Spring birds of the Hill Country
Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo are the main attractions, but many different species are possible in central Texas, in unusual combinations
Published: February 1, 2010
|When tourism boosters say that Texas is “like a whole other country,” they’re not entirely exaggerating. No one knows that better than the birders. Within the state’s boundaries are habitats ranging from swamps to deserts, from grasslands to forests to ocean beaches. Birds from all points of the compass live here, along with many species that occur nowhere else north of the Mexican border. Photographer Brian Small lives in California (another fabulous state for birding), but it’s no wonder that he travels to Texas every year to continue capturing images of that state’s avifauna. |
While every region of Texas has its own attractions, many traveling birders are particularly fond of the Hill Country, that area of central Texas just west of Austin and northwest of San Antonio. The landscape and habitats of the region are sharply different from those just to the east, and the change in birdlife is just as striking.
For a traveling birder, the most notable habitat of the Hill Country will be the limestone hillsides with stands of Ashe juniper interspersed with oaks and other deciduous trees. This is nesting habitat for the Golden-cheeked Warbler, the prize specialty of the region. Golden-cheeks winter mostly in Guatemala and Honduras and return to Texas in March, to be followed by hordes of birders in April and May. Birders will also visit areas of scrubby oak thickets to look for Black-capped Vireo, easier to find here than anywhere else in its limited range. But then, unfortunately, many birders will leave without taking the time to explore the other birding possibilities in the region.
I visited the Hill Country for the first time when I was 18 years old
and have gone back many times since. Of course, I like the area for
many reasons, but with my special interest in field identification, I
particularly appreciate the way that birding here can sharpen your ID
Many birders, myself included, have a tendency to become
lazy when we can identify most birds just on the basis of what’s
expected. The Hill Country is a region that knocks me out of that
complacency because it defies expectations. So many different species
are possible here, in such unusual combinations. Is that flycatcher a
Great Crested, an Ash-throated, a Brown-crested, or something else? Is
that a Field Sparrow or a Rufous-crowned Sparrow? The possibilities are
such that we have to take a second look at practically every bird. The
extra attention paid to the individuals we see is probably the best way
to build up our ability to identify all birds.
If you visit
the Hill Country, of course, you’ll want to see the famous warbler and
vireo, but I encourage you to linger and practice your ID skills on
other birds as well. On these pages are a few of Brian Small’s
incomparable bird portraits to whet your appetite.
Heart of the Hill Country|
Opinions differ as to the exact limits of the Hill Country, but the heart of the region, shown in yellow at right, stretches from the northwestern edge of San Antonio west to Uvalde and Concan, and from the western edge of Austin west to Junction and Segovia. The birding is good all year, but most birders visit in spring to seek the Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo. The warbler arrives by mid-March, but the vireo can be hard to find before mid-April.
The Texas Warbler
Look through any North American field guide and it will be obvious that the Golden-cheeked Warbler is related to a complex of other species, including the Black-throated Green Warbler of the north and east, Townsend’s Warbler of the far northwest, and Hermit Warbler, localized in the northwest. Black-throated Gray Warbler, widespread in the west, is probably close to the group as well.
The Black-throated Green is the one that comes closest to the Golden-cheek, both in appearance and geographically. Indeed, Black-throated Greens have been found nesting in the Ozarks in western Arkansas, less than 500 miles from the breeding range of Golden-cheeked Warbler. It is easy to see how the Texas bird could have developed from a population of Black-throated Greens that remained a little farther south to breed at some point in the past. In the 1960s and 1970s, ornithologists suggested classifying the Golden-cheeked Warbler as a local subspecies of the Black-throated Green. The suggestion was never adopted, and it seems unlikely that Texas birders would stand for such an outrage.
The Golden-cheeked Warbler was discovered on its winter range in Guatemala in 1859 and not found in Texas until five years later. Despite organized searches in adjacent areas of northeastern Mexico, the species still has never been found nesting outside of the Lone Star State.