Birding Sites
Birding Utopia

(updated winter 2014)

Utopia Park
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 Peterson 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. If you can do a 300' elevation gain from the pond to top of bluffs Black-capped Vireo is a sure thing, the easiest place to see them. Those are both present spring to July for the warbler and through August for the vireo.

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 which are often good with birds.

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 book by the late June Osborne that can be helpful for those areas. Neal's Lodges' store sells it. Or if you want help finding everything in a limited amount of time, sometimes it may be advantageous to get a guide. For which, I would recommend, er, well, uhhhh, me.   ;)

Check out the Bird Guide page.

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
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.Park. 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. They just put in some new curbs so now there is a dogleg turn into the park.

This little gem of a park can be quite birdy and I have 240 species on my park list, in 10 years of looking, now over 30 species of wood warblers, 20 on my best day. 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 way 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 Ringed is seen sometimes too. Zone-tailed Hawk is regular in summer.

Vagrants seen here include Connecticut Warbler, Gray Hawk, Tropical Parula, Audubon's Oriole, Clay-colored Thrush, Western Tanager, Olive Sparrow, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Woodcock, Cassin's Sparrow and Curve-billed Thrasher (those two out front), Sedge Wren (twice same date in mid-May!), Rusty Blackbird, Canyon Wren, Townsend's Warbler, Scott's Oriole, Anhinga, Purple Galinule, and Short-tailed Hawk! In case that isn't enough, 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. She went on to return and winter for FIVE years consecutive! Black Phoebe was always present 2003-2011, but the drought seems to have lost us this pair. Barred Owl is up at the north end of the park often. NOTE to the WHITE VAN tribes: PLEASE QUIT playing tapes at this pair! Waterbirds sometimes are in or along the river. Pied-billed Grebe winters, and Black-bellied Whistling-Duck is a regular vistor from April on. I had a sentence here about how the water lilies looked good for Purple Galinule, which I have since seen here, I know a good PurpleGal vagrant hole when I see one. I did find one (see rarities photo page) but since the pond was dredged and the patch lost.

Utopia around town itself is a bit of a trap for migrants being a big fairly mature stand of trees in many areas, with big ancient live-oaks and pecans, lots of hedgerows, some folks feed birds, and often one can find a flock or two of birds roving around the town in migration or winter especially. Any of the county roads offer some visual access to local habitats, but remember all the land is private and no trespassing. Follow the instructions of the posted signs or the "do not enter" of purple paint.

Just west of town on 1050

Of interest 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. The last few years since the drought started in about 2008 it has been mostly dry except very briefly after the bigger rain events. It was a rockin' hot spot the 4 years prior to the drought when it was wet most of the time.

So. Little Creek Pond

South Little Creek Pond

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 IF there has been rain or we are in a wet cycle, 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 from 187 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. At the crossing you can get out and have a look. Park off the road in pullout.

UPDATE Aug. 2015: Utopia on the River has closed, sold, and is now fenced and gated off and no longer available for public birding! So ignore the following paragraph about it...
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.

The 7-mile bridge (it is ca. 7 miles south of Utopia) on Hwy. 187 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 two-thirds the way up to the pass 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 and other locals like Ash-throated Flycatcher, Summer Tanager, Scrub-Jay, etc. Sometimes Zone-tailed Hawk, Rufous-crowned Sparrow or even a Scott's Oriole might be seen anywhere along the grade.

August 2015 UPDATE: The construction is done on 1050 and it is better, mostly. But at top of pass at crest they took out a couple key trees the Golden-cheek there used.... and made the walk back downhill along road a bit more dangerous. When traffic was heavy it was never a good idea anyway. So that paragraph has been removed. Park just past the crest and bird that area near where the gate is on left (do not block it). Then a few hundred yards east to where the hill on left (south) meets back with the road. You should hear Golden-cheeks if not see the singing male here. This area is good for Scrub-Jay and Field Sparrow breeds here. Those Buckley (Spanish) Oaks (deciduous - red oak) and the live-oaks (even on the road when blooming) are where to look and listen.

A couple miles past the crest there is another pond on the left with a large dead tree in it which sometimes bears a peek. There was anyway. It is big and obvious in wet cycles, and so little water it is hard to see now. It has been nearly dry the last few years of drought.
Now you have a few 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. Remember the park can be slow to dead one hour and jumpin' two hours later, it really requires a couple checks in a day. It is often slow to get going as it is the coolest spot around.

We hope this helps you have a better lookabout when you visit. Please let us know what you find, so we can include it on our sightings pages, add to our records, and so others can benefit from the continued sharing of information.

General local advice for visitors....

BYOB, they don't sell it here, Utopia is a dry precinct. Actually the Lost Maples Store at Vanderpool just started beer sales I think in September or October 2015 for the first time ever. That is a different county... it just got approved...

For most only AT&T has cell service locally. Out on Hwy 90 you can get a signal for something else, at Uvalde say. Many have no service at Concan, Utopia, Lost Maples, save AT&T.

Since Utopia on the River closed there is one lodge here now, the Sabinal River Lodge. It is at the south end of town on 187, and only has a very very few rooms (6 maybe?). Otherwise it is some sort of cabin, shack, converted mobile home, or fancy vacation rental. There are a boatload of folks here renting places for weekends but most aren't cheap. Rio Frio Lodging is a place that handles lots of rentals in the area, the only real lead I can offer on that.

Texas Bluebird Society

North American Bluebird Society

Chimney Swifts Society

Purple Martin Conservation Assc.

Utopia Park Map
Utopia Park

Utopia Park
On the Sabinal River at Utopia Park

Utopia Area Map
Utopia Area

Utopia Rainbows

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