Fall Migration Birding in Austin TX

Swainsons Hawks Migration

photo by Heather Valey Copyright 2018

by Heather Valey  (originally appeared on Travis Audubon’s Smoke Signal blog) 


Every spring and fall, over 400 species of birds migrate through Texas skies. Most of them embarking on an incredible long-distance flight from their northern breeding areas in spring to their winter homes in South & Central America.   Why such a long arduous journey every season?  Birds migrate in order to move to more agreeable environments with resources for building nests and raising their young in the spring. In the fall they move to where there is more of an abundance of food in the winter.   Other contributing factors motivating this journey include the decreasing amount of light hours in the north and the colder winter weather.

When is fall migration in Texas?

Fall migration in Texas starts as early as July.  You may have noticed that in August you weren’t seeing some of our early spring birds, such as the Purple Martins, Barn Swallows & Golden-Cheeked Warblers.   They had already made their way south toward their over-wintering grounds. Other birds migrate a little later. For example, by late August we start seeing more hawks moving into the area from the north, peaking by the second week of November.  Whooping Cranes generally start their trip from Canada to their wintering ground in Texas around October.   Different species of birds seem to have different environmental and physical factors that motivate them to migrate at different times, so the exact time a species migrates may vary from year to year.

How can you see migrating birds in Austin?

According to Shelia Hargis, President of the Texas Ornithological Association, “There are numerous places around Austin to go see specific types of migration, but I think Hornsby [Bend] is the best place to see several different types of migration – shore bird migration, hawk migration and passerine migration…”  She also recommends Commons Ford Prairie for witnessing hawk & passerine migration.  Also, you can get lucky just by remembering to look up occasionally wherever you are, as you are driving, or working in the backyard or walking in a park.

Is There A Way I can find out what is migrating now?

Yes! As a matter of fact there is! Cornell Scientists created an online tool called BirdCast, that uses weather radar networks to track birds on their migration routes in the spring & the fall.   The map uses near real-time data to forecast bird migration in the US. It is designed to help keep you informed so you know what to expect in the few days ahead, in order to plan your bird watching trips.  To help you learn to read the BirdCast map and use the tool to your benefit, Cornell has created an online “how to” guide.

Fall and spring migration can be a great time to see birds that aren’t normally in our area.  You can go out birdwatching at our local parks or be more of a casual birder looking to the skies.  Technology can help you get a better idea of where and when to look.  Remember to log your migratory bird findings in e-bird and happy birding!


Arnold, Keith A., “The Texas Breeding Bird Atlas: Golden-Cheeked Warbler”, Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, txtbba.tamu.edu/species-accounts/golden-cheeked-warbler/

Oder, Tom, “With these maps, you can track migratory birds in near real time”, Mother Nature Network, 22 August 2018, www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/stories/cornell-updated-birdcast-maps-track-bird-migrations

Powell, Hugh, “Here’s How to Use the Migration Forecast Tools From BirdCast”, All About Birds, Cornell University, 3 April 2018, www.allaboutbirds.org/heres-how-to-use-the-new-migration-forecast-tools-from-birdcast/

”The Basics of Bird Migration: How, Why, and Where”, All About Birds, Cornell University, 1 January 2007 www.allaboutbirds.org/the-basics-how-why-and-where-of-bird-migration/

Shackelford, Clifford E., Rozenburg, Edward R. , The Migratory Birds of Texas: Who They Are and Where They Are Going, Fourth Edition,  Texas Parks and Wildlife, 2005, travisaudubon.org/home/wp-conten/uploads/2011/07/migration-and-the-migratory-birds-of-texas-tpwd-publication.pdf

Mindfulness in Nature

Last spring, I found myself sitting by this pond wishing there was something interesting to photograph. I decided to sit and just wait. I was hoping maybe a Heron or Egret might fly in and allow me to play paparazzi. I waited and I waited.

I was bored and restless as I realized that Mother Nature probably wasn’t going to cooperate with my photo shoot fantasy. I let go of my expectations and I felt myself start to relax. I started to look at the ground and the plants at my feet.  I noticed rocks I hadn’t noticed before.  Individual plants stuck out to me instead of the clumps I only barely saw earlier.  I looked at where the water of the pond met the dry land.  I noticed Water Striders on the surface of the water.  I noticed a dragonfly landing on the some tall reeds nearby.

Out of the corner of my eye near my feet I saw movement.  I focused in that direction and noticed baby Strecker’s Chorus frogs no bigger than my thumbnail climbing from the water out to land.  These newly metamorphosed frogs were starting a new part of their lives right in front of me, and I almost didn’t notice.

I didn’t get any bird pictures that day, but I did walk away with a great lesson.  If you stop and look around you outside, you’ll realize there is so much more going on than you realize.  The magic of life is in the details, and if you can slow your mind down and take in the world around you, amazing things will surface.

Fun at Focus in Flight Workshop

Roseate Spoonbill - photo by H. Valey

Roseate Spoonbill – photo by H. Valey

On the weekend of April 6th, I drove up to High Island, south of Houston to Houston Audubon’s Smith Oaks Rookery for Houston Audubon‘s first “Flight In Focus” photography workshop.   The rookery had been on my list of places to visit, but when I saw they were having a 2 day photography workshop I decided that this was something I didn’t want to miss.

Speakers at the workshop were Alan Murphy, Trey Williams, Sonny Manley, Clay Taylor from Swarvoski optics, and Joe Smith. Topics ranged from set ups for bird photography, to digiscoping  to urban eagle photography.

The lighting was overcast and foggy almost the whole time, but all of the photo shoots were fun and the talks were great.  Some of the photographer speakers took more of a studio approach to wildlife photography and talked about their setups and lighting while others took more of naturalist approach and only photographed their subjects in natural light and spontaneous settings.  I found it very interesting to hear talks from both camps and it has given me pause to think about my own photography style and philosophy, which I’m sure I will write more about later.

Some of the birds I was lucky enough to see and photograph on High Island that weekend were:  Roseate Spoonbills, Great Egrets and the Double-Crested Cormorant.  The Houston Raptor Center also brought in some of their educational/rescue birds for a photo shoot, which was fun. I’m starting to have mixed feelings about staged photo shoots though… definitely more on that later.

Enjoy the photos!

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I Just Flew In From the North & My Arms Are Tired…


American Robin – photo credit H.Valey

This past weekend, the air was filled with the songs of Robins and the whistles of Cedar Wax wings.  Thousands of these birds ascended on the Austin area a few days ago.  I don’t think it’s probably a coincidence that it coincided with the polar vortex up north.  Humans dig in somewhere warm when it gets cold, birds can just fly somewhere warmer!  My hiking accomplice and I also noticed alot of Cedar Waxwings… you often see them with Robins so perhaps they decided to ditch the cold up north and join their compatriots for a Texas vacation.


Cedar Waxwings – photo credit H. Valey

During a hike in the hill country on Sunday we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of Robins.  The song of the birds were so intense at times that I felt like we were in a rain forest. The birds were flitting from tree to tree and hopping on the ground looking for insects.  We noticed that a few we looked at seemed very tired.

This happened a couple years ago as well, when there was a particularly cold spell of weather up north.  A huge group of Robins headed in to Texas, and that time they all landed in my backyard! Well it seemed that way… see the photo below!


Robins – photo credit H.  Valey

So in most places the Robin is the harbinger of spring, but sometimes in Austin it’s the harbinger of someone else’s winter.

With Winter Comes Cedar Fever


Cedar World

The season changes here in the Texas hill country are more subtle than in some areas of the US.  Our winters are usually marked by different things than snow and ice.  One of those mid-winter happenings is cedar allergy season, known as Cedar Fever to the locals.  Here in the Texas hill country, cedar trees are as ubiquitous as barbecue & tacos.  Almost everywhere you look you’ll find one of these trees.  Sometimes it can feel like the picture to the left… that the whole world in Austin is made of cedar trees!

When the cedar trees pollinate in December through February, they tend to wreak allergy hell on many a person.  These trees get a bad rap for a few reasons: many people are allergic to their pollen and for different reasons, many landowners find them problematic (more on that later).  However, these trees are important to our hill country eco-system. So while you’re sneezing, wiping your itchy eyes and wanting to cut down all the cedar in sight, let’s talk a little bit about what makes these trees so amazing & important.   We’ll also take a look at why they can be considered problematic.

A little backstory –

First let’s call them by their proper name. What we know as “cedar” here is actually not a a cedar tree at all, but is coniferous and is a member of the Juniper family.  They are known as Ashe Juniper trees, in recognition of US Forest Service Forester William Ashe.  He was the first to collect a sample of this tree in 1924 in Arkansas.  The scientific name is Juniperus ashei.  Ashe Junipers are evergreen, typically multi-trunked and rarely grow over 30 ft tall.

They have been here for a very long time and are native trees. In fact fossilized Ashe Juniper pollen found in Friesenhahn Cave, out near San Antonio, dates back 14 to 20 thousand years ago.  Early visitors recorded densely covered “cedar brakes” in the Balcones Canyonland area as well.

The Good


Golden-Cheeked Warbler perched in Ashe Juniper – photo credit H. Valey

From a wildlife perspective —

Ashe Juniper has a lot of value for wildlife. Fox, ring tails, raccoons, coyotes, white-tailed deer and more than 19 species of birds forage for the berries. The shaggy bark of the mature Ashe Juniper trees is used by the endangered Golden-Cheeked Warbler, who only breeds in the Texas Hill Country and then returns to South America in the fall. Since it is ever-green, Ashe Juniper is used for cover in the winter and nesting for animals and birds in the spring. This tree is also the larval host for the Juniper Hairstreak butterfly as well.


Juniper Hairstreak – photo credit H. Valey

From a Historical and Practical Perspective… 

This tree played an important role in the history of the Hill Country area. Originally, Native Americans relied on the wood of the trees.   Later, the Cedar Choppers relied on these trees for their living by chopping and selling cedar poles. The heartwood of Ashe Juniper is durable and resistant to rot, as a result they were used as fence posts, telegraph poles and railroad ties.

Today Ashe Juniper oil is used in the making of different fragrances and the wood is still used for fence posts.

Cedar As Far As You Can See - photo credit H. ValeyCedar As Far As You Can See – photo credit H. Valey

The Problematic

Just because Ashe Junipers are native, doesn’t mean that they can’t be aggressive.  Ashe Juniper will take over on over-grazed/disturbed land.  Lack of fire and competition of herbaceous plants allows the Ashe Juniper saplings to get out of check and take over.  Once the Ashe Juniper shades out the ground, then it really makes it hard for forbs and grasses to flourish, which are the plants that livestock prefer. It also out competes more preferable tree species such as the Live Oak.  There is also some proof that dense Ashe Juniper growth will deter adequate water regeneration back to the aquifers.  This is why land owners who are trying maintain grasslands for livestock find these trees problematic.

However, on the flip side, Ashe Juniper trees are evergreen, drought-tolerant and provide a great privacy screen and/or windbreak.  They can and do grow on limestone, holding together the rock and soil that would otherwise erode during our flash floods.  They can act as a nursery tree for some of smaller important under story trees such as Madrone & Rusty blackhaw viburnam.  Also of note, is that the leaf litter from the Ashe Juniper helps to create soil on top of the limestone, which anyone who has tried to dig a hole here in the Hill Country knows we need more of.

Ashe Juniper on Hwy 360 - photo credit H. Valey

Cedar Trees Holding the Limestone Cliff Together on HWY 360 – photo credit H. Valey

And Yes… there are the allergies… 

Ashe Juniper trees are dioecious, meaning that there are male plants & female plants. Female plants produce small blue juniper berries, the males produce the pollen. Ashe Juniper don’t start producing berries or pollen until they are around 10 to 20 years old. What triggers allergic reactions in so many people is the pollen that is released by the male trees.  The pollen is released into the air in huge clouds by the male trees and is carried by the wind many miles, so chopping down all the cedar in your yard will not help.  Best to see your doctor about remedies that will work for you during Cedar Fever season.  It’s all part of living in the hill country, there are a plenty of good things but yeah, admittedly,  Cedar fever isn’t so great. However, don’t blame the trees, they are just doing what they are supposed to do and what they have done for eons… propagate.

The Takeaway —

Many landowners struggle with what to do with cedar on their property. Like with almost everything in life, It depends on what you are trying to achieve. Cutting down all the Ashe Juniper is not beneficial for wildlife, but letting it take over isn’t great if you are a rancher and need to keep your grassland for livestock.  When attending a land stewardship workshop at Bamberger Ranch, known for their outstanding land stewardship in Texas,  they shared that they cut down most of the Ashe Juniper saplings, and 2nd growth trees, but groom and leave all mature Ashe Juniper Trees, cutting them into an appealing lollypop shape. This allows more sun to hit the ground and encourages the growth of more native forbs and grasses, but also allows wildlife to benefit from the trees in the ways they need to.

If you sit and pick a mature Ashe Juniper to stare at for a few minutes, you can’t help but feel a profound sense of time as you look at its worn bark and sturdy stature.  These trees are true native Texans, tough, determined and an essential part of its historical and future identity.


  1. Biology & Ecology of Ashe Juniper – F. E. Smeins and S. D.
  2. Juniperus ashei – Wikipedia
  3. Know your Natives: Ashe Juniper – Sara Galvan
  4. Dispelling Myths of Ashe Juniper – Jim & Lynne Weber
  5. Juniper Ecology – Alan McGinty
  6.  White Juniper Fungus Biology – Bill Dodd
  7. Juniper Biology & Management in Texas – Texas Agriculture Extension Service
  8. Ashe Juniper Is Really More Good Than Bad – Jan McAuliffe and Mary Dunn, NPSOT Beorne Chapter
  9. The War on Cedar – Joe Nick Patoski – Texas Monthly

Fall Showers & The Fungus Among Us

Gilled Mushrooms

Tall brittle stems – photo by H. Valey

This fall has been unusually wet for us in the Texas Hill Country.  We’re going on our 4th week of showers.  Our hot 90 + degree weather has nicely evened out in the low 80’s and the plants that didn’t get much of a chance to flourish in the summer due to our unusually dry spring are now making up for lost time.  Everything is green and pretty.  The extended moisture and warm temperatures are also bringing with them a host of interesting mushrooms almost everywhere you look.

The mushroom is much maligned.  As children we are taught to not touch them and definitely do not eat them.  There are only about 70 to 80 species of fatally poisonous mushrooms, but a lot of them look a lot like ones that aren’t poisonous, so if you are going to forage for mushrooms you have to know exactly what you are looking for.   However it isn’t going to hurt you to look for mushrooms, just don’t put them in your mouth or smell them.  Don’t let this scare you into not taking the time to appreciate them visually.  These organisms can be useful, beautiful, weird and extremely interesting.

In The Sidewalk Crack

In The Sidewalk Crack photo by H. Valey

The mushroom is the fruit of fungi.  The fungi live in soil (or in their food source: wood, leaves, etc. ).  When a mushroom sprouts up, it will then spread its spores out into the air and surrounding ground.  Most of the spores will die, but some will land in an area where there is nutrients and they will become fungi in the soil thus starting the process all over.

Some basic mushroom anatomy.  The cap is known as the pilious and the stalk, the stipe.   Mushrooms are typically either gilled or polyporous.  Most mushrooms have gills.  Polyporous mushrooms have pores or little tubes.  (see picture below).

Here are some links to more information on mushrooms:


Here are is a fun gallery of some of the mushrooms I’ve seen this fall. Enjoy!





The Garden As A Teacher


Sometimes I find teachers in my garden.  The garden is never the same from day to day.  It deserves a good look at least once in the morning, because what is there then may not be there when I get home in the evening.  Sometimes I tell myself, when I see a flower and want to linger on it, “You don’t have time, You can do that later.”  But almost always when I come back it is not the same. Something has changed… either the flower is completely gone, or the light is hitting it differently, or maybe its been chewed on.  What I’ve learned in the garden is this.  Every moment is unique.  Nothing is permanent, so if you see something special, honor the moment and let yourself stop and drink it in.

Caterpillar01_sig.jpgThe garden also teaches non-attachment.  One such example happened recently with Monarch caterpillars.  One day there were 2 happily munching on milkweed.  They looked like they were in their 5th instar and I was excited to see them form into chrysalis’.   The next day they were still there and I took more pictures.  Any day now I should see chrysalis’.  The day after I went out to look for them, and they were gone.  I looked all over the area the milkweed was planted.  I felt disappointment, perhaps even a bit of grief for the Monarchs.  Then I stopped and noticed that what was making me feel bad was attachment.  I had grown attached to the idea of seeing them turn into butterflies, so when the world presented me with something different I felt disappointment.  The lesson is that I can choose to feel bad, or I can accept what has happened.  I can then make wise choices in the future… like perhaps next time I find caterpillars on my milkweed I’ll put them in an enclosure while they are still vulnerable.  Or maybe I just accept that sometimes in nature things don’t go as planned.

The garden is a good place to learn mindfulness lessons with subject matter that isn’t as overwhelming as a lot of personal situations, especially impermanence and acceptance.

What has your garden taught you lately?