Birding the Big Bend – Part I, Fort Davis


Over social media such as FaceBook I have seen comments from many people who have never visited the Big Bend area, wanting more information about birding, lodging, the national park, and other areas of interest.  So I have decided to do a couple of posts telling about our experiences and favorite stops.

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon – Big Bend National Park

Ann and I have two main areas of interest when we visit the Big Bend area of west Texas.  One is the biggest area near the bend of the Rio Grande.  That includes Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park.  Our other favorite area, that I will write about in this post, is Fort Davis. In the area there are the Davis Mountains, Davis Mountains State Park, McDonald Observatory and Balmorhea.  I should also include the actual Fort Davis, one of the best preserved frontier forts in the country._MG_1609 036-net-fort-davis-bsob-zeller

An ideal trip for Ann and I would be to leave from San Angelo, head south to Sonora, and take I-10 west until finding Hwy 17 that leads to Fort Davis.  Traveling on I-10 is typical as Interstate travel can be.  The fun starts when you make the turn off onto Hwy 17.  You will travel through Balmorhea, then head through the beautiful Davis Mountains into the city of Fort Davis.

There are several places to stay in Fort Davis.  At the Davis Mountains State Park there is the Indian Lodge.  Nearby is the Prude Ranch and Fort Davis Motor Inn.  Ann and I prefer to stay at the Davis Mountains Inn, a nice little bed and breakfast.

Davis Mountains Inn

Davis Mountains Inn

We like to eat at the historic Fort Davis Drugstore.  Great food, and upstairs is the Drugstore Art Gallery, where yours truly, (that’s me) has numerous prints for sale.

Acorn Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker – Davis Mountains State Park

Birding is great at the Davis Mountains State Park, about seven miles northwest of town on Hwy 118..  There are two recently renovated bird blinds and plenty of birds.  On occasion, if you are lucky, you might spot some Montezuma Quail.  That place is one of our favoite birding areas.  The blinds are very good at attracting birds.  You can elect to sit inside and observe through the windows, or sit in the convenient stools outside.

Southwest of town on Hwy 118 is the Chihuahuan Nature Center and Botanical Gardens.  When we last visited it was literally humming with various species of Humming Birds.  There is also some very nice hiking trails.

Black-chinned Hummingbird - female

Black-chinned Hummingbird – female

One of our favorite things while in the area, is to take the Wildlife Viewing Loop.  It is a 75 mile drive heading northwest on Hwy 118, going by the McDonald Observatory high in the mountains.  A few miles later you will see a park on the left at Madera Canyon.  Pause there for awhile as it is a very good birding area. A Stellar’s Jay, was just seen there just a few days ago.  After that continue the loop, bearing left to Hwy 166, always looking out for the hawks and other birds and wildlife that inhabit the area.  You will end up back in Fort Davis, ready for a good meal at the Drugstore or a pizza from Murphy’s Pizza.

Red-tailed Hawk in flight

Red-tailed Hawk in flight

After a good night’s sleep, a trip to Balmorhea sounds like a nice side journey.  The drive is north on Hwy 17 for about 40 miles.  We love that trip, because the drive itself is a great birding drive.  Hawks in abundance; Aoudads and Pronghorned Antelope line the mountain ridges.  And who can not stop to photograph Wild Rose Pass.

Wild Ross Pass

Wild Ross Pass

As you approach Balmorhea, you will see Balmorhea State Park.  It is small and it’s main feature is the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool.  But it also has a wetlands area where you can see some great birds.  East of town, is Lake Balmorhea, where during the colder months many species of water birds, ducks, egrets, herons, grebes, etc. can be found.  A Bald Eagle is usually seen hanging around, too.

Lesser Scaup

Lesser Scaup

Be sure to schedule your Balmorhea trip to include lunch at the Bear Den. It bills itself as “the cutest restaurant in town”.  Great Tex-Mex food and cold beer.

In the evening, you might be interested in driving south to Marfa, where you can see the famous “Marfa Lights”, that mysteriously glow after sundown in the direction of the Chinati Mountains.  We have see them every time that we have visited there.  Very strange, indeed.  They are just east of town on Hwy 90 where the Texas Highway Department has erected a special viewing area.

After a couple or three days here, we are ready to go south to the area of the Big Bend National Park.  That area will be the subject of Part II.

Big Bend the Beautiful


I have been busy the past three days processing photos from our trip last week to the Big Bend Country.  All I can say is that I have never seen this area look so beautiful in all of the many years that Ann and I have been visiting there.  Right from the git-go, driving down from Marathon and entering Big Bend National Park this is what greeted us; and it lasted for nearly all of the 35 miles or so to the park headquarters at Panther Junction.

Texas Bluebonnets along the highway into Big Bend National Park.

Texas Bluebonnets along the highway into Big Bend National Park.

What a way to start our little vacation!  I am not going to go into a great narrative in this post.  Mostly, I will let the photos do the talking.  Here is some more of the beauty.  By the way, if you are reading this on your computer, by all means please click on each photo and you will see beautiful enlargements.

Ocotillo - a sea of red.

Ocotillo shrubs – a sea of red.

Ocotillo and the Chisos Mountains.  You can see Mt. Casa Grande in the distance.

Ocotillo and the Chisos Mountains. You can see Mt. Casa Grande in the distance.

On a couple of mornings we went to the ghost town in Terlingua for breakfast.  A small place that we liked, served good hot coffee and a vast assortment of burritos.  It got us off to a good start for the day.  I took this photo from there one morning, before we left.

Sunrise from the ghost town at Terlingua, Texas.

Sunrise from the ghost town at Terlingua, Texas.

Now, speaking of eating, and before I get into the rest of this post, if any of you make this trip and you like pizza, don’t pass up this little place.  Don’t judge it by the appearance, like we did for so many years.  Inside is the best pizza around, made from scratch and the beer is cold.  I few miles south of the ghost town of Terlingua.  Opens at 5:00PM Wednesday through Sunday.  And no, Nancy, the owner is not paying me for this.

Long Draw Pizza

Long Draw Pizza

So, we did get into some birding.  After all, that was the main reason for coming.

Bell's Vireo at Cottonwood Campground

Bell’s Vireo at Cottonwood Campground

Summer Tanager at Rio Grande Village.

Summer Tanager at Rio Grande Village.

Ocotillo and canyon in ackground.

Ocotillo and canyon in ackground.

Ocotillo and Mule Ears Peak.

Ocotillo and Mule Ears Peak.

If you think I like ocotillo plants, you are right.  We have two that reach a height of about 20 feet, in our yard back home in San Angelo.  Okay, back to some birds.

Cattle Egret in early morning sun at the ghost town of Terlingua.

Cattle Egret in early morning sun at the ghost town of Terlingua.

Cattle egrets are named for the fact that they are usually found among milling cattle.  We have often found them in the desert of Big Bend National Park before, but I don’t think they stay long and are just on the way to nearby ranches.

Cactus Wren with an insect lunch.

Cactus Wren with an insect lunch.

Pyrrhuloxia trying to hide in the bushes.

Pyrrhuloxia trying to hide in the bushes.

Scaaled Quail - also locally know as a blue quail.

Scaaled Quail – also locally know as a blue quail.

Gambel's Quail.  Found along Highway 170 in Big Bend Ranch State Park near Redford, Texas.

Gambel’s Quail. Found along Highway 170 in Big Bend Ranch State Park near Redford, Texas.

Sunrise over the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park.

Sunrise over the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park.

I hope you enjoyed this brief trip through the Big Bend Country of far West Texas.  For us, we had a blast.  A gorgeous part of the state that Ann and I visit again and again.  For those who are following our birding exploits, we added sixteen new species for the year.  Our list is currently now at 140.  As you know, our goal is 210.  We are gaining on it.

A little this and that…..


Since my last post I have been trying to catch up on springtime duties around the house.  Mowing lawn, weeding, etc.  So our birding outings have been limited, but we managed to get a few images to show for it.

We ventured out to the north portion of San Angelo State Park today for awhile.  The Lewis’s Woodpecker has finally left, I believe.  We haven’t seen him in over a week anyway.  However, we did see 24 species of birds.

Black-throated Sparrow

Black-throated Sparrow

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow

IMG_0823-net-wren-cactus-bob-zeller

Cactus Wren watching over her nest.

Lincoln's Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

This next photo is unique.  The prickly pear is growing from a mesquite tree limb.  A bird probably dropped a piece or a seed from a cactus into the bark and it took root.  Believe me, prickly pear will take root anywhere you want.  Actually, you can just lay a piece on the ground, forget about it, and it will start growing on the spot.

Prickly Pear growing from mesquite branch.

Prickly Pear growing from mesquite branch.

Mexican Ground Squirrel

Mexican Ground Squirrel

The ground squirrel was photographed a couple of days ago at Middle Concho Park here in San Angelo, as was this image of a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker - female

Ladder-backed Woodpecker – female

Ann and I are getting antsy to travel again.  So in two weeks we are heading back to the Big Bend country of far west Texas.  We will visit Big Bend National Park and the surrounding area for about 3-4 days.  We hope to again see this Common Blackhawk that I photographed a couple of years ago.

Common Blackhawk

Common Blackhawk

A rarity in Texas, it has again been seen in it’s favorite area in the Rio Grande Village RV Park.  I think this is the fifth or sixth year that they have nested there, but not sure.  I hope you enjoy the photo.

Okay, that’s it for now.  Click on any image to see an enlargement.

Happy Birding!!

 

Birding the Big Bend National Park


We are back from a fun week birding and photographing in Big Bend National Park.  The weather was phenomenal for most of the week.  On Thursday the wind got up quite a bit and Friday we had blowing dust in the morning, otherwise it was mild and sunny.  We saw 46 different species during the trip, including an addition of the Gray Hawk to our life list.  When we weren’t birding, we were sitting on the porch of our little cabin, enjoying the desert view, and sipping refreshments.

We met new friends, including another excellent bird photographer.  What was amazing was that she has been photographing for only two years, but her work is outstanding.  Meet Sheen Watkins by clicking here.  Check out her website of beautiful photos of birds and wildlife.

When we stopped for a break at the store at Castelon, we met Ranger Ted Griffith, who happens to be another blogger and one of my readers.  What a small world it is.  It was early, and he was coming out of his office to raise the U.S. Flag on the nearby pole.  Click here to see his outstanding photos of the Big Bend.

I promised you new photos so let’s get started.  PLEASE click on the images to see some beautiful enlargements.

Sunrise in the desert of the Big Bend.

Sunrise in the desert of the Big Bend.

The above picture was taken early on our drive into Big Bend National Park.  The ocotillo’s red blossoms covered the desert.  All photos including this one, were taken with my Canon EOS 70D and Tamron 150-600mm lens.

Gray Hawk

Gray Hawk

We were at the Cottonwood Campground where the birding usually is very good.  In the campgrounds itself, there was a lot activity with the maintenance people working, plus many campers so birding was a bit difficult, although we did see many birds including several Vermilion Flycatchers.  However, when leaving the area, we saw this Gray Hawk atop a telephone pole.  What a sight!  We had never seen a Gray Hawk before so it was a treat to see him posing so nicely.

Scott's Oriole

Scott’s Oriole

Scott's Oriole

Scott’s Oriole

We were pulling into the parking lot at the Park Headquarters at Panther Junction, when we noticed two photographers out in the desert, with big lenses pointing at something.  After we stopped the car, we scoped out the situation with our binoculars and saw the Scott’s Oriole.  I took a few photos with the bird in the distance, then a few seconds later, it flew very close to us and perched in the ocotillo stem, where I got the above images.

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Ash-throated Flycatcher

A few minutes later, I got this stunning photo of the Ash-throated Flycatcher near the same location.  There were several of these birds everywhere in the park.

Scaled Quail

Scaled Quail

This pair of Scaled Quail, also know as Blue Quail, were photographed outside our cabin right at sunset.  I loved the warm glow of the light.

Rock Wren

Rock Wren

Curve-billed Thrasher

Curve-billed Thrasher

The Barton Warnock Nature Center is located outside of Lajitas.  The nature trail and gardens usually have birds and various wildlife wandering around and this is where I photographed the above Rock Wren and the Curve-billed Thrasher.  We are never disappointed when we stop there.

Common Black Hawk

Common Black Hawk

Another of our favorite bird areas is the campground area at Rio Grand Village.  It is on the far eastern side of the national park near Boquillas Canyon.  For the past few years there has been a pair of nesting of rare Common Black Hawks there.  There are signs restricting getting too close, but with my long lens, I was able to get this and a few other photographs of the birds.  Because of the dense trees, the lighting was a bit touchy, but I think this image portrays it nicely.

Lark Sparrow - juvenile

Lark Bunting – female

A Western Wood Pewee show us his backside.

A Western Wood Pewee show us his backside.

I hope you enjoyed these photos from our exciting trip to the desert.  We stayed at the Casitas at Far Flung Outdoor Center.  We strongly recommend them if you are making a trip to the area.

Of the 46 species that we saw during the trip, the Gray Hawk was a lifer, plus eight of them were additions to our 2014 Texas Big Year list.  It is updated below, including with birds we saw before we left on the trip.

122.  Lesser Yellowlegs

123.  Cliff Swallow

124.  Lark Bunting

125.  Brown-headed Cowbird

126.  Cave Swallow

127.  Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

128.  Gray Hawk

129.  Brown-crested Flycatcher

130.  Common Black Hawk

131.  Rock Wren

132.  Scott’s Oriole

133.  Purple Martin

134.  Phainopepla

135.  Bank Swallow

136.  Western Wood Pewee

137.  Green Heron.

A Hawk, a Woodpecker and an Owl


Friday we decided to make the rounds of some our favorite local spots again.   We saw around 30 species so the birding is getting back to normal, despite not having many duck species yet.  I did get some nice photos that I will post here for your enjoyment.

The Red-tailed Hawk was very co-0perative, probably had just eaten so he posed readily for me about 30 feet off the ground.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

This Ladder-backed Woodpecker, actually was hanging beneathe limb, but I decided to rotate it for better viewing.  It still looks very natural.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

This photo below is a young Great Horned Owl.  I was surprised that he was so wide awake and alert.  He was definitely staring me down.  Love those eyes.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

On another note, we heard that there was a Sora, a water bird, in a pond at San Angelo State Park.  We had been told that if we couldn’t see it in the reeds, we should clap our hands and it would answer.  So we decided to give it a shot and drove out there.  We didn’t see the bird, but decided to try the clapping thing.  Sure enough on about the third attempt, this loud clapping came from the reeds.  It was very unmistakable.  Here is a photo of a Sora that I took a couple of years ago at Big Bend National Park.

Sora

Sora

Click on any photo to see an enlargement.

Big Bend Rafting and other stuff…..


As you all know, the Big Bend area of Texas is far and away one of Ann’s and my favorite places to spend time.  Last week we spent four days there again.  We again stayed at the Casitas at Far Flung Outdoor Center, in Study Butte.  They are the best outfitters for the rafting, jeep tours, and other activities in the Big Bend.  Before I get into trouble, I want to emphasize that is just my own opinion.

View from porch of our cabin at Far Flung Outdoor Center.

View from porch of our cabin at Far Flung Outdoor Center.  Long lens used.

You already saw some of my images of some birds from the trip, but I also was able to get a few more landscape photos as well.  The area was as greenest as I have ever seen in the many years that we have visited.  The above photo was taken in the evening as the sun was setting from my far right.  It is a view from the porch of our Casita, albeit with a very long lens.

One photo that I left out yesterday I would like to insert here.  This man, Joseph, a park service employee, has the job of traveling around the Basin in the Chisos Mountains cleaning out the composting toilets.  The boxes on his pack horses have HUMANURE  painted on them.  A thankless but necessary job, I am sure.  I spotted him while I was scoping out some birds with my 500mm lens.  He was riding towards me about 200 yards away.

Joseph, collecting from the trail toilets.

Joseph, collecting from the trail toilets.

Here are a couple more of my favorite landscapes from our trip.

Sotol and Santiago Peak - Big Bend National Park

Sotol and Santiago Peak – Big Bend National Park

"Dawn Sun on Distant Mountain" - Big Bend National Park

“Dawn Sun on Distant Mountain” – Big Bend National Park

On Thursday morning, we decided to take a half-day rafting trip that Far Flung has as one of their scheduled activities.  We load up and head up-stream to a river put-in area called Grassy Banks.  It is about 10 miles west of Lajitas.  We launch there, then float back to Lajitas, where we are met by the Far Flung crew to load up for the trip back to Study Butte.

Tim, our guide getting the raft ready to launch.  Notice fast moving water of the Rio Grande.

Tim, our guide getting the raft ready to launch. Notice fast moving water of the Rio Grande.

Ann getting into her life jacket.

Ann getting into her life jacket.

Away we go!

Away we go!

The ride wasn’t as dangerous as some of the trips that go through the canyons, but nevertheless I had to hang on to my cameras, grab the side of the raft, and try to keep my balance.  I managed to get a few shots from the raft, though.  Even with the Image Stabilization feature of my Canon lenses, it still was difficult to keep some images in focus.

One view from the raft.

One view from the raft.

Goats high on a bluff on Mexican side of the river.

Goats high on a bluff on Mexican side of the river.

Turkey Vulture warming wings for morning flight.

Turkey Vulture warming wings for morning flight.

After the float trip, we were happy to spend the rest of the day on the porch of our canyon sipping refreshments and watching the surrounding scenery and seeing the quail, rabbits, birds that play around the cabins.  What a great time we had.  Be sure and click on the images to see some nice enlargements.

New photos of the Big Bend


Ann and I arrived home Friday afternoon after a very enjoyable to our favorite area, the Big Bend country of Texas.  We saw 55 species of birds, including a new lifer, the Crissal Thrasher.  We also took a break from birding, and took a raft trip on the Rio Grande which I will talk about in a future post.  Here are some of the bird images I manage to get.

Red-tailed Hawk - enjoying an early morning sunrise.

Peregrine Falcon – enjoying an early morning sunrise, Big Bend National Park.

Wilson's Warbler Trying to hide in the brush at Cottonwood Campground.

Wilson’s Warbler
Trying to hide in the brush at Cottonwood Campground, Big Bend National Park.

Vermilion Flycatcher - at Cottonwood Campground in Big Bend National Park

Vermilion Flycatcher – at Cottonwood Campground in Big Bend National Park.

Greater Roadrunner - on fence post near Marathon, Texas.

Greater Roadrunner – on fence post near Marathon, Texas.

Loggerhead Shrike - on ocotillo plant, Big Bend National Park.

Loggerhead Shrike – on ocotillo plant, Big Bend National Park.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - female- at Far Flung Outdoor Center, Study Butte, Texas.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird – female- at Far Flung Outdoor Center, Study Butte, Texas.

Cactus Wren - at Far Flung Outdoor Center, Study Butte, Texas.

Cactus Wren – at Far Flung Outdoor Center, Study Butte, Texas.

Cactus Wren on Prickly Pear cactus, Far Flung Outdoor Center, Study Butte, Texas.

Cactus Wren on Prickly Pear cactus, Far Flung Outdoor Center, Study Butte, Texas.

I hope you enjoyed the photos as much as I enjoyed obtainng them.  Click on any image to see an enlargement.  More photos coming in future posts.