Once in a while a birder crosses paths with a rare or unusual bird in an unexpected area. About two weeks ago someone observed a Rufous-capped Warbler on a trail in Lost Maples State Natural area that got the attention of many birders in Texas, and maybe beyond the state. This secretive little warbler is common in certain parts of Mexico not far from the Rio Grande, and its presence in Texas has been documented many times. However, the actual numbers of them found here are at best, uncertain.
I have heard reports of these warblers breeding in the Chalk Bluff Park area near Uvalde and the birds have been sighted many times from the Lower Rio Grande Valley to Big Bend National Park, including the southern perimeter of the Edwards Plateau. These warblers prefer to hang out in brushy and woodland areas in mountain foothills, such as found near Monterrey, Mexico. That they also prefer to stay close to the ground in brushy areas makes them very difficult to find in the field.
The site in Lost Maples SNA is along a very brushy flowing stream very near the parking lot for the trailhead to two small lakes found about a half mile upstream. When leaving the parking lot you go left to a water crossing. The bird has been seen between the trail/road and the stream on the left for a distance of 30 yards from the crossing. One needs much patience to wait for the warbler to make its appearance, which could be anytime between 8:00AM and early afternoon. On my first visit, I stood on the road and peered into the brush for three hours before giving up and leaving the site.
Ruefully, I later heard that the bird appeared shortly after I left. It was not the first, nor last, time that I have heard the annoying messages – “Oh, the bird was here just fifteen minutes ago,” or, the bird appeared fifteen minutes after you left the site. Every experienced birded has felt the disappointment of hearing these messages at some point in their birding adventures. It is also common to hear a birder say, “Well, I am leaving and will be the sacrificial lamb, so the rest of you to see the bird after I leave.”
On my second visit a few days later, I noticed on arrival at the site, about twenty hopeful birders, including s number of my friends, lined up along the road, all staring intently into the brush. More eyes are better than few eyes. I was encouraged when one friend told me he had heard the bird a couple of times, but did not see it. The bird had appeared at 10:30AM the previous day so as that time approached the excitement level and anticipation rose, even though everyone there knew birds don’t have watches, much less keep appointments.
At 10:35AM someone saw the bird and the scramble to have a look was on. Fortunately I was only a few feet away and got a ten-second look at the warbler. I swung my camera toward the bird and got three photos, one of which appears with my column. The bird hung around for about ten minutes and everyone there got a good look at the “bird of the hour.” I saw the bird many times during his ten minute appearance, but did not get another chance at a clear shot with my camera. I knew I had connected on the first photographic chance and just enjoyed seeing the bird play “hide and seek” with us excited birders.
I think it would be appropriate for me to describe this beautiful little warbler after unloading all of the drama of the hunt for the bird. The bird gets its name for its rufous crown (cap). A prominent white eyebrow stripe separates a black eye stripe and rufous ear patch. The throat and breast are bright yellow while the belly and under-tail coverts are buff-colored. The back and wings are solid olive-colored and its long tail is a darker olive green. Both males and females have similar plumages.
If you are interested in looking for the warbler, you might check with the park office to see if the bird is still hanging around the site. I hope it chooses to spend a long time, so all can see its beauty. If you go to see it, take plenty of patience with you, as you will need it.