Friday, June 27, 2014

Texas Revisited: The First Inkerrsion, Government Canyon and Kerr WMA

Alright alright, guilt has finally caught up to and surpassed my frustration with this post. The birds are too good, and in many cases my photos not good enough, such that more explanation is warranted. 
When I first tried to start off recounting The Butler's Birds Texas Adventure, blogger liked it so much it decided to swallow the whole thing. It was, perhaps, the nadir of my bird-blogging tenure.
I felt like a trans-universal Cardinal coming out of Warp, grumpy and exceedingly profane:

But Butler's Birds owe it to the birds, posterity, and probably some other third thing to do this right, even if with considerably more brevity than before. Thus on a similar note I want to apologize, dear reader, for the earlier, text-less post, and thank you for your forbearance in seeing the same stuff again.

Driving in Texas--almost any part of Texas--is one of the most soul-killing things in the entire world, maybe even worse than going to a Walmart at 2am. Upon arriving in San Antonio and getting a smoking deal on my rental from Budget ($244 total for 11 days? Yes I will tattoo your company's name on my chest.), I quickly tried to get out of the city. 
San Antonio, like Dallas, Houston, and all the southern towns, is beset with gigantic, unregulated, trashy and terrifying billboards all along its highways. They block out the sky, block out the vegetation, and bombard both the conscious and subconscious mind with tawdry cliches and turns of phrase all geared to get one buying some special form of junk, or jazzed about a special strip club. 
Anyhow, they way I knew that I was past the unpleasant part of Texas was when the flashy and obnoxious roadside advertisements were replaced with flash birds being obnoxious to each other. 

"Lock x-foils in attack position"

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, even from a distance, officially rank as one of North America's Top Ten Best Birds, which is pretty friggin' prestigious. It's not just the crazy plumage dimensions or the pugnacious attitude; it's the coloration on the flanks. Salmon-colored armpits, which actual salmon don't really have, are what's up.

The first stop was a spot about 20 miles northwest of San Antonio, a place called Government Canyon. As one might expect from such a Canyon, this place was heavily regulated, so heavily in fact that it was closed on all Mondays and Tuesdays. Since I arrived on a Monday, this was one of my least favorite things about this Canyon. Another was that I had to leave my impressive alcohol collection in the car, though I guess with the park being closed I wouldn't have had many people to which I could've proudly displayed it. 

Eastern Phoebes were well-represented at Government Canyon, the 3rd best Phoebe in the United States. In addition to the conspicuous Phoebe, the heat at Government Canyon was also impressive, given the direct sunlight. I was quickly down to an ill-fitting tank top and shorts with loafers--the last vestiges of my airport clothes--which I may revisit in the future to better establish a Birder Bro typecast inline with's recent whiney birding-related article. The heat was oppressive at the time, but it would prove to be my only day of direct sunlight (tis' the season), and I took it for granted.

The main target at Government Canyon was a fairly common bird by Texas standards, a common bird that has been melting faces since it's invention back in 1803. If you gave an adult a generic outline of a songbird and asked them to try and color it in a natural-looking way, they'd probably involve some reds and grays, maybe a bit of red or yellow, and end up coloring something like a cardinal sparrow. A small child would take blue, red, and green highlighters and create a Painted Bunting, and, rather improbably, they would be more accurate. It's amazing. It's unnatural.

Plenty of the San Antonio birds were also familiar sights from Phoenix. Greater Roadrunners were a fairly common sight along the grassland borders. But they were also often up in trees and vocalizing, which is much less common in my central AZ experiences.

Common Ground Doves were another carry over from Arizona, but in in much greater numbers. In the arid southwest, I'd label them as uncommon, but with much more expansive habitat in central Texas, these birds lived up to their namesake. They were also a fair bit more crushable.

The male Painted Buntings were singing in high numbers and showed very well. It made all of my reluctant misdemeanoring (Butler's Birds does not condone trespassing, especially not on private property) well worth the risk. The Painted Bunting and the 5th Amendment, two beautiful things.

I left Government Canyon at sundown, got diarrhea at a Cracker Barrel, and camped out by the Kerr WMA farther northwest from San Antonio. The camp out left me with a stiff knee, a few heard-only lifers, and one awkward encounter with a well-meaning motorist who pulled over and hit me with the high beams while performing my necessaries off from the side of the road.
Under cover of night, heavy clouds rolled in, keeping the temperatures, as well as the photogenic light, lower than expected. The cruel irony, of course, was that the birds loved it.

Kerr WMA held two big and endangered attractions: Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler. Black-caps like some low-lying oak/juniper scrub while Golden-cheeks prefer the taller juniper. Both birds are declining in population and cannot be found outside of central Texas.
Chasing and photographing these species was a tricky prospect.
Black-capped Vireo is a very cool-looking bird, but they're flightly little buggers and chasing them/encroaching too much, as well as using play back, is out of the question, both ethically and federally. I found them early in the morning, but had to remain satisfied with distant and fleeting looks. Tis' better to have seen from afar, than never seen at all.

A positive externality of the Black-cap birding was that oak scrub is pretty great habitat. Black-crested Titmice, Rufous-crowned Sparrows, Buntings, and Flycatchers were exceedingly numerous, and I finally laid the crush on a Field Sparrow.

Field Sparrow did not make it into the Butler's Birds Salute to Sparrows, since it is not a western/Arizona-occurant species. If it did make it into the list, it would score mediocre at best, but as the poet once said, photographing birds is difficult, especially in low-light conditions, so enjoy the crush when you've got it, man (it's unclear from both historical and lyrical context whether or not the poet was referencing photography or orange soda).

Any outing with lifer Black-capped Vireos, any outing where Painted Buntings are no longer the highlight, is a good one, but that was only half of the objective. Golden-cheeked Warblers breed exclusively in Texas, and even though it was a bit late in the season for these early arrivals, they were a 'must-see' target at Kerr WMA as well.
Seeking these birds, especially as they were no longer singing for mates and territory, was an intimidating prospect with so much juniper habitat. After utilizing the much-needed public showers (maybe they weren't public, I dunno. Every zoo in life is a petting zoo if you're bold enough) I picked a direction on the Springs Trail and started off through the trees. It was only a few minutes before chittering in the trees grabbed my attention. A mixed flock? Any bird is a good bird in a new area. There was far more fortune than that--fortune, like publicly accessible showers also favors the bold, as Erasmus tell us--not one nor two, but four Golden-cheeked Warblers, a male and female with their two fledglings, were having Tuesday brunch.

As with the Black-caps, photographing endangered species in low-lighting while trying to keep a respectful distance is both a lesson in patience and self-control. The adults were busy foraging and never really came down from the canopy, but one of the immature birds, told by it's wonky plumage, ruddy acne, and crass jokes, was intrigued by my pishing and came in for a close inspection, too close even for Johnny Cloud Cover to mess things up. 

By 11am I had all of my targets in the San Antonio area. I'd like to say I played it cool and that everything had gone according to plan, but the truth of the matter was that I was wigging out and couldn't believe my luck (and, in a small way, a bit of birding skill/discernment; it's ok to admit these things are also improving). 

I left for Laredo several hours ahead of schedule, eagerly hoping to continue what would be one of the most productive days of birding in Butler's Birds history. Stay groomed and stay tuned!