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Bluebird Blues

Destination: Wills Point

By Teresa S. Newton

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 3.5 hours /
  • Brownsville - 9.25 hours /
  • Dallas - 1.25 hours /
  • El Paso - 10.25 hours /
  • Houston - 4.25 hours /
  • San Antonio - 5 hours /
  • Lubbock - 6.5 hours

While Wills Point may be the Bluebird Capital of Texas, finding the little beauties requires patience and persistence.

Going back to my hometown for some birdwatching should be an easy trip. Instead, delays, family matters and lousy weather already have me off schedule. Actually, the past year has been off schedule ... in fact, downright rotten. A trip to Wills Point, Bluebird Capital of Texas, might be a healing excursion.

I hope finding the symbol of happiness isn't as elusive as happiness itself seems to be at the moment.

Wills Point earned the title of Bluebird Capital of Texas in 1995, three years after the local wilderness society started a campaign to bring the small bird home again. The eastern bluebird once proliferated in the area, but its numbers declined with pesticide use, some daunting winters and the removal of old trees with natural nest cavities. The society places nest boxes on fence posts along the main roads into town. In no time, Wills Point had more eastern bluebirds than any other place in the state.

Wills Point was a railroad town, with Texas and Pacific Railway work crews laying tracks in 1873. Folks in nearby Cedar Grove, a few miles northwest, packed up and settled in the new spot. William Wills, who ran a way station on the Dallas-Shreveport Road, where the woods came to a point, inspired the locale's new name.

Cotton defined the town for decades, eventually giving way to cattle and soybeans. In 1960, the town became the "Gateway to Lake Tawakoni" when the lake opened to anglers. Today, the cotton gins are gone, there are other ways to get to the lake, and bluebirds are the town's main selling point.

Bluebirds grace the name of many businesses, such as the Bluebird Café and Bluebird Lawn and Garden. Nest boxes are everywhere, including one by the depot museum and the caboose visitors' center on U.S. 80 (apparently, bluebirds aren't deterred by noise).

Barbara Robertson meets me at the Wills Point Chronicle office, where she works. She hops in my little SUV, and we head out on Farm-to-Market 751, northwest of town. She points out nest boxes along 751, then we drive Farm-to-Market 47, which heads northeast of Wills Point toward Lake Tawakoni State Park.

Barbara leads the Wills Point Wilderness Society, along with Gen Ballard. The two kept the society going after membership declined. They started a new drive this year to gain members to check, clean and repair bluebird nest boxes.

She dazzles me with stories of people reporting flocks of bluebirds on their farms, creating pools of blue. But, she warns me, those are not especially common, except during the dead of winter. Most springtime bluebird sightings are single birds or pairs near their nest boxes, on fences or in yards.

"People come to the festival and expect to see bluebirds flying all over downtown," she says, referring to the annual celebration each April. However, she adds, single bluebirds are a very common sight around the area.

I drive slowly, often on the road's shoulder, as we look for and talk about the birds, as well as who's who from our school days. A couple of hours later and I'm on my own again. No bluebird sightings so far.

On to my quirky birding site: the town cemetery. I weave through the brick streets downtown, cross the railroad tracks and head east, turning at the Veterans' Memorial on U.S. 80. This is the old way to the cemetery, beside the railroad tracks. The houses on the street spark memories of old friends as I drive by slowly.

When I turn my head to the railroad tracks, my eyes nearly pop out. A great blue heron stares at me from a couple of feet away. He's about 4 feet tall, so we're almost eye-to-eye. His googley eyes probably are looking for something to eat in the water-filled ditch, courtesy of recent rain. He stares. I stare. And being the weaker of the two, I turn and creep down the road. The old entrance to the cemetery is closed, so I creep back, the heron staring all the while.

Back to U.S. 80 and the cemetery's official entrance. Years ago, I'd walk to and through here to work out my teen angst. I settle on a bench near a town leader's grave. Cardinals, mockingbirds, warblers, wrens and woodpeckers. And robins, lots of robins, picking at brush, fallen leaves, anything that might have a bug under it. (If those dang robins would just shut up, maybe I can hear the bluebird's cheer, cheerio, cheerup song.)

But no bluebirds.

For dinner, the Lone Star Grill beckons me with a "homemade pies" invitation on its sign. After my sandwich, I look lustfully at the "mini pies" on the menu but restrain myself.

Base camp is Shoestring Farms Bed and Breakfast, north on FM 47, near the Lake Tawakoni dam. Patty Lovvorn runs the B&B part while her husband, Pete, handles the farm. My room is in the "breakfast house" where Patty serves a hearty morning meal.

The rooster wakes me early, so I grab my earplugs and catch another couple hours' sleep. After breakfast, I head back to town for FM 751 and its bluebird nest boxes.

The road's generously paved shoulder is a big help. Traffic is well spaced but continuous, and I feel safe parking at various spots for long periods. Patience, I remind myself, as I raise my binoculars again and again, looking at nest boxes, fences and nearby trees. After an hour, I've inched along a couple of miles to the Union Grove cemetery, where I pull in to watch for another 30 minutes. Mockingbirds and robins dominate the landscape. A roadrunner dashes by.

But no bluebirds.

A little farther down 751 and I turn toward the old farm. This is where three generations of my family lived, and where I chased butterflies and tromped through the woods. Surely I could find bluebirds there, as I had in days past.

But nothing looks familiar. Daddy sold the land years ago since the kids weren't interested in farming or ranching. Trees have taken over fence lines and fields. Woods have been cleared for houses. My great-grandparents' house is gone.

And no bluebirds.

Now I'm in a funk, so I head for other bluebird trails.

Several nest boxes perch on the fence by the football stadium on Farm-to-Market 2965, across from the new Jack Lester Park. Instead of bluebirds, I find house sparrows. My funk deepens.

House sparrows are the local trash of the bluebird world. They move in, take over your home and kick you out into the cold. For years, house sparrows - introduced to North America in 1850 - were satisfied with taking the bluebirds' homes in old trees. Bird lovers responded by building nest boxes for bluebirds, and house sparrows followed like bad relatives. They will break eggs and toss fledglings out to claim a nest box.

I make a note to tell Barbara to begin eviction proceedings.

I drive down FM 2965 a few miles, noting nest boxes along the way, waiting and watching to no avail. Time to head back and try another route. By now, I've decided the bluebirds must be at a convention somewhere else. That or my scowl isn't helping my eyes to focus.

Whoa!

A bluebird darts in front of the car. My heart jumps. I hit the brakes to give him plenty of room. In a split second, he's gone. I pull off the road, wait and watch. Maybe he'll be back. Maybe his family will follow. But I've got nothing.

I decide on a quick, but cynical, loop east on U.S. 80, turning back before hitting Edgewood's city limits. There is little paved shoulder on this road, but I pull off onto a lightly graveled area beside a tree farm. From this spot, I see three nest boxes. In about 10 minutes, I'm bored and hungry, and I start the engine and pull onto U.S. 80.

A blue streak leaps from the grass to a nest box. I jerk my head aside fast enough to see him linger at the box's entrance for a second, then slip inside. Again, I pull off the road and wait, but the show's over.

Back to town and Cowboy's BBQ.

"Aren't you Teresa Smith?" the waitress asks as she greets me at the door. I know those eyes and high cheekbones. Cathy Barton Kallies was one of my best buddies back in third grade. The recognition and warm greeting put me in a better mood.

After lunch, I need to walk off the chopped brisket sandwich and home fries, especially after spending half the day in the car. The Wilderness Society's trail is about a mile out on FM 751. A sign marks the two entries, which are blocked. However, the trail is open, as Barbara had said the day before. I park in the drive and step over the cinder block barrier. The trail winds through the woods, with a few bluebird and bat houses along the path. A couple of short wooden bridges cross over small creeks, while a longer boardwalk covers some low-lying areas. That's good news, since recent rains have these spots soaked. The trail ends back at the entrance, and since it was a short walk, I turn back and take the loop in the opposite direction.

Again, robins, the bluebird's larger cousin, are everywhere.

Again, no bluebirds.

The next morning I head to Lake Tawakoni State Park for a hike and more birdwatching. The lake, the catfish capital of Texas, has a great reputation among birding fans. I spot herons, egrets, woodpeckers, killdeer, mallards, doves, various hawks and the ever-present robin.

No bluebirds.

A couple of hours later, I drive to the parking area by the Iron Bridge Dam, where the water trickles down to become the Sabine River. A trail leads along the riverbed, and I head out. About a half mile down stands a massive dead oak, riddled with holes for nests. This is the bluebirds' natural home, a simple cavity in an old tree. I wait and watch, but no birds. Instead, I marvel at the number of nests in this timber and look for the woodpecker I hear nearby, possibly carving out another home.

As I pull out of the parking lot onto FM 47, I think these morning hikes were fun, even without bluebirds. Just then, I spot three bluebirds in a row on a fence. Three!

I leave town satisfied at seeing the few bluebirds I did. Local folks told me they see them all the time. Maybe I need my karma in order before I can spot more.

If nothing else, I learned this: Happiness is sort of like the bluebird. Sometimes, he has to jump up for you to notice he's there. Occasionally, you have to step on the brakes to keep from running him down. Now and then, you need to clean up your house, or your act, before he can come back. More times than not, he's where you least expect him. And even the common and everyday, rather than the blazingly colorful, can be quite satisfying.

Details

Wills Point Wilderness Society, (469) 474-6123
Wills Point Chamber of Commerce, (903) 873-3111, <www.willspoint.org>
Shoestring Farms Bed & Breakfast, (903) 560-1925, (800) 825-5006, <www.shoestringfarmbnb.com>
Lake Tawakoni State Park, (903) 560-7123, <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/laketawakoni>
Texas Bluebird Society, <www.texasbluebirdsociety.org>


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