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 8x42 Ultra Lite and a pair of Pentax 8x40 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.
To see all the locations either pick up a copy of Parking Lot Birding or find the entire article here.