Friday, June 3, 2005

6 Days in Austin Texas

Dan Calloway and I by a Catus Wren's nest somehwere west of Austin, Texas.

Day 1: Arrival in Austin
Our trip started out pretty uneventful. Yvonne and I flew out of Philly (on time!) and arrived in Houston a half an hour early. Our quick flight to Austin was uneventful. From Austin we rented a car, drove to the hotel, checked in and promptly realized I had left my bag with my scope and my shoes lying in the rental car parking lot. We ended up going back to the airport and retrieving it after the airport police had confiscated and scanned it as an abandoned bag. Ah, traveling in the 21st century!

As for the birds, we started with Barn Swallows and Great-tailed Grackles at the Austin airport, followed by a dozen Common Nighthawks circling the Capitol building Wednesday night. The nighthawks were lifers for both Yvonne and I. It augured well for Austin. We dined at La Tattoria, a wonderful little Italian restaurant on Congress Ave. The salad had the tenderest greens enlivened by crushed hazelnuts and a citrus dressing. We both had fettuccini with porcini and cremini mushrooms followed by profiteroles! A glass of Pinot Grigio was perfect with it. After dinner, we went to see the 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed Bats leave the Congress Avenue Bridge. Incredible!

Day 2: Delightful Dan

Wednesday started at 6am with our guide, Travis Audubon Society member, Dan Calloway. Dan took us to several places north and west of Austin where we saw many Texas specialties. Some of the places we visited were Balcones Canyonland Park, Cow Creek Road, and LBJ Lake. Birds included (lifers marked by *) Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Green Heron, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Red-Tailed Hawk, Wild Turkey (5 males displaying for one lucky female), Killdeer, Rock Dove, White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, *Inca Dove, Common Ground Dove, *Eurasian Collared Dove ( a grand slam home run+ of doves), Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Common Nighthawk, Chimney Swift, *Black-chinned Hummingbird, *Golden-fronted Woodpecker, *Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Eastern Wood Peewee, *Vermilion Flycatcher, *Ash-throated Flycatcher, Great-crested Flycatcher, *Western Kingbird, Eastern Kingbird, *Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Purple Martin, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Bank Swallow, Cliff Swallow, *Cave Swallow, Barn Swallow, Blue Jay, Western Scrub Jay, Carolina Chickadee, Black-crested Titmouse, *Canyon Wren, Carolina Wren, Bewick’s Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Mockingbird, *Loggerhead Shrike, European Starling, White-eyed Vireo, *Bells’ Vireo, *Golden-cheeked Warbler (in the scope!!!) (& only occurs in this section of Texas), *Yellow-breasted Chat, *Summer Tanager, Northern Cardinal, *Painted Bunting, *Canyon Towhee, *Rufous-crowned Sparrow, *Lark Sparrow, *Black-throated Sparrow, Great-tailed Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, Orchard Oriole, Lesser Goldfinch, House Sparrow. Counting the Northern Bobwhite, Black-capped Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, and Field Sparrow which we heard plus the Pyrrhuloxia that Dan and Yvonne saw, but I didn’t, our list for the day totaled 66 species with 21 lifers for me and about as many for Yvonne!! A stellar day for sure. A Texas-sized Thank You to Dan for his tenacity and hospitality. We logged well over a hundred miles on his truck as well as more than 12 hours and he would have still done more if we would have asked him. He was all we could have wanted in a guide and more!

We returned to the hotel around 7pm. We were hot, sweaty, smelly, and tired, but very satisfied with our day. Upon our return we discovered a wet floor in our hotel room caused by an air conditioning malfunction. The hotel offered to let us change rooms, but we were so exhausted that the mere thought of repacking our stuff gave us both headaches. We told the guy to just go ahead and fix it. We then ordered room service and had no sooner done so when the hotel manager called to say that the hotel was picking up the dinner tab for our “inconvenience”. We dined in our jimmies on free pizza and salad. It tasted like heaven after a day of fast food. We retired at 9pm.

Day 3: The Wonderful World of Weberville!

We slept in on Friday (til 6am). We first went to the gym where Yvonne walked while I ran for 45 minutes. Yvonne found these wonderful chilled aromatherapy (mint and citrus) wash cloths. They were heaven! I’m going to have to do that at home. Anyway, we got a kind of late start on Friday, but headed east and still made it to the Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Facility (a euphemism for “sewage treatment plant”) by 8:30 am. It wasn’t nearly as smelling as I thought it would be and the flies weren’t nearly as obnoxious as the green heads at Forsythe NWR or the stable flies at Point Pelee in August! Nearly three million of them (No, I didn’t count them all) got trapped in our rental car and suffered a death by overheating in the next few sweltering hours L. We first birded the “facility” by car, easily finding *Black-necked Stilt, *Western and Pectoral Sandpipers (couldn’t positively ID Least, although they were probably present), Snowy Egret, a gorgeous pair of Wilson’s Phalaropes, Blue-winged Teal, Wood Duck, a single Pied-billed Grebe, Mallard, Osprey, Red-shouldered Hawk, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and Kildeer. We searched everywhere for the Black-bellied Whistling Duck that Dan said we would find easily, but to no avail. On the back side of the facility we got out of the car and birded the River Trail. There we found numerous Northern Cardinals, White-eyed Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Due to the lush leaf cover we heard rather than saw these birds. Also seen at the facility were several species of turtles that were sunning themselves on logs, rocks, and bed edges. They were possibly more numerous than the birds!

After another search of the pond we found Great Blue Heron, but still no Black-bellied Ducks. Both satisfied and somewhat disappointed, we left the facility. It was now almost noon and getting rather warm as we headed to Weberville for a trip to the county park. The first time we went through Weberville we actually missed it! Literally, don’t blink or you will miss it J We drove for a while before we realized we missed, but these things happen for a reason. As we stopped to turn around, we saw a Red-shouldered Hawk in a tree eating something (a squirrel?). We watched him for a good while and then moved on. We stopped at Mary’s Taco’s, apparently Weberville’s only restaurant except for the grocery store deli a few feet away. There I had the most excellent salsa and cheese enchiladas! Very good eats there. From Mary’s we (finally) found our way to the park. By this time, it was after one clock and most self-respecting birds (and birders) were taking a siesta, but not us. We heard a Belted Kingfisher and also got good looks at some adorable Carolina Chickadees. They seemed much smaller than the others we had seen (possibly juvies?).

After Weberville, we headed west back to Austin. We immediately headed for the pool, had a dip and a Lava Flow (Pina Colada with a strawberry swirl). Yvonne had an Austin Sunrise. Thus sunned, cooled and very relaxed, we went back to our room and took a nap. BTW, Yvonne slept on the most comfortable looking “cot” I’ve ever seen. It’s got a double thick mattress and an actual box spring to it. The Four Seasons is worth every penny I can’t afford to spend on it! After our naps, we explored Sixth Street which is a bit overrated if you’re not into loud music, booze and tattoos. The kids love it though. It reminded me a lot of South Street in Philly. We ended up eating at a wonderful little Thai and Vietnamese restaurant. We ate tofu satay as an appetizer. I had tofu red curry for dinner and Yvonne had shrimp Pad Thai. We skipped dessert (imagine that!).

Day 4: Roadrunners and more

Saturday started early (5 am, on the road at 5:45 am). We traveled west to Pace Bend at Travis Lake. On the way we used Dan’s directions that included a detour to Old Ferry Road. There we took a quick stop to see a deer and her fawn go into the brush, listen to a Barred Owl call “Who cooks for you?”, and then sat out the thunder/ rain storm that came upon us like a wall of water. We stopped to check out a bird and as we stepped out of the car, I told Yvonne to get back in. It rained cats and dogs. We waited out the storm in front of some corrugated metal storage spaces, talking to our husbands and then went to Lee’s where tips are greatfulLEE(y) accepted and the cashier is “Older than Dirt” or so her T-Shirt says. She recommended we have grilled onions, mushrooms, and tomatoes on our breakfast tacos which we did. They were hearty enough to lift our spirits a bit.

After breakfast we returned to Old Ferry Road to see if we had better luck. It was still raining, but not quite as hard. Suddenly, Yvonne slowly says, “Back up! Roadrunner!” I quickly backed the car up about 10 feet to see a *Greater Roadrunner prancing down a private driveway. We got about a 30 second look, but it was unmistakable. Finally, a roadrunner! After he was gone, we continued down to the end of the road (it ended in a dock), but without seeing anything one Red-winged Blackbird and a pair of Black-crested Titmice. We returned on the road from which we came and darned if the roadrunner wasn’t back at the front of the driveway. This time he took off a little more quickly, but we were very satisfied that we had seen a lifer!

From there we proceeded to Pace Bend Park, paid the $8 day use fee even though all the guide’s said that if you mentioned you were going birding they would waive the fee. We circled the park once and seeing only wet tent campers we pulled over and took a nap until the rain receded. It was 9:30 am when the rain stopped and the sky turned beautifully azure. Of course the first bird we heard was a mockingbird (I thought we had them all in Pennsylvania!). Soon a Western Scrub Jay flew to the top of a tree and started to preen himself. Two woodpeckers (golden-fronted) came out to play and finally there appeared a squat brown bird whose identity eluded us for a few minutes. However, as the bird fluttered out into the full sunlight to dry her feathers and we both got our scopes on her, we realized that this was a female *Northern Bobwhite. She stayed for at least 15 minutes! This is the bird for which I’ve been looking for almost all of my forty years of birding and there she was showing off for us. “Oh, you haven’t seen my right wing yet? Here! And the way I can reach my beak under my wing? See that?” It was fabulous: a bobwhite in a Juniper tree!

We then started to circle the park again and found ANOTHER roadrunner running on the side of the road (Where did roadrunners run before there were roads???). This one let us look at him for a bit before a short flight into the brush. Also seen at the park were Black-crested Titmouse and Golden-fronted Woodpecker, however, after the roadrunner and bobwhite, they seemed somewhat anticlimactic. We eventually headed back to Austin having decided to scrap a last chance for a Black-capped Vireo due to the lateness and heat of the day.

Heading back on Route 71, we decided to keep going straight to Hornsby Bend to check one last time for those (supposedly) easy *Black-bellied Ducks. We were also hoping for Dickessel and/ or Crested Caracara. We were barely inside the visitor area of Hornsby when we spotted three black-bellies one of which was standing right in the middle of the road! We watched for a long time and crept up on them getting better and better looks. Finally they flew off with flashes on white and black wings. That made three lifers in one day – not a bad day at all! We were happier than pigs in poop even though we didn’t see a single sparrow, much less a Dickessel.

On the way back to the hotel, we looked for Monk Parakeets at Zilker Park, but found nothing on any tall light standards. Feeling like Jane Hathaway look-alikes amidst all the runners, walkers, and street people on the trail, we decided to head back to the hotel. It was almost 4 pm anyway and Yvonne needed to pack yet.

We spent our last night’s dinner at Dona Emilia's South American restaurant and dined on goat’s milk cheese with small squares of corn “bread” (not your mother’s corn bread, but light and not at all crumbly – very delicate), roasted vegetables, black beans, roasted asparagus, and (Yvonne had) salmon. Dessert was an ultra-rich chocolate- chipotle torte topped with chocolate ganache, and raspberries. We each had two glasses of a wonderful apricot-ty Texas Chenin Blanc. A wonderful end to a wonderful birding trip! Thanks Yvonne – you are the greatest birding buddy a person could have!

Day 5: Blah!
I hate the first day of conferences, especially when I’m there by myself. ‘Nuff said about that day!

Day 6: Sorry Yvonne!

Rented a bike from the hotel and took a ride along the trail that runs behind the hotel and across the river. It was beautiful morning and the trail was exhilaratingly muddy after the rain we had again last night. Bringing the bike back I saw what I thought was a Great Blue Heron crouched down hunting near the hotel landing. There was no way to not scare him away so I approached as slowly as possible hoping he would find his prey before I moved him. When he did fly, I saw he was not a Great Blue, but a *Yellow-crowned Night Heron! Another lifer and it wasn’t even 7:15 am. Sorry Yvonne, but he flew right in front of me.

Life Bird count: 316


  1. There's nothing wrong with him per se. I hated the Phantom movie mostly because I couldn't find anything to like about the Phantom at the end of the movie. I thought he was despicable and I had expected to feel SOMETHING for him (something positive, not loathing). I'm not much for musicals anyway, although I loved Miss Saigon.

    I still have a lot of birds to see in Seattle one of these days!