Spring Birding at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens

& Annual Summary

by Greg Lisciandro

Originally published in Volume 47, Number 4 (April 2001)

Springtime is arguably the most exciting and colorful time of the year for birders. My winter days are spent dreaming with anticipation of trees "dripping with warblers," experiencing a full-fledged "fallout," ticking off dozens of bird species by song while lying in bed on spring mornings, and plotting unrealistic trips to North America's top migrant "hot spots."

When reality hits, I end up doing the best I can, since a significant amount of past birding time is now consumed by parenthood. It's a hard pill to swallow after birding Central Park in New York City for five seasons without children prior to our move to San Antonio. Nevertheless, with the aid of communicating with many of our members and reading their reports on the internet, I have come to realize that a wide variety of migrating songbirds do indeed travel through the Alamo City. Our most impressive reports typically come from Avenue A located in Brackenridge Park, our local "hot spot."

Since the San Antonio Botanical Gardens (BG) are located essentially up the hill from Avenue A, the notion of surveying the property during the spring of 2000 became an attractive project. I wondered what surprises lurked ahead in this relatively uncharted locale. Other motivating reasons included that the BG's are safer grounds than Avenue A (especially with young kids in tow), have well-maintained walking paths that provide good views into a wide range of habitats, and include ample understory for protection of migrating birds. Likewise, the BG's have a year-round source of water, a pond, and some water flow in its Acequia. Finally, in comparing notes with other birders, it appeared that the BG's checklist on their website was outdated. Moreover, a map provided at the main entrance allowed me to readily record where many species were seen (available to anyone interested).

Arbitrarily, "spring" was defined as April 1 through May 15, 2000 (I was out of town for the remainder of May). The following dates were birded at the BG: April 4, 11, 12, 14, 20, 21, 25, 26, 27 and May 2, 4, 7, 10 for a total of 13 visits. Nine of these visits were during my "lunch break" between 1:30 and 2:45 in the afternoon, a less than ideal time for birding. Three of the visits were between 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. with a toddler in tow. One morning visit was by myself.

What follows is a summary of the results of the visits. Twelve species of warblers and five species of vireos were observed. The number of sightings per total visits is in parentheses followed by the date of the first observation of that species. For example, Black-and-White Warbler was seen on 6 of 13 visits and the first sighting was on April 4. Therefore, the species is listed as Black-and-White (6/13, April 4th).

The warblers seen included Black-and-White (6/13, April 4th), Orange-crowned (5/13, April 4th), Nashville (8/13, April 4th), Yellow-breasted Chat (1/13, April 14th), Common Yellowthroat (7/13, April 14th), Yellow (4/13, May 2nd), Magnolia (2/13, May 2nd), Wilson's (4/13, May 1st), American Redstart (2/13, May 2nd), Chestnut-sided (2/13, May 4th), Black-throated Green (1/13, May 4th), and Northern Waterthrush, (1/13. May 4th).

The vireos seen included Red-eyed (3/13, April 4th), White-eyed (6/13, April 4th), Bell's (5/13, April 11th), Plumbeus (2/13, April 11th), and Blue-headed (3/13, May 10th).

Other notable species included Long-billed Thrasher (3/13, April 4th), Black-bellied Whistling-duck (13/13), White-winged Dove (13/13), Golden-fronted Woodpecker (13/13), Curve-billed Thrasher (1/13, May 2nd), Lesser Goldfinch (5/13, April 4th), Spotted Towhee (1/13, April 11th), Black-chinned Hummingbird (4/13, April 4th), Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (1/13, May 10th), Ash-throated Flycatcher (1/13, May 2nd), Western Kingbird (2/13, April 24th), and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (2/13, April 11th).

Other so-called migrants included Gray Catbird (3/13, April 4th), Yellow-billed Cuckoo (3/13, May 2nd), Common Nighthawk (1/13, May 1st), Orchard Oriole (1/13, April 24th), Downy Woodpecker (1/13, April 4th), House Wren (2/13, April 26th), Great-crested Flycatcher (1/13, May 1st), Empidonax species (4/13, April 21st), Least Flycatcher (1/13, May 2nd), and Eastern Wood-pewee (1/13, May 2nd). The sparrows and buntings included Lincoln's (4/13, April 14th), Clay-colored (4/13, April 24th), White-throated (3/13, April 4th), White-crowned (1/13, May 2nd), Grasshopper (1/13, May 2nd), and Painted Bunting (1/13, May 2nd).

Not surprisingly, the morning visit of May 2 without a toddler and despite intermittently torrential rain, was the highest count of 53 species. The area around the pond attracted the most migrating warblers, vireos, and flycatchers. The East Texas area located on the north side of the pond was not the favored area for these birds (keeping in mind my visits were mostly mid-afternoon). The pattern may be different in the mornings.

Interestingly, most warblers, vireos, and Empidonax flycatchers, preferred the area between the southeast and southwest corners of the pond looking south and away from the water into the deciduous trees and their associated understory. This preferred area also included the mesquite and live oak trees along the walk from the pond to the Lookout. These areas provided excellent views through relatively little foliage, in contrast to the dense vegetation along Avenue A.

Furthermore, most of these species were silent or vocalized nothing more than their "chip notes" with the exception of White-eyed and Bell's Vireo. This was in stark contrast to birding in the northeast U.S., closer to the bird's breeding grounds. For example, in New York's Central Park the vast majority of migrants would sing, aiding the birder in logging species. Even the notoriously silent Hermit Thrush could be heard on occasions singing in Central Park's Ramble.

Certain areas of the BG's were reliable for migrants as well as species of local interest. Beginning just outside the Carriage House (main entrance), the garden area and its Coral Bean plant adjacent to the walkway was good for Black-chinned Hummingbird and Common Yellowthroat. Upon entering the BG, Lesser Goldfinch frequented the treetops around the Rose Garden and was often singing.

Heading right or south from the main entrance toward Garden for the Blind and Japanese Garden, the "islands" of shrubbery with leaf litter were favored by Long-billed Thrasher and Eastern and Spotted Towhee. A few years ago, an Ovenbird was found in these same areas. Also Nashville and Orange-crowned Warbler, and White-eyed Vireo liked the mature trees bordering the Japanese Garden and Garden for the Blind. With patience, warblers would usually be observed flying into the Japanese Gardens for water.

Walking northeast toward the Auld House through the open area of wildflowers, White-winged and Inca Dove were common. The Mountain Laurel and various oaks along the path from the Auld House and the pond were preferred by Magnolia Warbler. The slope from the pond into the Prairie was very reliable for Long-billed Thrasher. The opposing side of the trail along the pond was where Yellow-breasted Chat was found.

Continuing past the pond and through the Cactus and Succulent Garden, sparrows, especially Clay-colored, and dove blended in with the sandy-colored soil. Around the nearby restroom and back toward the Southwest Texas area, Bell's Vireo was frequently heard and located including along the fence line. Golden-fronted Woodpecker was also heard and seen on the large mature trees and telephone poles. Painted Bunting and Ash-throated Flycatcher were seen in the brushy areas interspersed between groves of prickly pear and cholla cactus.

Turning south, the tilled planting area with brush and assorted debris, adjacent to the Children's Garden, also attracted sparrows. The blooming flowers along the white picket fence bordering the Children's Garden were another hummingbird haunt. On the other side of the path, the dense understory provided refuge for sparrows, thrushes, and House Wren. Circling around past the glass terrariums, the Lucille Halsell Conservatory, and continuing to the Lookout, an excellent view to the west provided a good vantage point for migrating waterfowl and raptors including Swainson's Hawk. The tall row of Sycamores, located behind the Lookout to the east, was favored by Western Kingbird. The large oak immediately adjacent to the Lookout and the Acequia provided refuge for Black-and-White Warbler and Eastern and Spotted Towhee on the ground.

While leaving, the parking lot areas that are sparsely covered with grass and their adjacent "mottes" of mature Live Oak were also productive, e.g. Orchard Oriole. The telephone poles along the perimeter of the parking lot provide the Golden-fronted Woodpecker with conspicuous perches. Lastly, a drive down Funston Road toward Broadway and the Witte Museum, passes along a park area purposely left unmowed for wildflower propagation. With stands of mature Mesquite and other trees along the creek that obliquely transects the middle of the property, the potential for migrants, especially grassland and open country species, seems worthy of pursuit.

In summary, I am aware that several species, i.e. Orange-crowned Warbler, are common winter residents in our area, therefore the labeling of "date of first sighting" and "migrant" is not fully accurate and loosely applied for these birds. Furthermore, some of these "migrants" also are potential nesting species in our area. Keep in mind that the point of this survey was to get an idea of the frequency these birds would be sighted during my defined "spring," a time when many local birders and visitors are attempting to view specific migrants and our locally endemic birds.

Certainly, my "experiment" allows for great refinement, but my hope is that it provides a valuable beginning for recording practical information for those birding and managing the BG's landscape. Also, it is apparent from last spring's observations that with relatively little effort, a variety of species including many warblers and vireos are possible at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens.

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Over the past year, I have observed nearly 100 species of birds at the BG since recording my visits in February of 2000. The current BG checklist has 75 species listed 14 of which I did not see. Thus, there were actually 38 species listed in the past year's survey not listed on the current BG website checklist.

Grebes & Cormorants

31) Ladder-backed woodpecker

Wood warblers

1) Least grebe

32) Downy woodpecker 62) Orange-crowned warbler
2) Pied-billed grebe

Flycatchers & Kingbirds

63) Nashville warbler
3) Double-crested cormorant 33) Least flycatcher 64) Yellow warbler

Herons, Egrets & Bitterns

34) Eastern phoebe 65) Chestnut-sided warbler
4) Great egret 35) Ash-throated flycatcher 66) Magnolia warbler
5) Little blue heron

36) Great-crested flycatcher

67) Yellow-rumped warbler
6) Green heron 37) Scissor-tailed flycatcher 68) Black-throated green warbler
7) Yellow-crowned night heron 38) Western kingbird 69) Black & white warbler

Duck, Geese & Swans


70) American redstart

8) Black-bellied whistling duck 39) Purple Martin 71) Ovenbird
9) Wood duck 40) Barn swallow 72) Northern waterthrush
10) Mallard Crows & Jays 73) Common yellowthroat
11) Blue-winged teal 41) Blue jay 74) Wilson's warbler
12) Northern shoveler Chickadees & Tits 75) Yellow-breasted chat
13) Gadwall 42) Carolina chickadee

Cardinals, Buntings & Grosbeaks

New World Vultures

43) Black-crested titmouse 76) Northern cardinal
14) Turkey vulture

Kinglets & Gnatcatchers

77) Pyrrhuloxia
15) Black vulture 44) Ruby-crowned kinglet 78) Painted bunting

Hawks, Eagles & Kites

45) Golden-crowned kinglet

Towhees & Sparrows

16) Cooper's hawk 46) Blue-gray gnatcatcher 79) Eastern towhee
17) Red-shouldered hawk


80) Spotted towhee
18) Red-tailed hawk 47) American robin 81) Chipping sparrow
19) Swainson's hawk 48) Hermit thrush 82) Clay-colored sparrow
Falcons Mockingbirds & Thrashers 83) Field sparrow
20) American Kestrel 49) Gray catbird

84) Song sparrow

Rails & Gallinules 50) Northern mockingbird 85) Lincoln's sparrow
21) Common moorhen 51) Long-billed thrasher 86) White-throated sparrow
22) American coot 52) Curve-billed thrasher 87) White-crowned sparrow

Pigeons & Doves


88) House sparrow
23) Rock dove 53) Cedar waxwing Blackbirds, Orioles & Grackles
24) White-winged dove


89) Red-winged blackbird
25) Mourning dove 54) Loggerhead shrike 90) Great-tailed grackle
26) Inca dove


91) Brown-headed cowbird
Cuckoos 55) White-eyed vireo 92) European starling
27) Yellow-billed cuckoo 56) Red-eyed vireo 93) Orchard oriole
Swifts 57) Bell's vireo Finches
28) Chimney swift 58) Blue-headed vireo 94) House finch
Hummingbirds 59) Warbling vireo 95) Lesser goldfinch
29) Black-chinned hummingbird 60) Philadelphia vireo 96) American goldfinch


61) Plumbeus vireo Exotics & Introduced Species
30) Golden-fronted woodpecker   97) Egyptian goose
    98) Domestic duck


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