Big Bend National Park and the Texas Hill Country Apr 23—May 02, 2013

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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Is it cooler to see a Golden-cheeked Warbler from fifteen feet away, or a Colima Warbler? Which of the regularly occurring U.S. buntings is the prettiest? Does a Black-capped Vireo ever sing from a lone bush in an otherwise open grassy field? What is it like to see ten million vertebrates in 45 minutes? These questions and more were answered on our recent Big Bend National Park and the Texas Hill Country tour.

 
Of course, the target of any hike to Boot Springs is a sighting of a Colima Warbler. This species is found nowhere else in the United States except Big Bend National Park. We tallied an impressive eight individuals for the day with many great views.

Colima Warbler, Boot Springs, April 2013 — Photo: Barry Zimmer

We started birding near Uvalde, on the southern edge of the Texas Hill Country. A spectacular male Painted Bunting was one of our first birds. Not long after, we tallied a variety of South Texas specialties, here at their northern limits—Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Crested Caracara, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Long-billed Thrasher, and Olive Sparrow. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo was unusually cooperative, as it posed in the scope for several minutes. Further north at Neal’s Lodge we added a pair of Green Kingfishers, Yellow-throated Warbler,  Northern Parula, two stunning male Lazuli Buntings, and such unlikely pairings of “east meets west” as Carolina and Canyon wrens, Eastern and Black phoebes, and Field and Black-throated sparrows. A visit to a private ranch near Leakey yielded incredible views of Golden-cheeked Warblers (we saw a half-dozen total) and after much effort, the always skulky Black-capped Vireo as well. Yellow-breasted Chat, Indigo Bunting, Blue Grosbeak, and Audubon’s Oriole (rare in this region) rounded out the highlights. Just as we were about to leave, we stopped at a grassy pasture where Grasshopper Sparrows were singing. As we got out, we realized that another Black-capped Vireo was singing here as well. The bird we had worked so hard to see all morning was now sitting out in the open singing from virtually the only bush in an open field! We finished our Hill Country experience with a visit to the Frio Bat Cave where a nightly performance of ten million Mexican Free-tailed Bats leaving the cave astounds all who see it. The bat flight did not disappoint, nor did the fantastic views of Elf Owl, Eastern Screech-Owl, and Chuck-will’s-widow that we saw afterwards!

A hike down the Window Trail in Big Bend National Park produced a good variety of birds, including this amazing, plum-colored male Varied Bunting.

Varied Bunting, Window Trail, April 2013— Photo: Barry Zimmer

From the Hill Country, we drove westward through the vast expanses of the Trans-Pecos region to Big Bend National Park. The Window Trail and surrounding Basin areas produced many exciting birds including Rock Wren, plum-colored Varied Buntings (giving us the “bunting slam”), Black-headed Grosbeak, Scott’s Oriole, Hepatic Tanager, and the localized Black-chinned Sparrow among others. A more vigorous hike the following morning to Boot Springs netted an impressive eight Colima Warblers (found nowhere else in the United States but here) with multiple close views. Other birds of interest included Cordilleran Flycatcher, White-throated Swifts at eye level, Violet-green Swallow, and Bushtit (the black-eared form). In riparian sections of the park we found a host of colorful birds including Vermilion Flycatchers, Summer Tanagers, Painted Buntings, Indigo Buntings, and Pyrrhuloxias. Nesting Common Black-Hawks and Gray Hawks showed nicely, as did a Great Horned Owl sitting on a nest in a knot hole of a cottonwood tree. An evening expedition produced Western Screech-Owl from just feet away and more nice views of Elf Owl. On our way out of Big Bend country, we visited another private ranch where we had excellent looks at a pair of Lucifer Hummingbirds, in addition to Western Tanager, Varied Bunting, and Scaled Quail.

The Davis Mountains were our next destination and there we tallied three Zone-tailed Hawks, another Common Black-Hawk, a pair of Montezuma Quail (unfortunately for one van only), multiple Gray Flycatchers, Western Bluebird, and Grace’s Warbler. Finally, it was on to El Paso where a series of irrigation reservoirs added an impressive number of birds to our list during our last afternoon. Highlights included Western and Clark’s grebes (side by side), Eared Grebe, Cinnamon Teal, Wilson’s Phalaropes by the dozen, Snowy Plover, Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, several Franklin’s Gulls, and a few Gambel’s Quail.

In all we saw 213 species of birds on our trip, as well as an impressive number of mammals, butterflies, and reptiles. We watched one of the great natural history spectacles in the world in the exodus of ten million bats from a cave in less than an hour, we had wonderful studies of arguably the two hardest warblers to add to your United States list, and we got to argue about which of the four spectacular buntings was the prettiest!