Fantastic Birds and Where We Found Them
A highlight of visiting new areas is the possibility of seeing new birds. I feel that I have been growing a lot as a birder, but it is both a body of knowledge, practice/training, and a skill set (attention to detail, spotting things quickly, memory). Thankfully, my brother was a good sport and helped me spot birds. Having a second set of eyes was helpful in uncovering some of the bird life hidden in the world around me. With that said, here are some of the top birds that we spotted between Texas and Minnesota on our road trip! (Note that many of the photos are poor quality since the birds are distant, moving, or just hard to easily capture for me).
Golden Cheeked Warbler:
The Golden cheeked warbler only nests in Central Texas and nowhere else in the world. According to Audubon’s guide to North American birds, it prefers mature woods of ashe juniper and has been threatened by loss of habitat and nest parasitism from cowbirds. My brother and I set out for the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge in search of the bird. I didn’t have high hopes of finding it, since it is rare and warblers can be difficult to spot. We hiked along a juniper covered hill in search of the endangered bird and only found it at the end of the hike. The warbler actually perched a few feet away from my brother. It wasn’t too difficult to identify, since we had passed sixteen trail markers along the way which featured a painted image of the bird. The bird’s population is about 21,000, so it is rarest bird I have seen. Texas land developers want to de-list the bird as an endangered species. 1/3 of the bird’s habitat was destroyed between 1999 – 2011. It would be a terrible loss if this bird went extinct due to the profit driven shortsightedness of land developers. Plus, the mature juniper forests we hiked through are a really unique and pretty habitat. https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/golden-cheeked-warbler https://www.audubon.org/news/yet-again-texas-developers-try-delist-endangered-golden-cheeked-warbler
2. Scissor Tailed Flycatcher
I really wanted to see a Scissor Tailed Flycatcher because they are unique looking birds. I had never seen one before until visiting the Botanical Gardens in San Antonio. Of course, once I saw one…I saw them all over! The birds were perched on wires along the roads between Texas and southern Kansas. They range across the southern great plains and seemed especially common in Oklahoma. Since they range so far south, I certainly have never encountered one in Minnesota. They are related to kingbirds and I watched one of them swoop to eat insects at Dinosaur Valley State Park in Texas.
3. Painted Bunting
My brother spotted an unfamiliar bird at Government Canyon. The brilliantly bright bird was about the size of a sparrow. When I caught it in my binoculars, I saw that it was a painted bunting…one of those birds that is immediately recognizable to anyone who has browsed bird guides. The colorful, green, red, and blue bird can be found in the South eastern United States, including Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana as well as some parts of the Carolinas and Florida. Like the Scissor Tailed Flycatcher, once we spotted one we were seeing them all over- with sightings at Balcones Canyonlands and Dinosaur Valley State Park. That is one of the interesting things about birding. You can be “bird blind” to a species or all birds, until you take time to notice/identify them- then suddenly- they are everywhere!
4. Indigo Bunting:
Further north in Nebraska, my brother spotted a small blue bird, which I recognized as an Indigo Bunting. Although Indigo Buntings can be found in Minnesota, I have never seen one. There were dozens of the blue colored birds near the wetland trail at Indian Cave State Park. The bird ranges throughout the Eastern half of the United States, from Texas to Minnesota, eastward to the Atlantic coast.
5. Lark Sparrow:
Sparrows aren’t always the easiest to identify, since they are generally some variation of brown. Still, as I identify more birds, I know that sparrows are in the frontier of new species that I can add to my life list. Thankfully, the Lark Sparrow was easy to identify. I spotted one at Dinosaur Valley State Park, but also saw a few in Kansas. I didn’t immediately know that I had observed a new sparrow, but I did note that its facial pattern stood out compared to other sparrows I have seen. Lark Sparrows are not found in Minnesota as they tend to range further west and south.
6. Black chinned hummingbird
The only hummingbird regularly found in Minnesota is the Ruby throated hummingbird. I was definitely hoping to see another species of hummingbird on my trip. To this end, I spent some time in the butterfly garden of the San Antonio Botanical gardens, where I believe I saw a female black chinned hummingbird.
The black throated hummingbird is most commonly found in the southwestern United States. I got a better view of this hummingbird at Dinosaur Valley State Park, where I saw several easier to identify males. Black chinned hummingbirds are common in the Western united states and closely related to Ruby throated hummingbirds.
7. Golden- Fronted Woodpecker
In addition to seeing another species hummingbird, I really wanted to see more woodpeckers. I was treated to a sighting of a Golden fronted woodpecker at the San Antonio Botanical gardens. I happened to make a second, last minute visit to the bird observatory, where the woodpecker was perched by a dried up orange. According to Allaboutbirds, Golden Fronted woodpeckers enjoy eating grass hoppers and sometimes stain their beaks purple from eating prickly pears. The woodpecker is found in Oklahoma and Texas. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Golden-fronted_Woodpecker/overview?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI6O_o9bKW2wIVEtbACh26xgVwEAAYASAAEgIUo_D_BwE
8. Red-Headed Woodpecker:
Red-headed woodpeckers can be found in Minnesota, but I have never seen one. It seems that they range across much of the Eastern United States. My first sighting of a red-headed woodpecker was at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. My brother and I spotted one in the forest along the river. It was a quick sighting, but the bird is pretty unmistakable with its entirely red head. According to Allaboutbirds, the Red-headed woodpecker has many nicknames, the best of which is probably Jellycoat. Fossils of red-headed woodpeckers have been found in Florida, dating back as much as 2 million years.
Another bird that I wanted to see was a meadowlark. Meadowlarks can be found in Minnesota, but once again, I have not seen one. Once we entered Kansas, I started to see meadowlarks everywhere! They were on fence posts and power lines. One flew over my brother’s van. Of course, there are Western and Eastern Meadowlarks- which look extremely similar. The state bird of Kansas is the Western Meadowlark. I want to assume that is what I saw, but both birds can be found in Kansas as their ranges overlap. I took a photo of one of them at Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve. Upon looking at the photo, I believe it was an Eastern Meadowlark…as it had a whiter mustache and bolder colors. Maybe among all of the Meadowlarks I saw, I saw a few of each. I didn’t hear the song, which is an easier way of telling the two apart.
I saw several species of swallows on my trip. Swallows have been difficult for me to identify because they look similar, move quickly, and often don’t pause long enough for a good look. However, I am slowly starting to sort out the swallows one by one. For instance, if it is solidly dark, it is a purple martin. If it is purple/blue on top but white on the underside, it is a tree swallow. A blue and brown head with a forked tail is a barn swallow and a blue and brown head (+ white spot) without a forked tail is a cliff swallow. A swallow that is brown with a brown chest, is a bank swallow. This is a fairly rough guide to the differences, but has helped me sort out the swallows. I saw cliff swallows in Oklahoma City and bank swallows at Indian Cave State Park. The San Antonio Botanical Gardens had tree swallows and purple martins. I also saw Barn swallows along the way.
During the road trip, I saw over 25 new species of birds. I am sure if I was a better birder, there were probably at least 40 new species of birds. Kansas and Nebraska were great for viewing raptors, but it was hard to identify them while driving. There were other birds that I saw, such as a curved billed thrasher, tufted titmouse, sedge wren, lesser yellowlegs, orchard oriole, Loggerhead shrike, etc. which added to my list. My brother saw a bobwhite, but I only caught it making noise and flying away. Thus, some sightings were better than others.
Other birds: a loggerhead shrike at the Tall Grass National Preserve, a night hawk also at the Tall Grass National Preserve, a blue gray gnatcatcher at Dinosaur Valley, Scrub Jay at Balcones Canyonlands, Curve billed thrasher at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, and many more which were too fast to photograph…