Birding Highlights from a West Texas Hike

In early January 2021, Steve and I took a two-week, 2,000 mile road trip across Texas.  We visited six Texas State Parks between Houston and Amarillo.

We designed our itinerary around hiking, seeking long trails with mountain vistas and challenging (for us) climbs.  

But it was the birding that ended up shaping many of our adventures. It turns out that birds tend to hang out at the trailheads where they make dramatic, ostentatious shows of themselves. It’s as though they were waiting for us, putting their best clips together to set our expectations for the full feature attraction.

Here are the highlights from the best bird shows we saw on our hikes:

The Robin Show at Colorado Bend

The first few yards of the Gorman Falls trail at Colorado Bend was a real head-turner. There were flicks of yellow and orange and blue blotches. I thought I saw a suggestion of a scissortail and a tuft. The scene was so busy and fast, I couldn’t take it all in. 

About a mile in, we grabbed a seat under the cedars, where the main feature was already underway. The air flickered with the shadows of scores of robins flying to and fro in the treetops, just twenty feet over our heads. A bird with a yellow aura kept making a cameo, too quick to identify. The music was cheerful–classic robin song–and loud.

I confess I was disappointed at first. Robins are so….common. There were no outstanding performers. No conflicts with predators or prey. 

It was just a bunch of robins doing what robins do. 

But the further into the show, the more I was drawn in. 

I got to thinking about all the people named Robin that I have known. I thought of my uncle Ed who liked to teach me fancy vocabulary words: “Robins are harbingers of spring.”

I thought of my best childhood friend and the strange ritual we had to mark the first robin of the year: lick your thumb, wipe it on the opposite palm, and stamp it in with your fist, rock-paper-scissors style. It was supposed to give you good luck for the year; I still do it today.

I have never seen so many robins together. It felt special to be a secret observer to the robins’ wintering place.

In the end, I’m glad I saw the robin show.  I would see it again.

Classic Western

Mural in Quitaque, Texas, outside of Caprock Canyons State Park

Further west, at Caprock Canyons, we drove up slowly to a remote trailhead. As we got out of the car, we looked up to see tall ragged cliffs against a blue horizon. Buffalo grazed in the foreground. The trailhead signage cast a long shadow in the early morning sun.

That’s when we noticed him, a sole bird, standing in silhouette between us and the trail, looking helluva badass.

The Clint Eastwood character was a greater roadrunner, puffed out and with an itchy trigger foot, ready to challenge us and our posse too.

We weren’t the bad guys he thought we were. He let us pass by without incident.

Later that week, at Palo Duro, we came across a similar scene.  This time it was a curved-billed thresher waiting for us at the end of our hike to The Lighthouse. He was waiting for us near our car, at the benches we wanted to use to change our shoes. Cautiously we circled each other. He watched our every step until we packed up and drove away.

Curved-billed thrasher

The Blues

I’m a fan of birds with blue feathers. At home, we see a lot of blue jays, great blue herons, and recently, gray-blue gnatcatchers.

Eastern bluebirds live in our area, but not in my backyard. I get to see them at Exploration Green, a nearby park, where naturalists have created an environment to attract bluebirds. It makes me happy to see the soft cuteness of their feathery blues, whites, and oranges.

We had an unexpected treat on our Texas road trip when we walked into a blessing of mountain bluebirds just inside a trailhead at Caprock Canyons.  

One mountain bluebird
Two mountain bluebirds
Three mountain bluebirds

The scene reminded me of the robins in Colorado Bend, except the cinematography was much lighter and brighter.

There were scores of bluebirds flying back and forth between two cedar trees on either side of the trail, creating a dynamic monochrome against the stunning blue sky. 

It’s amazing what a director can do with color and motion these days. 

I look for the bluebirds of Caprock Canyon to make the best-of lists of 2021.

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