~ Birding Utopia ~
(new and updated spring 2009!)
On the Sabinal River at Utopia Park
Utopia is centered amongst some of the best
birding to be had in all of the United States.
It's in what Roger Tory Petersen called
"the twilight zone" in his Texas Field Guide.
And how true it is. East meets west here.
Quintessential western birds side by side
with quintessential eastern species ...
toss in a little bit of the southern or Mexican
component, and it truly is a birding utopia.
But where to go? One can spend lots of time trying
to find the right places, and here we hope to help
you save some time looking for them. There are some
crude rudimentary maps that may help a little, but
better you have a good one. Most of the land is
private, and we'll concentrate on those places that
are readily accessible to the public. Of course if
you stay at any of the local bed and breakfasts,
you will gain access to what are usually some
essentially un-birded areas with very good habitat.
If you only have time to go to one place locally,
I would recommend Lost Maples State Natural Area.
There is a page on this website just for it. It is
one the most beautiful scenic areas I've ever been.
The birding is great to fantastic spring to fall.
Mostly it is steep walled canyons, lushly vegetated,
with smaller streams or creeks, and will remind you
of southwestern canyons such as those in SE Arizona,
but with lots of eastern species nesting.
It is my favorite, if not THE best, place to see
Golden-cheeked Warbler. Mid-March to mid-June is
your window of opportunity with them.
Garner State Park, one valley west of the Sabinal
River Valley, in the Frio River "Canyon" (that term
is used a bit loosely here - these are river
valleys in my book - there are sections that are canyons)
is also very good birding, and though like Lost Maples,
it has Golden-cheeked Warbler and allegedly Black-capped
Vireo, it is very different from Lost Maples.
If you have time it should be second on your list.
It has lots of mesquite areas where those species
associated with it are more readily found. It also has
giant cypresses lining the larger Frio River, and some
pecan bottoms and live-oak mottes.
So, whilst they share some species, these two places'
similarity ends there. Garner is often over-run
with people so bird it early and during the week,
from spring break (mid-March) to Labor Day.
Other areas nearby that are good are Concan and Uvalde.
There is a local bird guide by June Osborne that can
be helpful for those areas. Neal's Lodges' store sells it.
The hottest tip I can give birders who are coming out
this way is to check the little "holes-in-the-wall"
that I've been watching and have been astounded with.
If you are a birder who visits the area, you may already
know of them, but most who come here are "out of area"
visitors. I certainly didn't know about the best ones
and I used to live in San Antonio and birded
the area a fair bit.
Barred Owl at Utopia Park
First, Utopia Park, off 1050 at the southwestern
corner of the town of Utopia. UvCo 1050 is the road that
goes from Utopia west to Garner St.Pk.. Utopia Park is just
a couple hundred meters west from the turn onto
1050 from 187 at the south end of Utopia.
Continue straight as the road veers left, just before you
cross the Sabinal River.
This little gem of a park can be quite birdy and I
have 200 species on my park list, from 5 years of looking.
For migrants, it has seems the first patch and last
patch of Live-Oaks have been the best. Some mornings you
can find 20-30 or more migrants in a flock here, mostly
Yellow-rumped or Nashville Warblers. However nesting
Yellow-throated Warblers sing from late March on.
Green Kingfisher is often present, and twice Ringed
has been seen. Zone-tailed Hawk is regular in summer,
and vagrants seen here in the last 5 years include
Connecticut Warbler, Tropical Parula, Audubon's Oriole
Clay-colored Thrush, Western Tanager, Olive Sparrow,
Black-throated Gray Warbler, Woodcock, Cassin's Sparrow
and Curve-billed Thrasher (both out front), Sedge Wren (!),
Rusty Blackbird, Canyon Wren and Scott's Oriole.
I once saw a Gray-breasted Martin here too.
With coverage, this will turn into a known goldmine.
Two Couch's Kingbirds wintered here 03-05, and there
are none cited in Lockwood's "Hill Country Birds"
book as wintering up on the plateau. Downy Woodpecker
has wintered, my only local sighting. Another first plateau
wintering record here was a Black-and-white Warbler in 08-09.
Black Phoebe is usually present. Barred Owl is up at
the north end of the park often, and waterbirds
sometimes are in or along the river. Pied-billed Grebe
winters, and Black-bellied Whistling-Duck is a regular
vistor from April on. The lilies (yellow but open at night)
look great for a Jacana or Purple Gallinule.
Next, there is a large pond (5 acres or so) on Hwy 337
between Medina and Vanderpool. If you are coming or going
to or from Lost Maples via San Antonio, use this route
so you can check the pond. In winter it is covered in ducks.
I expect some very good birds have been there over the years.
There have been some planted Mute Swans here the last few years.
Migrant waterfowl and shorebirds would likely stop there
during grounding events (usually rain or wind). The pond is about
half way (on 337, 10 miles or so east of 187 in Vanderpool) between
Lost Maples and Medina. Of course, Medina is famous for
apples and allegedly some of the best apple pie to be
found is there, so that might be worth some research as well.
Now if you have gotten this far, I am about to divulge my
secret spot to make all this reading worth your while ....
the South Little Creek pond. If you read the bird news page,
you will see many references to it during wet years when
it holds water. It is an amazing place, and in spring has
different birds virtually every day, IF it has water.
South Little Creek Rd. turns south from Hwy 470 about two
miles east of Hwy 187. Hwy 470 runs east from 187 about
a mile or two north of Utopia and goes to Bandera. The pond
is only viewable from the road, and is about one half mile
south of 470 on the west side of South Little Creek Road.
In dry years it may not have water. But it appears
(and according to locals) to often hold water during
wet springs, and fall if there are monsoons.
To give you an example of whats been stopping there,
I have seen many Solitary Sandpipers, both Yellowlegs,
Pectoral Sandpipers, Baird's Sandpipers (once a flock
of 28!), Great Blue and Little Blue Herons, Snowy and
Cattle Egrets, and once I found a flock of
48 White-faced Ibis (no Glossy) there!
Also storms have grounded Blue-winged and Green-winged
Teal, 60 Shovellers at once, Ring-necked Ducks, Wigeon,
and Gadwall. Best was a female Hooded Merganser once!
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and Wood Duck
are probably nesting in wet years. Caracara is fairly
regular, and Vermilion Flycatcher is usually south just down
the road a quarter mile at another much smaller wet hole.
The Odes (dragon and damselflies) can be astounding too.
Band-winged Dragonlets are common at these ponds, and
I have seen a dozen Twelve-spotted Skimmer here at once,
despite there being no accepted Bandera Co. record.
Sometimes dragonflies, like birds, don't read the books.
If you're coming through Utopia be sure to check it,
but ONLY on the grounds that you report what you find
there to me. I know how you found out about it.
Local lore is that these two low spots that hold water
here on South Little Creek Rd., are ancient buffalo wallows.
The oil and salt they rubbed into the ground for a thousand
years, sealed it. A rare occurrence here with the limestone.
Another spot in Utopia worth checking if you have time
is the Sabinal River Crossing area at the north end of
town. Where 187 turns 90 degrees right as you leave town
a county road (Uvalde 356) runs 90 degrees left.
Take it down to the river. The area around the crossing, and
the first mile past it can be very good birding.
The fields the first half mile on the way to the river
can be good for sparrows in winter. Stay on the road.
Purple paint means NO TRESSPASSING, and all land along
the road is private.
Two miles south of town, Utopia on the River is another
excellent "hole-in-the-wall" of great habitat,
and the best place to stay locally for birding on the grounds
and breakfast without having to go anywhere. In the little
bit of coverage we give it, we've seen 135 species in
their "yard". You can wander the grounds, but
probably best to check in if anyone is there, and be quiet
and respect guests if present. Also continuing down the
county road to the river crossing a half mile further
one can roadside bird a little around the crossing.
If you are travelling on 187 about 8 miles south of town
stop at the exact point where the road starts to climb off
the valley floor and starts up over the hill (Clayton Grade).
This is the only place around where Olive Sparrow is resident.
Easy to hear most of the time, but hard to see as usual.
The first 100' of incline, there WAS here, the only, and an
amazing grove of fall blooming white Eupatorium (crucita?)
that would hold a thousand butterflies at once!
It was just destroyed winter 08-09 with roadside work.
In case you can't tell I am disgusted and heart broken.
It was the only wild patch on 187, there was 100' of it,
and it's bulldozed gone. With my tax dollars. For some
real useless alleged purpose. Like those straw sausages that
last one storm and are called some kind of flood control device.
Yeah they clog up the first bridge they come to and make a dam.
Waste my money, fine, but must you destroy my habitat with it?
Just north of the beginning of Clayton Grade a quarter to a
half mile on the east side of the road along the ranch fence
is often if not mowed a very large patch of Red Turk's Cap in
summer and fall. It can be great for Sulphurs and especially
Zebra Longwing (Heliconian) butterflies. Someday there will be
a good bird heard in that patch of woods there. Do not trespass.
The 7-mile bridge (its ca. 7 miles south of Utopia) usually
has a Cliff Swallow colony under it, with a couple Caves.
Their nests are easy to spot, an open cup, not a closed
over jug with side entrance like the Cliff's nest (April-July).
Finally if you are going west on 1050 from Utopia towards
Garner St. Pk. or Concan, etc., there are a couple good
stops on the way. First about 4 miles west of town on
the right (north) is the Bear Creek Pond. It is worth
a quick scan for ducks or something. Often Vermilion
Flycatcher is out there in summer, and Say's Phoebe in winter.
As you proceed west, right after the pond, there is a
culvert that drains under the road and on toward the pond,
which hosts a small colony of nesting Cave Swallows and
often allows excellent views. Stay up on the road, please
don't go down and bug them. Then as you climb up the
1050 pass there is a nice big wide pullout about 2/3 the
way up to the crest. Stop here and in season you should
hear Golden-cheeked and Black-and-white Warblers which
nest here, as well as often Hutton's Vireo. If you miss
them here, continue to the crest, park and walk back down
the road east and just below the crest there is usually a
Golden-cheeked Warbler up the draw on the south side of
the road. Stay on the road, NO trespassing. The open area
with trees just past the crest on the left (south) is good.
A couple miles past the crest there is another pond on the left
with a large dead tree in it which sometimes bears checking.
So, now you have a couple more spots to check if you're
birding in the area. I can't imagine anyone coming to
bird here and not saying they wish they had more
time to bird around some more locally.
Please let us know what you find, so we can include it
on our sightings pages, and others can benefit from the
continued sharing of information.
Texas Bluebird Society
North American Bluebird Society
Chimney Swifts Society
Purple Martin Conservation Assc.
On the Sabinal River at Utopia Park
To Our Lost Maples Page
To Our Garner Page
Reports from Lost Maples
Christmas Bird Count
Critters, Bugs, & Stuff
Garner State Park
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