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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Texas: The Edwards Plateau and Big Bend

2017 Narrative

Tour Summary

On this year’s Edward’s Plateau and Big Bend tour we found most of the hoped for species, starting with Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler in the Texas Hill Country.  At Big Bend we had excellent views of Lucifer Hummingbird and Colima Warbler.  Other highlights included close views of a pair of Common Black-Hawks, Gray (nesting) and Zone-tailed Hawks, Painted Redstart, Varied Buntings, and a surprisingly cooperative pair of Crissal Thrashers.  A pair of Least Grebes on a pond north of Brackettville was a surprise. The exodus of some one million Mexican Free-tailed Bats from Frio Bat Cave near Concan will not soon be forgotten.

Our tour began with a late afternoon pick-up at the airport in San Antonio followed by an hour and a half drive to Kerrville.  We compared Turkey and Black Vultures overhead on the drive and after checking in had a Mexican dinner nearby. 

The next morning we left early after breakfast for Kerr Wildlife Management Area.  Our main goal was Black-capped Vireo which breeds here.  The woodland here is more open than elsewhere, which means a better chance of seeing a bird.  We found one singing pretty quickly, but still it took several hours for all of us to get decent views.  Other birds of note included Eastern Phoebe, White-eyed Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Field Sparrow.  Next we continued south arriving at Lost Maples State Park in time a picnic lunch. Along the way we noted several Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and stopped along the river and in the cypresses found a Yellow-throated Warbler, a breeder along the rivers in the Hill Country.   Before hiking to the ponds we checked the feeders and noted a White-tipped Dove.  This is north of their usual resident range, but the species has been pushing gradually northwards in recent years.  The hike to the ponds was a bit slow bird-wise but upon arrival we were rewarded with fine views of a male Golden-cheeked Warbler, an endangered Texas endemic breeding species.  They winter in the mountains of Middle America from Chiapas to at least Honduras.  We had dinner at Neal’s at Concan and continued on to Uvalde for the evening. 

The next morning we started at a park in Uvalde where we had nice views of a calling Couch’s Kingbird and a Brown-crested Flycatcher.  Carolina Wrens were also present and many Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks were flying about and sitting in the trees.  Next, we investigated county route 400 which followed the Leona River.  This was a short dead end road which meant that traffic was sparse and the birding was excellent.  Painted Buntings were numerous and we also had excellent views of several Northern Bobwhites, a rapidly declining species in North America.  Wild Turkeys were also present along with Inca and Common Ground-Doves, nesting Cave Swallows, singing Painted Buntings and several Bullock’s Orioles.  Several Bell’s Vireos were also present (the eastern subspecies bellii which is the most yellow and olive subspecies).  We learned that they flick their tail up like most Empidonax  flycatchers, unlike the two western subspecies (arizonae and pusillus) which wave their tail around like a Bewick’s Wren.  The slightly duller subspecies to the west (medius) that we saw in western Texas at Big Bend is genetically like the eastern birds.  The two groups may well represent separate species.  Just to the north of route 400 we had good views of an adult male Scott’s Oriole and pairs of Curve-billed Thrashers and Hooded Orioles (sennetti  subspecies) along with several  Harris’s Hawks and Dickcissels. North of Concan we noted a male Eastern Bluebird and had distant views of a soaring Red-shouldered Hawk, our only one on the trip. Continuing back to Lost Maples State Park we again got to see the White-tipped Dove and this time heard it calling too (like blowing on a bottle).  At the feeders, amongst the many Black-chinned Hummingbirds we found a single adult male Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a scarce migrant here. Carolina Chickadees and Black-crested Titmice were present.  A one year old male Lazuli Bunting was our only one on the trip.  On our return hike to the ponds we again had fine views of Golden-cheeked Warbler.  An Acadian Flycatcher and a Black-and-white Warbler were also noted.  In the early evening near dusk we watched some one million Mexican Free-tailed Bats fly out of the Frio Bat Cave. 

The next day was a driving day to Big Bend National Park with few birding stops.  We did bird the road north of Brackettville hoping for Gray Vireo.  No sign of that species, but we did see our only Long-billed Thrasher of the trip and had fine views of a soaring Zone-tailed Hawk.  At a small pond near the ranch where they filmed the battle of the Alamo with John Wayne, we noted a pair of Least Grebes, somewhat north of their mapped range.  After lunch we stopped at the Judge Roy Bean’s visitor center where we noted a pair of the nominate subspecies (cucullatus) subspecies of Hooded Oriole.  Later near Marathon we visited a Black-tailed Prairie Dog colony and nearby noted a large flock of some 100 Lark Buntings.  On the drive south into the park we noted numerous Scaled Quail scurrying off the roadside. 

Our full three days in Big Bend were divided between three distinct birding areas.  On the first day we stopped first at Sam Nail Ranch where we had fine views of Yellow-breasted Chat and Summer Tanager.  Of particular note was the pair of Crissal Thrashers which were surprisingly cooperative remaining for leisurely scope views.  Next we hiked up Blue Creek Canyon in search of Lucifer Hummingbirds.  Along the way we noted Bell’s Vireos,  Pyrrhuloxias, Varied Buntings, Rock and Canyon Wrens, Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, Rufous-crowned Sparrows, and a single out-of-place female Lark Bunting.  A singing Gray Vireo remained uncooperative and was only heard.  After just over two miles we found a nice adult male Lucifer Hummingbird at the “usual” place and had extended scope studies as it continually returned to its perch, at one point interacting with a rival male. Numerous Greater Earless Lizards were about on the return along with a single cooperative “Big Bend” Tree Lizard. Thanks Jim for getting diagnostic photos.  Later at lunch at Cottonwood Campground along the Rio Grande we studied Vermilion Flycatchers and a nest of Gray Hawk (brief views of one of the adults).

The next day was the long hike to Boot Spring and we left before dawn.  Along the way groups of cooperative Mexican Jays (the bluer couchii Texas subspecies) joined us and looked for hand-outs.  Hutton’s Vireos and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were also present.  Nearing Boot Spring we heard and some glimpsed a Colima Warbler, but it wasn’t until we reached the canyon that we finally got good views of one singing bird, Big Bend’s most famous summer resident and the only location in the United States where one can see this species.  Other birds present included several Blue-throated Hummingbirds, a gorgeous singing Painted Redstart and two migrant Townsend’s Warblers.  On the way down we encountered numerous California Sisters (often now split as its own species, the Arizona Sister) and had several White-throated Swifts. 

On our final full day we headed east to Rio Grande Village.  Here we had superb views of a pair of nesting Common Black Hawks and also had views of a perched and soaring Zone-tailed Hawk for comparison.  Painted Buntings were numerous and we had a scattering of migrants including two Western Tanagers and a MacGillivray’s Warbler.  Two “Mexican Ducks” a distinct subspecies (for now, perhaps will be restored to full species status eventually) of the Mallard were seen.  Also of note were a Brown-crested Flycatcher and a single kingbird which was either a Couch’s or Tropical.  Both are possible here and without hearing the calls the identification to subspecies is problematical. A party of Collared Peccaries was about too.  Late in the day a Blue-throated Hummingbird was seen around the lodge.  Near dusk we went to a place called K-Bar where several Lesser Nighthawks were seen and then finally two Elf Owls appeared and sat on the telephone lines.  On several of the evenings a Gray Fox was seen around the lodge.

The next day was a travel day to the Davis Mountains, but we stopped first at Cottonwood Campground to look for Lucy’s Warbler.  Sadly none were seen, but a single bird was heard singing.  We did see a number of migrants heading up-river.  These consisted of “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warblers (some 75), and Wilson’s Warblers (at least a dozen).  A single Gray Flycatcher and a Plumbeous Vireo were also noted and a few of us had a flock of Willets drop out of the sky to the Rio Grande. A family group of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers were also present. On the way north we noted several Chihuahuan Ravens and had great views of a pair of Burrowing Owls along the side of the road. Three Pronghorn were also seen.  That evening Mark Lockwood joined us for a walk at Davis Mountains State Park (a male Hepatic Tanager and a Pine Siskin were the highlights).  Sadly, no sign of Montezuma Quail.

The following morning under cold conditions we got up early and drove to the Nature Conservancy area on the north side of Mt. Livermore.  Adjacent to the entrance we noted a group of displaying male Turkeys at Laurence E. Wood picnic area.  Mark and our Nature Conservancy escort joined us for the excursion into the Nature Conservancy area.  He knows the area well and we saw a number of interesting species including Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Western Wood Pewee,  Gray Flycatcher, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (woodhouseii subspecies), Violet-green Swallow, White-breasted Nuthatch (from the Rocky Mountain/Great Basin group of subspecies) Western Bluebird, Grace’s Warbler, Plumbeous Vireo, Bushtit, and Hepatic Tanager.  Migrants included an Olive-sided Flycatcher, a Townsend’s Warbler and a  MacGillivray’s Warbler.  After lunch with Mark we said our good-byes and headed east for Lake Balmorhea.  Here Field Guides a few days earlier had photographed an Aplomado Falcon, but sadly it wasn’t seen again.  The cold rain and wind arrived and although birding was difficult we did have superb comparisons of various swallow species, including numerous Banks.  We watched a large flock of Franklin’s Gulls drop out of the sky.  Other species of note included a single immature Herring Gull (first cycle) and both Clark’s and Western Grebes along with a variety of ducks. We also had good comparisons of Least and Western Sandpipers.  Just to the east we had nice studies of a single Clay-colored Sparrow.

Our final day was a drive day, but we stopped at the Fort Lancaster Overlook for a bit where most saw Gray Vireo well.  An adult male Varied Bunting was very cooperative.  Just to the east we found more Lark Buntings and had our best views of Blue Grosbeak, an adult male.  We arrived at the San Antonio airport about noon where the tour concluded. 


- Jon Dunn, 2017

Created: 12 July 2017