Birds are Living Color: Explore Mitchell Lake

Birds are living color.  To partake in some of the color, take a mini stay-cation. Just 15 minutes south of downtown is the Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, a 1,200-acre home to more than 300 bird species, butterflies and bees, as well as miles of trails easily navigated on foot or by car.

Mitchell Lake served most of the 20th century as central reception for San Antonio’s raw sewage. By the time it was decommissioned, the nutrient-rich sludge of its settling ponds had created an ecosystem unique in central Texas.

Roseate Spoonbill at Mitchell Lake Audubon Center / Photo by Kevin Curfman

Where else in southwest Texas can you find open wetlands and mudflats 120 miles from the coast? With few places to go in this part of this state, American pelicans, roseate spoonbills, sandpipers, and many other wading birds settled in — along with the birders, wildlife enthusiasts, teachers, schoolchildren, photographers and neighbors who come to see the action.

Lesser Yellowlegs at Mitchell Lake Audubon Center / Photo by Kevin Curfman

Today the city’s wastewater is handled by more modern facilities, and Mitchell Lake Audubon Center — a wildlife refuge since 1973 — offers 1,200 acres of open space in a swiftly developing area of town.

Vermillion Flycatcher at Mitchell Lake Audubon Center / Photo by Kevin Curfman

The seven miles of trails are easily navigated on foot or by car, but be sure to take some time to explore the water-saver and butterfly gardens at the visitor center entrance. Even on a winter morning when it’s been cut back, it’s still bursting with color, thanks to the cardinals, towhees, white-crowned sparrows, and finches at the birdbaths and seed feeders. (Come back on a summer day to find hummingbirds, orioles and painted buntings in the same setting.)

Verdin at Mitchell Lake Audubon Center / Photo by Kevin Curfman

The visitors’ center stands high on a brushy upland not far from Loop 410; in the distance, the grey shimmer of Mitchell Lake is already visible. Over 300 bird species have been recorded here over the years. In winter, many of the most unusual targets are down by the water: vast rafts of ducks, herons, falcons and hawks.

Today a kestrel peers down at me from a wire, a predatory shape in toy-like blue and red. It doesn’t mind the car, but when a pair of Mexican eagles approaches it spreads its wings and swoops.

And I’m off, camera in hand. The chase is on.

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Brad Wier
Brad Wier is a SAWS conservation planner. Years in South Texas landscaping and public horticulture gave him a lasting enthusiasm for native plants that don’t die when sprinklers -- and gardeners -- break down. He’d rather save time and water for kayaking and tubing. He is a former kilt model, and hears hummingbirds.
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