Urban Birding at Stormwater Ponds in Austin

As part of the Central Flyway, Texas will be the wintering home for over 90% of the ducks that use the this flyway1.  While a majority of the waterfowl, including the endangered Whooping Crane, will head for the Gulf Coast Wetlands, several species will make Austin their winter home.  Hornsby Bend is the most popular waterfowl viewing area in the Central Texas region, but I personally have a fond spot in my heart for bird watching in the lowly and regularly forgotten urban retention ponds.

Retention ponds, also known as detention or stormwater ponds, are build in urban areas to help reduce flooding during heavy rain events, reduce pollutant loads and allow for increased groundwater recharge in certain areas.  All new developments within cities in Texas have to build stormwater management systems, with the size and type of system defined by the local ecology/geology, city regulations and expected water issues.   Of the seven different types of stormwater management new developments can use, this article will center on “wet ponds,” which are permanent to semi-permanent pools of water.  Most of these features have the additional purpose of providing wildlife habitat for local animals and migrating birds2.  All wet or retention ponds within a city limit are inspected, and in the City of Austin there are more than 850 residential areas ponds and over 6300 privately maintained commercial area ponds3.  The City of Austin maintains a open data portal of all the retention ponds in the Austin and surrounding areas at https://data.austintexas.gov/Locations-and-Maps/Stormwater-Ponds/fckq-xnpy.

Now back to the birds. I have my favorite ponds that I like to visit, mainly because there is easy parking, plenty of wildlife to see and fairly easy access to good viewing spots.  I have visited each recently and hope you will also take a minute and stop by.  That is the best part of bird watching in retention ponds, you can just stop by for a few minutes and get some bird watching in as you run around doing chores!  Please forgive this north Austin bias – if you have a favorite retention pond in the South Austin area, please share.

Indian Mound Pond  (30.405635, -97.676654)

This two-pond system is on either side of Indian Mound and can be accessed by parking at either the Frank Fickett Scout Center or behind the Hilton Garden Inn Austin North.   In the past few days, the area has hosted a great blue egret, great white egret, and a mallard duck.   A number of turtles can also be seen regularly sunning on the rocks of the pond.  At one time, a family of beavers lived in the pond and made a dam out of the cattails but were removed several years ago.  Yellow crowned warblers, cedar waxwings and swamp sparrows can also be found in the trees behind the Scout Center during this time of year.   Around 2-4pm is not a good time to visit this pond, in that the local school uses the walking trail around it and most of the birds leave.

McCallen Pass Pond  (30.407139, -97.664741)

Parking for this pond is in the back of the Homewood Suites by Hilton Techridge off of Center Lake Drive.   There is also a new restaurant that has opened overlooking this pond on the other end of Center Lake Drive.  From the Homewood Suites parking area, you can walk along the berm for a better view but going all the way down the water’s edge is not advised.  Being a larger pond, this area annually gets a large number of water fowl including coots, double crested cormorants, ring neck ducks, and canvas back ducks.   Harris hawks are often on the power lines near this pond or flying over the nearly field.  Last week during one visit, I counted 39 ducks (mostly ring neck and canvas backs) and 18 coots around 1pm.  

Mopac Service Road Pond (30.384569, -97.734483)

To access this pond, park behind Mimi’s Café or the Firestone Complete Auto Care.  You can walk along the edge of the parking area, but going down the water’s edge is not advised.  Security vehicles or even the police (only once) will sometimes stop by to see what you are doing, but once you explain your intentions, they either go on about their way or hang out to learn about ducks for a bit.   At this pond I have found coots, northern shovelers, great blue herons, ring neck ducks and loons.  Usually there are around 10-20 waterfowl using this pond any given winter day.

References:

  1. https://www.ducks.org/conservation/where-ducks-unlimited-works/waterfowl-migration-flyways
  2. https://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Watershed/field_operations/WQP_Brochure_2015_web.pdf
  3. https://www.austintexas.gov/department/field-operations

Contributed by Jessica Snider, Class of 2014