Friday, September 26, 2014

Texas Tour 2014 - Austin - Sept. 10-11, 2014

     All summer I had been planning a birding trip to Texas, and was thinking I would do it during the peak of raptor migration around the end of September or beginning of October. However, at the beginning of September I learned I had some business to conduct in Austin that month, so I decided to move my trip up a few weeks rather than traveling back and forth. Thus, my plan was to fly into Austin on Sept. 10th, rent a car on Sept. 13th, drive down to the Rio Grande Valley for a couple days, then drive to Corpus Christi and relax at the hawk watch until I left on Sept. 20th. For the most part this plan worked, but not without a few adventures along the way. Over the next few months I will be detailing these adventures for you, my readers.

     On my way to Austin, I ended up having a late afternoon 3 hour layover in Houston. Since I hadn't eaten for many hours, I ordered some dinner at one of the airport restaurants. While I waited for my food to arrive I noticed 3 men sitting at a nearby table wearing the stereotypical bolo ties, and off-white Stetsons. I couldn't help but to overhear their conversation which was all about growing grass, and was uttered with such a strong Texan accent that it almost sounded fake. This was my first introduction to the great state of Texas. My second introduction occurred when I received my food which consisted of the biggest black angus burger I had ever seen. Scale is difficult to grasp in the photo, but this burger was a little bigger than my splayed hand.

First meal in Texas
     After eating my dinner, I settled into a comfortable chair by my departure gate and whipped out my binoculars. I was determined to see my first birds in Texas before the daylight faded into night. I was rewarded with a few species of doves, some European Starlings, and best of all, an adult Swainson's Hawk! Finally my layover was at its end, and I boarded the shortest flight in the Southwest system (Houston to Austin). As promised, the flight was indeed very short, with only 20 minutes spent at cruising altitude.

     My friend Maggie lives in Austin, so she picked me up at the airport, and so kindly acted as my chauffeur and tour guide. I didn't get into Austin until very late in the evening, so there was no time to do any sightseeing before going to bed. Much of the next morning (Sept. 11th, 2014) was taken up by personal commitments. For lunch Maggie took me to a fantastic restaurant where I had my first breakfast tacos, which were delicious!

My first breakfast tacos (Gluten-free of course!)
     After lunch, we took an hour or two to digest and relax, then headed out to explore Barton Springs Pool and Zilker Park. Barton Springs is home to two species of endangered salamanders, the Barton Springs Salamander (Eurycea sosorum), and the Austin Blind Salamander (Eurycea waterlooensis). How endangered? So endangered that these creatures are only found in Barton Springs and nowhere else in the world.
     This was one of my only chances to do any birding in Austin, and although I didn't get any lifers during this walk, I did manage to see 12 species including a family of Wood Ducks and a beautiful male Baltimore Oriole.

Sign at Barton Springs warning people to not disturb the salamander habitat. 
     Walking around Zilker Park in the oppressive heat made us very hungry, and I wanted to try some Texas BBQ, so Maggie took me to a restaurant with the best BBQ I have ever tasted. Uncle Billy's Brew and Que was housed in a building which was clearly once a sizable car repair shop, complete with large garage doors. This created a down-to-earth, casual, funky feel, perfect for an Austin establishment. I had the pork ribs, and tried both their tomato-based and extra spicy habanero sauces. These sauces were some of the best I have ever had, and the perfect compliments to the smokey, fall-off-the-bone ribs.

Uncle Billy's pork ribs. 
    After dinner, we went to the Castle Hill Art Gallery (aka HOPE Outdoor Gallery). This is a place where a private property owner allows the Austin street artists to showcase their works on some old concrete retaining walls. The art here is fantastic, embodies the Austin atmosphere, and can be visited over and over due to its ever changing nature. This place is also a great vantage point from which to view the Austin skyline. As we were leaving, dusk was approaching and about 25 Common Nighthawks could be seen and heard hunting insects over the city.

Panorama of Castle Hills
     To finish off the evening, Maggie took me to the Congress Avenue Bridge to witness the Mexican free-tailed bats pouring out from under the bridge. These bats roost in the crevices beneath the bridge and can number from 750,000 to 1.5 million individuals creating the largest urban bat roost in North America. It was amazing to stand under the bridge and watch thousands of bats pouring out of the crevices for over 30 minutes. Although the video I took didn't turn out to be as great as I hoped, you can still see how batty the situation was.

    I apologize for a lack of bird photos in this post, but sometimes the opportunity just isn't there. My next post or two might also lack bird photos, but I promise that I do have many photos of Texas birds and will be posting them in the near future. Stay tuned!

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