I was asked to help conduct a new butterfly count this week on a beautiful ranch near Kickapoo Caverns State Park in Edwards County about fifty miles south of the town of Rock Springs. Many of us long time birders have added butterflies and dragonflies to our “preferred list of things to do” to keep our identification skills sharp and our interest in nature high. Butterflies and birds live in similar habitats, so why not enjoy the best of both worlds in one of Texas’ most scenic regions, the Texas Hill Country.
One of the intriguing aspects of doing this butterfly count was that I knew this special ranch was also home to the two endangered bird species, Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo, an endangered plant species, the Texas Snowbell, and other plants and animals that have affinities to the Chihuahuan Desert, such as Gray Vireos, Montezuma Quail, Red Yuccas and Horned Lizards. Being located close to the Rio Grande and Mexico also increases the potential “surprise factor” of seeing something exotic that may have wandered northward into this scarcely populated area.
In 2001 I briefly saw a Gray Vireo in the state park, but got my “lifer” (undeniable identification) a few years later on this ranch, so I was very excited about finding this vireo and adding it to my growing list of photographed birds. I have since seen Gray Vireos in the Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend National parks, but many years have passed since my last sighting of this hard-to-find, brushy habitat bird. Before I could search for this bird, I had to do my butterfly finding and counting chores. We found about 35 species of butterflies, despite the lack of spring flowers.
Vireos are small songbirds that come with a variety of distinctive attributes, such as some having black caps, yellow throats, red eyes, white eyes or blue heads; however, a few of the vireos missed out on the distinct features and have rather plain plumages. The Gray Vireo, for example, can best be described just as being “gray.” Most vireo species have strong voices which are often the best means available to identify the different species. Many of them are also loud, so their voices carry well in the brush habitat.
The Gray Vireo’s best distinctive physical marker or trait is it longer tail, which it tends to flick as it forages for food in its brushy habitat. Many vireos have bold white or yellow spectacles, but the gray’s eye ring is thin and only whitish rather than being bold. Many vireos have harsh and scolding voices with little semblance of being musical. The Gray Vireo’s song is slightly more musical than that of most vireos – “churr-wee, chur-weet,” and can be delivered in flight as well as from a perch. Its call is a series of rapidly descending notes.
The search for the Gray Vireo began on a shallow sloping hillside with ashe juniper, plateau live oak, Texas persimmon, agarita, and shin oak brush ranging from open to dense cover. After locating the birds by sound, we were able to get fleeting looks as they stayed concealed in the brush. After an hour of chasing the birds, we discovered a pair building a nest in an ashe juniper clump. I was hoping for a clear photo angle, the birds managed to keep themselves hidden by sneaking into the nest site from the back side of the juniper.
The birds did not seem to mind the presence of a couple of birders watching their activities, but the birds were also very clever not to provide an open, clear look at them. I presumed this was the second nest for this pair, as it seems to be late for a first attempt at nest building. Not getting a “keeper” photo did not deter my enthusiasm for having the opportunity of watching this elusive bird being pre-occupied by nest-building activities and not being secretive. Hopefully, there will be future opportunities to get a good photograph.