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Big Bend National Park Birding Trip
May 27th-30th 2005

Blind Prickly Pear CactusOver Memorial weekend a friend and I went birding to Big Bend. We had been several times before and expected no lifers on this trip. Of course its always nice to see birds that we don't see too often, such as the Colima Warbler, Mexican Jays and Scott's Orioles, but then there's also that huge expanse of beautiful country, the mountains, the plant life, the animals and the history of the people who lived there before us. On this trip we did spend more time focusing on the history and homesteads of several families including the Wilson's and Nail's. Being there it was easier to imagine their lives, their hardships and successes of living in such a challenging environment.
The trip was also different because we camped, something I've always wanted to do in Big Bend. We left at around 6pm on the Thursday night and drove the 10 hrs west, finally arriving there at approximately 5am. It was still dark but we managed to find a site for our camp and as quietly as we could got one of the tents up. As soon as the sun started to rise however we set off for the day to do some hiking and birding. We could finish the other camp equipment at the end of the day.
Day 1 - After registering at Panther Junction and checking out a few of the birds there (Black-throated sparrow, Scaled Quail), we headed for Dugout Wells. This small oasis in the dessert is good for tons of Bells Vireo, Western Kingbirds, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Pyrrhuloxia, Western Wood-Pewee, Cactus wrens and Roadrunners. We then went on to Rio Grand Village and added birds such as Blue Grosbeak, Cassin's Kingbird, Painted Buntings Vermillion flycatchers, Yellow-billed cuckoos, Chats, Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, Green Heron, Hepatic & Western Tanagers and a nice Common Black-Hawk which flew over.
By the time we were done here the weather was warming up pretty good. We then made a quick stop at Boquillas canyon, more for the scenery than anything else but it was here we had probably our most exciting moment of the trip! There we were, walking down the sandy trail toward the canyon entrance, under a shady part covered with bamboo. We were looking up (of course!) and chatting away when all of a sudden a loud noise made me jump out of my skin! There on the ground 3 feet in front of me was a beautiful Black-tailed Rattlesnake coiled up ready to strike and rattling that tail furiously! Of course I was the one in front but I was warned in time, thankfully! As soon as our hearts calmed down a bit out came the cameras as we admired this awesome creature. Hey, it wouldn't be a Big Bend trip if we didn't see at least ONE snake! He slowly made his way across the path and we watched him disappear into the bushes. We continued on, as alert as we could be just in case there were any other snakes around! Other than Ravens & a Say's Phoebe we enjoyed the scenery and then headed back.
Next was Hot Springs, just to see it. There it was steaming away and the temperature outside by now was around 85. The hot spring would have to wait for a cooler day but we did see 4 rock wrens, Verdin, Canyon Wren, more Bell's vireos and nesting Cliff Swallows nesting in, dare I say it, cliffs!
It was a long day and we called it quits early as we had driven the 10 hours the night before and were finding our eyes were not co-operating any more. We headed back to camp and continued to set up the other tent and sort out our food etc. That done, an early meal was in order and an early night. Oh yea - the night - and what a night it was! Around 7:30pm clouds started rolling in and I had one heck of a headache that would NOT budge, normally a sign of a storm. Sure enough we were nailed with one heck of a thunder storm with some of the brightest lightening I've ever seen! The wind and the rain came and the tent started shaking to the point where I seriously thought there was a bear out there! I had ear plugs thankfully as I wouldn't have slept at all if it were not for those. I took them out at one point due to the extreme brightness of the lightening and I wished I hadn't because it was so LOUD out there! Needless to say I put them back in as quick as I could and tried not to think of the state of the tent or the amount of water I was expecting to take in. I slept soundly. The next morning was clear and cool and came to find out that my birding colleague did not make the night as comfortably as myself and got completely flooded out. Thank goodness for the car! He has since bought a new tent :-)
Day 2 - Even though the night was rough we were up early and hit the trail. Today we were to do the Laguna meadow / Boot Springs trail which is about an 8 mile round trip without adding on a couple of the other trails. It was a cool fresh morning around 70 & we took our time heading up to Laguna Meadow, taking in the gorgeous scenery, birds and animals & the wonderful fresh mountain air. Mexican Jays followed us around a few of the switch-backs as they normaly do. Spotted Towhees were singing loudly, telling us to "drink our tea" which we didn't have, and Bushtits worked the trees. Before reaching the Meadow we had our first Colima Warbler which perched right in the open for great looks. Another was found in the meadow itself along with a Broad-tailed Hummingbird, a species which always seems to be in the same spot! Ground squirells played on the cliff side and there were many species of cactus in flower but the hummingbird attracting Agaves were still a few weeks away from opening up at this altitude. Down in the desert they were flowering.
We also decided to do the South Rim trail - we were tired from yesterday so why not exhaust ourselves with an extra 3 miles? On reaching the Rim with its outstanding views and a 2000 drop straight down we were greeted by an Olive Sided Flycatcher. Lots of Cordilleran Flycatchers flew around as well as Plumbeous & Hutton's Vireos, Dusky Flycatcher, Violet-Green Swallow & White-throated Swifts. On our way back toward the Boot Spring trail we came accross some scat - Mountain Lion? Come to find out later that right before we had gone down the South Rim Trail hikers 1hr before us saw a Mountain lion pulling a deer accross the trail and into the scrub! We had JUST missed it! We were so mad, as that is one animal we'd loved to have seen - from a distance of course!
Headed for Boot Spring and then the hike back down we picked up Acorn woodpeckers, Blue-throated Hummingbird and a few more Colima Warblers making a total of 5. It was a wonderful day for a hike up there in the mountains & we covered approximately 11 miles.
Day 3 - After another stormy night (Not QUITE so bad as last night but still a lot of rain!) we headed out for Cottonwood campground to get some Lucy's Warblers, which we found, along with Hepatic Tanager, lots of Vermillion Flycatchers, Common Yellowthroat, Spotted Towhee, Orchard & Hooded Orioles, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, American Goldfinch and a Wild Turkey hanging out on the ground with Turkey Vultures! Also there were these little red bugs. We picked them up, took photos to identify them later on and come to find out that they were Chiggers! I guess I've just never seen a Chigger in the larval stage up close and personal!
Next we headed for Santa Elena Canyon. Neither of us had actually hiked the mile long trail that goes into the canyon itself and as it was somewhere new we thought we give it a try. We gathered all our snacks and enough water for the hike and when we got to the beginning of the trail a sign was posted "Trail closed due to high water". Due to the heavy storms over the past few days the Rio Grand and the Terlingua were both flowing pretty good. We were bummed. To get to the trail you first had to cross the Terlingua (which is on US soil) which is normally shallower and not as wide. Today however it was about 50 foot wide or so and flowing pretty good. We walked around the area for a while until suddenly we see these hikers crossing BACK over the river from the other side! We watched them to see where they would cross and if they'd make it! The water level came just below their shorts. They all crossed over just fine. Hmmmmm... "Lets do it"! So we changed our shoes & off we went and got across without any problems. We were well aware that a flash flood could come down at any time so we were not going to hike the whole way in, but got three quaters of the way. It was amazing! HUGE cliffs either side of the Rio Grand River made every sound echo. There were not too many birds to speak of but it didn't matter. It was just awesome in that canyon! There was a Yellow-breasted Chat, several Cliff Swallows, Say's Pheobe and even a Common Black-Hawk before we entered. However, the nicest birds we saw there were two Peregrine Falcons flying up high toward the top of the canyon walls. They soared around in circles and called - the perfect setting for such birds!
The river was about the same when we crossed back over it and although there was a slight risk in doing the trail it was SO worth it!
By about 2:30pm it was getting HOT! We decided to hike to Cattail Falls were we could just linger a while in the shade of the oasis of trees there at the base of the falls. We drove down the dirt entry road and there were several Agave Century Plants in full flower. We waited and sure enough saw a couple of Lucifer Hummingbirds fly in to feed from the bright yellow flowers. We continued on, parked the car and headed toward Oak Creek. Another reason we wanted to see the Cattail Falls area again was due to a family, the "Wilson" family, that lived here at Oak Creek in the 1940's. Their house was situated here in the grove of trees at the beginning of the trail and we wanted to try and recognize where some of the homestead used to be. There is no sign of the house any longer but we could still picture "Patricia Wilson" * as a little girl playing in this exact area in her bare feet! Their nearest neighbours were the "Nails" (Sam Nail) which lived in their ranch 2 miles away.
After resting at the Falls for a while we hiked back out and as we left the oasis we were bid farewell by an old friend, the Canyon Wren, which always seems to live here at the falls. Several years ago we watched as a Mother Canyon Wren was encouraging her young to leave the nest which was very humorous to watch as the one kept falling down to the ground only to fly up and try again! Maybe this was one of those young? We hoped so. We had heard it sing, we were happy!
After our hike we returned to Rio Grand Village for showers and looked forward to another good meal at the Chisos Lodge. I was ready for that glass of wine!
Day 4 - One more time the storms rolled through our campground in the Chisos Basin but waking up to cool fresh mornings made it all worthwhile. Today we just had the morning to bird as we were planning on heading back to Fort Worth by noon. The best hike for the morning was the Window Trail. We set out just after sunrise and tried to pick out the birds from the morning chorus. Cactus and Canyon Wrens, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Canyon Towhee, Varied and Indigo Buntings, Summer Tanager, Broad-tailed Hummers, Violet green Swallows and Band Pigeon, among several others were spotted on the way down. We winded in and out of the high canyon walls, through the pretty trail which criss-crossed over the stream till we finally came out to the pour-off with its sheer drop. Surprisingly not much water made it to the end. We peered cautiously over the end and admired the framed view over the desert below. We then hiked back up a half mile and took the Oak Springs trail which takes you to the top of the canyon wall and has fantastic views over window and desert - and the "Wilson's" homestead. You can also see the Nail's Ranch from there and it just put into perspective the hardships those people must have faced living in the conditions that Big Bend presents. It was down this trail where we stood that so many had traveled in the past to visit the Wilson's, being the shorter route, including the less welcome visitors such as Mountain lions headed toward their ranch animals! We could have lingered longer but made our way back slowly, thankful we weren't some of the people just heading down the trail - they'd have a hard time with the heat on the way back up later in the day! We returned to pack up our camp site and there next to the tent was a Blue-throated Hummingbird feeding from the agave! A nice finish to the morning.
The whole trip was wonderful with new places seen and the experience of camping in the desert at night! More emphasis was placed on other wildlife, butterflies, cactus, and plants besides just birds, as well as the history of the people that lived here in the past. It made for a well rounded trip, one I'd do again in a heartbeat :-)
* A book I highly recommend for anyone who has either visited or who plans on visiting Big Bend is the memoir "Beneath the Window, Early Ranch Life in the Big Bend Country" by Patricia Wilson Clothier. She is still alive but this book describes her life growing up in Big Bend when her family owned all of the land directly beneath the Window, and their closest neighbours and good friends, Sam Nail and his family. (Sam Nail Ranch is still a must see stop for birders)! It is a fascinating book and once read you will never see Big Bend the same way again.

Scotts Oriole singing.
Scotts Oriole

Singing away...

Native American grinding holes
These ones are at Rio Grand Village and were used to grind mesquite beans and grass seed.
Native American Grinding holes
Black-tailed Rattlesnake
Black-tailed Rattlesnake
After uncoiling he slowly made his way across the path, watching us and rattling his tail the whole time.
Boquillas Canyon
The rattlesnake was seen along the trail to this canyon, which runs alongside the Rio Grand River.
Boquillas Canyon
Campsite in the Chisos Basin
Our Chisos Basin Campsite
What a view!
Colima Warbler
One of 5 we saw during the day
Colima Warbler
Rock Squirell
Rock Squirell
This one was a little darker than others we saw, a deep chocolate brown with light eye rings.
South Rim
Fantastic views at the South Rim with a sheer drop of 2000 feet!
View from South Rim
Boot canyon
Named for its upside down cowboy boot shaped rock.
Turkey Vulture
Sunning himself...
Turkey Vulture
Santa Elena Canyon
Santa Elena Canyon
The Rio Grand River winds its way through the canyon. The trail through the canyon is along the right (US) side of the river, with Mexico on the left.
Terlingua and Rio Grand Rivers meet.
Both rivers were flowing well due to the storms. This is the view coming back out of the canyon. The Rio is on the right, Terlingua on the left.
Terlingua and Rio Grand Rivers meet.
Crossing the Terlingua
The crossing!
The Terlingua River was anywhere from knee height to just below your shorts, depending how tall you are! You could certainly feel the current so had to walk across slowly so as not to lose your balance! This was returning from the canyon.
Homer Wilson Ranch
You can still visit the preserved Ranch which Homer Wilson owned while living with his family "Beneath the window".
Homer Wilson Ranch
Purple Prickly Pear Cactus
Purple Prickly Pear Cactus
I just love the Cacti in Big Bend, especially this purple version of the Prickly Pear.
Blind Prickly Pear Cactus
I'd never heard of this one before! It has no long spiny thorns like the regular Prickly Pear.
Blind Prickly Pear Cactus
The Pour-off at the Window
The Pour-off
All the rainwater which collects in the chisos basin and surrounding mountains eventually makes its way down to the window and through this narrow "Pour-off" into the desert below. Oak Spring lies beneath this pour-off.
View from Oak Spring
Approximately half a mile before you reach the Pour-off there is a trail leading up to the top of canyon wall which gives views over Oak Spring and the desert below.

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View from Oak Spring Trail