BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK AND THE DAVIS MOUNTAINS
May 12-19, 2001
By Francis Toldi
This is an account of a trip to Big Bend National Park in southern Texas, with a short side trip to the nearby Davis Mountains. At the end of the report I have included an annotated list of all species recorded, plus a few notes on references and resources.
Big Bend is one of those legendary destinations for North American birders. The primary draw is the rare and local Colima Warbler, though other local specialties are also very enticing. I chose to make my annual birding trip to Big Bend this year not only for a chance to see a Colima Warbler, but also to take in the spectacular desert and mountain scenery and to spend some time with an old friend who dearly loves Big Bend and has visited it many times. This was intended to be a "quality over quantity" trip. I correctly guessed that I would end the trip with a relatively small number of species seen, but what a list!
SATURDAY, MAY 12, 2001
I left San Jose International Airport early in the morning and had a long layover in Las Vegas. Sitting in the airport lobby watching the slot machines and parade of people—what a contrast to where I would be in a few short hours! Upon my arrival in Odessa/Midland, Texas I had my first pleasant surprise: the rental car agency was all out of the economy size I had booked, so I "had" to accept a spiffy convertible instead!
I drove the 3-4 hours south, initially through the West Texas oilfields, which quickly gave way to prairie and then high desert. There were already nice birds to see, even while zooming down the highway, including SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER, SWAINSON’S HAWK, and some tantalizing looks at what were probably CAVE SWALLOWS (with Cliff Swallows under the bridge over the Pecos River). A stop in Marathon for gas also produced definite CAVE SWALLOWS, nesting in the Shell station at the junction (thanks for the tip, Al!). A COMMON NIGHTHAWK flew over, vocalizing at it passed on by.
The difference in the terrain and quality of the habitat was quite startling when I entered Big Bend National Park at Persimmon Gap. I quickly saw my first ROADRUNNER and CACTUS WREN, then a pair of SCALED QUAIL, LESSER NIGHTHAWKS in fair numbers and a CURVE-BILLED THRASHER near the Panther Junction Visitor Center. All the way down the thunder boomed, the lightning flashed and I drove through periodic squalls of great intensity. I pulled into Basin Campground around 9 p.m. My friend Ron had been there for the prior week and in that time had managed to secure the best campsite in the campground. Even in the dark it was obvious that I was in a beautiful place. Two hours of conversation flew by, but then it was late and time for bed.
SUNDAY MAY 13
I crawled out of the tent just as the dawn chorus began. There were still stars overhead. We ate a quick breakfast then drove down to Rio Grande Village. As we drove, morning arrived and the splendor of this amazing place revealed itself. The rich Chihuahuan desert set against the backdrop of the rugged Chisos Mountains—what a sight!
There were also a lot of birds, though not the diversity that there often is at this time of year. I had hoped to time the trip so that I could catch the last of the migrants and the first of the nesters, but it seemed like summer was firmly in place already. I had been under the impression that it rarely rained in May, but we had thundershowers at odd intervals for much of my week in the area.
Greeting us at the parking lot near the amphitheater were 2 (MEXICAN) MALLARDS in a little pond formed by yesterday’s rain and 3 CATTLE EGRETS in a tree—not quite the species I first expected! A slow walk under the towering cottonwoods and alongside the tangles of mesquite and willow along the river yielded a number of great birds, including WHITE-WINGED DOVE, GOLDEN-FRONTED WOODPECKER, INCA DOVE, VERMILLION FLYCATCHER (little macho dudes with their red breasts puffed out seemingly on every branch), BELL’S VIREO (chattering away incessantly from the mesquite, but not easy to see well), YELLOW-BRASTED CHAT, SUMMER TANAGER, NORTHERN CARDINAL, BLUE GROSBEAK, PAINTED BUNTING (in abundance—I never found myself saying, "it’s just another Painted Bunting"), and many others. ROADRUNNERS were everywhere, just loping along under the cottonwoods. Many of these birds were in various stages of nesting—singing on territory, carrying food, nest building, even a few fledglings. At the little pond near the western end of the area we saw a BANK SWALLOW among the more common NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOWS.
We located the Black Hawk nest and waited a while at a discreet distance, but we never saw any sign of the bird(s). Another couple reported having seen one in the vicinity that morning, but all of my big black birds were Turkey Vultures and Ravens.
By now it was getting pretty hot. We stopped at the nature trail that winds through a small wetland and enjoyed close looks at a Spiny Softshell Turtle and the famous Big Bend Gambusia fish (VERY local endemic), but birds were few. The view from the top of the trail across the Rio Grande into Mexico was very scenic. The majestic Sierra del Carmen beckoned, perhaps an adventure for another day. Small farms dotted the floodplain on the Mexican side.
We drove back up to the Basin, stopping along the way at the Panther Junction Ranger Station. They have some nice exhibits there and an excellent selection of books on local natural history subjects, bird, mammal, herp checklists, etc. Also, the professional staff is well-informed and very helpful with specific questions about nature in general and birds in specific, including detailed information on finding particular birds. There is also a log of visitor’s wildlife sightings that is very interesting and helpful to review. We picked up a permit for tomorrow’s backpacking trip into the Chisos.
Back in the campground for a lazy afternoon, repacking for the backpacking and just sitting around. In the late afternoon we got a big thundershower, followed by brilliant blue skies. There were birds in the campground, all visible from my camp chair, among them SAY’S PHOEBE, VERDIN, CANYON TOWHEE and SCOTT’S ORIOLE.
After the rain stopped we drove down to the Sam Nail Ranch. Everywhere were signs of the rain—puddles in the trail, mud, and even some babbling brooks in the drywashes. In the road just above our campsite in the Basin was a nice little rattlesnake, probably a Mottled Rock Rattlesnake. I called home that night from one of the world’s most scenic telephone booths, right in the middle of the campground, with the Chisos mountains soaring above us on all sides and the last rays of the sun showing through the Window.
Still burning with beginning-of-trip energy, we made another excursion before bed, this one to Dugout Wells back on the road toward Rio Grande Village. We arrived just after sunset. A tarantula was wandering across the dirt road near the windmill. We scouted out the area in the fading light. After finding fresh Mountain Lion scat in the middle of the thicket, we were a little more vigilant about watching our whereabouts! At dusk ELF OWLS and WESTERN SCREECH OWLS called repeatedly. It was hard to get on the Elf Owls because they flitted about so much, but the Screech Owl was easy to locate and watch for a while. It caught prey and flew back to what may have been its nest.
MONDAY MAY 14
Up at the usual hour, we started up the Pinnacles Trail at about 7:00 a.m. Much to our consternation, the clouds were already thick overhead. By the time we reached the switchbacks there were a few scattered drops of rain. This is only supposed to happen in the afternoon, and not in May!!! We imagined our likely fate: sitting under a tarp by the side of the trail for 7 hours, with visions of silent Colima Warblers dancing in our heads. What happened instead was it stayed cloudy and dark, but didn’t rain. The birds weren’t exactly abundant, but there was still activity. We heard COLIMA WARBLER in the oaks at the foot of the final switchbacks up the Pinnacles, and again as we dropped into Boot Canyon, though we found the bird to be much more common along the Laguna Meadows Trail (more on that later). Among the other species were BEWICK’S WREN (very common), CANYON WREN, PINE SISKIN, MEXICAN JAY and TUFTED (BLACK-CRESTED) TITMOUSE.
The books make much of how impossibly difficult the Pinnacles Trail is and how one should only hike it going down. For me steep downhill is harder on the legs than uphill, so I was happy to go up the Pinnacles and down the more gradually sloping Laguna Meadows route. For a reasonably fit middle aged person, the Pinnacles Trail is not an unreasonable hike (assuming it is hiked in the EARLY morning, with plenty of water and food). Laguna Meadows might be a better way to go for someone who is solely on a Colima Warbler mission, since the bird can be found within a few miles of the roadhead most years.
We pushed on, only stopping occasionally, so we could make camp before the rains came. We set up our little tarp and stowed our backpacks in the food lockers at Colima #1, then looked up to see how the clouds were doing. It had decided to clear up. We shrugged, put on the daypacks, and headed off for an afternoon of exploration and birding. We hiked back to the Emory Peak turnoff, finding a cooperative COLIMA WARBLER along the way who allowed long looks after a bit of work to find him. Below Boot #3 campsite I heard a VIRGINIA’S WARBLER singing across the ravine, but didn’t feel like spending the next 2 hours searching for the bird. The song was very clear, though.
Boot Canyon is a very special place, even if Slate-throated Redstarts aren’t dropping off of every tree. The very attractive vegetation—a mix of pines and oaks, with some brushy understory and occasional cacti poking up out of solid rock (just to remind you that these are DESERT mountains!), the rugged peaks, the distant views—all add up to a magnificent place to spend some time. The possibility of a rare bird turning up doesn’t hurt a bit.
We backtracked to the Emory Peak trail and made our way to the top of that majestic peak. The summit was wonderful—clear views in all directions, the Big Bend area laid out like a relief map. The highlight for me, however, was standing in the notch just below the double summit blocks. WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS would periodically whiz by, just a few feet away. I could hear the air on their wings as they swept by at top speeds—lords of the air! What an exhilarating feeling!
We hiked back to our campsite, listening and watching for birds along the way. The clouds had largely disappeared and it was hotter at 7:00 p.m. than it had been at noon. HUTTON’S VIREO, TUFTED TITMOUSE and BEWICK’S WREN called continuously, but not much else. At dusk we walked into Boot Canyon just above the cabin and pasture area. This is a particularly beautiful stretch of the canyon where Douglas Firs are added to the mix of pine/oak forest. We heard WESTERN SCREECH-OWL and (MEXICAN) WHIP-POOR-WILL, but just as the timing was right for Flammulated Owl we noticed some strong lightning flashes on the horizon. It was still clear overhead. Nevertheless, our uneasiness made us hasten back to camp where we secured our tarp, packed away the packs and food, and hopped into the sleeping bags. No sooner were we inside then a thundershower hit. It flashed and rumbled and rained moderately for the next couple of hours, until midnight or so, and dripped for most of the night. Is that supposed to happen in May? By now I had given up trying to predict the weather.
TUESDAY MAY 15
We woke to brilliantly clear skies. After a quick energy bar breakfast—not to be confused with last night’s energy bar dinner—we wandered around a bit listening for new bird sounds. Hearing none, we headed off over the pass and down to Laguna Meadow. The same set of birds was calling from the oaks. The views down Blue Creek Canyon were splendid. About a quarter of a mile above the Blue Creek Overlook were heard the distinctive mournful call of a DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHER three times, then we could hear the bird disappearing up the hill. We waited a while, but never heard further calls and didn’t feel up to bushwhacking up the hill in search of the bird. I had heard reports of this species from this general area, so I presume this was the same bird.
New species in the Laguna Meadows area included BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER and a BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER. I was deeply engrossed in trying to photograph a Colima Warbler when the Black-throated Gray sang, so I didn’t follow up on trying to see the bird. Later I figured out that that bird is a rare Spring migrant. Oh well, add another entry into the reminder list—never, never assume! Colima Warbler was much easier to see in this stretch, from Laguna Meadow proper down the trail (back toward the Basin campground) for a couple of miles. Further down the trail we heard BLACK-CHINNED SPARROW as well.
We made it back to camp, dumped our gear and raced back down to Rio Grande Village to soak our weary bones in the Hot Springs. Now this is another interesting spot. The hot springs are still pumping out hot water in the ruins of an old bathhouse. We sat in the shallow pool, watching the Rio Grande rushing by a foot away, with Mexico a pebble toss across the river. The water temperature was 108 degrees F with the air temperature about 105. Not a place to stay for long at this hour and time of year, but we felt much improved after a short soak. We followed that with showers at Rio Grande Village, then yet another in our continuing series of lazy afternoons, this one spent with cold drinks consumed at a picnic table at RG Village, watching the Vermillion Flycatchers and Painted Buntings chase territorial interlopers around the picnic grounds.
We checked the nature trail again on the way out. No birds, but we did see a gang of 5 Javelinas (Collared Peccaries) wiping out some careless camper’s ice chest and food box. What a bunch of juvenile delinquents. As we approached our campsite in the Basin we saw a Gray Fox slipping away into the brush.
WEDNESDAY MAY 16
Another early start. We made a quick stop at Government Springs, but found only the usual birds and some fresh bear scat. A brief stop at Sam Nail was very productive. Birds at this lovely oasis included CACTUS WREN , BELL’S VIREO, YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT, PAINTED AND VARIED BUNTING, BLUE GROSSBEAK, NORTHERN CARDINAL AND PYRHHROLOXIA. We met a woman there who would patiently wait on the bench near the spring. In addition to a lovely meditative sit in a beautiful place she was rewarded with migrant sightings that we never had in our faster paced tour through the area.
Next we headed to our primary destination for the day, Blue Creek Canyon. I had heard reports of a Black-capped Vireo in this area, and my friend Ron had easily seen and heard them in this spot just a few days before. Well, not today! We did spend some time examining and admiring the beautifully restored ranch house and the nice old circular corral. We walked up the wash, hearing and seeing good birds. Among the best was a singing GRAY VIREO at the first big rock outcropping right on the wash above the corral. At the junction to the major side canyon we located another GRAY VIREO pair.
Further up the wash we found the previously reported agave (century plant), apparently the only one flowering in the entire park right now. We sat on a large rock that overlooked the agave and waited. Sure enough, in due course a female LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRD came by for a visit, as did both male and female BLACK-CHINNED HUMMINGBIRDS. We sat on the rock for a long time watching the hummingbirds come and go, the hundreds of wasps and beetles gorging themselves on the rich nectar. We watched the light on the towering red cliffs change from rich morning colors to bleached mid-day light. This was one of those "why I am a birdwatcher" moments. The Bird lured us to this spot, but the reward was the whole scene.
We finally tore ourselves from that blessed spot and wandered back down the wash to the car. A side canyon just below the red cliffs looked interesting and worth further investigation. Not too far up the wash there are oaks, including one endemic species. Perhaps this is where the Black-capped Vireos relocated? Other birds seen in the Blue Creek area included CANYON and ROCK WREN, BLACK-TAILED GNATCATCHER, RUFOUS-CROWNED AND BLACK-THROATED SPARROW and the usual gang of buntings, etc.
We drove past majestic Castalon Rock, and bought an ice cream and cold drink at the Castalon store. Sitting in the sweltering shade I noticed an odd dusty-looking dove in the parking lot. On further examination it proved to be a EURASIAN COLLARED DOVE. Apparently they are including Big Bend in the sweep north and west. I filled out a wildlife sighting card on this one, since they hadn’t been recorded in Big Bend until last year. The naturalist in charge didn’t look thrilled to hear that they had made it up river to Castalon.
The historical buildings here and at Blue Creek are being restored by very skilled local craftsmen. They have found that balance point between being faithful to historical practices and using modern materials. The workers are also very friendly and willing to talk about their methods and experiences. How they can work all day in that blazing sun is beyond me! We also made a brief stop at Cottonwood Campground, but I’ll cover it with our more thorough stop there the next morning.
Late in the afternoon, after the heat had subsided somewhat, I took a walk down to the Window overlook. It was basically birdless, but I didn’t do the hike for the birds. The views were stupendous, though I did vote the last segment of the hike on to my list of places I’d least like to be in a flash flood. Just before crawling into the tent we saw a Striped Skunk shuffle by. It wasn’t carrying any burglar’s tools or unzipping any tents, despite what the Park Service warning signs say. Nevertheless, just to be on the safe side we zipped the tent to the top, as the Park recommends.
THURSDAY MAY 17
Another pre-dawn departure. This was the time of the trip where it gets harder to wake up in the morning. It helped that on the drive down to Castalon we could put the top of the car down and feel the cool morning air all the way there. We also passed by innumerable Desert Cottontail and Black-tailed Jackrabbit and a covey or two of SCALED QUAIL. We drove straight through to Cottonwood Campground for a pleasant, but rather slow couple of hours of birding. The nesting Gray Hawks were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they have already fledged. A couple that had camped there that evening reported no presence of the birds the evening before, either. Along with our usual friends, we found 5 CEDAR WAXWING, HOODED ORIOLE, nesting ORCHARD ORIOLE (quite common there), TROPICAL and WESTERN KINGBIRD and LUCY’S WARBLER (again, knowing the song was critical). I may have lumped them in with the "usual friends," but that doesn’t mean that I said "Just another Painted Bunting and Vermillion Flycatcher" when we saw them there!
On the drive down to Santa Elena Canyon there were big 6-8" long millipedes crawling across the highway. The massive walls of the canyon itself were very beautiful, but it was starting to get VERY hot. Among the more expected riparian species a GREEN HERON flushed out of the Santa Elena Put-In parking area. I assembled a modest list of species for my brand new Chihuahuan bird list as well. Over the course of the last couple of days it totaled around 15 species.
We had lunch in Santa Elena, Mexico at a pleasant little restaurant. That must be one of the calmer border crossings in the world. A fellow rows you across the 30 foot wide river into Mexico. No passports or long lines. No curio shops, no hustles. It made for a pleasant middle of the day, and also allowed me to add grackles and cowbirds to my Chihuahua list. The view back north to Castalon Peak and the Chisos behind was breathtaking. It just amazes me how close Mexico seems, and is, here.
FRIDAY MAY 18
I woke at the usual hour, bade a fond farewell to my friend Ron, and headed off alone on the slow and roundabout way to the Davis Mountains. My first stop was back at Blue Creek and Sam Nail Ranch. There were no new birds present, but it was nice to have a last visit with the regular inhabitants. I stopped briefly in Terlingua for gas and souvenirs, then made my way up the Rio Grande through the State Park. I dutifully scanned all of the TURKEY VULTURES for Zone-tailed Hawk, but couldn’t seem to locate one. A group of 5 BLACK VULTURES in with a few TURKEY VULTURES was a bit of a surprise. A "MEXICAN" MALLARD family was one of only a few water birds seen on the entire trip. I turned north at Presidio and drove to Fort Davis via Marfa. Just south of Marfa a Swainson’s Hawk was sitting on a nest on a telephone pole with at least two fluffy young peeking out from behind (underneath?). I have no idea if any of the many ravens flying overhead were Chihuahuan Ravens, so I won’t pretend that they were.
I found a simple but clean and comfortable Motel on the north end of town and immediately headed out to Fort Davis State Park. Even though it was the middle of a warm afternoon I wanted to see what birds were present. I was also secretly hoping that the Tropical Parula reported from this location would be present, though I held out little hope that it would be singing or active in the middle of the afternoon. The helpful staff at the entrance station showed me the area where the birds had been sighted earlier in the week. I wandered around the campground, speaking to the friendly campground host and some of the campers (many campers have extensive bird feeders which attract both birds and birders). It was nice to see such species as NORTHERN CARDINAL, SUMMER TANAGER, WESTERN SCRUB JAY, CANYON TOWHEE, BLUE GROSBEAK, INDIGO BUNTING. ACORN WOODPECKER AND WHITE-WINGED DOVE. CASSIN’S KINGBIRD were very vocal and conspicuous. I gave up and headed back to the car. With my hand on the door and the key in the lock I heard a buzzy up-slurred song. Bingo! TROPICAL PARULA overhead! What a lovely bird! It allowed very close looks and even a few serviceable photographs.
Unfortunately this is a bad year for Montezuma Quail. Few birders have reported any yet, and I saw none in my two days here. I decided to drive the scenic loop, and did so in the fading light. It was a pleasant drive with a modest number of birds including SCALED QUAIL, CHIPPING and LARK SPARROWS, WESTERN BLUEBIRD, SCOTT’S ORIOLE, WESTERN WOOD-PEWEE and ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER. The directions in my book were a little confusing. I think that picnic area names must have changed since that edition was published.
I drove back to town under darkening skies, and it wasn’t only the evening that was making them dark. A few drops fell and the wind was blowing. I still checked the spot near the State Park well-described by friends, and found a BLACK HAWK settling on to its nest for the evening.
A shower (at last!), a big ol’ ribeye steak at the Hotel Limpia, a couple of volumes of The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog from the Hotel giftshop as a present for my daughter, and off to bed!
SATURDAY MAY 19
If I thought the weather was grim the previous evening, then the morning’s was downright horrible. Wind and rain started at about 7:00 a.m. It’s a good thing I hadn’t put off my search for the Tropical Parula. Few birds were willing to show themselves. No Black Hawks on the nest, no Montezuma Quail and no singing Parulas on this dark morning! It seemed like everywhere I tried it was raining harder than the place I just left. I did see three beautiful Pronghorn Antelope leaping across the the highway fences south of town. I also walked through Fort Davis National Historical Site. The buildings and museum exhibits are interesting and well worth a visit.
I drove north, stopping now and again for non-existent birds. I drove out on Boy Scout Road (Road 1832). As I drove further and further out on this lovely road the weather first lifted, then cleared. CASSIN’S SPARROW were singing and skylarking. I caught a glimpse of a BREWER’S SPARROW, among many other birds singing and flying about. The skies were clearing over the Davis Mountains. Too bad it was time for me to go.
I drove further north past Balmorhea. At the Interstate 10 Overpass (over State Route 17) there were CAVE SWALLOWS nesting alongside CLIFF SWALLOWS. It was nice to be able to make direct comparisons of the throat color. That would have to serve as my farewell image. From there I drove back to Odessa and boarded a plane for home.
REFERENCES AND RESOURCES
This isn’t a comprehensive list of resources. There are a multitude of fine books on the region. Anyone with an interest in history and nature and a big budget could fill several library shelves with pertinent material. Much of it is for sale at the excellent gift shop at Panther Junction in Big Bend National Park. The Park Service naturalists are very knowledgeable and helpful about all natural history and cultural subjects, including very specific information on birds. There is a book of bird and mammal sightings at the Panther Junction ranger station/giftshop.
Here are some of the books that I found helpful for the casual visitor to this region:
Harold Holt, A Birder’s Guide to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas (ABA). I used the 1992 version, but I’m sure the current edition is better. This also covers the Davis Mountains.
Roland Wauer, Naturalist’s Big Bend (1980). This is a VERY general introduction to the birds, plants, insects, etc. of Big Bend. It is great for general orientation and is the book to bring if weight/space is at a premium, but it doesn’t replace field guides to those various elements of the natural world. The illustrations are minimal and just for basic reference.
Roland Wauer, A Field Guide to the Birds of the Big Bend (2nd Edition, 1996). This is a terrific book, but not really a field guide. It is a comprehensive listing of the birds to be found at Big Bend. It is very useful as a reference for the status of previously reported birds in the region and for identifying good locations for birding as well.
For a map I used the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Big Bend map. This served well for both day hikes and the overnight in Boot Canyon. I never found a good map for the Davis Mountains area, and didn’t want to lug my Delorme Texas map.
There is an active and well-informed local birding network that posts sightings regularly on the internet. Try http://www.brooksdata.net/personal/bbbirders/sightings.htm for an archive of past sightings and information on how to subscribe to the list. The official Big Bend site is also very good, at http://www.nps.gov/bibe/birdpg.htm. The summaries of past seasons are particularly helpful. Follow the links back to the main Big Bend page for up to date weather reports and more.
Blake Maybank’s wonderful trip report repository has some listings for Big Bend. Check it out at http://www.birdingtheamericas.com Another good website is the "Where do you want to go birding today" site at http://www.camacdonald.com/birding/. Denis Lapage’s birding website at http://www.bsc-eoc.orgf/links/ is another of my perennial favorites.
I was not very impressed with the current Big Bend National Park concessionaire. For those that care about such things, the souvenirs are among the worst I’ve ever seen at a National Park. For souvenirs try the store in Terlingua next to the Starlight Theater (just off the highway at the ghost town).
We camped all nights in Big Bend in the Basin Campground where the evenings were relatively cool and the days into the very pleasant upper 80’s or perhaps lower 90’s. It wasn’t hard to get to the lowlands early enough for morning birding. Even in May it was already very hot in the lowlands. I’ve camped in that climate before and will again, but with a pleasant alternative in the Basin it was not hard to skip the lowland camping experience.
It’s impossible to time a visit perfectly. I had hoped that I would be early enough to catch the end of migration but late enough for the Summer nesters. By the time of my arrival virtually all of the migrants had passed through and Summer was in full force. Even one week earlier would have made a difference. Just pick a time and go. This is a place where you will definitely hear, "you should have been here yesterday." I’m sure I will cringe at the reports on what was seen the day after, too. Enjoy what you see and if you are so anxious to see more, just go back. This park could use multiple visits.
Most of the specialty species would be easy to miss without some knowledge of songs and calls. We never called any birds in by tape, but it was very helpful to have a reference cassette in the car to refresh my knowledge of particular calls before going into key habitat. I made a cassette copy of my old LP, Bird Songs of South East Arizona and South Texas (Sora Records SR 1001). This recording, or one like it, is available in tape or CD form through the usual birding publication sources.
I was happy with the number of days I allocated for Big Bend and the Davis Mountains. I could easily have spent more days, but I didn’t feel as if I was seriously short-changing myself with my schedule. I did make a strategic decision not to include the long drive to the Edwards Plateau and back, which would have greatly increased my bird list, but made Big Bend rushed. With another day I would have liked to explore Pine Canyon. Another day to explore the side canyon in Blue Creek would have have been nice, as would a morning in Campground Canyon.
This is not a place to run up a huge trip list. I saw a modest 110 species or so. A concerted effort to add more species in this region or a more skilled observer might have yielded another 25 species. Of course, adding the Edwards Plateau, Lower Rio Grande Valley or the Texas coast would have added significantly more species.
SPECIES LIST (All dates month/day)
--Green Heron – One flying up the Rio Grande near Santa Elena Canyon 5/17
--Cattle Egret – 3 in tree in campground at Rio Grande Village 5/13
--"Mexican" Mallard – 2 in rain pond at Rio Grande Village 5/17; 6 in pond near Presidio 5/18
--Black Vulture – 5 together with 3 Turkey Vultures near Presidio
--Turkey Vulture – common and widespread
--Common Black Hawk – 1 on nest near Fort Davis State Park 5/18; only visible briefly at dusk before settling into the nest; I checked the nest at various other times with no bird apparent; empty nest in Rio Grande Village (others in the area reported seeing the birds at various times)
--Swainson’s Hawk – A few on poles in the plains southwest of Odessa 5/12; 1 with fledglings on a power pole nest south of Marfa 5/18 was a great sight
--Red-tailed Hawk – widespread, though never common
--Wild Turkey – 1 suspicious individual limping around Cottonwood Campground on 5/16 and 5/17 may or may not be a wild bird; 2 in the Davis Mountains 5/18 seemed more likely wild, but with this species who knows?
--Scaled Quail – A few scattered pairs in the lower to mid elevation areas at Big Bend on various dates; 1 perched high on a pole on the backside of the Davis Mountains 5/18
--Killdeer – 1 in wetland area near Presidio 5/18
--White-winged Dove – Common and widespread
--Mourning Dove – Common and widespread
--Inca Dove – A few pairs seen and heard at Rio Grande Village 5/13 and 5/15
--Common Ground Dove – A few at Rio Grande Village 5/13, 5/15
--Eurasian Collared Dove – 1 in the parking lot in front of the Castalon store; seems to be expanding its range up the Rio Grande 5/16
--Rock Dove – Odessa, etc.
--Roadrunner – very common and almost tame along the Rio Grande lowlands, especially at Rio Grande Village campground
--Western Screech Owl – 1 heard and well seen at night at Dugout Wells 5/13; a couple heard in the distance while camping near Boot Spring 5/14-15
--Great Horned Owl – 1 calling from down canyon toward the Window, heard at dawn from the Basin Campground 5/13
--Elf Owl – A few calling and flitting about in the large cottonwoods at Dugout Wells after sunset 5/13
--Lesser Nighthawk – common at night over the lower elevation areas in Big Bend; 1 flying along at 11:00 a.m. at Cottonwood Campground 5/17
--Common Nighthawk – 1 flying overhead, calling just south of Marathon 5/12
--"Mexican" Whip-Poor-Will – a few calling at night near Boot Springs 5/14-15
--White-throated Swift – seen on various occasions throughout Big Bend, but most common and spectacular speeding through the notch at the top of Emory Peak
--Lucifer Hummingbird – 1 female coming to a flowering agave in Blue Creek Canyon 5/16, as reported by many observers
--Black-chinned Hummingbird – 1 male and 1 female at the same agave in Blue Creek Canyon 5/16
--Acorn Woodpecker – Common in the oaks in Boot Canyon 5/14-15; 1 on a telephone pole in Fort Davis State Park campground 5/18
--Golden-fronted Woodpecker – common in the Rio Grande lowlands
--Ladder-backed Woodpecker – a few in the Rio Grande lowlands; not particularly common
--Western Wood Pewee – 1 in Rio Grande Village 5/13; 1 at Hot Springs, near Rio Grande Village 5/15; a few in the picnic area in the upper Davis Mountains 5/18
--Black Phoebe – 2 along the Rio Grande in Santa Elena Canyon, both in the USA and Mexico
--Say’s Phoebe – a few in the Basin Campground and Lodge areas 5/13
--Vermillion Flycatcher – very common in the Rio Grande lowlands
--Dusky-capped Flycatcher – heard distinctive mournful call 3 times, then bird disappeared above Laguna Meadow in general location reported by others 5/15
--Ash-throated Flycatcher – A few at Rio Grande Village Campground 5/13, 5/15; common in the Davis Mountains 5/18-19
--Cassin’s Kingbird – Very common in the Davis Mountains 5/18-19; none noted in Big Bend
--Western Kingbird – Common in the prairies north of Big Bend and in the Rio Grande lowland areas
--Tropical Kingbird – at least 1 calling at Cottonwood Campground 5/16 and 5/17
--Scissor-tailed Flycatcher – A few on the wires southwest of Odessa 5/12 and 5/19
--Horned Lark – a few along the roadside south of Fort Davis 5/18
--Violet-green Swallow – a few over the Basin Campground noted 5/13
--Northern Rough-winged Swallow – Fairly common along the Rio Grande river, especially at Rio Grande Village 5/13, 5/15
--Bank Swallow – 1 at pond at western end of Rio Grande Village Campground
--Cliff Swallow - widespread
--Cave Swallow – fairly common in the plains; nesting birds at the service station at the junction of Highway US 385 in Marathon 5/12; nesting birds 5/19 under the overpass of Interstate 10 where it crosses over State Route 17
--Barn Swallow – common and widespread
--Scrub Jay – common in the Davis Mountains 5/18-19
--Mexican Jay – common at Big Bend
--Common Raven - widespread
--Tufted (Black-crested") Titmouse – abundant in Boot Canyon 5/14-15; fairly common in the Basin Campground
--Verdin – 1 singing at our campsite in the Basin Campground 5/13; others at Rio Grande Village 5/13
--Bushtit – heard and seen at various locations; only ones noted were "regular" (not "black-eared"), but then I didn’t check them all either.
--Cactus Wren – common in all desert habitats
--Rock Wren – surprisingly scarce; the only ones noted were 1 in Blue Creek Canyon 5/16 and 1 at the Window 5/16
--Canyon Wren – common and widespread, especially in Boot Canyon
--Bewick’s Wren – common and widespread in most areas
--Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – 2 in Rio Grande Village 5/13; a few along the Boot Springs trail 5/14-15
--Black-tailed Gnatcatcher – 3 in Blue Creek Canyon 5/16; 1 in Santa Elena Canyon 5/17
--Western Bluebird – 1 near McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains 5/18
--Northern Mockingbird – common and widespread
--Curve-billed Thrasher – 1 only (!) at Panther Junction Ranger Station 5/12; I have to admit that many of the drive by Mockingbirds that I didn’t stop for could have been thrashers
--Cedar Waxwing – 5 at Cottonwood Campground 5/17
--Phainopepla – 1 in mesquite at Rio Grande Village 5/13 was a bit of a surprise
--Loggerhead Shrike – 1 near Fort Stockton 5/12; others dropped out of my notes but I’m sure there were a few more!
--European Starling – unfortunately common and widespread
--Bell’s Vireo – a common little chatterbox in all lowland areas; easiest to actually SEE in Rio Grande Village
--Gray Vireo – a single bird and a pair in Blue Creek Canyon 5/16 and 5/18; best found by voice, but not hard to see once a singing bird located
--Hutton’s Vireo – Very common, almost obnoxious singer in Boot Canyon 5/14-15
--Virginia’s Warbler – 1 heard only in Boot Canyon in creek below Boot #3 camp 5/14-15
--Colima Warbler – fairly common in Boot Canyon, Laguna Meadows and along Pinnacles Trail 5/14-15; easy to hear but requires patience to see; singing male will sing from an out of view perch for many minutes on end, then fly to another unobvious perch and repeat the pattern; best strategy is to find a nearby bird singing, then just wait patiently until it moves, repeating until it lands on a visible perch; the closest birds to the Basin were only about 2 miles up the Pinnacles Trail and in the oaks just beyond the black sandy area on the Laguna Meadows Trail.
--Lucy’s Warbler – 1 picked out in the mesquite near Cottonwood Campground 5/17; another heard singing from the mesquite along the road to the Santa Elena, Mexico, crossing (U.S. side) 5/17
--Tropical Parula – singing male in Fort Davis State Park 5/18, as reported on the bird tapes; not to be expected every year! What a cooperative bird for a rarity, perching in an obvious location and singing on and off throughout the afternoon.
--Yellow Warbler – A few in the riparian tangles at various points along the Rio Grande lowlands
--Black-throated Gray Warbler – another heard only, in Laguna Meadows 5/15; I was engrossed with a Colima Warbler, heard the distinctive buzzy song of this species but didn’t follow up; on return to the car I discovered its uncommon status.
--Common Yellowthroat – fairly common along the Rio Grande, especially in Santa Elena Canyon 5/17
--Wilson’s Warbler – 2 in Blue Creek Canyon 5/18
--Yellow-breasted Chat – fairly common and surprisingly easy to see in the lowland areas
--Summer Tanager – easy (and beautiful) in the lowland areas
--Western Tanager – 1 male at Cottonwood Campground 5/16
--Northern Cardinal – common in lowland areas
--Pyrrhuloxia – harder for me to find than cardinals, but nice looks at a few at Sam Nail Ranch and Blue Creek Canyon 5/16, 5/17
--Black-headed Grosbeak – fairly common in Boot Canyon, Laguna Meadows 5/14-15
--Blue Grosbeak – common in all lowland areas
--Indigo Bunting – 1 at trailer feeder in Fort Davis State Park 5/18
--Varied Bunting – a bit elusive, but good looks at 1 in Blue Creek Canyon 5/18 and Sam Nail Ranch 5/18
--Painted Bunting – very common along the Rio Grande
--Spotted Towhee – not hard to find along the trail in to Boot Canyon
--Canyon Towhee – common at middle and higher elevations
--Cassin’s Sparrow – at least 4, probably more, singing and skylarking along Boy Scout Road (Road 1832) in the Davis Mountains 5/19
--Rufous-crowned Sparrow – various locations in Big Bend; easiest on the road to the Basin
--Chipping Sparrow – Davis Mountains scenic loop 5/18
--Brewer’s Sparrow – 1 seen along Boy Scout Road 5/19
--Black-chinned Sparrow – heard only, on the Laguna Meadow Trail near the black sandy stretch 5/15
--Lark Sparrow – a few on the Davis Mountains scenic loop 5/18
--Black-throated Sparrow – common in the open desert at low and mid elevations
--Great-tailed Grackle – along the Rio Grande, especially in Santa Elena, Mexico
--Bronzed Cowbird – Cottonwood Campground and parts west, 5/17, 5/18
--Brown-headed Cowbird – common at Rio Grande Village 5/13
--Orchard Oriole – fairly common and conspicuous nester along the Rio Grande
--Hooded Oriole – 2 at Cottonwood Campground 5/17; very rich orange color (compared to our west coast birds)
--Scott’s Oriole – fairly common in the Basin Campground area, including one singing from a tree in our camp 5/13
--House Finch – common and widespread
--Pine Siskin – a flock in the pines above the Basin Lodge, on the Pinnacles Trail 5/14
--Lesser Goldfinch – 2 birds at the Hot Springs near Rio Grande Village 5/15
--House Sparrow – common and widespread in towns and settlements
--Black-tailed Jackrabbit – fairly common in desert flats
--Desert Cottontail – in desert and brushy areas, mid to lower elevations throughout
--Eastern Cottontail – a few on the Pinnacles trail in Chisos Mountains
--Antelope Ground Squirrel – 1 seen while driving along the Rio Grande in RG State Park
--Ground Squirrel species – common in the prairies near Fort Davis
--White-tailed Deer – scattered groups in Laguna Meadow
--Mule Deer – common in the Davis Mountains
--Collared Peccary (Javelina) – a marauding group of 5 in the Rio Grande Village campground
--Gray Fox – 1 slipped quietly into the brush at mid day in the Basin Campground
--Pronghorn Antelope – a few in the prairie south of Fort Davis
--Bullfrog – heard along Rio Grande
--Big Bend Slider – 1 in the Gambusia pond at Rio Grande Village
--Spiney Softshell – 2 in the Gambusia pond at Rio Grande Village
--Collared Lizard – present in the lower elevation areas of Big Bend
--Spotted Lizard – a few on the way in to Santa Elena Canyon
--Whiptail species – fairly common in Blue Creek Canyon and other locations
--Big Bend Gambusia fish – in the Gambusia pond (!)
--Mottled Rock Rattlesnake – in the road near the Basin Campground
--Tarantula – 1 at dusk at Dugout Wells
--Millipedes – all over the roads and sandy washes along the Rio Grande at Cottonwood and Santa Elena Canyon in the early morning
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