Spring in South Texas: Hill Country Extension Apr 10—14, 2017
Posted by Barry Zimmer
On the final day of our Hill Country Extension, we visited an area of juniper-covered foothills west of Uvalde. The road we were on had almost no traffic, so we were able to cruise slowly with the windows down and listen. As we rounded a bend, I heard the distinctive, jumbled song of a Black-capped Vireo right next to the road. We had seen this species two days earlier, but our views had been brief and somewhat frustrating, as the furtive vireos stayed largely hidden in the dense thickets (as they so often do). Eventually everyone had gotten on one of the birds, but I was not happy overall with the experience, especially given what a spectacular and highly sought species it is. We quickly pulled off the road and jumped out of the van. I was expecting another lengthy vigil, but hoping that the bird might show itself better than some of the previous ones we had located. Much to my surprise, this male Black-capped was sitting right up in the open on top of a small hackberry. Typically a real skulker, this species is rarely out in the open. We watched this stunning bird for several minutes as it moved from the top of one shrub to another, much of the time in full view. Its velvety-black cap contrasted vividly with the huge snow-white goggles and dark red eye. This species is not only highly localized and endangered, but also stunningly beautiful! After several minutes, we left the vireo to his business. It was one of the best views I have ever had of this species in forty years of birding the Texas Hill Country. What incredible good fortune! On the final evening, it was voted the favorite bird of the tour!
Of course this was but one of many great moments on our Hill Country tour. The trip began in Laredo, and from there we drove north through mesquite brushland to the tiny town of Concan, our home for the next few days. En route, we encountered nearly twenty Harris’s Hawks, a dozen or more Crested Caracaras, and an astonishing 189 Scissor-tailed Flycatchers (yes, we actually counted each one!). We arrived at our lodge and got settled in before heading to an early dinner. A visit to the world-famous Frio Bat Cave, summer home to over ten million Mexican Free-tailed Bats, was in order that evening. While waiting for the bats to emerge, we enjoyed hundreds of Cave Swallows, a female Merlin, a close Canyon Wren, and a Great Horned Owl being mobbed by a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Then, suddenly, the bats appeared in the cave entrance in a swirling mass. Soon numbers began to exit the cave, first in a trickle, then in a steady stream. Red-tailed Hawks quickly appeared, diving into the masses of bats. The flight continued to grow, until the volume of bats leaving the cave was astonishing. We watched for an hour before we had to go, the bats still pouring forth into the evening sky. Truly one of the great natural history spectacles in the world!
The following day we headed into the heart of the Hill Country, birding the scenic areas east of Leakey and adjacent to Lost Maples State Natural Area. There we encountered a wealth of birds, highlighted by epic views of three Golden-cheeked Warblers. Other highlights included Golden-fronted Woodpecker, stunning Vermilion Flycatchers, Hutton’s Vireo, the aforementioned furtive Black-capped Vireos, the newly split Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, Black-crested Titmouse, Yellow-breasted Chat, Summer Tanager, and Blue Grosbeak. Back around the lodge late in the day, we added Verdin, Brown-crested and Ash-throated flycatchers, Field Sparrow, and Canyon Towhee to our ever-growing list.