Get Lost! Birding Lost Maples in Early Spring

bigtooth maple in bloom with emerging leaves
Although Bigtooth Maple flowers attract the attention of bees and flies alike, they depend on the wind for pollination. The flowers, which bloom alongside emerging leaves in spring, are unisexual. Can you tell if these flowers are male or female? (Answer: The prominent stamens with the large yellow anthers full of pollen indicate that these are male flowers.) Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L Macro IS. Hand-held. High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

They say that timing is everything. For birders whose getaways are tied to school holidays, the timing of spring break is usually too early for spring migration. Not this year! With the deciduous trees just starting to put out new growth, Spring Break 2014 was timed perfectly for birding Lost Maples State Natural Area on the Edward’s Plateau of Central Texas.

Our goal was to see and photograph male Golden-cheeked Warblers (which typically arrive in Central Texas around March 10th) singing in the treetops before the trees were completely leafed-out. We heard many Golden-cheeked Warblers, but got only a few ID shots. The trip was a success for other reasons, however, in part due to the generosity of Richard Redmond of the Texas Ornithological Society who spent a day with us and shared his vast knowledge of Hill Country birds and birding techniques, especially tracking target birds by their songs . . .

White-eyed Vireo at Lost Maples, SNA, Texas
Singing in the Shadows: White-eyed Vireo at Lost Maples SNA, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Two Trips in One

When we go birding together, we often end up birding apart. Different things catch our eyes and ears, and so we end up with unique take-aways on the same get-away. In this spirit, we decided to share our Lost Maples birding experience “he said, she said” style.

Spotted Towhee at Lost Maples SNA, Texas
Female Spotted Towhee at Lost Maples SNA, Texas. This colorful bird spends much of her day in the brush pile near the observation blind. Lost Maples is in the winter range of this species. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Chris’s Field Notes

The most abundant species observed were Chipping and Rufous-crowned Sparrows, Black-crested Titmice, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, but I also saw White-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos (and also caught the merest glimpse of a Hutton’s Vireo), Black and White, Orange-crowned, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Yellow-throated Warblers. Other highlights included a male Scott’s Oriole, a pair of Canyon Wrens, and a nest-sitting Great Horned Owl and Red-tailed Hawk. Wildflowers were on the sparse side, but Agarita and Bigtooth Maple were in bloom . . . . My couch-potato Houston Flatlander lifestyle didn’t help tackling those canyon trails hauling 30lbs of photographic equipment, but I came back invigorated and looking forward to the next trip.

Male Black-chinned Hummingbird at Lost Maples SNA, Texas
Male Black-chinned Hummingbird at Lost Maples SNA, Texas showing specular reflection and structural color. Black-chinned Hummingbirds were thick around the feeders near the observation blind. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash.

Elisa’s Field Notes

If it weren’t for our chance encounter with Richard and his experienced ear, I would likely never have seen half the species I observed — many of which were firsts for me including the Golden-cheeked Warbler, the Yellow-throated Vireo, and a far-off-in-the-distance Hutton’s Vireo. This trip, more than any other, clearly illustrated the need to know more birds by ear. Springtime is a great time to study bird songs and, wouldn’t-cha know, there’s an app for that. The bird identification mobile app that I use provides representative vocalizations, but most birds sing more than one tune. After a quick search, I downloaded BirdTunes and found it to be an encyclopedic resource of songs, calls, and scolding vocalizations, with regional variations for most species.

As a visual learner, birding by ear has always been daunting, and I quickly forget which bird sings which song when I don’t see and hear them regularly. On this trip, I developed a strategy that I think will work for the long-term. I characterize the song in a way that I can associate with the bird’s name or identifying feature. For example, the song of the Canyon Wren reminds me of a horse whinny which I associate with canyons and the West. Now when I hear that cascading whinny, I think “canyon” then “Canyon Wren” and look to the rocks to find it.

I was lucky to photograph two species singing on this trip — the vireo near the top of the post and the titmouse included in this spring’s “Image of the Season” sidebar. It bears mentioning that I used the bird song app as a pre-birding and post-birding tool for review and study, and not in the field to attract the birds. If you use recordings in the field, please do so responsibly. Check out the American Birding Association’s Code of Ethics section 1(b) for guidance.

Agarita branch with flowers
Agarita (Mahonia trifoliolata) is the quintessential hill country plant to me. It’s one of the first plants I was able to reliably identify when learning the flora of Central Texas. After the cheery yellow flowers fade, bright red berries develop among the prickly evergreen leaves. (In case you’re wondering: these flowers are bisexual – each flower has stamens and pistils.) Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM. Hand-held. High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.—George Santayana

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.