by Chuck Sexton
First draft, 7 May 2012; edited 5 June 2012.
(Ed. Note: Click any image to view a larger version.)
Austin area birders are blessed with extensive published documentation of the historical bird life in our city. Best known of these older works is George Simmons’ “Birds of the Austin Region” (1925, Univ. of Texas Press). Yet Simmons recites a rather extensive set of articles on Central Texas birds going back into the late 19th Century. One of the earliest accounts is from a young bird student, Jules Henry Tallichet (Fig. 1), who made a long hike through central and west Austin on May 6, 1892. He published his observations later the same year in a national journal, The Ornithologist & Oologist, in a note entitled “A Day in Texas Woods”.
As a student of the impacts of urbanization on bird populations, I have long wanted to recreate Tallichet’s effort to see how the vast changes in the Austin landscape are reflected in its birdlife. I finally made time for this fun task as the 120th anniversary of his hike approached, on Saturday, May 5, 2012.
Tallichet’s description of his route and the habitats and landmarks he traversed is detailed enough to let us plot his pathway with some specificity (see the waypoints in Fig. 2 marked “ADTW”). From the 1900 Federal Census, I found that the Tallichet family was living at 1200 Trinity Street, just two blocks east of the State Capitol. I presume that was the starting point of his hike on that May morning eight years earlier. He walked up through the U.T. campus, thence through the “thinly settled suburbs” north of campus, on through the post oak woods to the edge of the vast “prairie [which] stretches out as far as the eye can see”. Turning west, he crossed a “muddy, sluggish creek” before moving through a “live oak grove that borders Shoal Creek”. He made his way into the “cedar-clad, limestone hills” through a “deep, shady canyon between the mountains”, and after “a long, hard tramp over hot limestone mesas”, reached the mouth of Bull Creek at the Colorado River. His pathway home took him along “the road that wound down along between the river and steep canyon walls that rose almost from the waters edge”. Nighthawks were circling overhead as he “entered the city” and the “town clock struck nine” as he arrived home.
For my re-creation of his hike (Fig. 2, waypoints marked “Redux”), I chose to use the modern conveyance of an automobile but I spent considerable time on foot to accumulate bird observations through urban Austin as well as in selected parks, greenbelts, and open spaces along his route. Starting–for authenticity–precisely in the southeast corner of the public parking garage at 12th and Trinity at dawn (waypoint “Redux_0”, and Fig. 3), I had hoped to do some birding in adjacent Waterloo Park where Tallichet would have undoubtedly spent time studying birds. Unfortunately for my plans, but to the benefit of all Austinites, Waterloo Park was closed off for much-needed repairs and upgrading, so I took a short walk around the Capitol Grounds at dawn as a starting point. After a perfunctory hike onto the U.T. campus, circumnavigating the Main Building (stop 1), I made my way up to Adams-Hemphill Park north of campus (stop 2), surrounding which I now find not-so-sparsely settled residential neighborhoods. Subsequent stops at Central Market (stop 3) to see some remnant post oak woods, the Sunshine Community Gardens on 49thStreet where the prairie used to begin (stop 4), and Hancock Creek adjacent to the Yarborough Branch library (stop 5) provided stepping stones along Tallichet’s presumed transect, eventually bringing me to Shoal Creek.
To accomplish some birding in a live oak grove near Shoal Creek, I spent time wandering around Austin Memorial Park (stop 6). Out into the “juniper-clad hills”, I visited a private preserve (stop 7), then made a symbolic visit to the top of Mt. Bonnell (since there is no access along the Colorado River at its base)(stop 8). A brief bit of birding at Mayfield Park and the grounds of Laguna Gloria (stop 9) had to substitute for Tallichet’s visit to the “shady groves at the mouth of Bull Creek” but human activities (weddings and festivals) constrained my efforts there. I ended the day at the edge of Lady Bird Lake with steep limestone cliffs across from me as I sampled the birdlife in an urban enclave of riparian woodlands along U.T.’s Brackenridge Field Laboratory (stop 10). After 16 miles of driving and nearly 9 miles on foot, I tallied two Common Nighthawks along Balcones Drive as I “wended” my way home.
Since Tallichet’s era, Austin’s explosive growth has been a recurring theme decade after decade. Austin’s population in 1890 was just shy of 15,000 people. Today, Austin proper is north of 800,000 people with the larger Austin metro area approaching 1.5 million. For comparison, just the current U.T. student enrollment on the “Forty Acres” is now more than 3-fold the entire Austin population of Tallichet’s time.
With some translation needed from his archaic nomenclature, we can discern that Tallichet made note of 45 species of birds, all of which are familiar to us now, but many of which are no longer resident in central Austin. I encountered only 27 species from Tallichet’s list (see Table 1 for a comparison of lists) and the missing names are illustrative of major environmental shifts. We have essentially eliminated the native prairie, thus many open country birds such as Northern Bobwhite, Dickcissel, and meadowlarks have, for the most part, been pushed out of the central city. Many of Tallichet’s birds of brushy country such as the Lark Sparrow (Fig. 4)–which was nesting in “agarita among the tall grasses” on the U. T. campus–and the likes of Greater Roadrunner, Bell’s Vireo, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Field Sparrow have also been crowded out or, as in the case of the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, have adapted to different sorts of urban savannah or “edge” habitats. Austin has, if anything, become a much more heavily wooded city due in equal parts to protection of native trees and the myriad plantings in the intervening century. Thus I still found woodland denizens from Tallichet’s list like Great Crested Flycatcher, Red-bellied and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers in my jaunt through the modern suburban landscape, and even Red-shouldered Hawks–not mentioned by Tallichet but known to be an Austin resident of that era.
Other birds with special niches such as nighthawks, screech-owls, and Canyon Wrens still entertain us where their nesting or foraging habitats are present in town. A single waterbird is mentioned by Tallichet–a Solitary Sandpiper encountered “at the edge of a marshy pond”. In present-day Austin, water features such as the detention ponds at Central Market take on special wildlife importance in the urban milieu, attracting some remarkably adaptable waterbirds such as Killdeer, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and Wood Ducks (Fig. 5). I found all three species during my excursion. The last of these has rebounded from “near extinction” in Tallichet’s era.
Some of the rarest finds of Tallichet are rarer still, being pushed ever outward by urbanization. He found (and collected) a Golden-cheeked Warbler just as he entered the juniper-clad hills west of town. This signature species, now with large blocks of protected habitat in western Travis County, still hangs onto a toe-hold in some of the remaining heavily wooded canyon slopes west of the Balcones Fault along Tallichet’s route–a conservation story still unfolding in our time (Fig. 6). In one sentence, he mentions that titmice, cardinals, White-eyed, and Black-capped Vireos were “always in sight” in the canyons; the last of these has now declined and withdrawn from the edge of the city as its specialized brushy habitat has either been bull-dozed or left to grow to woodland stature.
I have to be cautious about what species Tallichet fails to describe–He makes no claim to have listed everything he encountered or everything found in Austin at the time. I have the advantage of consulting Simmons’ compilation a few decades after Tallichet’s jaunt to provide a framework for any perceived changes. I tallied 45 species of birds which are not mentioned in Tallichet’s short article. Fifteen of these are simply Neotropical migrants that Tallichet might have seen on some other Spring day, including a smattering of flycatchers, thrushes, and warblers. Yet among the additional resident and nesting species I found, major avian changes are obvious: Among the ten most numerous nesting species I encountered this May–comprising over 75% of the birds I tallied–Tallichet mentions only three: Mourning Dove, N. Mockingbird, and Blue Jay. There have been three trade-outs of eastern species for western versions: Eastern Kingbirds have been replaced by Westerns as a nesting species in town; Tufted Titmice have been displaced to the east by Black-crested, and the Common Grackle has been overwhelmed by the Great-tailed Grackle as the common urban blackbird.
Perhaps most remarkable, I encountered six species that are now regular, even abundant nesting species in Austin which had not even arrived in Tallichet’s or Simmons’ era: White-winged Dove, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Cave Swallow, European Starling, House Finch, and House Sparrow. In the 1890s, House Sparrows were just spreading across Texas from their first stronghold in Galveston. Starlings began their invasion of Texas in the decade after Simmons published his book. The Cave Swallow began to be noticed in Austin in the 1980s and may soon become the most numerous swallow in Central Texas; I found the species nesting near the busy U.T. campus and behind the Yarborough Branch library in a culvert which exits from under an urban shopping center.
Every species mentioned by Tallichet or encountered in my excursion offers a story to tell. Perhaps most remarkable of all is that of the White-winged Dove (Fig. 7). Not even a twinkle in the eye of Tallichet nor Simmons, this species has faced many ups and downs–mostly downs–in its native South Texas range. Oberholser and Kincaid (Bird Life of Texas, 1974, Univ. of Texas Press) were rather pessimistic about the future of “even the rather adaptable White-winged Dove”. But out of Mexico and deep South Texas came dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of urban-adapted White-wings, island hopping from town to town up along I-35. Formerly a rare stray in Austin, the species first nested here in 1985–a mere 27 years ago. By the 1990s large suburban roosts of White-wings were turning heads. And now on the 120th anniversary of Tallichet’s review, the White-winged Dove may lay claim to the most numerous and most conspicuous bird species in Austin, out-numbering even Great-tailed Grackles in many suburban yards.
Jules Henry Tallichet went on to get law degrees from the University of Texas and have a successful legal career in Austin and Houston. He and many family members are laid to rest in Austin at Oakwood Cemetery just east of Interstate 35, surrounded by the very post oak woods over which the morning sun rose on that May day some 120 years ago.
I am grateful to the following individuals for useful discussions, encouragement, support, companionship, editorial advice, and/or logistical help in my May journey: John & Kendra Abbott, Joe Beach, John Crutchfield, Laurie Foss, Larry Gilbert, Shelia Hargis, Caroline Jones, Greg W. Lasley, Nancy Manning, Jeff Patterson, Bill Reiner Jr., Mary Kay Sexton, Tess Sherman, Jane Tillman, Tray Walden, Nancy Woolley.
Figure Info and Captions
Figure 1. Jules Henry Tallichet. Reproduced from G. F. Simmons’ “Birds of the Austin Region” (1925, Univ. of Texas Press; Used by Permission). [U.T. Press confirmed that the book is in public domain now.]
Figure 2. Tallichet’s estimated pathway on May 6, 1892, is shown in green with green pins marking probable landmarks along his route. The yellow path and pins show my reconstruction of the route (by car and on foot) on May 5, 2012. Base photography from Google Earth.
Figure 3. Emblematic of changing Austin: The former Tallichet home at 12th and Trinity is now a public parking garage for the State Capitol and Library. Photo: C. Sexton.
Figure 4. Larks Sparrows used to nest in brush on the Univ. of Texas campus, a habitat choice no longer available to many grassland and shrubland species. Photo: Greg W. Lasley Nature Photography, Used by Permission.
Figure 5. Wetlands, ponds, and creeks in urban areas provide important niches for adaptable waterbirds. Wood Ducks on the detention pond near Central Market. Photo: C. Sexton.
Figure 6. Due to conservations efforts from the 1970s to the present, there are still a few enclaves of Golden-cheeked Warbler habitat on the western edge of urban Austin. Photo: C. Sexton.
Figure 7. The new champion “urban bird”: Adaptable and aggressive White-winged Doves have colonized Austin in vast numbers and are island hopping northward to colonize urban areas elsewhere in Texas.