Travis Audubon Society asked if I would guide a special field trip to one of the Hill Country Conservancy’s Conservation Easement properties. I proposed that we visit Ragland Ranch; one of my favorite ranches in the conservation portfolio (but who I am I really kidding, my favorite is always whichever one I’m visiting next).
“Ragland Ranch is a charming 292-acre property located near Buda in western Hays County. Historically managed for agriculture, the ranch is instrumental in balancing the impacts of regional development, such as increased impervious cover, erosion, land degradation and pollution, which threaten the water quality of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer. Local well users and wildlife depend on increasingly limited supplies of clean water from our local aquifer during times of drought, making land conservation efforts even more important to the maintenance of water resources in Central Texas.”
A blending of habitat types occurs on Ragland including grassland, shrubland, woodland, a small lake (retired quarry), and a wooded pond. This diversity of habitat was reflected in the day’s 44 species observed.
I was joined by four TAS members ranging from the experienced long-time birder to relatively new budding enthusiast. However, the morning seemed to be enjoyed by all equally.
We started at the historic homestead where we watched mixed flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers, Orange-crowned Warbler, Lesser Goldfinch, House Finch, Black-crested Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets bounding through the canopies of scattered tress. The sweet call of Eastern Bluebirds and the melodic riffs of Northern Mockingbird served as an intro to the day’s soundtrack. We stopped to note the importance of fruits from hackberry trees as a winter food source for these birds and other wildlife. And we also watched as both Yellow-fronted and Ladderbacked Woodpeckers lit upon snags, or standing dead tree trunks, that serve as both nesting sites and food host of grubs and insects.
We continued the tour through a grassy meadow where Vesper, Savannah, and Grasshopper Sparrows were abundant. We watched as a small group of Meadowlark’s flushed off to the west before gliding back down within the grass. A single flight note betrayed at least one of them to be a Western.
At one point, we sat in amazement as we were offered the rare treat of seeing three Grasshopper Sparrows stock-still perched atop a small bush. This look allowed us to see, in elicit detail, the multiple field characteristics that make this species unique: a relatively flat and chunky head characteristic of the Ammodramus sparrows, the beautiful golden-brown smudge of the breast, flanks, and neck, the intricate pattern of chestnut, black and tan on the back and wings, a strong white eye-ring, and the thin whitish crown stripe splitting a chestnut cap on top of the head.
Next, we visited the abandoned quarry that has since filled with water and serves a woody margined lake. We were immediately greeted by the rattling song of a Belted Kingfisher and alarm notes of Killdeer. We didn’t note any ducks on the lake but enjoyed the antics of a couple dozen American Coots and handful of Pied-billed Grebes. At one steeply wooded embankment, we found another mixed flock of songbirds included a very late Nashville Warbler.
We had one more spot to check out before letting our morning of birding wind down. We slowly approached the quiet little livestock pond tucked within the woods with hopes of seeing some of the ducks that had seen flying overhead earlier the morning. At first, the pond seemed void. But it wasn’t long before a Wilson’s Snipe exploded away from the muddy banks in advance of path. And then, while peering through a wooded point, we noted a gorgeous male Hooded Merganser tucked beneath the shrub line of the opposite bank. The slender bird nervously glided for a moment before exploding up off the water and jetted past just higher than eye-level. What a treat befitting of this morning and this group.