Big Bend National Park and the Texas Hill Country Apr 23—May 02, 2012

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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Once again our Big Bend National Park & the Texas Hill Country tour was a huge success. We began our trip in the Texas Hill Country, home to two prized avian targets—the Black-capped Vireo and the Golden-cheeked Warbler. On our first morning, a stop near Uvalde netted an impressive variety of birds including Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Crested Caracara, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, a stunning Green Jay at the very northern edge of its range, Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow, and fabulous Painted Buntings among others.

 
Vagrant Tropical Parula along the Frio River, Texas

Vagrant Tropical Parula along the Frio River, Texas— Photo: Barry Zimmer

 
  

After settling into our rooms, we ventured out on an afternoon bird walk and quickly found the very rare Tropical Parula that had been hanging out here for the past three weeks. We enjoyed prolonged close views of this vagrant in addition to a variety of resident species. After an early dinner we headed out to the world-famous Frio Bat Cave to witness the spectacle of ten million Mexican free-tailed bats exiting the cave for the evening. Hundreds of Cave Swallows, Canyon and Cactus wrens, Black-throated and Rufous-crowned sparrows, and Canyon Towhees entertained us as we waited. Then, suddenly, a river of bats began pouring out, filling the sky. Red-tailed Hawks dived into the masses for an evening snack. The flight continued to dark and beyond. It was a natural history spectacle that none of us will ever forget.

The next day we headed north to a private ranch in the heart of the Hill Country. We found Golden-cheeked Warblers quickly, and had views from ten feet away at eye level. Black-capped Vireos put up more of a battle, but those who persisted ultimately had nice views of that skulker as well. Other goodies here included Vermilion Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Yellow-breasted Chat, Summer Tanager, Indigo Bunting, and Hooded Oriole among others. Evening owling netted fabulous studies of the McCall's race of Eastern Screech-Owl and a singing Chuck-will's-widow.

An hour or two of birding on our last morning in the Hill Country netted a great variety of sparrows including Clay-colored, Field, Grasshopper, Cassin's, Lark, Vesper, and Lincoln's. Then it was on to the Trans-Pecos region of West Texas. We enjoyed the change of scenery along the way and also added a few birds such as an out-of-place Yellow-headed Blackbird, Lark Buntings, and Brewer's Sparrow. As we arrived in Big Bend National Park in the late afternoon, we were immediately greeted by a small herd of collared peccaries (javelina) and then a close black bear along the entry road to our lodge! An incredible sunset and a Common Poorwill topped off our day.

We had three full days to scour the park itself. Our all-day hike to Boot Springs yielded an impressive six Colima Warblers despite the dry conditions. We had superb views of several within the first three miles of trail. Blue-throated Hummingbird, White-throated Swift, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Dusky-capped Flycatcher (rare), Cassin's Vireo, striking Townsend's Warblers, Black-chinned Sparrow, Hepatic Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, and two more black bears rounded out the hike. The walk down the Window Trail produced stunning plum-colored Varied Buntings, Rock Wren, and Scott's Oriole. Rio Grande Village was very productive with the likes of Common Black-Hawk, Gray Hawk, Greater Roadrunner, Brown-crested Flycatcher, a rare Brown Thrasher, an even rarer American Redstart, more Painted Buntings, Pyrrhuloxia, and Blue Grosbeak, while Cottonwood Campground yielded Tropical Kingbird, Lucy's Warbler, and our rarest bird of the tour, a Worm-eating Warbler. In addition we added Elf Owl and Western Screech-Owl during our night excursions, plus a wonderful variety of mammals and herps. As we left the park, we visited another private ranch with an elaborate feeder setup. Here we watched Lucifer Hummingbirds coming in to the feeders, while Varied Buntings, Green-tailed Towhees, and a nice variety of sparrows fed on seed nearby.

We then headed north to the Davis Mountains, and following an early dinner, set our sights on finding the elusive and highly sought Montezuma Quail. Our efforts were rewarded when we had a pair of these marvelous birds no more than 15 feet away for over 20 minutes. It was one of the most incredible bird experiences I have ever had. The quail were voted the favorite bird of the tour in a landslide. Other area birds included Red-naped Sapsucker, Western Scrub-Jay, Western Bluebird, and Grace's Warbler.

Finally, we headed to El Paso where our tour would end. En route we stopped at several irrigation impoundments along the Rio Grande. We added an impressive 39 species of birds to our list on our last day including the likes of Western, Clark's, and Eared grebes, two rare and very late Greater White-fronted Geese, Cinnamon Teal, Semipalmated Plover, Marbled Godwit, American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, Western and Baird's sandpipers, Wilson's Phalarope, Franklin's Gull, and Burrowing Owl.

In all we tallied 219 species of birds in eight days of birding (our second highest total ever), along with 15 species of mammals, 24 species of reptiles and amphibians, over 20 species of butterflies, and countless stunning vistas.