Actual sunrise was just a hint and a whisper far to the east across the fragrant, brilliantly colored Chihuahuan desert landscape of deep South Texas when the birds began calling and flitting around the low branches of mesquites and acacias around me.
Sparrows — dozens in different dress — were the first to make themselves known to the morning, quickly followed by three species of doves and the ever-present green jays, the vandals of the desert. A great horned owl hooted his last call of the rapidly disappearing night, which he’d spent picking through the thousands of cottontails and cotton rats and mice that have bloomed during a second spring brought on by recent rains.
I was sitting in a pit blind on Jack Brittingham’s Rancho Encantado, thinking that the ranch’s name, which means “Enchanted Ranch” fit perfectly with its surroundings. The deer are great, and I was hunting them now, but I’ve always been drawn to the “other wildlife” of the desert, the hawks and owls and jays and doves and quail and rattlesnakes and turkeys that turn up in such fantastic numbers during November and December in South Texas.
The fact is that Texas is uniquely set up by geography and private land regulations to play genial host to the largest number of winter bird species in the country, more than 360 by last count, that live along and above the vast Gulf Coast and the southern edge of the Edwards Escarpment south and west of San Antonio.
That’s a huge area, much of which is in private hands and to which access can be difficult. However, the aspiring birder still can have lots of fun in the Hill Country, just by picking up a pair of cheap binoculars and a bird identification book.
After spending much of the spring and summer in northern regions, where they nest and feed and loaf away the summer, birds begin their winter trek usually in August or September, and as they pass through Texas on their way to Mexico and Central and South America, they offer an opportunity of rare beauty, color and behavioral characteristics.
We have bird books and several pairs of binoculars on the window seat in the kitchen area at our house, where our grandchildren can spend hours watching the birds in the backyard. They use the glasses to find them and the books to ID any they might not recognize immediately.
I do the same thing while sitting in deer blinds all over the state, and it’s one of the most satisfying and exciting things I do all year. Just this year I’ve seen ducks and geese flying over and sandhill cranes landing to feed right in front of me, along with green jays; Rio Grande turkeys; white-winged, mourning, white-tipped and Eurasian collared doves; owls; Caracaras; and hundreds of “chi chis,” the nondescript small birds that take time to pick out and name as they hop around feeding.
Part of what helps us in Texas are the flyways that converge here, bringing in multitudes of waterfowl and shorebirds that stop along the coast, not to mention the well-known king of endangered species, the whooping crane. That population of closely guarded birds spends its winter spearing blue crabs in the marshes around Rockport.
The other birds, the small ones known as neo-tropicals, come across to the coast every spring, often landing in a spectacular display of color and determination in the spring known as a fallout. Then they fill trees and shrubs and bushes with amazing numbers as they rest before moving on northward to nesting grounds above us.
In the fall, they do it again, when many of those species move down toward the Rio Grande and the lower coastal regions for the flight to wintering grounds as far away as South America.
That’s when the King Ranch suddenly is alive with vermilion flycatchers and other somewhat rare birds resting before they take off again. The ranch offers regular half-day birding tours for visitors. See the website www.king-ranch.com.
Texas Parks and Wildlife also has considerable help for birders on its website.
They can help you get started and help you find something to do while waiting for a deer to show up.