Spring in South Texas: Hill Country Extension Apr 12—15, 2011

Posted by Barry Zimmer

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Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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In a small bare tree about 50 feet away, the Black-capped Vireo sang its heart out. Its velvety-black cap, huge white goggles, red eye, and greenish upperparts were truly stunning. This shy bird is often seen only briefly, as it moves furtively through the thickets, but this particular individual sat up in the open, actually in the scope for a short while, providing great views for all. This is perhaps the prized bird of any trip to the Hill Country, and we had just nailed it (we saw a total of four). Of course, one could argue that the Golden-cheeked Warbler was the true prize of the region, since that species nests nowhere else in the world. A short while earlier we had equally good luck with this stunning species. In all, we saw a total of 12 Golden-cheekeds, males and females, some as close as 15 feet away!

We spent the first morning of our Hill Country Extension on a beautiful private ranch north of Concan, where both of these special birds can be readily found. But there was much else to see. A locally rare Audubon's Oriole gave us superb scope views, as did a cherry-red Summer Tanager just minutes later. A singing Yellow-throated Vireo came in right overhead, and a Yellow-throated Warbler joined him in the same tree. Two brilliant Indigo Buntings perched up in the open. While enjoying our lunch at the ranch home, we watched Vermilion Flycatchers, Eastern Phoebes, and Eastern Bluebirds from the patio, while Black-chinned Hummingbirds by the dozen visited the feeders. Many other special birds were seen in this general area including Zone-tailed Hawk, Western Scrub-Jay, Olive Sparrow, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and Scott's Oriole.

Back at Neal's Lodge where we were staying, we had a host of birds right outside our rooms. Vermilion Flycatcher, Black-crested Titmouse, Verdin, Bewick's Wren, a pair of Golden-cheeked Warblers, Field Sparrow, and Canyon Towhee were all seen just a short walk from our rooms. Nearby feeders hosted a stunning male Painted Bunting, as well as Black-throated, Clay-colored, and White-crowned sparrows among others. Down along the creek we saw a rare (for this area) Ringed Kingfisher and a pair of Black Phoebes, and a short drive away we had a pair of Green Jays at the very edge of their range, a Couch's Kingbird, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Bell's Vireo. Night birding produced good views of both Common Poorwill and Chuck-will's-widow, as well as an Eastern Screech-Owl (McCall's race) right over our heads.

All these great birds, yet the absolute highlight of the trip was likely the incredible flight of over ten million Mexican free-tailed bats leaving their cave at dusk. As we waited for the bats, we enjoyed dozens of Cave Swallows, Canyon and Cactus wrens, Black-throated and Rufous-crowned sparrows, and a female Merlin (also patiently waiting for the bats). Suddenly they appeared, first in a trickle, then in a stream. Bats poured forth over our heads for over 40 minutes (with Red-tailed Hawks, Cooper’s Hawk, and Merlin bombing in for dinner!) until it was too dark to see. A short while later a quick beam from the flashlight revealed that they had not slowed a bit. Witnessing this bat exodus is truly one of the great natural history spectacles in the world!

This extension totaled about 115 species of birds in two days, and in combination with the Spring in South Texas tour had a very impressive 259 species. Though flowers were scarce in this very dry year, most years we enjoy a wonderful wildflower spectacle in addition to everything else.