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.

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. 🙂

Big Bend Series – Part IV – El Camino del Rio

One of the most spectacular drives in the country is the El Camino del Rio, or the River Road, that runs 51 miles from Lajitas to Presidio, Texas, alongside the Rio Grande River.  At this point the river represents the international boundary between the United States and Mexico.  The river’s headwaters are in Colorado and as it flows it’s 1,248 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico it drops 12,000 feet in elevation.  However, because of damming projects for irrigation, the flow of the river has been greatly reduced to nearly a trickle in some places.  In fact, most of the water you see at this point, originates from the Rio Conchos river that flows into the Rio Grande, from Mexico, just upstream of Presidio.  But in the event of dam releases and heavy rains, the river can become the literal English translation, “Great River”.  This was illustrated to the greatest extent in the flood of 2008, when the river ran 24 feet above flood stage, doing great damage for many miles downstream from Presidio.

Before you leave Lajitas you should make a stop at the Barton Warnock Nature Center.  There you can stroll through a great nature trail, looking at the various plants, trees, and cacti of the Chihuahuan Desert.  Many bird species hang around there also.  The center offers information, passes, books, and brochures. 

Contrabando Movie Set

 Traveling from east to west you will find the Contrabando movie set a few miles outside of Lajitas.  Several movies including Dead Man Walking and other westerns have been filmed there.  You can stroll down amongt the faux building and imagine horses and bandits running with abandon.  A sad note, part of the set, including a fake church was partly destroyed in the flood of 2008.

Contraabando Movie Set

On the right for most of the way are the mountains of Big Bend Ranch State Park.  On the left is the river with Mexican mountain ranges beyond that.  There are numerous scenic pulloffs with great mountain and river views along the way. 

Further on you will come across some white volcanic ash formations on the right side of the highway.  They are the El Padre al Altar, translating into the Father at the Altar.  Some of the locals call it Penguin Rocks.  You can make your own judgements after you use your imagination.

El Padre al Altar

Going on, you will see The TeePees on the left side of the road.  This is a popular picnic area, and if you are traveling in a large semi truck or a large RV that may have trouble with difficult grades, this is the place to turn back.  You are coming up on the Big Hill.  On the left is Dark Canyon.  On the right is Santana Mesa.

Dark Canyon

The grade to the Big Hill tops out at 451 feet above the Rio Grande River.  The rocky crag that is at that point is 562 feet above it.  So get your cameras ready.  One time when we stopped, Ann was a little antsy about looking down at the river.  She heard small rocks falling down the side of Santana Mesa across the road.  She looked up with her binoculars and spotted an Oudad (a bighorn sheep) with a young, scurrying among the rocks.

View from The Big Hill

Looking west from this high point you will see the downstream exit of Colorado Canyon, not to mention a fantastic view of the river and surrounding mountains.  Further down another mile or two, you will come across Colorado Mesa on the left.  It forms the north wall of Colorado Canyon, as the river runs behind it.   You then come upon Closed Canyon.  It is a very narrow slot canyon that can be walked easily.  That is if you’re not claustrophobic.  The canyon is narrow that you can touch both sides as you go through, and each wall towers hundreds of feet above.  You can only walk so far though, as you come to a pour-off that can only be negotiated with mountain climbing gear.

The Hoodoos

The Hoodoos.  A geological name some oddly eroded rocks on the left.  Locals call them Balancing Rocks or Anvil Rocks.  Of course, the name Hoodoo comes from an African word meaning “magic”.  There is a new pull-off and parking area there, with a covered picnic table.  The river rapids along here are a favorite of kayakers.

Rancho Moreno

On the north side of the highway further on is the Rancho Moreno.   It is the ruins of the house of the Moreno family.  The entire family, save one, was wiped out with an attack of dysentary in the early 1900s.  Their windmill still stands, but not operative.

Nearing Presido you will find Fort Leaton State Historic Park  It is a reconstruction of a massive adobe-walled trading post built in 1848 by Ben Leaton, a man of dubious character.  He traded with the Apaches, the Comanches and anyone else that had anything to barter, much to the dismay of both the Mexican and U. S. governments.

Ann with ancient 2-wheel cart - Fort Leaton

So ends the brief highlights of this awesome drive.  I hope you enjoyed the photos, from my own trips there, and the narrative.  Maybe you will want to make the trip in the future.