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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Travel Tip for Texas - Big Bend National Park

Chisos Mountains in Big Bend NP
Big Bend National Park in Texas offers a range of surprises, and many plants and animal end – or begin – their native ranges here, ranges that extend in all directions transgressing into different ecological worlds. Any one of the three assortments of habitats here – desert, river, and mountains – could easily justify the trip to one of the nations most remote national parks.

Bound by the Santiago Mountains on the north and the Rio Grande River and Mexico on the southern side, portions of the northern Chihuahua Desert lie within the park’s 800,000 acres of territory. The jagged peaks of the Chisos Mountains cut across the heart of Big Bend territory and this is where birders usually head in search of the Colima Warbler, which is the only reliable spot in the U.S. to find this species.

Target Bird - Colima Warbler
The preferred nesting habitat is in lush growth of oak, maple, and pinyon pine with extensive grass and leaf litter on the ground where the actual nest is constructed. In the Chisos Mountains, this translates to the north-facing slopes of humid canyons above 6,000 feet.
Scaled Quail
The Pinnacles Trail and Boot Canyon is where you are most likely to find the Colima Warbler in April or May. This is when a birder needs to be in good physical condition. The Pinnacles Trail is a steep climb and Big Bend can be awfully hot by the time the warblers arrive in mid-April. I recommend an early start on the trails. An alternative to climbing the Pinnacles is the Laguna Meadows Trail and the aptly-named Colima Trail that connects back to the Pinnacles for a knee-busting descent. Either way, this is a bird that makes you work to tick it off your life list.
Greater Roadrunner
Thankfully, some of the world’s best scenery awaits the birder making this pilgrimage. Once in an open spot near some grass and trees, it’s a relatively simple matter to find the target. The Colima Warbler has a distinctive song with a rapid trill. Listening to a recording can train your ear to listen for the proper tune. Birders differ in opinion about the ethics of using a tape playback of the song to call in birds in the field. It certainly works, but can potentially stress and confuse nesting birds. I prefer not to use any playback.

Ash-throated Flycatcher
Other birds in the park include many common western species, such as Ash-throated Flycatcher, Cactus Wren, Canyon Towhee, Roadrunner, Common Nighthawk, Lesser Nighthawk, Poorwill, White-throated Swift, Black-chinned, Rufous, and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. 

Cactus Wren

Cactus Wren Nest
With more than 20 distinct plant communities and more than 1200 species of flora in Big Bend, there’s a surprise around every corner. I have found Zone-tailed and Gray Hawk within the park boundaries.
Zone-tailed Hawk (Photo by Dave Eberly)
There are at least 70 varieties of cactus, more than in any other park, and the river and mountainous regions flourish with wildflowers in the springtime. There are almost as many reptilian species here than in the Everglades, and birding enthusiasts flock to Big Bend to spot more than 450 bird species amid the various landscapes.
Blue Grosbeak

Canyon Towhee

A surprise sculpture in the middle of nowhere
Rio Grande River - Mexico on left

Lodging in Big Bend National park is limited to the Chisos Mountain Lodge. The only lodge in Big Bend, this comfortable lodge rests at the base of the Chisos Mountain range. Another place you could stay in Big Bend National Park is on the south side. Ten Bits Ranch, which sits high within the Chihuahuan Desert and offers memorable views of the region.
Christine, Sharon, & Chris Guarente at the Chisos Mountain Lodge  

Of course there are many other things to do in the park. Hiking, float trips down the river (you do need a passport for this) and just driving around the immense area of the park and sightseeing are some of the attractions.

Tarantula on the visitor center wall
Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Two-tailed Swallowtail
So enjoy a trip to Big Bend National Park. Most people go in the winter months when the weather is cooler but we birders are a strange lot. So, I would recommend going in April for your best chance of finding the Colima Warbler.

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