My first sighting of the Golden-cheeked Warbler was at Pedernales Falls State Park, in April of 2007. I could look at my “Life List” spreadsheet and note the details of that sighting, but I don’t need to. It was a remarkable experience that will remain easy to call to memory, as long as memory allows. My husband and I were hiking the Wolf Mountain trail, with binoculars and day packs, and at 4 miles into the hike I saw movement of yellow and black among the Ashe-juniper and Oak canopy. The solitude of that weekday hike afforded us the luxury of stopping, silent and motionless, except for the classic birder’s panning and tilting motion of neck, with binoculars mounted to forehead, while feet stayed firmly frozen to the trail; we avoided the slightest noise of rock underfoot. We watched in awe of this hill country specialty, delighted on finding a small group of Golden-cheeked Warblers moving about the thickly forested area. On occasion one beautiful male would drop down to a low limb of a large Ashe-juniper tree, giving us full viewing in the bright sunshine. But mostly our views were snatches of body parts amidst the thick covering of Ashe-juniper and partially-leafed oak trees, well above our heads. Our visit with these long-sought beauties lasted at least 30 minutes, and we bemoaned the fact that we had chosen to hike without hauling the camera and 400mm lens. But I’m not sure I would have taken a photo—I was too delighted with binocular views of this beautiful Texas specialty, and uniquely Texas Native.
Since that Wolf Mountain hike I have been delighted with multiple sightings of Golden-cheeked Warblers at Lost Maples State Natural Area and South Llano River State Park. My best photo of the Golden-cheeked was at a water blind at South Llano, sitting one evening and “shooting” (with my camera) the common visitors: Sparrows, Towhees, Kinglets and Orange-crowned Warblers, all drawn to the blind area for afternoon drink and bath. With no pomp, but lucky circumstance, a beautiful Golden-cheeked Warbler popped into my camera view, seeking the same cool drink and bath of his seasonal neighbors. The photo below was my day’s reward:
The Texas Parks and Wildlife website provides an excellent summary of information on the Golden-cheeked Warbler, including its placement on the U.S. Endangered List as of May 4, 1990. As the website describes, “the Golden-cheeked Warblers nest only in central Texas.” Or as Kenn Kaufman’s book, “Lives of North American Birds” states: “This beautiful bird is a central Texas specialty, nesting nowhere else in the world.”
After wintering in the tropics, this faithful Native Texan returns each March, to the area of its birth, the unique hill country habitat of mature Juniper-Ashe and Oak woodlands. The males and females return separately to Texas, with the males arriving first, followed a workweek later by the females. The males court the females, bringing beautiful song atop the junipers, looking out over the arid slopes and seeking woodland shelter near ravines, canyons and streams. Male and female are faithful to the neighborhood of their former offspring’s birth, returning to the previous year’s breeding territory. The female chooses the nest location, and burdens full responsibility for building the compact cup-shaped nest. The nest is ALWAYS made of Juniper-Ashe bark, stripped ONLY from mature Juniper-Ashe trees (that locals often call cedar). These long strips of cedar bark are “glued” together with the aid of collected spider webbing, lichens, mosses, leaves and grass. Three to four eggs are laid once per year, incubated only by the female for approximately 12 days. The male remains loyal to family, remaining in the area for support and feeding, and both male and female parent feed the hatched nestlings. The young leave the nest about 9 days after hatching. According to some ornithology texts, the GCWs use an interesting technique for parenting: the male and female split up the young, with each parent caring for part of the brood over the next several weeks. By July or August, these U.S. citizens depart, migrating through the mountains of eastern Mexico to their yearly mainstay residence of the pine-oak forests of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. While wintering in their version of a tropical paradise, their version of a passport would be clearly marked “U.S. Citizen and Native Texan.”
And so this past weekend, my husband and I were delighted to hike a portion of the Balcones Canyonland Preserve with my brother and sister-in-law. As birders often do, we had spread out on our hike, each panning the area for sought after species. I was in the lead, but had stopped to listen to the beautiful song of a Painted Bunting. With intent listening, I finally found the source via my binoculars, a female Painted Bunting, well hidden in the mixed Juniper-Ashe and Oak woodlands of this protected preserve. The male Painted Bunting carries the iconic imagery of Mother Nature’s most extravagant use of color, with broad-brush strokes of bright red breast, belly, vent and lower back; metallic blue head, lime-green upper back, and red eye ring. The male is truly “painted” with extravagance. Ah, but the female Painted Bunting can be a source of consternation for beginning birders, looking nothing like her colorful male mate—she is a uniformly drab to greenish-backed, pale-yellow bellied bird; what some would call “unremarkably uniform”. But I was joyously watching and listening to her voice, when bam—a flash of yellow and black passed through my binocular viewing field. And there they were, a mated pair of Golden-cheeked warblers, dancing about, collecting insects from trees not 15 yards before me.
My brother was within a quiet call from me, and I motioned and pointed and “mouthed” “Golden-cheeked!” And with camera in hand, he joined me in watching and “shooting” these gorgeous Texans. To our delight, and joined by husband and sister-in-law, we had the rare opportunity to watch male and female parents move about us, seeking, gleaning and feeding insects to two very young “out of the nest” juveniles. Much of the time the two juveniles were side-by-side on a low, bare hardwood branch, in a thickly wooded spot twenty yards in front of us. Clear camera shots were difficult, and I was too busy basking in the joy of excellent binocular viewing and behavior observations to attempt immediate photos. Male and female parent were foraging in the surrounding juniper trees, hopping among the branches, capturing and carrying insects in their bills. They would then swoop down to the lower juvenile-laden branch, “bill-feed” their young, and then fly about, hunting and gathering the next insect to feed. We had front row seats. Was this a divided brood or only two survivors of the nest? Was this pre-split parenting or a coordinated method for only two surviving next generation? Not enough photos and not enough ornithology skills to know. I am an amateur birder.
My brother’s camera was in full throttle use, tracking and shooting with a skill and speed that I do not have. He was dealing well with kid sister’s excited whispers: “up there; over here; in front; to the right!” I selfishly kept binoculars on sightings, rationalizing that I was serving as his spotter, as he carried camera with no binoculars. And supporting my quiet exclamations, his camera moved in track with my binoculars. An occasional hiker or jogger moved past us, and the adult GCWs would push back into the woods, and juveniles would hide from our sight. Our patience in staying put would be rewarded with parent GCW movement back toward us, and additional views of the two juveniles. At some point the juveniles separated, and my brother shot the excellent photos I posted in yesterday’s blog, “THE Native Texan.” I’m reattaching one for this post:
My brother is credited for the best parent GCW photos of the day, and these shots, with insect in bill, are especially nice. Note the clear black eye line, one of the distinguishing marks that separate the GCW from similar species, such as the Black-throated Green Warbler.
And for fun, I’m including photos snapped by brother and sister, of each other, enjoying a gloriously rewarding day in the field.
So next time you bemoan the invasive, water hogging Ashe-Juniper’s of the hill country, remember that without the mature bark of these trees, the truly Native Texan--the Golden-cheeked Warbler, would in all probability, move from the Endangered Species List to the Extinct Species List.
May all your day be birdy days!