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Reflections on Austin, Texas

by Dawn Hewitt | Managing Editor, Bird Watcher’s Digest

While perhaps a bit less birdy than most Reader Rendezvous, our adventure in the Texas Hill Country was delightfully different on so many levels. Field Guides Birding Tours tailored a tour of their home turf just for Bird Watcher’s Digest, with the unique tastes and interests of Bill Thompson, III, in mind. This was the first Rendezvous to begin after Bill died of pancreatic cancer on March 25, and to honor him, we ate well, drank well, listened to great music, and found great birds in some magical places. And then there were the bats!

The Rendezvous kicked off Monday, April 22, 2019, with introductions at the Sleep Inn in Dripping Springs. We met each other as well as our local guides, John Kuhl and Brett Whitney, and Field Guides program planners Sharon Mackie and Peggy Watson. We departed for downtown Drippin’, where some of us walked the charming main street, poking our heads into sweet little shops, while others had a cold one (or two) at Hudson’s on Mercer, getting to know their fellow travelers. A delicious dinner followed at Creek Road Café, on the main highway through Drippin’. We concluded the day with a night hike at Charro Ranch Park, hoping for owls, but toad and frog songs were all we scored. Still, we were off to a lovely start.

Westcave in Cypress Mill, Texas. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

Westcave in Cypress Mill, Texas. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

Tuesday morning we boarded our big, black, mafioso-style vans to head for Westcave Preserve. Amber Ahrns-Gosselin, who grew up on the property, took us to a magical cave and waterfall. This place is not how most of us envisioned Texas! Back at the top, some of us hiked through a recovering prairie to see a blue-gray gnatcatcher nest, but it was Pinkie, the male golden-cheeked warbler whose territory included the back porch of the visitor center, that gave us all a thrill, and permitted several of us great photos of this rare species! Pinkie wears hot pink leg bands and has defended this territory for several years. Every one of us did the life bird dance!

Around lunch time, we drove to Shield Ranch, a private preserve and working ranch owned by the Ayers family, who foster land stewardship and host summer camps for city kids. We birded the camping area, got a spectacular look at a male painted bunting who posed for us atop a tree, and then had a delicious picnic lunch from Thyme and Dough.

Learning about sotol distillation in Dripping Springs. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

Learning about sotol distillation in Dripping Springs. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

Afterward, we visited Jacob’s Well Natural Area, yet another gorgeous spring. Peggy’s son Jeffrey Watson explained the hydrogeology to us, reinforcing that groundwater explains the unique topography and the habitat of the Hill Country. After a quick stopover at the hotel, we headed to the lovely new Desert Door Distillery, the only sotol distillery in the United States. There, we learned all about the sotol plant and how this native “weed” can be turned into a delicious spirit. Even teetotalers found the experience interesting. From there, we were off to Homespun Kitchen & Bar in Drippin’ for a yummy and filling dinner.

Wednesday proved to be rainy, thwarting our afternoon plans a bit. A few of us took a quick morning birding trip back to Charro Park, and hiked to a bird blind where tons of indigo buntings, lesser goldfinches, and spotted towhees dined at active feeders. On the way back to the hotel, a scissor-tailed flycatcher posed for us in the soccer fields. Our plan for the day was to enjoy the wonderful weirdness that is Austin. Our first stop was at Same Sky Productions to experience a recording session with Austin-based musician Dave Madden. We watched and listened as Dave laid down the bass guitar and electric organ tracks for a song about Blue, the yellow-crowned night-heron he met at Barton Springs, in downtown Austin. Bill would have loved everything about this. We all did.

Listen to the song “Blue”

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We were in downtown Austin, so just for kicks, we drove by the Texas State Capitol on our way to lunch at the cool, funky, historic Shady Grove Restaurant, which serves delicious local flavor and flair. Even though it was chilly and dreary with showers, we stopped by Barton Springs, some of us wishing we could swim there, as was Plan A for the day. We picked up a few more birds there, but no yellow-crowned night-heron, unfortunately.

A three-story sculpture at the Austin Central Public Library features great-tailed grackles. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

A three-story sculpture at the Austin Central Public Library features great-tailed grackles. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

Since it was too rainy and cold to swim, we opted to explore Austin’s Central Public Library. Wow. It is a LEED Platinum building, with composting toilets, and on the top story, solar panels and a pollinator garden. It has a technology petting zoo, a three-story pendulum featuring great-tailed grackles, a short-story dispenser, six floors of amazement, and a fascinating way to spend a rainy afternoon.

Our next adventure was at Duchman Family Winery in nearby Driftwood for a tour and tasting of six wines. It was elegant, interesting, and fun. For dinner, we walked next door to Trattoria Lisina, an Italian restaurant. We sat at one, long table in an elegant room, and were served an incredibly delicious meal. The food on this trip was abundant and delectable, but this restaurant was over the top.

Thursday was our long day. We were up early and on our vans heading west through LBJ’s home turf, and through sweet and fascinating Fredericksburg, on a route lined with wineries. Our destination: South Llano River State Park. A yellow-breasted chat posed in the sun for us as we began our hike in search of black-capped vireos. We heard several of them, but few of us got satisfying looks despite much effort. Rats. Still, it was a fun adventure in Texas. Lunch was a picnic in the park featuring Cooper’s Barbecue. It was totally yummy.

On our way home, we made a quick pit stop at Das Peach Haus, Ground Zero for Chipotle Raspberry Sauce with cream cheese on crackers. It was charming and fun, and some of us wished we could linger longer. But we had to get back to the hotel to get back to prepare for the show of shows!

Waiting for half a million bats to explode out of the bridge. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

Waiting for half a million bats to explode out of the bridge. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

After a quick stop at the hotel for a change of clothes, we headed back to downtown Austin where we dined on the river-side patio of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, right next to the Congress Avenue bridge and adjacent to the river walk. As dusk approached, we headed to the other side of the bridge, where Lee Mackenzie of the Austin Bat Refuge had set up a table with information about bats, and brought with him several species of bats being rehabbed. He spoke to a crowd around him about the local bats, as the crowd on the hillside grew. It soon looked like a concert amphitheater as hundreds of people gathered on the hillside, many sitting on blankets, staring at the bridge.

Just as dusk turned to dark, a gazillion bats blew out of the cracks of the bridge as though they had been fired from a canon. Smoky streams and swirls of bats shot out of that bridge, forming bat clouds, the like of which none of us had ever seen before. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats emerged from the world’s largest urban bird colony, backdropped with the nightlights of funky, weird, wonderful Austin. It was an experience of a lifetime.

Friday morning, we said our good-byes to our new friends and headed for home, with happy memories and new appreciation for the Texas Hill Country.

Check out photos from the event!