Thursday, April 15, 2010
End of 15th Week
Another Thursday has come to an end, and this is the 15th time that has happened in this big birding year. I have quite abit to catch up on because I have not posted since last Monday. To begin with Tuesday, that was generally a bust day for birding. I began early in Brownsville trying to bird at the dump to look for tamualipas crows, a location where they used to always be found in the past. That has not been true for a few years, but this past week 2 were seen and photographed there. So I showed up before 8 AM only to be told that it was too muddy to let birders come in. Since I needed to start moving towards Big Bend NP that day, I was pretty pissed but there was nothing I could do.
I then drove back over to South Padre Island to see if the black-vented oriole might have reappeared, but it had not. According to the woman who posted the photo of the bird, the last black-vented in Texas was back in the 1970's, so you can imagine the excitement for birders that its brief stay generated.
I then drove a couple of hours to Falcon SP to try again for the groove-billed anis. After 4 hours of walking sections of the nature trail, I still came up empty. I thought I heard one a few times, and even saw a black body flash thru the undergrowth, but did not see enough to verify that it was an ani. I did see one new year bird--an ash-throated flycatcher--while wandering around. Finally at 6:15 PM I headed down the road because I still had a 4 hour drive to get to Uvalde, Tx.
I was up at 6 AM Wednesday morning to make the drive to Kickapoo Cavern SP. I have never been to this park and found it to be somewhat unusual because it has been open to the public only on a reservation basis. You call the park phone number, and they give you the combination to the lock for the front gate. This odd system is changing in May when it will be open like other Texas state parks.
I went to Kickapoo because it is one of the best places to find black-capped vireos--a bird, like the golden-cheeked warbler, that is only found on the Edwards Plateau in Texas. It was raining as I approached the park just before 8 AM. Fortunately once I got out and started looking for the vireo, the rain had mostly stopped. I slogged thru the caliche listening for the vireo, and after about an hour I was able to locate one in my binoculars. This is a bird that I have only seen one other time back in the mid 70's along the Guadalupe River (which also means it was a new year bird). I was watching my youngest brother in a kayak race, and a black-capped popped up along the river. I would have liked to bird some more at Kickapoo, but the rain started up again, so I headed for Big Bend NP.
I arrived about 5 PM, and as I drove thru the entrance to the park a nice covey of scaled quail crossed the road--a new bird for the year. Even though the weather did not look good, I decided to risk a walk along what is called the Window Trail which starts at the Chisos Basin. A huge thunder storm was brewing, with quite an electrical show. It was on the low desert to the west of the basin, but as the thunder moved into the basin I decided to hightail it back to my truck. 5 minutes after I got back into the tacoma, a bit damp from the start of the rain, all hell broke loose. For the next 20 minutes it was what we call in Missouri a real turd floater which included a brief spell of small hail stones.
I was sleeping in the back of the pick-up last nite (it has a camper shell on it), so I waited for the worst of the rain to pass before getting settled into the back. I have a sleeping platform that lets me store stuff underneath, but gives me enough room to sleep. I was asleep by 9:30 which is the earliest I have been asleep since the big year began.
I was up at 6 AM to get organized for my hike up into the high Chisos today. As I mentioned somewhere in an earlier post, I began birding at Big Bend in the spring of 1973, and have been back here several times to hike. It is absolutely one of my favorite places to be. The same brother who was kayaking was also with me in 1973, and over the years he has hiked at Big Bend more than any other place. In fact, he is one of the very few people who has hiked all the way across the park from the east side to the west. He broke the hike into 2 phases: east border to the Chisos, and 2 years later the Chisos to the west border. The picture at the top provides some sense of the Chisos mountains, and the other one is a shot of an ocotillo, which to me is the signature plant of Big Bend.
I hit the trail at 7 Am just at first light to make sure that I had adequate time to hike the 10 mile round trip up to Boot Canyon--the prime location for the colima warbler. The Chisos mountains is the only place in the US that this warbler breeds. Unlike some other difficult to find birds that have roads that get you within a short walk to the bird's preferred habitat, there is no road that takes you close to the colima's habitat. The basin is at 5400 ft. and the canyon is about 7000 ft. the shortest hike up is 4.5 miles one way.
It was a beautiful morning (sunny with low humidity, clear air and broken fluffy clouds) and it stayed that way all day. I heard many birds calling on my way up, but most were not visible and I kept hiking since the colima warbler was the key bird for the morning. I hoped to hear one calling before I reached Boot Canyon, but did not. Once I got into Boot Canyon, I heard a few and quickly located one singing away while eating in the oak tassles. I had a snack myself while enjoying watching the bird. I then retraced my steps in hopes of seeing some of the birds that I only heard coming up the trail. Only a mile from the basin I ran into a birder couple from Wisconsin who thought they had heard a colima calling. I told them that was not likely, so they decided to hike higher.
They also told me about a common black hawk that was nesting down at Rio Grande Village which was a 30 mile drive down to the river from the basin. This was great news, so I headed down the trail. On my way I found a canyon wren, black-chinned sparrow and scott's oriole--all year birds. I made the drive down to the river, and began to look around for the hawk only to find a gray hawk sitting on a telephone pole. Then scanning a large group of cottonwoods where it was supposed to be nesting, one flew in to its nest. This is a majestic hawk which always lifts my spirits when I see one. I also saw several bell's vireos (new year bird) while looking for the common black hawk.
I stopped at the ranger station at Panther Junction to talk with a ranger that I noticed the day before knew his birds. I asked him if the gray vireos were back in, and he suggested that I try blue creek canyon. I had hiked this canyon in 1973 and have fond memories of it. Even though it was mid afternoon, I decided to give it a shot. I had only been walking up the wash 20 minutes when I found one singing on the hillside. This vireo, while not quite as limited in its breeding range as the black-capped vireo, is still a challenge to track down. So with the colima warbler, the common black hawk and the gray vireo, today was unquestionably another red letter day for the big birding year!
To make things even better, I drove up to Marfa for the nite. This is a quirky town of 2100 people on the Texas plains that is really on the way to nowhere. It was known in Texas for lights seen on occasion at nite on the plains east of town that no one could explain. Then a New Yorker came to town in the 70's and bought an abandoned army base to use the old wood barracks to create an art museum. You might call Marfa a "small" Santa Fe.
I was at Big Bend back in 2006 with a friend and we stopped to see what was happening in Marfa. There is an old hotel called the Paisano which was the headquarters for the cast and crew when they shot the movie "Giant". There is also one of the best pizza places in the country called the Pizza Foundation. The owner is a woman who worked for several years at the Al Forno restaurant in Providence, RI. She and the owners of Al Forno were going to open a pizza place in Providence, but instead she moved to Marfa to open one there because her sister insisted she come to try Marfa out. Needless to say, I had a really tasty pizza for dinner tonite.
The week's total for species seen hit 172 which by 2 birds edged out last week for the most birds found in a week so far this year. The last 3 days added a total of 10 new birds for the year which brings the YTD number to 470. tomorrow I am heading back to Austin for the nite to see my friends before going back down to the Texas coast for a few more days of the spring migration. Stay tuned!