Birding at Hornsby Bend is primarily limited to public land owned by the City of Austin and operated as the Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Facility (HBBMF) by the City of Austin Water/Wastewater Utility. This facility consists of 700 acres of ponds, woods, agricultural fields, abandoned pasture, and Colorado River bottom. The City of Austin graciously provides birders access to the HBBMF, and birders are expected to be on their best behavior. The HBBMF is an active part of the City’s sewage treatment process. Please observe all signs and posted regulations.
The HBBMF is open daily from 6 AM to 8 PM. Driving is permitted along the roads surrounding the ponds. Stay out of the way of any heavy equipment that might be operating in the area and do not drive on any portions of the roads that might be blocked by barricades. Do not walk on the concrete pad lining the drying basins. It goes without saying that swimming and wading in the ponds are not allowed. Birders are welcome to bird around the ponds, are asked to stay out of the way of plant operations, especially around the digesting tanks and facilities buildings. Birders should also avoid walking in the agricultural fields surrounding the ponds, as these fields are used as sites for land application of processed biosolids.
That said, birders are welcome to explore and bird the rest of the property. Most waterfowl and shorebirds can be observed from the roads surrounding the ponds. Other roads and trails give access to the woods and Colorado River. Surrounding fields can be scoped from the roads near the ponds.
On any given day, a knowledgeable birder should be able to find over 50 species of birds at Hornsby Bend in a morning of active birding. This should be possible even during the slowest birding period in mid-June after all migrants have passed. However, to maximize the number of birds seen, each of the different habitats at Hornsby Bend must be carefully scrutinized. Birders on foot will see more birds. A birder on foot may find over 50% more birds than a birder who birds from a car. Likewise, a birder spending more time will see more than a birder making a quick visit. Generally, four hours should be plenty of time to visit all of the habitats, while a quick trip of an hour and a half should be enough time to see most of the birds around the ponds.
The number of birds in and around the ponds can be quite variable from season to season, day to day, and often changes hourly. The number and variety of birds found is often a function of season, weather, and water-level conditions. You should be able to find most birds listed in the species accounts as fairly common to abundant, but the dynamics of local conditions and local bird movements makes total prediction impossible. This can be frustrating if you miss a fairly common bird. However, it is frequently offset by the joy of seeing an uncommon or rare bird that just happens to be moving through the area.
The following are some general guidelines and suggestions for birding the ponds—
Use a scope to check out the drying basins from the road north of Pond 1. This often contains lots of shorebirds, especially in the wetter areas. Drier areas can attract Upland Sandpiper and Buff-breasted Sandpiper. During winter, lingering shorebirds can be found here through at least December. Many sparrows and American Pipits can be found here in winter. Winter rarities seen here have included McCown’s Longspur. Least Sandpipers will be present all year except for a few weeks in mid-June. The short mowed grass east of the drying basins attracts many meadowlarks and occasionally a Sprague’s Pipit during migration and winter.
In order to see the most birds in this area—
The road and trails through the woods provide access to habitats and bird species that are not easily seen from the road around the ponds. Several hours spent walking through the woods can double the number of species seen on your visit to the area. The woods are most productive during migration, though summer provides a chance to see local breeders, and woodland birding in winter provides a look into the world of the many winter residents including a host of different sparrows. A productive loop can be made by parking at the southeast corner of Pond 2 and walking along the river trail to the Upper Island View Trail. From here, you can retrace your steps through the woods or walk back to your car on the road along the south side of Pond 2. More ambitious birders might wish to continue north along the river trail to the Greenhouse area and the back side of Pond 3.
There are several ways to make sure you see the most birds along the river trail—
The agricultural fields in the area can be seen from the roads around the ponds and along FM 973 and Platt Lane to the North. Many raptors use the fields during the winter, and lucky birders occasionally find wintering Longspurs. During summer, Cattle Egrets and Rock Doves may be abundant after fields are mowed. Short-eared Owl, Burrowing Owl, Prairie Falcon, and White-tailed Hawk are some of the very rare birds that have been seen in the fields on occasion. During winter, many sparrows may be found along roads—including Savannah, Vesper, Field, Song, Lincoln’s, and occasionally LeConte’s and Grasshopper Sparrows.
The abandoned pasture area north of Pond 3 has many scrubby areas that are good for sparrows. Harris’s Sparrows are often found here in winter, and winter rarities here have included Sedge Wren, Vermillion Flycatcher, and Say’s Phoebe.
Many birds at Hornsby Bend do not stop during migration, but can be seen as they pass overhead. While birding the other areas at Hornsby Bend, make sure to take time to watch the sky. The horizon north of the ponds can be especially fruitful, so be sure to check that area while scanning the drying basins. Many birds that are only rarely seen to land at Hornsby Bend are actually fairly commonly seen or heard flying overhead. Upland Sandpiper, Long-billed Curlew, Sandhill Crane, and Mississippi Kite are regularly seen and heard flying overhead during migration, though they are only rarely seen to land near the ponds. Such rarities as Magnificent Frigatebird, Golden Eagle, and Wood Stork have been seen passing overhead. Pausing to scan the horizon and look overhead will help you to see more species and to appreciate the wonder of migration as birds stream overhead and out of sight.
The most important guideline for birding at Hornsby Bend is to relax, enjoy yourself, and take time to really look at the birds around you. As you learn more about the birds and begin to look at the world through their eyes, you will discover many new worlds to explore and many new treasures to cherish.
© 1999 Rob
Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory