Spring in South Texas: Hill Country Extension Apr 10—14, 2016

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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April in the Texas Hill Country—certainly there could be no better way to conclude our Spring in South Texas tour than with a four-day extension to this diverse and scenic region of the state. Our 2016 trip was assuredly one of our most successful ever, with myriad highlights. Traveling north from Laredo, we passed scores of magnificent Scissor-tailed Flycatchers along the roadsides (tallying an impressive 142 for the day!). Several Crested Caracaras, a colony of Cave Swallows, multiple Harris’s Hawks, and miles and miles of wildflowers along the highway added to the success of the drive up to Concan, where we would spend the next three nights.

That evening, we witnessed one of the most amazing natural history spectacles in the world, an estimated ten million Mexican Free-tailed Bats leaving their cave at dusk.

Mexican Free-tailed Bats leaving their cave at dusk.— Photo: Barry Zimmer

 

After settling into our rooms and enjoying an early dinner, we hit the ground running, visiting the world-famous Frio Bat Cave just before dusk. Waiting at the cave entrance for the nightly exodus of ten million plus Mexican Free-tailed Bats, we were entertained by a singing Canyon Wren and scope views of a very handsome Black-throated Sparrow. Then the bats began to emerge. Just a trickle at first, then a full-blown river of bats pouring out from the cave, into the dusk skies. We watched, mesmerized, for about 45 minutes before we had to depart, and there was still no end in sight to the sky-darkening line of bats. This incredible flight is surely one of the great natural history spectacles in the world, and must be seen to be believed. On our way out of the cave, we spotted a Common Poorwill on the road and obtained wonderful views from as close as 15 feet away! A fitting end to a great first day.

The following morning we awoke to foggy, overcast conditions as we headed northward towards Leakey, and eventually to a nearby private ranch. Despite the conditions, birds seemed to be everywhere. Roadside stops revealed a pair of Hutton’s Vireos, cherry-red Summer Tanagers, Black-and-white Warblers, and a Rufous-crowned Sparrow among others. But the early stars were several fantastic Golden-cheeked Warblers, one of which snuck up below us to within 15 feet or so. A little after 8 AM and we already had one of our prime targets in the bag.

The other primary target, the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler, was more cooperative, with a total of six individuals seen.

Golden-cheeked Warbler— Photo: Barry Zimmer

 

Working eastward, we arrived at the private ranch and began our search for the other Hill Country specialty, the Black-capped Vireo. Although we heard a few early on, we had no success in seeing any of them. Other birds kept us occupied, however, as we tallied Great Horned Owl, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, nesting Eastern Phoebes, Vermilion Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Western Scrub-Jay, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Field Sparrow during our search. The Hill Country is a wonderful combination of east meets west, providing many unique species pairings not found elsewhere. Shortly before lunch, we heard another Black-capped Vireo singing above us on a small ridge over the creek. Scrambling upslope, we realized this individual was singing from a small grove of oak saplings with virtually no understory in which to hide. A little patience revealed the male atop one of these oaks in full view! I feel this is hands-down the most spectacular vireo in the United States, and this one put on a great show, even allowing scope views!

It took a lot of effort, but we finally obtained amazing views of one of our main targets for the day, the incomparable Black-capped Vireo.

Black-capped Vireo— Photo: Barry Zimmer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following day we headed southwest to Park Chalk Bluff. Here along the banks of the Nueces River, we found a responsive Greater Roadrunner, a wonderful Green Kingfisher, displaying Vermilion Flycatchers, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireos, Cactus Wren, and Olive Sparrow. Roadside pastures yielded Grasshopper, Lark, Vesper, and Clay-colored sparrows, and Lark Buntings. A check of the Uvalde Fish Hatchery was also productive, with many Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and a Baird’s Sandpiper as highlights. Couch’s Kingbirds in residential Uvalde rounded out the morning. In the afternoon we checked some country roads east of Neal’s and found Say’s Phoebe (rare here this late), Long-billed Thrasher, and Cassin’s Sparrow, as well as the best wildflower displays of the trip.

The final morning we stayed closer to home, birding the grounds of Neal’s Lodge, as well as nearby ranch roads. The prize find of the day was the discovery of a pair of Tropical Parulas along the Frio River near the lodge. This species is rare in the United States anywhere outside of the King Ranch, and there are very few Hill Country records. Other highlights of the morning included a Zone-tailed Hawk, another Green Kingfisher, a rare Ringed Kingfisher for some, Black Phoebe (giving us the rare phoebe hat trick), Blue-headed Vireo, Northern Parula, and a Yellow-breasted Chat. A second Zone-tailed Hawk and eleven American Golden-Plovers were seen on the way into San Antonio the final afternoon.

In all we tallied 132 species of birds (263 in combination with Spring in South Texas) and found virtually all of our Hill Country targets. Perhaps most memorable of all, however, were those amazing bats!