Chihuahuan Desert Trip - Part II
Lincoln NF - Captain Mountains, NM
Guadalupe Mountains, TX
Carlsbad Caverns NP, NM
White Sands NM, NM
Lower Gila Box, NM
Gila NF - Gila Cliff Dwelling NM, NM
San Lorenzo Canyon Recreation Area, NM
April 25th, Friday
Getting an early start, we left the campground to travel on to the White Sands National Monument, which wasn’t too far away. We drove into the Heart of the White Sands Desert, which was as you’d expect deserted. I think I saw a single Common Raven soaring over the dunes. But the heart was just a wasteland of sand and more sand a fun place to play perhaps. We drove back out of the heart to the nature trail and learned about the white sand flora and geology. And we experienced what it would be like to be a particle of sand blown over the dunes.
After shaking the sand from our socks and feet, we headed west toward our next destination: Gila Lower Box, another IBA. The environment sounded interesting enough to convince Tor to check it out. We took a brief stop at the Organ Mountain Recreation Area (another BLM preserved land), which looked like a great place to camp and hike if it weren’t so busy (being close to Las Cruces was a major factor).
Traveling west, there wasn’t much to see. I was trying to save gas in the oversized truck by driving slow, which is fun when all the semis are passing you. But in the end decided it’s better to drive fast without the AC, getting there sooner than drive slow with the AC on. They probably both burn equal amounts of gas (I know driving slow without the AC on would be the best way, but come on it’s a freakin’ desert we’re driving across!).
Somewhere between Las Cruces and Lordsburg, we were diverted through a border patrol checkpoint. When we pulled up to three armed guards, one of them asked if we were US citizens. After a simple “yes,” we were waved through. I don’t really know if it’s legal to ask people if they are US citizens without provocation, but then again this is America god bless it! We finally arrived at Lordsburg and headed north to the Gila River. The road dropped us into a bumpy wash it’s here I’m finally thankful for the truck’s ability (4-wheel drive - yes, ridiculous size - still no).
The road petered out at a rocky bank lined with cottonwoods. We could hear the river on the other side of the trees. We pulled up to a cottonwood, but weren’t exactly happy with the campsite, since it was entirely open. A BLM ranger pulled in shortly later. He was armed and had on a vest, which was a little unnerving, but he was very nice and pointed out some good campsites along a road we had missed on the way in. He warned us of the possibility of illegal alien activity, but said the chances were pretty slim.
Taking his advice, we checked out the campsites he recommended and pulled into a nice, but dusty one under some giant cottonwoods next to the canyon wall. With the exception of the large number of tent caterpillars that would constantly drop out of the trees, it was a very pleasant place to stay. It didn’t take me long to realize why it was a designated IBA. Orioles (Scott’s, Hooded, and Bullock’s) fed on the tent caterpillars nest, tanagers Hepatic and Summer sang and chased around the cottonwoods, large groups of mixed warblers (mostly Yellow-rumped, but also Black-throated Gray, Townsend’s, and Orange-crowned) traveled from along the banks of the river with Chipping Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos traveling along the ground, a pair of Bell’s Vireos sang almost constantly next to our campsite, Vermillion Flycatchers would flit around the bushes snapping up insects, a pair of Gila Woodpeckers would occasionally work on a nesting cavity in a cottonwood snag at our campsite, Gambel’s quails would call and chuck in the distant, and above the canyon wall next to our campsite a pair of Peregrine Falcons soared while calling to each other. Most of these birds I saw within minutes of stepping out of the car. It was a true paradise for the birds (and birders).
We spent the rest of the day relaxing. Well Tor relaxed, I was mostly on my feet looking at the birds and trying to digascope them.
In the middle of the night, we were awakened by a snarling howl (hard to describe) nearby. The game camera Tor had set up later revealed a gray fox that was probably either disturbed or surprised by us.
April 26th, Saturday
We decided to hike up along the Gila river. It was a slow go, mostly because I was distracted by the birds every few feet, but we made our way up the canyon, listening to the birds calling. Unlike the other places we’ve been so far, the birds never did cease to call and sing during the heat of the day. They slowed down a little, but there was always a song in the air. We spotted a Coati at the bank of the river. It didn’t seem to be alarmed by us, perhaps even a little curious about our presence. It meandered up the river when it lost interest in us. A pair of Mexian Mallard intergrades (where the male mallard doesn’t have that colorful head, but instead a dull brown one) flew up river at the sight of us. A Yellow-breasted Chat sang loudly from a willow on the other side of the bank. Click here to hear the Yellow-breasted Chat.
We spent the day along the river, having to wade up it in some parts, because the vegetation was too thick and the canyon walls too steep to scramble up. The river wasn’t very wide, perhaps only 20 feet across at most in some places, but was cool and refreshing on the warm breezy desert day. Since it was BLM land, there were cows further up the river. Our presence at the campground had moved them further up the canyon. The cows wanted nothing to do with us and would tromp away when we were spotted.
We didn’t make it very far up river as it became more difficult to hike where the banks of the river were very loose sand and dust and thickets of willows grew everywhere without a clear solid path. We turned around and wandered our way back down the river, stopping to admire a bird, tadpoles, or small fish in a pond.
In the evening, we made our way down river, where hiking along the river was not any easier, but still it was a very beautiful river and canyon, just difficult to access and see fully.
April 27th, Sunday
Not wasting the opportunity, we spent the more birding around the riverbanks. We sat across where the Yellow-breasted Chat was still singing (in the same tree as the previous day) and I watched the warblers and sparrows fly in for a drink or to glean on the surrounding trees. A Nashville Warbler flew in briefly for a drink. And a Common Yellowthroat “witchited-witchited” in the underbrush. A male Indigo Bunting flew by, only pausing on a limb and delivering a metallic “tink,” before vanishing into the lush cottonwoods. While we were sitting there watching the birds move through, we saw a band of at least 9 Coatis run across the riverbank down from us. They ran across the opening, bounding across the rocks with their long bushy red tails in the air. Later as we walked back, we saw the same band of Coatis descend a cottonwood and cross a tree to the other side of the river.
We left the desert oasis to head up to Gila National Forest, just northeast of Gila Lower Box. After a stop in Silver City for lunch and fuel, we headed up the curvy narrow road toward the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, which was in Gila NF.
It soon became apparent that we weren’t going to reach the dwelling before they closed, so we stopped at Grapevine Campground not far from the dwellings and located on the Gila River. Like the other NF campgrounds, there wasn’t much to expect here either. This campground was well used as a day use area by people wanting to play in the river and the signs are obvious dirt roads and trash everywhere and no designated campsites. It didn’t even look like the NF took much effort into maintaining the campground (maybe my expectation are too high…). But we chose a site at the end of the campground next to the mouth of a dry narrow canyon and away from the people splashing in the river.
Ready to do some exploring, we hiked up the small canyon. The dry rock-strewn wash soon gave way to a solid rock canyon floor with trickling water. Water skeeters danced across the water as we approached. Then I noticed out of the corner of my eye a larger splash in one of the shallow canyon pools. A Canyon Treefrog swam for cover under a mass of algae. A couple of second later two other treefrogs let loose their calls through the narrow canyon walls.
The canyon reminded me of Parker Canyon in the Sonoran Desert, but on a miniature level. It definitely was interesting, but lacked the grand diversity of Parker Canyon. We continued up the canyon, pausing to watch the treefrogs, look at a mass of frog eggs, and admire the seeps pouring down the canyon walls. A deeper pool with vertical walls marked our turnaround point.
As we trundled back out of the canyon, I raised my binocular to examine a small bird and exclaimed, “wow, what’s that?!” A small warbler with a striking flame red breast and a black cap that extended down its back to its tail fluttered around in an open tree. The Painted Redstart was a pleasant surprise to this rather unimpressive campground. I received another enjoyable sighting a few minutes later when a couple of beautifully decorated Bridled Titmice showed up in the willows.
At nightfall, we spotted a gray fox near the baited game camera that was placed well away from the truck. We had leftovers from dinner, which we had thrown out. It appeared several time despite us shining our headlamps on it a testament to how the wildlife is so used to us sloppy humans. Later in the evening, we were organizing our thoughts and writing notes. I was in the bed of the truck and Tor was sitting in a chair using the tailgate as a table. Suddenly Tor jumped up and started yelling. He quickly got into the bed of the truck, as I was confused. He told me that a skunk had wandered up and gotten practically next to his leg before he noticed it out of the corner of his eye. We knew that the ground was covered in trash and bits of food when we drove up, but didn’t expect the critters to be this bold about the food.
Despite the night being very cold (our water had ice in it the next morning), we kept hearing critter noise around us throughout the night. It felt a little more secure being elevated in the bed of the truck.
April 28th, Monday
In the morning, we tried to thaw out from the cold night with hot chocolate. We finally decided to just pack it up and head to the visitor center of the Gila Cliff Dwellings. We stopped at the visitor center to pick up information and some souvenirs. There were two hummingbird feeders outside the center that was a frenzy of activity. Broad-tailed and Black-chinned Hummingbirds fought with each other over who got to sit at the feeders. In the trees around the feeders, hummers sat either waiting for a good time to feed or to digest their meal.
We headed on to the Cliff Dwellings. There was a small loop trail that took us through the canyon below the dwellings, then up to the 7-cave dwelling itself. The dwellings were pretty spectacular. Situated above the canyon with a nice view of the surrounding desert landscape. What remained of the dwellings were the walls (the roofs had long collapsed and deteriorated) of various rooms. Some looked like they were used for food storage, one had old faded painting on the wall, and one was open to the cavernous ceiling with great acoustics.
Back at the trailhead, we stopped in the small natural history museum in a trailer. From the parking lot, we watched a pair of Painted Redstarts building a nest in the grass on a bank above the parking lot, and then we wandered up another trail that started at the parking lot until it forded the Gila River. Down the road from the Cliff Dwellings, we went on a short path (The Trail to the Past) from a campground to a small dwelling under a mini cliff. I wondered if the outcast crazy witch of the Mogollon people lived here and threatened to eat any child who striated too close. Tor thought it was just another food storage area unimaginative and uninspired. The “Trail to the Past” also led to some petroglyphs on a rock face near the small dwelling.
After trying the Little Creek trail nearby, the heat started to get to us and we returned to the visitor center for lunch. We watched the hummingbirds chatter and scold each other. I couldn’t figure out if there was a pattern to who wouldn’t share the feeders, but Tor decided it was an individual personality thing some hummingbirds are just mean. Among all the Black-chinned and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, I did see one male Calliope stop in for a drink.
Full on a lunch of peanut butter and jelly tortilla (we had run out of bread by this point in the trip), we trucked on to our next destination within the Gila NF Black Canyon. The road started off OK a dirt road along a ridge surrounded by juniper bushes, but dropped into a canyon appropriately named Rocky Canyon. For the second time in the trip, I was thankful for the truck (still not the size of it having to pass another truck going the opposite way on a narrow dirt road on the ledge of a cliff is not a comfortable situation). We bumped our way along the bottom of the canyon through steeply narrow rocky washes. We eventually made our way out of the canyon up to another ridge, only to descend again into Black Canyon. The road in Black Canyon was a much smoother ride. We found our way to the Lower Black Canyon Campground, which was not surprisingly empty. We set up camp next to the small creek below the tall cottonwoods. While settling in I heard the distinctive cry of an Acorn Woodpecker, which was joined by another. The two woodpeckers began calling to each other from different cottonwoods.
We walked down the canyon on a small hiking trail along the creek side. The trail faded in and out at times and crossed the creek in places, but it was impossible to get lost. We spotted an Acorn Woodpecker snag (along with the resident woodpecker) by the creek. A few pockets of birds would appear along the creek mainly Dark-eyed Juncos and Chipping Sparrows. On one particular spot along the creek, we spotted another Painted Redstart and a couple of White-breasted Nuthatches. Along the trail I kept looking for Jays namely the Mexican Jay, which has the same range as the Bridled Titmouse and the Painted Redstart, but every flash of blue turned out to be a Stellar’s Jay.
We returned to camp and prepared for another cold night. I finally gave up in the middle of the night and put on my pants and jacket in the sleeping bag to keep warm.
April 29th, Tuesday
The morning was a lot warmer than the previous morning at the Grapevine Campground. The Acorn Woodpeckers were flying and calling around the cottonwoods above us. We arose and hiked up the canyon. We came upon a larger stand of cottonwoods where there was a game of woodpecker tag going on. The Northern Flickers were busy indulging their game, while 4-5 Acorn Woodpeckers were deeply involved in theirs.
Instead of taking the road back through Rocky Canyon again, we continued on the dirt road northward. The road was much better in this direction, though it seemed long. Guess if you drive out to the middle of nowhere it takes a while to get back out of it. While driving through the pinon pines, we pulled over when several streaks of blue flew across the road. A large flock of Pinyon Jays (at least 20-30) were slowly traveling down the hill through the pines. We could hear them calling from the pines around us. We got some good looks at a few that were patrolling the ground perhaps looking for some grubs in the fallen pine needles.
Our journey out of Gila National Forest kicked us out near I-25 and Elephant Butte State Park, which was on the Bird Map of Southwest New Mexico, so we decided to have lunch there. Now the last lake in the desert we went to was in Arizona and it was suffering from a drought. We also went to a park, which was on the lake it was trashy and unappealing to most naturalists. I don’t know why I thought it would be any different in New Mexico. The access point we went to at Elephant Butte was trashy with roads created around every saltcedar bush that a car could fit through. We quickly ate lunch and dumped our garbage in the dumpster (at least the $5 fee went for something) and headed north back toward Soccoro.
A little north of Soccoro, we turned off to San Lorenzo Canyon Recreation Area another chunk of land owned by the BLM. I didn’t really know what to expect of the canyon. I only picked it because it was close to Albuquerque since we’d be flying out early next morning. We drove up the pebbly wash into the canyon. It was unlike the canyons that we’ve been to earlier in the trip, in that it’s what most people think of when you say canyon - high rock walls on two sides with odd rock formations and columns here and there. It was a nice canyon, picturesque and scenic. We set up camp in a small niche turnout.
We hiked up a trail marked by the BLM. It took us through a narrow short arm of the San Lorenzo Canyon. We scampered to the top of a ridge for a better view of the desert below. We weren’t in the Chihuahuan Desert anymore, but it was still breath taking.
Returning to the main canyon, we walked down the road through the canyon. It was difficult to capture the canyon’s ambience or grandeur.
During the night we woke up to the odd sound like a cat coughing up a hairball and snapping. It continued for a good 5 minutes when it was joined by the typical hooting of a Great Horned Owl and another owl “coughing up a hairball” as well. I never hear a Great Horned Owl make that sound and don’t really know what it means if it was a mating/bonding/competition call. Click here to hear the owls.
April 30th, Wednesday
At dawn the owls made the call again and I saw the telltale silhouette of a Great Horned on the canyon wall against the horizon. We got up early to finish packing up our gear to get to the airport in time. Our trip home went OK. I was glad to get home and have the comforts of running water and a full mattress to sleep on.
The Chihuahuan Desert experience will be one to remember. It was a good introduction and the start of planning future trips down there. We already have ideas of where we’d like to stay and how much time to give ourselves at each place.
It’s definitely different from the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts. The Chihuahuan Desert is supposedly defined by the agave lechuguilla, the Sonoran has the Saguaro cactus, and the Mojave has the Joshua trees. My impression of the desert was that it was a lot shrubbier, grassier, and less pokey (few cactus and yucca species?) than the Sonoran and Mojave. I have to admit I like the Sonoran and Mojave desert more, but I still look forward to future trips to the Chihuahuan Desert.
Mallard - L, G
Mexican-Mallard intergrade - LGB
Gadwall - G
Bufflehead - G
Red-breasted Merganser - LGB
Common Merganser - G
American Coot - G
Turkey Vulture - L, GM, CC, LGB, G
Golden Eagle - SL
Cooper's Hawk - L, GM, LGB, G
Swainson's Hawk - GM
Red-tailed Hawk - GM, CC, G
Zone-tailed Hawk - LGB
American Kestrel - CC
Peregrine Falcon - GM, LGB
Gambel's Quail - LGB
Wild Turkey - CC
Willet - LGB
Solitary Sandpiper - LGB
Spotted Sandpiper - LGB
Mourning Dove - L, GM, LGB, G
White-winged Dove - GM, CC, G
Barn Owl - Roadside
Great Horned Owl - CC, SL
Western Screech Owl - LGB
Common Poorwill - GM
Belted Kingfisher - GM, LGB
White-throated Swift - LGB, G, SL
Broad-tailed Hummingbird - L, GM, LGB, G, SL
Black-chinned Hummingbird - CC, LGB, G
Calliope Hummingbird - G
Northern Flicker - L, G
Acorn Woodpecker - G
Gila Woodpecker - LGB
Hairy Woodpecker - L, G
Downy Woodpecker - G
Red-naped Sapsucker - L, GM,CC, LGB, G
Ladder-backed Woodpecker - GM, LGB
Say's Phoebe - L, GM, CC, G, SL
Black Phoebe - GM, CC, LGB, G
Western Wood Pewee - GM
Gray Flycatcher - L
Great-crested Flycatcher - GM
Ash-throated Flycatcher - GM, LGB, G
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - CC
Vermillion Flycatcher - CC, LGB
Cassin's Kingbird - GM, LGB
Western Kingbird - CC
Loggerhead Shrike - Roadside
Warbling Vireo - GM, CC
Gray Vireo - GM
Plumbeous Vireo - GM, CC, LGB
Cassin's Vireo - L, CC, LGB, G
Western Scrub Jay - L, GM, SL
Steller's Jay - G
Pinyon Jay - G
Common Raven - GM, LGB, SL
Horned Lark - LGB
Violet Green Swallow - GM, CC, LGB, SL
Barn Swallow - CC
Cave Swallow - CC
Northern Rough-winged Swallow - LGB
Bushtit - L, GM, G
Juniper Titmouse - L
Bridled Titmouse - G
Mountain Chickadee - GM, G
Red-breasted Nuthatch - L
White-breasted Nuthatch - GM, LGB, G
Canyon Wren - GM, CC, G, SL
Rock Wren - GM, CC, LGB, SL
Cactus Wren - GM
Bewick's Wren - GM, CC, LGB, G
House Wren - G
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - GM
Ruby-crowned Kinglet - L, GM, LGB
Mountain Bluebird - L
Western Bluebird - L, G
American Robin - L, G
Swainson's Thrush - L
Hermit Thrush - GM, LGB, G
Townsend's Solitare - L
Greater Roadrunner - L, GM, G
Northern Mockingbird - GM, CC
Curve-billed Thrasher - GM
Phainopepla - GM
Gracy's Warbler - GM
Virginia's Warbler - G
Lucy's Warbler - LGB
Yellow-rumped Warbler "Audubon" & "Myrtle" - L, GM, CC, LGB, SL
Black-and-White Warbler - GM (1 male)
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Townsend's Warbler - LGB
Wilson's Warbler - GM, CC, LGB, G, SL
Yellow Warbler - CC, LGB, G
Orange-crowned Warbler - GM, LGB, G
Nashville Warbler - LGB
Common Yellowthroat - LGB
Yellow-breasted Chat - LGB
Painted Redstart - G
Yellow-headed Blackbird - White Sands NM
Varied Bunting - CC
Western Tanager - GM
Summer Tanager - GM, CC, LGB
Hepatic Tanager - CC, LGB, G
Pyrrhuloxia - GM
Northern Cardinal - CC, LGB
Brown-headed Cowbird - GM, CC, G
Great-tailed Grackle - GM
Western Meadowlark - GM
Bullock's Oriole - GM, LGB
Scott's Oriole - GM, LGB
Hooded Oriole - CC, LGB
Indigo Bunting - LGB
Spotted Towhee - L, GM, G, SL
Canyon Towhee - GM, CC, LGB
Green-tailed Towhee - LGB, G, SL
Chipping Sparrow - L, GM, CC, LGB
White-crowned Sparrow - GM, LGB, G, SL
Rufous-crowned Sparrow - GM
Black-throated Sparrow - GM, CC, LGB, SL
Black-chinned Sparrow - GM
Brewer's Sparrow - LGB, G
Lark Sparrow - GM, LGB, G
Dark-eyed Junco - L, GM, CC, LGB, G
Black-headed Grosbeack - G
House Finch - GM, LGB, G, SL
Cassin's Finch - GM
Pine Siskin - GM, LGB, G
GM = Guadalupe Mountain National Park
Mule Deer - GM