Right before 9 a.m. on March 6, five or six purple martins swooped acrobatically in the wind above the Austin Water Center for Environmental Research at Hornsby Bend.
It was a good sign. The first migratory birds of spring had begun to arrive in Central Texas.
To prepare for this annual feathery visit, which peaks in late April, I hit some of the area’s top birding spots on multiple mornings not long after the winter storms.
Given the travel deficits imposed by the pandemic, this 12-day tour — actually 15, but one was spent hopelessly lost and another two were harried by rain — felt like 12 liberating road trips with a natural wonder waiting at each destination.
Although I visited Hays, Bastrop and Williamson counties during this tour, I spent most of my time in Travis County. All by itself, the county makes up a big stretch of ecologically varied land. Birding in Big Webberville Park on the county’s eastern edge is like visiting Mississippi, while Milton Reimers Ranch Park in far western Travis County might as well be New Mexico.
To tell the truth, on any given day, any piece of land in the Austin area with enough food, water and native, brushy cover can turn into a birding hot spot overnight, as many residents discovered for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic, when distanced or backyard birding turned into increasingly popular activities for the safety-minded.
Our cumulative species count in or above our South Austin back garden is 46. And that’s using the most conservative identification measures.
To find out what’s hot and when, follow various social media pages, including Travis County Birds on Facebook, which has attracted 1,300 followers with gorgeous reader-submitted photographs and timely location tips. Or go to eBird.org, one of several birding options from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which relays a real-time record of what birders are seeing in your area.
Guided in spirit — or in person — by Victor Emanuel (“One More Warbler,” Victor Emanuel Nature Tours) and Jennifer Bristol (“Parking Lot Birding,” and the upcoming “Cemetery Birding”), I spotted only a few early migrants during my March tour. Yet I saw or heard dozens of species, most of them year-round residents.
Some birders have expressed concern that the severe winter storms might have destroyed many of our resident birds, along with a good deal of the food upon which the migrants and nesting birds depend. So this might be a lighter birding season than usual. Time will tell.
Although a lifelong lover and watcher of our avian friends, I’m still a “baby birder.” Each morning trip this March, however, gave me more confidence.
Sometimes you need a little confidence in a birding mecca like Austin that attracts so many experts. One day last year, early in the pandemic, I met up with Emanuel, one of the world’s top birders, at Mills Pond, a hot spot in Wells Branch. The very next day, I joined Bristol, who belongs to Texas birding and nature royalty, at Devine Lake Park in Leander. Each expert quietly called out at least a dozen species, some completely new to me, before I had identified my first new bird.
Blessedly, Bristol and Emanuel are enormously kind and generous. They never made me feel intimidated, but rather part of the gang. And they never outright corrected me; instead, they asked gentle, supportive questions about what I’d seen or heard. They expressed genuine excitement whenever I made a new discovery.
As I learn more, I hope to follow in their admirable footsteps by modeling good birding behavior.
Explore Austin: Here’s how you can see Texas birds while staying home
Tips on birding in Central Texas
1. Plan your short birding trip in advance. Make sure you identify on a map the best place to park, otherwise you might end up with a longer hike than expected. Dress comfortably and travel lightly. The birding spots mentioned in this story are public and easily accessed. Many are ADA compliant. During the pandemic, state parks have required visitors to reserve a day pass in advance, along with the usual entry fees. Otherwise, almost all these recommended birding spots are free to enjoy.
2. If possible, go before 9 a.m. Most birds wake at dawn and immediately look for food and water, making them all the more visible to you. Dusk is also good time to catch both daytime and nighttime birds. Try to be among the first to arrive in a park, before joggers, bikers, strollers, ballplayers and dogs disturb the birds.
3. Bring along a pair of binoculars or a camera with a distance lens. As you commit to a lifetime of birding, upgrade these gradually. This can be expensive. We now use a pair of Swift 8×42 Ultra Lite and a pair of Pentax 8×40 binoculars for more serious birding, but we also scatter weaker, cheaper glasses near windows around our house for quick responses. Take care of your best tools.
4. Once you have arrived at your chosen birding spot, stand, sit or walk slowly and quietly. Don’t disturb other birders. At the same time, when paths cross, strike up a friendly exchange, which might start out: “What are you seeing?” If interested in that find, follow up with “Where?” These tips can be crucial.
5. Where to look? With binoculars hanging down from my neck, I first scan the treetops, and then the brushy undergrowth just above the ground. If a water source is part of the landscape, I scan along the shores until I see movement or color. Periodically, I glance down to avoid snakes, poop or poison ivy. Once I spot a promising specimen, I keep my eyes on the bird and raise my glasses, already in my hands, to my eyes. Otherwise, I’d be wagging those binoculars around trying to find the already spotted bird.
Also, look up. Area birders have been rewarded for this insight recently with magnificent views of migrating sandhill cranes. Once, we heard a sort of low honking, walked into the back garden to look up and saw wave after wave of sandhill cranes flying under low cloud cover.
6. Listening is part of the process. People are first attracted to the colors and patterns of birds, but eventually it is quicker and easier to identify species by size, silhouette, movement, context and, especially, behavior, as well as by their songs and calls. It becomes a lasting delight when your ears or your peripheral vision instantly pick out an unusual sound or movement. For instance, at Hornsby Bend, Bristol heard a big flock of northern shovelers making a clicking sound she’d never noticed before. At other stops, I witnessed very familiar birds, such as jays or cardinals, making sounds completely unfamiliar to me.
7. Use a website or app. Examples include AllAboutBirds.org, eBird.org and iNaturalist.org. Or go old school and flip through a published field guide. I use every tool I can lay my hands on. Sometimes, I just search online with a disconnected series of words, such as “medium striped bird brown beige,” then I choose “images” and scroll down until I find a good candidate. That’s how I identified a couple of female red-winged blackbirds — which are neither red-winged nor black — at our garden feeders. On social media, a birding veteran boosted my confidence: “Those female red-wings are very hard to identify.”
8. Don’t be frustrated by similar looking species. Even experienced birders group some hard-to-identify types as “LBBs,” for “little brown birds.”
9. Ask questions. Almost to a one, birders are eager to help. If you go too far out on a limb, they might gently respond with something like: “What convinced you that it was a blue-footed booby?” Actually, in 1995, one of those goofy-looking tropical sea birds with bright blue feet wandered into Central Texas and could be seen on Lake LBJ and, later, Lake Bastrop. It caused quite a sensation.
10. As always, have fun. This is not a chore or a test. Enjoy your time with all the birds, not just the rare ones. Grackles and jays, while annoying, can be ferociously handsome, for instance. And watching one of the area’s common wrens, sparrows, chickadees or titmice in their elaborate rituals can be endlessly amusing.
Meanwhile, soak in the rest of nature while you are birding. Emanuel, something of a philosopher on the subject, says that birders are more connected to nature than others outdoors because they are always looking, listening and noting — even predicting — small but stimulating changes in their surroundings.
Here is a breakdown of the 12 best birding spots in Central Texas:
Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory
Where: 2210 South FM 973
My trip at 8:48 a.m. March 6: “This is a birder’s paradise,” Jennifer Bristol writes in “Parking Lot Birding.” “The intense smell of waste-settling ponds keeps all other outdoor enthusiasts at bay, so birds and the birders have it all to themselves. By all accounts, this is a birding hot spot. The shallow ponds are surrounded by fields that drop off to the forested bottomlands along the Colorado River.”
The wind kicked in when I met Bristol at the Austin Water Center for Environmental Research, and almost immediately she spotted purple martins above us, among the first of the spring. I followed her vehicle over the small levees accessed through an open gate straight behind the center and deeper into the water treatment facility, which attracts waterfowl and shorebirds foremost.
It was not long before we beheld scores of northern shoveler ducks dipping into one pond, along with a few ruddy ducks and redheads. On the mud flats, least and pectoral sandpipers joined the familiar killdeers spread out in their numbers. In the distance, turkey vultures sailed over the Colorado River tree line. In one hour, Bristol identified 20 species. Once spring arrives with its hordes of insects, the place will be really hopping. Hornsby Bend, which includes a popular bird blind, comes with a global reputation for birding year-round.
Big Webberville Park
Where: 2305 Park Lane
My visit at 8:30 a.m. March 5: Don’t mix up Little Webberville and Big Webberville parks. The former is located in the historic village of Webberville in far eastern Travis County. The latter is farther east on FM 969 — built on an old Native American trail that became the first main road between Bastrop and Austin — and much larger than its counterpart. The old-school heart of the park contains dozens of concrete picnic tables, perfect for family reunions, including the annual ones organized by Austin’s Limón family, when Big Webberville temporarily becomes Limón Park. The mowed fields and tall pecans here were full of blackbirds, robins, larks and woodpeckers on this morning.
Go all the way through the parking area to the boat ramp as well as the picnic trails right along the lower banks of the Colorado River. Here, a family of bald eagles nests! I saw, instead, pine siskins, cardinals, blue jays, cormorants and other year-round residents, including a red-bellied woodpecker. I did not spot the bald eagle brood on this particular trip, but outside the park, I spent considerable time observing a crested caracara, called a Mexican eagle although it is actually a falcon.
Commons Ford Ranch Metropolitan Park
Where: 614 N. Commons Ford Road
My visit at 7:58 March 3: The sun slanted down into the Colorado River canyon, turning the dewy tall-grass prairie into a field of diadems. You get everything here: meadows, brush, forests, a line of ancient pecans on a low ridge, bluffs thick with cypress and juniper and, of course, the usually smooth water below. Teaming with Travis Audubon, the city of Austin has been able to turn this former ranch into a natural and cultural wonderland that includes a secluded bird blind and many benches. Heaven! Except during the heat of the summer, when rowdy youths gabble on the shore.
This morning, I spotted a Cooper’s hawk, yellow-rumped warbler, Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, northern cardinal, blue jay, mourning dove, white-wing dove, a small, incompletely identified heron, and a murder (flock) of crows. I heard lots of woodpeckers drumming and squawking. This is also a favorite nesting site for painted buntings and summer tanagers.
Milton Reimers Ranch Park
Where: 23610 Hamilton Pool Road, Dripping Springs
My trip at 8:45 a.m. March 12: It had been many years since I last trundled down Hamilton Pool Road to that priceless namesake sinkhole, back when it was on private land. Dense suburban development and stop-and-start traffic have replaced the natural scene since then, but near the end of the road is a miraculous Travis County park above the Pedernales River.
After paying $3 for a “senior” entry — discounted from $5 — I followed the main road down to a striking pavilion and parking area. Level gravel paths through oak savannah led to low brush that was flush with birds. The first species I locked into my sight were unfamiliar to me. (See what a “baby birder” I still am?) I was grateful for the sturdy, stone wall that protected us from the high cliffs here. Behind the pavilion, I also followed the Climber’s Canyon Trail, which is far more rugged and leads to a distinctly different ecological zone.
Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge
Where: Ranch Road 1431 (multiple entrances west of Lago Vista)
My visit at 8:23 a.m. March 11: I came here for one reason: the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. I had seen this emblematic bird only once before at a feeder in Northwest Hills. Birding websites, however, reported that the first migrants had already arrived in the juniper brakes in these rugged canyons. I felt transported back to Boy Scout Summer Camp at El Rancho Cima on the Devil’s Backbone (soon to be a Hays County park), although I was no longer a youngster clambering from rock to rock like a mountain goat. In fact, I was nothing like the jogger — she was the only person I met on the trail — who, seeming to be in her 30s, glided down the Cactus Rock Trail as if it were a level school track.
More than anyone else, we can thank Jennifer Bristol’s mother, former Travis County Commissioner Valarie Bristol, for preserving the land for this national wildlife refuge, which, with a little more cohesion among its parts, could have become a national park. Helpful rangers had marked and numbered likely birding spots along the Cactus Rock Trail with painted rocks. It was a glorious morning with a light, noisy wind rushing up the canyon ribs. Alas, no golden-cheeks. And, eerily, very few bird songs or calls. I caught some small birds flitting in the shadows, like something out of Tolkien. Yet just as fishing is not only about the fish, birding is not just about the birds.
Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Metro Park
Where: 400 Grove Blvd.
My visit at 7:16 a.m. March 8: Roy Guerrero is a big park always in the making. It’s the size of Zilker Park and close to downtown. Yet Guererro is comparatively younger and still evolving. The improved areas include sports complexes on the west side (Krieg) and east side (Montopolis Youth Sports), as well as play areas on both sides, but watch your footing very carefully. These zones are connected by trails — one key bridge has been down for years — through brushy forests and ravines, some of which lead down to Secret Beach on the Colorado River.
One virtually operatic birding spot is located directly opposite the main entrance on Grove Boulevard along a narrow path that leads to a high cliff over a bend in the river. One is afforded views of shorebirds and waterfowl. On this overcast morning, red-winged blackbirds, European starlings, great-tailed grackles and American robins covered the fields; in the trees, warblers, doves, crows, cardinals, wrens and chickadees; at the river, ducks (at least four varieties), killdeer, sandpipers and a small heron. Our resident warblers, yellow-rumped and orange-crowned, were easily identified.
West Bouldin Creek Greenbelt
Where: 1200 South Sixth St.
My visit at 8:14 March 9: A few years ago, when Victor Emanuel first excitedly recommended this spot, I thought he might be kidding. I had not seen many birds on dog hikes. Yet a migrating yellow warbler was waiting for me as soon as I crossed the stepping stones over West Bouldin Creek during my next visit. I returned often since the greenbelt is a short walk from our South Austin house. A large, accurate map awaits the birder at the main entrance, which is located near the north end of South Sixth Street, not far from an active spring.
There are few meadows or even glens here. In between the creek and the railroad tracks are ancient riparian elms, oaks, junipers and pecans, all shrouded in underbrush. It was here I finally realized that cover for birds means cover for humans, too. The whole place is a bird blind. On this morning, I spotted only resident birds, which is paradise enough. Fifteen types of flycatchers and eight types of vireos have been identified here. This is a great place to see flycatchers and vireos during the spring.
Where: 15108 Wells Port Drive
My visit at 8:24 a.m. March 4: Oh, happy Wells Branch! This suburban neighborhood, laid out in the late 1980s, includes copious parks and greenbelts. One of particular interest to birders is Mills Pond, created by impounding Wells Branch, a tributary of Walnut Creek. Besides the small lake, one finds wetlands, woods and brushy zones, especially one with a low bird blind just below the dam.
On this morning, I parked by the pond, headed downstream to an open meadow with a humanmade colony for purple martins, then crossed the dam and made a circuit around the water. Right away, an extravagantly hued wood duck glided by. Hordes of American robins huddled close to the ground, as they had all over Austin this winter. I also spotted cormorants, yellow-rumped warblers, cardinals, blue jays, a hawk that got away, as well as a cute downy woodpecker. This is “warbler central” during the spring with more than 30 warbler species being reported. Other friendly birders will help you identify them.
The story continues below the map. If you can not see the map below click here to see the spots.
Berry Springs Park and Preserve
Where: 1801 County Road 152, Georgetown
My visit at 8:30 a.m. March 15: I got lost the first time I tried to find this park reached through a narrow county road. Google sent me to the Berry Springs RV Park instead (put the address, not the name of the park, into a navigation system if you use one). Then I headed to the Berry Creek Park on the other side of the interstate. It turns out that a “back door” to the Williamson County park leads into that RV park. Ah well. I returned on Jennifer Bristol’s strong advice.
After two rainy days, it was a relief to wander around on a gorgeous, cool, sunny morning in a well-designed park that is larger than it looks. Somebody has been busy building trails — concrete, gravel, grass — that lead to wetlands, creek, pond, a wildflower meadow, farmstead structures, restored high-grass prairie, woodlands and picnic and play areas. I had the most birding luck — year-round residents except for white-crowned sparrows — in the brushy uplands.
“I love that little park,” Bristol says. “The pecan trees light up with warblers during the spring. I also love the country-lane entrance to the park, which makes it feel remote and quaint. It is also a good nesting place for painted buntings and summer tanagers.”
Devine Lake Park
Where: 1807 Waterfall Ave., Leander
My visit at 9:12 a.m. March 16: I wonder if the designers of this small park around a soil conservation district lake knew they were ensuring a great place to bird. I keep a soft spot in my heart for this park. I saw my first summer tanager here and heard my first bluebird. It was here that Jennifer Bristol demonstrated “parking lot birding,” which doesn’t mean just sitting in your parked car, although you could do that. It also means slowly moving through accessible spots with abundant food, water and cover for birds as well as short, easy trails along with lookouts and bird blinds.
This morning, I was virtually alone as the early fog and drizzle lifted. Right away I heard mourning doves. It’s good to find a place where the white-wings have not elbowed out the mourning and Inca doves. The lake appeared empty, but a closer look revealed families of white-marked bufflehead ducks as well as sandpipers of various sizes. As I rounded in the circular trail through oaks, meadows, brushy forest and wetlands, I stumbled on trees full of wintering warblers and cedar waxwings. Although not intended for that purpose, the high piles of tree limbs pruned from the winter freezes would make excellent bird magnets.
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Where: 4801 La Crosse Ave.
My visit at 8:12 a.m. March 2: I pulled into the nearly empty parking lot on a gorgeously sunny, chilly day. I was greeted by a chorus of bird songs and calls, some of them unfamiliar, always a welcome sign. Then I followed the trails that fall below the elevated main buildings before heading into the Zachry Texas Arboretum and farther along some research trails — all wide, smooth and lined with crushed granite — beyond that.
These trails gave me access to broad meadows, oak-studded forests and brushy verges. I spotted one rarity, a purple finch, seen from a modernist viewing blind on the prairie. (And eBird confirmed that other purple finches, which normally winter north of here, had been seen in the area.) Otherwise, it was familiar Austin friends — wrens, titmice, chickadees, sparrows and a solitary, soaring black vulture. The big get: a pair of majestic roadrunners, who did not dart off when I interrupted their morning hunting and sunning.
McKinney Falls State Park
Where: 5808 McKinney Falls Parkway
My visit: 8:15 a.m. March 10: Barton Creek gets all the press, but Onion Creek to the south is longer, passes through more ecological zones and is quite lovely at many spots, including this popular state park. Now that the area along McKinney Falls Parkway is being developed into more suburbia, the visitor is all the more grateful for the green spaces along the creek, some created after floods devastated the shores.
After I paid the $6 day fee, the ranger pointed me in the direction of a long, narrow picnic area near the upper falls. Bingo! Brushy woods and reedy shorelines bracket short- and tall-grass meadows. Quiet at first, I startled some nonbreeding mallard ducks, then in short order spotted an eastern towhee, eastern phoebe, chipping sparrow and red-shouldered hawk, who allowed me to gawk for whole minutes. Lots of robins and yellow-rumps, too, which seem to have been everywhere this Austin winter.
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. You can reach him at [email protected]
Extra migration news from Travis Audubon
2021 Lights Out for the Birds
April 19-May 7: Each spring, nearly 2 billion birds migrate through Texas in one of the planet’s great wildlife spectacles. Unfortunately, since migratory birds often travel at night, artificial lighting can cause them to be disoriented and collide with buildings and homes. These avoidable collisions are responsible for killing up to 1 billion birds annually. The good news is that everyone can help. Simply turn off all nonessential indoor and outdoor lighting from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., especially during peak spring migration, April 19-May 7. More info: travisaudubon.org.
Through May 10: Birdathon 2021 is a great opportunity to safely enjoy spring migration while fundraising for Travis Audubon (minimum donation: $25). Birdathon uses “dispersed flock” teams to compete remotely with birding friends, or to compete on a team of your own. By creating such a team, you and your chosen team members can bird separately and compile your lists of observed birds into one team list. More info: travisaudubon.org.
Calling all birders
Did we miss a prime birding hot spot? Email [email protected] to let us know.