Between March and June, the endangered Golden-cheeked warbler leaves its home in southern Mexico and northern Central America to spend the spring in Texas. To nest and breed, this beautiful bird requires a habitat unique to the Texas hill country.
The Golden-Cheeked Warbler
The Golden-cheeked Warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia) is just under five inches in length and presents a striking image with a lemon-colored face, black eye stripe, black crown, neck and back, white belly, and black wings with white wing bars.
The warbler is rare and considered endangered in the U.S. Due to its limited breeding habitat and the loss of that habitat to urbanization and clearing, the current population may be as low as 5,000 breeding pairs nesting within as few as 74,000 acres in central Texas, the only place it is found in the U.S.
Golden-cheeked Warbler’s Habitat
The Golden-cheeked Warbler is far more widespread and flexible in its fall and winter habitat, being found in the pine-oak highlands of southern Mexico (primarily Chiapas) to Nicaragua. In the spring, the birds migrate through east-central Mexico into Texas, finally settling in the hill country of the Edwards Plateau and Balcones Escarpment.
To nest, the warbler requires a unique forest habitat consisting of oaks and other trees and, necessarily, the Ashe juniper. Besides the Ashe juniper, other trees found in the habitat include Spanish oak, Live oak, Texas oak, Arizona walnut, Sycamore, ash, and elm. The loose bark of the Ashe juniper is a key element in the warbler’s nest, and clearing of junipers for fenceposts and other use has negatively impacted the population. Nests typically are built in tree crotches about fifteen feet above the ground.
Where to Find the Golden-Cheeked Warbler
Some of the more likely sites to observe the warbler are:
- Travis Audubon Society’s Baker Sanctuary
- Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge
- Lost Maples State Natural Area
- Kerr Wildlife Management Area
Travis Audubon Society’s Baker Sanctuary
Austin is better-known for its popular nursing colony of Mexican free-tailed bats, but endangered Golden-cheeked warblers are also found within the metropolitan area.
The Travis Audubon Society owns and maintains a 690-acre tract northwest of Austin that is part of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. The Baker Sanctuary is a hilly area that includes a spring, a creek, and three trails that wind through the woodland. Spanish oak and Ashe juniper predominate, together with Arizona walnut and Sycamore. Taking the Baker Springs Trail and looping around to the Hatfield Trail (about 1.5 miles) is probably the best choice for Golden-cheeked warbler encounters. Warblers will chase Black-crested Titmice out of their nesting territory, so linger where the titmice are heard or seen as well.
The Baker Sanctuary is private, fenced, and locked, and permission must be obtained before non-members may enter. For more information and to obtain entry permission, check the Society’s website or call (512) 300-2473.
To reach the site from I-35 in north Austin, drive 10 miles northwest on Highway 183. Exit at Anderson Mill Road and drive west about 7 miles to Lime Creek Road. Turn left on Lime Creek Road and drive seven-tenths of a mile to the main entrance on your left.
Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge
Entrance to the refuge is not far from Baker Sanctuary. To get there, take Highway 183 north, but continue past the Anderson Mill Road exit to Highway 1431 and drive west toward Marble Falls. The refuge is on your right before Marble Falls. Drive uphill to Warbler Ridge and take the Cactus Ridge trail, which is an easy six-tenths mile walk through prime Golden-cheeked warbler habitat.
Lost Maples State Natural Area
Lost Maples is closer to San Antonio than Austin, and can be reached from Kerrville on Interstate 10 west of San Antonio. Drive south on Highway 16 to Medina, then west on Highway 337 to Highway 187 near Vanderpool. Turn north on Highway 187 to the park’s entrance on your left. There are campgrounds in the park (which is open until 10:00 PM to non-campers), as well as rental cabins just south of the park. There are bird feeders at the visitor center and at a blind next to the overflow parking area with lots of observable birds, but you will have to take one of the trails to see the warbler. The East Trail follows Can Creek, and the one-mile section toward the ponds is ideal birding habitat.
Kerr Wildlife Management Area
This area is close to Lost Maples, and in addition to Golden-cheeked warblers, birders also have an excellent chance of finding endangered Black-capped vireos. The Vireos are more predominate through the main entrance’s drives, but the warblers may be more commonly found at the secondary trailhead just seven-tenths of a mile south of (before) the main entrance. To get to the wildlife area, drive north from Lost Maples on Highway 187 to the junction with Highway 39. Turn right toward Hunt, then left on Highway 1340 to the entrance on your right.
The Texas Hill Country
This part of Texas is beautiful and inviting year-round. In spring, birders have the added enticement of seeing the rare and endangered Golden-cheeked warbler.