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.

Re-visiting Fort Davis and Davis Mountains


For you that love to look at my photos, I have many in this post, so sit back and enjoy.

Back in September, Ann and I had visited the city of Fort Davis and the Davis Mountains State Park.  A few days ago, we decided to make a return trip and try to see more of the area than we did the first time.  I must say, there is so much to see there if you like the great outdoors; wildlife and great scenery.

We left Sunday morning early to drop our dog, Suzie off at the sitter.  Then after some breakfast at the nearby “Golden Arches”, we were on our way.  Because of the dangerous traffic through the oil fields of west Texas, we opted to take Hwy 277 due south to connect with I-10 in Sonora.  We like that way, also, because we know where all of the rest stops are located.  Always good to know.

Of course, we always are in the birding mode so we are continually on the alert for any of the avian variety.  Of course, on the interstate highways it is nearly impossible to stop to get photos.  Along the way, we did see the usual variety of doves, grackles, and some un-identifiable sparrows, plus the occasional raven.

Common Raven

Common Raven

We arrived in Fort Stockton around noon and had lunch, at you can probably guess.  You got it — the McD’s again.  Hey, I like their quarter-pounders.  From there we traveled on then connected with Hwy 17 to go through Balmorhea and on to Fort Davis.  We arrived much to early to check in to our room so we decided to have a look at the bird blinds at Davis Mountains State Park, only a few miles away.

It was very warm, so there weren’t any birds to speak of at the first blind that we stopped at, but going to the second one about a quarter mile away, it was much more promising.  We saw several species, including a Yellow-rumped Warbler, Northern Cardinal,Western Scrub Jay, White-breasted Nuthatch, Acorn Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker and a few miscellaneous sparrows, etc.

Western Scrub Jay

Western Scrub Jay

Acorn Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

After spending about an hour at the two blinds we headed to check into our room at the Davis Mountains Inn.  Click the link for photos of the inn and see information about their rates, etc.  The innkeepers are Bill and Nancy Davis.  They are wonderful people to meet.  We certainly have made great friends with them.  Together they also own properties in the city of Fort Davis.  One is the Drugstore and Art Gallery.

Speaking of the Drugstore, we ate two meals there during our stay and the food was magnificent.  We heartily recommend eating there if you visit the area.

While visiting with them, they came to admire my work, and asked me to be their featured artist at their gallery during the upcoming Fort Davis Frontier Christmas celebration.  I will be signing my book and selling it along with some of my work.  I was very honored that they asked me to do this.

On Monday morning, after a great breakfast at the inn cooked by Adrianna, we decided to return to the blinds at the Davis Mountains SP.  Both blinds were a flurry of activity.  We ended up spending most of the morning there.  We saw a total of sixteen different species.

But while at the blind, we were treated to a surprise of a different nature.  Seven Javelinas wandered in with three babies accompanying them.  What a neat thing to see.  However, I had my bird photography set-up with my 150-600mm zoom lens.  It proved to be almost too much lens for the occasion, as the Javelinas were only about twenty feet in front of me.  So the photos aren’t the greatest compositions.

adult Javelina

adult Javelina

Adult Javelina with two babies peeking.

Adult Javelina with two babies peeking.

Baby Javelinas are dwarfed by the adults.

Baby Javelinas are dwarfed by the adults.

During the afternoon we decided to make one of our favorite drives in the area.  We head south towards Marfa, Texas.  It is around a 20-mile drive on Hwy 17, but very very little traveled.  We love to take a slow leisurly drive, watching for birds along the fence lines and overhead wires.  We saw these tiny birds, plus several American Kestrels, Shrikes, etc.

American Pipit

American Pipit

Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow

After returning, it was time for supper so we bought a pizza at Murphy’s Pizza in Fort Davis, and took it back to the inn where we enjoyed a cold refreshment along with it.  We were happy with our journey so far.

The following day, after a great breakfast of pancakes and sausage cooked by Bill Davis himself, we decided to make the scenic loop that begins going northwesterly towards the McDonald’s Observatory.  We stopped there at the domes atop Mt. Locke and saw some Eastern Bluebirds and House Finches up there.

After stopping at the visitor’s center and gift shop, to use the facility, we continued on, seeing several Western Scrub Jays along the way and numerous Red-tailed Hawks.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

This loop continues around and through the Davis Mountains.  I get so much into the wildlife mode that I forget about the beautiful scenery around me.

Sawtooth Mountain

Sawtooth Mountain

Mountains with Cholla in the foreground.

Mountains with Cholla in the foreground.

I think these boulders have been there longer than that metal gate and fence.

I think these boulders have been there longer than that metal gate and fence.

That drive is only about 60-70 miles but it took Ann and I about three and a half hours to complete it.  Too many opportunities for photos.  Obviously I am not going to post all of them here.  Besides a lot of them are throw-aways.

Unfortunately all good trips must come to an end.  But – the fun is not necessarily over.  We left for home on Wednesday morning.  We take Hwy 17 north and the vista from Wild Rose Pass always blows my socks off.  That is Star Mountain that is in the distance.

Star Mountain from Wild Rose Pass

Star Mountain from Wild Rose Pass

Continuing on we come to Balmorhea State Park.  We decided to take some time there.  There are some wetlands that are always promising.  It didn’t fail us.  I got these amazing photos there.

Black Phoebe

Black Phoebe

Black Phoebe

Black Phoebe

American Coot

American Cooot

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

What a great way to finish our trip.  We continued on home from here having had a wonderful four days.

During our stay we observed 42 different species, 16 of them at the bird blinds at the Davis Mountains State Park, and the rest in the surrounding areas.

We added two more to our 2014 Big Year list, the Black Phoebe and the American Pipit, bring our current total to 196.  Only four more to go to get tour target of 200.

Click on any photo to see great enlargements.

Ft. Davis and Davis Mountains Revisited


Well, after our aborted trip last month, we finally got it right this time.  We arrived at our destination, the Davis Mountains Inn Bed and Breakfast around 1:30 on Monday afternoon.  That’s our room behind the french doors on the right.

Davis Mountains Inn

Davis Mountains Inn

Since we had a couple of hours to kill before checking in, we decided to visit the Davis Mountains State Park, and have a look at the bird viewing center.  Within a short time we caught glimpses of the following.

Summer Tanager - female

Summer Tanager – female

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

Western Scrub-Jay

Western Scrub-Jay

While all of that was going on, this squirrel decided to have a look, too.

Squirrel

Squirrel

After spending about an hour and a half there, it was time to go check in at the inn.  We had a nice room, with a king-sized bed.  It also had a jacuzzi which we didn’t use, mainly because of a previous experience with one, that we had at another place.  But that’s another funny story, for another time.  Remind me to tell you all it about sometime.

Because of a family emergency with the owners of the inn, they were unable to cook breakfast for us the following morning.  However, they also own the Fort Davis Drug Store in Fort Davis.  It doubles as a restaurant, so they paid for our meal there.

Following breakfast we decided to take the scenic loop that goes northwest towards the heart of the Davis Mountains, then circles south of them and eventually returns to the city of Fort Davis.  This loop goes to the McDonald Observatory atop Mt. Locke, elevation 6,791 feet, and about a mile above the desert below.

Approaching Mt. Locke and the McDonald Observatory

Approaching Mt. Locke and the McDonald Observatory

Atop Mt. Locke

Atop Mt. Locke

View from Mt. Locke

View from Mt. Locke

McDonald Observatory

McDonald Observatory

The last time we had visited the observatory a few years ago, we were accosted by a wintery blast as a blue norther blew in as we were atop the mountain.  We hastily made for the visitors center where we were forced to buy some warm jackets.  This time it was cool, but comfortable.

As we continued around the drive heading back towards to Fort Davis, we saw several birds, and added to our 2014 Big Year List, a Canyon Wren, Wilson’s Warbler, and the Acorn Woodpecker, bringing our current total to 185.  Another 15 to go, and we still have three months left.

We also saw this peculiar collection of boulders.  You have to use your imagination to wonder how these ended up in this position.  They are about 15 feet tall.  I wish I had posed Ann in the photo so you could see the size.

Boulders

Boulders

After getting back to the inn, we decided to take a well-deserved nap. Following that, we then went into Fort Davis, which was only a half mile away, and ate a patty melt at the drugstore slash restaurant.  Another filling meal, then relaxed on the patio before turning in for the evening.

On Wednesday, after a scrumptious breakfast of poached eggs and sausage, we went back to the Davis Mountains SP.  Here are a few of the highlights of that visit.

Lesser Goldfinch - juvenile male

Lesser Goldfinch – juvenile male

Acorn Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker

Say's Phoebe

Say’s Phoebe

We then made a short trip to the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and it was humming with hummingbirds.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird or possibly a Black-chinned.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird or possibly a Black-chinned.

female Rufous Hummingbird

female Rufous Hummingbird

On Thursday morning, it was time to say goodbye to the Davis Mountains.  I am sure we will return soon.   In all we saw a grand total of 45 different species at various times of our journey.

Nighthawks – A Mother and Child


Today has been a drizzly day.  We started to the blind at San Angelo State Park, then thought better of it.  From the direction of the wind, I knew that the drizzly rain would be blowing right back into my lens.  Then, besides, we considered that the birds probably wouldn’t be very active.

So back to the house.  Rats!  Just couldn’t think of anything to write about so started browsing through my archives.  I came across these images that I had taken several years ago, long before I started shooting RAW.  The JPEG files looked good so I started editing them

But here is the story.  About 8:30AM one morning, I got a call from a lady that was opening up her store over near the Village Shopping Center.  She had parked in back of the building, and was going to enter her rear door.  As she walked up, she spotted to creatures on the ground near the structure.  She called me and asked me to come over and identify them.

As I drove up then, at first I couldn’t make out what they were from the car.  As I walked up, though, I recognized them immediately.  They were an adult Common Nighthawk and a young one. Nighthawks don’t nest in the usual sense.  They lay there eggs on the bare ground, usually in some pebbles, etc.  I suspect the nesting area of these two were nearby, at the base of the building wall somewhere.  But there was no way of knowing for sure.

I got my cameras out of the car and commenced trying to get photos.  At first, the chick skittered away from the mom.  I tried to keep a reasonable distance, as I could see he/she was getting stressed.  Finally, the mother moved back closer.  These are two of the many exposures I was to get.

Adult Common Nighthawk with chick

Adult Common Nighthawk with chick

Common Nighthawk chick

Common Nighthawk chick

I hope you enjoy this post and photos.  Ann and I are leaving Monday morning to go back to Fort Davis.  As you know, we tried this trip a couple of weeks ago, but had to return home after I had a medical problem.  Looking back, I believe that I had got bitten by some spider, etc., and had an allergic reaction.  But all is well now, and I hope to have success in getting some new photos of the birds from that area.  So I won’t be blogging until later in the week, probably around next Friday.

Fort Davis abreviated visit.


Once again, my medical problems intervened with our anniversary trip to the Davis Mountains.  But not to worry, as I write this I am feeling fine again.

We arrived late in the afternoon on Sunday, and this is what greeted us just a few miles before we were to arrive in Fort Davis.

Gathering storm over the Davis Mountains of west Texas.

Gathering storm over the Davis Mountains of west Texas.

We were in luck as the rains held off until later that evening.  As we were unloading, this Say’s Phoebe hopped along a concrete curb.  That was a bird that we could add to our 2014 Texas Big Year list.  A nice start to our weekend.

Say's Phoebe

Say’s Phoebe

We were staying at the Davis Mountains Inn, a very nice bed-n-breakfast.  Our room was huge with king-sized bed, flat-screen TV, jacuzzi, walk-in showers, and a walk-in closet that was big enough to use as a spare bedroom.

We were early enough so after checking in and putting our stuff away, we decided to make a quick run to the bird viewing area at Davis Mountains State Park.  Immediately, we were able to see and photograph a White-breasted Nuthatch.

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

A Rufous Hummingbird lit on a nearby feeder.  I had only a few seconds to get a shot.  I rattled off a few, but unfortunately all of the images caught him as he was dipping his head to get that nectar.

Adult Rufous Hummingbird at the feed trough.

Adult Rufous Hummingbird at the feed trough.

We left after that to get some dinner then head back to our room to get some sleep, looking forward to a full next day of birding and getting some photographs.

The next morning, Monday, Annette Huffaker cooked us a very excellent breakfast of scrambled eggs, tasty sausage and a creation of hers, french toast casserole.  Breakfast was served at 8:00, but as Ann and I rise much earlier, we were there drinking coffee and sitting on the porch, watching the sunrise, and a few butterflies.

Queen Butterfly

Queen Butterfly

After eating, we headed back to the state park.  Going straight to the bird viewing area, we were then quickly rewarded with a female Black-headed Grosbeak,

female Black-headed Grosbeak

female Black-headed Grosbeak

a male Black-headed Grosbeak,

male Black-headed Grosbeak

male Black-headed Grosbeak

then a male Summer Tanager.

Summer Tanager

Summer Tanager

We saw several other species there, but the above photos were some of the highlights.  Traveling between the park and our inn, I was able to photograph a Cassin’s Kingbird.  It wasn’t a new bird for me, but it was the first time I was able to get a good photograph of one.  The Cassin’s is a rare kingbird around our home in San Angelo, but here in the Davis Mountains, they are seen quite regularly.

Cassin's Kingbird

Cassin’s Kingbird

It was about then that I experienced some medical problems, and I ended up spending the rest of the day resting in our room.  But we were happy with what we saw for the three or four hours that we were able to spend.  We saw 32 species and we added four new one to our 2014 Texas Big Year list.  We are now at 178, with our goal of 200 well in sight.

We hope to come back to the Davis Mountains soon, but we also want to visit Bob Shackleford down in Uvalde, Texas so see some great birds, and also make another trip to the Big Bend National Park area.  So if my health holds out we still have an exciting fall and winter coming up.

I hope you enjoyed this post and and the photographs.  Click on any of them to see enlargements.

 

White-breasted Nuthatch


Going through older photographs, I came across this image of a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis).  It is not a bird that you will see very often locally here in the Concho Valley.  We were spending a few days at Davis Mountains State Park in July of 2010.  We were at their bird viewing area spending some time.  After awhile I looked across the street where there is a open picnic area.  I noticed that there was a post in the ground with a spigot on it.  It was dripping water and there were several birds around it.  I picked up my tripod and 500mm lens and traipsed on over there.  Not very soon after setting up my equipment, this nutchatche showed up and I was able to get some nice photos.

White-breasted Nuthatch

Sibley’s describes it as our largest nuthatch. This species is found in open woods with mature trees, most often oak and pine trees, where it’s nasal calls are heard frequently.

Friday, January 7, 2011.   27 species

Northern Shoveler     12
American White Pelican     30
Great Blue Heron     3
Northern Harrier     1
Cooper’s Hawk     1
Red-tailed Hawk     1
American Kestrel     1
Killdeer     2
Greater Yellowlegs     6
Least Sandpiper     20
Ring-billed Gull     100
White-winged Dove     4
Mourning Dove     2
Blue Jay     1
Black-crested Titmouse     3
Bewick’s Wren     1
Northern Mockingbird     12
Curve-billed Thrasher     1
Spotted Towhee     1
Canyon Towhee     1
White-crowned Sparrow     12
Northern Cardinal     8
Pyrrhuloxia     8
Red-winged Blackbird     100
Western Meadowlark     4
House Finch     12
House Sparrow     6

Happy Birding!!

Red-Tailed Hawk Begins 2011


Well, here we go again.  I got my sightings all tallied up to date.  My life list stands at 218.  In 2010 I and Ann saw and identified 181 different species.  As I mentioned in a previous post, our original goal was 200.  We came close and we should make it in 2011, as we are now a bit more esperienced.  I also want to get an accurate count of how many of my 218 life list that I have photographed.

Red-tailed Hawk

We missed a few local ones that we should have seen, but we are planning on making a few more longer trips around the state to get some from other areas.  That includes more visits to the Big Bend NP area, Davis Mountains State Park, the X-Bar ranch, then maybe a trip or two into central Texas.  Possibly a trip to the Gulf Coast.

As far as posting to my blog, I will continue to write posts as frequently as I can.  I should be able to include at least one photograph, but some may be older ones taken some time ago.  But, nevertheless, they will be new to you.  The above image of the Red-tailed Hawk, is another from the series that I took this past week.

You may have noticed that I have far fewer flags on my counter to the right.  I was fooling around, trying to tweak it a little, and I lost all my flags.  So I had to start all over.  So I need all of my friends from all over the world to comment on one of my posts, so I get my flags back.  I promise I won’t lose them again.  Fortunately, my ClusterMap still is up to date, so you can click there and see most of my overseas readers’ locations there.

Happy Birding!!

Acorn Woodpecker and Big Bend Photos


I just came across an old photo that I took at Davis Mountains State Park.  Isn’t this one of the uglisest, cutest bird you ever saw??  🙂    It is an Acorn Woodpecker, (Melenerpes formicivorus).  It is pretty common in west Texas west of the Pecos.  Click on the image to see an enlargement.

Acorn Woodpecker

While I am at it I guess I will include some other Big Bend photos that I don’t think you have seen.  Well, maybe you have.  I have so many danged photos and sometimes I don’t remember if I have ever posted them.  The first is one more of the Santa Elena Canyon.  You can see a family preparing to take a short float trip upstream.  When this photo was taken the Rio Grande was pretty calm and not running fast.

Santa Elena Canyon

This next picture is a mountainous desert scene from somewhere in the desolate part of Big Bend National Park.  The image was captured about a year ago on one of my trips there.  I never tire of visiting that vast isolated place. 

Big Bend Landscape

Well, that’s it for this time.  Swing back around again in a few days and I’ll probably have some more to show you. 🙂

Happy birding and photographing and hiking, and etc. 🙂

Blue Jays and More


We have had several Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) hanging around our neighborhood lately.  For a while I thought it was the Northern Mockingbird that loves to tease me in my backyard.  They, the jays, can sure cause a ruckus, though.  I finally got a photo in my back yard.  The first one below.   

Blue Jay

This Western Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens) was photographed at the Cedar Gap Farm wild bird viewing area.  It is a little north of Tuscola, Texas.  For some reason or other, we in San Angelo, don’t see many scrub jays.   

Western Scrub Jay

The Mexican Jay (Aphelocoma ultramarina)  is indigenous in the United States only to the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park.  It, like the scrub jay, does not have the familiar crest  A good spot to find them is the Lost Mine Trail there.  That is where I made this photograph several years when I was still shooting on film.   

Mexican Jay

Speaking of Big Bend National Park, Ann, Jodie, and I are leaving Sunday morning for that area.  Our first stop is Marfa, Texas where we hope to see the mysterious Marfa Lights.  Quite a phenomena that no one can explain.  While there we may be able to make a quick run about 20 miles north of there and catch some birds at the Davis Mountains State Park.   

On Monday morning we will head for Lajitas, but will  take a long route down through Pinto Canyon, up around Chinati Peak to the little village of Ruidosa.  Population about 50.  From there we will head back eastward to Presidio, then down the spectacular river road along the Rio Grande, and into the resort of Lajitas.  We will be spending four nights there, using it as a base for daytrips to Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Big Bend National Park.  I hope to come home with some great photographs.