This article originally appeared in the February 2006 issue of the San Antonio Audubon Society newsletter.
Returning to town last year after five years in the northeast, I wondered if the specialty San Antonio birds I'd dreamt of during my absence would had been driven, by clear cutting and development, out of the radius of a convenient bike ride. Picking through the neglected corners of the city's roadmap, I found a few traces of old-fashioned South Texas scrub amongst the northeast side's topiary and St. Augustine grass. A short ways from home, I discovered John James Park, where Salado Creek's twisting contours and its periodic raging temper have created a few neglected corners and some interesting birding locations.
James Park contains ballfields, trails and wooded areas, a few floodlamps and picnic tables, and few amenities. There are views (but no real access) into Fort Sam Houston's vast brushy backside and Salado Creek's riparian thickets. You'll have to slide downhill or beat the brush to reach the river, and take your socks and shoes off if you want to cross. Still it provides an interesting resource, even in its neglected state. Last winter I found white-tailed deer picking along the floodplain, in the company of Cedar Waxwings and robins. In the summer, I could count on Painted Bunting, along with kingbirds and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. During migration, the creekside thickets provide shelter, seed, and plentiful insects for passing flocks.
Much of this activity can be observed from the upland trails of John James Park, whose short scrub allows for close inspection of passerines. The following is an attempt to lay out some birding strategies for the site.
There are three main trails in the upland area, all originating in the vicinity of the picnic tables. The crushed gravel pathway, tidy and popular with joggers and dogwalkers, circles the ballfields, through a canopy of mostly hackberry and ligustrum. The second (asphalt) pathway, more interesting, leads through a larger woodland backing up to Fort Sam, eventually looping back on itself.
For birding, I use the unpaved footpath, which passes along the top of Salado Creek's steep watershed, allowing for views into the ridgetop scrub and the upper branches of the pecans along the river. From the greenways sign, head into the small clearing just left of the asphalt trail, towards the cactus. A metal post marks the trailhead.
The trail leads through an upland woods of mesquite, huisache, hackberry, granjeno and brasil; the steep slopes below are dark with cedar elm and persimmon. In season there are plentiful wildflowers throughout (watch for the path leading into a meadow at right). Cardinals, wrens and White-eyed Vireo roam the clearings here; often there are sparrows.
The first short section of this trail, between the trailhead and the junction with the asphalt path, is often very productive, as Salado Creek passes close below and passerines will sweep over the edge of the ridge as they follow the woodland west. There are frequent openings, allowing you to step in a bit to see down to the creek. Watch for Red-shouldered Hawk flying through the valley.
The asphalt path comes in from the woods to share a
short distance with the unpaved trail before dividing again. Follow the
unpaved footpath to
the left, past two creekside openings and into a small clearing. The edges
of this clearing are good for migrants feasting on caterpillars and various
The path splits again here. To the right, the footpath squeezes through reeds and a ragweed thicket into an open woodland with the remains of old pumping equipment; eventually this leads back to the asphalt trail.
The other path is a horse-riding trail (on its way to the stables on Holbrook Road). It leads a short ways to Fort Sam Houston's fenceline before turning left. From the fenceline you can survey the open field and treetops inside Fort Sam. For the past two years, Painted Bunting have been spotted regularly here.
This is the end of the trail inside James Park; from here you must retrace your steps to reach the park entrance, although the other trails may be used as described above.
The riding trail does continue down to Salado Creek, where a small dam crosses to Holbrook Road. However, be aware that you must pass inside Fort Sam to reach the dam. The boundaries are jumbled up here in the floodplain. It may be easier to bird from Holbrook Road than to use the rough trails down by the creek. Look for kingfishers, egrets and herons.
Indignities have been heaped upon Salado Creek so thickly that on some days the garbage literally dangles from the treetops here. It's been shunted underneath the city's roadways and tormented by runoff; floodwaters have ripped out its banks and torn up its roots. In the low darkness the ragweed can be almost impenetrable, and a humid creepiness pervades the place.
But access is about to improve: earthmovers are at work this month grading a pathway under Austin Highway, one of the first signs that the city's linear greenways program is underway in this area. The project, constructed in phases over the next several years, envisions a more or less continuous greenway from Huebner Road to McAllister Park, down past Nacogdoches and Austin Highway to John James Park and on to Willow Springs and the Southside Lions Park. (Other greenways are in development along Leon Creek and the Medina River; see <http://www.sanantonio.gov/creekways>.) •
--From Harry Wurzbach, turn east on Rittiman Road, traveling 1.2 miles to turn right into John James Park. Or to reach Holbrook Road, continue across the bridge .2 mi and turn right on Aina.
--From Loop 410, exit 164A Rittiman traveling west approximately 1 mile. After passing over Salado Creek, turn left into John James Park. Or to reach Holbrook Road, exit 164A Rittiman Road, traveling west; after .5 miles turn left on Aina. Park at the lot on the left close to the picnic tables; to reach the footpath, follow the paved path left past the greenways sign and then left across the lawn (towards the cactus and the metal post) to the trailhead.
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