Mitchell Lake and its adjacent ponds and settling basins have a checkered history. Until 1973, they were sewage sludge ponds for San Antonio. Then the city declared the lake a refuge for birds and wildlife. San Antonio Audubon Society started regular birding trips around 1984.
The history is part of what makes the lake such a great spot for birds. All of that biologically active input still fuels a food chain that provides a rich feast for local and migrating birds, including thousands of American White Pelicans in winter. Other wintering waterfowl include American Wigeon, Hooded Merganser, Eared Grebe, an occasional Cinnamon Teal, and large swirling rafts of feeding Northern Shovelers.
Even though the mudflats are more than 100 miles from the coast, they often teem with shorebirds during spring and fall migration. More than 25 species of herons, egrets, sandpipers, and plovers have been seen. Roseate Spoonbills are frequent visitors. And because the lake is located at the confluence of several migratory flyways, almost anything can show up. This past spring, a Swallow-tailed Kite put in an appearance, and we saw large kettles of Mississippi Kites and Broad-winged Hawks.
The summer breeding residents round out the seasons and include Groove-billed Ani, Least Grebe, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Painted Bunting, Orchard and Bullock’s Orioles, and Black-necked Stilt. Barn Owls have also nested in the refuge. — Eric Brierley
Eric Brierley is president of the San Antonio Audubon Society. He has birded Mitchell Lake for over eight years. He participated in a multi-year bird banding study and is now a docent at the refuge.
Grasslands, 215 acres of ponds and marshes, and 600-acre lake.
Flat. Many birds and habitats can be seen easily from a car. Visitor center is wheelchair-accessible.
More than 300 species. Flycatchers, kingbirds, herons, orioles, American White Pelicans, ducks, grebes, raptors (including Crested Caracaras, Great Horned and Barn Owls, and Harris’s Hawks), sandpipers, and breeding Groove-billed Anis.
When to go
Year-round. Mornings and evenings are best during summer. Spring and fall migrations are productive for shorebirds and passerines. Winter is best for waterfowl.
7.2 miles of trails. Visitor center in restored 1910 home has gift shop, trail maps, checklists, sightings log, restrooms, porch, and butterfly garden.
Audubon center. Open 8-4 Tuesdays through Sundays; closed holidays. Admission: $5 adults, $2 children. Docent-led tours are an additional $3 per person. Call to arrange weekday access or guided tours.
Scopes are helpful but not required. Bring water and bug spray, and wear a hat. Stay on trails and watch for snakes and fire ants.