Big Bend National Park & the Texas Hill Country Apr 21—30, 2015

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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It appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, working its way down slope through the dry grass toward the feeding station. An intricate combination of spots, swirls, and streaks wrapped into a gorgeous chestnut, black, white, and buff plumage, it was truly a thing of beauty. The male Montezuma Quail stopped no more than 20 feet away and began to feed, seemingly unconcerned by our presence. We watched this amazing, highly-sought, and generally difficult-to-find species for almost thirty minutes, before we actually walked away from it! It was voted the favorite bird of the tour in a landslide victory by the group!

WOW! Voted favorite bird of the tour!

Montezuma Quail – voted favorite bird of the tour!— Photo: Barry Zimmer

 

This was, however, but one of many exciting highlights on our 2015 Big Bend National Park & the Texas Hill Country tour. We started in San Antonio and quickly headed westward toward the Hill Country, enjoying numerous Crested Caracaras and dapper Scissor-tailed Flycatchers en route. Near Uvalde, our birding began in earnest at Cook’s Slough. Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, a pair of Green Kingfishers, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, spectacular Green Jays, Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow, and several gaudy Painted Buntings were among the more notables. Several of these species are at the very northern and/or western edge of their U.S. ranges here in the southern Hill Country. Shortly after lunch and getting settled into our rooms, we ventured out again to a nearby wooded canyon. Within minutes, we had superb views of one of the two Hill Country specialties, the fantastic Golden-cheeked Warbler. This species breeds nowhere else in the world. The day concluded with a visit to a nearby bat cave, where we witnessed the exodus of over ten million Mexican Free-tailed Bats at dusk. This is certainly one of the great natural history spectacles in the world! Additionally we watched a pair of Elf Owls at their nest before calling it a day!

The next day began with excellent views of several Golden-cheeked Warblers.

 Golden-cheeked Warbler — Photo: Barry Zimmer

 

The following day we visited a private ranch near Vanderpool, where we saw a half-dozen more Golden-cheeked Warblers and also tallied the other regional specialty, the Black-capped Vireo. Though always skulky and difficult to see, we managed multiple good views of this handsome vireo. Other species seen in our two days in this area included Zone-tailed Hawk; Chuck-will’s-widow (from just feet away); Couch’s Kingbird; Vermilion Flycatcher; Yellow-throated Vireo; Cave Swallow; Canyon Wren; Yellow-throated Warbler; Yellow-breasted Chat; Field, Cassin’s, and Grasshopper sparrows; Blue Grosbeak; Indigo and Painted buntings; and the locally rare Audubon’s Oriole.

But when the Black-capped Vireo appeared, it had all of our attention!

Black-capped Vireo — Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

Then it was on to the Trans-Pecos and Big Bend National Park, where our success continued. Our arrival into the park was greeted by the best wildflower display in decades in this area. Knee-high Big Bend lupines bordered the roadsides in dense stands, and golden yellow paperflower carpeted the desert as far as the eyes could see. Paintbrush, desert marigold, verbena—the parade of colors went on and on. Hiking the Window Trail, we enjoyed Acorn Woodpeckers, Mexican and Western Scrub jays, Crissal Thrasher, plum-colored Varied Buntings, and brilliant Scott’s Orioles, while nearby chaparral yielded the localized Black-chinned Sparrow. The all-day hike to Boot Springs produced eight Colima Warblers, with many excellent views. Blue-throated Hummingbird, Cordilleran and Dusky-capped (rare) flycatchers, Hutton’s and Plumbeous vireos, Townsend’s Warbler, and a spectacular Painted Redstart rounded out the day’s list. Rio Grande Village was equally productive with Common Black Hawk (perched 30 yards away for fifteen minutes), Gray Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, numerous Greater Roadrunners, Western Screech-Owl, Bell’s Vireo, Verdin, Yellow-breasted Chat, Pyrrhuloxia, and many Painted Buntings among the highlights. Great views of the highly-sought Gray Vireo at Blue Creek and a very rare Palm Warbler at Cottonwood Campground were also noteworthy.

For the day we totaled eight Colimas with several superb views.

Colima Warbler — Photo: Barry Zimmer

 

En route to the Davis Mountains, we visited another private ranch north of the park. Unusually cold weather that morning was somewhat uncomfortable, but it was likely responsible for bringing Lucifer Hummingbirds into the feeders. We had great views of males and females. A roosting Elf Owl, MacGillivray’s Warbler, a male Lazuli Bunting, Western Tanager, and Black-headed and Blue grosbeaks were also tallied. In addition to the aforementioned Montezuma Quail, the Davis Mountains yielded a great variety of new birds including Peregrine Falcon, Gray Flycatcher, Western Bluebird, Grace’s Warbler, Hepatic Tanager, and a rare Cassin’s Finch among others.

Finally, on the way into El Paso, we visited several reservoirs where we added many waterbirds to our list. Clark’s, Western, and Eared grebes, Neotropic Cormorant, Gambel’s Quail, American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, hundreds of Wilson’s Phalarope, and Franklin’s Gull were among the additions. We ended with three cooperative Burrowing Owls on the outskirts of the city.

In all we tallied nearly 200 species of birds, saw virtually every targeted specialty bird of the region, and soaked up one of the greatest Montezuma Quail experiences ever!