SAN ANTONIO AUSTIN, TEXAS
The day we returned to the Spickard-McGuire household, Meredith proposed we
visit Warbler Woods about a half hour¹s drive away with her sister, Becky,
who was visiting. I¹d heard of this place before, through the birding
centre at Mitchell Park and through other birders. The next morning was to
be a banding day and there promised to be interesting people to meet and
birds to see.
Banding was already underway when we arrived. Don Schesler, the owner of the
place, greeted us. After signing it we walked over to the banding area.
About twenty people, mainly women, were watching an ornithologist band a
Yellow-breasted Chat. After watching for a few minutes we walked through the
garage to a large pool with running water and tall reeds. A dark bird with
a streaky breast and prominent white eyebrow - Louisiana Water Thrush -was
poking in rocks in front of the reeds offering the chance of a photo.
Armed with a map, we wandered off on a path. The first bird we saw was a
Black and White Warbler. Then Michael and I left Meredith and Becky, to
follow a large passerine through the juniper and mesquite We caught sight
of bits and pieces first a heavily-streaked flank, then a brown back, a
red eye and finally the long beak Long-billed Thrasher.
In the meantime Meredith had sighted some warblers, both Tennessee and
Nashville, but they¹d gone by the time we returned. On a little further I
spotted a dazzling blue bird in a tree on the edge of a thicket - Indigo
Bunting - what a beautiful creature!
The next birds were relatively easy to see White-eyed Vireo (I saw many of
them over the coming weeks). They were building a next. Brilliant red male
cardinals were everywhere.
A Swainson¹s Thrush appeared. Unlike the showy cardinals that also
inhabited this neck of the woods, the thrush appeared quite shy and we had
to approach it very slowly and cautiously.
Rounding a curve in the path we came upon some oaks that appeared to be less
healthy than the other trees. And perched in one was a brilliant blue bird -
Blue Grosbeak. It flew to another unhealthy-looking oak, and while
searching for it Meredith spotted a Painted Bunting, a stunning bird.
Wandering back to the pool behind the house around midday we spotted several
warblers bathing, among them the two species Meredith had seen earlier -
Nashville and Tennesse warblers, and a Yellowthroat. There were plenty of
colourful House finches and European sparrows as well. Just as we were
about to leave, a male and female Painted Bunting turned up to bathe. These
struck me as being the American equivalent of north Australia¹s beautiful
Gouldian Finch. A wonderful day at a wonderful place.
Another day we visited Guadulope National Park. The shallow river was lined
with magnificent, huge Bald Cypress Taxodium distichum (family:
Cupressaceae). From a cliff on the other side of the river came the call of
Canyon Wren, but the bird remained hidden from view. A White-tailed Deer
browsed happily on the cliff face while below an Eastern Phoebe visited its
nest in a hollow of the rock. Turkey vultures hopped around on the picnic
Back in 1984 I told NT tour operators that they needed to diversify, that
their dependence on sightseeing tourism put them at risk. The reply was
that with ³beautiful scenery, big crocodiles and rock art (they) didn't need
anything else². How wrong they were. In the US as in other countries we¹d
visited, we saw so many places of great natural beauty, so many fascinating
wild animals, so much living culture that could easily compete.
The next day Michael and I got ready to leave for College Station, a town
in central Texas. I was to lecture there, at A & M University. We would
then drive on to Austin.
Just before we left two new birds turned up in the yard Rose-breasted
Grosbeak and Eastern Bluebird. The former was the first record Meredith had
of this species in her yard.
A & M University had hired the car for us, a fire-engine red Rav. The drive
to College Station would have been uneventful, only we got lost. Our Google
directions listed street names, many of which were not signed in reality,
and few towns. We found that even a GPS didn't help much in this regard.
As with other parts of Texas, we were amazed at the variety and colour of
wildflowers along the roads. Great masses of cerise winecups, bluebonnets,
and sunflowers grew in great profusion. I wondered whether they had been
planted. Yet the flowers looked entirely in place. I discovered the answer
when I later visited the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
Professor Gerald Kyle turned up at the Hilton Homestead where we were
staying, to take us to dinner. Gerald, an Australian, is in Recreation,
Parks and Tourism, as were many of the academics who joined us for dinner.
I knew some of them from the many papers they¹d produced on avitourism. All
were mad keen birders, but unlike some I¹d met over the years, they were
delightful and very funny people.
I told them how some Australian birders had referred to my ³Birds of
Australia¹s Top End² as not being a ³true birder¹s² book because it
contained humour, sex and anecdotes. That sparked a rowdy reception with my
dinner companions stating vehemently that these were just the components
that a good bird book needed!
After my lecture, on Indigenous Tourism, Michael and I left to drive to
Austin, a city about an hour away from San Antonio. As usual we got lost!
Ellen, a past client and now a friend, met us at the airport, and drove us
to the house she shares with her partner, Damir. They live well outside
Austin, in the woods.
Not long after we arrived in the US we discovered it would be horrendously
expensive to use our Telstra cell phone. So on the advice of a friend we
bought an American model. However, the cell phone did not work in many of
the places we stayed.. Neither was the internet satisfactory.. It took up
to 3?4 hour to send a short message. The problem it turned out, was our
What I did like though, was the US Postal Service's free recycling service
in the form of a little bag and free postage that allowed ³small
electronics² to be mailed to a return centre.
Ellen and Damir's garden was a haven for birds. As at Meredith and Jim's
home, wrens nested just outside the window. There I saw my first ratsnake,
Elaphe obsoleta, it was attempting to climb the wall after the young.
The woodland sheltered a large number of Painted and Indigo buntings and we
had good views of these beautiful creatures.. Redstart was our first new
bird, followed by Grey Catbird and Red-bellied Woodpecker. As at Meredith
and Jim's home we heard Chuck-will's-widow calling at night. We never saw
those birds, although we did sight another member of the family
Caprimulgidae, Common Nighthawk, hawking above the bright lights of a
caryard in Austin.
On a couple of occasions we saw Roadrunners, wonderful birds with the sort
of charisma I attach to Pheasant Coucal, another member of Cuciliformes.
Here we also got our first really good looks at Buff-bellied Hummingbird.
We commonly saw Whiptail Lizards, Cnemidophorus sp. (although recently
revised, I think). Some species of Whiptail are all females and they
We sometimes encountered Leopard Frog, large, attractive, mottled amphibians
of the genus Rana, a taxon not very well represented in Australia.
Occasionally at waterways we encountered the attractive Red-eared Slider,
Trachemys scripta and the very ugly (yes, I know I'm being anthropomorphic!)
Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina, a large belligerent creature capable
of easily amputating a finger or toe if handled carelessly . Both belong to
families not found in Australia (Emydidae and Chelydridae).
One encounter with wildlife was not so pleasant. One night while fast
asleep I was stung by a Striped Bark Scorpion Centruroides vittatus.
Fortunately, I'd been warned they weren't particularly venomous. The pain
was tantamount to a wasp sting, and after making sure it had vacated the
bed, I went back to sleep.
One of my Austin lectures was at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
Lady Bird, wife of President Lyndon Johnson, and film star Helen Hayes, were
concerned about the loss of Texan wildflowers, and raised millions of
dollars to set up this impressive establishment. Lady Bird also instigated
a program whereby wildflower seed was spread along roads and highways. And
that was why we were seeing so many wildflowers everywhere we travelled.
Apparently many visit Texas at this time of year, just for the wildflowers.
In the Top End wildflowers are mowed down along the roads, along with the
long grass. Given this and the little interest in native plants I suspect
it will be some time before the Top End has any real wildflower tourism.
Yet our wildflowers too, are beautiful. For the opening of Federal
Government House in 1988, states and territories gathered wildflowers to be
displayed. I was in charge of organizing the NT¹s display. Today it might
be rather difficult to amass such a display.
At the Wildflower Center we were shown around the impressive gardens and
buildings by Stephen Brueggerhoff, the public programs manager. Stopping by
a rock pool I spotted first a Red-eared Slider and then Red-striped Ribbon
Snake, Thamnophis proximus. This must be one of the prettiest snakes in
existence. It has a wide dorsal maroon-red stripe, edged in black, and cream
lateral stripes and chin. Like so many of the snakes I saw in the USA,
Ribbon Snake is a colubrid.
Ellen and Damir very kindly took us to a number of parks around Austin.
First, we visited Palmetto State Park. My first thought was that the area
resembled Mataranka, an area of limestone springs 400 km south of Darwin,
with its palms and springs. However, Dwarf Palmetto Sahal minor, is only
tiny and forms an understorey, rather than canopy as the palms do at
Mataranka. There were few birds in evidence, namely Barred Owl, Red-bellied
Woodpecker, and White-eyed Vireo.
As we were walking along, Damir and Ellen let out a yell. There, only a
metre or so away to my right, was a snake. Ellen thought it might be a
Hog-nosed Snake, but it didn¹t look like a colubrid to me, let alone a
hog-nosed. It turned out to be my first viper - a highly venomous
Cottonmouth or Water Moccasin Agkistrodon piscivorus, a member of Viperidae,
a family not found in Australia.. I¹m told it is called Cottonmouth because
of the pale colour of its mouth. And that colour, a pretty shell pink, was
certainly obvious as the snake gaped at me.
Back at the ranger station, one of the staff told us he¹d once been bitten
by a Cottonmouth. Luckily he was able to wave down a passing truck and
arrive at hospital within a few minutes. The shock really set in when the
doctor told said that to treat him with antivenene, would cost $36 000! The
doctor thought the bite was probably dry, and luckily for the ranger that
turned out to be the case! He (like several others) were astounded to hear
of the Australian health system, my favourite story being how Michael ,
after collapsing paralysed with a huge tumour at the back of his spine, was
flown across the continent by Lear Jet for emergency treatment, and I was
flown down the next day, all free of charge.
The ranger also said that springs and mud pools within the park had dried up
because of increasing development in the area. This may have affected the
viability of the park. I could only draw a sad comparison with Howard
Springs near Darwin. Once a popular swimming area, the volume of water
produced by the spring that supplies it, means the pool now has a high
bacterial count is no longer safe for swimming.
One morning we visited Cave West Park. We followed a volunteer ranger down
into the canyon, along a sometimes steep path that wove between tall trees
to a rather beautiful gorge, studded with caves containing glittering
stalactites and stalagmites. Hearing a vaguely familiar song I looked up to
see Canyon Wren above us on the canyon wall.
This ranger knew his birds better than many we encountered. He identified
Louisiana Waterthrush, and helped me track down a Golden-cheeked Warbler by
its call. This bird is Texas¹ only endemic species. In the carpark I
spotted several Blue-grey Gnatcatchers - neat little birds.
Next place we visited was Hamilton Pool. This area had been inhabited until
the 1800s by Tonkawa and Lipan Apaches. In the 20th century the area became
badly denigrated as there were few restrictions on the visiting public and
the grazing animals introduced sheep, goats and cattle. At the grotto, a
ranger told us she had spotted a Summer Tanager just before we arrived, but
the only bird we found there was an Eastern Phoebe hopping confidently about
the boulders as if she owned the place!
However, Jeanne, the ranger, later told us that a GcW had just been seen by
the entrance gate and offered to take us for a walk. We didn¹t see the bird
again, but we got to know Jeanne, who invited us to visit Warbler Woods the
next day with the Travis County Audubon
We spent the morning walking and travelling around WW, chasing down various
birds. There, I saw Great Horned owls, a pair sitting high in a tree, and
Lark and Lincoln Sparrow, Black-throated Green Warbler, Warbling Viero and
Mourning Warbler. The latter was a new bird not only for me but for Dan and
others in the TCA. Most of the other birds Michael and I had already seen,
but I did have better views of Lincoln Sparrow and a number of others, and
thoroughly enjoyed the company and the morning.
Our last day in Texas was spent at the Lost Pines State Park. Our best
animal here was a Coral Snake, a very pretty yellow, black and red elapid
Micrurus tener. It didn't wait around to have its photo taken, but slid
into a hole at the base of a tree. This is one of the few elapids found in
the US (only two genera).
I also saw two Hog-nosed Snakes, Heterodon nasicus, a colubrid well-known
for its propensity to play dead if harassed. These rather stout reptiles
have an upturned snout with which they dig (The Australian Simoselaps, an
elapid, has a similar feature). It makes them look rather cute. Hog-nosed
snakes are rear-fanged and slightly venomous but rather placid in behaviour
and reluctant to bite in self-defence.
On the way back we stopped at the San Marcos River. Fed by more than 200
springs flowing from the Edwards Aquifer, the water is as clear as crystal,
and surrounded by lush vegetation. This beautiful spot may have been
inhabited continually for 12 000 years.. Here we saw Green Heron,
Yellow-crowned Night-heron, and White Ibis. The Green Heron allowed us to
approach closely, unlike the Butorides species (Striated Heron) found in
the Top End. The Yellow-crowned Night-heron was perched on a low branch over
the water, its wings over its head. We watched for a while but it didn't
seem to be having much luck attracting dinner.
Ellen took us to another little town for lunch at a little cafe, and while
sitting over yet another delicious meal, I glanced out the window. There sat
a Yellow-breasted Chat. I'd heard this bird was elusive! We also visited a
wonderful chocolate factory for those visiting Austin I can get
Our last night in Texas we visited the Hornsby Sewage Ponds for the second
time. Unlike most sewage ponds I¹d encountered in Australia and elsewhere in
the US, one could drive straight into the area.
There in the carpark we spotted our first Eastern Bluebird what a great
bird! We also had excellent views of Purple Martin there were nest boxes
set up in the grounds.
On our first visit to the ponds we spotted several Wilson¹s Phalarope, Wood
Duck, dowitchers, Least Sandpipers and Semi-palmated Plover, among other
species. Many Black-necked Stilts were nesting on the far shore. In the
grass beside the ponds was a Lark Sparrow, and three of the most beautiful
birds I¹d seen so far Yellow-headed Blackbird the name does not convey
the depth and hue of colour of this species. It was almost iridescent.
In the trees next to the pond was a male and female Orchard Oriole, also
very beautiful birds. Again we saw Scissortail Flycatchers, graceful
long-tailed creatures. On one of the paths we encountered a softshell
turtle Apalone spinifera, a strange-looking creature with a spotted,
soft-edged carapace. Like virtually all other reptiles we saw, it belonged
to a family not found in Australia (Trionychidae).
On our second visit we were accompanied by Andy and Julia Balinsky. Andy
and Julia had been a driving force in the Barack Obama Texas campaign,
organizing the IT side of things along with members of the Austin Sierra
Club. For their effort they were invited to the inauguration. They were
also keen birders. Andy and Julia were married in the bird hide at the
sewage ponds. Perhaps this could be a fund raiser for Leanyer Sewage Ponds
Andy and Julia have the responsibility of looking after the Hornsby Purple
Martin nest boxes, checking on eggs and the young, and removing house
sparrow nests. While they were involved with this I noticed a female
Purple Martin with an injured leg. As she crouched on the ground several
males descended to forcibly mate with her. I thought they'd kill her but
the little bird struggled free and flew to the safety of a nearby building.
Jodi Slagle, Compost and Biosolids Reuse Manager, came out to greet us as
we looked at the martins, and we had an interesting exchange of information
about sewage ponds eg Leanyer in Darwin and Hornsby. I liked the idea of
performing marriages at the sewage ponds and he seemed to approve of my
formal birdwatching evenings at which we wore evening dress and gumboots.
On this visit to the Ponds we also saw Belted Kingfisher, Osprey, Cinnamon
Teal, Wood Duck, Ruddy Duck (the subject of a standing joke between the late
Dr. Janet Kear and myself that I'd better not repeat here!). We also had a
good look at the nesting stilts, and the shorebirds all turned out to be
Least Sandpipers. Walking to the back of the ponds overlooking the nearby
river, Michael spotted some butterflies feeding on some rubbish. They
proved to be Tawny Emperors, Asterocampa clyton, a member of the family
Nymphalidae, also well-represented in Australia.
The next morning we left for Nebraska and Iowa.
Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow
PO Box 3460 NT 0832, AUSTRALIA
Ph. 61 08 89 328306
Mobile: 04 386 50 835
Birdwatching and Indigenous tourism consultant
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