Better late than never I suppose! Although the events detailed in this post occurred more than a year ago, it doesn’t seem right to leave the trilogy of posts on this trip unfinished.
Day 5 (April 19) Part II – Our long drive west, punctuated only by a stop for gas and groceries, was largely uneventful. We planned to hit two major areas during our time in West Texas: Davis Mountains State Park and Big Bend National Park. In the late afternoon, we finally exited I-10 on our way to the former. We then made a sharp left, and spent the next forty-five minutes birding Lake Balmorhea, a rare patch of blue in a sea of brown and gray.
The western flair to the birds we found during our visit certainly confirmed that we had passed into a different biogeographic zone. Highlights in the vicinity of the lake included Scaled Quail, Western and Clark’s Grebes, White-faced Ibis, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Wilson’s Phalarope, Franklin’s Gull, Western Kingbird, ‘Audubon’s’ Yellow-rumped Warbler, Brewer’s and Yellow-headed Blackbirds. But the biggest surprise of the visit came in the form of a singing Sedge Wren, an eastern species just a little west of its mapped range.
As we continued on, our approach to the Davis Mountains was accompanied by outstanding scenery, the setting sun blanketing the surrounding cliffs and hills in a variety of bright hues of yellow and orange.
We arrived at the park just after six, and decided that our first priority should be to investigate the current Montezuma Quail situation. This species was a large part of our reason for visiting the state park in the first place. It is one of the most reliable places to see this species, and a covey had been known to frequent the feeders, coming within feet of dazzled onlookers. We were hopeful that we would enjoy a similar experience.
Unfortunately, that was not to be. A visit with the rangers revealed that the quail had not been seen visiting the feeders since a flood six months before. In a single blow, our chances at Montezuma Quail appeared to be reduced to what I’d experienced in Arizona. We would need to chance upon a bird by ourselves, and after two unsuccessful trips hoping for that same thing in Southeastern Arizona, I wasn’t getting my hopes up.
We spent a little time watching the feeders after hearing the grim news. Our highlights at the entrance of the state park and in and around the feeding station included Black-chinned Hummingbird, Acorn and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Say’s Phoebe, Cassin’s Kingbird, Canyon Towhee, Scott’s Oriole, Pine Siskin, and Lesser Goldfinch. No quail were seen at that time.
After a little while, we decided that it was time to head to our accommodation at Indian Lodge, the only lodging available in the state park. Nestled between a few of the peaks at the upper end of the valley, the lodge provided an impressive view of the expansive state park below. After checking in, Dave realized he had forgotten his scope down at the feeding station. As we turned left out of the lodge and began heading along the road down the valley, something happened that makes years of trying for and missing a bird worth it. It is the kind of moment that I live and bird for. As we sped along at thirty miles per hour, I saw the unmistakable, harlequin face pattern of a male Montezuma Quail out my window. The dire, near-panicked look on my face convinced Dave that I wasn’t teasing him on this bird, and we quickly spun around. Sure enough, sitting in the grass on the side of the road, was a brilliant pair of Montezuma Quail.
We spent the next hour watching those birds, dumbstruck by our luck, and so grateful that, despite the lack of recent, dependable quail, we were still able to catch up with these birds. At first, the pair sat idly in the grass, content to poke at whatever morsels lay below them. But eventually, first the female and then her strikingly-patterned mate stood up and ever so slowly began to retreat, providing terrific looks at their entire bodies from the comfort of our car.
Click on the thumbnails below for larger views. The last two show the female.
Our time with the quails was capped off by three birds sounding off in the near-vicinity, completing a perfect, documentary-style experience with this glorious species. We followed this up with a delicious dinner in the quaint town of Fort Davies, just down the road from the state park. Afterwards, we returned to the park and took a brief stroll through the campground, finding ourselves surrounded by four adult Elf Owls, two of which were tending a nest with three young in a nearby telephone pole. While watching the owls, a Common Poorwill called from nearby.
Day 6 (April 20) – Our whirlwind trip through Texas was turning out to be a striking success, and our only goal for the day was to keep piling on more good birds and more great experiences. With our main target in the mountains secured, we could dedicate our time to reacquainting ourselves with some of the fun western birds we had enjoyed on previous trips. We spent the first part of the morning covering the extent of the state park, getting great looks at a number of terrific species, including an absurdly close Black-throated Sparrow and a perched Scott’s Oriole. Other highlights included a copulating pair of Cooper’s Hawks, Greater Roadrunner, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, Bushtit, Canyon Wren, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and Summer Tanager. Unfortunately, I decided not to carry my camera with me as we clambered about the slopes of the valley, so I missed a few stellar photo opportunities.
After a couple hours in the main area of the state park we crossed the street and explored another section of the park, which included a different mosaic of habitats (and thus, different birds). Here we picked up two new birds for the trip: Phainopepla and Green-tailed Towhee.
Finally, we advanced out of the state park and drove higher up into the Davis Mountains. Our first stop was the Lawrence Wood Picnic Area and adjacent TNC Madera Canyon Loop Trail. Here we were stunned to find two more Montezuma Quails, a male that slowly crossed a path right in front of us and a calling bird (presumably his mate) just a few feet away in cover. Other good birds included a teed-up Gray Flycatcher, as well as a pair of Western Bluebirds tending to a nest site, and a calling Hepatic Tanager.
Our next stop, the McDonald Observatory, was much quieter bird-wise, and we decided to return to the lodge and relax during the heat of the day.
After a brief siesta, we decided to spend our evening at a location seven miles south of Fort Davis, where Western Screech-Owls had recently been seen. We arrived to the sound of another calling Montezuma Quail, which set the tone for a couple terrific hours of birding, highlighted by Common Black Hawk, Gray Hawk, a female Vermilion Flycatcher, Cave and Cliff Swallows, Hermit Thrush, Curve-billed Thrasher, White-crowned Sparrow, and two surprises: Brown Thrasher and White-throated Sparrow. The night shift yielded three calling Western Screech-Owls (one of which was spotlighted for excellent views), as well as a calling Elf Owl and Common Poorwill.
Day 7 (April 21) – The next morning we said our goodbyes to the Davis Mountains and headed south toward our final destination: Big Bend National Park. Sitting on a large curve in the Rio Grande, the park is known for its fabulous scenery, as well as being the only place to see Colima Warblers in the United States. The warblers spend the breeding season in the upper reaches of the Chisos Mountains, which require a predawn ascent from the valley floor below. Dave had made this trek multiple times, and I felt lucky to be accompanied by someone with such an in-depth knowledge of how to find these birds. We had given ourselves two separate mornings to the find the warbler: April 22nd and 23rd. The latter would be a desperate move, though, as we would have to nail the warbler and check out, all before 12pm. It would then be followed-up by a lengthy drive back to San Antonio for our flight home the next day. It was a backup plan that we hoped we didn’t need to put in place.
Concerns on whether or not the warbler would show would have to wait until the next morning. For now, we planned to hit a couple locations before checking into our lodging in another portion of the park. Our first stop was Blue Creek Canyon, where we spent a torrid three hours searching for one of Big Bend’s other avian specialties: Lucifer Hummingbird. It was not until we were on our way back that we chanced upon a stunning male perched atop a nearby Ocotillo, remaining long enough to provide some solid scope views.
Our other highlights from the canyon included Bell’s and Gray Vireos, Rock, Canyon, Bewick’s and Cactus Wrens, Verdin, Clay-colored, Rufous-crowned, and Black-throated Sparrows, and Pyrrhuloxia.
Continuing on, we made our way to the nearby Cottonwood Campground, with temperatures well into the triple digits. Our best birds here were five stunning Vermilion Flycatchers, Orange-crowned Warbler, and two pairs of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers feeding young.
By the time we left the campground, it was already mid-afternoon, and we decided to head to the Chisos Mountain Lodge, which would be our base for the next two nights. The lodge is positioned at the base of ‘The Bowl’ a circular valley surrounded by the spiky peaks of the Chisos Mountains (except for a small opening called ‘The Window’ that looks down on the desert below). After an early dinner, we hit the hay, ready for an early ascent of the Pinnacles Trail the next morning.
To add: on the way to Big Bend, we connected with a species I’d been itching to see for years. As I dozed off to sleep, Dave spotted four Pronghorn out the passenger’s side window. I’ve developed a keen interest in the once diverse megafauna that occupied all continents and most islands up until very recently. But in every continent except Africa, advancing humans took a terrible toll on these mighty beasts. The Pronghorn is a relict from a bygone age, its main adaptation (speed) evolved to outrun the cheetahs that chased it across the plains of North America.
Day 8 (April 22) – We began our ascent in the dark, serenaded by the calls of Great Horned Owl, Common Poorwill, and Mexican Whip-poor-will (still haven’t seen the latter despite hearing it a few previous times in Arizona). There are multiple options for accessing the upper reaches of the Chisos, with the Pinnacles Trail being the quicker, but steeper way up. The trail involves a seemingly endless series of switchbacks before you reach the ‘top’ and relatively flat trail that transverses the upper mountains, including a portion that leads to Boot Spring, a famous spot that has attracted a number of rare Mexican species in the past.
As we climbed, the sun began to slowly rise over the valley, although our position remained in shadow for the entirety of our ascent. The habitat too began to change, eventually giving way to the scraggly oak forest that the warbler calls home for the summer. From overhead came the calls of White-throated Swifts, moving high above the valley floor like squadrons of aircraft in fast pursuit. These birds lived a life on the edge. Their nesting sites were the high, sheer pincer-like peaks of the Chisos.
Eventually, about three quarters of the way up the switchbacks, we heard our first Colima Warbler. Frantic, we tried to pinpoint the source of the sound, but the song seemed to be coming from all directions. Moving up the trail, Dave soon spotted a Colima, and just a couple seconds later, had the bird in the scope (Dave’s scope skills are remarkable). I looked in, but didn’t see a bird. It had already flown out. A few switchbacks later, and I finally accomplished a brief look at what was likely a Colima Warbler. Unsatisfying for sure, and definitely not a look I wanted to remember this bird by. A few meters later we reached the top. A few more steps and we had a singing Colima Warbler in earshot. Racing forward toward the bird, we pinpointed the song (a difficult task amongst all the cliffs), which was emanating from some oaks in the valley below us. Luckily, the bird wasn’t too far off, and Dave soon spotted it clambering about. This time, we got awesome scope views of the bird, a number of distant photos, and even a few recordings of its song. After twenty minutes, I had secured a wonderful “life look” at this species.
Pushing on, we made our way to Boot Spring, where we stopped to have lunch. Another Colima Warbler circled us in the trees above (we ended up with at least six for the day), while a striking pair Painted Redstarts moved about on the ground nearby. While watching a friendly Hermit Thrush moving about near the redstarts, Dave spotted one of Boot Spring’s more dependable specialities, Blue-throated Hummingbird. Our views were backlit but satisfying as the bird spent quite a while perched in the same spot midway up a nearby tree.
Click on the thumbnails below for larger views
Eventually, we cut our losses and headed back the way we had come. As we descended, we were overcome by multiple troops of inquisitive Mexican Jays, a near omnipresent species along the length of the trail. We stopped to return the glances of the curious jays, a member of the fantastic genus, Aphelocoma.
We finally reached the valley floor below, and dropped down on our beds in exhaustion. Our eight hours on the Pinnacles Trail had been wonderfully successful. Other fun birds included Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Hutton’s Vireo, Brown Creeper, Townsend’s Warbler, Spotted Towhee, and Black-headed Grosbeak.
After a couple hours, we emerged from a restful torpor. Feeling every single switchback, we staggered out of the room, and spent a successful hour birding the area around the lodge. The standout was fantastic looks at a brilliant male Varied Bunting, accompanying a flock of five House Finches in the brushy area below the lodge building. Our other target in the area (Black-chinned Sparrow) unfortunately refused to show.
Getting to see such a rare and range-restricted species as Colima Warbler is always a treat, but to share it with such a fun, compassionate, and intelligent person as Dave made it all the more special.
Day 9 (April 23) – We slept in a little more the usual the next morning, still exhausted from our climb the day before, and also extremely grateful that we were able to forego our planned last-ditch attempt. Instead, we covered the area around the lodge one more time, saying our goodbyes to some great western birds and connecting with a singing Black-chinned Sparrow, belting out its song from the scrubby cliff directly below us.
Before long, it was time to check out and begin our five-hour drive back to San Antonio. Along the way, we made just a single stop. On a seemingly random road of the outskirts of the city, we surrounded ourselves with the chirping chorus of twenty-five Dickcissels. As the birds sang in an uneven chorus, we reflected back on what a remarkable trip it had been. In less than ten days, we had crisscrossed the largest state in the lower 48, observing well over two hundred species in the process. Although the total life bird tally was small, we thoroughly enjoyed getting to know a number of birds better, an experience that revived an excitement for birding in the ABA Area. We both were struck by the fact that, while getting heaps of life birds in far-flung destinations is fun, it is also rewarding to spend more time exploring our own country and its birds.