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Where to find 5 specialty songbirds of Texas

Big Bend Texas
The sweeping vistas of Big Bend National Park harbor one of the most sought-after birds in the United States: the Colima Warbler. The park is the only place in the nation where it breeds. Photo by Zack Frank/Shutterstock

The list of songbirds that occur primarily or exclusively in Texas has sparked many a birding road trip. Many years ago, when I was a relatively new birder, I made several visits to the state in search of them and missed a number of desired species. After a while, I devised a plan to spend as much time as needed and cover the ground required to fill five holes on my life list.

Each of the five birds has a rather small, confined range, but with research and diligence, I was confident I could locate them. I soon hit the road and found them all, and on one of my most recent trips to Texas, I retraced my steps to find the original five target birds — with positive results. The route to find the five species crosses a wonderful and scenic mix of landscapes and habitats: the lush Rio Grande Valley in south Texas, Texas Hill Country north of San Antonio, the Edwards Plateau, and miles of the Chihuahuan Desert. For the adventurous spirit, it’s a perfect blend of birding and beauty.

On the following pages, I present a guide to finding the five birds, which are prized additions to any birder’s life list: Colima Warbler, Morelet’s Seedeater, Tropical Parula, Black-capped Vireo, and Golden-cheeked Warbler. Your search for the five passerine specialties will require patience and persistence. Most may challenge you with lengthy treks into their habitats, but you’ll find that the thrill of search and discovery is amply rewarding.

Black-capped Vireo has a striking black crown and white spectacles, yellow flanks, and yellowish wingbars. It breeds on the Edwards Plateau as well as in Oklahoma and northeastern Mexico. Photo by Brian E. Small

Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo

This pair may be the easiest to find of our songbird quintet. The two species share a common breeding range in the Texas Hill Country, although the vireo also can be found in part of central Oklahoma.

Golden-cheeked looks similar to Townsend’s Warbler of the West and Black-throated Green Warbler of the East, with bright yellow cheeks, gray head and back, and white breast. Its habitat in the central plains includes juniper and oak woodlands, with deciduous patches of hackberry, walnut, and pecan trees. The species feeds mainly on insects, foraging through the upper portions of the forest. Consequently, when looking for Golden-cheeked Warblers, expect to find them singing and foraging overhead in treetops and high limbs.

Black-capped Vireos, however, prefer more open habitats of oak scrub and hillside brushy patches that dot the central plains. The vireos eat insects and berries much lower to the ground, so when looking for the vireos, expect to find them on bushes, small saplings, and lower limbs of stunted trees. Black-capped Vireo looks somewhat like a Bell’s Vireo but with a much darker gray or charcoal head and prominent white eye rings.

The striking Golden-cheeked Warbler breeds only on the Edwards Plateau in central Texas. Preserves north of San Antonio are great places to look. Photo by Alan Murphy

Both birds can be found in two preserves not far from San Antonio: Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, roughly 108 miles north, and Lost Maples State Natural Area, approximately 90 miles northwest of the city.

At Balcones Canyonlands, stop at the refuge office and pick up a handy map of roads and trails, then head for Warbler Vista and Sunset Deck, located in prime Golden-cheeked Warbler habitat. Here, you’ll find over 2 miles of trails to explore while searching for the warbler in juniper and oak woodlands.

Next, make your way to Shin Oak Observation Deck, where you’ll find great Black-capped Vireo habitat. Try Creek Trail or Pond and Prairie Trail, both well under a mile in length, which will take you through open grassland with scattered shrubs mixed with small saplings. Rimrock Trail, too, leads through vireo habitat, and although the 2-mile loop is steep in places, you’ll find a gentler walk going clockwise before reaching the steep ascent, where you can retrace your steps.

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At Lost Maples State Natural Area, birders prefer to hike East Trail for both songbirds. Pick up a handy trail map at the park headquarters and drive to the trailhead parking lot. East Trail follows the Sabinal River northward, then connects with East-West Trail, making a 4.5-mile loop back to the parking lot. The trail is known for its Uvalde bigtooth maple trees sprinkled among the forest woodlands and its wide riverbed and brushy edges dotted with saplings — great habitat for both songbirds.

If covering an uphill 4-mile-plus loop seems daunting, take heart. My first sightings of both birds happened within the first 1.5 miles heading up the trail. First, a pair of vireos appeared 45 minutes after my start, quickly and methodically flitting among tall grasses and bushes along the sandy riverbank. As I slowly moved farther uphill, it wasn’t long until a Golden-cheeked sang overhead and flew upstream and perched in full view. With both prized songbirds in sight, I then had to decide whether to go on for more sightings or retrace my steps.

Texas
Colima Warbler is a drab bird of the Chihuahuan Desert that has a rufous spot on its head and yellow on its upper tail. Photo by Julio Mulero

Colima Warbler

The Colima Warbler, another Texas songbird specialty that is treasured by birders, can be found only in a small corner of Big Bend National Park at the eastern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. The species breeds in the park’s Chisos Mountains — the only area in the U.S. where it can be found — from late April to August. (Its range extends well into Mexico.)

This small warbler shares its drab plumage with two close relatives: Nashville and Virginia’s Warblers. It is distinguished, however, by a small rufous patch on the head, yellow on its upper tail, and its distinctive song when foraging. You’ll most likely hear the warblers before you spot them in the oak and pine forest of the Chisos Mountains, so it’s best to familiarize yourself with the song beforehand.

A practical strategy to begin your search for the bird is to arrive at Big Bend the day before your trek into the mountains and stay at the Chisos Mountain Lodge (open with limited availability during the pandemic; www.chisosmountainslodge.com; 432-477-2291). If you arrive early, the park has many birding sites where you can look for the 450 bird species on the park checklist. Sam Nail Ranch, for instance, is an oasis in the desert and great spot to bird. Be sure to stop at the visitor center near the lodge to pick up a trail map and learn about current sightings. If you stay at the lodge for two nights, you’ll be able to cover more sites in the park.

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In the morning, you’ll want to hit the trail early to beat the heat that you’ll soon feel by 10 a.m. or so. Be sure to carry plenty of water. From the lodge, follow the trailhead signs and begin your trek with two options: a shorter route on the Chisos Basin Loop Trail, roughly 2 miles, or a longer loop on connecting trails (Laguna Meadows, Colima, Boot Canyon, and Pinnacles), nearly 10 miles. Either option is simply grand, with breathtaking scenery and active birdlife.

A compromise is to follow the shorter loop in its entirety, then branch out onto either the Laguna Meadows or Pinnacles Trail. You’ll surely encounter several Colima Warblers along the way, and your dilemma will be whether to backtrack or complete the longer loop.

As you slowly climb in elevation, you’ll notice a change in the landscape and habitat. Dry creek beds soon give way to oaks and pines, then juniper meadows and hillsides of Arizona cypress and Texas madrones, trees with several trunks that look misshapen. On my initial trek up the Chisos, I encountered several Colima Warblers as the trail wound into the juniper stands. As you climb, keep an eye out for other mountain specialties, such as Blue-throated Mountain-gem and Lucifer Hummingbird, which has a downward-curved bill. You’ll be amazed at the variety of birdlife you witness during your quest for the Colima Warbler.

In 2018, taxonomists divided White-collared Seedeater into two species, and now the birds found in Texas are known as Morelet’s Seedeater. Photo by Simon Pierre Barrette/Wikimedia Commons

Morelet’s Seedeater

Morelet’s Seedeater is a pint-sized member of the tanager family most often found, in the U.S., along the Rio Grande between Laredo and the Falcon Dam south of Zapata. Unlike most other Texas passerine specialties that enter the state only during breeding season, the seedeater is a year-round resident, although it’s easier to see during early spring. (Until 2018, the bird was known as White-collared Seedeater. It was split into Morelet’s Seedeater, which occurs from southern Texas to western Panama, and Cinnamon-rumped Seedeater, which occurs in western Mexico.)

The bird prefers reedy, grassy habitat near the river and adjacent weedy, overgrown fields, where it finds seeds and small insects or spiders.

You may need to visit several spots before you get a clear view of the bird. My first try was spoiled by thick morning fog, and a second try later in the day downstream was also futile. The next morning, the weather cooperated, and I easily spotted several seedeaters.

You’ll find great habitats over the 50-mile stretch between Laredo and Zapata, and numerous sightings have been made at two in particular. The weedy field next to the public library in midtown Zapata on Highway 83 is one of the best places to look for the birds.

Another is the so-called “seedeater sanctuary” in the town of San Ygnacio, roughly 14 miles north of Zapata. Drive to the western end of Washington Avenue to the sanctuary and look for the birds in reedy overgrowth.

In addition, you can find seedeaters at several stops on the Laredo Loop of the Great Texas Wildlife Trails, including Lake Casa Blanca International State Park, La Laja Ranch, Laredo Community College campus, Paseo del Indio, Father Charles McNaboe City Park, and La Bota Ranch.

As you drive along Highway 83, watch for canebrakes and dense clusters of reeds, especially when you spot openings to the Rio Grande. These will give you additional opportunities to find the Morelet’s Seedeater.

Views of Tropical Parula are often not as clear as this because the bird dwells in the upper canopy. The species is reliable in many south Texas hotspots. Photo by S. D. & K. Maslowski/FLPA/Minden Pictures

Tropical Parula

Tropical Parulas are colorful birds, the male in breeding plumage with a bright yellow throat and chest and a slate-blue back. A little larger than a kinglet, parulas are treetop dwellers in a semi-arid habitat with thick riparian woods. Extreme south Texas is the primary region where birders see it, but for the last decade or more, it has been turning up in central Texas and up the coast as far as Galveston County. The species forages for insects and spiders, and its preferred habitat includes Spanish or beard moss used mainly for nests.

Because of the bird’s propensity for a canopy lifestyle, spying a Tropical Parula can be a daunting task. Parulas often travel in feeding flocks of other small birds, such as Black-crested Titmouse, Blue-headed Vireo, and Orange-crowned Warbler, so each flock should be searched for likely candidates.

Tropical Parula is a year-round resident, while the similar Northern Parula migrates through south Texas. Tropical can be distinguished from Northern by its cheek mask and lack of white eye crescents, but determining one parula species from the other can be difficult when peering upward into a canopy.

Finding the uncommon Tropical Parula may challenge your persistency and doggedness. Several preserves have had reliable sightings, including Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park southwest of Mission; Estero Llano Grande State Park southeast of Weslaco; Frontera Audubon Center near Hidalgo; Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge south of Alamo; Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge north of Bayview; and Sabal Palm Sanctuary southeast of Brownsville.

My first sighting was purely accidental and unexpected. Shortly after entering Sabal Palm Sanctuary on an early April morning many years ago, I encountered a fellow birder who had spied a Tropical Parula and pointed it out to me. As he described the characteristics of the bird to me, we watched it dance among the leaves midway along an upper tree limb.

If you find yourself stymied in your search, you may have a better chance roughly 90 miles north of Harlingen, at the renowned King Ranch. Here, visiting birders have reported numerous sightings of Tropical Parulas over the past several years. King Ranch is a huge farming and ranching enterprise that actively manages the land for the benefit of wildlife. It is very birder-friendly and offers wildlife tours throughout the year (see king-ranch.com/visit/our-tours). The tour to the Norias Division is where Tropical Parula sightings have been more numerous.

Mapping your itinerary

To find the quintet of Texas songbirds in their small, confined ranges will require some heavy-duty driving and a number of days to reach each site. You’ll need to plan for ample time to search, allowing for misses and possible visits to multiple sites.

If you were to reach each site on a circular route, you’d cover roughly 1,770 miles and take at a minimum eight or nine days, or more if you travel at a more leisurely pace. It is certainly possible to divide your search into several segments, keeping in mind that April and May are prime months to find the birds.

Lodging will require reservations in some instances. To stay at Chisos Lodge at Big Bend National Park, a reservation is wise since the park is popular in the spring before summer heat sets in. And if you plan to visit King Ranch, you’ll probably need to book a reservation well in advance.

Good luck on your search!


More Lone Star birds

In addition to the five species profiled in this article, Texas has many other specialty songbirds. Those that have limited ranges in Texas and either don’t appear elsewhere in the U.S. or are only in a few other U.S. locations include Rose-throated Becard, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Rufous-capped Warbler, Clay-colored Thrush, Botteri’s Sparrow, and Altamira Oriole.

And several species have fairly large ranges in Texas but may not occur in many other places in the U.S. Among them are Olive Sparrow, Great Kiskadee, Green Jay, Black-crested Titmouse, Long-billed Thrasher, Green Kingfisher, Ringed Kingfisher, Audubon’s Oriole, Couch’s Kingbird, and Tropical Kingbird.

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Jerry Uhlman

Jerry Uhlman is an inveterate birder and traveler who lives in Richmond, Virginia. His tales of travel to discover and explore birding sites throughout North America have appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including BirdWatching.

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