The Brown Ranch and Hummer House south of Christoval is the summer home of the largest concentration of black-chinned hummingbirds
The first thing you hear when you step out of your car at the Brown Ranch and Hummer House south of Christoval is the squeaky chirping of unseen birds in the thick canopy of pecan and oak leaves. Occasionally the chorus is interrupted by the shrill whistle of a songbird, but the high-pitched tweaking of the black-chinned hummingbird fills the air like the chirping of crickets.
"We have documented sightings of 126 species of birds here at the ranch," Cathy Brown says, as she begins a tour of the natural garden around the three cabins she rents to guests. Not only is the thick forest along the South Concho River the summer home of the largest concentration of black-chinned hummingbirds, but it is on a major flyway of migratory birds.
Dan Brown has lived on the family ranch south of San Angelo nearly all of his life. A gemstone cutter by trade, Dan's family created a patented star facet design in the bottom of the jewel. A lifetime of working with sheep and cattle has given Brown the burnished, weathered look of a Texas rancher in his faded jeans and blue work shirt. Cathy is the perfect complement to his plainspoken ruggedness.
"We both enjoy meeting people," Dan says. "Or we wouldn't be doing this." He manages the ranch, and Cathy takes care of the cottages; they both can give a good nature lesson and cut a gemstone in their signature Lone Star design.
Growing up on the ranch, Dan realized it was a special place for seeing wild turkeys, deer, birds, and other wildlife that thrive along the river, but he was amazed at the number of hummingbirds. About 12 years ago, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department offered to help the Browns develop educational and conservation plans for the ranch that would allow them to open to the public. The result is one of the worst-kept secrets in the Hill Country. "I ranch people now instead of cattle," Dan says. He still keeps about 200 head of sheep.
The Brown's Observation Room is legendary on the tour-bus circuit. For a nominal fee and by reservation only, you can look out the windows and see nature at its liveliest. Oblivious to the crowd watching from behind the glass, the hummingbirds dart about and surround the red feeders like flies. A few yards from the windows the female hummingbirds peck nesting material from the stuffing of an old pillow tied to the trees.
Dan estimates that there are about a thousand of the black-chinned hummingbirds spread out along the bend in the river. Every spring TPWD and a group of scientists spend the day banding the birds. Their research monitors the viability of the species, Dan says.
The resident hummingbirds are black and brown and make up for the lack of color by being very active and vocal, even by hummingbird standards. Twice a year the colony migrates between the South Concho River Valley and northern Mexico. The first hummingbird arrived at the Brown Ranch this year on March 10 and will leave in September. After hatching from an egg the size of a black-eyed pea, the hatchlings swell the flock from May to July. Cathy's favorite seasonal visitor, the red, yellow, and blue sparrow-sized painted bunting, will arrive around the first of May.
You don't have to cut short your visit to the wildlife viewing; the Browns have overnight accommodations. The original cabin, the Hummer House, is a fully stocked home away from home. It has two bedrooms, two baths, four hummingbird feeders, and a patio overlooking a butterfly garden.
After 12 years, the waiting list became so long for the Hummer House that Cathy added two new cabins. Across the yard, the Hideaway is a one-bedroom kitchenette with the best view of the wild turkeys strutting around the feed corn. The Lodge is the largest of the three and has two bedrooms and a sleeping porch.
The Brown Ranch is 18 miles south of San Angelo and two miles outside of Christoval. Overnight lodging ranges from $125 to $250 for double occupancy. To make reservations, call 325/255-2254 or go to www.hummerhouse.com.
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