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10 Ways to Go Wild on the Heart of Texas Wildlife Trails

Written by Elaine Robbins.
Endangered golden-cheeked warblers nest in the Ashe juniper and Spanish oak woodlands of Central Texas

Some nature-lovers like to hike in the mountains of Big Bend and birdwatch in the Rio Grande Valley, where dazzling neotropical birds are on display. But if you, like me, prefer nature in its quieter, more intimate forms, then the Hill Country is for you. Here, you can watch an indigo bunting flit in the hushed stillness of a cedar grove, and then, in true Huck Finn fashion, you can cool off in an emerald, cypress-lined river.

Now, the Heart of Texas Wildlife Trails guide nature-lovers to hundreds of secret and well-known spots in the Hill Country and beyond. Armed with a pair of binoculars and one of the two trail maps, you can set out to find your own little piece of paradise. Like a songbird in springtime, you can flit from spot to spot before nesting in a streamside cabin. There, the sweet sounds of birdsong and a burbling creek will wash over you like a forgotten nursery rhyme.

1. Find a Birding B&B

Birders from as far away as Canada and Great Britain flock to Neal’s Lodges and other cabins along the Wildlife Trails’ Rio Frio Loop. What’s the attraction? In springtime, it’s the endangered black-capped vireo. Neal’s also gives birders a chance to see a confluence of birds coming from all directions. The Carolina wren from the east joins in song with the canyon wren from the west. The indigo bunting from the north joins the great kiskadee from the south. It’s an avian United Nations.

During my first morning at Neal’s, word spread like wildfire through the breakfast room that a black-capped vireo had just been spotted near one of the streamside cabins. The room cleared out in a flash. I trotted down the dirt road after the caravan of cars. By the time I found the cabin, not only had the vireo long flown the coop, but my fellow birders had already flitted off to the next sighting. Who ever said birding was relaxing?

2. Go Batty

Along with the wildebeest migration and the annual coral spawning, the nightly bat emergence is one of the world’s most amazing natural phenomena. Lucky for us, the caves of Central Texas offer some of the best bat-viewing opportunities in the world. A half-dozen sites along the Heart of Texas trails—Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area, Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve, Frio Cave, Kickapoo Cavern State Park, Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area, and the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin—are prime viewing spots.

On a Hill Country Nature Tours guided tour to Frio Cave near Concan, our group waited with anticipation at the mouth of the cave as the sun set and the moon rose. Suddenly, the first few bats shot out of the cave. Then we watched with our mouths wide open (well, not too far open) as a black ribbon of bats reeled over our heads and unfurled into the sky. As if on cue, two red-tailed hawks appeared overhead to grab a fast-food dinner. By the end of the evening, our guide told us, some 10 million to 12 million Mexican free-tailed bats would cruise the countryside, consuming 100 tons of insects. Now, that’s what I call good neighbors.

3. Visit a Private Ranch

With the opening of the Heart of Texas trails, many private ranches have opened their gates to the public for the first time. That’s a win-win proposition: Wildlife lovers gain access to vast tracts of wide-open spaces that were formerly off-limits, and landowners gain new incentive to manage their property in ways beneficial to wildlife.

The trail maps list dozens of ranches where you can stay in a cabin, take a guided tour, or look for wildlife on your own. At the nine ranches on the Bandera Loop, for example, you may see anything from exotic axis deer to migrating monarch butterflies. I enjoyed the drive through the unspoiled landscape of Bandera County. Blue-hooded turkeys ran alongside the road, goats tended to their babies, and turkey vultures feasted on roadside breakfasts. If you want to visit a ranch, be sure to make a reservation well in advance (see the back of the trail maps for contact information).

4. Spot an Endangered Songbird

Ranchers and allergy sufferers may not appreciate the Hill Country’s short-stature juniper forests, but two endangered songbirds do: the golden-cheeked warbler and the aforementioned black-capped vireo. Determined to spot the golden-cheek, the only bird on the North American Bird List that nests exclusively in Texas, I signed up for a guided tour of Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, offered as part of the annual Balcones Songbird Festival (April 29-May 1, 2006). This sweet spot happens to be one of the warbler’s favorite nesting places.

OK, so we had a secret advantage: Our guide, wildlife biologist Chuck Sexton, has a federal permit to play recordings of the male songbird’s territorial songs. (Note: Don’t try this yourself. It’s a federal offense to disturb nesting endangered species by playing their calls.) Our group hiked into a forest of old-growth juniper and mixed oak and stopped in a clearing. Chuck played the golden-cheeked warbler’s “B” song: the male’s LAY-zee DAY-zee territorial call. (The male uses his “A” song only at the beginning of mating season—a fact that won’t surprise most married women.)

A few seconds later, a golden-cheeked warbler flew into a Spanish oak nearby. We grabbed our binoculars and caught a dazzling view of his canary-yellow cheek set off by a striking black eye-stripe. Chuck didn’t play the song again, so after a few minutes the warbler flew off, satisfied that he’d successfully defended his territory against the intruder.

5. Go Wild over Wildflowers

Sure, we love Fredericksburg, with its quaint Main Street and antique shops, biergartens, and bakeries. But after we’ve gorged on apfelstrudel to our heart’s content, it’s time to brush off the crumbs and open up our trail map.

The trail’s Peach Loop guides you to nature-viewing spots around Fredericksburg that are particularly lovely in springtime, when orange poppies and bluebonnets brighten the roadsides. The crown jewel is Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, where you can birdwatch as you hike up or around the vast granite dome. (Get there early; during high season, the park often fills to capacity by late morning and closes for the day.) But there are other options. Canyon Wren Ranch sustains more than 80 species of wildflowers, as well as the painted bunting and other birds. And the overnight cabins at A Getaway and Dutch Mountain ranches make a nice alternative to staying in a gastehaus in town. After you’ve seen the birds and the flowers, it’s time to head back to town for a frosty mug of lager in a biergarten. A cold one never tasted so good.

6. Seek the Bluebird of Happiness

My mother has made it a personal quest to look for the bluebird of happiness whenever she gets an opportunity. The bird seems to reinforce her cheery view of the world. So when she came to visit, I knew just where we had to go: Bluebird Hill on Indian Blanket Ranch in Utopia.

When we arrived, proprietor LeeAnn Sharp took us on a stroll across a portion of the 300-acre property. Her family has put up 25 bluebird nest-boxes as part of a regional conservation effort to save the Eastern bluebird. When she tapped on one nest-box, a male bluebird flew out. (She assured us that he wouldn’t abandon his young, since bluebirds are very trusting of the humans who care for them.) We peered into the box and saw three babies—just lumps of squirmy pink flesh, really—and one as-yet-unhatched blue egg.

Bluebirds may have given this property its name, but they aren’t the only birds in residence. LeeAnn also showed us an Eastern phoebe, a vermilion flycatcher, and a recently-hatched flycatcher sitting at the top of a hackberry tree. At the feeder next to LeeAnn’s house, we watched hummingbirds tank up on sugar water before nightfall, their throats flashing violet. Later, we watched birds at the feeders form two members-only clubs: red house finches at one feeder and yellow lesser goldfinches at the other. Best of all, my mother had seen her bluebird.

7. Loll by the Llano

My friend Michael once spotted a bobcat at 4 a.m. by the side of the road in South Llano River State Park, which just goes to show you: Insomniacs make better wildlife-watchers. But even if you, like me, prefer to sleep through the night, South Llano River State Park and the adjacent Walter Buck Wildlife Management Area offer fine wildlife-viewing. I saw white-tailed deer and wild turkeys grazing under the campsite clotheslines. Both parks have observation blinds with feeders that attract the verdin, bushtit, pyrrhuloxia, canyon towhee, and black-throated sparrow.

Also on the Llano River, closer to Mason, the Homer Martin Ranch sprawls over 2,800 acres, with cliffs overlooking the river. Bobcats and bobwhite quail, wily coyotes, and even wilier roadrunners live on this piece of old-time Texas. Surrounded by all this wild, untamed beauty, you won’t be surprised to learn that Old Yeller author Fred Gipson lived just across the river.

8. Take an Out of Africa Safari

After you’ve spent time exploring the Hill Country, Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve, provides an eye-opening view of what healthy habitat in this region should look like. (To visit, you must make reservations in advance.) The ranch is a model of successful land stewardship, with grasslands, savannas, juniper uplands, and riparian areas that have all been restored to their natural state (see “Hill Country Heaven,” May 2002, and Blanco story, page 52 of the current print issue). You’ll take a guided tour of the ranch, which includes a special treat: a glimpse of perhaps the largest herd of scimitar-horned oryx in the world. Extinct in its West African homeland, this exotic creature thrives on the ranch as part of an international species survival program.

9. Ponder Rock Paintings

In Del Rio, you can combine a nature hike with a gallery crawl. In this case, the galleries happen to be rock shelters painted with prehistoric art, and the “crawl” part may prove quite literal. Some of the best pictographs in the Southwest are hidden in the rock shelters of Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site, and across the highway in White Shaman Preserve. Desert plants such as lechuguilla and guajillo line the paths to the rock shelters.

After you’ve had your fill of art, head to Lake Amistad National Recreation Area (see “Oasis on the Border,” October 2004). Depending on the season, it may harbor wintering waterfowl, migrating monarchs, or the endangered interior least tern, which breeds there in spring and summer.

10. Appreciate the Aquifer

So what if the Helotes mold beetle and the Robber Baron Cave harvestman (a daddy-longlegs) aren’t at the top of your list of must-see wildlife. That’s understandable. But even if you never seek out these critters in their night-black caves, any Hill Country traveler should take a moment to appreciate the place they call home: the Edwards Aquifer. Rainfall percolates through the karst limestone landscape into this vast aquifer, which stores enough pure water to supply San Antonio’s drinking needs. The aquifer’s caves also harbor a host of endangered species that have evolved to thrive in their own tiny piece of real estate. These weird and wonderful subterranean species make the Edwards Plateau one of the world’s great biodiversity hotspots—and a place to go wild.

The Heart of Texas Wildlife Trails, developed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept. and the Texas Dept. of Transportation, offer an insider’s look at wildlife areas across Central Texas. The Heart of Texas East trail map, with 14 loops between Laredo and Bastrop, includes sites in the Highland Lakes area, Austin, San Antonio, and the eastern Hill Country. The Heart of Texas West trail map, with 12 loops, covers the western Hill Country, including Fredericksburg and Rio Frio, all the way west to Lake Amistad and San Angelo.

The trails include some of Texas’ most popular state parks, such as Enchanted Rock, Garner, and Lost Maples, as well as hundreds of lesser-known wildlife-watching spots, from city parks and private ranches to nature lodges and B&Bs.

Each loop, or section of the trail, connects a group of nature sites. The Rio Frio Loop, for example, offers wildlife-viewing lodges and other prime birding spots. The Laredo Loop guides you to Bravo Bend Nature Reserve and other little-known birding spots along the border. The Stone Bluffs Loop includes Lake Buchanan and Canyon of the Eagles Lodge and Nature Park, Colorado Bend State Park, private camps, and guesthouses.

You’ll need both maps to see all of the Hill Country. To order them ($4 each), contact the Texas Cooperative Extension Bookstore (888/900-2577; tcebookstore.org). You can also order wildlife driving-trail maps of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trails (separate maps for the Upper, Central, and Lower Coast), the Pan-handle Plains Wildlife Trail and the Prairies and Pineywoods Wildlife Trails (East and West).

From the May 2006 issue.

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