Big Bend National Park & the Texas Hill Country Apr 28—May 07, 2016

Posted by Barry Zimmer


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 best Big Bend tour ever? That argument can certainly be made for our 2016 Big Bend National Park & the Texas Hill Country tour. We began our journey in San Antonio and quickly worked our way westward into the Hill Country. At our first stop (theoretically just a bathroom stop!) we tallied several Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, nesting Cave Swallows, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, a skylarking Cassin’s Sparrow, a stunningly orange Bullock’s Oriole, and a Couch’s Kingbird among others. If bathroom stops were this good, what would the actual birding be like? We would soon find out, as we arrived at Cook’s Slough near Uvalde a short time later. Dickcissels were singing everywhere along the roadside, and shortly after exiting the van, a responsive Painted Bunting nearly landed in our laps! Brown-crested Flycatcher, Bronzed Cowbird, a fly-by Green Kingfisher, Crested Caracara, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Olive Sparrow, Verdin, several more Painted Buntings, and a somewhat unexpected and spectacular Green Jay followed in short order. A productive morning indeed!

Our journey began at Cook's Slough, near Uvalde, where we enjoyed stellar views of Painted Buntings.

Painted Bunting— Photo: Barry Zimmer


Arriving at Neal’s Lodge in time for lunch, we were almost immediately greeted by a singing male Tropical Parula in the parking lot. This species is generally only found in extreme southern Texas, but our Spring in South Texas tour had located a territorial pair here two weeks earlier. As luck would have it, they were still around and would be a regular sight for us during the next 48 hours. After settling into our rooms and taking a short midafternoon break, we headed down along the river below the lodge. Another Green Kingfisher, close studies of singing Yellow-throated Warbler and Northern Parula, and a family group of Eastern Phoebes were among the highlights. The best was yet to come, however, as we were visiting the Frio Bat Cave that evening. There we watched an estimated ten million Mexican Free-tailed Bats emerge from the cave just before dusk. Certainly this is one of the greatest natural history spectacles in the world. We were entertained by Canyon Wren and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher as we awaited the exodus.

At dusk the bats began to exit the cave, a jaw-dropping sight of ten million plus in mass exodus.

Mexican Free-tailed Bats— Photo: Brian Gibbons










The next day we visited a private ranch in the heart of the Hill Country. Here we obtained excellent views of the two area specialties: Golden-cheeked Warbler (our first just twenty feet away at eye level) and Black-capped Vireo (seven in one morning!). Other notables for the day included two Zone-tailed Hawks, displaying Vermilion Flycatchers, Acadian Flycatcher, Hutton’s Vireo, Western Scrub-Jay, Long-billed Thrasher, Blue Grosbeak, and several Indigo Buntings. A final half-morning in the Hill Country the next day continued to produce great birds with the likes of Northern Bobwhite, Harris’s Hawk, Great Kiskadee, Gray Vireo (a bonus find in this region), and Grasshopper Sparrow among the more noteworthy. A long, but relaxing drive into Big Bend National Park ensued, as we had left little behind in the Hill Country. A group of 30 late Lark Buntings along the highway were memorable.

The primary target of the morning, the Golden-cheeked Warbler, showed well and quickly at our first stop!

Golden-cheeked Warbler— Photo: Barry Zimmer


A front moving through upon our arrival in the park brought strong north winds, a sizable temperature drop, and foggy/misty conditions in the Basin the next morning. Sizing up these conditions, we determined that our normal walk down the Window Trail that morning would not be very productive and opted instead to head down in elevation to Rio Grande Village. We started out at a known nesting site for Common Black-Hawks and were not even out of the car when one of the adults flew into a cottonwood in full view. Jumping out of the vans, we quickly had frame-filling scope studies of this localized species. While enjoying the black-hawk, we suddenly noticed that there were many birds moving through the grass to our left, and most of them seemed to be buntings! Many of these began to settle down in a stretch of road where apparently some grass seeds had fallen. Painted Buntings were everywhere with at least ten in view right away. Quickly they were joined by a male Indigo, a male Blue Grosbeak, and then, more surprisingly, by a male Lazuli—an incredible kaleidoscope of colors milling about before our eyes. We watched this bunting show for fifteen minutes or so and ultimately estimated 40 Painteds, 5 Indigos, 5 Lazulis, and 2 Blue Grosbeaks! Simply amazing! No doubt the unsettled weather and north winds had led to this “bunting fallout.” The remainder of the morning was filled with excitement. Gray Hawk (one perched no more than forty feet away), Greater Roadrunner, a female Lucifer Hummingbird, countless Vermilion Flycatchers, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Cassin’s and Plumbeous vireos, Yellow-breasted Chat, Summer Tanager, Clay-colored and Lark sparrows, and a cooperative and cute Javelina rounded out the list. In the afternoon, we tallied superb views of Black-chinned Sparrow, as well as the plum-colored Varied Bunting (giving us the bunting slam for the day!). We capped all that off with an evening owling excursion that netted incredibly close views of both Elf Owl and Western Screech-Owl. A memorable day to say the least!

It was quickly joined by a second bird, as the pair exchanged duties at the nest.

Common Black-Hawk— Photo: Barry Zimmer


Our all-day hike to Boot Canyon in search of Colima Warbler was up next. The weather had improved dramatically, and we enjoyed nearly perfect conditions throughout our walk. We managed to find our first Colima Warbler just 2.5 miles up the trail, allowing some to turn back and avoid the longer hike. For the day we would tally 9 Colimas, a couple of which allowed epic studies. Zone-tailed Hawk, White-throated Swift, Magnificent Hummingbird (locally rare), Cordilleran and Hammond’s flycatchers, a rare Dusky-capped Flycatcher, a “black-eared” Bushtit, an unusually cooperative Crissal Thrasher, Townsend’s Warbler, 4 Painted Redstarts, and Hepatic Tanager were the icing on the cake. We finished the day exhausted, but thrilled with the memorable birding we had experienced!

At Boot Springs, we had our seventh and most cooperative Colima Warbler right over our heads.

Colima Warbler— Photo: Brian Gibbons















Our final day in the park found us walking down part of the Window Trail and adjacent Basin sewage lagoons. Ongoing drought conditions had concentrated birds in the few areas with water and flowering plants, and here we had both. A stand of tree tobaccos harbored no fewer than a dozen Blue-throated Hummingbirds, 4 Lucifer Hummingbirds, and several Scott’s Orioles. Nearby, a variety of species were visiting the open water of the lagoons, including a covey of Scaled Quail, a pair of Black-capped Vireos (yielding amazing views), Bell’s Vireo, a rare White-throated Sparrow, a late Green-tailed Towhee, and more Varied Buntings. We barely moved ten feet over an hour! An afternoon visit to Cottonwood Campground and Santa Elena Canyon produced some of the best scenery in the park, in addition to a roosting Great Horned Owl and a spectacular Greater Earless Lizard.

Within fifteen minutes, Lucifer sightings were so common that hardly anyone was paying any attention to them.

Lucifer Hummingbird— Photo: Barry Zimmer


The next day we headed out of the park to a private ranch north of Study Butte. Here a series of well-maintained hummingbird feeders, seed feeders, and water drips were buzzing with activity. Again, drought conditions had a concentrating effect on birds. Lucifer Hummingbirds were literally everywhere with at least 20 birds visiting the feeders—the most I have ever seen in one day! A Great Plains Narrow-mouthed Toad under the feeders and an Eastern Collared Lizard on the way out were bonuses. In the afternoon, we headed north to Fort Davis, where we checked into our hotel and took a break. The late afternoon plan was to cruise roads in hopes of finding the real prize of this area, the nearly mythical Montezuma Quail. The first hour-and-a-half were unproductive, and perhaps hopes were fading, when I suddenly spied a small brown lump in the roadside grass—a female Montezuma Quail! We stopped right next to her, and she froze in full view. After several minutes of watching, a male magically and mysteriously appeared right next to the female. He had apparently been hunkered down and hiding in plain sight! We watched these incredible birds for over twenty minutes from twenty feet away. The quail was ultimately voted the favorite bird of the tour by the group! No one could stop smiling at dinner that night!

A final shot of one of the male Montezuma Quail. A fitting finale for our successful tour!

Montezuma Quail— Photo: Barry Zimmer


The last day began in the higher elevations of the Davis Mountains. Several Gray Flycatchers, fabulous Western Bluebirds, very close Canyon and Rock wrens, Grace’s Warbler, and stunning Western Tanagers were all completely overshadowed by a covey of eight Montezuma Quail that strolled across the road in front of the group and fed unconcernedly nearby for ten minutes while we watched, amazed! Driving into El Paso in the late afternoon, we braved strong winds to ferret out Gambel’s Quail, Western and Clark’s grebes side by side, a close pair of Burrowing Owls, and 9 species of shorebirds (including American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, Wilson’s Phalarope, and a rare Semipalmated Sandpiper).

In all we tallied 212 species of birds (including virtually every target), 20 species of mammals (highlighted by the amazing bat show), 13 species of herps, and 28 species of butterflies! And, of course, no one will ever forget those quail!