Brian's Journal - Texas, May 2011

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05/10/2011   Seattle to Austin  
Susan and I flew down to Texas today for a four day visit, she to get reacquainted with high school friends she hasn't seen since her college days some 40 years ago and I to get reacquainted with birds I haven't seen since my last visit 35 years ago. She's looking forward to having her friends meet me while I'm hoping to meet a few new birds for the first time - in particular a couple specialties of the Edwards Plateau, the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo. The warbler I've known about for a long time; it's a close relative of common species in both Washington and New Hampshire. I'd forgotten about the vireo until I started researching Austin-area birding. Apparently both species occur in, and are the reason for the creation of, the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, so that's where I'm headed tomorrow morning while Susan spends the day with her old boyfriend Donnie.
We met Donnie and his wife Marguerite for dinner after we found our hotel. They took us to a favorite Tex-Mex place of theirs, the name of which I've forgotten already. TexMex differs somewhat from our local version of Mexican food - more cream and Velveeta cheese and chili, fewer vegetables. Susan was delighted to see Donnie again; she kept giggling and touching him while they talked, as if she couldn't believe she was actually with him again. Donnie was particularly important to her because he represents the closest link that she has left to her mother, who died when Susan was only 23. Donnie was her mother's favorite of all her friends and he liked her a good deal too.
Donnie and Marguerite have been married longer than we have and she seemed as comfortable as I was about Susan's reunion with Donnie. We talked about our families and her business, though conversation over the music in the restaurant was a bit difficult. She went to work for Donnie as his legal secretary then started and Invisible Fence distributorship and ended up hiring Donnie, by then her husband, as her accountant. That was ironic, she said, because Donnie has never been good at math, though he somehow managed to do a good job for her business. He's semi- retired now while she is still fully engaged in the business, and is, according to Donnie, exceptionally good at what she does. Her closing ratio, he told me proudly, was 85%, far above the industry average of 60% or so. We lingered at our outdoor table long after our waiter cleared our plates, enjoying the warm evening while Donnie and Susan reminisced about old days, old friends.
Our hotel, the Mansion on Judges Hill, was a wonderful place in a classic old limestone mansion near both the Capitol building and University of Texas. Our room was on the southeast corner of the second floor had two dormers, a very comfortable queen-sized bed, dark antique furniture, a limestone shower and his-and-hers bathrobes. I was sorry not to have more time to enjoy it, but there was visiting and birding to be done.
05/11/2011   Austin - Balcones Canyonlands NWR  
Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge was created specifically to protect habitat for the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo, two endangered species whose summer range is restricted to the juniper-oak woods and oak scrub habitats respectively on the Edwards Plateau of west-central Texas. I had no idea what my chances of seeing them would be but decided that looking for them would be as good a way as any to get familiar with the birds and habitats of the area, and that Balcones Canyonlands would be the best place to start. According to my web research it was about an hour northeast of downtown Austin and offered trails and observation points in the appropriate habitats. It was a good choice.
Anticipating that we would be heading in different directions during the day, I'd rented a car for myself as well as a minivan for Susan. I left a note for her in our room and crept out around 7AM with my binoculars, TLZ Pro AW camera case with chest harness, the D300 with the 18-105 and 200-400 lens (which occupied most of my carry-on suitcase on the flight down) and a small fanny pack for bird book, notebook and maps. In the field I normally have the 200-400 on the camera and cradle the lens on top of the TLZ Pro with one elbow leaving both hands more or less free for binoculars or taking notes. By clipping the binocular strap to the chest harness, I can drop the binocs and have the lens up and focusing on a bird almost as soon as I spot it. I'm still learning to use the lens effectively. By training myself to sight down the barrel with my left eye while looking through the viewfinder with my right I've become much better at getting the bird in view. Then the trick is to focus on the bird and not on the twigs and foliage which often block my line of sight while simultaneously remembering to adjust the exposure depending on whether the bird is backlit or not. And to move slowly enough to not startle the bird while getting the lens on the subject as quickly enough to get a photo before it flies off. And to make sure that I have ISO and aperature set for the new shot, and not for the last shot I took 10 minutes ago. There's a lot than can, and often does, go wrong.
I stopped at a grocery store in Lago Vista and picked up a can of sardines, a bunch of grapes, a couple of tomatoes and several oranges, but was so excited about birding that all day long I didn't eat anything until suppertime except one of the oranges. About three miles out of town a big sign on the right announced "Warbler Vista". I'd been heading to the refuge headquarters a few miles farther up the road but decided to check out the warbler vista so drove up a gravel road about a mile through dry-looking juniper oak woods, pulled into the first parking area on the right and hopped out of the car to listen for the buzzy song of a Golden-cheeked Warbler. Silence. The morning was gray. A bit of a breeze stirred the juniper crowns just enough to make spotting any bird activity difficult. A cardinal sang, a slightly unfamiliar series of sharp, downward-slurred whistles. Then a warbling vireo sang its irregular up-and-down warbling song. It didn't sound quite right, perhaps a little too fast or too high-pitched, and the habitat wasn't really appropriate either. It was singing in a nearby juniper about 20' tall but I couldn't spot it before it moved off, invisibly, into the woods about 50 yards away. I decided not to pursue it.
A pamphlet from a box by the restroom stated that warblers could be heard if not seen along the Cactus Rocks trail which entered the woods across the road from the parking area, so I geared up and set out on the trail. The woods is more juniper than oak. The junipers have stout branches low to the ground which grow upward like additional trunks. The stringy bark of the older trees is the only nesting material Golden-cheeked warblers will use. Both deciduous and evergreen oaks grow among the junipers. The deciduous oaks stand out because their bright green foliage contrasts with the brownish green of the junipers. Junipers seem to predominate in drier areas, oaks in somewhat more mesic areas. Plane trees (sycamores) are scattered along larger stream gullies though all but the largest streams are dry.
The trail traversed along the south side of a ridge perhaps a hundred yards below the crest. Bird activity was pretty quiet for the first 15 minutes, then I heard a warbler down the slope below me. I waited for ten minutes or so but it didn't seem to be moving much so I continued slowly along the trail. After a while another one sang, this time closer. Again I waited, then ahead about 100 feet I spotted the singer, my first Golden-cheeked Warbler. It was foraging in the crown of a juniper and singing occasionally. I watched it for a while, worked my way slowly closer and took a few photos before it foraged around to the back of the tree, then flew some distance away. Hearing some songs ahead I continued down the trail. One was a Bewick's Wren, another an accelerating series of short whistles which turned out to be a Field Sparrow, and the third song a loud repeated "tewtewtewtewtew" which I discovered, after hearing several more of them, to be a Black-crested Titmouse. The Titmouse sings for a minute or two in an oak then flies quite a distance away and resumes singing. It was hard to spot them, even if they were close, before they flew off.
I reached a weedy opening with scattered young junipers and spotted another Golden-cheeked Warbler singing and foraging in the top of a juniper crown. They seem to like working the topmost branches and twigs of the junipers. Nearby I heard soft chipping calls and stood still looking for them. They were Golden-cheeked Warbler fledglings, three or four of them accompanied by one or two adults. One of the fledglings, apparently curious, approached quite close to me while I stood still except for following it with the camera. At one point I even had to zoom out to fit it in the frame. The adults didn't approach as close though whether by chance or intention I couldn't tell. A Western Scrub Jay zoomed around a juniper and nearly ran into me before swerving away over the shoulder of a little ridge. In the distance I heard a Mockingbird singing, then a Killdeer, then a Black-headed Grosbeak and an Ash-throated Flycatcher. A little while later I heard the Ash-throated by itself but the Killdeer and the Grosbeak were most likely the Mockingbird.
I think I was on the Vista Ridge trail. I followed it back to the main trail and along an open bench where I confirmed the Field Sparrow song. From a trail junction I think I walked up the Ridgeline trail for a while, where I heard but couldn't spot a singing Black and White Warbler before returning and following another trail out to the road. Just across the road I heard the Warbling Vireo-type song in open woods so I went in to look for it. Though I was very close I still couldn't spot it. As I stood still looking for it two warblers flew by, then one circled back and landed on a branch just a few feet from me. Before I could begin to move the camera up it hopped behind a young juniper trunk. I didn't want to move and flush it but I couldn't see it either. After a long few seconds it flew up to a branch above me where I took a few photos as it gradually hopped up into the crown. The Warbling Vireo-type song had moved to another tree, an oak this time, across a little opening, and there I finally spotted it. It wasn't a vireo, but rather a drab greenish finch, perhaps as large as a tanager, with no wingbars or other markings except for a dark patch around the eye and a slight eyering. The bill was rather stout and dark. I had no idea what it was. It sang its song at regular intervals but never called and didn't seem to be foraging at all either. At least I got some photos.
Back at the parking lot I met a retired Navy? Commander named Frank Madia who was now working as a volunteer for the wildlife refuge. He had binoculars so we started talking about birding in the area. When I heard my mystery bird singing again we went looking for it together but couldn't spot it until it flew off into the woods. I showed him my photos and he couldn't say what it was either. I asked him about finding the Black-capped Vireo and he suggested a spot along the road to Oatmeal since when he was last at the Shin Oak Observatory he heard only White-eyed Vireos. He also told me about a culvert near Doeskin Ranch where Cave Swallows often mixed with the Cliff Swallows nesting there. We talked some about photography too, since he has a long-time interest in photographing birds. I told him about and promised I'd send a link once I got my photos posted.
With a couple hours remaining before I needed to head over to Wimberly to meet Susan for dinner with Scott Gatewood, I decided to go the the refuge headquarters, where Frank had said I would find good birding. And I did, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, a Golden-fronted Woodpecker which I should have photographed but didn't, a Blue Grosbeak which turned out to be an Indigo Bunting when I looked more closely at the photo I got of it, a Summer tanager and a Painted Bunting, though my views of those two species were way too brief, just as the gates were closing and I had to leave. I showed my photos to Rob (I think) at the office but he couldn't say what my mystery bird was either. Before leaving the refuge I took a short detour up Cow Creek road where I found a very tame Turkey Vulture on a fencepost and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Lots of bird activity there for so late in the day.
Susan and I were both late meeting Scott. Distances are much farther than they appear on the map of Texas. We finally found him around 8PM at a small restaurant across the street from the school where he teaches. Scott's hair was once black but has turned Santa-Claus-white, whose figure he somewhat resembles. He lacks the beard but his bushy white moustache droops down to either side of his chin. He and Susan were pretty close friends in high school and she was delighted to see him again. They alternated talking about high school days and Scott's various careers since then - he's managed ranches for both horses and longhorns, owned a feed distributor business, worked as a reporter at one newspaper and as the editor for ten years of another and now teaches journalism and writing at a charter school. It having been a long day, I left them to return to our hotel in Austin when the restaurant closed for the evening. Susan and Scott waited out a thunderstorm in the school gym before she followed me back a couple of hours later.
05/12/2011   Austin to Blanco - Balcones Canyonlands NWR  
I wanted to do some more birding around the refuge headquarters this morning then head up to Doeskin Ranch for the afternoon so I got up early again and left the hotel about the same time as yesterday morning. Same weather too - a low stratus overcast threatening drizzle, but the air was more humid this morning. Outside of Lago Vista I turned up the Warbler Vista road again to eat a little breakfast and assemble my camera gear. A light sprinkling of rain began to fall, then quit after a minute or two. I parked a short distance up the road when I heard my mystery bird singing again, and an Eastern Kingbird chattering as well. Lots of cliff swallows (but no cave swallows) on the wires overhead. I got a fairly good look at the mystery bird before it flew off, then found two Yellow Warblers foraging in the same oak tree. I noted the birds I saw then drove on to the refuge headquarters, having covered the juniper-oak woods in the Warbler Vista area pretty thoroughly yesterday.
The sky was even more oppressive as I set off birding on the headquarters grounds. I picked up several new birds though, the highlight being a Blue Grosbeak and a small group of Orchard Orioles. I don't think I've seen either species since shortly after college. Among the orioles was one adult male; unfortunately I couldn't get a photo. After about an hour I started hearing thunder approaching from the west, and the sky began to turn a queasy shade of greenish gray. When I returned to the car the refuge staff people were all coming out into the parking lot to move their cars to the shelter of a shed behind the visitor center. When they offered to let me join them I readily agreed. After parking the car I grabbed my computer and camera (w/o the long lens) and ran back to the visitor center. A billowing, turbulent wall of cloud, unlike anything I've ever seen, was sliding swiftly overhead from the northwest. I snapped a couple of photos before it vanished off to the southeast, replaced by a featureless gray ceiling from which rain almost immediately began to fall. Driven by gusts of wind, the rain slashed across the parking lot and fields, but it was only rain. The hail we all feared didn't materialize.
While I waited for the rain to clear I set up my computer in the visitor center conference room, where one of the research biologists was explaining the process of entering Golden-cheeked Warbler census data into the computer. To minimize disturbance to the birds, they don't band them, but instead try to map territories by plotting sightings of singing individuals and noting where singing duels or other disputes occur, inferring that these mark territory boundaries. Apparently once the young fledge, typically four per nest, fledge, the adults split them up, each assuming primary responsibility for feeding two of them until they're on their own.
When I got to the photos of my mystery bird I asked several of the refuge staff to take a look at it. They did so, and when they asked how large it was, I said maybe six inches long, perhaps a little smaller than a Summer Tanager. My initial guess was a male Hepatic Tanager not yet molted into adult plumage but the bird list indicated that Hepatic Tanagers do not occur in Balcones Canyonlands NWR. This bird was clearly singing on territory, and was not uncommon either. Misled by my description of the size, they either didn't know what it might be, or were too tactful to tell me that I must be wrong about the size. That was the conclusion I soon reached in thinking more about it. It was a common species, nesting in the area, all green with a stout dark bill and no distinctive markings, and a warbling song not unlike a Painted Bunting. All the evidence, except size, pointed to a second year Painted Bunting, so I concluded, and conceded to one or two of the staff that I later talked to, that I was mistaken about the size. No-one knew if the second-year buntings were relegated to less desirable habitat than the ASY birds, which apparently prefer the more diverse habitats near water, but it seemed probable, particularly since that's what I observed. I also saw at least two singing green PAIBUN's around the headquarters; they appear to outnumber the colorful adult males by a significant margin. I suspect the brightly colored plumage exposes the adults to a significantly greater risk of predation, though if so, it must confer an advantage in breeding success sufficient to outweigh the cost of greater predation. On the other hand, perhaps last summer Painted Buntings enjoyed exceptional breeding success resulting in an unusually large crop of second year males this year.
When the rain stopped I went out again for an hour or so, hoping for a good view of an ASY Painted Bunting. No such luck though I did see, and took mediocre photos of, a male Summer Tanager and Blue Grosbeak. Here are my bird counts and photos from this morning and this afternoon at the refuge headquarters.
I took the Cow Creek road over to RR1174 and on up to Doeskin Ranch. The last of the ALST overhead drifted off to the SE while I wandered around the Creek trail and the grove of oaks near the trailhead. My infected toenail cuticle hurt with every step so I eventually stopped to look at it. Red and swollen, I wonder if it's developing an abcess, and if it will get bad enough that I'll have to spend the day in a clinic or ER somewhere rather than out birding. I hope not. At Doeskin Ranch I finally got good looks at a full-color Painted Bunting, singing on a bare branch of a Pecan tree. A little while later I flushed another (or the same) one from around a corner on one of the paths through the oaks in the trailhead area. It flew up into a low bush so I approached a little closer, slowly and stealthily, and stopped to wait. After a few minutes it began to hop up through the branches. Just as it began to come into view, I noticed a diffuse stinging feeling around my right ankle. I ignored it while I began shooting the bunting, trying to get the focus to lock on the bird instead of the leaves in front of it, but the stinging quickly became too intense to ignore, I stooped to brush the fire ants off my ankle and when I did, the bird disappeared. I guess that's what they were - tiny brown ants whose bite is way out of proportion to their size.
We met Scott again for dinner, this time at the Bowling Club, an old nine-pin bowling alley in Blanco. Susan was quite late; we were about done eating when she showed up. It was OK; I enjoyed the time getting to know Scott a little better. The atmosphere at the Bowling Club, which looks much as it did 50 years ago, was better than the food but I did enjoy the Brown Ale by Real Ale Brewery, made right there in Blanco Texas. Note - Blanco is not, as one would think, pronounced "Blahnco", but rather "Blank Oh".
We stayed at the Blanco County Inn, a place I booked online from our hotel in Austin last night without any assurance that it would be spouse-worthy other than a few decent reviews in Trip Advisor. When I checked in, the owner (Deborah I think) offered me the two-bedroom upstairs apartment for $99 a night since she didn't have anyone in it. Though not fancy, it was clean, spacious and comfortable and Susan loved it. Hopefully we'll get to stay here again. It even has a fairly private deck so I sat out in the sun and savored the heat for 15 minutes or so before it was time to get ready to go meet Scott.
05/13/2011   Blanco - Balcones Canyonlands NWR  
I considered going to Lost Maples today but it's a longer drive so I decided to return to Doeskin Ranch and to look for a Black-capped Vireo at the Shin Oak Observation platform. It's about an hour drive from Blanco, a pleasant drive on a cool sunny morning. A little over 3 miles east of Marble Falls as I crossed a bridge over Hamilton Creek, I noticed a big flock of Cliff Swallows over the still water of the stream so I stopped to take a look. Though I didn't find any Cave Swallows, or any water birds, the light was right for photos so I sat down and took about a hundred shots, out of which I managed to get a few birds in flight and in focus. I also flushed an adult Painted Bunting from the ground in front of the car as soon as I opened the door. Another missed opportunity for a close-up Bunting shot. About 3 miles north of RR1431 along RR1174 as I was on my way to the Shin Oak Observatory a Greater Roadrunner ran across tje road in front of me. I haven't seen one of those since my month with Dave Sawyer in Arizona in 1984. And I'd never seen a Black-capped Vireo, one of which was singing with a loud and distinctive voice in one of the dense oak bushes less than a hundred feet off to the right of the walkway out to the Shin Oak Observation gazebo. I didn't see that one either. Compared to a Red-eyed Vireo the song has a faster tempo with shorter and somewhat higher-pitched phrases, but like the Red-eyed, each phrase is different. And like the Red-eyed, it is very difficult to spot in the foliage from which it sings. I did see a number of other species including a Crested Caracara during an hour at the Observatory.
As I was leaving I met a researcher from the University of Washington named Tricia who was returning to the parking lot from surveying vireo nests out in the scrub oak. Her own research is on vultures but she's helping out with a vireo study during their breeding season. I asked her about the Painted Buntings I'd seen, and she said it was very likely that the SY males would be relegated to the less desirable dry juniper forest and that they probably do not enjoy much success in breeding, adding that even those young they do raise may well be the offspring of nearby ASY males. DNA studies indicate that even those female mated to SY males prefer the colorful older males when they get the opportunity.
Before returning to Doeskin Ranch I stopped by the spot along the road to Oatmeal that Frank told me about a couple of days ago. Even before I pulled off the road I heard another Black-capped Vireo singing. It was on the wrong side of the road, pretty much directly across from the gated entrance to the NWR parcel, singing from a clump of oaks under the powerline. I jumped out of the car, hesitated a moment considering whether or not to take the camera, decided not since it might make it more difficult to search for the bird with binoculars, and dashed discretely across the road to approach the bird from behind the cover of a taller oak right along the fenceline. Peering through the branches, I found the singing Black-capped Vireo right away, in full view just 20 feet away perched on the top of a bare twig of its oak. Leaving the camera in the car was the wrong choice! When I came returned with the camera the vireo had hopped down a few inches but was still partly visible so I got a few shots. That made my day. I also found a singing White-eyed Vireo in the juniper oak woods along the power line and managed to get a photo of it as well. I saw it fly twice and both times it was accompanied by another vireo but I think only one of them was singing. The White-eyed Vireo song is quite different from the Black-capped. Phrases are much longer and more complex, and often preceded and/or followed by a sharp "chik" or "cheet" note. The White-eyed repeats each phrase two or three times before switching to a different one. Here are birds and photos from my hour there.
On the way back to Doeskin Ranch I stopped at the other spot Frank told me about, a draw under RR1174 0.3 miles north of the entrance to the parking lot. A flock of Cliff Swallows nests in the tunnel under the road and Cave Swallows are often found with them there. It took me a few minutes of studying the birds overhead to definitely identify a Cave Swallow, but once I did, I found quite a few. That was a good spot for birds - a pair of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers was foraging nearby in the fields and I managed to get some half-decent photos, and a bright red Summer Tanager lingered in a nearby oak for a while as well. They have an odd call, like a Western Tanager with stuttering. Here's a list of birds and a few photos. Unlike yesterday, when I pulled into Doeskin Ranch this afternoon the place was packed. Two or three school buses were idling in the parking lot and all but a few of the slots were taken. A group of grade school children were milling around the trailhead area with a couple of adults directing traffic; it appeared as though they were just coming in from their field trip and were getting ready to leave. Feeling somewhat self-conscious because I was carrying the big lens, I didn't linger in the trailhead oak grove but started right down the Creek trail instead. It was mid-afternoon and I didn't expect to see much but I didn't care - with photos of both the Black-capped Vireo and a few Cave Swallows, as well as the Cliff Swallows this morning and the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and Summer Tanager at my last stop, I was content just to walk around and see if I could find the birds I'd seen or heard yesterday. I missed the Indigo Bunting but picked up an Ash-throated Flycatcher and a female Summer Tanager which perched right overhead while I was sitting on a bench in the shade, telling a young guy from Austin about Painted Buntings. He was just getting interested in birds and had never seen or heard of a Painted Bunting, but unfortunately I didn't have a photo on the camera to show him. Of the species that I particularly wanted to photograph on this trip, that's the only one I still don't have a decent image of.
I considered hiking up the RimRock trail but didn't want to put on shoes. I wore flipflops all day because of my infected toe, and that seems to have helped - the swelling and redness isn't as bad as it was yesterday afternoon and it doesn't hurt to walk on either. I drove back to Blanco early instead of doing the hike. Having been too busy birding to bother with lunch I was hungry when I got back. Susan was still down in San Antonio with Becky and/or Stony, and it didn't sound as though she'd be getting to Craig's party in Spring Branch until around 7PM, so I drove down to the Redbud Cafe on the main square. I was surprised to find a nice selection of micro-brews as well as a delicious grilled vegetable panini. Next door a little gift shop had a variety of local Lavender products so I bought a bottle of body wash for Susan. It would have been pleasant to hang out and eat my sandwich there but I didn't have time. Susan called to ask me to bring a change of clothes for her. By not having to drive all the way back up to Blanco she'd get to the party an hour earlier so I needed to get going myself.
Craig and Michelle live in a spacious, high-ceilinged house shaded by big oaks in a sprawling older development east of town. I met Becky and her husband Bubby, and Susan's close friend Stony, and Linda, another friend of Susan's. Craig had fixed fajitas with barbecued beef and roasted vegetables, including some Jalapeno peppers. The first pepper I ate was delicious, smoky with just the right amount of heat, but my second one was so hot my eyes teared up and I couldn't talk. Michelle gave me some vanilla ice cream and that helped me recover. Craig was delighted with the Alaskan Amber ale we brought with us. He used to drink it when he was working in Alaska and had asked if we could get him any.
05/14/2011   Pedernales Falls State Park and home  Bird Blind sightings
Our last day in Texas. I was feeling a bit birded out after three full days of birding and bird photography so I slept in a bit. Scott was coming over to meet Susan for breakfast so I waited until he arrived and we took a few pictures before I drove off for a last morning of birding. I was thinking of heading north to Balcones Canyonlands NWR again but when I saw the sign to Pedernales State Park in Johnson City, I decided to check that out instead. It was a good choice.
A few miles east of town I passed a group of about two dozen Black Vultures and a Crested Caracara feeding on a road-killed deer off the shoulder of the road. I backed up and managed to get some decent photos of both species. In another couple of miles the road crossed a small stream with a bright green border of cypress trees. I stopped again for photos. About 10 miles east of town I turned left into the park and followed a winding road through juniper forest down to the entrance station, where a young woman explained the bird highlights of the park. There were Golden-cheeked Warblers nesting along several of the hiking trails in the park. There was also a bird blind for photographers. Down along the river a narrow band of cypress offered additional possibilities. I stopped at the bird blind first and consequently never made it out to the trails and the riparian.
There were actually two blinds, sturdy wooden sheds with windows and camera openings, each blind overlooking a yard about 50 feet square with a few stones and snags and a water feature. The newer blind, facing north, was the best I've ever seen, an area of short dry grass with scattered limestone outcrops and weathered snags, the whole enclosed with mesquite and other shrubs. On one side a small stream of water trickled down over ledges into a small pool bordered by an apron of rounded river rock. Sunflower seeds were scattered on the ground and rock outcrops and peanut butter was smeared in places on the snags. The overall effect was very credible and the blind provided excellent opportunities to photograph the birds in natural-appearing settings. The older blind, facing south, was less natural-looking but still provided some decent photo opportunities. Bird action was almost continuous and I took over 600 pictures in my four hours in the blinds. Being a weekday, there weren't many other people present and I never had to wait for a camera slot. I did have to wait for the Painted Buntings, which came in only occasionally, but eventually I got the close up Painted Bunting photos I've been looking for. I saw 19 other species and got photos of all of them except the Red-headed Woodpecker, which I heard tapping outside but unfortunately never bothered to go out and see.
Before I left I made a brief stop at the falls for which the park is named. The Pedernales River makes a big bend through the park, sliding down over limestone ledges in a series of warm brown trickles and deep blue pools. Swimming is not allowed but people weren't paying too much attention to that rule. The riverbed is enormous compared to the volume of water flow but apparently the Pedernales does occasionally run bank to bank. An information board at the trailhead showed photos of a massive brown flood with standing waves twenty feet high over the ledges where people now sat picnicking in the sunshine.

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