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.

Come visit west Texas with me……

Today, I am going to get away from my usual subject of birds, and give you a sampling of the images of west Texas that you may see if you travel here.  These photos have been compiled over the past ten to twenty years, maybe more.  A few I may have posted before, but most of them should be new to you.  This post is best watched on your computer.  Click on any image to see enlargements.

1.  Twin Mountains.   Also called Twin Buttes and a few other imaginary names that the locals thought of.  It is located just outside the western city limits of San Angelo, Texas.

Twin Mounains (Twin Buttes)

Twin Mountains

2.  El Capitan.  Located in far west Texas, at the southern end of the Guadalupe Mountains.  The higher peak behind it is Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas.

El Capitan

El Capitan

3.  Painted RocksAlong the Concho River near Paint Rock, Texas, for about one half mile, there are about 1,500 pictographs along the 75 foot high bluffs.  The age of some of them are estimated to be perhaps 1,000 years old.  I picked out one single area for this image, to have a close-up of one of the pictographs.

Pictographs at Paint Rock, Texas.

Pictographs at Paint Rock, Texas.

4.  Monahans State Park Sand Dunes.  On this particular day, the wind was fierce and these sunflowers were swaying in the strong breeze.

Sun flowers in the wind.

Sun flowers in the wind.

5.  Road to Nipple Peak.  No explanation needed for the naming of the mountain peak.  Near Robert Lee, Texas.

Road to Nipple Peak

Road to Nipple Peak

6.  Antelope at Blue Mountain.  This landmark mountain is between Marfa and Fort Davis, Texas.  The area is populated with several Pronghorned Antelope.

Pronghorned Antelope grazing near Blue Mountain.

Pronghorned Antelope grazing near Blue Mountain.

7. Mule Ears Peak at Dusk.  Aptly named mountain peak in Big Bend National Park.

Dusk at Mule Ears Peak

Dusk at Mule Ears Peak

8.  Pecos River High Bridge.  Located on Hwy 90 near Langtry, Texas, this 1,310 foot bridge spans the Pecos River Gorge 273 feet above the water.  This image faces north, but about two miles south of the bridge, the river meets it’s confluence with the Rio Grande.

Pecos River High Bridge

Pecos River High Bridge

9.  Ghost Town ruins.  Old adobe ruins near the ghost town of Terlingua Texas.

Ghost Town ruins at Terlingua, Texas.

Ghost Town ruins at Terlingua, Texas.

10.  Adobe house.  This structure is located on the Contrabando Movie Set near Lajitas, Texas.  Along the Rio Grande, this site has been the location for several western movies.

Casa Adobe

Casa Adobe

11.  West Texas Storm.  I caught this image of a building storm near Alpine, Texas.

West Texax thunder storm.

West Texas thunder storm.

12.  Wild Rose Pass.  This stunning vista greets you as you travel Hwy 17 going north from Fort Davis, Texas.

Wild Ross Pass

Wild Rose Pass

13.  West Texas windmill.  A familiar sight as you travel through the big sky ranch country of west Texas.

Windmill and stock tanks in west Texas.

Windmill and stock tanks in west Texas.

14.  Old Barn and Wagon.  Somewhere in west Texas.

Old Barn and Wagon

Old Barn and Wagon

15.  Mountains in the Mist.  I believe that I have posted this image in a previous post, but it is one of my personal favorites.  Photographed in Big Bend National Park, on a very cool and rainy day.

"Mountains in the Mist"

“Mountains in the Mist”

I hope you have enjoyed this little tour of my adopted home of west Texas.  Click on any image to see beautiful enlargements.  I will be traveling out through that area again during the next few months and I will be hoping to come back with another nice collection for you.




Western Bluebirds in West Texas

There are plenty of Eastern Bluebirds around west Texas.  However, there is another bluebird  that is not seen very often here, and that is the Western Bluebird, (Sialia mexicana).  Yesterday I was lucky enough to see about a half dozen of them in a small local park area.  Besides that, I was also fortunate to be able to get my vehicle close enough for these pictures.

Western Bluebird

Western Bluebird

Western Bluebird

Western Bluebird

Now compare these with the image below of an Eastern Bluebird, (Sialia sialis).  The blue covers the entire head and chin of the Western, whereas on the Eastern the blue stops just below the beak.  The Western belly is more grayish, in contrast to the bright white belly of the Eastern.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

The Eastern is found pretty much in the entire United States west of the Rockies.  You can see the Western usually in very far West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and the Pacific coast.  Here in San Angelo, we are about 300 miles east of their usual range.  Enjoy the images and click in any of them to see an enlargement.

Red-tailed Hawks – More from the Big Bend

To expound a bit more on my previous post about photographing tiny birds I would like to offer this tip.  Birders like to walk through areas and look for birds.  This is all well and good.  I, as a birder, like to do that on occasion myself.  However, as a bird photographer with heavy equipment, I prefer to find a location that is a bit more sheltered to shoot from.

One such place might be a bird blind, or an area where there might be feeders, etc, located, along with a sheltered place for the photographer.  I do a lot of my work from such places, although it is not my favorite.  I prefer to not have my photos include feeders, seed trays, etc.  I prefer to have the natural look.

So, my favorite place is in my car.  It is a natural blind.  Birds are not afraid of it, and I can maneuver it into some isolated places for better sight lines.  I usually drive very slowly, around 5 mph or slower, creeping through woods, parks, and empty roadways.  If I come across a copse of trees where there is bird activity, I come to a stop.  With patience, you will see birds flitting between trees.  I keep my big lens resting on my “noodle”, on the window sill.

My only pet peeve about all of this, is when the action takes place outside the passenger side window.  That can be exasperating.  That is when I slowly move the car around for better position.  I have tried to quietly get out of the car, to take a photo over the roof, or from behind it, but almost every time the bird gets spooked.  It is so amazing.  I can get sometimes within 15 feet with the car and get great shots, but if I leave it when I am 40 or 50 feet away, the birds scatter.

There are times, though, that I find myself in a large area of bird activity, some times in parks.  I have been able to set up my tripod, maybe next to a picnic table for comfort, and just watch and wait.  This is particularly nice it the trees are large and open like large oaks.

So, try these methods.  I think that you will find that you will come away with more usable images.

I also love photographing raptors.  One of my favorite subjects, and the one that I have the most opportunities to shoot, is the Red-tailed Hawk.  The following three were shot last week in or near Big Bend National Park.  All were photographed from my car, but in all cases, they were much farther away.

Red-tailed Hawk in tree.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk in ocotillo.

In an intial post about our visit to the Big Bend I erred in quoting the number of species that we saw.  After carefully auditing our lists, we discovered that we had seen a total of 60 species.  I wish that I could have photographed all of them.  As it is, we still didn’t see any of the birds that should be arriving for the winter, or the list might have been greater.  For you who might be interested in seeing what there, is to view there here is our complete list.

  1. Red-tailed Hawk
  2. White-winged Dove
  3. Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
  4. Turkey Vulture
  5. American Kestrel
  6. Chihuahuan Raven
  7. Vermilion Flycatcher
  8. Eurasion Collared Dove
  9. Northern Mockingbird
  10. American Coot
  11. Golden-fronted Woodpecker
  12. Townsend Warbler
  13. Black Vulture
  14. Black-throated Sparrow
  15. House Finch
  16. Mourning Dove
  17. Say’s Phoebe
  18. Wild Turkey
  19. Canyon Towhee
  20. Northern Flicker
  21. Red-naped Sapsucker
  22. Blue Grosbeak
  23. Cassin’s Kingbird
  24. Eastern Phoebe
  25. Loggerhead Shrike
  26. Greater Roadrunner
  27. Sage Thrasher
  28. Scaled Quail
  29. House Sparrow
  30. Yellow-headed Blackbird
  31. Clay-colored Sparrow
  32. Western Wood Peewee
  33. Yellow-billed Sapsucker
  34. Wilson’s Warbler
  35. Brown-headed Cowbird
  36. Vesper Sparrow
  37. Belted Kingfisher
  38. Black-chinned Hummingbird
  39. Nashville Warbler
  40. Chipping Sparrow
  41. White-crowned Sparrow
  42. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  43. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  44. Pyrrhuloxia
  45. Lesser Goldfinch
  46. Ladder-backed Woodpecker
  47. Orange-crowned Warbler
  48. Northern Cardinal
  49. Inca Dove
  50. Yellow-breasted Chat
  51. Cactus Wren
  52. Acorn Woodpecker
  53. Steller’s Jay
  54. Mexican Jay
  55. Scott’s Oriole
  56. Common Grackle
  57. Northern Harrier
  58. Bell’s Vireo
  59. Western Scrub Jay
  60. Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Another Pyrrhuloxia and Hall of Fame induction

After reading this post, please see the update at bottom.

For this image, I was driving around San Angelo State Park, and I spotted the Pyrrhuloxia singing away in the top of a tree.  He appeared as a silhouette against the sky.  I propped my Canon EOS 7D with 500mm lens and 1.4 tele-converter on the windowsill of the car, cushioning it with a Puffin’ Pad.  Exposure was 1/1250 sec. @ f8, -0.3EV, ISO 100.  Spot metering and aperture priority.  Post editing in Photoshop CS5 aided by DeNoise and Focus Magic.

Pyrrhuloxia singing in top of tree.

In other news, you have probably read in my “About Me” page about my past career in music.  In the early 1960s I played with the Cavaliers, a band from here in San Angelo, Texas for a short period.  They recorded the famous song “Last Kiss” written by Wayne Cochran and  sang by J. Frank Wilson.  Because of another commitment, I didn’t play sax on the record as no sax part was needed in the song.  Anyway, the band, me included, have been inducted into the West Texas Music Hall of Fame. Sid Holmes, the leader, has written a book, “Rockabilly Heaven”.  It is the untold story of the Cavaliers, and also tells about the music scene of the 50s and 60s in west Texas.  It is available from Ft. Phantom Lake Publishing, 6204 S. Parkway, Ft. Worth, TX 76134.  Or contact  On page 95 there is a handsome photo of yours truly. 

I was instrumental in the hiring of J. Frank Wilson to the band.  We needed a lead vocalist and we heard about this young man that was stationed at the nearby air base, and was near the end of his enlistment.  We auditioned him.  Our drummer, our bass player, and I all thought that he couldn’t sing a lick.  However, Sid Holmes, the leader thought otherwise and the rest is history.  It turned out that with the band backing him up he could blend in easier. The record sold millions, topped the charts for many months and repeated in later years when it was re-corded by Pearl Jam in 1995.

J. Frank Wilson was a one-hit wonder.  He left the Cavaliers in 1964, deciding to go single.  He never made another hit record.  He died a pauper, a few short years ago, in south Texas, where he was working as a janitor in a nursing home.  But, the song he made famous, “Last Kiss”, a song about a girl dying in a car crash, lives on.  I am proud that I was part of the legacy.

IMPORTANT UPDATE – 3/15/2012 –  In conversation with Sid Holmes, the leader of the Cavaliers, I have found that only J. Frank Wilson was elected to the West Texas Music Hall of Fame.  That was because his name was on the record, “Last Kiss” with the Cavaliers backing him up.  However, the Cavaliers band, including me, was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.  That puts us in stellar company with Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Roy Orbison and the many others of that era.

The cute Scaled (Blue) Quail

In going through some more images from the past, I remembered these that are from early summer of 2007.  The Scaled Quail (Callipepla squamata), also known as Blue Quail.  A medium-sized, short-tailed quail with a tufted crest.  Feathers have a scaled appearance.  In my opinion, the numbers of them in west Texas are diminishing, as I haven’t seen them as often as I used to.

I have been fortunate to sell one of my photographs to an advertising agency.  Here I have three more images that you may enjoy.  They were taken about four years ago, when I was still using an old Canon EOS 20D, but still had my Canon 100-400mm lens.  I used Partial metering, at Aperture priority on all these images.

Scaled Quail

1/250 sec. @ f8 – ISO 400

Scaled Quail

1/400 sec. @ f5.6 – ISO 200

Scaled Quail

1/640 sec. @ f5.6 – ISO 200

I hope you enjoyed these images.  Click on any of them to see enlarged photos.

Pecos River High Bridge – HDR images

There has been a lot of talk about HDR imaging.  It brings to mind one of my experiences.  Back in July of 2008 Ann and I were heading for the Big Bend country of west Texas.  We took the long way, driving due south to Del Rio, then heading northwest on Highway 90.  That highway follows the course of the Rio Grande River.  Along the way we go through Langtry, the home of the now deceased Judge Roy Bean, who ruled that part of the state for many year with his gavel and a six-gun.

A few more miles on, actually only 45 miles from Del Rio, we come to the confluence of the Pecos River, that flows from the north to join the Rio Grande.  The Pecos River High Bridge rises 273 feet above the water.  From that point, you can look south for a couple of  miles, and actually see where the Pecos joins the Rio Grande.

It is a very desolate, hard, hot, dry climate along there, and the Mexican border is only a few hundred yards to the south of the highway.  Nothing of any use grows there and the hard rock is only inches below the scrub and weeds.  Nothing moves much either, except for the occasional Border Patrol vehicle.  It is at a little turnoff that I took these pictures of the bridge and the river itself.

But I have gotten off the track of this story a bit.  I had been reading about HDR imaging, so at this site I decided to take a series of bracketed photos to try out the procedure.  The idea is to take three exposures, one under-exposed, one at the proper exposure and one over-exposed.  I took about five of these series of bracketed images, intending to try the procedure out upon returning home.

Well, as things tend to do, all was forgotten.  I forgot all about the images that I had taken – that is until this morning, as I was going through some more old stuff.  I don’t think I had the proper software back in 2008 anyway.  But now I do. I have PhotoMatix Pro.

These first three images are the three original images, exposed the way I explained above.  The fourth image is the final HDR image after using that software.  You can see that there is a vast difference from the original normal exposure.  The greatest thing about it was, that it took only a few minutes using the PhotoMatix software.

Normal Exposure



Pecos River High Bridge - final HDR image

Okay, let’s show you another one.  Same sequence.

Normal exposure



Pecos River High Bridge #2 - final HDR image

Okay, how about a third series, then we’ll call it a day.  In this image, if you look to the left, or south, you can see the end of the cliffs.  That is where the Pecos River joins the Rio Grande River.  The land to the far left and top of the image is Mexico.

Normal exposure



Pecos River High Bridge #3 - final HDR image

That was fun.  I hope you enjoyed looking at this amazing procedure.  Well, I am heading back to the Big Bend this fall, and hope to get some more eye-popping images.

Going Down to the X-Bar Ranch

Today Ann and I are going down to the X-Bar Ranch to stay until coming back on Thursday.  It is an excellent birding spot so we hope to see some of the birds coming north during the migration.  Click on the above link to see more about it.

Due to the fires here in west Texas that you have probably read about, we haven’t been out much because of the smoke in the air.  We have a fire that stopped at our northern city limits, before the wind changed and started moving it north.  As of this writing it has burned 130,000 acres and is still moving north.  Fortunately, so far there have been no loss of life and property damage has been minimal.  It has managed to skirt around the city of Robert Lee.

We did get out for a little bit yesterday morning to check on the bird blind at San Angelo State Park.  Here are a couple images that I was able to get.  I hope you enjoy them.  Of course, click on either of them to see enlarged image.

Black-crested Titmouse


Cotton-tailed Rabbit

 Most likely, this will be my last post until we return.  I’m hoping to have a few more images for you.

Off to the Big Bend again

This will probably be my last post for perhaps a week or so.  We are heading to the Big Bend country of west Texas Monday morning.  This time we are renting the Lajitas House at where else, Lajitas, Texas.  Check this link to see what we will be enjoying for three days:   I am sure we will be sitting on that patio sipping a margarita or two, and aiming my camera at all the great surounding areas.

We will probably check out all of our favorite places in Big Bend National Park;  Santa Elena Canyou where we may see some Peregrine Falcons.  Rio Grande Village camping area is a great birding area, plus we may see a Bobcat or a Coyote.  There is also a great Nature Trail with a board-walk crossing some wetlands.

Floating the Rio Grande - photographed from another raft.

I don’t think we are planning on rafting the Rio Grande this trip but here is a photo of Ann and I preparing to go on a previous trip.  The little half-day float trip that we ususally do is really easy.  Just a few little water rapids splashing over the bow, just enough to make it fun, without worrying about capsizing.

Ann and I preparing to run the rapids of the Rio Grande River

The ruins of the Sam Neil Ranch is a great place to see lots of small birds.  You may also be surprised by a bunch of Collared Peccaries, commonly known as Javelinas.  You may smell them before you see them.  However, they are also quite noisy.

This jacal, or dugout, is on the Old Maverick Road.  It has an interesting history.  It was built by Roberto Luna after his marriage, who lived there until his death in1953 at the age of 103.  He farmed off the land.

Roberto Luna's jacal.

You can’t ignore the Chisos Mountains, the dominant range that is visible from every point in the park.  Elevations around 8,000 feet.  The Basin is an area in the middle of the mountains where the Lodge and camping area are located.  The floor of the Basin is at an elevation of 5,000 feet so you are surrounded by the peaks.  Great birding there, also.

Chisos Mountains

Driving west from Lajitas to Presidio on Hwy 170 is one of most spectacular scenic drives in the country.  At one point, called locally the Big Hill, you are about 450 feet above the Rio Grande River.  This drive is a must if you are in the area.  Here is a photo of Ann standing precariously above the river.  Don’t step back, dear. 🙂

Ann at the Big Hill

So,when we get back, maybe I will have some more interesting images to show you.   By the way, click on any of the above images to see enlargements.

I am still transferring pictures into my iPad.   Holy Moley, Batman, I hadn’t realized how many images I had wanted to move.  I have come across some pictures that I forgot I had.

West Texas Happy New Year!

Here it is just a few hours left in the year.  I have been ‘outta pocket’ the last couple of days.  Getting end of year tax reports, bookkeeping, etc. to end the year.  But also doing a little birding, trying to get my annual bird count up.  I believe I saw 180 species, but was shooting for 200.  But a new year dawns.  Here are a couple of shots that I got yesterday I thought you might enjoy.

Mourning Dove

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

I want to wish all my readers, far and wide, the most joyous and Happy New Year.