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The Medina River
By Bob Doe
First published in Volume 46, Numbers 4 and 5 (April and May, 2000)
Part 1: Access inside Loop 1604
The Medina River runs approximately 30 miles through southern Bexar County, from the Medina County line until it joins the San Antonio River. Unlike the San Antonio River, which is controlled and channelized for much of its length in Bexar County, the Medina flows relatively undisturbed through healthy and varied riparian habitat throughout its length. The riparian corridor along the Medina contains a large proportion of such habitat in Bexar County, and affords nesting and wintering habitat for birds rarely found away from the river. Due to the general west-to-east flow of the Medina, it does not appear to be a major avenue for northbound migrants, but the tall trees and brushy undergrowth pull in a surprising variety of species.
From a birder's perspective, the only problem with the Medina River is the limited access to the riparian habitats. Access is generally limited to areas immediately surrounding road crossings. Over the next couple of months, I will discuss the various access points to the Medina and what you might expect to find there. Bear in mind that the flow of the Medina is controlled at the Medina Lake dam, and responds quickly to rain in the area. Many access points are low water crossings which may be closed at various times of the year. [Locations given here are in SW Bexar County, south of US 90 and north of the LaCoste/Macdona Road, between the Medina County line on the west and Loop 1604 on the east.]
Progressing downstream, the first access point is the Gross Lane crossing, less than one mile inside Bexar County [NE of LaCoste]. Here the habitat is dominated by a colonnade of towering cypress trees. Upstream, the river is a quiet pool over 100 yards long. Downstream, it is a gurgling stream running over rocks and tree roots. Access upstream is achieved by stepping over a (generally) small offshoot of the river onto an island and walking upstream 25 yards to a fence line. From here you can look over the entire pool.
Wood Duck are common here in the winter, particularly at the upstream end of the pool. Green Kingfishers are regular in the winter (I find them on over 50 percent of my winter visits). Look for them on the low branches, either directly across from the island or further upstream. My most unusual bird here was an Anhinga, in late December. The woodlands are reliable for Golden-crowned Kinglets and other wintering birds. Eastern Pewee are seen in the summer and probably nest in the area.
Downstream, follow the well-worn fishermans trail along the north bank, about 200 yards, until you come to a side slough off the river. The first 50 yards is bordered by rank viney growth, and is very good for wrens (Carolina, Bewick's, House and Winter), White-eyed Vireo, Brown Thrasher, Spotted and Eastern Towhee. The next 100 yards goes through an area with a lot of downed wood on the ground. House, and particularly Winter Wrens, prefer this woody area. A few yards further on, you will come to a small side slough of the river. This is a favorite place for birds to come to drink. A few quiet minutes here may yield many species.
Just downstream is a nesting area for Red-shouldered Hawks, and you will probably see (or at least hear) them at any time. The river banks are dominated by large cypress, with some sycamore, pecan, elm, willow and cottonwood. I don't have any experience here during migration, but the habitat looks good. This would appear to be a place to look for Acadian Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo and Black-and-White Warbler as nesters, as all three occur not too far upstream.
The next access point to the river is the Jungman Road crossing. This area is very popular during warm weather with swimmers and is probably not worth the effort at that time. But during the winter it can be productive. The area right at the crossing was much better than it is now, before the County cut many of the trees and removed the brush. Upstream, the river again is a quiet pool. Downstream it is running water. There is a slippery, muddy trail leading upstream on the north bank, but I don't recommend it.
The primary birding area is downstream along the north bank. The trail appears to go for quite a ways; I have only followed it as far as the houses across the river (about a mile). The river banks are dominated by cypress and large sycamores. Green Kingfishers occur here, although not as regularly as at the Gross Lane crossing. Eastern Pewee occur during summer. My best birds here are Pine Siskin, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper and Black-and-White Warbler.
The next crossing downstream is the Montgomery Road crossing, but it is not amenable to birders. The road crosses the river on a actual bridge, there is no place to park, and no fishermans trails (as far as I can discern), so I have not spent much time here. But the next access is one of the best-- Cagnon Road.
The Cagnon Road access is unique because instead of just crossing the river, the road runs parallel to it for about a mile, offering extensive areas visible from the public right-of-way. This area also happens to have the best variety of habitats in a small area, resulting in a large species list, including some real rarities. A colonnade of towering cypress and sycamore trees dominates the habitat.
My list here over the past couple of years includes: Ringed, Belted, and Green Kingfishers, Louisiana and Northern Waterthrush, Prothonotary Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-breasted Chat, American Redstart, Lazuli Bunting, Peregrine Falcon, various ducks including Wood Duck, Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Greater and Lesser Scaup, and all the usual puddle ducks, Brown-crested Flycatcher (breeds), Eastern Wood-pewee (breeds), Osprey, and others.
As you approach from the north, Cagnon Road drops quickly down to river level, just after the wholesale nursery on the left. The road turns sharply to the right, but there is a large gravel parking area straight ahead where you should park. Downstream you will see a large log, with a fisherman trail around the river bend. This trail can be slippery (an alternative usually exists through the vegetation). The trail proceeds down river about 100 yards before ending at a steep bluff. This little patch of woods can be either very good or very dull. Remember to check the vegetation on the other side of the river. Green Kingfisher is fairly regular all year round (maybe one out of three visits), as is Belted Kingfisher.
Return to your car and start to walk up river. Check the trees along the river and across the road for warblers and flycatchers. Cross the river at the low water crossing and continue up river. On the left side of the road is a dry brushy field, excellent for sparrows. On the river side is a lush riparian woodland with a lot of brush and downed wood. Thrushes, sparrows, wrens, and Chats are expected here in season. After a couple of hundred yards, the road (and river) turn left. A short way beyond the curve, a short steep trail descends to the river. Across the river you can see the mouth of Potranco Creek where it enters the river. This area is excellent, and provides a quiet, shady retreat. In the evening, Barred and Great Horned Owls can be heard. Barred Owls will often answer an imitation of their call, even in broad daylight.
Continue walking on the road up river, at least as far as the gate leading down into the pecan bottoms. The shrubby, viney growth around the pecan trees is very reliable for Chat and Catbird in migration, as well as sparrows and towhee during winter. Brown-crested Flycatcher breeds (or at least summers) in the pecan bottoms. Across the road, almost hidden from view, is a large gravel pit, filled with water. From some vantage points, it is possible to see parts of the pond. This pond (and others in the area) is reliable fall to spring for Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck and Lesser Scaup. Greater Scaup are occasional. The past two winters, a Peregrine Falcon has wintered in the area.
The last access I will discuss in this part is the access from Loop 1604. Parking is a problem here, but worth the hassle. Basically, you have two choices: you can park on the south side of the river at a small access off of Pue Road next to the Loop 1604 bridge and walk north across the bridge, or you can park on the east (northbound) side of Loop 1604 just north of the bridge. In either case, you want to be on the north bank of the river. Walk down the bridge abutment until you can cross under the bridge and follow the fisherman trail to the river. Once you reach the river, follow the trail up river for 100 yards to the old low water crossing of Pue Road (since removed). Watch and listen for Green Kingfisher, as this is a favorite location. One often sits in the branches on the south bank, just below the old crossing. Wood Duck prefer the quiet pool above the old crossing.
Go away from the river a few yards on the old roadbed, cross the broken-down fence line to the left and look over the large stock pond to your right. This pond is almost guaranteed to have Canvasback and Redhead all winter. Go back to the river and follow the trail down river and under the bridge, watching and listening for kingfishers all the way. The sandy bluff and the gravel pit banks in the area host Northern Rough-winged Swallows. On the east side of 1604, follow the fence line north, watching the pecan bottoms. This area is "Woodpecker Heaven." I have seen seven species here (eight if you count both types of Flicker). This is also a good location for Brewer's Blackbird and Common Grackle, as they feast on the fallen pecans in winter. The pecan trees should be good for migrants.
PART 2: Medina River access points inside of Loop 1604
In Part 1, I discussed access points along the Medina River, outside (upstream) from Loop 1604. Most of these access points are small "pocket" locations, usually just fisherman's trails along the river. In contrast, the locations I'll discuss now are "real" places, where the public is welcomed (for a price).
The first location is a private park located just downstream from the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks that go under Loop 1604 about 1/2 mile south of the Medina River. Although the park is only about 1/4 mile away from Loop 1604, the entrance is accessed from Nelson Road. Nelson Road leaves the Old Pearsall Road just east of the bridge over the tracks. Follow Nelson Road for about 1 mile across fields to a sharp left turn over the tracks. Make the turn and about 100 yards further, make a sharp right. The road continues down to a park by the river. There is a posted fee of $5.00 per person, $1.00 for each additional person, but usually there doesn't seem to be anyone to collect the fee. The road is sometimes closed after the right turn; ask at the house for permission to bird.
This area is an open park, with the river and a small pond. Most of the river bank is cleared, but there still are some large trees. The best area seems to be beyond the pond, where the river splits into several channels around small heavily vegetated islands. The dense vegetation attracts many birds, particularly wrens and other ground loving birds like Gray Catbird, Wood Thrush, etc. The owner claims that Wood Duck breed here, but I have not seen them. Be sure to check out the large pecan trees for woodpeckers and migrants. Northern Rough-winged Swallows nest in the banks of the gravel pits in the area and are frequently seen.
On the way out of the area, stop just before you cross the tracks and walk out to the railroad bridge. This gives you an "eagle eye" view of the river and the cypress trees lining it, as well as the opportunity to look over the gravel pit ponds. This is where I saw an Anhinga on last year's Christmas Bird Count.
The next area is one of the best birding areas in the County. Hidden Valley Recreation Park contains about 1/4 mile of Medina River access and about 1 mile along Medio Creek, 2 ponds, open fields, pecan groves, cedar elm woodlands, and stately cypress trees. The area is good for winter birds such as Pine Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Winter Wren. Up to 5 species of woodpeckers are expected in winter.
Spring and summer bring crowds, but there are also birds, particularly on a good Spring day. Warblers, vireos, flycatchers, thrushes, grosbeaks are all expected, in varying numbers. Barred Owls nest and can often be seen along the lower part of Medio Creek. The general feeling among people familiar with this area is that it is every bit as productive for migrants as the well known Avenue A. There is currently a $2.00 per person charge for birders (reduced from $6.00 per person for other activities).
The last place I will discuss is the Applewhite properties along the Medina River between Applewhite Road and Pleasanton Road. This area, which was purchased by San Antonio Water System for the ill-fated Applewhite Dam and reservoir, is currently not regularly accessible to the public. The area is slated to be developed as a "Land and Man" educational and research center under the auspices of Texas A&M University. The exact development plan is still unknown, as is the management plan, but the potential is for public access to over three linear miles of river and riparian habitat. If this comes about, this area will undoubtedly become a prime birding spot in the county.
A portion of the area can be sampled along Applewhite Road, where it crosses the river. There is a mature canopy forest of pecan, cottonwood, sycamore, and cypress, with dense underbrush. Away from the river proper, the riparian woodland merges with South Texas Brushland, with mesquite and a few Live Oak. This transition zone provides habitat for a wide variety of birds.
There are other access points along the river, but most are either difficult to get to (parking problems), or are small and insignificant.
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