Thursday, May 31, 2012

Day 3 & 4: Hawks, an Oasis and Some Good Life Birds

I got busy over the last few weeks and it's a little dated now, but I figured I would go ahead and sum up last month's trip to West Texas.

Brad and I spent our last full day in Big Bend birding Dug Out Wells, Rio Grande Village and Christmas Mountain Oasis.

Dug Out Wells and Rio Grande Village did not disappoint. At Dug Out Wells, we found a Gray Flycatcher hawking insects in the desert and we picked up some good year birds, including Yellow-headed Blackbird.

Rio Grande Village was a hot spot for hawks. I finally added Common Black-Hawk and Zone-tailed Hawk to my life list. Zone-tailed Hawk was a true nemesis bird that I tried to find all last year. Brad spotted my life bird soaring above the horizon near the Rio Grande.

On two previous trips to Big Bend, I never made it to Rio Grande Village to see Common Black-Hawks, which nest in a protected area.

This time I made a point to make the special trip to see the hawks. A pair of hawks were nest building at the time, so it was very easy to find these majestic raptors.

The hawk below is carrying a branch to its nest. I imagine by now the parents are attending to chicks.
Common Black-Hawk
Christmas Mountain Oasis was fantastic. Carolyn-Ohl Johnson greeted us at her bird sanctuary and showed us great hospitality. She even was kind enough to let me borrow her 100-400 L-Series lens to get some closer shots of the birds below.
Green-tailed Towhee
Scaled Quail
Lucifer Hummingbird
The highlight of the evening was watching male and female Elf Owls in action at dusk. The female Elf Owl peeked out of her nest hole several times while waiting for the male.

Elf Owl (Female)
Then, the male Elf Owl showed up. I love the angry look of these miniature owls. It reminds me of the Angry Birds game.
Elf Owl (Male)
Brad and I spent the last part of our trip attempting to find some rare birds - Hermit Warbler and Rufous-capped Warbler, but we dipped (didn't find) on both birds. However, I picked up one last lifer on the Chisos Basin Nature Trail - Hepatic Tanager. At first, I thought it was just a Summer Tanager, a common summer resident. But upon further inspection, Brad pointed out that it was indeed a Hepatic. The two tanagers are superficially similar in appearance, but upon further inspection, you can distinguish the two.

Check out the comparison of the two species below. Can you tell which is Hepatic and which is Summer?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Day 2: The Hike... Choose Your Own Adventure

Colima Warbler is one of the birds I have raved about the most over the last year. This little drab warbler is a novelty because it's only U.S. destination is in the Chisos Mountains where it takes considerable work to find it.

To get to the warblers, you have one of two choices:

Option 1.) Take the easier, but longer hike - a 6-mile, gradual climb up Laguna Meadows.


Option 2.) Take the tougher, shorter route - a 3-mile steep climb up switchbacks on the Pinnacles trail.

This reminds me of the Choose Your Own Adventure books I read as a kid.

When a park ranger told Brad that several male warblers had been seen about 4 miles on Laguna Meadows, we decided on option 2.

Brad and I got a late start our 12-mile hike, but the fair weather was pleasant and birds were active. We quickly added Scott's Oriole, Black-headed Grosbeak and Western Wood-Pewee to our trip list.

Along the way we ran into some birders who had heard Colimas about a mile or two ahead. Brad and I kept our ears tuned to Colima's trilling song. At first we confused a Spotted Towhee song for the colima, but soon Brad started hearing something different. And soon we knew we had our bird...

I managed a few ID shots, but we had good views of at least 3 Colimas and heard 2 other males.

The surprises didn't end there. While attempting to get a photo of a Colima, we suddenly heard a Mexican Whip-Poor-Will. Both the Colima and Whip-Poor-Will performed their choruses for us at the same time.

As if this wasn't enough, we found another one of my sought after species, Black-chinned Sparrow. Brad first pinpointed one singing in the meadow. The song starts off resembling a bouncing ball and quickly turns into the sounds of a marble dropping on the floor.

Other highlights along the trail were Townsend's Warbler, Hutton's Vireo, Mexican Jays and more.
Brad scoping out the trail

Mexican Jay

Emory Peak - 2nd Highest Peak in Texas

Walking alonside Pine and Madrone Trees, we got great view of Emory Peak, the tallest peak in the Big Bend and second only to Guadalupe Peak for tallest in Texas.

As soon as we got to a ranger cabin, we came across another surprise...

The Black Bear was hungry, but fortunately not for us. It fed on oats and whatever else it could find near the cabin. We heard later that this bear was emaciated or slowly going hungry. I'm not sure if this was accurate, but it sure looked sluggish and hungry.

We completed the hike seeing some amazing birds. I got three lifers along the way and Brad got the Whip-Poor-Will, which he had been wanting to see for some time.

As always, the view of the Window trail is a fitting end to the long hike. Our feet and backs were sore by the end, but the adventure was truly satisfying. While nearing the end of the trail, I took a moment to take in the scenery and thank God for such a beautiful place to enjoy His creation.
The Window

Friday, May 4, 2012

Big Bend: Day 1

Marathon Motel

The morning in Marathon was nice and cool and the desert came to life with the songs of Orchard Orioles and Barn Swallows. In the distance, we could hear Cassin's Sparrows carrying their trilling tunes.

Brad and I spent our first day split between Marathon and Big Bend National Park. After staying at the campground at the Marathon Motel, we headed to Post Park and found some West Texas specialities, including Cassin's Kingbird and Phainopepla.

When we entered the park, a ranger pointed out some Cactus Wrens that were attending to a nest right outside the visitor center.
The cool morning quickly faded into a hot afternoon as we stepped out of the car at Santa Elena Canyon. We hiked the trail, but found few birds.

Santa Elena Canyon
 Then, we visited Cottonwood Campground where we encountered a swirl of bird activity - Ash-throated Flycatcher, Green-tailed Towhees and at least 4 species of sparrow, including a Grasshopper Sparrow, which hopped up on a picnic bench.

And in a large Cottonwood Tree appeared my first lifer - a beautiful Gray Hawk.
Gray Hawk
We spent the rest of the day at Sam Nail Ranch where we found several colorful Varied Buntings calling in the West Texas Brush. This is a bird I've missed in the Big Bend twice, so checking it off on my life list was a huge plus. I didn't get very many good photos on the first day, but when we visited Christmas Mountain Oasis the next day, I got the shot I really wanted.
Varied Bunting

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Big Bend: A Bittersweet Story of Beauty and Survival

The severe drought in West Texas has left its mark on the landscape and has impacted bird life and nature all together in Big Bend country. Springs have dried up and wildfires have destroyed forests. Even the hardiest pine trees are dying in the Chisos Basin.

But one thing in Big Bend is for sure: Life goes on...

This weekend I was inspired by the persistant spirit of people and nature in the Trans-Pecos region. On our 12-mile hike through the Chisos Mountains, Brad and I were pleased to find a diversity of birds and wildlife despite the drought. I visited a bird sanctuary where Carolyn Ohl-Johnson spends countless hours hauling water from Alpine to her remote property in the Chihuahan desert to keep her Christmas Mountain Oasis alive.

During our visit, more than a hundred firefighters were battling a wildfire near the Davis Mountains Resort. The blaze continues to threaten life and property. My thoughts and prayers go out to the volunteers and residents caught in this real life struggle to survive. In the coming days, I'll unpack my experiences and share about all the great birds I saw and some of the people I met along the way.