LEFT: Diane and Phillip Mitchell at the base of the Matanuska Glacier in Anchorage, Alaska. CENTER: More rose-colored, purple finches are found in the northern and eastern United States as well as Canada. Competition from house sparrows have led to a decline in population. RIGHT: The great blue heron is the largest heron in North America. It's often seen standing perfectly still and silent in shallow waters. Courtesy and iStock images
Birding is an excuse to be outside and make new friends, according to Diane and Phillip Mitchell of Smithwick. In 2008, the two retired educators moved to the Highland Lakes from Round Rock, where they found a vibrant birding community and a vast variety of birds to identify. Whether at home or on the road in their RV, the Mitchells keep binoculars and field guides close at hand.
“It’s rewarding when you can look up and say, ‘That’s an eastern blue bird,’” Phillip said. “Birds are so beautiful and interesting. It’s a challenge.”
The Highland Lakes is famous among birders as home to the golden-cheeked warbler, the only bird that nests entirely in the state of Texas, and the American bald eagle, which winters around Lake Buchanan. On the subject of the bald eagle, Phillip expressed dismay and disbelief that such a magnificent creature could have gotten so close to extinction and now be so close to home.
“I never see that bird that I don’t get hugely excited,” he said. “It’s such a striking phenomenon, a beauty. And to know that we almost lost it.”
Though their RV trips are not planned around birds, they do seek them out wherever their travels take them. One such trip involved a snowstorm on a freezing cold mountain helping volunteers band purple finches.
“That bird is a difficult one to see,” Diane said, “and we’ve not seen one since.”
Phillip recalled a not-so-exciting bird experience when he was a kid riding his bicycle down a tree-shaded street.
“I heard what I thought sounded like rain behind me,” he said. “It was cedar waxwings landing in the trees. The thing about cedar waxwings is they feed and roost in big groups, and, well, they all tend to poop at once.”
On a trip to San Francisco, the couple watched curiously as several great blue herons plunged their beaks into the dirt at Golden Gate Park.
“They were after gophers,” said Diane, who was astonished at the time. “They get these gophers and throw them up in the air, and (the gophers) are gone! We had no idea that was going on right in the middle of San Francisco.”
The Mitchells are just as enthusiastic about birding in the Highland Lakes.
“You don’t have to travel for great birding,” Diane said. “Just put a water dish in your backyard, and you will get birds.”