Published Nov. 30, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Big Bend hosts surprises for local birders.”
By Barb Gorges
Have you heard the rumor that Texas has mountains?
It does. The ranges I saw weren’t the Grand Tetons, and I doubt they are ever snow-capped. But in terms of size, they remind me of many of Wyoming’s smaller ranges.
Earlier this month, Mark and I visited Big Bend National Park, which entirely encompasses the famous (especially for birders) Chisos Mountains, where the Colima warbler nests. It breeds only in those mountains and Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental.
If you look at Texas as your left hand, palm down, fingers pointing south, Big Bend is the end of your thumb. It is above a big bend in the Rio Grande which forms the border with Mexico.
The north park entrance station is 39 miles from the closest town, Marathon (pop. 436) and the northwest entrance is 76 miles from Alpine (pop. 6,000). We were able to reserve a room three months in advance at Chisos Mountains Lodge, in the heart of the park, because we were a tad early for the height of the tourist season. Summer, with temperatures over 110 degrees, is the off season.
It is the only lodging in the park, unless you bring your own. It isn’t fancy, but it’s clean, comfortable and the food is good. We learned that reservations for the lodge for 2016 will open this January.
The lodge is tucked into the Chisos Basin, closed in by peaks, including Emory, which is 7,832 feet high. Centrally located, we were 30 miles from Rio Grande Village to the east at an elevation of 1,850 feet, with visitor amenities and scenic attractions on the river, and 38 miles in the opposite direction from the other visitor amenities near the river at Castolon. It’s a big park.
Like the rest of the Southwest, Big Bend has a monsoon season—heavy rainstorms at the end of summer. It wasn’t supposed to be raining in early November. But it did. So I wore my rain suit in the desert because after all that driving, I didn’t want to miss a thing.
However, it was so foggy the two days we were there that we never saw the tops of the Chisos Mountains. And we couldn’t go down to see the famed Santa Elena Canyon because too much water was flowing over the road and it was closed.
But we did find birds. These days it is easy to use eBird.com to find birding hotspots. Mark identified Cottonwood Campground. It was a little intimidating reading all the signs warning how to stay safe in encounters with javelinas, bears and mountain lions, but the big old cottonwoods were all a-twitter.
It sounded familiar—a flock of yellow-rumped warblers frantically feeding in trees and on the ground during a break in the rain, just like I’ve seen them behave in Cheyenne during migration.
But we also found uncommon Southwestern species. A vermilion flycatcher—incredibly red—alternately perched on tree tops and signs. Nicely perched on a picnic table was a black phoebe, another flycatcher. The flicker-like bird was a golden-fronted woodpecker.
We stopped at nearly every pullout, walked out on many trails, and added a few more southwest specialties like cactus wren and pyrrhuloxia (faded version of a cardinal), Inca dove, black-throated sparrow, and roadrunner.
And we found familiar birds escaping winter: mockingbird, loggerhead shrike, Wilson’s snipe, blue-gray gnatcatcher—although for these species, individual birds may make the park home year round.
There are plenty of trails for the adventurous who have real 4-wheel-drive trucks—not SUVs built on car chassis. I’ll bet Big Bend has little trouble with people driving off road due to the multitude of tire-piercing cactus.
And what interesting vegetation is out there in the Chihuahuan Desert: 20-foot-tall century plants and other rosettes of sharp-pointed leaves putting up tall flower stalks, along with tiny flowers tucked beneath spiny neighbors, and higher up, southwest versions of oak, juniper and pine, even Douglas fir.
In addition to the one-volume edition of Sibley’s field guide to birds of North America (some Texas birds are in the eastern edition and some in the western), the most valuable publication for visiting birders is the park’s bird checklist available at the visitor centers. It’s by Mark Flippo, one of the local birding guides. The 28-page booklet lists the more than 450 species found in the park, preferred habitat for each and how likely you are to find them each season. It also points out the specialties, birds that are easier to find in Big Bend than in the rest of the U.S. and Canada.
The only question I have for Mark is, can we go back for another stay in the Chisos Basin maybe during spring migration 2016?