Northern Cardinal – Photo by: Patsy Kuentz
Alamo Area Master Naturalist Patricia (“Patsy”) Kuentz is this piece’s author. This basic article is geared toward new birders.
COMMON BIRDS OF PHIL HARDBERGER PARK
Bird sightings documented on eBird.com indicate that more than 160 species of birds have been seen in Phil Hardberger Park. Although there is no guarantee that you will see any of these bird species on your visit (because birds have wings, and they use them!), keep your eye out for some of the more common birds of the area. See Bird List – Phil Hardberger Park Updated for 2022.
BINOCULAR BASICS AND BIRD GUIDES
Using binoculars is often a tremendous asset in seeing details that assist in identifying birds. A reasonable pair of binoculars for beginners has an 8×25 description for the strength and size of the lenses. To get started using binoculars, be sure they are adjusted for your eyes. Always keep looking at the bird while you bring the binoculars up to your eyes. (For more detailed guidelines on binoculars, take a look at an article written by expert birders, Patsy and Tom Inglet.) Bird guides, whether phone apps or books, are very helpful, too. For learning about and identifying birds, both The Sibley Guide to Birds as well as Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America are two of several favorites among birders.
BIRD IDENTIFICATION BASICS
Although the first inclination for novice birders is often to focus on color, better identification technique suggests that size, shape, activity, eating habits, flight patterns, appearing solo or in a group, time of year, and location are even more critical for correct identification. For instance, if you see a lone bird roughly the size of a Northern Cardinal scratching around in the leaf litter on the ground in brushy areas during the winter, it is quite likely a Spotted Towhee or a Brown Thrasher trying to uncover its favorite small insects or seeds for a tasty meal.
What is the best place to look for birds?
LOOK FOR BIRDS IN THE SKY: VULTURES, CARACARAS, HAWKS, DOVES
Look skyward and you might see soaring Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures. Occasionally, you may observe groups of three or more eating a dead animal on the ground. Large birds, they often hang out on the tops of tall light poles along Wurzbach Parkway, drying their wings after a rain, sunning themselves, or looking for a road kill meal or a small rodent along the side of the road. Although the size and shape of both species of vultures are very similar, the much more common Black Vulture has a dark gray head, while the Turkey Vulture has a red head. Not as common as either vulture, Northern Caracaras (called “Mexican Eagles” by some) periodically patrol the park looking for carrion, but caracaras also eat live prey, such as snakes and small mammals. Vultures and Crested Caracaras are real public servants in helping keep our park clean and preventing the spread of disease from rotting material. For other examples of natural services see the talking point called Ecosystem Services—Nature Pays Big Dividends by Jewell Cozort.
What do you think would happen if there were no vultures to eat the carcasses of dead animals?
Red-shouldered Hawks frequent the skies of this area, too. A Red-shouldered Hawk, in fact, can often be observed around the savanna and Wildscape Demonstration Garden near the Urban Ecology Center. White-winged Doves, whose call is sometimes thought to be similar to that of a Barred Owl, are also commonly seen flying in groups in the park. Sometimes, large aggregations of blackbirds such as Great-tailed Grackles can be visible from the Oak Loop Trail. Because the Park has no permanent pond, ducks are not particularly common here, however you might get an occasional, early-morning look at a group of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks flying overhead between ponds near the park or taking off from the seasonal wetland area near Northwest Military Highway south of the playing fields.
LOOK FOR BIRDS IN TREES: WOODPECKERS, CARDINALS, BLUE JAYS, TITMICE, WRENS & MOCKINGBIRDS
The many tree-level birds in Phil Hardberger Park include woodpeckers such as the Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and Downy Woodpecker, whose undulating flight patterns are good identification clues. They are joined in this area by Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Carolina Wrens, Bewick’s Wrens, Lesser Goldfinches, Carolina Chickadees, and Black-crested Titmice. Loggerhead Shrikes frequently hunt from the tops of trees in the savanna in early mornings in the winter when insect prey is immobilized by the cold. The Northern Mockingbird, our Texas state bird, is easily heard and often seen all over the park. Its various loud songs imitate those of other birds found locally. Another bird with us year-round, Eastern Phoebes, perch in trees and fence posts in the park, looking for tasty flying insects.
LOOK FOR BIRDS ON THE GROUND: SPARROWS & ROADRUNNERS
Since plants in the park’s restored savanna have reached maturity, keep an eye out for various wintering native sparrows such as Lincoln’s Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, and Savannah Sparrows enjoying the many seeds and insects that are available there. Be sure to watch for motion in the path ahead of you. If you are quiet and very lucky, you might spot a Greater Roadrunner. This long-tailed, large bird streaked with gray could be trotting across the path in search of a tasty lizard or small snake.
WINTERING AND MIGRATORY BIRDS
The park also has many winter-only bird visitors and also birds that just pass through our area during migration. American Goldfinches join us from the north to share our warmer winters. In their duller, winter feather colors, they are not the brilliant gems one might find them to be the summer in Minnesota, but they are delightful guests, nevertheless. Ruby-crowned Kinglets also flitter around quickly in the trees feasting on tasty insects. Several warblers migrate through this area, but only a few, such as the Orange-crowned Warbler and the aptly named Yellow-rumped Warbler, routinely stay here for the winter. A rare and exciting early spring find would be an endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler migrating through Hardberger Park on the way to its nesting area in northern Bexar County. In fact, on March 11, 2012, now Nature Preserve Officer Wendy Leonard observed an endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler in Phil Hardberger Park (East) for a short period of time as it made its way to breeding areas in northern Bexar County and the Hill Country.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES FOR BIRDERS
Click the link for another article about Birdwatching in Phil Hardberger Park by Alamo Area Master Naturalist Lora Reynolds.
For more information for children see, Breakfast for a Bird.