Birding the Davis Mountains

By Jason Garcia, Travis Audubon Board Member

Acorn Woodpecker. Photo courtesy of Jason Garcia.

Featured birds:
Black-headed Grosbeak
Acorn Woodpecker
Cassin’s Kingbird
Say’s Phoebe
Hepatic Tanager
Plumbeous Vireo
Zone-tailed Hawk

The Davis Mountains, a loose association of peaks in West Texas, form what is known as a “sky island”, an oasis of wetter, forested area in an otherwise desert environment. This diversity of habitat allows many different species of birds to thrive. I first visited as part of a Victor Emanuel Nature Tour when I was a young birder in the 80s, and the area left such an impression on me that I couldn’t wait to return.

Indian Lodge. Photo courtesy of Jason Garcia.

I finally made the return trip in mid-July of this year, and better late than never! I first arrived at the town of Fort Davis, a quaint, historical site at the foot of the hills. From there it’s just a short 3-mile ascent to Davis Mountains State Park, where I was staying at the on-site Indian Lodge.

The park has several trails as well as a few Wildlife Viewing Areas, which make for great cover from the heat of midday. Birds easily seen in the park include Cassin’s Kingbird, Vermilion Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee, Blue Grosbeak, Black-headed Grosbeak, Acorn Woodpecker, and Woodhouse’ Scrub Jay. I had a family of Say’s Phoebes living right outside the lodge, and a Hepatic Tanager singing in a tree nearby. There is a trail named for the celebrated Montezuma Quail, although they are apparently hard to spot and I did not encounter one on my visit. One day I spotted a Common Black Hawk soaring overhead at the park entrance.

Hepatic Tanager. Photo courtesy of Jason Garcia.

From there, I drove the winding roads up the mountains past the McDonald Observatory (which has the well-known Star Parties, unfortunately they were sold out the weekend of my trip), and in about half an hour I ended up at the Lawrence E. Wood Picnic Area and the entrance to the Madera Canyon Trail. This is the part near the Davis Mountains Preserve that is still open to the public; as of my trip the Preserve was still closed to day visitors. The picnic area is a little higher in elevation, so you start to see more pinyon pine and other tree cover. Here is a great place to look for Ash-throated Flycatcher, Hepatic Tanager, Plumbeous Vireo, Gray Flycatcher, Scott’s Oriole and Rock Wren.

Zone-tailed Hawk. Photo courtesy of Jason Garcia.

On Sunday, my trip came to an end. I finished lunch at the Stone Village Market in Fort Davis (which features a great sandwich deli) and was about to turn out of town when I noticed a few Turkey Vultures soaring low in a field alongside my car. Experience has taught me to always look more closely at Turkey Vultures in the western part of the state, just in case they might be the very similar-looking Zone-tailed Hawk. Sure enough, I was surprised and delighted to see the tell-tale black heads of Zone-tails! I quickly stopped the car and got my camera ready, but I was too late, as the birds turned and sailed immediately over me. I watched them drift over town for a few seconds, and decided to get back in my car and see if I could intercept them. I turned down a side road I thought might be in their path and waited. After a few minutes, they came gliding over, but this time I was ready. I was thrilled to get the photo I’d always wanted of my favorite hawk, which put a great cap on a fantastic weekend trip.

If you go: Staying at the lodge is recommended! In addition to being able to wake up and be in the park, there’s also an in-house restaurant and swimming pool.
Take a cooler with you and plenty of water. It was always nice to have cold water on-hand after returning from a hike. The mountains are temperate but if the sun isn’t mitigated by clouds, it can get rather hot in summer.
The Davis Mountains are about a 6 1/2 hour drive from Austin, and there are limited fuel and rest stops along the way. I recommend topping off the gas tank any time you stop, whether you need gas or not. Don’t wait until you get close to E.

See the full gallery from this trip on Jason’s website.

Featured image: Say’s Phoebe by Jason Garcia