Searching for Gold: How a Quest for One of Texas's Rarest Birds Uncovered the Story of the State

Growing up, I spent a significant portion of my life in Palo Pinto County. It was there that I heard the old legends from the banks of the Brazos River and read the works of the old Texas writers and naturalists who wove stories that were equal parts history, science, and fiction. But nothing captured my imagination like the tales of the golden-cheeked warbler: a near-mythical bird found in the remote Ash-Juniper canyons of Palo Pinto. While most of the golden-cheeked warbler population breeds in the Edwards Plateau and regions west of Austin, there is a small, isolated population that exists in the foothills of the Palo Pinto Mountains. Our story begins here. This is the story of a Texan boy who grew up with ambitions of finding an almost impossible-to-find, iconic Texan species.

With the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, I found myself sitting at home thinking about what I could do with my newly allotted free time. I turned my attention to the work of John Graves and his book Goodbye to a River. In it, he tells tales of exploring the Brazos River, the nature he observed, and the history connected to its pristine waters. Graves' tales of adventure inspired an adventure of my own.

After weeks of discussion and mapping with my brother, together we had come up with a plan to go on an expedition searching for the rarely seen golden-cheeked warblers of Palo Pinto County. But unfortunately, my brother could not make the journey with me. As a result, I called upon my dear friend, naturalist, and fellow birder Nick Kanakis. Together we set off on our expedition from Dallas to the rural canyons of Palo Pinto.

As we headed west, I observed the landscape transitioning from city lights and car dealerships to cedar-covered hillsides and grassy plateaus rising from the earth. I had forgotten the beauty of this part of the state since I had gone away to college. It quickly reminded me of my days as a child visiting Possum Kingdom Lake and Lake Mineral Wells State Park, where I would watch nesting mockingbirds and painted buntings.

As we approached Mineral Wells on Highway 180, a welcome sign in the surrounding hills beckoned us into the town, where we were greeted by Sam the Snowman on the right and Yogi Bear on the left. In the distance, rising above the rest of the town, I could see the remains of the abandoned Baker Hotel. It serves as a historical memory of a town that thrived in the 1930s with its healing mineral water baths and luxury spas visited by Lyndon B. Johnson and Judy Garland.

Reminded by the history of this place, we passed through Mineral Wells. Finally, we arrived at the foothills of the Palo Pinto Mountains. The landscape formed here over millions of years has shaped the region's geography. Here, the rolling waters of the Brazos slowly carved out sandstone cuestas, canyons, and gullies covered in junipers and post oaks. It created the perfect habitat for the golden-cheeked warbler.

The golden-cheeked warbler is a habitat specialist. Without mature junipers, it cannot strip bark from which it makes its nest, and without oaks, it cannot feed and support its chicks. Day after day, we searched in these remote, ideal habitats without success. Early mornings produced nothing, and evenings provided much the same. I slowly began to doubt the existence of the bird in these lands. With each failed day came a search for answers. I flipped through pages of The Golden-cheeked Warbler by Warren M. Pulich, hoping his account of their habits and life history would lead me to success. Unfortunately, I was left with no answers, only a more profound desire to find the golden-cheeked warbler on our next and final day of the trip.

I woke up early the next day and conversed with Nick about potential locations to search one last time. During our discussion, I remembered a conversation I had with my parents years before. My mother claimed to have seen the bird once, but she could never tell me where she had encountered it. But more importantly, my father told me the stories of his friends who had seen the warbler on their property among dense tree cover near running water. It reminded me of a location I had spotted in the distance days prior.

We decided to head out to this spot and put our hopes in its hands. Climbing over rocky slopes, occasionally getting whacked by the long-reaching cedar branches, we came to a clearing. It was a bluff that overlooked the winding Brazos River. I took a moment to consume the view and acknowledge the history of the landscape. This same bluff had remained untouched for thousands of years and was once the land ruled by the Comanche. And that day, I arrived at that spot where the golden-cheeked warbler had called home for its entire life history. It was simply too perfect of a location to not find the bird.

And then we heard it, a single song from a bird no further than 30 yards away. We stumbled down the slope with the hopes of catching a glimpse. As we turned a corner, we spotted it on the top of a mature cedar tree, a young golden-cheeked warbler male singing for a potential mate. We observed it for a few minutes and captured a couple of photographs before it plunged down into the dense vegetation, never to be seen again. It was a highlight of my life.

I always knew the experience of seeing the golden-cheeked warbler would be a momentous occasion in my life. But I never expected that the journey to find this ghost-like bird would unveil the history, stories, and natural beauty of the Palo Pinto Mountains.

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FAIR. Water clear; 65 degrees; 0.09 feet below pool. Striped bass are slow to fair with the most consistent bite with live bait on points in 2-20 feet of water, but some can be caught trolling. Look for fish in 20-40 feet of water. Sand bass are slow to fair in 2-20 feet of water with live shad, small slabs and jigs. White, and silver are good colors. Sand bass are spawning in the creeks and river. Catfish are good on cut shad in 2-10 feet of water. Water clarity is steady at 4-10 feet of visibility. Report by TJ Ranft, Ranft Guide Service.

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