The Golden Girls And The Quest For The Golden Cheeked Warbler A Texan Adventure

Texas is rightly famous for warblers - Prothonotary Warbler - by Sam Woods are travel companion.

In this blog we continue our birding adventures in Texas, check back if you missed the first episode...

There were plenty of birding sites around High Island, but there weren’t too many good eating places in the area, so most birders descended on Al-T’s in Winnie. It’s a Cajun restaurant serving vast quantities of delicious food – crab is always good– at reasonable prices. It’s popular with the locals, the men dressed up in their best denims and red-checked shirts, the women usually looking slightly more glamorous, with an intimidating array of enormous pick-up trucks, clearly status symbols out here, lined up in the car park. They’re a friendly bunch, in fact one couple on the next table were so friendly they picked up their plates and invited themselves onto our table just to listen to us talking in our ‘quaint’ accent! Don’t knock having an English accent in these parts – they can’t distinguish Welsh – it will open doors, make you new friends and in this case, even got us a free meal just so they could listen to us speaking!

The Golden Girls in the Texas Hill Country ready to track down some special birds.

Al-T’s is equally popular with the visiting birders and the khaki will often out-number the red check and denim. You will frequently see the same people you bumped into on the trails, including one particularly wonderful group of Biggest Twitch groupies. Let’s call them the Golden Girls. We’d met them that morning at Boy Scout Woods. Susan, Ann, Joanne and Shirley were down on a short trip to High Island having left their non-birding husbands safely at home with the housework back in the Texas hill country. They were having a great time birding and had asked Michael Retter if he knew where the Biggest Twitchers were, as they’d been following our progress online and knew we were somewhere in the area. In fact, we were about ten feet away at the time of asking, so Michael made the introductions. It was very exciting to meet real groupies, perhaps we were nearly famous! The Golden Girls were great fun, a lively bunch who thoroughly enjoyed their birds and we had a good chinwag while we watched the warblers at the water drip together. We found ourselves standing in line with them again that evening as we waited to pay our bill at Al-T’s. They’d had a very successful day’s birding and were full of the news of what they’d seen and where. Somehow we got onto the subject of a couple of very special species that we were particularly keen to find: Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo. Amazingly, they knew of nailed-on sites for both these species right on their doorstep, and with typical Texan generosity, they immediately invited us, two total strangers they’d only met that day, to stay with them so they could show us the birds. How hospitable is that? Not one to look a gift bird in the mouth, so to speak, we immediately accepted their invitation and hatched a plan to meet up with them again in a few days’ time.

With that, we went our separate ways, the Golden Girls back to their hotel and a couple more days’ birding on High Island, Alan and I back to our motel to pack our bags for yet another flight. At this stage of the year, we still had the time and budget to be spontaneous, and so we’d booked up a last-minute side trip for a few days. With 1,950 species on our list, we were jumping on a plane to a new country for us both. Panama here we come!

Fast forward past Panama and we were back in Texas, it was time to look in on the Golden Girls and catch up with those special birds they’d promised. We’d kept in touch by email from Panama and had been invited by Susan Evans to stay with her and her husband, Carl, in their guest house. Great, we thought, picturing a typical UK guest house where you pay to stay on a bed-and-breakfast basis, usually in a quaint farmhouse or country house with cosy bedrooms, creaky floors, and free range eggs from the family hens in the morning. In fact, we were so confident if it being a pay-your-way guest house, that we invited our friend Sam Woods from Tropical Birding to come along for the ride, as he needed Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo for his life list.

Our instructions were to drive to Wimberley, a quaint town in the heart of Texas Hill Country and home of the Pie Social, an annual event open to all and sundry to walk around, sample pies and vote on their favourite. Sounded like our kind of social, but we had other plans. We assumed we were now close to Susan’s home so we rang for detailed directions. When it became obvious to Susan that we were getting lost in her instructions – turn left, drive five miles; turn right and continue for three more miles, close to home obviously having a different meaning in Texas – she changed tack.

“Stay where you are, my husband Carl will come out and meet you. He’ll be in a red pick-up.” Of course he would, this was Texas after all. We thought it was time to confess. “Er, we’ve brought a friend with us. Sam, you probably met him at High Island, he’s another Brit. Is it ok if he stays too?”

Susan didn’t miss a beat. “Of course it is. He’s very welcome!” That fabulous Texan hospitality again, and there was still more to come.

When Carl arrived at the meeting point he was the real deal: check shirt, huge red pick-up and a big smile. “Hi!” he grinned. “Follow me.” So we did, along straight roads, down twisty lanes, through villages, over hill and down dale. We’d have never found it by ourselves! At last, Carl drew up at a driveway blocked by a substantial metal gate. Perhaps we’re here, we thought. Must be a big garden, we can’t see the house from here. The gate slid back silently on well-oiled runners and we followed Carl through. It closed firmly behind us and Carl carried on driving.

It was about now that we started to feel just a touch anxious. After all, we hardly knew these people, we had absolutely no idea where we were going, and no-one else in the world had any idea where we were either. We were now on the inside of a high stone wall and a solid metal gate with no way of getting back out again! We’d heard tales back in the UK about strange cult communities in remote areas of Texas. Perhaps we were about to find ourselves in one, where we’d be enslaved into a life of wearing kaftans and sandals, eating lentils, meditating and sharing babies!

Still Carl kept on driving, but now at least we started to pass the occasional house, set well back from the road in a huge private garden. At last Carl turned off into a driveway and we’d arrived at their ranch. An enthusiastic brown dog bounded out to meet us, barking madly, and Susan followed behind, looking equally pleased to see us. We all said hello properly this time and introduced Sam. Then Susan took us to the guest house. The real meaning became clear. This was no B&B; it was a completely separate house for guests, set a few hundred yards away from their main home, beautifully decorated with nine bedrooms, a computer just waiting to be used and a fully-stocked beer fridge. We felt rather embarrassed at having brought along Sam uninvited, but they didn’t seem at all bothered, the more the merrier. We dumped our bags and followed them to their main home, and what a home! This was the first time we’d encountered a house built to the owners’ specification to accommodate their collection of artefacts: fonts and doors from South American churches, weathervanes from the tops of old farmhouses, native American arrowheads, carvings, woodwork, pottery, shields, masks. It was a gob-smacking collection of beautiful and bizarre artefacts amassed on their travels around the world, and we could appreciate Carl’s quiet pride as he showed us around their remarkable home.

We did catch up with a roosting Barred Owl eventually and a lovely bird too.

After a tasty supper, we headed back to our guest house for the night, stopping to listen out for Barred Owl, a regular visitor in the garden according to Susan, but sadly he was elsewhere this night.

The next day we were reunited with another of the Golden Girls, Shirley. Together we all drove in Susan’s wonderful car, a Lexus that did everything including even make phone calls for you. We wanted one! We soon arrived at the Bamberger Ranch Preserve, a 5500 acre working ranch established by David Bamberger as the largest habitat restoration project on private land in Texas. Although they do carry out educational programmes here, it’s not normally open to the general public, but thanks to Susan and Shirley’s connections, we were not only allowed in but taken to the site for our first key bird by Colleen, the Director of Education. Colleen took us to a spot deep in this beautiful rolling landscape where a Black-capped Vireo had been seen recently. The weather wasn’t great, with penetrating drizzle fogging our bins and a stiff breeze blowing along the edge of the ridge. We stared hard at the low tangle of scrub and for a long while nothing happened. Then Shirley caught sight of movement and a vireo showed itself. A moment’s disappointment as it was only a White-eyed Vireo, but we should have had faith. A quick burst of call gave away the presence of a Black-capped Vireo and we soon enjoyed a really good view of this handsome bird with its black crown and bold white eye patch. Bird number one in the bag!

The Golden Girls had arranged for us to drop in a local school for a Q&A session great fun!

Colleen had to dash back to her day job, field teaching in the education centre at the ranch, but not before she’d told us where to find a good warbler hang-out in a more sheltered valley deeper into the ranch. We looked and listened hard for warblers but the only bird that seemed to be around was a Summer Tanager. Then Sam’s sharp ears made out a faint noise that could have been a warbler call, and we plunged into the woodland to follow the sound. We scanned the canopy above us constantly, and at last were rewarded with a flash of gold, black and white as a fine male Golden-cheeked Warbler revealed himself in all his full breeding plumage. He perched up at the top of a snag and sang with his beak full of food. No wonder his call had sounded rather faint! Our second target bird was safely nailed!

The same sheltered spot also provided a flock of Nashville Warblers and Rufous-crowned Sparrows before we tore ourselves away from Bamberger to try out another site, Pedernales Falls State Park, for more sparrows. Returning to Susan’s backyard in the late afternoon, we heard a by-now familiar call. Scanning the trees we saw a familiar black,gold and white pattern too – and there was a Golden-cheeked Warbler in full view just feet from Susan’s house! What a bird to have on your garden list!

Texans certainly know how to look after their guests and some!

That evening the rest of the Golden Girls came over with their husbands for a BBQ. No rough and ready do this though, we tucked into delicious homemade hamburgers and oatmeal-and-chocolate cookies. It was a riotous evening with plenty of red wine flowing and hilarious conversation, as we caught up with Ann and Joanne and shared with them the tales of our Bamberger birding with Susan and Shirley. These Texans sure know how to enjoy themselves! Luckily, Carl was still on the case as he stood outside tossing burgers. He heard their local Barred Owl calling in the distance, and summoned Sam, Alan and I so we could add him to the list as a ‘heard’ at least. Since Susan had been so kind as to lay on some very special new species for us, we decided to repay the compliment by inviting her to join us the next day on a bit of a bird race on her local patch. We had some hot gen from our old friend Ken Behrens, who’d taken the record for the biggest day list in the States only a short while before. We had a list of new birds and specific locations but only a few hours to try to see them all so we were on a mission. Poor Susan! I don’t think she’d ever experienced birding quite like it, and at times her feet barely touched the ground. We took her to places she’d never been and showed her birds she’d never seen before, and all within a few miles of her own home!

The tone for the day was set with our first stop as we piled out of the car to check a flock of sparrows on a ploughed field. Hundreds of Lark Sparrows were sorted through as we picked out Clay-coloured and Vesper Sparrows amongst them, as well as Dickcissel. But, sorry Susan, there was no time to stand and stare, as we leapt back into the car to head for our next stakeout for a Scott’s Oriole. He obliged, as did an early Yellow-billed Cuckoo, but sadly no sign of the Audubon’s Oriole that lucky Ken had seen here.

Next we found ourselves in Utopia, both literally, as we checked the town park of this little community, and metaphorically, as we walked slap bang into a Barred Owl, staring down at us from his perch a few feet over our heads. Now we could upgrade our ‘heard’ to a ‘seen’ with some spectacular photos to boot. The legendary Neal’s Lodge was next, a birding destination of some repute. We checked the Cattle Guard feeders first, where we rested on the conveniently placed chairs to watch the feeders and added Pine Siskin and Canyon Wren to our list. Next we visited Cabin 61 and again, right on cue, a charismatic streaked Long-billed Thrasher materialised from nowhere and thrashed around amongst the leaf litter in full view just inches from our feet. A flash of orange metamorphosed into a Hooded Oriole, and then we were on again. Another of Ken’s detailed stakeouts saw us heading down a very narrow lane into a small spinney and checking all the trees. Again, his information was spot on, as within minutes we had located a haughty Red-shouldered Hawk high up on a branch, and we sped off again. Ken’s last tip-off just gave us time to watch a singing pink-billed Field Sparrow before we had to make tracks – Sam needed to be back on guiding duty at High Island bright and early the next morning.

We handed a rather shell-shocked Susan back to her husband Carl, and said our reluctant farewells to these most generous of hosts. Who’d have thought you could make such good friends in such a short time? Susan and Carl Evans, and indeed all our new Texan friends, had shown us such incredible hospitality and generously shared with us their home and a magical part of the state we wouldn’t have otherwise explored. We would love to have the chance to repay the compliment by showing them around our neck of the woods, though sadly our spare room isn’t quite as salubrious as their glorious guest house.

We delivered Sam back to the Tropical Birding Information Centre and High Island late that night, and early the next morning made our way back to the all-too-familiar Houston Airport. With 2,105 species under our belt, it was time to leave Texas and have ourselves some California dreamin’.

We enjoyed great views of Audubon's Oriole but sadly didn't get photos of the warbler or oriole.

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