Austin, Texas Birding and Nature Festival Apr 09—13, 2008
Posted by Barry Lyon
The impetus for our first-ever Austin, Texas Birding and Nature Festival arose from the fact that never in its 32-year history had VENT held a tour or other event in its headquarters' city, Austin. With this thought in mind, we reached the conclusion that it was time we showed off our home turf! No better time exists than mid-April for discovering the diversity of Central Texas, with migrant and resident birds pouring through the region, roadsides peppered with wildflowers, and generally good weather the norm.
For such an event to be successful, we knew it needed to be unlike any other tour we offer. We aspired for a dynamic atmosphere in which numbers of participants could interact with one another and enjoy the company of multiple VENT leaders, while experiencing ample doses of natural history, camaraderie, and fun.
In bringing the event to fruition, we assembled 43 festival participants and an outstanding group of tour leaders, all of whom brought considerable natural history knowledge that extended beyond birding. Included were Victor Emanuel, David Wolf, Barry Lyon, Brennan Mulrooney, Michael O'Brien, and Louise Zemaitis. We were especially honored to have Kenn Kaufman join us for the event as a leader and evening speaker. Our base for the festival was the elegant Hyatt Hotel, situated in downtown Austin on the shores of scenic Lady Bird Lake. Each evening, following the return of the daily field trips, we assembled on the 17th floor to share stories from the daily field trips, socialize, and admire the commanding views of the city's skyline.
Three days of field trips to three distinct regions produced a satisfying list of birds that reflected the region’s variety of landscapes and biology. The Austin area truly straddles the boundary where east meets west. Consequently, eastern birds and western birds are often found in close proximity to one another. Throw in a bit of South Texas flavor and it's easy to understand why we recorded 152 species of birds.
The field trip to Fort Hood, north of Austin, may have been the collective favorite destination of festival participants. Characterized by wide open space, vast areas of undeveloped hills and valleys, and lovely forests of juniper and oak, the natural environment of the fort was pleasing in every regard. Escorted by military liaison Gil Eckrich and Nature Conservancy biologist, Rich Kostecke, our groups were treated to wild areas otherwise off limits to the public. Refreshing field breakfasts preceded mornings spent looking for Golden-cheeked Warblers and Black-capped Vireos, the two premier birds of Central Texas. Everybody enjoyed quality looks at the warbler, and the vireo, despite its intensely furtive nature, was seen by most. But our time here also revealed delightful butterfly shows, with a profusion of swallowtails, whites, sulphurs, hairstreaks, ladies, crescents, and checkerspots enlivening a particularly memorable (and scenic!) lunch spot. An ultra-rare Prairie Warbler was found on the first day by one fortunate group.
East of Austin, Bastrop State Park was the first destination for the most local of the field trips. The uniqueness of Bastrop was evidenced in its substantial loblolly pine forests. Called the "lost pines" by locals, this entire ecosystem exists as the westerly vanguard of the great piney woods of East Texas. As such, it is also the breeding area for a number of species not ranging further west. A full morning amid the pines, cherry laurels, red cedars, and blackjack oaks produced exciting encounters with Hooded and Pine warblers, Northern Parulas, and Summer Tanagers. A singing Louisiana Waterthrush on territory was the highlight of the area with every group enjoying outstanding views.
The wildflower displays around Bastrop were easily the best of the festival. Lupines, gaillardias, mallows, and composites decorated the roadsides and pastures in a riot of color. Among the more prominent flowers noted were bluebonnets, Mexican hat, firewheel, coreopsis, pink primrose, old plainsman, and winecup. The winecup, in particular, was the darling of many. Though more subtle in its smaller size, it was impossible not to fawn over the beautiful purple flowers.
The local water treatment facility, Hornsby Bend, did not disappoint. The conditions around the ponds were absolutely perfect for visits by our groups. A dozen shorebird species were noted all over the extensive mudflats and shallow ponds. Sandpipers in profusion were the theme here. Pectoral was the most common, but lesser numbers of Baird's, Western, Semipalmated, and Least were also noted. Wilson's Phalaropes added a splash of elegance to the scene and even a few White-faced Ibis were about, charming us with their green and purple iridescence.
It was also here where the most unexpected sighting of the festival occurred. Michael O'Brien, a.k.a., Mr. Shorebird, and David Wolf, leading their group on the final afternoon, found a female Ruff, an extremely rare Eurasian shorebird. This sighting earned the title of the rarest bird found and was only the 5th Ruff ever recorded in the Austin area.
Finally, the trip to Mitchell Lake, south of Austin, was noteworthy for its impressive mix of waterbirds and landbirds. Lovely American Avocets, Neotropic Cormorants, a Great Horned Owl chick on a nest, and an out-of-range Green-tailed Towhee were the highlights here. Though slower than we would have liked, Warbler Woods proved a welcome respite for the drive back to Austin. Perhaps most interesting here was the mudhole loaded with southern leopard frogs. These striking creatures were on full display, with at least six or eight in view at any one time, gobbling up the large wasps that cruised around the mud in search of moisture.
Each night of the festival was a treat in and of itself. Victor's opening remarks on the first night set the tone for the event. The next evening, Greg Lasley, wildlife photographer extraordinaire, entertained us with his many wonderful images of the wildlife of Central Texas. On the ensuing night, Kenn Kaufman delivered an informative and amusing talk on the secret life of birds.
The festival's grand finale took place not in the hotel, but aboard a paddle boat on Lady Bird Lake, where everybody, including leaders, participants, and members of our office staff, embarked on a sunset cruise to view Austin's famous Mexican free-tailed bats. At over one million animals, this bat flight constitutes North America's greatest urban wildlife spectacle. Against the setting sun, with the sight of countless bats streaming like lines of smoke into the evening sky, we found ourselves reveling in the moment, basking in the glow of a rewarding mid-April weekend in Austin, Texas.
As a final note, in sincere appreciation to Fort Hood for permitting us to run our field trips on its property, Victor Emanuel Nature Tours has chosen to financially support the fort's Earth Day fund. Fort Hood's Earth Day provides activities and awareness that promote the value of nature and a clean environment for military personnel, their families, and residents of the surrounding communities. Thanks to the attendance of festival participants, we raised $1,340 for the Fort Hood Earth Day fund.