Big Bend National Park & The Texas Hill Country Apr 25—May 04, 2014

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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The Hill Country and the Trans-Pecos are without doubt my two favorite regions in Texas. Combining the two, on one trip in the springtime, is bound to result in a wildly successful trip. That was certainly the case on this year’s Big Bend & the Texas Hill Country tour. 

We started out in San Antonio and quickly headed westward towards Uvalde. En route, dazzling Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Crested Caracaras entertained us along the highway. Upon arrival at Cook’s Slough, we were almost immediately greeted by a spectacular male Painted Bunting. Numerous Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, a fly-by Green Kingfisher, Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed woodpeckers, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee (at the northern limit of its range), Blue Grosbeak, Olive Sparrow, and Bullock’s and Orchard orioles all quickly ensued.

Painted Bunting, Big Bend National Park, Texas, May 1, 2014

Painted Bunting, Big Bend National Park, Texas, May 1, 2014— Photo: Barry Zimmer

By midday we had settled into our lodging in Concan and we began exploring the nearby surroundings. Luck was on our side, as we had a male Black-capped Vireo singing out in the open in a bare oak for several minutes. Normally this skulking species is very difficult to see well, but we had superb views. While we were watching the vireo, a female Golden-cheeked Warbler came flying into the same tree. Both Hill Country specialties at once! Vermilion Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Long-billed Thrasher, Yellow-breasted Chat, Field and Rufous-crowned sparrows, and Scott’s Oriole led the list of other highlights. An evening owling excursion netted incredible studies of the McCall’s race of Eastern Screech-Owl. The next day found us at a private ranch near Vanderpool. Birding was fantastic throughout the day with Zone-tailed Hawk, Yellow-throated Vireo, more Black-capped Vireos, three brilliant male Golden-cheeked Warblers, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Indigo Bunting topping the list. In the late afternoon, we visited a limestone cave where over ten million Mexican Free-tailed Bats exited at dusk in a spectacular display that really has to be seen to be believed. Over 200 Cave Swallows, Canyon Wren, and Black-throated Sparrow were also present near the cave entrance.

Long-billed Thrasher, Concan, Texas, April 27, 2014

Long-billed Thrasher, Concan, Texas, April 27, 2014— Photo: Barry Zimmer

The next day was supposed to be devoted largely to travel, as we were heading westward into the Trans-Pecos region, and ultimately on to Big Bend National Park. However, we had received a report of a Rufous-capped Warbler (a rarity from Mexico) from Park Chalk Bluff, a location only 20 miles or so out of our way. Within ten minutes of our arrival at the park, we had located the bird singing in a small sycamore tree and everyone had scope views! This was only the third time I had ever seen this species in the state in nearly 40 years of birding here! A quick stop back in Uvalde followed, where Cinnamon Teal, more whistling-ducks, White-faced Ibis, Baird’s Sandpiper, Greater Roadrunner, and a pair of Couch’s Kingbirds were welcome additions. We arrived in Big Bend National Park late that afternoon, tired, but with an incredibly successful day behind us.

During the next three days we explored the various habitats and elevations of the park. The Window Trail was first. This scenic drain-off of Oak Creek yielded Peregrine Falcon; Hammond’s, Dusky, and Olive-sided flycatchers; Mexican Jay; the elusive Crissal Thrasher (scope views); plum-colored Varied Buntings nearly in our laps; Pyrrhuloxia; and brilliant Scott’s Orioles. Nearby chaparral in the Basin produced two localized specialties—Gray Vireo (a species we missed the previous two years) and Black-chinned Sparrow from ten feet! Upper elevations of the Chisos Mountains yielded a different group of birds. This is the only U.S. home of the highly-sought Colima Warbler, and although it took until noon to find our first, we ultimately had amazing studies of two right over the trail. Blue-throated Hummingbird, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Hutton’s Vireo, Rock Wren, Bushtit (including one black-eared bird), a spectacular Painted Redstart, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Hepatic Tanagers were among the other highlights. Finally, we explored the lower elevations at Rio Grande Village and Cottonwood campgrounds. Here we tallied Common Black-Hawk (at the nest), Gray Hawk, Elf Owl (ten feet away at waist level!), Western Screech-Owl, roosting Great Horned Owl with a baby, more Vermilion Flycatchers than we could count, Verdin, Summer Tanager, and Painted Buntings galore.

Colima Warbler, Big Bend National Park, Texas, April 30, 2014

Colima Warbler, Big Bend National Park, Texas, April 30, 2014— Photo: Barry Zimmer

We left the park on the eighth day of our tour, heading northward to the Davis Mountains. En route, we stopped at a private ranch with a great oasis and countless feeders. Five Lucifer Hummingbirds were the highlight here, although Scaled Quail, three species of buntings, Green-tailed Towhee, Lark Sparrow, and numerous Blue Grosbeaks all vied for our attention. In the midafternoon we arrived in Fort Davis, checked into our hotel, and had a nice break before heading out on a late afternoon quail cruise. The Davis Mountains are the heart of Montezuma Quail country, but even so, these birds are difficult to find and easily missed. After searching for over two hours without success, we were heading back in for dinner when a pair of these incredible birds were spotted along the roadside. We were able to watch them for over five minutes in the waning rays of evening sunshine. What a treat!

On our final day, we visited higher elevations within the range and added the likes of Gray Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo, Western Bluebird, Grace’s Warbler, and Western Tanager to our list. A pair of Zone-tailed Hawks soared right overhead at one point! On the way to El Paso, we stopped at several irrigation impoundments adding nearly 30 species to our overall list. Western and Clark’s grebes, Osprey, Gambel’s Quail, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Marbled Godwit, Western and Solitary sandpipers, hundreds of Wilson’s Phalaropes, and Franklin’s Gull were among the more noteworthy.

In all we tallied over 200 species of birds, 35 species of butterflies, more than 20 mammals, and several unique reptiles (including a Round-tailed Horned Lizard and a Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake). We also enjoyed unusually cool weather for this time of year (although a bit windier than we would have liked at times), and we got to see the best that Texas has to offer!