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Why birding is best at home in the Highland Lakes

Golden-cheeked warbler

Golden-cheeked warbler: Breeds in mature woods of Ashe juniper (also known as cedar) in Central Texas, the only place in the world where it nests. It migrates south to Mexico in the winter, returning in the spring.

Access to water, migration paths, and diverse habitat make the Highland Lakes an exceptionally good location for birds of all different feathers and the humans who track them. 

“We have different climate zones here,” said Sherry Bixler, who has traveled the world in search of birds. “We have a lot of different things here. The top of the ridges have birds not found down by the lakes. You have hills and you have flatlands. You find all kinds of birds here.”

Of the 900 different birds in North America, 600 of them can be found in Texas — more than any other state. Coming from the north, east, and west, migratory birds funnel through Central Texas and along the state’s coastline to reach Mexico and South America. 

And then, there’s the question of climate change and extreme weather patterns. 

“We had a lot of hurricanes and fires this year,” Bixler said. “Storms blow things off course, and you see birds you wouldn’t normally see in this region. More rare birds have been reported in Texas this year than I can remember.” 

This past fall, local birders recorded sightings of a black skimmer at Inks Dam National Fish Hatchery, a coastal bird never reported in Burnet County before. Black skimmers are on the Texas Ornithology Society list of rare birds.

“We also have woodcocks here,” Bixler said. “They are also always rare, but they are becoming very common here.”

The Highland Lakes is known around the world as home to two birds that nest only in the Texas Hill Country: the black-capped vireo and the golden-cheek warbler. 

“They are our rock stars of the bird world,” said birder James Reimer.

According to birdwatchingdaily.com, the birds are the two rarest in the United States. They winter in Central America, returning each spring to Central Texas to breed. The warbler — population 21,000 — nests in oak and juniper trees in Hill Country canyons. The vireo — population 8,000 — breeds in scrubby brushland, also part of the Central Texas landscape.

It’s easy to bird in the Highland Lakes with a variety of great parks and bird blinds, some of which are free. Favorite places to bird include Inks Dam National Fish Hatchery and your own backyard. 

“Set out a bird feeder and some water, and you’ll see an amazing number of birds without ever leaving your house,” Reimer said. 

suzanne@thepicayune.com

Birding group launches Facebook page, website

Highland Lakes bird enthusiasts meet regularly to share their sightings and expertise as members of the Highland Lakes Birding and Wildlife Society. The group recently established a Facebook page @HLBWS to spread the word about birding, especially during this time of COVID-19, when people are asked to socially distance, wear masks, and stay home when possible. 

“It seemed like a real simple way to get the word out and focus on letting people know we’re a group that’s here and we welcome new members,” said Robyn Richter, who set up the Facebook page in December. “A lot of people are finding things through Facebook and the internet. We needed that online presence.” 

A new website launched in January.

Currently, the group holds its monthly meetings by Zoom. To attend the next meeting, contact the group through its Facebook page. 

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