Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


Photo by Sonja Sommerfeld / TPWD

A View from the Blinds

State park structures bring birds up close for visitors of all abilities.

By Melissa Gaskill

A chorus of chitters and cheeps enlivens the trees around the Francell Blind in Davis Mountains State Park. Inside the L-shaped building, rows of chairs and stacks of bird books await beneath photos of colorful birds lining the wall. The windows face a trickling stream of water and a hodgepodge of bird feeders, wooden planks piled with seeds, blocks of suet and a large piece of bark smeared with a thick, buttery substance. Birds land on the feeders, hop about on the ground, stand on the rocks and perch on the limbs of a hefty oak in the middle of it all. Woodpeckers light on yucca stalks stuck into the ground.

It’s a nature enthusiast’s dream come true. This blind and those in more than a dozen other state parks make wildlife watching easier than ever before.

Blinds bring birds and other wildlife up close, and that gives visitors an appreciation for the animals and their habitat, says Ben Horstmann, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department regional interpretive specialist.

Blinds also bring birds to people who are unable to walk trails.

“Some people are physically not able or maybe have little kids who can’t hike a mile,” says Holly Platz, park interpreter at Guadalupe River State Park. “One of the goals of state parks is to get people in nature, and it’s important to have this as an option, a different way to experience nature. Plus, even if it’s bad weather, you can sit in the blind and experience the fun of seeing birds up close.”

Not only birds can be viewed — other wildlife comes, too.

“At Davis Mountains, you may see mule deer or fox,” Platz says. “You’ll see some bird species you wouldn’t otherwise, too, as they stay in the brush. In the blind, you can look at them for a long time.”

Volunteer park hosts Steve and Sue Whitmer fill feeders and help keep the blinds shipshape.

“You have to put out the right feed, depending on the season,” Steve Whitmer says. “We use a lot of different types of seeds, and oranges in spring for orioles and finches.”

Volunteers also put out humming­bird feeders from late March to early November to help migrating hummingbirds make the long journey between flowers in West Texas.

Whitmer tells me the substance they put on bark is called, appropriately, bark butter, which volunteers produce year-round.

“We rely entirely on the generous support of our visitors for our supplies, including seed, peanut butter, corn meal, sugar and oranges,” he says. “In busy times, we go through 50-pound bags of sunflower seed and mixed bird seed in less than a week and more than a dozen oranges. We also mix our own peanut butter suet, because there isn’t anywhere in at least 100 miles where we can buy the quantity we need.”

Volunteers also provide interpretive services, leading bird walks and talking to people in the blinds about the area’s birds.

“Visitors stop into headquarters and ask about birds, and we help them figure out what they are seeing,” Whitmer says.

The Francell Blind occupies a former park host site that had bird feeders, so birds grew used to visiting the location.

“The birds don’t need us to feed them, but we want to attract them so people can see the variety and color out there,” Whitmer explains.

Photo by Lindsay Pannell / TPWD

Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Visitors to Palo Duro Canyon State Park’s blind may see golden-fronted woodpeckers, canyon wrens and black-crested titmouse year-round; Mississippi kites, Bullock’s orioles and painted buntings in summer; and cedar waxwings and spotted towhees in winter and spring. Deer and raccoons frequently visit as well.

The blind represents a joint effort of the park’s friends group, the Audubon Society and local volunteers. It occupies a secluded former outdoor amphitheater behind the Trading Post that already had seating and a water feature.

“A couple of local photographers redo photos on the walls every few years,” says Jeff Davis, assistant park superintendent. “We added a cork pushpin board so visitors can put up their own photos. We keep a logbook so people can record what they see.”

Staff or volunteers stop by to fill feeders once a day and often “talk birds” with whomever is there.

“We recently redid all the feeders to make them look more natural, replacing metal hooks with natural materials,” Davis says. “We also put the posts in Christmas tree stands and cover those with rocks, which makes it easy to shift things around and keeps them from rotting. We changed from cylinder feeders to plate style, so people can see the birds better.”

Photo by Sonja Sommerfeld / TPWD

South Llano River State Park

South Llano River State Park has four bird blinds.

“The first one used to be an employee’s kid’s fort,” says park Superintendent Scott Whitener.

Each features a different natural setting, with two near the river and two in the higher, drier uplands. Turkeys roost seasonally in pecan bottomlands near the river. The uplands provide good habitat for black-capped vireos and golden-cheeked warblers, and the odds of seeing those are good, according to Whitener. The park has recorded more than 250 bird species, with quite a few migrants in spring and fall.

“We abide by the strict policy that if you start feeding something, you have to keep it up, take care of it,” he adds.

Every day, two park hosts fill the feeders and make sure each blind’s water feature is running. The friends group buys seeds in bulk and makes its own suet.

Becky Morris spends several months a year as a park host here and several at Davis Mountains.

“I was not a birder before. I knew a cardinal and a blue jay,” she says. “I learned as I went and then did a Master Naturalist class. Mornings when I go at 8 a.m. to put feed at one of the blinds, there may be four people there already. They have huge binoculars and huge cameras, waiting for certain birds to show up. Blinds are a great way to get people to the park.”

Photo by Earl Nottingham / TPWD

Guadalupe River State Park

An Eagle Scout created the first blind at Guadalupe River State Park about 10 years ago. Then it sat unattended for several years and became an eyesore.

“That’s one of our pet peeves,” say volunteers John Prentice and Linda Gindler, who helped the park’s friends group revamp the structure to make it easier to take care of and create a volunteer team to manage it.

“If we’re attracting birds or other wildlife to an area in concentrations greater than what would normally be there, we have a great responsibility to take care of it,” says Platz. “When people and birds get used to coming to an area, we have a responsibility to keep that area clean and safe. You need to keep water features and feeding areas clean and provide shelter for the birds as much as you can without bringing in other critters as much as you can.”

Guadalupe River has nearly 250 species on its bird list; many people come to see golden-cheeked warblers and painted buntings in spring. A second blind planned for a more remote area will offer chances to see vermilion and scissor-tailed flycatchers, blue grosbeaks and eastern bluebirds. Platz especially enjoys cedar waxwings that come in winter and says American robins are a winter staple at the blind.

Guadalupe River’s blinds use solar power and rain catchment systems to fill water features by gravity. Considerations such as where water and power come from are important facets of wildlife blinds, says Prentice, along with accessibility and even parking.

Prentice and Gindler are writing a guide, “So, You Want to Build a Wildlife Blind?” that includes tips on these and other important factors for parks considering blinds.

Guadalupe River is transitioning to using more natural sources of food, such as mulberry trees, Mexican buckeyes, wildflowers and native grasses with seeds.

“I’m not a big fan of feeding wildlife, but I see the value of it in our blind,” says Prentice. “I can’t tell you the number of times a child has seen a cardinal or a hummingbird for the first time. That’s possible because of the feed. We are close to San Antonio, and a lot of urban families and children come here who just wouldn’t have an opportunity to see that otherwise.”

Photo by Cesar Mendez / TPWD

Franklin Mountains State Park

The bird blind near Franklin Mountains State Park’s nature trail was designed to blend in with its surroundings, says Superintendent Cesar Mendez.

“We didn’t want a building that detracted from the surroundings, so we made a structure that looks more like a boulder using painted foam,” he says. “It’s just the size of a few phone booths. We jokingly call it the kissing booth.”

Birds commonly seen from the blind include white-winged doves, scaled and Gambel’s quail and, during migration, hummingbirds, finches and sparrows. More than 100 different species of birds in all have been recorded here.

Other parks

More than 358 species of birds have been recorded at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, which has some of the best bird blinds in the state, says Horstmann. Its facilities include two enclosed bird blinds, a birding wall, several water features and a hawk tower.

There, visitors can see flocks of hawks that number in the thousands in the spring and fall. This is the only place in the country to see green jays, buff-bellied hummingbirds, great kiskadees and Altamira orioles.

Nearby Estero Llano Grande and Resaca de la Palma state parks also have blinds along with abundant semitropical habitat and water that attract many species of birds and other wildlife.

Pedernales Falls State Park has bird blinds for viewing its more than 150 species, including owls, roadrunners, wild turkeys, rufous-crowned sparrows and western scrub-jays. Endangered golden-cheeked warblers nest in the park in spring. A Master Naturalist group built the bird blind at Inks Lake State Park on the Devil’s Backbone Nature Trail. Visitors may see flycatchers, swallows, quail, red-tailed hawks and ospreys. Because of its abundant water, the park also sees migratory Canada geese as well as pelicans, great blue herons, snowy egrets, mallards and wood ducks.

Photo by Earl Nottingham / TPWD

Davis Mountains

Photo by Earl Nottingham / TPWD

Inks Lake

Photo by Earl Nottingham / TPWD

Pedernales Falls

Photo by TPWD

Bentsen - RGV

Blind ambitions

Individual parks typically decide whether to put in a wildlife blind, but plans go through review with regional staff and park planners to make sure a blind is appropriate for the site. Generally, says Horstmann, blinds go in places already popular for birding.

Each park follows procedures for appropriate feeding for its location.

“Some places only feed in winter, for example,” says Hortsmann. “Generally, birds are nesting in summer or have enough food. During spring and fall migration it is important to just have a water source.”

Interpretive elements, including volunteers who spend time in the blinds and guided bird walks, are important.

“It is critical for children to learn about nature,” says Morris. “So much of Texas land is in private hands, if we don’t make state parks into places kids can do that, they aren’t going to.” After all, nature enthusiasts are made, not born.

Melissa Gaskill is an Austin writer and wildlife watcher.

Photo by Earl Nottingham / TPWD

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