Saturday, April 26, 2014

Balcones Songbird Festival

This morning, Danielle and I went to the Balcones Songbird Festival at the Balcones Canyonlands NWR. It was another heavily overcast morning. We visited a number of areas of the refuge; see the Balcones Canyonlands NWR Wildlife Watching and Nature Trails page for maps and information.

We went on a walking tour called "The Endangered Ones" led by Bill Reiner and John Chenoweth, with ten other guests. After meeting at the refuge headquarters, we were first taken by van to a portion of the refuge near the Bar-K airport, close to the Warbler Vista public use area. The location we visited is normally closed to visitors. It is heavy in old growth Ashe juniper, live oak, and red oak, ideal habit for the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler. Thanks to the excellent audio identification skills of the tour leaders, we soon saw one of these birds. The male warblers stake out a territory, so there were not exactly flocks of them!

Below is the one Golden-cheeked Warbler we were able to see clearly, though we heard several others. It is perching in an Ashe juniper or "mountain cedar," upon which the species depends for nesting material. Habitat loss is the primary cause for the endangered status of these birds, as they nest only in Central Texas, where the trees were historically abundant. When we first got on site, I spotted a Black-and-white Warbler nearby, as well.

Golden-cheeked Warbler - SX-50 at full zoom, f/5, 1/60s, ISO-100

Golden-cheeked Warbler - EF 100-400mm f/4.5-4.6 at 400mm, f/5.6, 1/250s, ISO-800
Golden-cheeked Warbler - EF 100-400mm f/4.5-4.6 at 400mm, f/5.6, 1/250s, ISO-800
Golden-cheeked Warbler - EF 100-400mm f/4.5-4.6 at 400mm, f/5.6, 1/200s, ISO-800
Golden-cheeked Warbler - EF 100-400mm f/4.5-4.6 at 400mm, f/5.6, 1/250s, ISO-800
We think we saw the same male later in a more distant oak tree.

Our next stop was the Doeskin Ranch parking lot in the northern part of the refuge. This is an area normally accessible to the public during daylight hours. Officially a restroom break, this location yielded many varied birds as our guides identified and pointed out a number of species in rapid succession.

Our final stop was at the Shin Oak Observation Deck, also in the northern part of the refuge. As part of the tour, we were able to enter the refuge past the observation deck (normally not allowed) in search of the Black-capped Vireo, the second endangered species for which the refuge was established. We were able to hear several of these calling from within the low, bushy shin oak trees that dominate the open landscape in this section of the refuge and which serve as a primary habitat for these birds. However, we had no luck in seeing one visually, though we got a brief glimpse of a White-eyed Vireo.

Our guides claimed to have identified over 50 species, most by sound, over the five hours of the tour. Personally, I think I can claim the following:
  • CANW - Canyon Wren - HQ - Nesting in the HQ building!
  • BAWW - Black-and-white Warbler - Bar-K - I found this one myself, winning the prize for the first bird of the tour
  • GCWA - Golden-cheeked Warbler - Bar-K
  • MIKI - Mississippi Kite - Bar-K - a small kettle migrating above (identification by guides)
  • CCSP - Clay-colored Sparrow - Doeskin Ranch
  • LASP - Lark Sparrow - Doeskin Ranch
  • BEWR - Bewick's Wren - Doeskin Ranch
  • BLGR - Blue Grosbeak - Doeskin Ranch
  • STFL - Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - Doeskin Ranch
  • OROR - Orchard Oriole - Doeskin Ranch
  • BCTI - Black-crested Titmouse - Bar-K, Shin Oak
  • CACH - Carolina Chickadee - Shin Oak
  • SUTA - Summer Tanager - Shin Oak
  • NAWA - Nashville Warbler - Shin Oak
  • WCSP - White-crowned Sparrow - Shin Oak- a dozen of these
  • SPTO - Spotted Towhee - Shin Oak - flying between trees at a distance
  • NOHA - Northern Harrier - Shin Oak - apparently late in season for these
  • WEVI - White-eyed Vireo - Shin Oak - quick glimpse
  • BCVI - Black-capped Vireo - Shin Oak - only heard (identification by guides, confirmed by recording)
  • PABU - Painted Bunting - Bar-K, Doeskin Ranch, Shin Oak (best view)
  • TUVU - Turkey Vulture - Everywhere, as usual
Thanks to our tour leaders for a very informative morning. Not only did we see or hear a large number of birds in one session, a record for us, we also learned a lot about the refuge and its management. We learned about the capture and banding of the warblers. We learned more about the much maligned Ashe juniper and its relationship to the warblers. We also learned to identify a number of plant species. We look forward to attending next year's event!  Tomorrow, I plan to go back and revisit some of the spots at my leisure.

Bill Reiner - Tour leader

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