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MARCH 2014

"Idyllic, Iconic, and Utopian Texas"
with some things ancient and others, of course, present-day


A Greater Roadrunner, 
one of the many birds we enjoyed during
our March 2014 tour in Texas
(photo by Rhett Poppe, of Wimberley, Texas)  



Birds & Other Wildlife during our Texas Tour in March 2014

A List & Photo Gallery of Texas Birds, in 2 parts

Texas Mammals  (with some photos)

Upcoming FONT Birding & Nature Tours in Texas  


The following narrative of the FONT March 2014 tour in Texas was written by Armas Hill, the tour leader:

Texas really is a great place to see birds and other nature. 

Being the largest of the 48 contiguous states, there is a lot to see there in the big and varied state of Texas, no matter either when or where we would have decided to visit.  
But we chose the month of March, as it is good for seeing Whooping Cranes before they depart to go north to Canada, and for seeing the Golden-cheeked Warbler when it arrives at its breeding sites, having come from Mexico and Central America.
Those two birds, both endangered, were the book-ends of the FONT March 2014 Texas Tour, with cranes seen during our first full-day and the warbler during our last. 
And in between there was so much, with some aspects of the tour, as noted in the above title, being: idyllic, iconic, and utopian.

The word "idyllic", as defined in the dictionary, means "pleasing, or picturesque in natural simplicity". 
The first known use of that word in the English language was back in 1856.

The history of Texas, under any one of six flags, goes back further than that. The Spanish flag was the first to fly in Texas, from 1519 to 1684. The French flag flew from 1684 to 1690.
The Spanish flag flew again from 1690 to 1821, until the Mexican flag flew over what is now Texas from 1821 to 1836.
Texas was a country, the Republic of Texas, with its own flag, from 1836 to 1845.  
And still, at that time, there was no word "idyllic".
In 1845, Texas became a state in the US, and has been since except during the years 1861 to 1865 when the flag of the Confederate states flew over Texas.
These days, as during our March 2014 tour, one can't help but notice, as one travels along the Texas highways, two flags prominently flying - that of the US, and just about as much, that of the state. 
Generally, in other parts of the US, state flags are not as prominently flown.

We were told that the small town of Three Rivers (or "Tres Rios") south of San Antonio was, even just a few years ago, an idyllic place.
About half-way between the Gulf Coast (where we had seen the Whooping Cranes) and the "Hill Country" (where we were to see the Golden-cheeked Warbler), it was a perfect place, logistically to spend a night. And the nearby Choke Canyon would be a good place, geographically, for good, anticipated morning birding.
But Three Rivers in 2014, regardless what it may have been in the past, was not "idyllic".
We learned, when we got off the interstate, a few miles from town, that some brand-new hotels had just been made. Odd, because there was nothing, truly nothing  by the interstate exit, and that's how it had been for miles along the highway, with just empty agricultural fields.
We found, along the smaller road to and from Three Rivers, a parade of large trucks.
Three Rivers was now an oil boom town.

After dark when we arrived at one of those brand-new hotels, outside our window, the skyline of Three Rivers was a big oil refinery, lit with many lights.
The next morning however, at Choke Canyon, not many miles away, we did have the anticipated good morning birding as we had envisioned, with Green Jays, Crested Caracaras, Audubon Oriole, Pyrrhuloxia, Vermilion Flycatcher, Verdin, Cave Swallows, warblers, wrens, kinglets, and Greater Roadrunner giving us a wonderful time. 
It doesn't get much more "idyllic", or "pleasing in natural simplicity".      

In the very nice town of Wimberley, our base for a few days in the "Hill Country", and the Edwards Plateau, we stayed at a nice place, indeed, by a creek. Called the Cypress Creek, there were, by it, trees so-named, along with nearby Live Oaks and Ashe Junipers on the rolling hills. Not only was the town nice, the area was most pleasant, and our accommodations were fine indeed.
In a magazine in town, a guide to what was about, the place where we stayed, the 7 Acre Ranch, was actually described as "iconic".
The definition of that word is "pertaining to, or characteristic of an icon" with "an icon" having the meaning of "an emblem, or symbol, or something classic".
Well, it was true. The ranch, with its cabins, had been there for a while and did have some history.

Around the corner from where we stayed there was a lot of history, in one building, the "Cowboy Museum", filled, yes literally filled, with probably the finest collection of "Old West" memorabilia in private hands. In it were such things as Doc Holliday's desk and dentures.
But it is proprietor of the place, the 90 year-old Jack Glover, who is really the best "collector's item" in the place.
He has Cherokee roots and was related to Will Rogers, so he says. He has so many stories. 
But from the many items on display, it can be seen that he really did know and was known by many of the actors who, over the years, were in Western movies and television shows. 
Jack opened his first trading post in 1949, and back in 1966 he wrote what became, and still is, the definitive book about barbed wire. Called the "Bobbed Wire Bible", it has been the main reference on the subject.
When we were there, his grand-daughter was also. She had come from out-of-town, and had never seen all of the "stuff" in the store. She had seen much of it elsewhere, earlier, she said, but not as much as there was that day. One can just imagine what she thought as she looked about. 
But, really there was so much of interest at one place, and with a good and interesting man, who is, himself, "iconic".      

Back around the corner, something else about the 7 Acre Ranch deserves a mention. In passing, I said to one of the owners that during our first night there, the remote did not work for television.
I know we don't go on tours for the television, but I simply mentioned it.
Well, late the second day, when we returned, we found that the owner had gone to the store during the day and there was a spanking-new flat-screen TV in the room.
Now, that's "iconic", not just a "classic" occurrence, but one that's "classy".      

The large trees, near our hotel, along the Cypress Creek were Bald Cypresses. They are deciduous trees, and hence their common name.
Bald Cypresses can be very large. They are closely related to the very big Redwood Trees in the West.
Of any Eastern tree, the Bald Cypress has the largest recorded trunk diameter of over 17 feet.
Actually, the largest recorded trunk diameter of any species of tree anywhere is that of a Montezuma Bald Cypress in Oaxaca, Mexico. That diameter: 35.5 feet.
The Montezuma Bald Cypress, which occurs in Texas as well as in Mexico, is said to be a variant of the Common Bald Cypress.

Armas Hill & Johnna Robinson
by the base of a Bald Cypress Tree
during the FONT March 2014 Texas Tour  

Not only can it be big, the Bald Cypress can be old. The longest living tree in the East is a Bald Cypress, up to 1,622 years of age.
And so the species is an interesting tree to say the least - one of a few interesting tree species during our tour.

A notable big and old Texas Live Oak Tree was one outside the Alamo in San Antonio, where we made a mid-day stop as we went through the city. 
The isolated "Lost Maples" at only one place in the Texas "Hill Country" were of another species of interest, the Uvalde Big Tooth Maple, or Canyon Maple. Mostly, that species is in isolated pockets in the western Rocky Mountains.          

Texas is famous for wildflowers, where, at certain times with certain conditions, there can be many. That was not the case during our March 2014 tour. It was still a little too early in the spring.
But we did make a roadside stop, not far from Three Rivers where there was a patch of Bluebonnets. 
The Texas Bluebonnet is the Texas state flower. Well, not exactly, as it is one of six species all designated as the state flower, all in the Lupinus genus, all bluebonnets.
The 6 Lupinus species occurring in Texas are:
Lupinus concinnus, the Annual Lupine
Lupinus havardi, the Big Bend Bluebonnet
Lupinus perennis, the Perennial Bluebonnet
Lupinus plattensis, the Dune Bluebonnet
Lupinus subcarnosus, the Sandyland Bluebonnet
Lupinus texensis, the Texas Bluebonnet.
The Dune Bluebonnet, also known as the Platte River Bluebonnet, is very rare in Texas, only in the far-northern part of the state.
The Big Bend Bluebonnet, as its name implies, is in Texas only in the far-western part of the state.
Neither the Annual Lupine nor the Perennial Bluebonnet are common in Texas.
Only two of these species are endemic to Texas, the Sandyland Bluebonnet and the Texas Bluebonnet.
In 1901, the Sandyland Bluebonnet was adapted as the state flower of Texas, but because it is not as showy as the Texas Bluebonnet, popular opinion prompted the state to make all of the Lupinus species occurring naturally in Texas as the state flower.
That 1971 decision ended the dispute as to the real Texas state flower, and gave Texas at that time 5 (now 6) species of bluebonnets designated as its official state flower.
The species that we saw, roadside, was the Texas Bluebonnet, Lupinus texensis.

At the source of the Cypress Creek in Wimberley, there is an interesting place called Jacob's Well. 
Thousands of gallons of water per minute spring up there from a long underwater cave, as the creek begins on its way. 
The area is predominantly limestone, and as we walked along the creek by its source, the naturalist brought to our attention a number of interesting fossils from a long, long time ago.
Among them was an interesting one called the Texas Heart Shell, with the scientific name Protocardia texana.
It was from the Lower Cretaceous Period, from 100 to 140 million years ago.        

A Texas Heart Shell,
a fossil from many, many years ago
(photo by Johnna Robinson) 

As hard as it may be to really comprehend, there was something else during the tour was out and about during the Lower Cretaceous Period, the Whooping Crane.
As we saw a particular pair of them during our tour, at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, we watched the birds walking along the edge of bay, feeding, and then standing in the shallow water.
It really was incomprehensible to us that such birds were walking, feeding, and roosting, way back when, in much the same way, millions of years in the past.

Those nearly all-white, tall birds looked so stately. The Whooping Crane is the tallest of the North American birds, about 5 feet high when standing erect.
And, even though they have been on Earth for so many millions of years, during the past century, the Whooping Crane has been among the rarest of birds anywhere.
It nearly became extinct by the mid-twentieth century. When really thinking about how long the bird has been on Earth, it is incredible that just a few hundred years with man could nearly bring about its demise. 
It was on the brink of disappearing forever in about 1940 when the total Whooping Crane population was only 15 individuals. All of those dozen-plus birds wintered at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge along the Texas Gulf Coast, after traveling about 2,500 miles from where their nesting area in Canada.

By 2008, the Whooping Crane population had reached 270 individuals. 
It was still the rarest of the 15 species of cranes in the world, followed in 2nd and 3rd place by the Red-crowned, or Japanese Crane, and the Siberian Crane, both birds of Asia (and both seen during FONT tours in Japan - the Red-crowned every time, and the Siberian rarely).

But back with the rarest of all, the Whooping Crane, there was, just after the beginning of this century, an average annual growth in the population of 4.6 per cent.
In May 2010 (not very long ago), there was a modern-day record of 74 nesting pairs. 
In July 2010, the total wild population of Whooping Cranes was said to be 383. 
The captive population that year was 152 birds.
Thus, at the beginning of this decade, a bird that was barely hanging on, about half a century prior to that, with only 15 individuals, had a total population of 535 birds, both wild and captive.
And still, the Whooping Crane continues to be the rarest of the world's cranes, with still with only one self-sustaining wild population that travels about 2,500 miles twice a year, in a corridor only 220 miles wide, between Saskatchewan and Texas.
In recent years, other smaller populations have been captive-raised, non-migratory birds in central Florida, and a small migratory group, that starting in 2001 traveled, with the aid of man, round-trip each year between Wisconsin and Florida.    
The last remaining wild bird in the re-introduced Rocky Mountain population died in 2002.    

Seeing the wild Whooping Cranes, as we did, during our March 2014 Texas Tour, was not just a highlight of the trip, but something that will long be memorable for us beyond the tour.    
The Whooping Crane was yet something else that was iconic during the tour.   

"Utopian" was for us, during the tour, a place, a time, and a state of mind during our last full day of the tour.
The definition of "utopia" is an "ideally perfect place".
Utopia really is a place, a small town in the "Hill Country" of Texas. And we were there, having a fine lunch in the little, yet busy cafe after a wonderful morning of birding, and hiking in the nearby Lost Maples Natural Area.

The word "Utopia" is also in the dictionary as "an imaginary, or indefinitely remote place".
Well, the place is certainly not imaginary, but real, with 227 people living in the town. 
We were told, however, that about the same number of students go to school there, but that they come mostly from the surrounding countryside.
And an "indefinitely remote place" is not correct either. It is definitely remote.
Oh it is near names on the map like Hondo, Pipe Creek, and Vanderpool, but in none of those could anyone eat the local food in a small-town cafe, known for its pies.

The previous night we had stayed, not far to the north, at a place with cabins in the woods high on a hill, surrounded by other hills. We were in, after all, the "Hill Country".
As darkness fell, outside the cabin, there was not a sound - not that of a car (even thought there was a road below), not that of a plane, or any other sound at all. Cell phones did not work, so even a sound from one of them could not be had.
As darkness fell further, the sounds that were heard were the calls of 2 or 3 Eastern Screech Owls, somewhere up in the hills.  

As said above, the next day, which was our last full-day of the tour, was "utopian" not only in a place, called Utopia, but also during the time we spent at another place nearby, the Lost Maples Natural Area, mentioned a moment ago.
Those maple trees, by the way, are not really lost, just misplaced. The Bigtooth Maple, Acer grandidentatum, occurs, as noted earlier, further west. Many miles separate the trees in the Texas "Hill Country" from any others.

But the reason we went to Lost Maples was not as much for the maples as it was to see the Golden-cheeked Warbler, a spritely little bird, with gray, black, white, and colors, 5 inches long.
It nests only in one place on Earth and that place is in the "Hill Country" in Texas, where among the trees, there are Live Oaks and Ashe Junipers. When the birds make their nests, they use Ashe Juniper bark and spider webs.
Not only are there Bigtooth Maples at Lost Maples, there are Ashe Junipers and Live Oaks.
But the question, on March 11, 2014, was not whether the trees would be there, but if the birds would have arrived from the south, from Mexico and Central America where they spent the winter.
And the answer, as we had hoped and expected, was that they had.

It was a beautiful morning, with a clear blue sky, and singing birds. It was spring, at its best, in a nice setting of a woods, stream, canyon, and hills as we walked.  
And among the bird songs that we heard we those of the Golden-cheeked Warblers, a few of them, here and there, singing mostly in the treetops, and sometimes seen flying from tree to tree.
Les and Jane, from Michigan, with whom we birded that morning, told us that until that morning the Golden-cheeked Warbler had not made its presence known at Lost Maples in March 2014.

Another bird, good to make its presence known when we were there, was a Hutton's Vireo, seen as it sang its song. That bird, like the maple tree, occurs more normally and commonly further west, but there have been a few records of it at Lost Maples in recent years.

So, the birds, that blue sky, butterflies, and the scenery and clean fresh air made that place, at that time, for us as "Utopian" as anywhere - "ideally perfect", and so our state of mind was the same.
We had experienced nicely during our tour, both of the birds, classified as endangered, that we had hoped to experience, the Whooping Crane and the Golden-cheeked Warbler.

Another nice experience at Lost Maples that morning was having a male Black-chinned Hummingbird make an early appearance that day - the only appearance for it that day and for the tour.  

Other birds that we experienced nicely, at on time or another during our March 2014 Texas Tour, are noted here now in the remainder of this narrative.

There were Sandhill Cranes, heard calling and seen flying against the background of a beautiful late-afternoon sky. 
Both the rarest and the most common cranes in the world were seen within moments of each other. The Sandhill is the most common of the world's cranes.

Soras were both seen and heard, more than once - and in fact, more than that.

A Wilson's Snipe was seen closely, as still as it could be. It was at a bird sanctuary in Port Aransas, along the Gulf Coast, where waterbirds of various sorts are so close and so tame that it was almost as if they weren't wild, but they were. 
Among that aggregation, there were ducks, shorebirds, coots, gallinules, and an ibis or two (the two being White-faced Ibis and White Ibis). Also, there were both Least and Pied-billed Grebes. 
Both Brown Pelicans and American White Pelicans were seen commonly along the coast.   
Roseate Spoonbills were nicely seen both in flight and on the ground.

On a grassy area, a flock of about 20 American Golden Plovers was seen feeding and resting, prior to what would be long flight that they would make, way to the north.

Inland a way, we spent an afternoon at a private wildlife refuge, during the one afternoon of the week when it is open to the public.
The land is that of the Welder Wildlife Foundation, and when there, it was yet another rather "idyllic" place for us during the tour, miles from any activity of towns and traffic.
It was there where we saw our first Golden-fronted Woodpecker and the Great Kiskadee (a bird that ranges from just about the very spot where we saw it, south, as a resident, all the way to Argentina).
It was there where we heard the howling of Coyotes, and at the bend of a very quiet little river, we saw a lone and shy female Hooded Merganser, a bird we were not expecting to see that far south (and a bird that apparently was not expecting to see us).
We heard and saw Carolina Chickadees there, in the same area where we saw the Kiskadee.
The Kiskadee, as just noted, ranges from there south. The Carolina Chickadee ranges from there north.
Attesting to that fact, the Carolina Chickadee has never been found to the south, in Mexico. It is one of only a very few species of birds endemic to the United States.

Further inland, in the Wimberley area of the "Hill Country", there were numerous flocks of Cedar Waxwings, as they were migrating north. Even non-birders that we met noticed flocks of them as the waxwings were in trees along a street or by a parking lot. 

A Cedar Waxwing in Wimberley, Texas 
(photo by Rhett Poppe)

Also near Wimberley, and elsewhere, we couldn't help but look at each nicely-patterned Red-shouldered Hawk that we saw.
Eastern Phoebes were plentiful during our tour. Loggerhead Shrikes were nearly so.

A nice sound was the song of the Canyon Wren, in the area where we saw the Golden-cheeked Warbler.

Also in the "Hill Country", we saw a good assortment of sparrows, including Rufous-crowned, Chipping, Lincoln's, Harris', White-crowned, and Lark Sparrows.

Throughout the tour, we encountered two species of goldfinches, two species of meadowlarks, two species of ravens, two species of Melanerpes woodpeckers: the Red-bellied (only found once), and the Golden-fronted (found repeatedly), and two species of Cardinalis finches: the Cardinal (seen and heard commonly but never tiringly) and its cousin, the Pyrrhuloxia (not commonly seen at all). 

Let's go back a moment, now, to the coast, where we enjoyed a part of a morning walking on a long jetty out into the Gulf of Mexico.
Also on the jetty there were many fisherman, as well a number of birds bizarrely tame, including Turnstones, Willets, Sanderlings, Brown Pelicans, Snowy Egrets, and Great Blue Herons. 
It was not unusual - in fact it was USUAL to see herons and pelicans standing in close company with the fisherman, often standing right next to them.
Maybe the fisherman might not have known if they were to have a good catch, but the birds seemed confident.
But "our best" on the jetty was a very small, 4 and a half inch bird, moving about, at our feet, catching insects between the rocks. It was a Northern Parula, in full breeding plumage, and obviously an early migrant, along the Gulf Coast. 
Later in the spring, along that coast in Texas, that would be many passerines migrating on their way north - warblers, orioles, tanagers, thrushes, and more.
But, for us on March 6, 2014, our encounter with that vanguard of the bigger migration yet to come was nice for sure. 
And how often, can one look DOWN on a Parula
With no chance, there, for "warbler neck", for us people, anyway - maybe for the bird!

As said, at the very beginning of this narrative, "Texas is a great place to see birds and other nature".

And, oh, if you're ever in Kerrville, Texas mid-day, you might go to "Bumdoodlers". It's an odd name, but a good, local place for fine sandwiches and soups. We enjoyed it there.
But, better said, we thoroughly enjoyed each other's company throughout the entire tour, in Texas in March 2014.


An Eastern Phoebe,
one of the more commonly seen birds
during our March 2014 Texas Tour.
(photo by Rhett Poppe)


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