Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Golden Cheeks, Black Caps, and the Finer Points of German Baked Goods (Balcones Trip, 2013)

Canyonlands Vista

I’ve had the chance to hike a lot of the coastal National Wildlife Refugesi in Texasii, but had never been out to Balcones Canyonlands NWR, west of Austin. The refuge exists primarily to protect two endangered bird species; the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-Capped Vireo. However, it’s also archetypal Hill Country terrain, with lush river bottoms in canyons, and rugged uplands of scrub and oaks.

Trees, go home. You are obviously drunk, based on your careless disregard for slopes.

I’d always meant to go in the spring of the year, but had always gotten lost in other pursuits. This year, a colleague from Austin mentioned he was taking a group of friendsiii up there, and invited me along. I jumped at the suggestion, and that was that.

I left Houston at 4 am in the morning to make the 3.5 hour drive to west Austin. Normally this is a pretty beautiful drive; it’s not far outside of the Houston city limitsiv that exurbs give way fairly quickly to rural prairie, and then to the rolling lands of the eastern Texas interior. Houston never sleeps. There’s always traffic. However, outside of the metro area, things get small and slow pretty darn quick. What is usually a pretty mix of scenery was mostly just inky black nothingness for the first couple hours. Still a bit drowsy, and speeding into the night at 75 mph, it was like test driving a Kerouac novel.


Light was just starting to peak when I skirted around Austin, and west into the Hill Country. As always, there was a transition period when my flatlander perspective adjusted to the topography. It’s a testament to just how flat is my fair City by the Swamp, that the merest rolling hills inspire in me a Maria a-la Sound of Music desire to stop my car and go running into the hills, twirling about in their topographic majesty. In case anyone’s wondering, this is not, I repeat not, recommended in Texas. The closest approximation of the exuberance that is legally allowable would be a meaningful squint into the distance and a somber, “shore is hilly here, I tell you what.” And that’s if one was truly overcome.

As with most NWRs, the road into the refuge suddenly transitioned into a crushed rock slip-and-slidev. My poor Mazda 3vi struggled up and down deep slopes in the canyons, making my way to the trailhead.

VistaDoe Skin Ranch
Overlook Vista, Vista, Forest Trail

While I was just happy to be out hiking in a new place, the rest of the crew, many of whom were quite serious birders, were there on a mission. Golden-cheeked Warblers frequent the oak-lined ridges of the area, and we were out to find them. We lucked out fairly early on, with several birds singing in the treetops despite the cloudy and windy conditionsvii.

Yep. That’s a bird. I can now, without a doubt, guarantee it’s not endangered due to some habit of being overly trusting of humans. Sadly.

We had hoped to get better looks on our way back down the road to the cars, but the birds were stubbornly staying deeply intertwined in the foliage throughout our hike. Undeterred, we packed up and made our may further into the refuge to seek the second endangered species of the refuge, the elusive Black-capped Vireo. Yes, this is another little bird.

Hiking back to the car

The vireos live in dense low-lying vegetation, often detected by their territorial singingviii. Or at least, that’s ostensibly what I was told would be the case. At the higher elevation shinnery observation deck, we mostly just detected strong cold winds, which, unlike the Vireos, do not take a great deal of experience to detect.

Cactus and
Shinnery landscape, Cactus and wildflowers, Shinnery fenceline

I did find a new species there anyway (later in the day), but he was significantly less endangered than the Vireo.

I’m a Rufous-crowned Sparrow, not a Vireo. But honestly, for a handful of seed, I’ll be whatever bird you want…

Still, one out of two endangered species was pretty cool. On the way back we made our way down through a creek bed, which has to be one of the prettier pieces of country I’ve come across in quite a whileix.

Azure skies, emerald pools, singing birds, shady lanes with dappled sunlight shining through oaks and willows...I think when the original settlers came, they must have seen this, and decided the state was worth settling based. This magnitude of their error must have arrived up on them in August in Houston. Or pretty much any day, ever, in West Texas.

I parted ways with my colleague and hiked around the refuge for a while before making heading home. One of the other areas of the Refuge is the Doe Skin Ranch. I didn’t stop to read the historical plaques for the area, but I’m sure the story went much like most of the other dryland farm sites...”enterprising farmer moves to Texas in blaze of logic-defying Manifest Destiny…tries to farm scrubland…fails miserably…later on someone decides this is historically noteworth…his shame lives on for the ages.” Still, it had some nice trails, scenery and wildlife, as monuments to stupid farming go.

Titmouse Lark
Sparrow Old Wood Doe Ranch
Doe Ranch
Vista (B&W)
Black-crested Titmouse, Lark Sparrow, Old Wood, Doe Ranch Vista, Doe Ranch Remnants

The trip back, even after an early start and 9 hours of hiking, was really enjoyable, with vast swathes of bluebonnets and paintbrushes lining the roadsx. Before I left the Hill Country entirely, though, I decided to stop get some Kolachesxi. I got a bit turned around and ended up stopped at the surprisingly inferior Weikel’s instead of waiting ten minutes and enjoying the vastly superior Hruskasxii. Still, a good way to round out a Hill Country sojourn.


Happy water
Happy water tower octopus on the hillside of 71 says “y’all come back now, y’hear?”


i Unlike some western states in which a large portion of area is contained in public lands of one type of another (National Forests, etc.), Texas’ public lands make up a relatively small percentage of the state. However, Texas, as it never tires of letting you know, is pretty gol’dang big. Even though its public lands are a small percent of its overall land, a small percent of a really big area still equates to a LOT of public land. National Wildlife refuges make up a goodly portion thereof.

ii Some snarkier folks might argue that the entire state is a refuge for the feral and wily Redneckius texianus, the Common Texan. There are several subspecies of texianus, including Redneckius texianus austinus, identified by its ironic mustaches and incessant vocalizations, Redneckius texianus houstonus, easily recognizaebly due to it’s the gaudy plumage and voluminous hair of its females and a general attraction to godforsaken swamp habitat, and Redneckius texianus dallasfortworthus, remarkable for its disquietingly symbiotic relationship with Bos taurus.

iii The friends ended up being some senior level staff and other luminaries from the TCEQ, the state’s environmental agency, to whom I am a contractor. I was worried that might be awkward, but everybody was pretty cool.

iv With the caveat, of course, that Houston is so large that its city limits are often 15-20 miles from the urban core. You can drive for an hour or more and still be within the boundaries of the City. And, by the way…Houston City Limits? Not half as cool as Austin City Limits.

v My going theory on this is that the sounds of cars skidding, drivers cursing, and occasional crashes serves as a warning signal for wildlife, thus fulfilling the goal of the refuge.

vi When I bought the Mazda, I was facing a dilemma….most of my commuting is highway and city driving where compact gas savers shine. However, I like to hike in a lot of remote places where cars really just shouldn’t be. I had to either get an impractical off-road worthy vehicle for intermittent wanderings, or a sensible sedan for the bulk of my travel. My ultimate compromise was to get the sensible sedan, but then abandon all semblance of care for its well being. Some day I am going to attach a camera to my car and send the tape into Mazda. They will either make it into a promo ad, or send that old Japanese guy with the dog to personally slap me in the face for the wanton disregard I have had for their automobile.

vii While I’ve never been the sort who chases rarities all over the countryside, there is something undeniably cool for anyone with a bent toward the natural world, when you get the privilege of sharing space with an endangered species. You get a momentary sense of awe that you’re seeing something that may not always be there. It is a nice balance to the sometimes sneaking sense of silliness about driving 400 miles to chase 4 inches of bird.

viii An awful lot of birdwatching, as it turns out, is really bird-listening. A four-inch bird is almost invisible in a 40 foot tree without some cue to its location. The folks I was with were quite expert at calls, which was a great benefit. I like to say I’m an expert at bird calls, but only in the sense that I can relatively accurately confirm to you that what we’re hearing is, in fact, a bird call.

ix “Pretty piece of country” is an approved Texasism.

x If there’s a part of Texas that really is God’s country , it’s the rolling hills and prairie between Houston and Austin. Much farther west and you are in desert, and much further east and you’re in swamp and pine. It probably helps that I’m almost always driving this stretch in beautiful morning or afternoon light, accenting the rolling hillsides and majestic old live oaks standing solitary in abandoned fields where longhorn cattle graze in front of weathered old barns with Texas flags painted on the side. This description is one Texas cliché short of a Thomas Kinkad painting.

xi Kolaches are a remnant of the strong German/Czech influence in eastern Texas. They’re essentially overly-glorified danishes and stuffed rolls. That being said, they come in a wide array of fruit and meat versions. Being 1) local delicacies and 2) edible, they meet the primary qualifications for getting in my stomach. Houston has a lot of kolache places, most oddly enough, run by asian immigrants. The really good stuff, however, is what you get in the small towns off 71 between Houston and Austin.

xii Having strong preferences on the local regional delicacies is a classic sign that you have been somewhere for a while.

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