visual scenery. In constructing this camp, we included three distinct, yet biologically rich ecosystems where campers could immerse themselves in the joys of being places where everything is new and where excitement wouldn't flag. Unlike the early years of the camps, when participants were budding expert birders and primarily just birders, the camp participants of today are full of information about mammals, butterflies, dragonflies, and reptiles. In every sense of the term, today's young birders are also well-rounded naturalists, who are as likely to keep a butterfly life list as a birder's life list. To exemplify this point, we experienced more wildlife than on any previous Camp Tejano, with new record totals for mammals (18 species), reptiles and amphibians (24 species), and butterflies (77 species, smashing the old record). And our total of 153 species of birds was the second highest ever for the camp.
The summer of 2007 may well be best remembered for its record rainfall. Low pressure trapped over the state for months allowed Central Texas to record its rainiest summer in 60 years. Most noticeable was the sight of area rivers, particularly the Frio, swollen with recent rains. These rains extended the life of what had been a spectacular wildflower season, so that when we arrived we were greeted with roadsides, pastures, and hillsides decorated with a menagerie of yellows, whites, blues, and reds.
From our base at Neal's Lodge, we savored three days exploring the famed Texas Hill Country, with its limestone hills, cypress-lined waterways, riparian bottomlands, and oak and juniper-covered plateaus. This land is a zone of transition, where east meets west and north meets south. Consequently, birds are numerous, and we had no problem finding a host of species typical of South Texas, the southeastern U.S., and the southwestern U.S.! Olive and Field sparrows occupied the same brush piles; Yellow-throated Warblers and Hooded Orioles danced through the large live oaks; Vermilion and Brown-crested flycatchers called each morning around our cabins; Carolina Chickadees and Eastern Phoebes made themselves at home in the shade of stately bald cypress trees; and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers perched like sentinels atop seemingly every power pole. Field trips south and west of Uvalde produced such glamour birds as Crested Caracara, Harris's Hawk, and Couch's Kingbird, while Green and Ringed kingfishers along the Nueces River made us feel one step from the tropics.
The three great birds of the Texas Hill Country—Zone-tailed Hawk, Golden-cheeked Warbler, and Black-capped Vireo—were, of course, on everybody's mind, and our trip to Kerr Wildlife Management Area netted all three! A pair of foraging vireos was elusive, but eventually seen well by all, while a gorgeous male Golden-cheeked put on a great show as it foraged only yards away. In addition to these birds, we tracked down a slew of butterflies, scorpions, and spiders, while Victor and Amy offered fine interpretation of area plants and trees. An evening at the Frio bat cave saw us witness to one of North America's greatest wildlife spectacles—the emergence of millions of Mexican free-tailed bats.
Big Bend National Park, noble for its scenery, splendid for its birdlife, and irresistible for its vastness, was our home for four nights. One never has quite enough time at Big Bend, but our stay did allow us time to visit the most important, and best, parts of the park. A morning hike on the Window Trail produced sublime views of Gray and Black-capped vireos, Black-chinned Sparrow, Varied Bunting, and Scott's Oriole, before taking us into the depths of a magnificent desert canyon, with imposing walls of rock rising around us, flaming orange in the morning light. The hike to Boot Spring was the feature activity of our time in the park and we took our time traipsing upward into the forested higher reaches of the mountains, identifying birds and butterflies as we moved along. Colima Warblers were eventually viewed with ease in the depths of lovely Boot Canyon; a gorgeous male Lucifer Hummingbird was spotted at an agave; and sightings of very rare Dusky-capped Flycatchers and White-eared Hummingbirds rounded out the hike.
Tropical raptors put in a good showing, as we recorded Black and Gray hawks at Rio Grande Village, while Tropical and Couch's kingbirds nesting side by side at Cottonwood Campground were a special highlight. An evening owl prowl found us face-to-face with Western Screech and Elf owls one fortuitous evening. Amy Sugeno was our reptile and amphibian expert, and her capture of a Texas lyre snake and subsequent awakening of our sleeping campers to view it was unforgettable.
The Davis Mountains, cool and lush, high and scenic, proved a worthy final destination. The facilities provided by the Nature Conservancy of Texas were exceptional and afforded us two final days of total comfort while we explored one of Texas's few true "sky islands." A morning in the pine forest above the lodge turned up a host of new species, and birds more closely associated with Southeast Arizona and other parts of the West. Plumbeous Vireos, Grace's Warblers, and Hepatic Tanagers flitted among the pines while Gray Flycatchers and Mountain Chickadees offered a distinctly Rocky Mountain flavor. Butterflies were abundant, and thanks to Lauren's butterfly net we caught and identified countless species new for the trip. A final evening at Kelly Bryan's mountain homesite provided our best hummingbird show of the trip, with White-eared, Magnificent, and Broad-tailed hummingbirds vying for space at the feeders. A last-minute discovery of a male Calliope hummer put the finishing touches on a great afternoon.
Our grand finale was a visit to a prairie dog town en route to San Antonio, where colonies of black-tailed prairie dogs dashed around under the summer sun. A family of Burrowing Owls guarding their subterranean home was the final bit of polish on an outstanding trip.