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.

Yearning for the Big Bend

As most of you know, the Big Bend country of west Texas is my favorite of all favorite places.  Ann and I generally make at least two trips per year to that area.  Usually once in the spring, then another during the fall months.  We try to time the journeys to coincide with the spring and fall bird migrations.

So here we are in mid-summer.  Our fall trip isn’t scheduled until late September we have another couple of months to wait.  We have plans to visit Marathon, Texas on September 23 and stay at the old Gage Hotel.  While there we will bird at the Gage Gardens and Post Park.  A lot of good birds visit each location, so hopefully I can get some new photographs along with maybe seeing some new lifers.

Great Roadrunner

On Monday September 24 the real fun starts.  We will be staying at the Far Flung Casitas until Friday morning.  Located in Terlingua/Study Butte area these beautiful little cabins are the best places to rest between “play times”.  They are centrally located for day trips in any direction.

Rio Grande with Santa Elena Canyon in background

Big Bend National Park is just a few miles east.  Going south and west along the El Camino Del Rio, (River Road), Hwy. 170, is probably one of the top ten scenic drives in the country.  To the north lies the city of Alpine, home of Sul Ross University.  Further west of Alpine is the city of Marfa, where you can see the eerie “Marfa Lights“.  There is a road that heads south from a point just west of Marfa that takes you on a spectacular down through Pinto Canyon and around the Chinati Mountains.

Sora photographed at Rio Grande Village, Big Bend National Park.

Getting back to our personal plans, we intend to do a lot of birding in Big Bend National Park.  Rio Grande Village RV Park is one our favorite places to see a lot of birds.  There is where you can try a great nature trail that winds through a wetland with a boardwalk, then up to some high points for some great scenic views.

Bobcat photographed at Rio Grande Village, Big Bend National Park

The Sam Neil Ranch ruins provides great birding opportunities.  The old windmill still works, pumping some water through this seemingly little oasis.  Watch out for marauding Javelinas.  Similarily, a few miles away is Dugout Wells, another shaded area where birds and an occasional Bobcat hang out.

Red-tailed Hawk – Big Bend National Park

We also have plans for a guided birding trip provided by Mark Flippo, a  bird expert of the Big Bend region, and hopefully a drive to Carolyn Ohl-Johnson’s Christmas Mountains Oasis.  Click her link  to read more about her personal birding area.

So now you can understand why we are in a restless mode right now.  After reading this post, you may be inclined to join us.  Click on any photo to see an enlargement.  Some of the images may be found in my new book, which I am shamelessly promoting every chance I get.  Click this link to preview and/or purchase a copy.  Or contact me at