The Trans-Pecos

By Richard Sims

Originally published in Volume 47, Number 9 (September 2001)

Michael and I plan a trip to the Trans-Pecos. Primarily, this trip is built around filming various birds with the Lucifer Hummingbird being foremost. The main target bird for me is the Mexican Spotted Owl. I had hoped that this bird would be Texas bird number 500 for me, but alas, I have already attained this plateau.

I will be referring to various locations in Big Bend National Park (BBNP)[#2 on map], Davis Mountains State Park (DMSP)[#3], Guadalupe Mountains National Park (GMNP)[#4], and Carlsbad Caverns National Park (CCNP)[#5].

Monday, May 21: A beautiful day for birding. Michael and I take advantage of this by heading to the Trans-Pecos. We travel west on IH10 and when we reached the roadside park at marker 308 [#1], we had counted the following 11 birds: Western Kingbird, Black Vulture, Cave Swallow, Mourning Dove, Common Raven, Turkey Vulture, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Swainson's Hawk, Western Bluebird, Cliff Swallow, and Red-tailed Hawk.

The roadside park provided Cassin's Finch, Cassin's Kingbird, Orchard Oriole, Hooded Oriole, Western Tanager, and Black-chinned Sparrow.

BBNP is our first destination, to we turn south to Marathon, where a Cactus Wren helped us gas up. As we left town, a mild surprise: a group of Ostriches. Assuring ourselves that we were not in Africa, we continued on to the park. Birds identified on the road to Headquarters were Western Kingbird, Cliff Swallow, Roadrunner, and Burrowing Owl. As we made our way to Cottonwood Campground, we stopped to cool off at Sam Nail Ranch and visited with Gray Vireos.

As we set up camp, we were joined by an unusual bird for this area--a Merriam's Wild Turkey. According to park personnel, a small flock had made its way down through the mountains in Mexico and crossed the river into the park. Predators had taken all but one. Other birds at Cottonwood were Vermillion Flycatcher, Violet-green Swallow, Black-headed Grosbeak, Orchard Oriole, Hooded Oriole, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler, and Black Phoebe. A Lesser Nighthawk was at Castalon.

Tuesday, May 22: (At BBNP) The dawn chorus this morning was dominated by owls (Western Screech-owl, Great Horned and Elf Owl), giving a wake-up call to Cassin's Finch, Summer and Western Tanagers, and Western Wood-pewee.

As we travel to the town of Study Butte, a roadrunner engaged us in a race. Birds of Study Butte were Cactus Wren, Canyon Wren, and Canyon Towhee.

Back at the park, we went to Blue Creek Canyon. We hiked two miles up the creek looking for Lucifer Hummingbirds. We found a century plant in full bloom and set up under a small tree and waited. Our wait was not in vain. Soon the birds started feeding on the bloom and perching on a nearby tree, giving Michael some great shots.

The canyon also gave us Black-throated Sparrow, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Canyon Wren, Black-chinned Hummingbird, and Rock Wren. On the return trip to Cottonwood, near Castalon, we saw Hepatic Tanager, Yellow-shafted Flicker, and Pyrrhuloxia.

At camp, we were treated to a flock of Cedar Waxwings, Lesser Goldfinch, a Gray Hawk on a nest, and a Sulpher-bellied Flycatcher (Texas bird number 500 for Michael).

Wednesday, May 23 (BBNP): Back to Blue Creek for more shots of the Lucifer. As we hiked up the canyon, a Common Black-hawk flew over. We added Blue Grosbeak, Curve-billed Thrasher, Gray Vireo, Red-tailed Hawk, and Pyrrhuloxia.

As we hiked out of the canyon, we spotted a male Lucifer in the top of a dead tree. As Michael readied his camera, a Varied Bunting scared the Lucifer off and took his place. We bemused that it was the first time we were upset with seeing a Varied Bunting.

While moving camp to Rio Grande Village, we stopped at Sam Nail Ranch for Townsend's Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Bell's Vireo, and Bushtits.

Rio Grande Village, as always, was full of roadrunners and Vermilion Flycatchers. Other birds found were Summer Tanager, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Blue Grosbeak, Audubon's Warbler, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Common Nighthawk, and Inca Doves.

Thursday, May 24: Before leaving Rio Grande Village, as we moved camp to the basin in the Chisos Mountains, we found a Mississippi Kite, Painted Buntings, Orchard Oriole, Violet-green Swallows, Chihuahuan Ravens, and a Common Black-hawk feeding on snails in an irrigation ditch. A stop at Dugout Wells added a Plumbeous and a Red-eyed Vireo, Cassin's Finch, and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher.

The basin produced many Cactus Wrens, Hepatic Tanager, Rio Grande Wild Turkey, Eastern Screech-owl, Elf Owl, and Chihuahuan Ravens. White-throated Swifts were at the sewer pond.

Friday, May 25: Today we leave BBNP and move to DMSP, making birding stops along the way. First stop as we leave the basin is a hike up the Lost Mine Trail for Mexican Jays, Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, and Spotted Towhee.

Leaving the park through Persimmon Gap, these birds were present: roadrunner, Scaled Quail, Curve-billed Thrasher, Scott's Oriole, Black-throated Sparrow, and Blue Grosbeak. By using radio communication, we were able to maneuver Michael into position to film a Burrowing Owl up close.

Newly acquired directions enabled us to find the PeČa Colorado Park southwest of Marathon. In olden days it was a fort and was locally know then, as it is now, as "The Post." A spring-fed creek is dammed up so there is plenty of water, attracting birds from all around. We had, during our short stay: House Finch, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Starling, Hooded Oriole, Summer Tanager, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Western Kingbird, Orchard Oriole, Vermilion Flycatcher, Barn Swallows, Black Phoebe, and a coot.

Traveling on highway US90 from Marathon to Alpine, we saw Mountain Bluebird, Scott's Oriole, Painted Buntings, Western Meadowlarks, Great Egret, and a Red-tailed Hawk with a long snake in its talons.

Camping in Davis Mountains State Park, we hoped to find the nesting Tropical Parula that had been reported. We were disappointed to learn that a wind storm had caused them to leave several days before. However, we did find Scrub Jays, Black-crested Titmouse, Black-headed Grosbeak, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Bewick's Wren, Bullock's Oriole, Cooper's Hawk, Blue Grosbeak, and a Blue-throated Hummingbird. We were unable to get the Montezuma Quail, as they have not been coming to the park of late.

Saturday, May 26: Beginning this day at the DMSP, we were awakened very early by an American Crow. Before breaking camp, we birded the park, finding a White-breasted Nuthatch and several Acorn Woodpeckers.

Taking Highway 118 West, we encountered Scott's Oriole, Mountain Bluebirds, and Montezuma Quail as we made our way to Lawrence E. Wood Roadside Park, where we were greeted by Pinyon Jays and another White-breasted Nuthatch. Common Ravens were on IH10 east of Van Horn.

After setting up camp at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, we hiked up to Smith's Springs for Plumbeous Vireo, Scott's Oriole, a pair of nesting Western Wood-Pewees, Canyon Wren, Summer Tanager, a Band-tailed Pigeon, and a Broad-tailed Hummingbird.

Sunday, May 27: This morning will be a real treat. We will hike up a canyon in hopes of finding a Mexican Spotted Owl. As we hike up the canyon, we tallied Canyon Towhee, Lesser Goldfinch, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Western Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, Western Wood-Pewee, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Hepatic Tanager, Canyon Wren, and Black-headed Grosbeak.

Climbing for quite a while, we came to a rock formation across the canyon that as far as I was concerned, prevented me from going further. Michael agreed. He easily scaled the rock formation, mountain-climbing style, and went on up the canyon, leaving me to watch and wait. This I did. I watched and waited... and waited. Finally, after what seemed forever, I saw the bird coming down the canyon toward me. Michael had climbed above it, causing it to come down where I could see and hear it.

Later, as we rested in camp, I saw a Phainopepla flying over. It was quickly joined by three more.

We drove to Carlsbad Caverns National Park where we made the Scenic Loop without much success. We had Scott's Oriole, Canyon Towhee, Mockingbird, and Turkey Vultures.

On our return, we stopped at Rattlesnake Springs (the water supply for Carlsbad Caverns) and were rewarded with Western Kingbird, Vermilion Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Purple Martin, Summer Tanager, Bushtits, Black-headed Grosbeak, Painted Buntings, Lark Sparrow, Bullock's Oriole, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Bronzed Cowbirds.

We closed this day by sitting and listening to Elf Owls.

Monday, May 28: Today we go home. Leaving Guadalupe National park, we go south on Highway 54 to Van Horn, seeing the following on the way: Scrub-Jay, Orchard Oriole, Verdin, Swainson's Hawk, Blue Grosbeak, Varied Bunting, Common Raven, and Burrowing Owl.

Traveling home on IH10, we stop at Balmorhea State Park for several birds including Black Phoebe, Blue Grosbeak, Vermilion Flycatcher, American Robin, Bullock's Oriole (nesting), Lesser Goldfinch, Roadrunner, Burrowing Owl, and a Black-chinned Hummingbird taking a dust bath. A Eurasian Collared-dove ushered us though Balmorhea.

At a rest stop, we talked with a man who had seen a Zone-tailed Hawk ahead of us. This forced us to look at all the many vultures along the way. Finally, at marker 350 near Ozona, we found the hawk for our last bird of the trip.

It was a fantastic trip with 125 species recorded. I added 35 year birds, 4 Texas birds, and 1 life bird. We strongly recommend a trip to this area.

Mexican Spotted Owl photo by Diane Knudson; from the US Fish & Wildlife Service Southwest Region 2 web site.

TPWD Mexican Spotted Owl pages:

Take a virtual hike on the Lost Mine Trail at Big Bend NP: (from the Texas A and M University Department of Geology and Geophysics).


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