By Year
By Type
By Destination
Bird Gallery
Backyard Birds
Winter Creek Birds
Left Coast Birder

Western Texas - Part I
April 2013

    Guadalupe Mountain National Park
    Big Bend National Park
    Carlsbad Cavern National Park

| Synopsis | Pictures | Bird/Critter Lists | Information |


As with every year, I looked forward to our desert trip both for the sun and the sights. We flew into El Paso as it was one of the closer cities to Big Bend National Park. We choose Big Bend as our destination, as we've never been and it sounded interesting and beautiful. Big Bend is the least visited national park as getting to the park means making it the destination (instead of a stopover or drive through) and it is quite literally a 5-hour drive from any major city.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park
We stayed at Guadalupe Mountains National Park for a couple of nights both at the beginning and the end of the trip. Being only a 1.5 hour drive away from El Paso, it was the best spot for camping and for staging before driving south to Big Bend (which took about 4.5 hours).

Our stays at the Pine Springs campground was pleasant enough. Most of the nights were quiet with few people camping in tents. The only busy night was on a Friday. The weekend crowd flooded the campground and we saw several campers unable to stay because all sites were taken.

The wind was formidable during part of our stay. It took us by surprise when we came back to find it had flattened our tent and one of the tent poles was badly crimped. With some duct tape, a tent stake, and a shoe lace we were able to McGyever our tent back into working condition. It would have been bad to start off our trip without a tent! The wind during this time was also so strong and persistent that a blanket of dust hung in the air. The mountains were washed in a brownish white haze. The weather during the rest of the time, however, was thankfully manageable and rather pleasantly clear and warm. The nights tended to cool off. The sounds of a Common Poorwill calling and the occasional chorus of howling coyotes were the only noises to break the silences of the bright moon's chilly air.

We hiked a few of the trails around the park. One day we hiked from the campground to the Frijole Ranch and Smith Springs. The scenery was beautiful with the mountains thrusting upward on one side and the rolling desert lands stretching out as far as the eye could see. At Smith Springs, Townsend's Solitares and Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted among the budding leaves of the oak. A Plumbeous Vireo sang constantly while gathering fluff for the beginnings of a nest. Along the trails Lesser Earless, Whiptail, and Sagebrush Lizards scurried out of the way. A couple of Patch-nosed Snakes warmed themselves in the sun. Phlox, clarets cups, desert verbena, and sunflowers added dabs of color among the dry grass, sotol, yucca, junipers, and sparsely leaved bushes.

During the dust storm, we hiked up to Devil's Hall. The canyon was protected from the winds once the trail dropped down into the wash. It was a rather quiet hike, as most wildlife's instinct told them to hunker down during a wind/dust storm. We were foolish enough to be out in it though, as we hiked through the haze of dirt and the occasional strong gust of wind.

Our instincts to hunker down failed us again one day when we decided (even more foolishly) to hike up the mountains to the bowl. The hike up the narrow Tejas trail that balance on the steep mountainside took us up 2,500 ft in 3.5 miles. The trail's switchbacks wound up the mountain and over ridges, which were especially windy. The views of the canyon below and the mountains across were breathtaking. And the strong gusts could have been lifetaking with one misstep and a poorly coincidental burst of wind to send one tumbling down into the canyon. The ridges were particularly bad with a false sense of calm behind the shelter of the ridge and only one step around the corner were the blasting winds. Thankfully we were able to climb up the mountain safely to continue on to the bowl. The bowl was a depression atop the mountain full of Douglas fir, piñon pine, lodge pole pine, and lots and lots of dry yellow grass. The environment looked very much like the mountains of Eastern Washington if you didn't look too closely at the plants. In the high alpine desert, we saw Mountain Chickadees, Pygmy and White-breasted Nuthatches, and one Black-and-White Warbler. On the edge of the meadow was a flock of Eastern Bluebirds. We also found a Texas Short-horned Lizard trying to warm itself. The bowl was relatively protected from the winds but on the ridge it was still raging. We descended Bear Canyon, which was steeper than the Tejas's accent. The canyon was well-protected from the winds so we didn't have to worry as much about a strong gust sending us down the canyon.

We stopped at the McKittrick Canyon one evening for a quick hike. We only had a couple of hours before they locked the gate so we hiked up the canyon a short distance. It was pretty quiet from the heat of the day. But water ran down the creek and there were several small trout in the shallows. The canyon floor was full of oaks, agave, junipers, sotol, and yucca. The reddish canyon rock walls were a beautiful contrast against the blue sky.

During the evenings, we spent time at the Frijole Ranch to see if any migrants would be attracted to the abundant water. Pine Siskins and Yellow-rumped Warblers were the most numerous birds. But there were also Townsend's Solitaires, Summer Tanagers, Scott's Orioles, Curve-billed Thrashers, Juniper Titmice, Lesser Goldfinch, and on one occasion a beautifully colored male Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Big Bend National Park
We spent a full week exploring, camping, and hiking Big Bend National Park. It was an impressively large park with a lot to offer in terms of wildlife viewing, scenery, camping, and lessons in geology. Most of our time was spend in the mountains - the Chisos Basin. It was cooler than the lowlands, especially compared to the river. The park was very accessible with most major attractions either being on the paved road or on well-groomed dirt roads. One could easily drive from one end of the park to the other within 1.5 hours going the speed limit. Dirt roads crossed the park and along the river to provide access to backcountry camping and to a few trail heads, but only a few of those dirt roads required 4 wheel drive.

Chisos Mountains

The campground was located in the middle of the basin with grand views of the surrounding Chisos Mountains. There was a view 360 degrees... if you ignored the power lines, RVs, lodges, and other campers. It made a great base camp to start a hike up the mountains early in the morning or to drive out for a day trip within the park. The mountains offered a variety of hiking trails. Since they were in the mountains though, most of them required a significance gain in elevation.

Window Trail - We hiked this trail in the evening as the sun began to cast tall shadows over the mountains and turn the rock formation called Casa Grande a deep ruddy color. This trail started from the campground, dropped into a wash, and led us between Carter Peak and Vernon Bailey Mountain. The evening air was sweetened by the abundant blooming honey mesquite and the occasional fragrant ash. The trail narrowed into a red rocky canyon to end at a narrow rock slot that was weathered away with time and water. The "window" looked west on the desert below.

Pinnacle, South Rim, Boot Canyon, Colima, Laguna Meadows Trails - As the sun crept into the Chisos Basin, we climbed our way up the Pinnacle Trail in hopes to find a Colima Warbler. We hiked from the oak forests and into maples, piñon pines, and junipers. The understory was covered with dried grass, mountain mahogany, prickly pears, and the occasional blooming clarets cup cactus. Through the stands of oak, we spied grand views of the surrounding Chisos Mountains and Emory Peak that towered above. We passed through a small stand of maples where the Colima Warbler was reportedly seen but it was quiet. After the trail crested, we dropped down into Boot Canyon, which was dominated by piñon pine and junipers.

Hiking through the canyon I saw movement - the flash of a dark bird flying into a pine tree. The color and shape were odd so I searched for the bird and in the shadows saw an owl looking back at me. Through the cluster of branches, we watched a Flamulated Owl with little concern toward the upset Blue-gray Gnatcatcher or us watching it. If the owl didn't move as we were hiking through, I would have never seen it. It was a treat to see since they are somewhat difficult to spot, especially during daylight.

We turned up Colima Trail hoping the trail lived up to its name, but we only turned up many Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Painted Redstart, and a couple of White-breasted Nuthatches. We looped around the South Rim trail were we got fantastic views of the mountains and valleys to the south. The bright green banner that snaked across the brown landscape indicated where the Rio Grande flow. After enjoying the views, we returned to Boot Canyon. The creek that ran through the canyon was drying up, with little remnant pools of green algae collected in the deepest parts. We crossed over the Colima trail once more (still not Colima Warbler) before beginning our decent down Laguna Meadows Trail. It was a tiring trail route taking us 18 miles up and down the mountains. We were a little early on for migration - the temperatures were still relatively cool. So we didn't have a Colima Warbler to show for the long hike, but we did come back with memories of the gorgeous views and a Flammulated Owl were reward aplenty.

Pinnacle Trail again - In a second and final attempt for the Colima Warbler, we hiked back up the Pinnacle Trail. We hiked up during the heat of the day and everything seemed different - at least the scenery didn't seem as enjoyable. Maybe it was the lack of shadows and contract caused by a sun lower in the sky, but with the sun high in the sky, the surrounding mountains seemed flat and less interesting. Maybe it was also the pool of sweat that built up between my back and the backpack that made it seem slightly less inspiring. On the way up, we encountered a group of birders with a somewhat dejected aura around them. They failed to see the warbler. I hoped we'd have better luck. We reached the small stand of maples near the top of the trail that we had hiked through without stopping the first time around. It was quiet at first but a few birds appeared. The ever-present Yellow-rumped Warblers were gleaning the oak and maple trees. A Warbling Vireo and several Townsend's Warblers were also present. Then a different warbler appeared in one of the maples. It was brownish with a yellow vent and a red crown. Could it be? Yes! There was at least one Colima Warbler currently in these mountains. I got a fairly brief view of the warbler before it disappeared into the oak thickets, but we waited for a while longer. The Colima reappeared this time it gleaned the maple trees and allowed us better and longer views. Hard to believe this somewhat drab warbler draws hordes of birders each year and either leaves them elated or disparaged. Thankfully I fell into the earlier category. We hiked back down the mountain with a new level of happiness at least I did; I can't speak for Tor but I think he was just happy I got to see the little bird.

Lost Mine Trail - Before the sun was fully in the sky, we climbed the trail up the mountainside with the $1 trail guide pamphlet in hand. We enjoyed the markers and pamphlet that pointed out the common plants and trees of the Chihuahuan desert. Most of the information we already gathered from other such guides around the park. But the Lost Mine Trail seemed to the more complete and have a few facts that we didn't know. Throughout the trail we had great views of Casa Grande and the surrounding Chisos Mountains. At the end of the trail, we were rewarded with a view of the mountains south of Chisos. Like the trails up to Pinnacle there were many people using the trail that morning. We still managed to beat the majority of the crowds.


Continue on to Part II of Western Texas trip

Pictures (click on thumbnails to enlarge)

Continue on to Part II of Western Texas trip


All material on this website copyright
Do not use without author's consent
Email: Birder AT NWBirding.com
page updated: 5/15/13