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2005 Hornsby Bend Big Year

A Report from Eric Carpenter

As many of you are aware or were actual witnesses to, I made a dedicated effort (parts of ~190-200 days in the field) in 2005 to search out and enjoy the bird-life at Hornsby Bend. Prior to doing this, I had only casually birded Hornsby over the years, primarily checking out birds on the 3 main ponds and in the woods to the south of them along the Colorado River. Before 2005, I had only visited Pond 3 twice, driven down Platt Lane only a couple times and had NEVER ventured down to Platt Pond, the Old Cypress River Crossing or the northwest fields. As it would turn out, the river corridor between Pond 3 and Platt Pond would become my favorite area at Hornsby.

My goal for the year 
Primarily to get a better handle of the status of birds in the area. I also was curious as to how many species I could see though I wasn't real sure what was possible since much of the area was "new" to me. I knew Rob Fergus and Glenn Perrigo both had Hornsby Big Year counts of 239 in years past though that seemed like a daunting goal the first few months. Still, it was a number that I had in the back of my mind the whole year. Another goal was to find either 1) a bird that was new to Hornsby or 2) a Texas Review-list species.

How did I do 
Well, birding a whole year at Hornsby was more exciting then I would have originally thought. Due to both persistent efforts on my part and a great network of friendly Austin birders, I was able to tally249 species on (or flying over) the property. Finding new or unusual species was very exciting, but so was watching the ebb-and-flow of birdlife that one is only able to do by sampling the area every day or every few days:

- Tracking the pair of Ringed Kingfishers that were present virtually the entire year, hoping to see them nest in a favored sand bank, only to see them shy away from it in late spring.

- Realizing by mid-to-late March that Hornsby's Bewicks Wrens had departed only to see them return in late September. I don't think I had ever noted this seasonal movement in our area before.

- Bushwacking after a male Prothonotary Warbler as it hung around all summer to see if it would find a mate (it did not).

- Being present in the field 5 to 7 times a week in the spring (mid-March to mid-May) and being able to see first-of-seasons of one species or another on nearly every visit, helping to illustrate the different migration windows of all the birds involved.

- In the spring, watching wading birds and other birds fly in (probably for the first time) from the southeast along the river, circle the ponds for a bit, and either land or keep heading northwest (also along the river corridor). In the fall, I would witness the same thing but in the opposite direction (birds heading generally down river).

I was also able to add a new bird to the Hornsby list (one of my goals) - a singing Rock Wren on Mount "Hornsby" along Platt Lane. Richard Kaskan and I were standing at the Platt Lane gate one morning in late November when it suddenly dawned on me that a bird we had been hearing for a few minutes sure as heck sounded like this species (and it was!).

I think it was a great year to bird at Hornsby because the birds sure seemed to be cooperating. State-wide and even nation-wide attention was focused on Hornsby in the fall with the very cooperative Fork-tailed Flycatcher (present for over a month) as well as a White-winged Scoter and Hornsby's first Black Scoter (both scoters stayed for a week or so and were enjoyed by many). My favorite bird/moment was either the Short-eared Owl (one of two birds present) that flew by Richard Kaskan and I and seemed to look at us early one pre-dawn morning in March or the two Long-billed Curlews that flew over the ponds around dusk on April 1st, giving their rather distinctive call as they deemed the ponds "not worthy" and kept heading northwest.

Both of those sightings above were birds that I would only see once. Other one-timers included: a Glossy Ibis, 3 Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, a Wild Turkey, a Least Tern, a Barn Owl, a Brown Creeper, a Yellow-throated Vireo, a Gray-cheeked Thrush, a Louisiana Waterthrush, a Scarlet Tanager, a Spotted Towhee, a Cassin's Sparrow, 2 or more LeConte's Sparrows, a Dark-eyed Junco, a Pine Siskin, and a Brewer's Blackbird. The Brewer's Blackbird was one of the most out-of-place sightings of the year with the only bird being one that walked around the drying basins near the hawkwatch on October 8th.

Other species that I would have been glad to see on only one occasion that I would see multiple times included: Anhinga (July & August), Greater Scaup (Feb & Nov), Long-tailed Duck (several weeks in January), Common Goldeneye (Jan thru Mar; Dec), Bald Eagle (Jan, March, April, October, November), Common Moorhen (May & June), Red-necked Phalarope (1 bird that lingered a few days in September), American Woodcock (April, November), Caspian Tern (May & August), Common Ground-Dove (April, November, December), Ringed Kingfisher (every month but January), Green Kingfisher (March, Sept, October), Say's Phoebe (March, Nov, Dec), Vermilion Flycatcher (Oct, Nov, Dec), Ash-throated Flycatcher (Jan thru April, Nov thru Dec), Bell's Vireo (May, Sept), Red-breasted Nuthatch (Feb, March, April), Veery (2 sightings in May), Sprague's Pipit (March, Nov, Dec), Hooded Warbler (May, Sept), and Bullock's Oriole (a couple sightings in May).

My nemesis bird for much of the year was, of all things, a Blue Jay. It would take me until Labor Day weekend (Sept 4th) until I saw my first one, though I would see up to 4 birds (the dam had broke!) on-and-off for the remainder of the year.

My biggest miss? Probably Red-breasted Mergansers which were seen in late November on-and-off but never when I was around. I also missed a couple fly-over species (Sandhill Crane, Herring Gull, Snow Goose) though I don't think any of these ever landed on the property. Other birds that I'm aware of that occurred that I didn't see (many of them are birds that were seen/present on days when I was at Hornsby): Eastern Screech-Owl, Prairie Warbler, Snowy Plover, Lazuli Bunting, Green-tailed Towhee, Herring Gull, and Zone-tailed Hawk.

(If you'd like a complete list of what I saw along with a month-by-month total, e-mail me at and I can send you a spreadsheet).

Other non-birding highlights were seeing a Bobcat two times (once on the southeast side of Pond 2; the other time near Pond 3), seeing maybe half-a-dozen Coral Snakes, and "discovering" the crashed jet on Pond 3 as well as one of the biggest snapping turtles I've ever seen.

Acknowledgements & Thanks
Everyone receiving this e-mail is deserving of thanks. Many of the exciting birds I list above were first discovered by one of you and then passed on to me directly or via Texbirds or via the HBBO website. Inspiration for this year goes to folks who have recently done local Big Years (Randy Pinkston's & Rich Kostecke's 2003 Bell County, recent "Travis County Challenge" big years) who brought to my attention how fantastic local birding can be. Rob Fergus and Jeff Hansen also had recent big years at Hornsby and I spent a lot of time searching thru the Texbirds archives and the HBBO sightings for their notes to give me a good groundwork of what I could expect.

Kevin Anderson was very generous and helped me understand life at Hornsby, from a birding and a non-birding perspective.

A special thanks to Sally Breed who a couple times went out of her way to get me on a great bird she had found. Sally also joined me (and survived!) one of my death-marches of walking the length of the river.

I spent countless hours in the field with Richard Kaskan, not only enjoying his company but learning quite a bit in the process. Richard is one of the more astute birders I've been with in the field, possessing both a keen eye and trained ear, as well as a good knack for pulling the rare bird out of the flock.

Hornsby Bend is probably one of the best birding spots in central Texas. As far as a species count per year goes, I would bet its only rival would be Mitchell Lake (San Antonio). The combination of its location, the fact that it is a island of habitat in otherwise suburban sprawl and gravel/dirt pits, its proximity to the river and the nutrient-rich ponds draws in lots of birds (and birders). The main ponds might be the easiest area to bird but the most exciting can be found by patiently walking (and listening) along the river corridor from the Pond 3 all the way over to Platt Lane.

Anyone considering a Big Year (whether it be in their backyard, their home county, the favorite hot-spot, or even a state-wide effort), should realize that they're probably in for a little more work (and stress) than expected but also a LOT more fun.

See you out there on the birding trail!


PS. I was going to issue a question for you folks to guess how long it would be this year until I saw a bird at Hornsby that I didn't see at all in 2005. Fortunately, I've already answered that question. I birded Hornsby this morning for the first time since the new year, and it took just over a hour for me to find and photograph a Sedge Wren, a bird that was strangely missing-in-action all of 2005.

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