Spring in South Texas: Hill Country Extension Apr 12—16, 2015

Posted by Barry Zimmer


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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The Texas Hill Country in spring—there is simply no place else like it. With a unique combination of birds, spectacular wildflower displays, and one of the greatest mammal shows on earth, this region rarely disappoints. This year’s trip not only lived up to expectations, but exceeded them.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher— Photo: Barry Zimmer


We began in Laredo and drove northward through mesquite brushland to reach the southern portion of the Hill Country. Fabulous Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were common along the route, so common in fact, that we would tally an amazing 280 for the day. Crested Caracaras patrolled the roadside for carrion, and handsome Harris’s Hawks rested on utility poles. A quick stop at an overpass yielded several dozen Cave Swallows swirling about overhead. Excellent winter rains produced the best wildflower display in years, and we constantly marveled at a kaleidoscope of reds, blues, purples, and yellows along the way. Stopping to photograph some flowers resulted in slam dunk views of a singing Bell’s Vireo.

Golden-cheeked Warbler

Golden-cheeked Warbler— Photo: Barry Zimmer


After a few hours, we reached the rolling, juniper-covered foothills of the Hill Country. Shortly before arriving at our lodge, we stopped for a brief bit of birding along the highway. Very quickly, we heard the distinctive buzzy song of a Golden-cheeked Warbler. This gorgeous species breeds nowhere else in the world and is one of two, true Hill Country specialties.  Before long the bird appeared in some low juniper trees no more than 40 feet away. We watched this gem for several minutes, as it worked its way through the tree tops, singing all the while. A locally uncommon Hutton’s Vireo joined the show, allowing excellent views. Day one was already a huge success.

Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatcher— Photo: Barry Zimmer


On our second day we had the privilege of birding a private ranch east of Leakey. A couple of roadside stops en route yielded more great views of Golden-cheeked Warblers, in addition to Black-and-white and Orange-crowned warblers, brilliant Summer Tanagers, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow among others.  After reaching the ranch, our birding began in earnest. Dazzling Vermilion Flycatchers displayed along the fence lines. Eastern Bluebirds darted about over the pastures. Lark Sparrows seemed to be everywhere. Around the ranch house, a male Blue Grosbeak, Yellow-throated Vireo, Yellow-throated Warbler, nesting Eastern Phoebes, and numerous Black-chinned Hummingbirds greeted our arrival. Venturing into a scenically wonderful canyon beyond the house, we quickly located a singing Black-capped Vireo, which atypically came out into a bare tree to sing. This is the second of the Hill Country specialty birds, and the hardest one to see well. Yet another male Golden-cheeked Warbler flew in over our heads to sing in a small pecan tree. Scope views of singing Olive Sparrow and Field Sparrow just moments apart (a seemingly improbable pairing), Ladder-backed and Golden-fronted woodpeckers, Black-crested Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Bewick’s and Carolina wrens—the birds just kept coming.

Mexican Free-tailed Bats

Mexican Free-tailed Bats— Photo: Barry Zimmer


Reluctantly, we headed back to our lodge after lunch so that we could have an early dinner in anticipation of our visit to a nearby bat cave. The Frio Bat Cave contains the second largest bat colony in the world—an estimated 10–12 million Mexican Free-tailed Bats (all pregnant females) spend the summer there. The nightly departure from the cave is one of the great natural history spectacles of the world in my opinion. We arrived at the cave before the bat flight started and enjoyed 500 or more Cave Swallows, a male Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Canyon and Rock wrens, and Black-throated Sparrows while we waited. Then someone spotted one lonely bat flying out of the cave entrance. A minute passed. Then suddenly, the flight began: at first a steady column, then a river, then a virtual gushing torrent of bats pouring out into the evening sky. Though I have seen this over 40 times, I still find it to be a jaw-dropping experience. The flight continued for over thirty minutes at an estimated rate of 2,500 bats per second. Simply stunning. On our way out of the property, we did some night birding. Very nice views of Eastern Screech-Owl were completely overshadowed by finding an Elf Owl in a nest hole. We watched as it chuckled away from 15 feet over our heads. What an incredible day!

Yellow-throated Warbler

Yellow-throated Warbler— Photo: Barry Zimmer


Day three yielded many more highlights: Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Zone-tailed Hawk (flying right over us), Baird’s Sandpipers, Greater Roadrunner, Ringed and Green kingfishers, Couch’s Kingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Blue-headed and White-eyed vireos, Verdin, Western Scrub-Jay, Cactus Wren, Yellow-throated Warbler, Northern Parula, Canyon Towhee, Bullock’s Oriole and more. The unique mixture of east meets west meets south was on full display.

On our final morning we enjoyed many repeat performances, but also added in a few new birds. A Long-billed Thrasher posed in the scope while it belted out its song. Several Grasshopper Sparrows were spotted along a fence line, one of which sat for several minutes as we admired it from 20 feet. A male Orchard Oriole sang from a pecan tree. The drive into San Antonio was lined with Bluebonnets, Paintbrush, Wine Cups, phlox, Coreopsis, and more.

Specialty birds, fantastic wildflowers, and an unbelievable bat flight combined to make this trip one we will never forget.