On the southern outskirts of San Antonio, just 45 minutes away from my current location of New Braunfels, Texas, the Mitchell Lake Audobon Center looked to be the ideal destination for a Sunday morning birding visit. The site boasts a mixture of habitats including ponds, scrub, and marshland, and a high bird list is possible here – according to eBird, 337 species have been recorded within the confines of the reserve.
I arrived as soon as the site opened at 8.00am, and after paying my entry fee ($5) I decided to check out the nature trail closest to the visitor center. It was a good decision, as one of the first birds I saw was a lifer: a Long-billed Thrasher, lurking low in a patch of scrub but in plain view. Halfway along the trail, another lifer presented itself – a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher. It was an excellent start to the morning, but with half an eye on the time (I could only spare three hours here), I returned to my car to head towards the main part of the reserve.
Most of the Mitchell Lake Audobon Center consists of man-made lakes separated by drivable embankments, interspersed with areas of scrub and a couple of more wooded areas. At the southern end of the reserve lies Mitchell Lake, a large natural lake. The western arm of Mitchell Lake has some shallower parts more suitable for herons and wading birds. Like many bird reserves in the US, it is designed with vehicular access in mind and there are no restrictions on driving along the embankments. This can be handy for close views of the birds.
I drove slowly along the embankments with the windows rolled down, stopping every time I saw or heard something interesting. Ladder-backed Woodpecker is a common speciality of this site, which for a while gave me the run around. I heard it on a number of occasions and glimpsed one in flight before finally getting excellent views of a male at the base of a tree trunk, an excellent way to mark my 42nd woodpecker species of 2015.
A few hirundines passed overhead, several of which proved – to my delight – to be Cave Swallows, another bird I had never seen before. The lifers were coming thick and fast, with two Couch’s Kingbirds showing well on overhead wires, and a smart Verdin taking advantage of a calm sunny corner to hunt for insects. The main lake held plenty of ducks but the viewing conditions into the sun weren’t ideal, so I didn’t spend too long checking the flock. However a quick scan revealed a few Lesser Scaup and several Redheads among the numerous Ruddy Ducks. Close inshore, a small group of Pied-billed Grebes also contained two Least Grebes, a scarce bird in the USA which I’ve seen before only in Honduras.
American White Pelicans are numerous at this location, and it was easy to obtain close views as they loafed on concrete pipes close to the embankments. I was looking for good shorebird habitat but I didn’t manage to find any until right at the end of my visit, in the north-western arm of Mitchell Lake. Fortunately, my target species here – American Avocet – is an easy bird to find, and I was soon looking at quite a number of them, plus three even more conspicuous Roseate Spoonbills.
I drove back to the entrance gate, and before passing through I stopped the car briefly to grab a bite of food. I was idly looking out of the window at the grass verge when a medium-sized brown bird hopped out. Raising my binoculars, I was soon eyeball to glowing orange eyeball with a Curve-billed Thrasher, yet another lifer for the morning – what a fitting way to end a very productive visit.
Lifers: Long-billed Thrasher, Curve-billed Thrasher, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Verdin, Couch’s Kingbird, Cave Swallow, American Avocet (total 2,028).
2015 Year Ticks: Lesser Scaup, Least Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, Cooper’s Hawk, Spotted Sandpiper, House Wren, American Pipit, White-crowned Sparrow (total 1,035).