Birds, Astronomy and an Old Fort

The drive from Laughlin Air Force Base to Fort Davis was just less than 240 miles. The change in topography and vegetation was pretty remarkable. We drove along US 90 to Alpine, Texas and turned North on Texas 118. Most of the drive was uphill giving us a completely different landscape to look at as we rolled along.

The town of Fort Davis is the home of Fort Davis National Historic Site. Of greater significance in the modern era is its proximity to the McDonald Observatory. Connie and I had scheduled three nights at a local RV park. Upon arrival we were already thinking that maybe three nights would not be enough. Unfortunately we were starting to run out of time before getting to our next commitment.

Soon after getting settled in camp we took a driving tour of the town and surrounding area to get our bearings. We stopped for gas and got to talking to a lady at the filling station and she invited us to come to the annual fund raising soup, bread and dessert dinner for the local soup kitchen the next evening. We also drove past the historic fort and decided we needed to stop there and take the tour. Up the road a few miles was a state park that is known as a birding hot spot, so it went on our list of must sees. Then there was the observatory far up the mountain some 15 to 20 miles away. There was no question we would not go there. Our map also showed a loop drive of about 75 miles that was marked as a scenic drive, so we felt that we should take the drive and see if it is in fact scenic.

In a very short time we realized we would be busy while at Fort Davis.

Connie and I have not been known for getting up very early since we retired. We have made the effort from time to time to make an appointment or catch an airplane, but for the most part we have just sort of let the mornings belong to the early people. The first full day in Fort Davis started that way. We got up a little earlier than normal, but did not get moving much earlier than usual. So, we showed up at the fort a good hour after we should have. The fort has been partially restored with one barracks being used as an overview of the history of the base and another is furnished as it would have been during the life of the fort. As usual I am getting ahead of myself; first the history.

Fort Davis was active from 1854 until 1891. The primary mission of the troops assigned was to protect emigrants, freighters, mail coaches and travelers on the San Antonio-El Paso Road. The fort was located on the eastern side of the Davis Mountains in a box canyon near Limpia Creek. It was named after Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. In its early days the six companies of troops of the Eighth Infantry spent much of their time pursuing Comanches, Kiowas and Apaches who attacked travelers and mail stations. At the beginning of the Civil War and Texas’ secession from the Union, the federal government abandoned the fort. Confederate troops occupied the fort from the spring of 1861 until the summer of 1862 when Union forces again took possession. The fort was once again abandoned and remained deserted for five years.

When the Ninth U.S. Cavalry reoccupied Fort Davis in 1867 few of the original buildings remained and or were functional. Therefore the base was rebuilt just east of where the original buildings had once stood. In 1869 the Ninth Cavalry regiment became one of four Army regiments made up of Black troops. All of these regiments were garrisoned in the Southwest and the Native Americans referred to the Black troopers as “Buffalo Soldiers” comparing their hair to that of the buffalo. They considered the Buffalo Soldiers to be brave and therefore worthy adversaries.

As we toured the small enclave we were given a good idea of what life must have been life for the troopers. The photos below show the interior of one of the barracks as it would have looked in the 1870’s. To add to the realism of the scene, there is a sound system playing background noises that would have been part of fort life. There are the various bugle calls going on as well as the sounds of horseback riders getting into formation and parading around the parade grounds. To round out the experience, there is a short video that talks through the fort’s history with several photos from the period used as illustration.

You can see a couple of open boxes between the bunks. Each trooper kept his personal belongings in one of those boxes. On the pegs along the wall and the shelf above the pegs is where uniform items were kept.

Quite the heating system, don’t you think?

This is a look across the parade ground from the enlisted barracks to the officer’s houses. One of the things we learned was that many of the officers had the wives of enlisted men working for them as servants.

Because we got moving as late as we did, we did not have time to tour the officer quarters that have been refurbished and decorated as they would have been while in use. That tour will have to be made on a repeat visit.

The reason we were stressed for time was because we had to get up the mountain to the McDonald Observatory before a 2:00 PM tour start time. I think I have toured one or two observatories in my life, but I do not remember a tour like the one we would get this day. Preceding the tour was a short video providing background information on the facility and a discussion of all the telescopes that make up the observatory. A major highlight of the video was a discussion of how modern scientists view the universe through these giant telescopes. Of great interest to me is that they rarely, if ever, really look at what they have the scopes pointed. Instead they digitize the light that is reflected by the giant mirrors at the base of the telescopes. By breaking the light apart via a spectrometer they can determine many things about the source of the light such as distance, time to reach earth and a myriad of other things. It is really quite mind boggling to me the wealth of knowledge of our universe that has been amassed by studying light.

The actual tour was pretty spectacular itself. We were taken into one of the oldest giant telescopes on the observatory where our tour guide explained in great detail how the telescope collects the light. He demonstrated how the telescope is moved in two planes and how the dome is operated to give the powerful telescope a slit to look through. While outside this mammoth instrument I took a few photos of both the telescope and the scene that the scientists get every morning when they are not analyzing data.

The second telescope we were taken to is the third largest telescope in the world. Astronomers are not so different from any other professionals. They want the biggest and most powerful of telescopes that the engineers can design, maybe even bigger. The engineers can design nearly anything, but the universities and other sponsors do not have unlimited resources. Therefore, the limits to the size of the world’s largest telescopes are money driven. That said, the engineers did a great job with what eventually became the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. This engineering marvel was designed to use what was then off the shelf technology for all the major components including the mirror segments and the framework that supports the mirror and the training mechanisms. The result of using this off the shelf approach had an incredible impact on the total cost of the instrument. I apologize for failing to capture the numbers, but take my word for it; the Hobby-Eberly Telescope was a real bargain in the giant telescope business. Not only that, it looks really neat too.

When they are not working, the scientists have to put up with this as one segment of the 365 degree view offered by the observatory.

I said that professional astronomers do not spend their time actually looking through telescopes at the objects of their concern, but instead they analyze the light from these bodies to gain knowledge of their origin and other points of interest. Amateur astronomers for the most part want to “see” what they are looking at. The members of the staff of the McDonald Observatory are for the most part a well organized group of amateur astronomers who are absolutely passionate about their hobby. Not unlike other larger observatories, the McDonald Observatory is owned and operated by the University of Texas, Austin. In order to raise contributing funding for the observatory, there are a variety of the opportunities made available to the general public for fee. The tour of the facility is one, there is a wonderful gift shop in the visitor center that has something for everyone and must be a money maker for the observatory. I suspect that one of the biggest money makers for the observatory has to be the star parties held at the observatory every Friday and Saturday night throughout the year. After you have taken the tour of the observatory and shown some of the magnificent photographs taken through the giant telescopes it is pretty hard to say “no thank you” to the offer to attend a star party.

The star party began with an outdoor demonstration of our solar system and some of the major constellations that we look at each time we peer into the night sky. We then moved into the auditorium for a little education and a preview of what we would eventually see live. Well at least sort of live as everything we would eventually look at with the exception of Jupiter would be thousands of light years away. Finally it got dark enough to go outside to the telescope field. Now, don’t get excited. We did not get to peer through the giant scopes that the professionals were already busy doing their evenings’ research with. Instead we were allowed to look through scopes that ranged in value from a small car to a medium sized building. If my memory is correct we looked through five different telescopes trained on different heavenly bodies. We looked at Jupiter through one of the smallest of telescopes in the field, but none-the-less we were able to see three of Jupiter’s moons very clearly. We also looked at a cluster of stars some 3000 light years away. Our timing was really good as we got to the observatory the day after the spectacular expansion of the Holmes Comet. For those who have not been watching the news. The Holmes Comet suddenly brightened by some ten million times a few weeks ago. Astronomers do not yet have a solid explanation for the phenomenon, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to look at. Remember, whatever happened did so several thousand light years ago, so it is not likely that we are in any jeopardy as a result. We were first shown where the comet could be seen with the naked eye, and later we looked through another of the smaller telescopes at the comet. It is remarkable to look at. Most of the stars and for that matter, comets that you look at through binoculars or small telescopes look sharp and in the case of comets there is usually a tail trailing away from our sun as we see it. In the case of Holmes Comet what you see is a fuzzy grey ball with a sharper point towards the center. I have become so accustomed to looking at the comet that I can now look into a dark sky and see it with my naked eye and can tell that it is fuzzier than the surrounding stars. We were also treated to a view of a dying star. A dying star looks a lot like a smoke ring through a reasonably large telescope.

Our star party group was not a small crowd. There were about 250 of us. Connie and I were really concerned that we would see little or nothing with such a large group. However, we were wrong. Since the entire group could not fit into the auditorium at the same time we were encouraged to break ourselves up so that some were watching a great video called The Power of Ten while others were circulating through the various telescopes. There were enough scopes and they were far enough apart that we never really felt like we were in a crowd. I don’t think we had to wait much longer than ten minutes to look through any of the telescopes. While we were waiting we were able to listen to the telescope operator talking about what we would be looking at along with a lot of technical data on the telescope in use.

The entire evening was fascinating. We even violated our “we will not be cold again” policy by being at a significant elevation in the evening in the fall. I wish I could have taken pictures. However, that would have been impossible with my camera equipment and not allowed given that all the telescopes were set up with eye pieces and not camera adapters. You will have to take my word for it that the night air was filled with oohs and ahs. It was a real treat and worth every penny of the price of admission.

Earlier I mentioned an invitation to a local food bank’s fund raising soup dinner. Well, some of my faithful readers would feel left out if I didn’t mention at least one meal. We went to the soup kitchen on Friday evening and had a wonderful time. I was sort of amused by the fact that everyone within comfortable talking distance from where we were sitting was from out of town. But the real story was the food. Local folks made their favorite soup/stew or bread and then sold it to all comers for the incredibly small price of five dollars each. I figured we would get one small bowl of soup and a piece of bread. I was wrong. We were allowed to return as many times as we wanted and the bread was continuously being distributed to the tables by the army of volunteers. I think there were something eight different pots or crock pots of soup/stew. Connie and I went back for seconds, but made sure that we didn’t get the same kind on either trip through. I hate to admit it, but I no longer remember exactly what we ate. I just know that it was absolutely delicious. It was fun to participate in a small town function that had such an honorable purpose.

My title for this post included the word birds. I also mentioned the 75 mile scenic drive around and through the mountains. Connie and I filled daylight hours of the day we went to the star party making the drive with emphasis on the birds that may be around. Our first stop along the way was at a roadside picnic area not far from FT. Davis. The area included a grassy area, an area of huge boulders and desert scrub. We chased a few cactus wrens around the scrub for a good long while before we were able to identify them. When we finally got good looks at them we noticed that they were building nests in the cholla cactus. We would later learn that cactus wrens build winter nests to spend the winter in. By spring the nests are destroyed and they then build nests to raise their young in. We did not know that while we watched this pair of wrens working so hard on their nest. When we then saw a second pair doing the same thing, I began to wonder if global warming had confused the species. Alas, it was nothing so dramatic.

We had a good day birding and driving. The views were just absolutely to die for. I hope the photos I have included give you some sort of an idea of what we experienced.

By the time we were ready to leave Ft. Davis for Ft. Bliss we had started to notice that the days were really starting to get shorter. As such we started to rethink our sleeping habits to some extent. We somewhat quietly decided we should start to get up a little earlier if we were to make a day of it.

The drive to Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Texas was going to be a bit longer than the drives we had been making lately, so we tried successfully to get an earlier start. I managed to erase the entire advantage by not thoroughly studying the map before we took off. Early in our stay at Ft. Davis Connie mentioned that as we were driving north through town that the left fork would take us to McDonald Observatory and the right fork would take us to Interstate 10. Surprisingly, that tidbit of information stuck with me. Unfortunately for us and mostly me since I was driving, the right fork got us to Interstate 10 about thirty miles to the east of where the left fork would have taken us. An even shorter route would have been to go south just a ways and then west-northwest to join the freeway even further to the west. In my defense, I was thinking about getting to the interstate and diesel fuel that was a bit less expensive than what we saw in Ft. Davis. I was wrong on that count too. The first fuel we came to was priced at about $3.29 per gallon. As we were really low, we stopped for a fill-up. While I was washing windows I realized that we were in the middle of nowhere and told Connie to stop at 50 gallons and we would go on. There is a good news ending to this. We found fuel down the road at a Flying J in El Paso for much less. Not only that, the guy working at the first place gave us coffee since we spent so much for fuel. What a deal!

El Paso wound up being another really busy place for us. For those who don’t know, El Paso is built around a mountain. The Rio Grande provides the southern boundary to this sprawling city. The mountain sort of gives the city an odd sort of hour glass shape as the city has grown along the river and northward around the base of the mountain. There is a road that goes over the southern slope of the mountain giving you some pretty good looks at the city and into Mexico. Connie and I did some urban exploring as well as driving across the mountain and taking a tram up the eastern slope of the mountain to the top where we were able to see just about forever. The view from the top was really fun from two perspectives. First we had this great view that allowed us to compare the developments on both sides of the river. While the American side is much more modern, there are some pretty serious eyesores on the north side of the river. On the Mexican side, the difference in average income is oh-so obvious. The neater view for me was watching the red-tailed hawks from above. It is not often you get to watch these great flyers below you. I will admit that watching them soar back and forth became a bit dizzying for me as I tracked them through my binoculars. We probably spent an hour on the top of the mountain just enjoying the wonderful view and even better weather.

Our guide to Texas birding indicated we should go to the waste water treatment plant for some good birding. So, we did. Although we saw more Northern Harriers than I have ever seen in one place, overall it was a disappointment. A big reason was that nearly all the holding ponds were dry therefore providing no draw for the water birds and shore birds normally found at such facilities. None-the-less, we had a good time driving around and challenging ourselves to find and identify what was there.

A note about Ft. Bliss is appropriate. Ft. Bliss is another of those huge Army bases. I have no idea what the base population is, but it must be a bunch. In addition to the populated part of the base there are hundreds of thousands of acres of land associated with the base where artillery is tested and trained on. The RV park at the base is also pretty big. The location is a bit questionable. They built it in the shadow of a very busy freeway. With all the land seemingly available, it would seem to me that park could have been located in a little less noisy part of the base. That said, the park is loaded with amenities. From an amenity and potential for socializing aspect I would have to rank this park as one of the best military parks we have been to. The location is really unfortunate. I tried to pretend that the continuous high speed traffic noise was really ocean noises. I was not able to convince myself. However, we did enjoy our time at Ft. Bliss and the El Paso area in general.

From El Paso it was one day across New Mexico and into Arizona to the booming metropolis of Willcox where we spent the night remembering our last visit to this quiet little town that has no obvious reason for being. From there it was a short 74 mile drive to Sierra Vista and Ft. Huachuca where we are now and will be for the next two months.

Stay tuned. We are so busy enjoying life here that I may have to come up with another plan for updating this blog before I forget the details.



3 thoughts on “Birds, Astronomy and an Old Fort”

  1. I think you know now why Ft. Davis is one of my favorite places. I’m sorry you didn’t get to the Chihauhuan Desert Center, but it will still be there for the next visit. The evening Carol, Carla and I went to the observatory, it was too cloudy to see anything, but I did get the teeshirt.

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