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Monday, May 11, 2015

Two small birds have a large impact on the Texas Hill Country

A couple of songbirds nesting in the limestone hills northwest of Austin have payed a key role in keeping a rugged and rural patch of prime Hill Country real estate out of the clutches of developers.

In 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services opened the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge in response to the bulldozing and chainsawing of ashe juniper and live oaks in Travis County. Without these trees, the black-capped vireo and golden-cheeked warbler could go the way of the passenger pigeon. Refuge workers and volunteers maintain a healthy ecosystem focusing on wildlife, plant life and water management.

And nobody turns a shovel in the name of subdivisions or shopping centers.

These native songbirds aren't the only winners in this alliance between environmentalists, developers and the federal government. Carving out the refuge has also created open space for hikers, bird watchers, anyone who appreciates relaxing beside a spring-fed stream for an afternoon.

Visitors are welcome to the 24,00-acre refuge year-round. Admission is free. You can hike a dozen miles of trails, scaling rocky hills to a rewarding vista of the Colorado River. You can sit in a covered observation deck and wait for the warbler or vireo to serenade you with their rapid-fire chatter. And you can join a bird guide on a walk in which you could see dozens of different species.

“We provide a lot of  good places for people to go recreate, which is in short supply in the Texas Hill Country, whether your recreation is for hunting, or bird watching, or hiking, or looking at flowers. And your tax dollars already paid for that," said David Maple, Refuge Deputy Manager.

Hunting is carefully managed through a lottery system after the songbirds have flown south to wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America.

Cow Creek flows through the refuge and crosses Travis County Road 328. Photo by Rob Peoples.

Although there is ample space for nature lovers to explore, not all of the hills and canyons, arroyos and meadows are open to the public. Protection of the birds is paramount. Still, only an hour drive from Austin, it's comforting to know a wild and protected landscape has survived the nonstop march of civilization.

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