Texas Piñata - 21 June Update

Update 21 June
Texas Piñata

When I was in Texas a week or so ago, I’d intended to achieve a trifecta by finding the two specialty warblers – Golden-cheeked and Colima, as well as the elusive Black-capped Vireo – all within a few big days. I’d put the trip on the front burner due to the fact that all three of these birds are very difficult to find in their post-breeding relative silence and dispersal period. Of course the real urgency with many of these so-called ‘common’ bird species is to not miss out entirely when they leave the ABA area during Fall (and sometimes Summer) migration. My prioritisation of rarity chases and decision to ‘do’ Attu has been a big gamble, and I knew I’d have a big job during the second half of June mopping up. My visit to Texas last week was in fact in part to check on the reported Green Violet-ear in Utopia area – which had flown the coop by the time I arrived. Unfortunately, I hadn’t done enough homework on the Golden-cheeked Warbler prior to arriving in the Utopia and Lost Maples area, where both Golden-cheeked Warblers and Black-capped Vireos are commonly reported in May, and upon arriving in the area was shocked to find that my Verizon service wasn’t available – I had no online capacity to dig deeper. That’s my excuse anyway, and bottom line is I dipped on the warbler, but with great effort did find a band of vireos at the top of the ‘pools’ walking track. With my time chewed up I had no opportunity to drive south to Big Bend NP to search for the Colima Warbler. So instead flew to Minneapolis to join my buddies John and Nigel for the trip recounted previously.

But upon flying to Austin a few days ago, I arrived with a proper game-plan for finding the two important warblers. Although I didn’t have expectations of an easy run, I did have a sense of determination, which usually serves me well. After making appropriate arrangements I bought a cheap set of camping necessities – sleeping bag, tarp and air mattress at Kmart, loaded up the rest of the space in my pack with water and Gatorade, and began making the famous hike up Pinnacles Track, camping near one of the known hot spots up near the top. Every serious ABA Big Year birder, past and present (surely I’m the last to get up there this year) has made the pilgrimage to the Chisos Mountains portion of Big Bend National Park for the Colima Warbler, and I thought about people like Kenn Kauffman, Sandy Komito, and Benton Basham, right through to Lynn Barber, John Vanderpoel, Jay Lehmann, Chris Hitt, and Neil Hayward with every step. It was a spectacular hike, purposely undertaken in the late afternoon to avoid the heat as much as possible. The walk was actually much easier than I’d anticipated, in that the ever-rising trail is not all that steep, and its in excellent condition. I arrived at my intended stopping point just after sunset, less than two hours after setting off, and was welcomed by a pair of apparently very territorial Mexican Whip-poor-wills that circled me at head height at a distance of only two to five metres. Assuming that there was a nest very close by, I moved a short distance further up the trail to set up my swag and dream about Colima Warblers.

I awoke just on first light, to the morning serenade of many birds – the closest being a Colima Warbler singing its heart out from the tree directly above me. Couldn’t have imagined a happier way to start the day. Over the course of the next hour I heard at least four Colima Warblers, and saw and poorly photographed two of these. Happy days! And what a beautiful sunrise to begin the walk back down to the car park area. A couple of hours later and I was on the road heading towards Austin.

My front row plan for Golden-cheeked Warblers was to firstly meet up with Austin-based birder Jeff Mundy to look in one or two areas not far from his home. I had two backup plans if that didn’t work out. Jeff is a lawyer who for many years has dedicated much of his efforts, both professionally and privately, to protect and enhance the chances for long-term survival of the iconic Hills Country warbler species. We met at Jeff’s place early, and by 7AM were looking at a feeding group of warblers  and other small birds that included at least one immature Golden-cheeked Warbler. A short time later we found another little group of feeding birds flitting about the upper reaches of deciduous trees, this one including several GCWAs of which I was able to photograph one mature individual.  What a relief!

I grew up in the US (migrating to Australia in my early 20’s), and I was lucky to live on what was then the outskirts of San Antonio during those magic years of ages six to nine. With Salado Creek virtually in my backyard, discovering nature – and snakes in particular, was inevitable. And boy did I catch the nature bug, spending untold hours exploring bushy areas, fishing and crawdad chasing. That was a half-century ago, and I was determined on this central Texas trip to make time to visit the old neighbourhood and surrounding environs.  And I did find the old family house, as well as the school where I attended 1st to 3rd grade, as well as the massive pecan tree where my buddies and I built a tree house from which pecan-chucking battles often raged. But the state of Salado Creek came as quite a shock and a real disappointment. Gone is the slow-moving deep creek full of garfish, turtles and aquatic plants. All that remains now is a gravel-filled rivulet that includes no standing water deeper than a few inches, just a silted up drainage channel. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised – it’s a pattern that seems to be unfolding worldwide. This fascination with nature can sometimes be a curse – there’s often a sense of sadness, even in some of the most beautiful places when looking at the most spectacular wildlife species, with the recognition of the degrading factors at play – and of course, nowhere more-so than in Australia.   

As always, I’m totally pressed for time and wish I could invest the time for more colourful stories – there are no shortages of such stories, and I will eventually type up my lengthy voice dictations and write something up. One day!

Big Bend's majestic Pinnacles Track on the way up.

And on the way down - still in Colima Warbler habitat.

It's a Colima Warbler. Honest!

Bud's: Its got everything!

Whew! Golden-cheeked Warbler - voted 'most likely to miss.

Groove-billed Ani - straight outa Jurassic, and my new favorite bird species even though I spent more time chasing it on latest Texas trip than any other species.

Black-capped Vireo from my previous central Texas trip - a stunning bird.