Why I Love Birding at Hornsby Bend

By: Jane Tillman, Travis Audubon Master Birder

Birders at Hornsby Bend. World Shorebird Day at Hornsby is a crowd-pleasing event. Photo courtesy of Jane Tillman.

I got my introduction to Hornsby back in 2001 when I took the Capital Area Master Naturalist training. Long-time birder John Kelly led our group out to the ponds to look at the ducks, which included memorable Northern Shovelers swimming around in rafts to stir up invertebrates and filter feed. I can’t say I fell under Hornsby’s spell immediately, but once I got over the fact that it was arguably not as pretty as other eBird hotspots, I’ve made many visits over the years. After all, the birds are aesthetically pleasing, and there are several different habitats to explore. Where else in Austin can you get such a diversity of birds in one spot?

One way to see all that Hornsby has to offer is to participate in the monthly bird counts. You get to see it in the slow times, cold times, hot times, rainy times and great times. You get a better understanding of the ebb and flow of bird life through the seasons. One month it might be a couple of hundred (at least) Yellow-rumped Warblers all chipping down by Pond 3. Another time it might be a noticeable movement of Yellow Warblers or orioles, or the massing of Scissor-tails over on Platt.

A Short-eared Owl dropped in at Hornsby in October 2018. Photo courtesy of Jane Tillman.

I’ve appreciated the willingness of birders who find a rare bird to alert the rest of us to its presence, often with helpful directions to where it is being seen.  Purple Gallinule? – Pond 3. Red-necked Phalaropes? – Back and forth between ponds 2 and 1 West.  Surf Scoter – Pond 2. Some reports are just painful though. Swallow-tailed Kite? Flyover. Wood Stork? Luck and timing. Long-eared Owl? You had to be there. Fortunately Hornsby is birded a lot, which increases the chances someone will find that something interesting. On those occasions when Hornsby is graced with a rare bird that sticks, you can count on some of your birding friends being there too, and not just from Austin. It’s the best kind of happy hour.

One memorable bird for me was the Ruff that top Hornsby birder Eric Carpenter found in early May, 2016. All I remember was the Rare Bird Alert said Ruff!!! It must have said Hornsby, but did not need to say more. It was a windy evening with lots of whitecaps in 1 West, and there she was out on a little exposed island, with a crowd of birders paying homage from shore. Other lifers I’ve seen at Hornsby and nowhere else were the two immature Sabine’s Gulls in 2016 and the Long-tailed Jaeger in 2017. I bet you have some lifers from there too.

A flock of Franklin’s Gulls is always memorable. Photo courtesy of Ken Zaslow.

It’s not just about the lifers though. You can get some wow birding in at Hornsby, like witnessing the sky full of Swainson’s Hawks at Hornsby’s 50th celebration, when over 3000 lifted off after roosting overnight in a hayfield nearby. You might get to hear the “rusty hinge” creak of a small flock of Rusty Blackbirds down on Pond 3. Or you may get to marvel at hundreds and hundreds of swallows coursing over the ponds, or a flyover flock of noisy Franklin’s Gulls on their way to Chile or the Dakotas depending on the season. Imagine!

We are so lucky to have access to Hornsby. More importantly, we are fortunate our beleaguered birds have a relatively safe haven there, as they face ever-shrinking stopover, summering and wintering habitats. Come out and show your support for Hornsby and celebrate our birds on Nov. 23.  For sure you will see some good birds.