Searching for Gold in Austin, Texas

Traveling Trinovids at Emma Long Park, Austin, TX

Traveling Trinovids at Emma Long Park, Austin, TX

Here in late June, we are reaching the end of the breeding season for many species. Generally at this time of year, species lists average smaller than during the busy migration periods as only the resident breeding species are present. As someone who travels for work, I am sometimes able to carve out an hour or two to go look at birds, and love to find the ones I can’t find at home. This past week, I had just such an occasion on a business trip to meet with our friends at the Whole Earth Provision Company offices in Austin, TX. I arrived early afternoon the day before the meetings, and attempts to meet other colleagues at Victor Emanuel Nature Tours were a wash as they were both out of town. So what do you do as a passionate birder with a couple daylight hours to kill in a town far from home?!?… go birding naturally!

Ashe Juniper is an essential habitat requirement

Ashe Juniper is an essential habitat requirement

Being that it was Austin, TX in summer, I knew what I wanted to look for… gold. More specifically, the Golden-cheeked Warbler, a rare, federally endangered bird species that only nests on the Edwards Plateau in central Texas here in the US. I knew they were rare and that some nested nearby. I knew they had specific habitat requirements that made them localized, but nothing more. Happily, in today’s day and age the answers to my dilemma were quite literally at my fingertips so I pulled out my trusty iPhone. The Texas Parks & Wildlife Division offered a great page on the life history of this rare bird, where I was able to refresh my memory on habitat. They required mixed oak woods where Ashe Juniper grew (Golden-cheekeds line their nest with the stringy bark of this tree apparently). I then turned to my handy “BirdsEye” app and easily synched with the large eBird data set to instantly locate recent sightings in my area. “Emma Long Metropolitan Park” looked close and there were reports within the past week! I tapped the screen and selected “driving directions”. It was 12 miles and a 20 minute drive away. So within moments, I was following the instructions offered by my electronic personal assistant heading to a never seen destination, “…in three miles turn left at…”

White-tailed doe draws my attention away from her fawn hiding in grasses nearby

White-tailed doe draws my attention away from her fawn hiding in grasses nearby

It was lovely country and as I closed in on my final destination, I enjoyed views of White-tailed Deer and heard many adult and young birds calling from the road’s edge. Large groups of Black-crested Titmouse & Carolina Chickadees were found commonly in the Junipers here.

Bordered Patch butterfly, Leica V-lux 4 camera

Bordered Patch butterfly, Leica V-lux 4 camera

Mindlessly, I followed the directions turn by turn until reaching the park entrance. My plan now was to simply look for habitat as described on the TPWD site. Within a mile, I reached a suitable-looking spot and happily noted the sign for “Nature Trail parking”. I swung in and draped the Traveling Trinovids over my neck and a V-lux 4 camera over one shoulder. Since this wasn’t a birding trip, I was traveling light and hadn’t packed a spotting scope. It was hot and bird activity would be slight, and not surprisingly, I saw no other birders only hikers. I was the only person with optics and the only one without a dog but no matter.

Painted Buntings were common in the area

Painted Buntings were common in the area

Immediately upon exiting the car I noted a lovely “Bordered Patch” butterfly and snapped a quick image with the V-lux 4 – note the dried Ashe Juniper needles on the ground here, a good sign. As I was photographing the butterfly, I was taking a mental inventory of the bird noise around me: Lesser Goldfinches singing, a squeaking Titmouse, the thin “mew” of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and a male Painted Bunting giving its warbling song. Normally, I get real excited about the latter but this was the third one I’d heard along the drive, so I was clearly in their habitat. Plus, I was searching for gold on this trek (not blue, red & green).

scenic Turkey Creek Trail, Emma Long Park

scenic Turkey Creek Trail, Emma Long Park

I soon learned that the little patch of heaven I was strolling through was the Turkey Creek Trail and lush oaks, sycamore, and other deciduous trees mixed with the Ashe Junipers along the winding creek bed just as I’d hoped. I moved slowly along, enjoying the scenery and intently looking for movement and listening to the sounds around me… Northern Cardinal chipping, more White-eyed Vireos, Lesser Goldfinches, and yet another Painted Bunting. I usually expect the latter near more open habitats, but there he was in his glory singing in a treetop looking as vibrant as ever through the marvelous Trinovids!

a good sign

a good sign

Near the 1/4 mile marker I spotted a very good sign (literally) that I was in Golden-cheeked country. It read, “Endangered Species Habitat… Area behind sign closed…” I didn’t go beyond the signs but continued on the trail here listening with a new level of excitement & anticipation. Birding is a lot like a treasure hunt, and up to this point my expectations of success for seeing this particular feathered-treasure had been very low, but this little 5″ square sign had given me great hope.

female Golden-cheeked Warbler, Leica V-lux 4

female Golden-cheeked Warbler, Leica V-lux 4

I’d just barely passed the 1/2 mile mark when I heard bird activity ahead. There were once again the squeaky calls of a mixed Titmouse & Chickadee feeding flock, with the plaintive wheeze of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher mixed in, and the clear staccato “chip” of a warbler in the Dendroica genus. Having no experience with singing or calling Golden-cheekeds, I was not familiar with their calls per se, but was very familiar with closely related Townsend’s, Hermit, & Black-throated Green Warblers. This call was absolutely reminiscent of those so felt confident I was on the right track. I quickened my lax pace to get further up the trail to near where this call was emanating. As I approached I began hearing a similar two note call, that was being given more emphatically. I quickly trend my gaze to that spot and swung the binoculars up. Here was a young Golden-cheeked Warbler still half cloaked in gray down calling to its parent for food. As I watched, the adult female joined it and fed this needy youngster.

male Golden-cheeked Warbler in heavy molt

male Golden-cheeked Warbler in heavy molt

Then in short order a stunning adult male arrived as well. The female was only subtly different than a similar Black-throated Green Warbler, so I was elated to see the unmistakable male bird. Male Golden-cheekeds sport an all black back and crown, which is wholly different from the other similar species which are greenish above. The few images I was able to snap were not the best, but the views I enjoyed surely were. The entire bird flock worked back and forth on one side of the trail and then the other, but the immature warbler was less active and liked to sit and beg, letting the parents do the bulk of the work. This made subsequent sightings much easier as I could just keep the youngster in view and wait for the parents to come and go. I stayed and enjoyed this wonderful show for at least 20 minutes, quietly watching from the trail & greeting the numerous hikers and dogs that trotted by. They were all oblivious to the gem of a bird as they passed, but we all enjoyed this marvelous resource in our own different ways. As I walked back to the car, I marveled at how the new electronic age had made finding this fabulous little bird so easy, but also couldn’t help to feel the twinge of sadness at how it also keeps so many away from natural treasures like this. So I’d ask that you please read and enjoy this blog, but then take a moment or two to go outside and just appreciate whatever you might be lucky enough to see!

Update: Following this trip the list of bird species seen through the Traveling Trinovid has grown to 389 species in just 78 days with the addition of the Golden-cheeked Warbler & Black-crested Titmouse. I don’t know why I should be surprised that I’d have luck on this quest, Austin and this park are located in “Travis County” which is served by  the “Travis Audubon” chapter after all! :)

Text & images – Jeff Bouton, Leica Sport Optics