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BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
Text ~ Helen Baines
Friday, 11th April, 2003
Today we left Fort Davis to drive south to Big Bend National Park a distance of about 140 miles. We had already booked a site at the Big Bend Motor Inn & RV Park, Study Butte (also known as Terlinga), which is a couple of miles north of the park entrance on route 118. It would have been nice to camp inside the park, but the only sites with full hook-ups are at Rio Grande Village, which is over on the southeast side of the park (a distance of about 50 miles) and you could not make advance reservations at the time we went.
Indian Head Road & walk to Indian Head Springs
After setting up our RV on the site, we decided to explore some of the area nearby. We took the recommendation of the lady at the check-in desk and drove down the Indian Head Road, which was just to the north of the Big Bend Motor Inn. We parked at the end of the road and walked across the arid landscape which had lots of large red rocks, some of which had ancient petroglyphs on them. There were many plants such as the prickly pear cactus interspersed amongst the rocks, and many were in flower. One strange looking plant, with long bare stems and red flower spikes at the top, we later found out was called coachwhip or ocotillo. The bird count in this arid habitat was not very large, but it was mid-afternoon and very hot. We saw Say's Phoebe, House Finches, a pair of Verdin, a pair of Black-throated Sparrows, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Mourning Dove, Turkey Vulture, Raven sp. and good looks at a pair of Scaled Quail* - our only lifer of the day.
Around the campsite there were, of course, lots of House Sparrows, and also House Finches, Brown-headed Cowbirds, White-winged and Mourning Dove.
BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
The official guide to the park states that it is a birder's paradise, with more than 450 species being seen here. There are several special birds that nest here and nowhere else in Texas, such as the Colima Warbler, which nests in the Chisos Mountains after returning from southwest Mexico in April. To see this unique bird involves a 9 mile hike into the highest parts of the mountains, and because of the length of the hike and the desert climate here, it is recommended that each person carries a gallon of water. The park is enormous and as this was our first time here, we decided to treat it as a 3 day reconnoiter trip and not to try for the Colima Warbler or some of the other specialities this time. In actual fact, we were told that we were a little too early for a lot of the migrants the better time being the beginning of May.
NB: There is no cellular (mobile) phone service in the Park, but there are pay phones in the camping areas and at the Park HQ.
Safety issues for the Park: http://www.nps.gov/bibe/safety.htm
Guidelines about the proximity of the Mexican border can be read here: http://www.nps.gov/bibe/dailyreport/bordersituation.htm
Listed below are the areas of the National Park (http://www.nps.gov/bibe/virtualvisit/parkmap.htm) that we visited over the 3 days. As the park is so big, a lot of driving is involved and if you want to explore off the paved roads, a 4-wheel drive vehicle is the only way.
DAY 1 - Saturday, 12th April
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
On entering the park at the Terlingua entrance, we saw a Brown-crested Flycatcher on shrubs near the entrance kiosk. We drove a short way to Maverick Junction and turned left onto the first part of the scenic drive. It was here that we had a great view of a Swainson's Hawk perched in an ocotillo bush, in silhouette against the early morning sky. It was about 8 miles to Santa Elena Junction where we turned right heading towards the spectacular view of the Chisos Mountains.
Sam Nail Ranch (http://www.nps.gov/bibe/virtualvisit/samnailranch.htm) was about 3miles down this road, off to the right. It was easy to spot this little oasis of trees in the middle of the arid scrub that makes up most of the park. Sam Nail originally built a ranch here in 1916. The well and windmill are still working and bringing up enough water to keep this area green. We expected it to be a magnet for birds this early in the morning, but were somewhat disappointed to find only 5 species here: a pair of Northern Cardinals, 2 White-winged Doves, a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, 2 House Finches and a good sighting of the normally skulking White-eyed Vireo.
Continuing the drive south, we stopped to look at the Homer Wilson Ranch from a viewpoint on the left. It's hard to imagine that anyone could have ranched this barren looking land in the past, but they did. Perhaps the climate was not so harsh then. On the drive to the next viewpoint, we saw 4 Scaled Quail running up the hillside away from the road. The next stop was at the Sotol Vista Overlook, where we had great looks a a pair of Black-throated Sparrows and another Brown-crested Flycatcher. Sotol is a plant used by the native peoples for many things in bygone days. The road turns away from the Chisos Mountains here and heads west and then southwest down towards the Rio Grande River.
Our next stop was at the Mule Ears Viewpoint where we viewed the aptly named twin peaks - 3881 feet in height! We took a short walk to get some photographs and then continnued on to Tuff Canyon. Again we took a walk from the parking area to a viewpoint looking down into the canyon. It was getting pretty hot by now, but we saw a few birds - an Ash-throated Flycatcher on the other side, a couple of Cliff Swallows down in the canyon, a House Finch singing, Black-throated Sparrow and a wren species too far away to identify accurately.
Cottonwood Campground, Castolon
Our next stop was at one of the recommended birding hotspots in the park - the Cottonwood Campground at Castolon. We ate our lunch in the campground, near the Rio Grande, and were visited by a "tame" female Wild Turkey, which went into a strange defensive posture on the ground when it spotted a raptor overhead! We got a fairly good bird count here, including the Gray Hawk that apparently nests in the cottowoods. Also seen: Black Vultures, soaring over the river, Black Phoebe, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, pair of Northern Cardinals, American Robin, several Chipping Sparrows, White-throated Sparrow, Wilson's Warbler, Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler, Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Vermilion Flycatcher, Hooded Oriole (Texas race: sennetti - orange with a black forehead) and 2 Northern Mockingbirds - these West Texas mockers are much darker than our garden variety in Houston.
Santa Elena Canyon Trail
We had seen this canyon way in the distance, from the Sotol Vista Overlook, but there is a much more specatular view at the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook. The Rio Grande flows through the canyon, but it is believed that the canyon was in fact cut by the Rio Conchos, in the geological past - it now flows into the Rio Grande a few miles upstream. A short way further on, you can park and walk into the canyon for about a mile. (Don't forget to carry water with you!). First you have to cross a section of dried up river bed (due to the drought in the area at the time) and then on entering the canyon we were surprised to see just how low the river was! It was at this point that I heard a Carolina Wren calling, and on checking my field guide I found that this was at the very edge of it's range. [Note: a Carolina Wren was seen and noted several times on the park's official sightings list for April 2003, when I checked their website on returning home]
We continued along the trail into the canyon and checked above for White-fronted Swifts and raptors - Golden Eagles and Peregrines have been reported from here, but we were not lucky today. The side walls of the canyon are 300 feet high at this point and the river is not very wide it was hard to believe that the cliffs on the other side were in Mexico! We looked across at a Say's Phoebe down on the muddy shore on the Mexican side and heard the more usually expected wren in this habitat - a Canyon Wren. A couple of Rough-winged Swallows were also seen.
After our trek into the canyon we headed back to Terlingua via the Old Maverick Road, to complete our loop around the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (http://www.nps.gov/bibe/virtualvisit/oldmaverickroad.htm). Old Maverick Road is a 13 mile improved dirt road, suitable for all vehicles in good weather conditions, however there are many un-improved roads in the Park, which require 4-wheel drive. Check out the Park maps and information at the Visitor Center.
DAY 2 Sunday, 13th April
The Chisos Basin (http://www.nps.gov/bibe/basin.htm)
The Basin is located in the Chisos Mountains in the middle of the Park. Here, there is a campground, an overnight lodge with restaurant, small grocery store, but no gas station. The mountain road into the Basin is not recommended for motorhomes longer than 24 feet or trailers longer than 20 feet, due to the sharp curves and steep grades. We had towed our Jeep Liberty behind our motorhome, so did not have a problem driving into the Basin.
We took SH 118 into the Park and turned south towards the Basin at Basin Junction. The road passes along Green Gulch where we saw a Chihuahuan Raven and a Turkey Vulture perched on a bush. Two Greater Roadrunners, a Northern Mockingbird and a singing Cactus Wren were also seen. We had planned to hike the
Lost Mine Trail and were not disappointed with the views or the birds. Our first lifer of the day was a Mexican Jay*, similar to the Pinyon Jay, but a little larger, with a grey breast. We found a Rufous-crowned Sparrow, several Bushtits, 2 Canyon Towhees, 2 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a Bewick's Wren and Ladder-backed Woodpecker along the trail. We did not complete the trail, wanting to have time to do the Window Trail, so we backtracked to the trailhead and continued on into the Basin.
The Window Trail (http://www.nps.gov/bibe/virtualvisit/thewindow.htm) begins at the Basin Campground and heads in a northwesterly direction to the Window pour-off a large gap in the rocks through which all the runoff from the Basin is channelled after heavy rain. While eating our picnic lunch in the campground we saw 2 more Mexican Jays, 3 Chipping Sparrows, White-winged Doves, a Northern Mockingbird singing and a great view of a Cactus Wren on the top of a juniper bush.
The Window Trail actually descends 800 feet in 2miles - the first half through desert scrub with some spectacular agave plants, and the second half through a shady canyon, with wildflowers and oak trees. When we were there the streambed was very dry, with just the odd stagnant puddle in the canyon, and here we found the most beautiful two-tailed swallowtail butterfly drinking from what little water was left. The trail ends at the "Window", a gap in the rocks which carries the pour-off over a drop of 100 feet.
On the way down the trail we saw a few species of birds: Hermit Thrush, Bushtits, Chihuahuan Ravens, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Scott's Oriole and Spotted Towhees. We heard a Gray Vireo quite some way off the trail another couple did track it down and confirmed the identification, but we did not try to see it. At the window pour-off we had great views of and got good photos of 2 Rock Wrens. On the return hike up the trail, we spotted: a Wilson's Warbler, 2 Say's Phoebe fighting, 2 Lesser Goldfinches a male feeding a fledgling and we also heard a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.
Back on the RV site at the Big Bend Motor Inn, we added Killdeer and Savanna Sparrow to our list.
DAY 3 Monday, 14th April
Rio Grande Village
Today we planned to bird the Rio Grande Village area 50 miles away on the other side of the Park, so we began by driving to the Panther Junction Visitor Center & Park HQ, where we stopped to look in on the displays and information. As we parked the car, we noticed a couple of Cactus Wrens busy building a nest, in a yucca, right in front of our parking spot. They were so pre-occupied that they did not seem to be bothered by our presence at all, so we had a great photo opportunity. There were lots of House Sparrows around the buildings at the Park HQ - the only place we saw them in the whole of Big Bend National Park.
After checking out the Visitor Center, we drove on towards Rio Grande Village (1850 feet above sea level) (http://www.nps.gov/bibe/virtualvisit/riograndevillage.htm), where there was a Nature Trail leading to Rio Grande River. This turned out to be very disappointing, as there had been a prescribed burn some weeks prior to out visit and it looked to us as though it had got out of hand and burned far more than was intended. Consequently, the bird life on the first section of the Nature Trail was very sparse - we only saw: Northern Mockingbird, a pair of Vermilion Flycatchers, House Finch and 28 White Ibis. The walk finally took us all the way to the river, which had a fair amount of water in it at this point. Here we watched a male Common Yellowthroat (on the Mexican side of the river), Common Raven, 3 Savanna Sparrows, 2 Mourning Doves, an Empidomax flycatcher - could have been a Dusky or Hammond's, but we were never able to identify it adequately, even though I made notes on it's song. We then backtracked to the campground and took a slow drive, birding from the car. Here we spotted a Crissal Thrasher* - notable for it's very curved bill, plus 2 Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warblers, White-winged Doves, Pyrrhuloxia, Brown-crested Flycatcher and 2 Black-crowned Night-herons.
We drove on to Daniel's Ranch, where we had lunch, noting the following birds: 2 male and 1 female Summer Tanagers, a pair of Verdins, Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warblers, Wilson's Warbler and White-winged Dove. After lunch, we walked around the cottonwood trees, seeing a Golden-fronted Woodpecker, pair of Northern Cardinals, Hooded Oriole, 3 Turkey Vultures eyeing up someone else's picnic lunch, and finally really close-up looks at a Greater Roadrunner.
Our next stop was at Hot Springs (http://www.nps.gov/bibe/hotsp.htm) on the banks of the river. There were lots of Cliff Swallows flying over the river and we were able to see their beautifully constructed nests on the cliffs above the path. The old hot springs building, on the edge of the Rio Grande, is now in ruins. Here we also had great views of a calling Canyon Wren, 2 House Finches, an American Coot and 2 Mexican Mallards on the river, plus a Scaled Quail along the 2 mile drive back to the main road.
Dugout Wells (http://www.nps.gov/bibe/virtualvisit/dugout.htm) was our last stop of the day, on our way back towards Panther Junction. It is another little oasis in the desert, like the Sam Nail Ranch, and was once the "cultural center" of Big Bend. It has a short nature trail through the woods, which are nurtured by the windmill here. By now it was 3:30pm, so we didn't didn't get any new birds for the day, seeing only cardinals, mockingbirds, Common Raven and Turkey Vulture. There was a flycatcher, with the same call as we had heard on the Rio Grande Nature Trail, but we could not see the bird at all, this time!
Back at the RV site we added Eurasian-collared Dove, 10 Lesser Goldfinches and a pair of Inca Doves to our list.
Tuesday 15th April - Journey Home
Begin return journey to Houston, via 118 into the Park, and the 385 from Panther Junction north, through the Persimmon Gap to Marathon. East on 90 to Lake Amistad National Recreation Area.
Evening - bird the campground at Holiday Trav-L RV Park. In a 30 minute evening walk from 7:30-8pm, we got quite a hawl: Great Kiskadee, Great-tailed Grackles, Brown-headed Cowbird, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Bullock's and Orchard Orioles, 3 Couch's Kingbirds, Purple Martins, 2 Killdeer, Red-winged Blackbirds, European Starlings, 2 Eurasian Collared-doves, Mourning Doves, 2 Barn Swallows, 2 Curve-billed Thrashers, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, 2 Canyon Towhees, lots of House Sparrows and a pair of Vermilion Flycatchers, the male being such a brilliant red, it is hard to miss him!
Wednesday, 16th April
Before leaving this morning we saw a Cactus Wren and a Northern Mockingbird. The previous afternoon we had stopped and made reservations at the Seminole Canyon State Historic Park, as you can only see the prehistoric cave shelters and their pictographs, on a guided tour. Here, we finally saw the only White-throated Swifts* of the trip. Four of them were swooping around the cliffs above the caves. Also seen while on the tour: Say's Phoebe and Ash-throated Flycatcher.
After leaving Seminole Canyon SHP, we drove back to the Lake Amistad Dam area, which is mentioned as a good birding spot, in the birding guides. As the dam crosses the Rio Grande and therefore straddles the Mexico/US border, we made sure to have our British passports with us, in case we were stopped by any officials on the road over the dam. The area was very birdy, so we spent about 30 minutes watching from both the lake side and the river side. On the lake there were: American Coots, 4 Pied-billed Grebes, and a Great Egret. Looking down on to the Rio Grande from the other side, we saw: several Black and Turkey Vultures, Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, 10 Rough-winged Swallows, Double-crested Cormorant, 6 House Finches, 2 Couch's Kingbirds, 2 Curve-billed Thrashers, Canyon Wren (heard only), Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and Cliff Swallows, which were nesting under the eaves of the office buildings in the middle of the dam.
Back in the Campground that evening we saw 2 Lesser Goldfinches, 10 Cedar Waxwings and about 20 Brown-headed Cowbirds.
Thursday, 17th April - journey to San Antonio, where we stayed at the Blazing Star RV Park, again.
Friday, 18th April - last leg to Houston. On leaving San Antonio, I noted 5 Rock Pigeons coming in to land on a billboard. We had seen lots in other urban areas on the trip, but this was the first time I added them to my fieldnotes!
This page was last updated on: May 9, 2005
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The journey from Houston to West Texas can be done in one day, as it is about 600 miles and will take about 10-12 hours. We just chose to break it up into 200 mile segments, both on the way out and back, as we had recently bought ourselves an RV (motorhome), and driving a 33 foot long vehicle is rather more tiring than a regular car. We took Interstate 10 from Houston to San Antonio (day 1), Highway 90 from San Antonio to Del Rio (Lake Amistad) (day 2), then Highway 90 from Del Rio to Alpine, and then Hwy 118 north to Fort Davis (day 3).
Birding Texas, Roland Wauer & Mark Elwonger (a Falcon Guide)
Birds of the Trans Pecos, Jim Peterson & Barry Zimmer
Big Bend - the Official National Park Handbook (119)
NG Guide to Birds of North America
Kenn Kaufman's Bird's of North America