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  • Writer's pictureJ. Darris Mitchell

Golden-cheeked Warbler

Bird of the Week: 3/12/2023

Golden-cheeked Warbler

I heard the first one at dawn. I wish I could say that I was the one that identified its ‘macarena’ call, but I was not. That honor went to Tam, the man that taught me how to bird.

I was out at Lost Maples with two old friends. I had told them that I wanted to go camping with them, but of course I wasn’t going to waste an opportunity to bird.

But I had not expected so many golden-cheeked warblers. They’re an endangered species, after all, and it seems like every time I blink, some real estate mogul or tech bro has developed another tract of the canyon lands that they call home in Travis County. But they weren’t facing the same threats in Bandera County.

Out here, they seemed to be everywhere. I could hear them calling from our campsite, from the forests of red oak, juniper, and Bigtooth maples that clung to the sides of the ravines. When we made it to the top of the plateau that overlooked Lost Maples, we could hear them below us. I even saw one take a drink from a stream, a rare treat, as they usually stay fairly high in the treetops.

I’ve seen golden-cheeked warblers every year since I’ve become a birder. I have helped my friend Tam look banded birds for three seasons. Those are birds that ornithologists captured, then equipped with tiny bands on their ankles so they can follow them through their lives (with a little help from local volunteers). I even have a golden-cheeked warbler tattooed near my elbow, so when I raise my binoculars, it looks ready to sing.

They are an unbelievably cute bird, with a golden face slashed with a line of black through the eye, a black cap, and flanks speckled with white. They are notable as the only bird that breeds exclusively in Texas. They do this by claiming territory on the steep side of a piece of the hill country and singing from the tops of red oaks to defend their turf. Successful males will then build nests out of spider webs and juniper bark for the next generation of warblers.

It was amazing, to find so many of them (at least ten!) out here, where I had not expected any. They are picky about the types of trees in their habitat, and I foolishly thought that Lost Maples would only have the one kind of tree. But the maples did not like to venture out past the bottoms of the valleys, while the oaks and especially the junipers were more than willing to scale the steep sides of the cliffs on either side.

I would never have come to appreciate these birds and their role in conservation in Texas if not for my bird mentor, and it was special to be out camping and serenaded by their unique call.

In a few weeks, we will once more delve into the unmarked swathes of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve in search of these difficult-to-spot birds. I’m sure I’ll miss lounging at Lost Maples and being content to hear them sing dearly.

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