A return to the Big Bend


We got back to San Angelo Friday afternoon, after a five hour drive from our Casita at Far Flung Outdoor Center in Study Butte, Texas.  We were exhausted, not from just the trip, but from the great four days that we spent in Big Bend National Park and Chisos Mountains of west Texas.  We saw a great number of birds, although not as many as we had hoped.  But considering it is winter time, we should be glad.  We added five more to our yearly list, including a lifer, a Bushtit.  We are at 108 for the year as of now, and my life list is up to 294.

But apart from the birding, I was also able to get some nice landscape photos from that beautiful area.  I am usually in the birding mode, and I tend to not notice the majestic scenes of Big Bend National Park.  This time I made it a point to enjoy that aspect much more.

Here are a few photos from our memorable journey.  Click on any of them to see pretty enlargements.

There were plenty of Red-tailed Hawks.

Red-tailed Hawk - 1/1600 sec, @ f6.3, ISO 250.

Red-tailed Hawk – 1/1600 sec, @ f6.3, ISO 250.

We saw plenty of White-crowned Sparrows, too.

White-crowned sparrow - 1/640 sec. @ f9, ISO 250.

White-crowned sparrow – 1/640 sec. @ f9, ISO 250.

We also saw numerous of these Loggerhead Shrikes.

Loggerhead Shrike - 1/1600 sec, @ f6.3, ISO 200.

Loggerhead Shrike – 1/1600 sec, @ f6.3, ISO 200.

The grandeur of Big Bend National Park is amazing.  Photo opportunities at every turn.  This photo is from a very high lookout point along the Ross Maxwell Highway.  Probable altitude around 5,000 feet.  You can look across the top of Kit Mountain and see the opening in the 1500 foot cliffs that mark Santa Elena Canyon, a distance of around 20 miles away.

Sotol Vista - 1/320 sec. @ ff10, +0.7 EV, ISO 200.

Sotol Vista – 1/320 sec. @ ff10, +0.7 EV, ISO 200.

This is a typical desert scene.  Cerro Castellan is in the distance.

Desert Landscape - 1/640 sec. @ f8, +0.7 EV, I SO 200.

Desert Landscape – 1/640 sec. @ f8, +0.7 EV, I SO 200.

Here is close-up detail of Cerro Castellan.

Cerro Castellan - 1/200 sec, @ f5.6, -0.3, ISO 200.

Cerro Castellan – 1/200 sec, @ f5.6, -0.3, ISO 200.

When eating a breakfast of burritos and coffee in the morning in the ghost town at Terlingua, this cactus wren was happily singing near by.

Cactus Wren - 1/3200 sec, @ f6.3, +0.3 EV, IS O 2000.

Cactus Wren – 1/3200 sec, @ f6.3, +0.3 EV, IS O 2000.

From the window formation in the Chisos Mountains, altitude 5,000 feet, looking west, you can see forever.

Window View - 1/3200 sec, @ f5.6, +0.3 EV, ISO 250.

Window View – 1/3200 sec, @ f5.6, +0.3 EV, ISO 250.

I hope you enjoyed these image of our little vacation.  We are hoping to back again soon.  Now it is back to birding for a couple of months.

Now that Valentine’s Day is nearly upon us, why don’t you have a look at my gifts in my FineArtAmerica store.  Not only prints of my images, but coffee mugs, bags, and other nice gifts featuring my photography.

Happy Birding!!!

 

Bob’s Best of the Big Bend


When I noticed that Far Flung Family Center was asking for people to submit favorite photos of the Big Bend for their Facebook page, I thought I’d post a few of my own favorite images from my past visits to that magnificent area.  This place is dear to Ann’s and my own heart.  We visit there around twice a year, and always find new thrills.  These photos are not of birds, but some of my own favorite images from Big Bend National Park

Rio Grande with Santa Elena Canyon in background

Rio Grande with Santa Elena Canyon in background

Above is one of my favorite images in Big Bend National Park.  We were on the Ross Maxwell Highway heading down towards the eastern entrance to Santa Elena Canyon.  Aproximately five miles before reaching the canyon proper, the Rio Grande makes a bend towards the highway.  I used a wide angle setting on my 24-105mm zoom that was attached to my Canon EOS 7D.  With that, I was able to compose the picture to include the canyon in the background in the upper right.

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon

This is the eastern delta of Santa Elena Canyon.  The Rio Grande comes out of the canyon here on it’s journey to the Gulf coast.  As you can see in the picture, the water is running pretty shallow at the time of this photo.  You can see some canoers  getting ready to paddle upstream into the canyon.  The walls soar upwards to 1,500 feet, and you might see Peregrine Falcons flying overhead, as they nest in these cliffs.

Indian Paintbrush

Mountain Paintbrush

One of the wildflowers that you might see in the Big Bend is this Mountain Paintbrush.  I love the vibrant, glowing reds of the blossoms.  Mountain Bluebonnets are plentiful here in the spring, also.

Desert Storm

Desert Storm

A desert rainstorm can pop up anytime, with cooling rains.  Those tall desert plants in the foreground are Ocotillo.  They are tall with glowing, fiery red blossoms on the tips of the stalks.  We have two in our yard at home that are about 18 feet tall.

Mountains in the Mist

Mountains in the Mist

This is an image that was taken on a really, really wet day, early in the year.  Heavy, water laden clouds were everywhere.  The mountains of the Chisos range were peeking about the lower clouds.  I was having difficulty keeping my cameras dry, so I was photographing from the car window.  That is not a difficult task, however.  Fortunately, traffic was very light, mostly because of the obvious bad weather.

Desert Butte

Desert Butte

On drier days, this is a very familiar sight in Big Bend National Park.  Great vistas of mountains and buttes.  In such an environment a person has trouble in deciding which way to aim the camera.

Bobcat photographed near Rio Grande Village Campground.

Bobcat photographed near Rio Grande Village Campground.

Wildlife abounds Big Bend National Park.  High in the Chisos are approximately thirty black bears.  Throughout the rest of the park are bobcat, deer, rabbit, birds, hawks, small varmints, not to mention about two dozen or more mountain lions roam.  Recently, desert long-horned goats have been introduced to the area.

I was fortunate to photograph the Bobcat near the Rio Grand Village Campground in the eastern part of the park, near Boquillas Canyon.  As I drove through the deserted campground, he, or she, leaped from the brush and promptly sat down near a tree.  I used my 100-400mm lens from the car for the photo, before it loped off, nearly in the path of a hunting coyote.

Mule Ears Peak at dusk.

Mule Ears Peak at dusk.

Another of my favorite images from the park, is the photo of the Mule Ears Peaks, taken near dusk.

I hope you have enjoyed this pictures and narratives.  Prints are available for sale if you are interested.  Just contact me for particulars.  Click on any image to see an enlargement.

Birding in the Big Bend


Ann and I are back after spending a delightful four days in the Big Bend area of west Texas.  The weather was great, actually better than normal, as the temps barely reached the 100 degree mark in the afternoon.  Cool nights made the sleeping easy.

On Monday afternoon, after arriving in Marathon, Texas, to stay the night, we decided to go to the nearby Post Park, a very nice birding area.  We saw several species there and also met another friendly birder, Dean Hansen, who was helpful in identifying some of the birds.  It was there that we picked another one for the life list.  A Red-breasted Nuthatch.  Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo to show you.  By the way, it does not have a red breast, instead it was more yellow.

Yours Truly

Yours Truly

Cholla Blossoms

Cholla Blossoms

We stayed Monday night at the historic Gage Hotel in Marathon, then Tuesday morning took the 75 mile trek south into the Big Bend National Park.  After stopping at the park headquarters at Panther Junction we made the drive up in to the heart of the Chisos Mountains to where the Basin Lodge is located.  We didn’t intend to stay there, but the trails leading from there make for great scenics and birding.  There was a black bear alert for a mother and four cubs that had been seen nearby, but as luck would have it, we didn’t get to see them.

Cactus Wren - singing a welcome song at the Panther Junction park headquarters.

Cactus Wren – singing a welcome song at the Panther Junction park headquarters.

Later that afternoon, we headed out of the west side of the park into Study Butte, where we had reservations at one of the little ‘casitas’ at Far Flung Outdoor Center.  That was to be our home for the next three nights.  After unloading our luggage and settling in, we headed to the La Kiva restaurant.  Happy hour at 5:00 featuring one dollar margaritas.  We shared a 12 ounce T-bone and were back at the cabin by 7:00 to sit on the porch and enjoy the desert evening.

Scaled Quail, also known as Blue Quail.

Scaled Quail, also known as Blue Quail.

Wednesday morning we were ready to head to Rio Grande Village RV Campground on the far east side of Big Bend NP.  It is one of the prime birding areas of the park, and it did not disappoint.  We saw several birds to add to our burgeoning list of birds we’ve seen in the park.  We learned of a rare nesting pair of Common Blackhawks that were nearby.  The area is roped off by the National Park Service in deference to a possibility of some newborns.  One of the below photos is of one of the hawks eating a lunch, while the other adult in the second image is watching over the nest.  We believe that there may already be eggs there, or will be soon.

Common Blackhawk - eating lunch

Common Blackhawk – eating lunch

Common Blackhawk - watching over nest in lower left of photo.

Common Blackhawk – watching over nest in lower left of photo.

That is all for this post.  In a few days I will tell you about the rest of the trip and another lifer.  Enjoy the photos, and click on any of them to see enlargements.

Visiting Big Bend Country


In my previous post, I wrote about the Acorn Woodpeckers that we saw during our visit.  With this writing, I would like to talk more about the trip itself.  To appreciate it more you must know where the Big Bend country is.  In far southwest Texas, the Rio Grande bends southeastward away from El Paso.  Then it abruptly makes a sharp bend and travels northeast.  That vast area in between contains Big Bend National Park.  The park and surrounding areas north and west is what we call simply the Big Bend.

The land there is raw, desolate, seemingly forbidden.  Mountains, canyons, isolated areas where it is dangerous to go unprepared.  But, having said all of that, it is also awesomely beautiful.  Ann and I made our first trip there in the mid 1980s.  We had already lived in Texas since 1961, but had never ventured there.  We had no idea that such a place existed in the state.  We were struck by the beauty, isolation, and the ever-changing views when driving through the area.

Mt. Casa Grande

It is said that on the busiest day in Big Bend NP, it is still not as busy as the Smoky Mountains NP on their slowest day.  At over 800,000 acres it is one of the largest in the park system.  But it is also one of the least visited.  Definitely one of Texas’ best kept secrets.  On our recent trip, at one point Ann and I encountered four other cars, yes, that’s right four other cars traveling behind each other.  Ann remarked that it was a traffic jam.  Although that is what actually happened, including Ann’s quote, we may have exaggerated.  But you certainly have the feeling sometimes that you are only person there.

The purpose for our trip was to go birding, do bird photography and just enjoy the quite solitude.  We have our favorite places to visit.  The ruins of San Nail’s ranch for one.  There are a few adobe walls still standing and the park service has kept the windmill in good repair.  Otherwise it it pretty well overrun with mesquite, creosote bush, etc.  Some large cottonwood trees make for good birding there.

Red-tailed Hawk

We also like to go to Rio Grande Village RV park on the east side of the park.  It is adjacent to Boquillas Canyon.  There is a delightful nature trail with a boardwalk over a wetlands area.

The “Window” formation, Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park.

A must place to see is the Chisos Mountains Basin, high in the Chisos Mountains.  You must take a spectacular drive up through Green Gulch, over the pass, then drop down into the area that is called the Basin.  There the altitude is at 5,000 feet, surrounded by mountain peaks.  A lodge is located there where you can book rooms for your stay.  From your room you may, repeat may, see deer, bear, mountain lions, and various species of birds.

For our lodging we stayed at the Casitas at Far Flung Outdoor Center.  It is located in Study Butte, outside the western entrance to the park. There you can book rafting or canoe trips through the canyons, Jeep tours, ATV trips, etc.  But to stay there you are not required to participate in any of those activities.  In the past, though, Ann and I have rafted the Rio Grande, and also took a couple of the Jeep tours.

Santa Elena Canyon

The restaurant facilities in Study Butte or Terlingua, are limited but all offer excellent food.  One of our favorites is the La Kiva.  We ate there one evening, feasting on one of the best T-bone steaks I have ever tasted.  Margaritas were only a dollar at the time we ate, which was somewhere between 5 and 7PM.

In my next post I will get back to more bird photos, and birding tales.

Big Bend National Park Images


I have been going through old images again.  It’s what I do when I don’t have anything excitingly new to publish.  I just like to see what kind of trouble I can get into, or stir up.  Anyway, here are some photos that you may not have seen.  When I am not photographing birds, my other passion is the rugged and beautiful landscape of Big Bend National Park.

Santa Elena Canyon and Ocotillo

Santa Elena Canyon is one of my favorite spots.  A person can take Ross Maxwell Scenic Highway, that travels the western flanks of the Chisos Mountains, and ends up at the mouth of this awesome canyon.  The Rio Grande River flows through it, creating the immense 1,500 foot walls, that are a scarce 50 yards apart.  A trail of less than a quarter of a mile takes you right up face-to-face with the base of these walls at the entrance.  An easy, but sandy, walk.  The above image was made from about 2 miles away, from the nearby old Maverick Road.  We had just visited the ruins of Roberto Luna’s jacale and were headed back towards the canyon.  The ocotillo was in full bloom and I couldn’t resist this shot.  It was shot on film with my old EOS3.

At another point on the highway, there is a turnoff to have a great view of the Mule Ears Peak.  You can easily identify why it got it’s name.  The view is always changing with light and time of day.  The photo that I have here was taken early in the day, if I remember correctly.  I love the ‘layered” look of the smaller foot hills.  I have photographed the peak many, many times, but I have never gotten an image that really knocked my socks off.   This one is one of my better ones.

Mule Ears Peak

On one trip we made to the BBNP, the weather was very, very rainy and drizzly.  I was excited that the mountains were sometimes covered or shrouded in cloudy mists.  It seemed that I was stopping every mile or so to shoot an impressive scene.  So, it was inevitable that I would forget where one of my images was taken.  I remember stopping for the shot, because of the peaks above the clouds, but on subsequent trips I haven’t been able to remember the place.

Mountains in the Mist

I hope that you have enjoyed these scenic photos from my past.  Click on any image to see an enlargement.

Return from Big Bend – Part IV


Okay, we will begin the long awaited Part IV of our trip.  I say long-awaited because here it is Wednesday evening and I should have started on it sooner, like last night.

Javelinas (Collared Pecaries)

So if I am lucky it will get published sometime tomorrow.  I am glad I have so many patient readers waiting in anticipation.  Heck, I even forgot where I left off.  Let me see, hmmm, oh yes, we were about to have breakfast at the Roadside Deli on our second day.  Or was it our third.  Oh, well, it doesn’t matter as long as I can get the story told.  In the meantime,  I can smell Frank Jones’ coffee brewing.

This particular day we were planning on going to do some birding at Sam Neal’s

Northern Cardinal

Ranch.  Of course, we can visit without an invitation, as Sam has been dead for nearly 100 years.  His ranch is in Big Bend National Park.  To get there you enter the park from the west side, go about 20 miles or so, until you come to the Ross Maxwell scenic highway.  You hang a right there and go about 5 miles.  You can see off on the right, the old windmill sticking up.  Thanks to the National Park Service it still works, pumping water to this tiny oasis.  Back in the day, Sam Neal’s family was acquainted with the Homer Wilson family that lived at the base of the Chisos Mountains a few miles away.  They would often travel in wagon to either place to picnic and visit.  Homer Wilson was also a rancher.

There is the obligatory sign proclaiming this to be the trailhead to Sam Neal’s place.  An easy trail of only about 500 yrds takes you back there.  There is not much there

Hermit Thrush

anymore to make you believe that there once was a thriving little farm there.  A few crumbling adobe walls are all that is left of any building.  The rest is all overgrown with mesquite, cottonwood, creosote, greaswood, and various un-recognizable grasses.

But the trail is interesting.  It continues around and through this little area.  In the center of it all, there is a quiet little placein the woods.  It is here that there is

Brown Thrasher

seepage from the windmill, that pumps when there is a slight breeze.  A crude little bench is an ideal place to sit an observe the birds, and that is where I alway like to plant my butt.  I set up my tripod and camera and watch and wait.  We are always rewarded, not only with birds, but occasionally some Collared Pecaries, or Javelinas as they are also known, wander through as they did this day.  My friend, Frank Jones, of the Roadrunner Deli, reminded me that they can be agressive and deadly with their tusks, and will go after small cats, dogs, etc.  This time they were wary of us and didn’t approach closer than about 20 feet.

On a recent visit last fall, we encountered a snake about 6 feet long.  It was an innocent, harmless, bright red Coachwhip.  That did not give Ann a thrill.  Above us

Phainopepla (male - file photo)

a Red-naped Sapsucker was tapping out a tune high in a cottonwood tree.  This trip there was Northern Cardinals, Hermit Thrushes, and Brown Thrashers.  Those are the ones that I have posted photos of here.  We also spotted a female Phainopepla, Orange-crowned Warbler, and a MacGilivray’s Warbler.  There were also several miscellaneous that I listed in a previous post.  We sat there for about three hours enjoying the sights, and the sounds of the birds.  An occasional hiker or tourist would wander through, disrupting the moment, but we patiently waited for all to be calm again.  After all, the park is for everyone.

I hope you have enjoyed the Part IV of our adventerous trip.  I really should have kept a journal so the chronology would be a bit more accurate, but I think I have described it pretty much as it was.  In actuallity, we really made two trips to Sam Neal’s ranch and this is a compilation of both trips.  It is a fun place to bird, as is the Rio Grande Village RV campground that I described in Part I, – or was it Part II. 🙂

Birding 101 According to Bob


This ought to be a lot of fun.  I was surprised to get several comments in my previous post, that several of you were surprised that we had seen so many birds.  I am flattered that you think that it is such a big deal.  Actually, many serious birders will be saying, ” You spent four days and saw only 38??”.  (Note: My original post said 35, but after going through our notes, we discovered that we had left three off the list.)

Let’s start at the beginning.  About three or four years ago, I was just photographing any thing that came to mind; air shows, balloon fests, animals, scenics, etc.  Then I happened to be visiting some close friends, and I happened to shoot pictures of some birds in her front yard.  The photos came out pretty well, but I couldn’t  identify what they were.  That is not a good thing for a photographer, not to know what he is photographing.  So I got hold of some books on birds to see what the heck I had.

Then a local lady that I know here in San Angelo saw my photographs and tried to talk me and Ann into going “birding” with a group at San Angelo State Park at, get this, 7:30 AM in the morning.  I said, “Are you nuts?  Looking at birds at 7:30 AM??  It’s cold out there here in January”

So, about two months later, when it got warmer, she asked us again and we somewhat reluctantly decided to go.  I thought, what the heck, they can see all the birds they want and I’ll photograph them.  And that is what we did, and we actually enjoyed it, albeit we didn’t know a pigeon from a parakeet. 🙂

But, you know what?  We got hooked.  We started keeping our “life lists”.  Each time we saw a bird that we could identify on sight, that got added to our list.  Of course, I tried to photograph each one, too.  In fact, it was important at first, that when we saw a new bird, that we had a photograph that we could check with in our bird guide.  It made identifying them easier.

My personal “life list” is now at 236.  I added two new ones, the Olive-sided Flycatcher and a Black-chinned Sparrow, on our trip to Big Bend.  I didn’t get decent, (publishable) photos of them, but good enough pictures of them to make identification.  There is one bird that is native only to the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park.  The Colima Warbler.  It can be found if you can take the Lost Mine Trail into the mountains.  I can’t take the hike anymore, but there is always the chance one of the birds may wander astray.  I haven’t seen one yet.  That would be a “lifer”. 🙂 By the way, out of the 236, I have photographed perhaps 150 of them.

So it goes.  Ann and I go birding around here in San Angelo whenever we get the chance.  Our goal is to see how many we can see in a day.  Ann keeps up with the list, and I have my cameras.   One day we may see only 20, another maybe 37 or more if we’re lucky.  Really, really good birders may see 65 in a day, with a yawn.

On one trip, Ann and I were going to join Sid and Suzanne Johnson on a birding trip to Lake Ivie, about 60 miles away.  We started about 8:00 one morning, and we always watch for birds on the way.  By noon we had made only 30 miles to Ballinger, Texas.  We ate lunch there, and decided to take a different route to return home.  Again with birding on the way, we made it back by 4:30PM with a total of 47 different bird sightings.  We haven’t made it to Lake Ivie yet. 🙂

Each time is a new adventure.  We never know what we might see.  We might see one that is a new bird for us.  After all, in our area there is a total of 358 different species, somewhere out there.  I sure haven’t seen them all.    But with a set of binoculars and a camera, and a handy bird guide book, it may come easier.

So all of you, grab your binoculars, head to your back yard, and you may see something new.  If you do, snap a picture, e-mail it to me and we will see what it may be.  Try these for practice.  I took two photographs of each of these two birds.  I am not sure what they are.  The first two are of what I think can be an Eastern Phoebe, an Eastern Wood Pewee, or an Olive-sided Flycatcher, or maybe something else.  I don’t know what it is and I need help.

What is it????

What is it???

The next one is, I think, some kind of sparrow, but which one is it.  Sibley’s Guide to Birds says there are 36 different types.  I don’t know.  I hope one of you can help.

What is it???What is it???

What is it??

 As you can see, sometime even photos may not help, as they don’t always show enough detail.  These photos were snapped not under the best conditions.  But you can click on them to enlarge them and maybe one of my serious birder blog readers can help me.  Or maybe you can.  I am anxious to see what kind of comments I receive.

I am hoping that some of you get hooked on this addictive hobby.  It can be great fun.  Happy Birding!!

(UPDATE:  H. J. Ruiz over at Avian 101 has identified the first one as an Eastern Phoebe, as I had already surmised it to be.  However, he also IDed the second one as a female Red-winged Blackbird.  I dropped the ball on that one.  I was researching sparrows, and never considered it to be any other.  But the markings definitely point to the blackbird.  The bird was at a distance and I mis-judged the size.  Thank you, H. J.)