Unprepared at Lost Maples
I’ll be honest. We were not exactly prepared for this trip. Mostly it was because we don’t really know the Texas Hill Country area very well. We had been to parts of it—the part that’s right next to us just outside of Austin—but last weekend we were venturing to a different area of Hill Country.
The difference was that this part of the Edwards Plateau (the sciency way to refer to Texas Hill Country) is less commercial than, say Fredricksburg or Marble Falls—the two well-known towns in Hill Country that are only 30 minutes (Marble Falls) or an hour and half (Fredricksburg) away from our home. In both those towns there are lots of residents and restaurants and pharmacy chains. Pretty much anything that you’d have in Anytown U.S.A.
But we weren’t going to Anytown U.S.A. We were heading three hours away from home to a small town called Vanderpool where we would spend a three-day weekend birding at the Lost Maples State Natural Area.
We got a late start on Friday because we had to wait out what Texans call a “weather event.” There was a big ass storm that morning with sheets of rain coming down, which makes visibility impossible while driving. Trying to drive in a Texas downpour is like driving in a carwash as the sprayers pound your windshield. You simply can’t see anything in front of you, which makes it just plain dangerous. So, I was perfectly happy having a slow morning as I took my time packing while we waited out the storm. I had slept in, I wasn’t going in to the office and this kind of lazy morning seemed like vacation enough.
After the rain settled into just being sprinkles, we headed toward Vanderpool in what is not a straight shot. It was 1:30 p.m. and we would still get to Vanderpool before dark with plenty of time to find a restaurant for dinner and have a relaxing evening. Getting there is a series of left turns and right turns on Ranch Roads (RR), which were laid out according to where hills and valleys allowed. It was peaceful and pastoral. We passed sheep, steer and even antelope on some ranch properties, and there were hardly any cars on the road.
As we drove up and down through the hills and around the bends I felt convinced that I could change a lot of people’s perceptions of Texas with just a quick trip to Hill Country. The openness here is different than the openness of west Texas with its varying shades of brown and tan and dusty, thirsty sage brush (cue rolling tumble weed here). Where west Texas represents the grit, sweat and determination that often reminds me of Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in the movie, Giant, Hill Country feels like a different kind of Texas: The lazy-days-of-summer Texas with moss dripping from the trees over the Guadelupe River where one could simply glide on a kayak or canoe with the only trouble of the day being a mosquito.
The wildflowers in a burst of yellow hugged the sides of the road in the first section of Hill Country and as we neared Vanderpool the color changed to the blue tint of wild lavender. The loveliness of Hill Country is the pretty side of Texas. It’s the place Elizabeth Taylor’s character, Leslie, could only hoped to have called home rather than Reata, Bick’s family ranch in the middle of west Texas.
After three hours of driving we made it to the Lodges of Lost Maples–the place where we would stay for the weekend. No one greeted us, but the chalkboard sign on one of the cottages had our name on it, which made things simple. The door was unlocked and we stepped in to the stone cottage—it was all one big room with a king bed in one area, living room, kitchen and then a bathroom off to the side. There were even bunkbeds tucked in the space, which is always a nice back up plan if Steve’s snoring gets too loud. Our back porch faced an expansive lawn that reached back to a barrier of trees with the river on the other side. The owners are clearly aware that birders love this place, so there were feeders on the yard and plenty of seating on the back porch.
We dragged in all our bags and gear and maybe it was because of the kitchen Steve and I said almost simultaneously, “We probably should have brought some food with us.”
This was the detail we had missed: bringing food. We hadn’t seen a town with any restaurant as we had driven in. We did, however, pass by a gas station about a mile away and we figured we’d ask if there might be a restaurant nearby, or worst-case scenario, grab something there. We’d worry about that later, we agreed, and both decided to take a quick nap.
After napping I was a little peckish, as was Steve, so we headed to the gas station, only to find out that we’d have to go a half hour either direction on the road to get to a town, according to the woman at the cash register. For some reason a half hour seemed like an eternity in an unfamiliar place. It was getting dark and we just didn’t know our way around and we weren’t feeling too adventurous. So, it was two Stouffer’s frozen lasagnas for dinner and some milk and cereal for breakfast the next morning.
Back at the cottage we were out of range of any cell service and there was no wifi—another thing for which I was ill prepared. We microwaved our lasagnas and I found an old Reader’s Digest among the magazines left by a previous guest. I read about how sugar is in pretty much everything, expanded my vocabulary by taking the test at the back of the magazine, and then was on the edge of my seat as I read about how beach goers in Florida created a human chain to help rescue people caught in a rip tide. The silence of the evening was interrupted only by the Chuck-will’s Widow calling from the tree next to our back porch and being answered by another in one of the distant trees.
The next morning we woke to the calls of Vermillion Flycatcher and Eastern Phoebe, hollering to anyone who would hear them. After we gulped down our cereal we headed to the Lost Maples State Natural Area to look for birds. The area is cooler than other parts of Texas since it reaches around 2,200 feet elevation and gets more moisture than the drier parts, so I was happy to have packed some gloves. The maples found here are Long-toothed Maples and are remnants of the Wisconsin Glacial period from 15,000 years ago. They turn a fiery orange and yellow in the Fall, which is, of course, the busy time of year for this area, but what many people overlook is the spring time, which brings in an abundance of birds migrating through.
The park wasn’t busy at all except for a family on bicycles who rode to the ranger station from their RV and then several backpackers were making their way on the trail. If you camp here, you hike to your camp spot. There’s an area near the entrance for RVers, but most people stay in nearby cottages outside of the park.
At the head of the trail was the bird blind where we set up. The visitors to the feeders (I’m speaking of birds) were varied and both days we were at Lost Maples we pretty much had the area around the blind to ourselves. The blind is pretty tight quarters and the window is big, but it’s got a big pane of glass too, so I set up the tripod and camera outside the blind at a nearby picnic table set up to offer excellent views.
Naturally, the bullies at the feeding stations at the bird blind were the White-winged Doves. One in particular (this guy, below), just wouldn’t let anyone get within a foot or two of him when he was eating. He’d flap his wings and push himself into even the smallest of birds. Yes, a bully, but still kind of lovely to look at.
There’s always a showstopper and we got three in one morning: A Blue Grosbeak who gave us all sorts of turns to make sure we saw not just the blue but also the brown on his wings, an Inca Dove who sauntered around in spite of the other bully doves and, of course, the darling of the group, the Painted Bunting.
The habitat at Lost Maples is full of ash juniper, which attracts the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo. The ranger at the information center pointed out on the map that we’d have to hike up a bit on a steep hill to get the Black-capped Vireo, but that we were sure to see the Golden-cheeked Warbler all along the trail, especially near the Red-tailed Hawk’s nest. So, after a couple of hours at the blind we headed up the trail to find the endangered warbler and vireo, hop-scotching across big boulders to assist us in crossing the creek.
About 200 feet up after the creek we found the sign pointing out how to find the hawk’s nest. It was nestled (of course!) in a curve of the cliff wall where the nest and young are protected from the wind and from predators. The nest has been there for a number of years and the same pair of hawks return each year to refurbish it and use it to raise their young. Get yourself there in the spring if you want to see any birds on the nest, as they only use it during the springtime.
It was fairly easy to spot (the sign at the trail helps you figure it out) and we found the hawk’s nest with two young hawks in it, their furry-bodies poking up out of the entanglement of twigs.
Soon, a flash of yellow appeared at the top of one of the nearby trees where we were standing and it was a Scott’s Oriole with food in his mouth, most likely to take back to his nest.
And then I heard it—the Golden-cheeked Warbler, singing his little heart out and I walked toward the ash junipers on the other side of the trail to see if I could find him. I saw him flitting around, but he was too fast for me to get a photo. This time I was just going to have to forego the photo and try to get him in my binoculars. I was having a tough time and getting frustrated even doing that, so I just decided to try to see him without any optics, and then I saw him fluttering around on the edge of the branches over the trail and couldn’t miss the flash of yellow on his face. It’s always a delight to see the Golden-cheeked Warbler and always lovely to hear its song, but I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of a mnemonic for his song, so I created my own mnemonic for the Golden-cheeked Warbler’s song:
HEY, won’t you come down and squeeze ME?
And sometimes it’s a little longer as:
HEY, won’t you come down and squeeze ME? And I’ll come and squeeze YOU!
We were getting hungry for lunch (remember, no food with us, right?) so we headed back to the ranger’s station and thought we’d try to locate some food, but as we were going back we heard two birds singing–one on each side of the trail and Steve says, “Black-capped Vireo!”
No way, I thought.
So, being completely unprepared has its advantages.