Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge

On Daniel's most recent day off we took a daytrip to Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, northwest of Austin.

We remembered to bring binoculars and water, which was GOOD, but we forgot to bring walking sticks and a camera, which was BAD.

Especially the camera. I reeaaally wish I had brought a camera. Sorry, readers. I am totally kicking myself about that.

It took about an hour and half to get there from San Marcos, taking us out to some really pretty country around Lago Vista. I hadn't been out there before, but WOW. This is the kind of country that makes me really resent people who think Texas is some kind of barren wasteland.

Since it was a weekday, there was nobody at the wildlife refuge. Really, I think maybe we passed one car. There was one USFWS vehicle parked by the toilets at the entrance. That's it. I've never been to a national wildlife refuge before (well, there was that one grad school trip to Aransas Wildlife Refuge to see the whooping cranes, but I wasn't paying much attention to the logistics), so I guess I expected it to be more like going to a national park, with some kind of visitor center and entrance fees and human beings of some kind of greet you, but no, just a parking lot, composting toilets, and an information kiosk with trail maps. Other than that, we were on our own, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

We were at the "Warber Vista" area of the refuge, with the trails that go through old growth Ashe juniper (aka the much-maligned "mountain cedar") mixed with oaks (shin, Texas red, and live to be exact) that is prime nesting habitat of the federally endangered Golden-Cheeked Warbler. We could already hear the warblers singing in the distance at the observation deck near the parking lot. I had never heard one before, but Daniel works at the only state park (last I heard) that has GCW's nesting in it, so he knew what they sounded like. The brochure at the wildlife refuge described their song as "Please, please your teacher," which we both thought was lame and maybe even a little kinky. (Oh, in case you didn't know, putting words to a bird's song is a common thing for birdwatchers to do to help you remember it.) I much prefer Daniel's version, that the birds are actually singing "La Cucaracha", especially since it helps you remember not just the rhythm, but the melody as well. You can listen to their song here. The La Cucaracha version is the Type A song, and the one we hear most often. We did hear Type B as well, but we haven't thought up a good way to remember that one yet (suggestions are welcome).

Having already accomplished Daniel's goal of making sure I "get to hear golden-cheeked warblers before they go extinct", we started the hike into the canyon. The trails here are rated as "moderate", but I was very grateful for the shade provided by the majestic junipers. I've been on much more difficult hikes than this (but a walking stick would have helped). Good thing I wore my good boots. I guess lack of shade bothers me more than rough terrain, so I found the hike quite easy, aside from some slippery spots caused by recent rains.

Early into the hike, we passed by a karst limestone outcrop, and out slid a Giant Centipede! This is when I started kicking myself for not bringing a camera, as the centipede crawled all over the rock face, poking into every nook and cranny for goodies (and if you know what the limestone around here looks like, you know there's a LOT of nooks and crannies for centipede goodies to be hiding). We felt we were a fairly safe distance from the venomous creature, and it was so preoccupied with its search that we watched it for a long time, until it crawled back into a crack and out of view. I knew we had giant centipedes but had never seen one in the wild before. Another first!

Further on down we heard more warblers, but all of them were just out of view. I resigned myself to the fact that I probably wouldn't actually see one, and was just happy to hear them. We pressed on, and finally Daniel spots a warbler way up in a tree ahead of us. I pull out my binoculars to get a better look, but it swooped away before I got a good focus. A little while later, another one whooshed by. Darn it! Birds are so fast like that. Daniel's already familiar with what golden-cheeks look like, but if I was on my own and didn't know what was supposed to be there, I wouldn't have been able to tell anything more than that they were probably warblers of some sort. The brochure said that Black-and-white Warblers are also here, and I mistook a golden-cheek or two for a black-and-white, but Daniel assured me they were golden-cheeks. The rest of the GCW's body is black and white, so without seeing the gold, I was playing it safe and assuming them to be the more common warbler species. However, one important distinction is that black-and-whites act differently than golden-cheeks. The former has a habit of crawling up and down branches and trunks of trees similar to a nuthatch. These warblers weren't doing that, so I believe Daniel was right. (Getting familiar with how different species of birds move and act is also a really helpful skill for a birdwatcher to have, especially for those situations where the lighting might make hard to see colors and markings very well.)

Ok, so not only did I get to hear them sing, but I got some brief glimpses of golden-cheeks flitting through the treetops, AND I got to watch a giant centipede for a while. I was happy then.

But there was more to come. Later, practically right in front of my face, I saw a warbler that I couldn't identify. I pointed it out to Daniel, and he was stumped too. It was rather dull for a warbler, and I noticed it was kind of scruffy-looking, and acting a bit clumsy clambering around on the tree branches. Before my mind could really click with what I was seeing, and adult GCW holding a big fat green caterpillar in its beak swooped down and shoved the caterpillar in the mouth of the bird I had been watching. Oh my GOSH, it was a fledgling warbler!


Looking around, we realized that we had strolled right in the middle of a family of warblers! We had been hearing this strange, chirpy call, and realized it was the babies begging for food. On the other side of the trail were two more fledglings clumsily hopping through the trees, while the two parents frantically collected more green caterpillars to shove in their mouths. I pointed out to Daniel how the babies were fuzzy looking, clumsy, and fluttered their wings, all indicators that they're fledglings that have just left the nest and not adult birds. Well, you know, that and the adult birds shoving food in their faces. I really should have known what the baby was when I first saw it, but I guess seeing fledgling golden-cheeks seemed too good to be true, so I was afraid to say it until it was undeniable.

I did, incidentally, see a Black-and-white warbler pass by as well, as we stayed in that spot to watch the GCW family. I also saw another adult warbler that I couldn't identify. All I could see was a solid yellow belly, which neither golden-cheeks nor black-and-whites have. I didn't get a good look at the dorsal side.

Another way to tell a fledgling is that they're kind of stupid. Well, ok, more like they're inexperienced, so they'll get a lot closer to you than an adult bird. That's why these guys would get right in front of our faces (Argh! Why didn't I bring a camera?), and when we'd have a baby right there in front of us, Mom or Dad would swoop down close as if to check us out. It felt like we could reach out and touch them, but we just stood quietly on the trail trying not to scare them. Finally, after I don't know how long, they started moving off. Maybe Mom and Dad had some kind of method to herd the kids away from these questionable mammals standing there staring at them.

After they moved on, we did too, and there was less excitement for the rest of the hike, though we did see some very pretty scenery, interesting native plants, and more common birds. We even heard one of the most majestic sounds in nature, a red-tailed hawk scream (a sound awesome enough that in the movies they make all birds of prey sound like red tailed hawks, even those squeaky bald eagles). We also saw a few more golden cheeked warblers. The finale was seeing one grab a green caterpillar about the side of its head and try bashing it to death against a branch. Ambitious little guy (or maybe he just had some really hungry mouths to feed and wanted to get it over with quickly). No more fledglings were seen. Perhaps the word had got out that nosy humans were in the vicinity and it would be best to call the kids away from the trail.

All in all, it was an amazing experience, and I hope it wasn't a completely "you had to be there" type thing. We didn't even see all of what is open to the public. The other side of the refuge is where they have the Black-capped Vireo habitat, our other federally endangered songbird. I was too tired and hungry to go on another hike after that, so we saved that for another day. I'll remember my camera next time!

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