Big Bend National Park and the Texas Hill Country Apr 25—May 04, 2011

Posted by Barry Zimmer

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Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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To our left, Lucifer Hummingbirds buzzed about the feeders like bees, probably a dozen or more total in amongst the more numerous Black-chinneds. Brilliant bluish-purple gorgets flashed in the morning sun just feet away. In front of us on the ground were myriad species representing a seemingly endless array of color. A male Painted Bunting hopped about among the Clay-colored, Brewer's, and Chipping sparrows. A gorgeous Green-tailed Towhee popped in and chased an equally pretty Lark Sparrow. A pair of Pyrrhuloxias flew into the feeder and a male Blue Grosbeak dropped to the ground next to the Painted Bunting. Soon a pair of Black-throated Sparrows and Canyon Towhees joined the crowd. Someone spotted a plum-colored Varied Bunting in a nearby mulberry and it was quickly joined by a Black-headed Grosbeak. A Gray Flycatcher wagged its tail on a nearby low shrub before sallying out to catch a small insect. It was really hard to know where to look. All this activity in less than an hour and most of it within 15 feet of us! This parade of birds on a private ranch near Big Bend National Park represented but part of one morning on our recent, wildly successful Big Bend National Park and the Texas Hill Country tour.

Starting in San Antonio, we spent a little more than two days scouring the famous Texas Hill Country. A male Black-capped Vireo in a small, isolated shrub just 20 feet away provided superb views, as did five stunning Golden-cheeked Warblers, the other Hill Country specialty, on a private ranch north of Concan. Several South Texas specialties reach their northern limits in this region, and we had great looks at Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Crested Caracara, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Couch's Kingbird, Long-billed Thrasher, and Olive Sparrow. Other area highlights included Harris's Hawk; Zone-tailed Hawk; Common Poorwill; Black and Eastern phoebes; Vermilion Flycatcher; Yellow-throated, Bell's, and White-eyed vireos; Canyon Wren; Yellow-throated Warbler; Yellow-breasted Chat; Lazuli Bunting; Field Sparrow; and an estimated 50 Painted Buntings in one day! Perhaps the most exciting event was witnessing the exodus of an estimated ten million Mexican free-tailed bats from their roosting cave at dusk. This is certainly one of the great natural history spectacles ever!

From the Hill Country we traveled westward into the Trans-Pecos region of Texas and on to Big Bend National Park. Despite very dry conditions this spring, we had excellent luck in the park. When we arrived, it was apparent that a fallout of migrants had occurred. Sparrows, warblers, and thrushes were hopping around on the sidewalks and parking lot of the Chisos Basin. It looked like something from a coastal migrant trap instead of the high deserts of West Texas, and it persisted for all four days we were there! A morning trip to Blue Creek Canyon netted us our three main targets—Lucifer Hummingbird, Gray Vireo, and Varied Bunting—in addition to other treats such as Gray Flycatcher, Cassin's Vireo, Rock Wren, Townsend's Warbler, Pyrrhuloxia, and Bullock's and Scott's orioles. A stop at Sam Nail Ranch produced perhaps our two rarest birds of the trip, a male Hooded Warbler and an out-of-place Long-billed Thrasher. Back near the lodge we encountered Dusky Flycatcher, Virginia's Warbler, and a cooperative Black-chinned Sparrow.

The next day was our all-day hike to Boot Canyon in search of the Colima Warbler. Although we had only two Colimas (due to the dry conditions), they were right over the trail and put on a show for nearly five minutes. In addition, we had a stunning Blue-throated Hummingbird, a few more Lucifers, Hammond's Flycatcher, the black-eared form of Bushtit, two pairs of Painted Redstarts, Black-throated Gray Warbler, a Hermit Warbler, 12+ Townsend's Warblers, and a male Hepatic Tanager.

The lush riparian habitat of Rio Grande Village and Cottonwood Campground the next day yielded Common Black-Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Gray Hawk, Lesser Nighthawk, Tropical Kingbird, too many Vermilion Flycatchers to count, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Verdin, and more Painted and Indigo buntings. Two more rarities, White-eyed Vireo and Rose-breasted Grosbeak, were also seen here. Evening owling produced superb studies of both Western Screech-Owl and the tiny Elf Owl.

Then it was on to the Davis Mountains where recent fires had caused closures of some of the areas we would normally bird. Some improvisation and lots of luck produced three absolutely spectacular male Montezuma Quail at dusk after we had spent some time searching. The birds walked right up onto the edge of the road giving us the best views imaginable. Cassin's Kingbird, Western Scrub-Jay, Western Bluebird, and Hepatic Tanager rounded out the highlights of this area.

Our tour ended in El Paso and en route we birded a series of irrigation impoundments and reservoirs along the Rio Grande. On our last afternoon we added nearly 30 species of birds to our growing list including Clark's, Western, and Eared grebes, Neotropic Cormorant, Cinnamon Teal, a pair of late Buffleheads, Gambel's Quail (found only in this part of Texas), Snowy Plover, Baird's Sandpiper, hundreds of Wilson's Phalaropes, a lone Franklin's Gull, and Burrowing Owl among others.

In all we tallied a very impressive 227 species of birds (besting the previous list by over 50!), tallying virtually every target and enjoying a wonderful western migration fallout!