A group of birders lock in on their quarry while hiking Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is among dozens of fantastic Highland Lakes birding destinations. Photo by Claire Hassler/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A group of birders lock in on their quarry while hiking Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is among dozens of fantastic Highland Lakes birding destinations. Photo by Claire Hassler/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Highland Lakes and surrounding Texas Hill Country offer some incredible birding opportunities thanks to diverse landscapes and ample open spaces that provide habitats for hundreds of species of birds.
Elizabeth Gardner of the Friends of Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge spoke with 101HighlandLakes.com and offered tips and tricks for taking advantage of the region’s avian abundance.
Gardner is the refuge’s guided hike leader program coordinator, and a big part of her role is knowing birding basics.
“Birding is very important for the guided hike leader program because that is why many people come to the refuge,” she explained.
The Friends group offers free, volunteer-led hikes through the refuge on which visitors can learn about the land’s natural and human history. The treks are especially educational for birders.

Golden-cheeked warbler

The golden-cheeked warbler is a treasured species for Hill Country birders. The little songbirds arrive from Central America every spring and can be found only in the oak-juniper woodlands of Central Texas before they leave in the summer. Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge is one of the best places in the world to see the cherished bird. Photo by Roger Gray

Balcones Canyonlands was founded in 1992 to protect the habitat of two songbirds: the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo. They’re not alone on the refuge. More than 250 different species have been documented on its 27,000 acres.
The refuge is not the only birder’s paradise in the Highland Lakes. Six Texas State Parks, five Lower Colorado River Authority parks, and dozens of smaller public and private parks are home to a variety of feathered friends. According to ebird.com, the internet’s leading birding database, 337 different species have been observed in these parts.
The hills are alive with the sound of tweets, twitters, chirps, squawks, quacks, whistles, trills, screeches, hoots, and songs. Get out there and see what all the noise is about.

TIPS AND TRICKS

Eastern Phoebe

A stunning shot of an Eastern Phoebe at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. This is just one of the hundreds of species of birds that can be seen in the Highland Lakes. Photo by Claire Hassler/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Gardner offered the following advice when birdwatching in the Highland Lakes.
When to head out: “Early in the morning is always a great time, right when the sun is starting to come up,” she said.
Closer to evening can also work, but it depends on what species you’re seeking. Songbirds get started early, vultures use mid-day thermals to soar, and owls come out at night.
The right season: “The time of year is really important because we have completely different birds at different times of year,” according to Gardner.
Spring brings many migratory birds to Central Texas, like the golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo, but they leave in the summer, returning to Mexico and Central America. The mild weather, migratory action, and abundant food sources make spring a wonderful season for birding, but summer, fall, and winter can offer fantastic opportunities. Waterfowl migrate in the fall, eagles hang around in the winter, and wading birds stalk the water in the summer.

Black-capped vireo

The black-capped vireo is a migratory bird that has deep roots in Central Texas, including at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. The scrublands of the Lone Star State typically provide choice habitat for the little birds, but that scrubland can be difficult to manage with incoming development, destructive ranching practices, and the lack of natural wildfires and browsing mammals. Photo courtesy of Melissa Cheatwood

Listen: “For me, I found birding by ear to be much easier to start with. A lot of our local birds have really unique and interesting songs,” Gardner said.
Each bird has its own particular sound, call, or music. Songbirds are usually very small and hard to see, so learning their songs can be a great way to identify them if you can’t lay eyes on them.
Gardner recommends learning the songs via a phone app, like Merlin, or identifying common birds by sight and then learning their songs. She said some birdsongs are easier to pick up than others, like the golden-cheeked warbler, which sounds like it’s singing “La Cucaracha,” or the canyon wren, which mimics the cartoonish descending whistle of someone falling off of a cliff. It is also important to have some peace and quiet when birding so songs can be clearly heard.

Wild turkeys

A flock of wild turkeys takes flight at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. Their unmistakable gobbles often can be heard echoing through the refuge canyons. Photo by Claire Hassler/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Gear: Gardner recommends “a good set of binoculars. You do not have to spend a ton either. I started with a $12 pair.”
Binoculars are essential equipment for birders. They allow you to pick out the details on a bird, which can help put a face to the song they’re singing. Some birds look very similar, like the six species of resident sparrows in Central Texas, so being able to spot details is crucial to accurate identification.
Gardner also recommends dressing for the occasion and bringing the same gear you would if you were going on a hike: sunscreen on sunny days, long pants for tall grass, a coat for the early morning chill, and boots for rugged terrain.
Learn: “Volunteer. I learned most of my initial knowledge from the Christmas Bird Count,” Gardner said.
She is referring to the National Audubon Society’s annual winter bird count, during which volunteers across the country help count bird species for science and conservation purposes. She recommends volunteering with local events and organizations to learn from other birders and experts, which will increase your knowledge by leaps and bounds.
It can be difficult to dive into birding without any guidance, so seek out those who can lend a helping hand. The Friends of Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge and the Highland Lakes Birding and Wildflower Society are great places to start.

HIGHLAND LAKES BIRDING SPOTS

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Note: Entry into USFWS locations is free. Amenities may be limited depending on location.
Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge: Headquarters are open from 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. weekdays at 24518 RR 1431 in Marble Falls. Other sites include:

  • Doeskin Ranch Open from sunrise to sunset daily at 10645 FM 1174 in Bertram
  • Warbler Vista — Open from sunrise to sunset daily at 21646½ FM 1431 East in Lago Vista
  • Shin Oak Observation Deck — Open from sunrise to sunset daily at 1929 RR 1869 in Bertram

Inks Dam National Fish Hatchery: Open from 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m. daily at 345 Clay Young Road in Burnet

Texas State Parks

Note: Entry fees vary. Visitors can purchase a Texas State Parks Pass, which gives all occupants of a passholder’s vehicle free admission into a state park or natural area. The parks often require reservations, so check online before making the trip.

LCRA Parks

Note: Entrance is $5 for ages 13 and older, $2 for ages 65 and older, and free for ages 12 and younger. You can purchase an LCRA Parks Pass, which gives the passholder unlimited entries. LCRA parks are open sunrise to sunset daily.

Other locations

  • Canyon of the Eagles: Private resort at 16942 RR 2341 in Burnet. Day-use visitors can hike and enjoy other amenities for a fee. It is a good site to spot bald eagles, particularly in the winter.
  • Cow Creek Road: At the intersection of RR 1431 East. This Burnet County road follows Cow Creek near Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge and is a favorite for birders. However, safety and respect for property lines are essential if the road is utilized for that purpose. The road passes near and through the refuge but is also straddled by private property, depending on the location.
  • Horseshoe Bay Nature Park: Open from sunrise to sunset daily at 1514 Golden Nugget in Horseshoe Bay. Entrance is free. This small preserve was specifically designed for birding.
  • Krause Springs: Open from 9 a.m.-8 p.m. daily at 424 CR 404 in Spicewood. Entrance is $10 for ages 12 and older, $6 for ages 4-11, and free for ages 3 and younger. Birding activities could suffer on busy days due to the noise. Krause Springs is a popular swimming hole.
  • Pace Bend Park: Open from sunrise to civil twilight daily at 2805 Pace Bend Road North in Spicewood. Entrance is $5 for ages 13 and older, $3 for ages 65 and older, and free for ages 12 and younger.
  • Quarry Park: Always open at 2221 N. Phillips Ranch Road in Granite Shoals. This is a Granite Shoals city park and free to access. Birding opportunities might suffer due to nearby sporting activities. Has one small bird blind.
  • Reveille Peak Ranch: Open from sunrise to sunset most days — closed until noon on most Thursdays — at 105 CR 114 in Burnet. Entrance is $10 for ages 12 and older, $5 for ages 6-11, and free for ages 5 and younger. Cash or check only. The ranch has over 60 miles of hiking trails. Mountain bikers, recreational shooting activities, and festivals might interfere with birding. Text 512-914-9411 for questions or concerns.
  • Vanishing Texas River Cruise: Boat excursion service at 443 Waterway Lane in Burnet. Sightseeing and birdwatching boats head out on Lake Buchanan and the Colorado River, depending on water levels. Pricing varies with date, time, and service.

dakota@thepicayune.com