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Birding in the Highland Lakes: Rancher Don Casey has keen eye for finer points of feathers

Blanco County birder Don Casey

LEFT: Don Casey does a lot of birding on his Blanco County ranch in Cypress Mill. TOP RIGHT: The lark sparrow is the first of the little brown birds to learn in Central Texas. It has a spot on its breast, a bold head pattern, and white on the outer part of its tail feathers. BOTTOM RIGHT: Smaller than the lark sparrow, the white-crowned sparrow is a medium-size bird with a gray face and black and white streaks on the upper head. Courtesy photo of Don Casey

As a rancher, hunter, and fisherman, Don Casey of Cypress Mill has always lived his best life outdoors observing wildlife. It has been that way since he was a child.

“My ornithology career started 72 years ago this coming April,” he said. “That’s when I got my BB gun.” 

He began targeting sparrows, which were plentiful, because his grandmother said he could not shoot any pretty birds. 

“Sparrows are brown,” he said. “They all look alike to the untrained eye.” 

Searching for the differences between what birders call LBBs — little brown birds — Casey soon set aside his gun for a field guide and a pair of binoculars. 

“I’m self-taught,” he said, explaining how he began the business of sorting birds. “You start with family groups like sparrows or ducks or hawks. Then, you realize that there’s a group of flycatchers; then, you notice that warblers won’t sit still. If you can get a good look at them, you can figure them out.” 

Casey travels across Texas with his birding friends and makes sure to pack his binoculars on fishing trips to Canada. Like his childhood BB gun, the fishing rod sits idle while the field glasses help him see the action. 

At home in Texas, Casey keeps binoculars and his favorite Sibley field guide in his pickup truck at all times, although his beat-up, dog-eared guide more often stays in the truck these days. He has become a convert to eBird, a mobile phone app that helps identify birds and records sightings. The app tracks birds and their locations based on birders’ reports.

Keeping track of birds divides the recreational watchers from the serious birders, who keep life lists. Casey only tracks what he sees on his Blanco County ranch, about 197 species as of early December. He humbly downplayed his skills, honed on seven decades of study. 

“There was a time when I was happy to point at a little brown bird and say, ‘That’s a sparrow,’” he said. “Now, if it has feathers and flies, I’m going to figure out what it is.”

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