A famous specialty bird of Texas is the Golden-cheeked warbler. It is a beauty that I’ve had the pleasure of studying at favorite locales such as Lost Maples State Natural Area, South Llano River State Park and the Balcones Preserve in Austin. The Golden-cheeked has many claims to fame, including the fact that it ONLY nests in Texas. Every Golden-cheeked Warbler is a Texan, by birthright, and simply spends a good part of each year vacationing in Mexico and further south.
But yesterday I had the rare pleasure of seeing a Golden-crowned Warbler at the National Butterfly Center (NBC) in Mission, Texas. Visiting the lovely NBC is an easy bike ride for me, and my day yesterday was all about chasing butterflies and attempting to photograph them with my new 180mm lens that the rick-man surprise gifted me. After three hours looking at this new world of butterfly study, via binoculars and camera, my head was swimming with so many new species names to learn, and my knees, back and arms were in a state of anger from the near ground-level positioning often required for macro photography. I wanted to rest mind and body with the familiar: birding.
I turned to the NBC’s wooded trail that runs adjacent to the dike’s wetland. Reports were circulating via the RGV birding community, and on the web, that a Golden-crowned Warbler was being sighted, somewhat regularly, at this locale.
This Friday afternoon I was not the only birder slowly walking this trail, carefully birding with hopes of spotting the Golden-crowned. I was quietly alone, enjoying the company of Yellow-rumped Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, when I noted two young men, some thirty yards from me, showing obvious signs of spotting something special. I attempted to move quietly, slowly and calmly in their direction, noting the viewing vector of their binoculars’ interest. I was rewarded with a good look, albeit brief, at this rare species.
I am a birder first, photographer second, so my camera stayed at my side during this first sighting. I wanted to drink in all the looks I could get of this new lifer and rare Texas species. Whether to call it a guest or a state occupant is still under determination by the Texas Bird Records Committee (TBRC).
I’d like to say my binocular-focused looks at this Golden-crowned were long, but a somewhat noisy stampede of a handful of people caused the warbler to do what warblers do—quietly seek distance and refuge from commotion.
But I got a second look, less than an hour later, further down the trail! This time I fixed camera on the brush. Unfortunately I did not have my 400 mm birding lens, and unfortunately a second stampede of a handful of humans caused this second look to be equally brief. But both of these facts give me excuse for these somewhat blurry photos. However, I believe they would be considered “good enough” for identification records:
Golden-crowned Warbler (Basileuterus culicivorus):
The wonderful website of the Texas Bird Records Committee (TBRC), a standing committee of the Texas Ornithological Society, includes the Golden-crowned Warbler as a Review Species. The list of Review Species includes birds sighted four times a year, or less, over an average of ten years. And their website’s photo of the Golden-crowned is circa 1989, photographed at the Sabal Palms Sanctuary, south of Brownsville.
A different way of describing my excitement over sighting the Golden-crowned is to look at the range map in Sibley’s Guide to Birds. The entire U.S. map icon is blank, except for one green dot in the very southern tip of the RGV! Sibley defines a green dot as a “location of rare occurrence.” Quite simply, the Golden-crowned Warbler’s passport would identify it as a bird of Mexico and Central America, specifically including Argentina, Uruguay and Trinidad.Yesterday’s rare sighting of a Golden-crowned Warbler on U.S. RGV soil, the only place to potentially spot this species in the U.S., was a wonderful experience. But it doesn’t make my “thrilling” list of sightings. I’m certain I’ll be back at the NBC hoping for longer sightings and better photos (and relaxation from my new study of butterflies).
Yesterday quite simply was not my favorite way of getting a new lifer, much less viewing any species, familiar or new. Yes, I got a “good enough” look to cleanly identify the species, and I confidently added it to my life list after validation through further study with web photos, books and my two photos. But I did not get to “watch” or study this beautiful warbler. I was amidst a handful of people, and their excitement reflected enough kinetic energy (manifested in both movement and noise), to make this sighting too brief.
I don’t want to just see a bird, high-five those around me, and add it to my life list. I want to watch it; study it; listen to it. I want to wonder over its unique beauty while it is before me. And then, and only then, sometimes an hour later, will I want to wander quietly away, smiling the silent smile of a moment in time, seemingly alone with a colorful Aves character witness to Mother Nature.
I can’t wait to be back in the field. Tomorrow!