Birding Big Bend

Over the last few months I've heard mixed things about Big Bend National Park. My non-birding friends have painted a picture in my head of desert vistas, bountiful wildlife, and endless hiking opportunities. Birders more or less have referred to one specific hike in the park as a “death march” using additives like ‘steep’ ’ ‘absurdly long’ and “hotter than hell”. Why such a different perspective? High in the mountains of Big Bend, along a trail that is steep at times, is a small yellow Mexican songbird called the Colima Warbler. This bird is regularly found in the scrubby montane forests of Mexico, and its habitat extends north into a slice of Big Bend National Park. For serious birders who want to see the Colima Warbler in the ABA area (which excludes Mexico) this is the spot.

Having spent over a decade of my childhood summers at a summer camp above 8,000 feet in Colorado, I am used to long hikes, harsh terrain, and hiking even when you don't want to. I was built for this hike. This was my attitude as I drove hundreds of miles straight through from Texas Hill country, where I had snuck in another trip for the Black-capped Vireo and Golden-Cheeked Warbler, just because they were cool.

I arrived at the park late Sunday afternoon, and visitor center of course was closed. As I picked up a map and looked at the trails, I felt like a visitor to another country. I’d never heard of any of the names before, and had no idea of the terrain of the different trails, but I knew from talking with other birders about the infamous Pinnacles trail, which began at Chisos Basin.  I drove to the valley to check out Chisos trailhead, so I would be able to my my way up there along the trail in the dark later that night. After getting my bearings, I drove over to the other side of the park to a campground that had a couple birds I needed. First on my list was Common Black-hawk. All I knew is that they were nesting, and when I got to a main intersection on the road, I spotted some large Cottonwood trees and figured if a hawk were to nest in the area, it would be in those trees. As I pulled over onto the side of the road, I noticed several signs that warned visitors about nesting black hawks. I was definitely in the right spot! No more than two minutes had passed before I found the bird, a female sitting on the third stick nest I found. It was actually right behind one of the signs! I photographed the bird and then shifted my focus to finding Elf Owls and Lesser Nighthawks.

As dusk approached, I found a park ranger in the campground who kindly told me the campsite number the owls lived at. I staked it out, along with a crowd of about 9 other park guests who had heard about the famous owls at that spot. I set up my scope pointing at the cavity, attached my Iphone/Phone Skope to make a digiscoping setup, and was prepared to take pictures of the owl when it emerged from the hole. Several long-staying guests said they hadn’t seen it until after dark the last few nights, when the campground had been crowded and noisy. I got distracted by the nighthawks that suddenly appeared, silently foraging erratically just over the trees, darting down occasionally to ground level and sweeping across the grass to catch flying insects. Unlike the Common Nighthawk that usually calls loudly when foraging, these quiet birds also had a broader white bar on their wings, and the overall body shape was slightly different. I had seen Common Nighthawks nearly every day the previous five days, and there was no question these were definitely Lesser Nighthawks. I took a few minutes trying to get a good shot of a bird in flight- much tougher than I initially thought. I needed a smaller camera lens! 

Satisfied with a few of the images I captured, I meandered back to the nest hole. The sun had already set, and the sky was dark, but the last glow of daylight hung on high in the sky where several of the first stars were shining through the orange glow. As I looked at the nest hole, I realized it was filled by the Elf Owl! She was so camouflaged that none of the spectators had picked up that her head was filling the previously empty opening. A few clicks on my bluetooth shutter captured some very grainy, but identifiable images of the female watching us, waiting to leave her cavity and go hunt. The male called from a nearby tree, and she flew out across the patchwork of tents and RVs to join him. 

Elf Owl emerging from nest cavity

Elf Owl emerging from nest cavity

The thought of food reminded me- i hadn’t eaten yet. There were empty campsites in the campground, and I briefly considered paying to stay there and hiking up in the morning, but a plan is a plan and I stuck to mine. On my way back to the trailhead, I stopped at a general store, and set up my stove to cook ramen. For whatever reason, it was a lot less buggy here than at the campground, and I ran into a visitor who had moved from her site to the parking lot, disgruntled at the strong presence of mosquitoes. She told me I could use her campsite if I could stand the bugs, and I respectfully declined but thanked her for the offer.

About 9 o'clock, I was exhausted. My brain was so tired that I forgot to brush my teeth before I fell asleep.  I don't know if it has been a nonstop driving from Florida, or just going going going going this year, and I could not stay awake. I barely made it across the park to the Chisos trailhead, and decided there was no way I was going to go hiking safely at night. I knew mountain lions roamed these mountains, and although I had no fear of them, I knew I would make poor decisions when tired and I didn’t want to jeopardize my safety. It was quite tempting to venture up the trail, as I still needed Mexican Whip-poor-will and Flammulated Owls, both birds I knew from eBird research lived up in these mountains. I didn’t want to miss those birds, so what did I choose to do? The park rules about sleeping in your car were unclear, so I will be equally ambiguous about what I chose to do. Needless to say, I was at the trailhead at 4:30AM ready to go. 


Its been a while since I have done some serious hiking, and just in case, I brought emergency supplies, my tripod and 500mm f4.0 lens, and bear spray. The good thing about doing a Big Year by car is that I essentially had a mobile REI store on top of my car, with gear I had purchased over the last decade of guiding in Colorado over the summers. One of the tools at my disposal was bear spray, and I knew carrying it here was a wise choice. My backpacking pack easily fit everything I needed, and even had extra room for food and a hammock, which I ended up not using. As I set off up the trail, I turned off my headlamp and hiked into the darkness. The trail was flooded by moonlight, and I could see well enough to navigate the winding trail up into the mountains. Within the first mile I heard Mexican Whip-poor-will, and spent a few minutes trying to locate it and get a photo, as I figured why not? I was ahead of my planned pace, and learned at the end of the day that my hike up was one minute slower than my hike back down! I turned on my headlamp on occasion to read the signs, to avoid going on a wrong trail. I wanted to sleep in Portal, Arizona that night, so getting my birds and staying on pace would help me hit 600 at The Biggest Week. This was my goal, and I was ready to run up the mountain to do it. Being young and fit has its advantages, and I booked it to Boot Springs, arriving right as the sky began to get light. I killed time waiting for enough light to go birding by crawling through the oak scrub trying to photograph Mexican Whip-poor-will, which by this point in the morning I had heard over a dozen. Spotted the eyeshine, and took photos. Bird may have been sitting on a nest so I left it alone after snapping a mediocre shot with my iPhone. No need unpacking my giant setup just yet. 


I laid down next to the trail, just taking in the sounds of the forest. In the distance I heard a faint series of hoots, which sounded like a Flammulated Owl. Moments later, a closer bird responded. I offered my best Imitation to the mix, hoping they'd fly in and land on me (one can dream) and both birds shut up. As it grew light out, the first bird i heard was Cordilleran Flycatcher, then Colima Warbler. It was that easy?! I spent the next half hour chasing birds around, managing some nice shots of Colimas, however my camera card was corrupted when I attempted to download them, and I am currently checking out data recovery options. Hopefully I'll get some of my bird images back off my camera!

I looked at the clock and thought about the long day head, and turned around from Boot Springs and hiked back, photographing a couple COWA back to the ridge. I ran into both birders from yesterday on the saddle, the folks who I had helped find the Black Hawks the day before. I talked with them for a bit, then ran down. I love trail running. Maybe it's the feeling of moving after being confined to a car for hours and hours, or perhaps it's the challenge and risk of running down a mountain. The mental focus to place each foot in the right spot, while keeping my eyes several feet down the trail memorizing my steps and feeling the trail underneath my feet for me is like an athlete being “in the zone” I love it, and thrive on pushing myself running on trails. I thought what if I did this with every backcountry bird? I could be called ‘Bird Runner’ or something clever like that. Maybe I'll run to birds later. 

Going back down to Chisos Basin, I stopped only to tell concerned people that the bear was way behind me, and they didn’t need to worry about it. The few birders I saw I tried to say a few words of encouragement, and that the Colimas were up there. Getting back to my car, I breathed a sigh of relief and realized I hadn’t eaten anything. Time to enjoy Life (cereal) in Big Bend! Maybe they'll sponsor me? On my way out of the park, I stopped at the Visitor’s center and stamped my passport, marveling at the long line of people waiting to pay their park fees or get a campsite. I was reminded that the All-Access National Parks pass was one of my best $100 I had spent. 


 Then it was back on the road for me, heading to Arizona. It was well before noon and I had time to stop and try to pick up thrashers on my way across the desert. 


The adventure continues!