Birding Big Year 2016

May 23, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 6: Davis Mountains to Edwards Plateau

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Birds, Parks, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 3:13 am
Kerr WMA

Kerr Wildlife Management Area, Texas

The sun rises quickly over the Davis Mountains of west Texas, or maybe I am just waking to the reality that somewhere back in Culberson County we entered Central Time Zone. I contemplate the unlikely idea that clocks in west Texas are set the same as in Nashville, Tennessee.  From the moment I left Almo, Idaho, I have become temporally-challenged.  I started in Mountain Time, entered the Pacific through Nevada, lost reality again in Arizona – that state where daylight savings time is not observed.  Frankly, I still don’t know what time it is there.  And now, here we are at the western extreme of Central Time Zone with the Jeep clock still set on Almo time.  Almo….that small village I call home, where one needs at least a tank of gas and a time machine to get there from most any place worth being from.  It’s best if birders just observe the dawn and leave it at that.

Thank God for Poorwills, nature’s goatsucking/nighjarring alarm clocks.  Big Year Bird #152 wakes and whacks me into a Texas-sized state of awareness. Today is the day that will decide the success or failure of the entire trip.  Somewhere at the end of it, I hope to be celebrating with good friends near San Antonio and toasting my observations of Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler.  These two endangered species, located almost exclusively in the Edward’s Plateau, are the inspiration and purpose for my epic trip.  But first I need to give Montezuma’s Quail one last chance to attend a meet-and-greet. Rumor has it (i.e. choice gossip heard around the camp host site) that MOQU occasionally visit the designated wildlife viewing areas of the park.

Harry and I pay the first viewing area a visit near the aptly-named Montezuma Quail Trail Head.  No quail here, but I do confirm with camera the presence of #153 Rufous-capped Sparrow.  With no time to waste today, we proceed to the second wildlife viewing area adjacent to the Interpretive Center.  Here we find only White-winged Doves and a Javelina snorting birdseed. Our friendly camp host is around the corner, chatting with fellow parkies and a local visitor about birds.  I join in briefly until a nearby bird begins to sing.  The truth is I enjoy talking about birds only half as much as hearing birds sing.  Abruptly (and possibly rudely), I extract myself from the conversation and gravitate to what surely must be some new towhee or sparrow.  I pride myself on birding 80% by ear, but this one falls within the 20% category: must see to confirm.  The park staff watch me circle a juniper like a drunkard.  Bobbing and weaving, I try to make sense of the little shadow jumping around the darkened interior. Two other birders enlist for the cause, and finally the bird flushes to a deciduous tree not fully clothed for the season.  Why, it’s just a wren!  But which?  Everyone joins into the conversation, speculation, and process of elimination. I am the first to settle on Bewick’s, but immediately face doubts and diverse opinions.  Hey, I’m the new guy here, and these folks are supposed to be the resident experts.  I spend another precious five minutes convincing them that indeed it is – probably because I need to be convinced that I have just added Big Year Bird #154.

I desperately want to add MOQU to the life list.  Harry and I proceed up the steep and narrow Skyline Drive to the scenic overlook.  Harry hops out for a photo, I scan the grassy ridge – both of us leave less than satisfied.  We both want to see Fort Davis National Historic Site down in town, and time is slipping away.  We can’t afford unproductive distractions, and we decide to be satisfied with a slow ride down Lt. Henry Flipper Drive. As a life-long park professional, I know that in most parks, visitors rarely leave the vehicle or venture a few hundred yards beyond the road. I am ashamed to say we did not read a single wayside exhibit, let alone tour the visitor center or historic buildings.  My apologies to the staff at FODA, but somewhere 340 miles east of here Black-capped Vireos are vociferously defending territories and wooing hot-looking females. Who would want to miss that?!

From Fort Davis to Fort Stockton, I clutch the wheel.  Harry provides relief from there to Sonora, and then hands-off the com to me for the final leg.  From the atlas, the quickest route to Kerr Wildlife Management Area is not entirely clear, but it feels good to be rid of I-10 for a while.  We opt for Texas Highway 41, but are not confident of the choice.  Driving what seems like the wrong direction for nearly 20 minutes, I almost talk myself into a turn-around. Fortunately, I am distracted by #156 Black Vulture just long enough to reach the long anticipated junction of Farm-to-Market Road 1340. Shortly thereafter, #157 Crested Caracara leads the way to the grand entrance of Kerr WMA.

The stress is building.  Earlier I made a commitment to be at Ken and Lisa’s house in the outskirts of San Antonio around 6:30 p.m. for dinner.  They have generously invited us to spend the night.  Good food, conversation, and a real bed required little persuasion.  And yet, the clock on the jeep says 3:30 p.m.   …wait, is that Almo time or Texas?  No matter, I only have a few hours to find and observe two rare and endangered birds.  Sometimes expert birders can spend half a day looking for a common bird that for some unknown reason chooses secrecy.  Like a rock climber at the base of a new multi-pitch route, I need the inside beta to bag this one.  A quick stop at the WMA office results in only one valuable piece of information: “drive up the road until you come to the listening shelter.”  What’s a listening shelter?

Oh.  duh. A short drive up the road, we encounter a small structure built to provide shade over a small sitting area, where birders are encouraged to wait and hear the birds.  The first shelter is located proximal to prime habitat of the Golden-cheeked Warbler. We sit.  We wait. We stand…. I really don’t have time for this!  3:45 p.m. – I fear they are sleeping.  With feral cat-like steps, I maneuver through the nearby Ashe Juniper woodland in hopes of observing an active albeit silent bird.  Nothing moves, nothing sings.  Not good.

We proceed to the second listening shelter, this one located in the homeland of the Black-capped Vireo.  Mere seconds pass and cha-ching! We both hear the song of North America’s tiniest vireo, emanating from within a small island of scrubby brush.  At first the song reminds me of a hurried and hyperactive Green-tailed Towhee. I imagine locating this Texas bird in a New York minute, snapping off a stellar photo, and then moving on to more productive locations for the Golden-cheeked Warbler.  But the vireo is having none of it.  I can almost hear him lecturing me: “You have been planning this trip around me since December.  I am one of the most sought-after birds in the country.  Do you seriously think I am going to expose myself to you just so you can click a photo and check me off some list?” BCVI plays hide and seek with me for 15 minutes, flitting from one tree to another 40 yards away.  I catch only mere glimpses, and getting a photo is out of the question.  Finally, I settle for a two-second, full-on view of the magnificently marked head – white eye-ring contrasted with black hoody.  It’s not what I planned for, certainly not the dream sighting, but it will have to do.  Time is running out and I have yet to see a Golden-cheeked Warbler.

Somewhere along Ringtail Road (named for an equally elusive animal) we stop abruptly to examine a large avian-filled oak.  More than a few birds fly across our path into the lichen-covered branches. By the call, they are vireos, and for a brief moment I imagine a second chance at the Black-capped.  With patience, I do get a photo…of Yellow-throated Vireo. YTVI is thrilling to say the least – but not really the species that makes the trip epic.  Time is up, and we back-track along Kerr WMA Road, picking up a few new birds along the way – Eastern Phoebe, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, etc.  Just off Road 1340, we try one more trail head, but the gate is locked.  Frustrated, bewildered, and unsure what to do, we depart the region and head for Ken and Lisa’s.  Ken sends a text asking our location and if I was successful.  I reply with our GTA (Guesstimated Time of Arrival) and confess my failure to locate the warbler.  He assures me they are singing and easily found in Friedrich Wilderness Park near their house, and he promises to personally take me there tomorrow.

We have the makings of a plan, but I promise Harry that if Ken’s strategy fails, we will be driving all the way back here for round two.  No matter how discombobulated the trip schedule becomes or how many hotspots I must cut from the itinerary – I will not leave the Edwards Plateau without listing a Golden-cheeked Warbler. I can be at such times obstinate and unyielding.

We arrive at Ken and Lisa’s about 10 minutes before them.  Ken had said, “If you get there first, make yourself at home; there’s beer and food in the fridge.  The front yard of their ranch-style home is canopied in live oak, and the backyard has a swimming pool aerated by a small waterfall.  Bird feeders hang at the border between manicured lawn and jungled hillside.  Surely new birds will be seen here.  I plant myself in a cushioned patio chair and wait for painted buntings.

Soon enough they arrive and hugs and handshakes abound.  We recount the birding adventure thus far experienced over chips, homemade guacamole, and fajitas.  Conversations turn to good times and future plans.  Ken and Lisa own land in Almo and may one day settle there.  The draw for them has been the climbing, hiking, and spending time with friends, of which I am blessed to be among.  As the conversation wanes, we find ourselves sitting in the dark around the patio table, coyotes howl in the valley below.  A strange bird call is heard – not quite an owl or poorwill.  Lisa was hoping I would put to rest the nagging question of what it could be.  I haven’t a clue.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…

A time to chase vireos, and a time to be with friends
A time to attempt to figure out what time it is, and a time to lose all track of time
A time to obsess, and a time to let be what will be

I am convinced that Ken will find me the Golden-cheeked Warbler in the morning, and so sleep comes easily enough on the eastern slopes of the Edwards Plateau.


  1. Amazing


    Comment by joninmariegargoles — May 23, 2016 @ 3:19 am

  2. Wonderful birding travelogue


    Comment by Julie — May 25, 2016 @ 1:31 am

    • Thanks Julie. The Adventure is not even half over. 9 days left and 3,000 miles to go 🙂


      Comment by wfkeck — May 25, 2016 @ 1:51 am

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