Texas Birding Trip, Part 3: Lost Maples State Natural Area

by Spallin Jay on July 28, 2012

My hydration level depleted from the previous day’s tromping in extreme Texas heat, I awoke to dizziness, smashing headache, and rapid heartbeat. Apparently the previous day’s ice cream with a vodka chaser didn’t help much in the prevention department of heat exhaustion.

Malaise in tow, we drove a few hours east from Neal’s Lodges and arrived at Lost Maples State Natural Area, a gorgeous reserve along the Sabinal River. Lost Maples is the epitome of Texas Hill Country, with its vastly varied terrain; canyons, woodland, precipices, mountain habitat, and riparian areas. This was also the last major stop in Hill Country; the best and last shot at seeing the endangered Black-capped Vireo. Read: Grail Bird.

The vireos at Lost Maples, however, are not easily accessible as they are in the other spots they’re found in Texas. This search would involve a steep hike during some pretty sweltering weather. But a challenge to find a rare bird? Sign me the hell UP.

At the outset of our hike to find the Black-capped Vireo, we stopped at a beautiful low-lying stream. I dicked around with the camera trying to take pictures of the fish in the stream. I’ll say one thing: refraction’s a bitch.

The Golden-cheeked Warblers at Lost Maples were less shy than the ones at Neal’s Lodges. That meant bonus photo ops!

Golden-Cheeked Warbler doing some tail feather fanning.

So off we set on the climb. It didn’t seem a long or boring trek either, on account of all the riveting scenery and wildlife to be found within it. In fact, only a few hundred metres in we got even better views of Golden-cheeked Warblers, singing in full force, than we did at Neal’s Lodges. There were Canyon Wrens singing from the gullies, only to be steadily interrupted by the sweet song of many a Carolina Chickadee. Our only Hermit Thrush of the trip was heard in one of the wooded areas. Most surprising were the numerous singing Field Sparrows, heard from all parts of the reserve; clearly NOT living up to their names.

Quite surprising to me was the abundance of audible Field Sparrows all the way up the mountain. Definitely not what I regarded as FISP habitat, but there you have it! This individual was particularly accommodating as well sparrowtastic.

What we epically deemed: the “Shit Transporter”
(A dung beetle we stumbled across on our walk back down the mountain)

Before we knew it, we were at the top of the mountain on a plateau that was moonlighting as an apex. There were quite a few rather short, distinctly spaced-out trees; short, shrubby affairs which matched exactly the preference of Black-capped Vireos we had read about. These dudes have some pretty picky tastes about where to breed, and so are especially vulnerable to habitat loss. It’s here that I feel the need to give a shout-out to the Texas Parks system. Lost Maples, along with many other parks in Texas, are making concerted efforts to protect vulnerable and endangered species by providing suitable habitat and resources, all while offering public access to these delicate riches by way of well-maintained trails. We were impressed by the knowledgeable staff and caring groundskeepers.

So where were the vireos? Prime habitat, sun shining, FISPs going nuts… I had studied the song, and told myself to be on the lookout for a combined array of vireo-like warbles.

Listening, listening, listening.

As insecurity kicked in, the thoughts began: “Shit. What if I don’t hear it? It’s not like we’re going to see the skulky bastards. Then, I guess we’d be scr—what was THAT!?”

I surprised and interrupted myself by blurting that out way louder than I intended to; I heard a vireo. Okay… it was a faint, disjointed, screwed up little chatter. But what the hell else is up here that would sound like that? An operatic beehive? A gnatcatcher on ‘roids?

“WAIT. There it is again. That’s IT!” I screamed and motioned to Martin who was off in the distance. We followed the sound. It led us to an unassuming tree; certainly not one that looked like it’d get laid in the tree world, but the vireo was in there.

Then all of a sudden we heard a second vireo near us. We stood there for many minutes listening to the two counter-singing Black-capped Vireos, caught in the crossfire of the two birds by some weirdly orchestrated twist of fate—but what a twist, eh?

Now that we had the birds on our list, we desperately wanted an eyeful, so we did what any grail-bird-crazy birders would do: wait some frigging more.

Waiting, waiting, waiting.

A vireo would then pop up a few more times, only briefly, finally affording us some decent eyefuls and even a few rushed photos. And oh yeah—they’re everything you read about, everything the justice those really good pictures do them on any online search. We’re talking major vireogasm here.

The star of the show; the vireo of vireos

I sat down on a flat rock surface to savour the moment, drink some water and break for a mid-morning snack. As I contemplated where I was at that moment, replaying the scene in my head (in stereo!), I felt the leaves of a plant under my thighs. As the leaves continued to sway in the gentle breeze beneath me, I started feeling some discomfort. Oh, I thought, the leaves must be jagged. So I brushed them off again. When I looked beneath me, I discovered nothing but bare rock. What the…?

Ow. OW. Holy shit. WHAT THE F–K?! ARRRRGHHHH!!!! MY LEGS! MY ASS!!!

I sprang up from the ground in a pain-induced panic. Burning, fiery agony; I immediately thought: “fire ants?” But how could that be? I saw no bugs when I sat down—I even checked.

As I would then learn, fire ants often aren’t seen more than they’re felt. For a solid 15 minutes, I lived up in the literal sense to what every redhead at some point in their life dreads being called: firecrotch.

I will elaborate no further on details, but will happily report that the pain was relatively short lived and without any lingering consequence (other than of course being able to boast at cocktail parties that I’ve survived an ass attack by Texan fire ants and lived to tell about it). Action over and energy fading, we headed back down the mountain for lunch.

After a healthy dose of water and canned sardine sandwiches, we were ready to roll on to our next destination, but not before we had ourselves a near-sci-fi-movie vision. As we were loading up the car, we noticed a man hovering outside the men’s washroom, looking at the frosted window, seemingly peering in. But this was no George Michael. Before we could blurt out: “Holy creepy dude, Batman,” he called out to his wife and family to “come an’ see this!!” As the whole clan ran to him, we heard screams. OK, out of the car, we HAVE to check this out…

It turned out a Texas Red-headed Centipede had been using the outside ledge of the men’s washroom window to take its own lunch break and devour a big, juicy junebug-type insect. It was easily nine inches long, vicious looking also fascinating in its own bizarre, beautiful way. It was like a trance. I didn’t want to look away, but couldn’t help feeling startled and scared when it got angry at the men poking at it (gently, thankfully) with a stick to see what it would do. In all its massiveness, it still managed to climb up the wall vertically, its many appendages working in bewildering, hypnotic unison.

The thing that we thought wasn’t was
Texas red-headed centipede. Yes, this is part of why you should always fear redheads.
Photo courtesy of Martin Scott

After we regained ourselves, we finally set off on the first of two long drives over the course of the rest of the day. Effectively leaving Texas Hill Country, we set off East to San Antonio. I had coerced Martin into stopping to see The Alamo, because it felt like a thing one should see if it is on the way to where one is going. A block away from the historic site, we discovered a monster roost of Great tailed Grackles in a church parking lot. Is it wrong that I found the grackle roosting spot near The Alamo way more interesting than the landmark?

!

The Alamo. Mostly visited ’cause I thought my dad would be impressed. It was pretty unimpressive, especially after I read the dodgy history behind its erection (Ha!) and preservation. The traffic is of course horrendous around the city centre, but the Great-tailed Grackles to be found therein are nothing short of spectacular.

Finally we headed even further east, straight to the Texas coast, with a final destination of Aransas Bay. That’s where the Whooping Cranes were.

Inca Dove just outside of San Antonio, where we stopped at a park to bird with what little light we had left. These beauts were so tame and comfy with my being there, that I dare say I had a little “thing” with the INDOs…
Details to never be released.

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  • deb

    Firecrotch – I hate that! Nice centipede! (Yech) good story telling. Deb.

  • Jack Cowan

    You tell a nice story, Ms Jay.

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