A Week Long Vacation to Big Bend National Park

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When Connie and I interviewed for our volunteer positions at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge we made it clear that we intended to spend the last week of April in Big Bend birding and having fun with a subset of the Loons and Larks. The problem was that it was the same week as the annual Songbird Festival. After some thinking about it Rob said he could afford for us to be gone, sort of.

Rob was good to his word and it was a good thing as we had been holding our reservations for over a year by the time we interviewed. The subset of the Loons and Larks ended up being only five of us, Carla Morey (area expert and organizer) from the Dallas area, George and Kathy VanDerAue from Connecticut, and us. Kathy and George flew to Dallas with a connecting flight to Midland. Carla flew from Dallas to Midland. The three of them rented a car and got hotel rooms in Midland. While there they did some grocery shopping so they would have breakfast and lunch foods in their rooms along with a few bottles of wine.

Connie and I drove from the Austin area spending Friday night April 24th in Ft. Stockton. We took most of what we would need with us, but did pick up milk and other perishables in Ft. Stockton. Our load out included such important items as real wine glasses so none of us would have to drink good wine out of plastic hotel glasses. We also brought some homemade hummus and a bean dip I have become notorious for making. Of course this was easy for us as we drove the entire way. These items would not have traveled well on an airplane, especially with today’s rules. We met the others at the Dairy Queen in Ft. Stockton on Saturday morning. The Ft. Stockton Dairy Queen is a traditional stop for the group heading for Big Bend. We made the drive to the park caravan style stopping from time to time for a good bird. Carla is an exceptional birder. That is a fact I have never disputed. However, she really shocked me on the ride down by being able to spot a Burrowing Owl at 60 miles per hour on the opposite side of the road. This was significant not only for the feat itself, but also and possibly more importantly because it was a life bird for Kathy. In the previous two or three trips to Big Bend this little bird had evaded Kathy. We were all excited for her and ourselves, as Burrowing Owls are probably some of the cutest birds on the planet. Many of our friends in Southern California refer to them as howdy owls because they tend to stand on banks and bow. The actual behavior is a quick bobbing deep knee bend action as a result of being agitated. To the bird watcher it appears they are bowing as in to say “howdy folks, here I am. Aren’t I cute?”

As I mentioned, Carla is the local expert. By that I mean she has been to Big Bend several times. She loves the place and all it has to offer. She has explored the park extensively and knows where to go to find the birds and what time of the day/night to be there. She has organized this meeting of various members of the Loons and Larks every other year for some time and has become somewhat famous for making it a grand trip. Being the jinx of the group I was really concerned that we would have a less than successful birding trip because this was my first visit to Big Bend with birding as the primary objective. However, Carla was true to her reputation and we saw some amazing birds including something like four life birds for me. I will try to remember which ones they were as I proceed.

We arrived at Chisos Mountain Lodge late enough in the afternoon that all our rooms were ready to be occupied so we were able to check in and get unpacked. Connie and I went back to the lodge for a late lunch and then we all spent the afternoon getting organized and birding from our balcony. Carla took a short hike to see what local birds were out in the heat. She can’t stand not birding while at Big Bend. Not birding to her is wasting time. The attitude of a winner and leader!

I should back up here and talk a little about Big Bend National Park and what we found when we got there. First, the name Big Bend refers to the U-turn the Rio Grande River makes defining the park boundary for 118 miles as well as the international border between the United States and Mexico. The park encompasses the lowlands along the river, the United States’ portion of the Chihuahuan Desert and the Chisos Mountains. The park is vast requiring several miles of travel to get from one place of interest to another. Each of the three distinct areas or eco-systems is home to or a migratory stopover for distinctly different species of plants, birds, insects and mammals. Regardless of region, there is beauty to behold. Most of Texas and Northern Mexico is experiencing a deep drought. For that reason there have been numerous fires on both sides of the border. So, regardless of wind direction there was always a bit of a haze to a great deal of haze in the air from the smoke of the fires. I should note there were no fires within the park. That same smoky haze allowed for some wonderful sunsets. I have an example in the web album accompanying this article. Unfortunately the pollution played havoc with most sinuses and eyes. We all recovered though. Another point about the drought was the total lack of water in the mountains and at some of the more famous attractions normally featuring water. I remember Carla telling me to just imagine what Boot Spring would look like with water flowing down the creek and everything vividly green. Even with the drought conditions I found the scenery to be just gorgeous. Of course I could easily imagine what it would look like were there water, but I was not disappointed with what I saw. Maybe it was a good thing to be the only one of the group to never have seen the park when it was “wet”.

The park boasts having some 450 species of birds either living within the park boundaries or passing through during migration. Of course we didn’t intend to see all 450 species, but we would try to make a dent in that list, especially the ones that go no further north in the United States. My records indicate we saw 89 species during our visit. I think I may have missed a few though. The park was established in 1944. It is the 15th largest national park in area covering some 801,000 acres. During that inaugural year there were only 1409 visitors to the park. Since then the average annual visitation is 350,000. Given the limited lodging and camping facilities within the park and great distances from towns outside the park, that is an impressive figure. The heat of the mid-spring and summer also dampen the adventurous spirits of most humans keeping many away during the hot months. The park is big enough to hide a lot of people at one time. While we certainly saw other people nearly everywhere we ventured, there were no crowds such as are found in most National Parks around the country. I would recommend a visit to this vast and varied treasure to anyone. Just make sure you visit during the cooler months of spring to see as many migrants as possible. We did learn from one of the workers at the camp store that the weekend before we arrived the RV parks were both filled to capacity. While we were there I don’t suppose there were more than ten RV sites in use. So, keep the last week in April in mind as a good time to visit.

At the appropriate hour we prepared some hoer devours and met on Kathy and George’s balcony with our wine for happy hour. This is a process we would repeat every night we were in the park. It was so relaxing to sit looking out towards the Chisos Mountains and watch the birds in the basin going about their business. Of course we had great conversations about what we had experienced during the day just completed as well as making plans for the day to follow. After enjoying one another’s company and a few glasses of wine we would return to our rooms and prepare for dinner at the lodge.

The dining room at the lodge is the only restaurant in the park. They do a good job of trying to satisfy everyone’s dietary needs and desires. For the most part our party of five was pleased with the variety of offerings. There are a few items on the menu that would be better left off given the Park Service requirement regarding doneness. I personally had problems with the policy and undoubtedly made too big a deal about it. I did get my point across to the manager who was interested in my feedback. I did overstep proper decorum a bit though and I have regretted it ever since. Possibly too much wine at happy hour?

Our fearless leader had us up and out our respective doors before dawn nearly every morning. There were two really good reasons for this. The first being it is just so far between the lodge located in the basin and all the places where the birds can be found. The other reason is that you have to see them early or not at all because once it gets hot they hang out in the shade.

I need to make a very important note here. George did all the driving for the group during our week in the park. Even though we took turns giving him a hard time, I for one truly appreciate the fact that I was able to not worry about the driving and concentrate on watching the vistas and prepare myself for what was to come next. George was terribly patient with us and all our ribbing.

Our first morning we went to a place not really well advertised called Cattail Falls. There is a good bit of infrastructure in the area of Cattail Falls for providing drinking water for the park. For that reason this location is not well marked or advertised. We had a wonderful hike up to the falls which included a wee bit of a scramble over boulders reminding me of my youth. The views from along the trail were breathtaking. When we arrived at the falls we got a vivid visual of the effects the drought has had on the area. The falls were nothing more than a trickle of water coming down the rocks. While I am sure that having water roaring over the cliff above would have been a pretty sensational sight, I was not disappointed in what we could see. We spotted a female Black-chinned Hummingbird lurking at the foot of the falls. Another hiker and non-birder spotted a hummingbird nest as he was making his way back to the trail. He pointed out his find to us. We watched the bird for a long time. She spent most of the time perched with some forays to and fro never going near the nest. We couldn’t be sure it was her nest. I climbed to a point above the nest and with my telephoto lens got a good image of the inside of the nest. After cropping and blowing up the image we could all see there were neither chicks nor eggs in the nest. The owner remained a mystery. The image is saved and ready for your viewing. I don’t remember if I was ever able to get an acceptable image of the bird. If I did it will be included in the album. Some of the other birds seen at the falls or along the trail included: Acorn Woodpecker, Canyon Wren, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Hermit Thrush, McGillivray’s Warbler, and Black-throated Sparrow to name a few.

After the hike back to where we left the car we drove the short distance to Sam Snail Ranch. The great thing about birding at Sam Snail Ranch is that there is an old windmill pumping water from a well. The outflow of the windmill is an absolute magnet for birds. The Park Service has made life even easier by installing a comfortable bench several feet from the stream coming from the well. What could be nicer? We used this stop as a rest area for us while we enjoyed “arm chair” birding. For some birds use of binoculars was not required because they were so close. We got our first of what would be many Varied and Painted Buntings while relaxing at the windmill. Along the path leading to the well we saw Bell’s Vireos. At least some people saw them. It would be awhile before one sat still long enough for me to get an acceptable look.

Our next stop was Cottonwood Campground where the excellent birding continued. The Vermilion Flycatchers were in full breeding plumage and just absolutely lit up the trees with their bright red heads. They were a real treat to watch. We ate our lunch at the campground with numerous interruptions to look at a passing bird or a new arrival to the vicinity. We also walked around the campground and down to the river in search of whatever we could see. We enjoyed seeing both the Ladder-backed and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers as well as Western Kingbird. We also saw Scott’s Oriole and the first of hundreds of Wilson’s Warblers while at Cottonwood Campground.

Our first full day of birding was productive even if the return visitors were disappointed with the lack of water at the falls. Unknown at the time, this would be our best day for long distant visibility during our entire visit. The skies were clear and there was insufficient smoke to impair the views. It was a wonderful day.

After a short rest and showers we adjourned on the deck for happy hour and a discussion of the day’s events. Of course we continued to bird the backyard so to speak. Dinner followed and then it was early to bed to be ready for Tuesday’s adventure.

As I mentioned we all brought along breakfast food so we could eat in our rooms as the dining room opens long after real birders are on the road. So, each morning we went through a ritual of getting ready and preparing both breakfast and lunch in stages while getting dressed and lathered up with sun screen. We got to be pretty efficient by the week’s end.

Our Tuesday would take us first to Dugout Wells where we first hiked along the Chihuahuan Desert Trail – by far the easiest trail we walked all week- looking for the very evasive Crissal Thrasher. At least they were evading us on this day. We didn’t see the thrasher, but we did get some great birds such as, Black and White Warbler, Bell’s Vireo, Townsend’s Warbler, Hooded Oriole, Varied Bunting, Summer Tanager, Scaled Quail, Lesser Nighthawk and Curve-billed Thrasher to name some. While snooping around the well we heard a few Javelina making noises in the bushes and decided we would be safer where we had an earlier chance to see them. So, we got out of the rather tight space we had been in. Later, George and I were bringing up the rear of our little group and I heard some more rustling in the bushes off to the left of the road. I got George’s attention and we watched as 15 of these beasts crossed the road one at a time taking care not to become prey. It was quite the sight. Some were probably only months old while others had learned the rules of survival well some years ago. I saved one photo to share.

I should add a little about Javelina and feral pigs here. Javelinas are a native wild animal living near the U. S. – Mexican border as well as in other parts of the country. Feral pigs are off-spring of once domestic pigs that roam central Texas as well as other areas in large family groups. The feral pigs are very destructive to the habitat and pose a real management problem for National Wildlife Refuge Managers as well as farmers and ranchers. During our volunteer work at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge we have witnessed a great deal of the destruction these invasive animals have and continue to cause. The feral pigs may be more aggressive towards humans than the Javelina. I say this based strictly on my limited exposure to both animals. When Connie and I came upon a family of pigs in the middle of the woods I was actually in fear of our safety. I didn’t experience that emotion with the large group of Javelina. They were much more afraid of us. Of course there is a great deal of controversy over how to control and hopefully eliminate them. I may have more to say on this subject in my final blog from Balcones.

When we arrived at Dugout Wells it was around 60 degrees. By the time we left it was 80 degrees and going up and it was only just after 10:00 in the morning. We moved on to Rio Grande Village, about a forty minute drive from the wells. The first orders of business at the village were visits to the restrooms followed by the camp store to get more fluids to eventually recycle.

We spent a few hours including a lunch break at Rio Grande Village. There are two distinct areas of the village, the campground area, which is an RV campground, and the river access area. Between the two areas is a great wooded area with lovely old and majestic Cottonwood Trees. A rather large area around and among the trees had been made off limits to people as there are a pair of Common Black-hawks nesting high up in the canopy. While we were all very interested in seeing the hawks, a life bird for me, we were distracted by the antics of the Painted and Varied Buntings working the grasses along the road and edge of the grove of trees. We all eventually got to looking for the hawks and we found them. I had my short lens on the camera and therefore the image I got was not the best to be had. Picture this, I was looking through my view finder and centering on the bark of the branch next to where I could see the hawk with my naked eye. I slowly squeezed off a few frames in hopes that one would blow up enough to recognize. The result is in the web album. It ain’t too bad if I do say so myself. One of the many really great things about digital photography is that if you shoot in large format you have a lot of pixels at your disposal to allow you to retain a relatively sharp image from what appears to be a speck on the original image.

In addition to the Common Black-hawk we also saw a nesting pair of Gray Hawks. The Gray Hawk nest was closer to the river access and was not protected from encroaching humans like the Common Black-hawk nest sight. That made little sense to any of us because as we approached the tree with the nest the hawks got really nervous and agitated. In fact that was how we discovered they and their nest were there in first place. We gave them their space and I got no picture. We also saw a Broad-winged Hawk fly over while near the river access, another life bird for me. I had read that you can see Broad-winged Hawks anywhere in the park. Carla corrected that with a time of the year disclaimer. We saw only the one during our week. Other different birds seen at the village included: Vermillion Flycatcher, American Pipit and Indigo Bunting. It was another great day.

By the time we left the village we were all pretty hot and tired, so we headed back to the lodge, about thirty miles away, and had a bit of a rest before, you guessed it Happy Hour. Our evening routine was pretty much the same as before, a shower, a rest period, and a few glasses of wine while watching birds, a walk to dinner and an early meeting with the sandman with one rather major exception. After dinner we returned to Dugout Wells for an after sunset meeting with the Elf Owl. We all saw the owl; although I was not fast enough nor would my camera have been fast enough to get a sharp image of the little fellow as he flew from the nest in a dead tree for an evening of hunting. I got a couple way out of focus shots of his head sticking out of the nest cavity, but I missed the escape. I did get some great after dark photos of the windmill and the mountains. I was surprised at the amount of light my camera and lens were able to pull in while I hand held through the exposure. When we got back to our rooms we fell into our respective beds.

We had to get a good night’s sleep on Tuesday because on Wednesday we were taking the hike up the Pinnacles Trail to Boot Springs in hopes of seeing the Colima Warbler in its northern most nesting area in the Chisos Mountains. The Colima Warbler would be another life bird for me and I was excited for the opportunity. However, the hike was an equal experience. It offered some absolutely breathtaking views of the basin below as well as the details of the mountains we were in. There were some drop dead beautiful Claret Cup Cactus in bloom along the trail and a whole lot of other birds. I did my best to take as many images as possible while still keeping up with the group. George had set a pretty aggressive pace in the early going making it hard to keep up much less stop for a quick look around and photo or two. Some in our group were having a little bit of trouble in the breathing department prior to our first break. At the stop I made a point of asking if we were going to run all the way to the top. I got some feedback but continued to press for a more relaxed pace so the hike could be enjoyed. The bird was important, but the trip to me was more important. Kathy saw my point of view and reined George in a bit. Later George told me that on his first trip up the trail he took hundreds of photos and therefore understood where I was coming from. So, as far as I can tell there was no harm no foul, I think. The views from the trail are just to die for. Even though there was a lot of smoke in the valley below, I was still in awe of what we could see. In some ways I think the smoke added depth to the photos I took. You can be the judge. There are three photos in a row where I am shooting through the famous “window”. I incrementally zoomed in to get better views of what is in the background. I think they came out pretty neat.

Eventually, we got to a group of people who were all looking up. Sure enough they had a Colima Warbler in their sights. I was able to only getting fleeting looks at the bird as it worked high in the trees.
After awhile the bird left the area and left me wanting much better looks.

We continued to Boot Springs which was not all that distant from where the warbler had been sighted. We arrived to an empty area. No people, no water, very little activity at all really. It didn’t take long though and the Mexican Jays realized we were there and they wanted to come check us out. I got some great shots of these guys. You can really see their personalities in the way they stand and look. I hope you like the images.

We ate our lunch at the dried springs and then rested some. While we were resting I got a little restless and started looking around for other birds. I saw none that we hadn’t seen before, but I was able to get my senses back so that I could spot a branch moving because of a bird and not the wind. That practice proved itself on the way back down the trail. We stopped at a location just up from where the warbler had been seen earlier looking for another bird we heard was to be in the area. We never found the other bird, so we continued down the trail and shortly thereafter I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye and sure enough it was the Colima Warbler. Carla and I called it out about the same time (she was probably first as she knew the field marks better than I). Anyway, he gave us a good long look. Carla and Kathy decided to go back up the trail to tell a tour group we had passed that had not yet seen the bird to come back. When they got to the group they all had smiles on their faces because they too had seen one at the spring. Meanwhile, prior to leaving us Carla told us not to lose the bird. Well that is some pretty big pressure to be sure. Connie, George and I kept our eyes trained on the little fellow as he worked his way around three trees gathering and eating insects. Every now and then one of us would ask the others if we were still on the bird as neck relief was necessary. Eventually, Carla and Kathy came back and we got to relax. I can almost tell you how many feathers that bird had. I have no problem saying I have seen the Colima Warbler.

Of course the hike down the mountain was much easier and faster than the walk up. We stopped at several places along the way to rest and enjoy the view. It was a great hike all in all. We saw some nineteen species of birds during the hike. The other different bird we saw this day was the Dusky Flycatcher. By the time we returned to the lodge we were all pretty tired and yet excited because it was such a successful hike.

Following the normal late afternoon, early evening routine we made the walk to the restaurant to celebrate Kathy and George’s wedding anniversary and a successful day by each eating steak dinners. It was a fitting end to a wonderful day and the extra protein was certainly welcomed by our bodies.

On Thursday we left the park to visit a place called Christmas Mountain Oasis. This is a little property northeast of Study Butte not all that far from the park boundary, but not that easy to get to. Connie had been learning about the birds that were being seen on this property from reading TEXBIRDS which is a list serve where people birding in Texas can post what they have seen with the where and when. When she realized how close this place was to the park she contacted Carla and asked if the group might want to go there. Carla contacted the owner and made arrangements for us to visit. So, another early morning underway allowed us to arrive at about 8 in the morning, a perfect time. What we found was stadium birding. Well, not really, but close. The owner of this property which is truly in the desert has made not only an oasis, but she has feeders everywhere. She collects rain water throughout the year and then waters the many native but not too native plants and trees she has planted with the collected water during the dry season. Unfortunately, things are not good this year water wise. Her collection pond was really low and she told us that when that water is gone she will not be watering. She has at least one well on the property, but it apparently doesn’t produce enough water for the “gardens” and the house and guest house. That said she is doing a wonderful job of attracting birds and she must also attract a lot of bird watchers as she has chairs and benches set up everywhere so her visitors can watch the birds in comfort – therefore my term “stadium” birding.

We had 23 species come join us at the oasis that day. The highlight had to be the Lucifer Hummingbird. Not only was it a life bird for at least some of us, there was at least one male who was really working his stuff while going through his display routine to attract a female. It was really something to watch and listen to. He would fly nearly straight up several tens of feet and then dive straight down making an incredible noise with his wings and then end up hovering just above head height as he blew out his striking magenta gorget giving the appearance that his neck was twice its normal size. We all watched with amazement as he repeated his show time and time again. We also got real close looks at Black-headed Grosbeaks. I think there is a good photo of one in the web album. The Green-tailed Towhees were fairly abundant and made themselves available for photographs as well. The Yellow-breasted Chat gave us plenty of good long looks and did a fair job of singing their hearts out. All in all it was an easy day of birding with some really nice birds.

On the way back to the park we had a late lunch at a little Mexican Restaurant in Study Butte. It was a small place with home cooked food that was really very good. It was the perfect ending to a great morning and early afternoon of birding.

For our last day in the park we decided to go back to Rio Grande Village. Carla wanted to see what we could find at the river access off the dry campground. Dry meaning there are no utility hook-ups. This access is not the access I referred to earlier. Since Kathy and George had last visited Big Bend, there has been a huge improvement to the waterfront area. There had been a semi-rigid boardwalk system that extended into the marsh and open backwater of the Rio Grande River making more of the marsh accessible to birders. Apparently during a storm or a period of high water the system was destroyed. Now there is a beautiful floating pier system that can ride up and down with the changing water level and be floated to safety in case of extra high water or destructive weather. Anyway, the pier system took us closer to the marsh and had there been any birds lurking at the edge of same we would have seen them. There was a very cooperative Green Heron who flew in and posed momentarily. I also got a good photo of the reflection of the marsh grasses on the water. We walked along a dike and eventually pulled a Marsh Wren out of the grass for an acceptable look along with a Pied-billed Grebe and a Yellow-breasted Chat. As we continued our walk around the campground we were rewarded with Verdin, Ash Throated Flycatcher, Lark Sparrow, and a great looking Greater Roadrunner just to name a few of the 39 species we saw during a morning and early afternoon of birding the area.

One of my goals this day was to get a better photo of the Common Black-hawks nesting in the village. Unfortunately, I was not able to find them. After about thirty minutes of hanging out in the area I was forced by high temps and running sweat to catch a ride to the camp store to cool down. While I was walking towards the nesting area I got a great flyover by one of the Gray Hawks. It was a wonderful sight that I just stood there and enjoyed rather than try to capture with the camera. I also got a great look at a coyote who was sort of interested in me. You will see what I mean when you view the photos I took of him/her. I also got some pretty neat images of Varied and Painted Buntings eating seeds from the grasses near the road. So, in the end it was worth the walk and getting all hot and sweaty over.

One more happy hour followed by one more dinner and the one and only breakfast at the lodge found us at the end of our visit to this breathtaking national treasure. After saying a round of goodbyes to our good friends, Connie and I headed back to Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. We had a wonderful time, even with the rather long and really hot drive back “home”. Our friends made it back to Midland and their flights to Dallas and on to Connecticut. All made it home safely and a little tired, but full of wonderful memories. By the way, for the non-birders among you, the lodge offers a really good buffet breakfast. It was difficult to watch my portion control while walking down the steam table. Big Bend National Park has a lot to offer anyone interested in history, geography, geology and anything natural. I recommend a visit. For tent campers there are several primitive campgrounds and hundreds of miles of trails to hike. For more information about the park go to: http://www.nps.gov/bibe/index.htm

The linked photo album below is almost as long as this article has been, so recharge your coffee cup, wine glass, or whatever and I hope you enjoy the images.

Big Bend 2011 the Highlights



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