(updated winter 2014!)
On the Sabinal River at Utopia Park
Utopia is centered amongst some of the best
birding to be had in all of the United States.
It's in what Roger Tory Peterson called
"the twilight zone" in his Texas Field Guide.
And how true it is. East meets west here.
Quintessential western birds side by side
with quintessential eastern species ...
toss in a little bit of the southern or Mexican
component, and it truly is a birding utopia.
But where to go? One can spend lots of time trying
to find the right places, and here we hope to help
you save some time looking for them. There are some
crude rudimentary maps that may help a little, but
better you have a good one. Most of the land is
private, and we'll concentrate on those places that
are readily accessible to the public. Of course if
you stay at any of the local bed and breakfasts,
you will gain access to what are usually some
essentially un-birded areas with very good habitat.
If you only have time to go to one place locally,
I would recommend Lost Maples State Natural Area.
There is a page on this website just for it. It is
one the most beautiful scenic areas I've ever been.
The birding is great to fantastic spring to fall.
Mostly it is steep walled canyons, lushly vegetated,
with smaller streams or creeks, and will remind you
of southwestern canyons such as those in SE Arizona,
but with lots of eastern species nesting.
It is my favorite, if not THE best, place to see
Golden-cheeked Warbler. Mid-March to mid-June is
your window of opportunity with them. If you can
do a 300' elevation gain from the pond to top of bluffs
Black-capped Vireo is a sure thing, the easiest place to
see them. Those are both present spring to July for
the warbler and through August for the vireo.
Garner State Park, one valley west of the Sabinal
River Valley, in the Frio River "Canyon" (that term
is used a bit loosely here - these are river
valleys in my book - there are sections that are canyons)
is also very good birding, and though like Lost Maples,
it has Golden-cheeked Warbler and allegedly Black-capped
Vireo, it is very different from Lost Maples.
If you have time it should be second on your list.
It has lots of mesquite areas where those species
associated with it are more readily found. It also has
giant cypresses lining the larger Frio River, and some
pecan bottoms and live-oak mottes which are often good
So, whilst they share some species, these two places'
similarity ends there. Garner is often over-run
with people so bird it early and during the week,
from spring break (mid-March) to Labor Day.
Other areas nearby that are good are Concan and Uvalde.
There is a local bird guide book by the late June Osborne that can
be helpful for those areas. Neal's Lodges' store sells it.
Or if you want help finding everything in a limited amount
of time, sometimes it may be advantageous to get a guide.
For which, I would recommend, er, well, uhhhh, me. ;)
Check out the Bird Guide
The hottest tip I can give birders who are coming out
this way is to check the little "holes-in-the-wall"
that I've been watching and have been astounded with.
If you are a birder who visits the area, you may already
know of them, but most who come here are "out of area"
visitors. I certainly didn't know about the best ones
and I used to live in San Antonio and birded
the area a fair bit.
Barred Owl at Utopia Park
First, Utopia Park, off 1050 at the southwestern
corner of the town of Utopia. UvCo 1050 is the road that
goes from Utopia west to Garner St.Park. Utopia Park is just
a couple hundred meters west from the turn onto
1050 from 187 at the south end of Utopia.
Continue straight as the road veers left, just before you
cross the Sabinal River. They just put in some new
curbs so now there is a dogleg turn into the park.
This little gem of a park can be quite birdy and I
have 240 species on my park list, in 10 years of looking,
now over 30 species of wood warblers, 20 on my best day.
For migrants, it has seems the first patch and last
patch of Live-Oaks have been the best. Some mornings you
can find 20-30 or way more migrants in a flock here, mostly
Yellow-rumped or Nashville Warblers. However nesting
Yellow-throated Warblers sing from late March on.
Green Kingfisher is often present, and Ringed is seen
sometimes too. Zone-tailed Hawk is regular in summer.
Vagrants seen here include Connecticut Warbler, Gray Hawk,
Tropical Parula, Audubon's Oriole, Clay-colored Thrush,
Western Tanager, Olive Sparrow, Black-throated Gray Warbler,
Woodcock, Cassin's Sparrow and Curve-billed Thrasher
(those two out front), Sedge Wren (twice same date in mid-May!),
Rusty Blackbird, Canyon Wren, Townsend's Warbler, Scott's Oriole,
Anhinga, Purple Galinule, and Short-tailed Hawk! In case that isn't
enough, I once saw a Gray-breasted Martin here too.
With coverage, this will turn into a known goldmine.
Two Couch's Kingbirds wintered here 03-05, and there
are none cited in Lockwood's "Hill Country Birds"
book as wintering up on the plateau. Downy Woodpecker
has wintered, my only local sighting. Another first plateau
wintering record here was a Black-and-white Warbler in 08-09.
She went on to return and winter for FIVE years consecutive!
Black Phoebe was always present 2003-2011, but the drought
seems to have lost us this pair. Barred Owl is up at
the north end of the park often. NOTE to the WHITE VAN tribes:
PLEASE QUIT playing tapes at this pair! Waterbirds
sometimes are in or along the river. Pied-billed Grebe
winters, and Black-bellied Whistling-Duck is a regular
vistor from April on. I had a sentence here about how
the water lilies looked good for Purple Galinule, which I have
since seen here, I know a good PurpleGal vagrant hole when
I see one. I did find one (see rarities photo page) but since
the pond was dredged and the patch lost.
Utopia around town itself is a bit of a trap for migrants being
a big fairly mature stand of trees in many areas, with big ancient
live-oaks and pecans, lots of hedgerows, some folks feed
birds, and often one can find a flock or two of birds
roving around the town in migration or winter especially.
Any of the county roads offer some visual access to local
habitats, but remember all the land is private and no trespassing.
Follow the instructions of the posted signs or the "do not enter"
of purple paint.
Just west of town on 1050
Of interest is a large pond (5 acres or so) on Hwy 337
between Medina and Vanderpool. If you are coming or going
to or from Lost Maples via San Antonio, use this route
so you can check the pond. In winter it is covered in ducks.
I expect some very good birds have been there over the years.
There have been some planted Mute Swans here the last few years.
Migrant waterfowl and shorebirds would likely stop there
during grounding events (usually rain or wind). The pond is about
half way (on 337, 10 miles or so east of 187 in Vanderpool) between
Lost Maples and Medina. Of course, Medina is famous for
apples and allegedly some of the best apple pie to be
found is there, so that might be worth some research as well.
Now if you have gotten this far, I am about to divulge my
secret spot to make all this reading worth your while ....
the South Little Creek pond. If you read the bird news page,
you will see many references to it during wet years when
it holds water. It is an amazing place, and in spring has
different birds virtually every day, IF it has water.
The last few years since the drought started in about 2008
it has been mostly dry except very briefly after the bigger
rain events. It was a rockin' hot spot the 4 years
prior to the drought when it was wet most of the time.
South Little Creek Pond
South Little Creek Rd. turns south from Hwy 470 about two
miles east of Hwy 187. Hwy 470 runs east from 187 about
a mile or two north of Utopia and goes to Bandera. The pond
is only viewable from the road, and is about one half mile
south of 470 on the west side of South Little Creek Road.
In dry years it may not have water. But it appears
(and according to locals) to often hold water during
wet springs, and fall if there are monsoons.
To give you an example of whats been stopping there,
I have seen many Solitary Sandpipers, both Yellowlegs,
Pectoral Sandpipers, Baird's Sandpipers (once a flock
of 28!), Great Blue and Little Blue Herons, Snowy and
Cattle Egrets, and once I found a flock of
48 White-faced Ibis (no Glossy) there!
Also storms have grounded Blue-winged and Green-winged
Teal, 60 Shovellers at once, Ring-necked Ducks, Wigeon,
and Gadwall. Best was a female Hooded Merganser once!
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and Wood Duck
are probably nesting in wet years. Caracara is fairly
regular, and Vermilion Flycatcher is usually south just down
the road a quarter mile at another much smaller wet hole.
The Odes (dragon and damselflies) can be astounding too.
Band-winged Dragonlets are common at these ponds, and
I have seen a dozen Twelve-spotted Skimmer here at once,
despite there being no accepted Bandera Co. record.
Sometimes dragonflies, like birds, don't read the books.
If you're coming through Utopia IF there has been rain or
we are in a wet cycle, be sure to check it, but ONLY on the
grounds that you report what you find there to me. :)
I know how you found out about it.
Local lore is that these two low spots that hold water
here on South Little Creek Rd., are ancient buffalo wallows.
The oil and salt they rubbed into the ground for a thousand
years, sealed it, a rare occurrence here with the limestone.
Another spot in Utopia worth checking if you have time
is the Sabinal River Crossing area at the north end of
town. Where 187 turns 90 degrees right as you leave town
a county road (Uvalde 356) runs 90 degrees left.
Take it down to the river. The area around the crossing, and
the first mile past it can be very good birding.
The fields the first half mile from 187 on the way to the
river can be good for sparrows in winter. Stay on the road.
Purple paint means NO TRESSPASSING, and all land along
the road is private. At the crossing you can get out and
have a look. Park off the road in pullout.
UPDATE Aug. 2015: Utopia on the River has closed, sold, and is
now fenced and gated off and no longer available for public birding!
So ignore the following paragraph about it...
Two miles south of town, Utopia on the River is another
excellent "hole-in-the-wall" of great habitat,
and the best place to stay locally for birding on the grounds
and breakfast without having to go anywhere. In the little
bit of coverage we give it, we've seen 135 species in
their "yard". You can wander the grounds, but
probably best to check in if anyone is there, and be quiet
and respect guests if present.
The 7-mile bridge (it is ca. 7 miles south of Utopia) on Hwy. 187
usually has a Cliff Swallow colony under it, with a couple Caves.
Their nests are easy to spot, an open cup, not a closed
over jug with side entrance like the Cliff's nest (April-July).
Finally if you are going west on 1050 from Utopia towards
Garner St. Pk. or Concan, etc., there are a couple good
stops on the way. First about 4 miles west of town on
the right (north) is the Bear Creek Pond. It is worth
a quick scan for ducks or something. Often Vermilion
Flycatcher is out there in summer, and Say's Phoebe in winter.
As you proceed west, right after the pond, there is a
culvert that drains under the road and on toward the pond,
which hosts a small colony of nesting Cave Swallows and
often allows excellent views. Stay up on the road, please
don't go down and bug them. Then as you climb up the
1050 pass there is a nice big wide pullout about two-thirds the
way up to the pass crest. Stop here and in season you should
hear Golden-cheeked and Black-and-white Warblers which
nest here, as well as often Hutton's Vireo and other locals
like Ash-throated Flycatcher, Summer Tanager, Scrub-Jay, etc.
Sometimes Zone-tailed Hawk, Rufous-crowned Sparrow or even
a Scott's Oriole might be seen anywhere along the grade.
August 2015 UPDATE: The construction is done on 1050 and it is
better, mostly. But at top of pass at crest they took out a
couple key trees the Golden-cheek there used.... and made the walk
back downhill along road a bit more dangerous. When traffic was
heavy it was never a good idea anyway. So that paragraph has
been removed. Park just past the crest and bird that area near
where the gate is on left (do not block it). Then a few hundred
yards east to where the hill on left (south) meets back with the road.
You should hear Golden-cheeks if not see the singing male here.
This area is good for Scrub-Jay and Field Sparrow breeds here.
Those Buckley (Spanish) Oaks (deciduous - red oak) and the live-oaks
(even on the road when blooming) are where to look and listen.
A couple miles past the crest there is another pond on the left
with a large dead tree in it which sometimes bears a peek.
There was anyway. It is big and obvious in wet cycles, and
so little water it is hard to see now. It has been nearly dry
the last few years of drought.
Now you have a few more spots to check if you're
birding in the area. I can't imagine anyone coming to
bird here and not saying they wish they had more
time to bird around some more locally. Remember the park
can be slow to dead one hour and jumpin' two hours
later, it really requires a couple checks in a day. It is
often slow to get going as it is the coolest spot around.
We hope this helps you have a better lookabout when you visit.
Please let us know what you find, so we can include it
on our sightings pages, add to our records, and so others
can benefit from the continued sharing of information.
General local advice for visitors....
BYOB, they don't sell it here, Utopia is a dry precinct.
Actually the Lost Maples Store at Vanderpool just started beer
sales I think in September or October 2015 for the first time ever.
That is a different county... it just got approved...
For most only AT&T has cell service locally. Out on Hwy 90
you can get a signal for something else, at Uvalde say. Many
have no service at Concan, Utopia, Lost Maples, save AT&T.
Since Utopia on the River closed there is one lodge here now,
the Sabinal River Lodge. It is at the south end of town on 187,
and only has a very very few rooms (6 maybe?). Otherwise it is
some sort of cabin, shack, converted mobile home, or fancy vacation
rental. There are a boatload of folks here renting places for
weekends but most aren't cheap. Rio Frio Lodging is a place
that handles lots of rentals in the area, the only real lead I can
offer on that.
Texas Bluebird Society
North American Bluebird Society
Chimney Swifts Society
Purple Martin Conservation Assc.
On the Sabinal River at Utopia Park
Thanks for visiting!