April 21 - 29, 2007Day 1 Indianapolis to Indian Lodge
Day 2 Fort Davis State Park, Lake Balmorhea
Day 3 Limpia Creek, Fort Davis historical site
Day 4 Marathon, Chisos Basin Window Trail
Day 5 Santa Elena Canyon, Cottonwood Campground, Tuff Canyon, Lajitas, Old Terlingua
Day 6 All-day Colima Warbler trek
Day 7 Dugout Wells, Rio Grande Village, Boquillas Canyon
Day 8 Willow Springs, Cattail Falls, Closed Canyon, downpour
Day 9 Guadeloupe Mountains National Park and home
This trip resulted from a chance meeting in June 2006 in Alaska, where April and I got to know a very nice birding couple, Jerry and Cindy Dillard. At that time the Dillards were living in Virginia, preparing to move to El Paso soon. We therefore decided to plan a birding trip in their neck of the woods for the spring of 2007. Because of short-notice work requirements, the Dillards wound up being able to spend only a day and a half birding with us.
Saturday, April 21
We arose at 3:45 a.m. and reached the Indianapolis airport at 5 a.m. We left the car in long-term parking, caught the shuttle to the terminal, checked our bags though to El Paso (enduring a lengthy line at the Frontier Airlines desk), and were aboard our jet 20 minutes before departure. April had the foresight to bring some protein bars to share during the flight. We touched down in Denver at 6:45 a.m., experiencing a bit of turbulence on the final approach. It was a fine day with blue skies and skinny little high clouds. After a two-hour layover we caught our continuing flight to El Paso. This leg of the journey took us down the western side of New Mexico, west of the Organ Mountains (just east of Las Cruces), east across the southern end of the Otero Basin, and finally into the El Paso airport from the east. It was decidedly windy, and the air was very dusty.
Our first "trip"bird was a Great-tailed Grackle. We picked up our Thrifty rental car, a Nissan Ultima, at 10:45 a.m. and hit I-10 eastbound. Our plan was to follow I-10 east to Kent and then take Rt. 118 south to our accommodation, the Indian Lodge in Fort Davis State Park, a trip of about 200 miles. Birding was tricky at speeds mostly in excess of 75 mph. We saw a lovely adult Swainson's Hawk when we stopped for lunch at Angie's Restaurant in Fort Hancock. We stopped a few times to check out the desert scrub, finding a Verdin, some Black-throated Sparrows, a pair of Scaled Quail, an Ash-throated Flycatcher, and a pair of Northern Mockingbirds that seemed out of place in the desert. As the trip went on we'd see scores of mockingbirds, many in areas even more desolate that this.
Under a highway overpass near Kent we found a mixed breeding colony of Cave and Cliff Swallows. The vegetation as far as we could see consisted of knee-high grass interspersed with creosote bush, mesquite, yucca, rabbit bush, and greasewood, nothing higher than 10 feet tall.
Turning south onto Rt. 118 put us in the juniper-oak woodlands of the Davis Mountains. We stopped several times to view Cassin's Kingbirds with their white throats and slate-gray heads and breasts and a few beautiful breeding-plumage male Lark Sparrows. We stopped at the Lawrence E. Wood picnic area, where we ticked off Western Bluebird and found a flock of Chipping Sparrows.
Late in the afternoon we reached Indian Lodge and checked into our room. It was on the eastern side of the lodge, overlooking a canyon that ran eastward toward Limpia Creek.
The room had enormous ceiling beams, which provided a rustic ambience. Sliding window panels allowed us to darken the room at will. The view of the cliffs above us on the mountainside was impressive.
Outside our door was a huge New Mexico agave (Agave americana), also called century plant, prickly pear cactus (Opuntia of various shades, and an unidentified wildflower.
All around the lodge were White-winged Doves (short video) and Barn Swallows. Pairs of Say's Phoebes were nesting under the eaves.
In the lodge parking lot we met the Dillards -- Jerry, Cindy, and their delightful 4-yr-old son, Sam. The last time we'd seen Jerry and Cindy had been nine months earlier, on July 4, 2006, in Alaska. Sam and I bonded immediately by making weird faces at each other.
We drove about a mile back toward the park entrance to a bird-feeding station. Here we saw a close Say's Phoebe perched carefully in a sharp-edged yucca. It flew repeatedly to drink from a watering trough. Here we also saw our first close Summer Tanager feeding on peanut butter that had been smeared into holes drilled in a 2x4.
Also visiting the area were Black-chinned Hummingbird, Black-crested Titmouse, lots of Chipping Sparrows, Lesser Goldfinch, a lot of White-winged Doves and Canyon Towhees, a flock of Turkey Vultures congregating at roost on the rocky ridge above us, and a Zone-tailed Hawk far above us that was a life bird for all the birders at the site. There were also House Finches, Cassin's Kingbirds, Mourning Doves, a Canyon Wren, Acorn Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Red-tailed Hawk, and another Swainson's Hawk.
We spotted some of the abundant Mule Deer on the slope above us. Somebody told us about a resident Elf Owl in a hole in a telephone pole at one of the nearby campsites. We walked over to that site and stared at the pole from about 45 minutes. As darkness fell a group of people gathered around wondering what we were doing watching a telephone pole. Finally a couple of people saw the owl fly from the back side of the pole. It turned out that there was a hole on the back side of the pole that we hadn't noticed.
We had a great time with the Dillards, especially little Sam. He told April and me that he liked us.
After dark, as I was driving the short distance back to the lodge, I noticed that I was being tailed by a park vehicle with flashing lights. I thought I might have been speeding, so I pulled into the lodge parking lot, made a sharp turn around a corner, parked outside our room, and switched off the key, hoping to elude it. No luck. It pulled around the corner of the lodge and stopped only a few yards from us. I got out of the car, prepared to surrender peacefully. It turned out that the park ranger was just using the parking lot as a point from which to flash his lights toward the ridgetop, where someone apparently had gotten lost and needed a point to head for. I could see that person's light flashing way up on the crest.
We met the Dillards in the lodge cafeteria for dinner. Three of us had a forgettable chicken-fried steak meal. April had the best food of the lot, a salad and some flavorful gumbo. The Dillards left for the Prude Guest Ranch, where they spent the night. It had been a 20-hour day for us, with a lot of driving, so at 9:30 p.m. we decided to call it a night.
Sunday April 22
We arose at 6:30 a.m. and headed north on Rt. 118 to the Prude Guest Ranch. We met the Dillards there for a buffet breakfast consisting of orange juice and coffee, bacon, fried potatoes, and bananas. From there we headed south in two cars 1.8 miles past the state park entrance to a "35 mph" sign on the right and a guard rail on the left, the traditional place where birders scan the cottonwoods along Limpia Creek for Common Black-Hawk. We dipped on the hawk but, despite wind and noisy weekend traffic, we did find Audubon's Warbler, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Cedar Waxwing, Wilson's Warbler, early rising Turkey Vultures, Summer Tanager, and Black-chinned Hummingbird.
Returning to the state park, we spent the morning exploring the area. We started by hiking up a trail behind the feeding station, which had been known formerly as the easiest known place in the U.S. to see Montezuma Quail, a highly cryptic, camouflaged bird that is high on most birders' lists of species they'd like to see.
The vegetation on the hillsides has thickened during the last decade. The quail now find sufficient food on their own and have no need to visit the feeding station. Nevertheless we spent a lot of time at the feeding station during our visit.
As we hiked we could see the park campground stretching up the canyon toward the lodge.
Jerry and Sam had a good time exploring the rocky trail.
Tall stalks of century plants were conspicuous, along with Spanish dagger, Ocotillo, agave, juniper, and prickly pear. We occasionally checked out the far side of the canyon looking for quail and roadrunners.
The trail led steeply uphill, past a Cholla cactus with an old Cactus Wren nest.
The trail got very steep. April went ahead to determine the difficulty level.
The trail became too treacherous, so we decided to go back downhill. We hiked to the entrance, where more feeding stations provided us with close views of a White-winged Dove.
Barn Swallows were nesting under the eaves. In a tall Cane Cholla (Opuntia imbricata) we found an active Cactus Wren nest.
Walking the gravel roads through the park we found a family of Acorn Woodpeckers. One of them was resting in the shade of an electrical insulator. A Common Raven flew over carrying something white in its beak, which made it look like it had a white head. Turkey Vultures were everywhere, both flying and landing on the ridgetop. You could see the whitewash on the rocks on the hillside behind the lodge where they roosted. Behind one of the interpretive centers we found a female Black-chinned Hummingbird and a Pine Siskin. One of our oddest sightings was of an Osprey circling over the bone-dry canyon.
We made a loop on the campground trail and ended up back at the feeding station, where we watched lots of Chipping Sparrows and identifying a pair of Clay-colored Sparrows. One of the most common species everywhere on our trip was Summer Tanager. Also common were Black-crested Titmouse and Canyon Towhee.
It was now time for the Dillards to head back to El Paso, so after some clowning around with Sam, we said goodbye to them.
April and I were hungry, so we headed into Fort Davis for lunch. We found a little bakery where we shared a honey-mustard and turkey sandwich on focaccia bread. I had iced coffee, which hit the spot. We bought some bottled water at the Old Fort Country store. At 1:30 p.m. we drove northeast on headed up Rt. 17 for 40 miles to Lake Balmorhea, where we wanted to do some birding in the only wetlands in the area.
On a hillside near Wild Rose Pass on the way to Balmorhea April spotted Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) among the leguchilla, a type of agave I'd heard described as "a cactus that looks like a green bouquet of knives." We watched this massive animal until it crested the hill and disappeared from sight. Huge horns!
Roadside views included isolated rocky peaks, fascinating rock pillars, and sweeping vistas of distant mesas.
Of interest to both April and me were the abundant wildflowers along the road. Desert Prickly Poppy (Argemone squarrosa)was particularly abundant, being pollinated by honeybees.
Here are some other common roadside flowers: Desert Verbena (Verbena wrightii), probably Hoary Rosemary-Mint (Poliomintha incana), Common Dogweed (Dyssodia pentachaeta), an unidentified species, and a typical mix with Desert Verbena on the right.
Descending to the plains from the Davis Mountains we reached the town of Balmorhea and Balmorhea State Park, which boast a huge (77,000 square foot) artesian spring pool. We continued on to Lake Balmorhea, a sizeable dammed lake in an otherwise parched prairie. We drove cautiously along the dirt road that almost encircled the lake.
We found Black-necked Stilts feeding on aquatic insects, loafing flocks of American Avocets, lots of American Coots, and small hyperactive groups of shorebirds including Spotted, Least, and White-rumped Sandpipers.
The lake was rather shallow as evidenced by the rushes that grew in a number of places, sheltering Eared, Pied-billed, and Clark's Grebes, Wilson's Phalaropes, and an assortment of ducks.
We followed the dirt land along the lake, passing tiny cottages made of anything from galvanized sheet metal to plywood. At one point the lane ran parallel to a marshy area in which we found two White-faced Ibis in basic plumage, "Mexican" Ducks (Mallards) , and all three teal species -- Blue-winged, Green-winged, and Cinnamon Teal.
Beyond the northwest corner of the lake was a flooded area containing several acres of dead willows in which we found the commonest duck to be Northern Shoveler.
Several Belted Kingfishers fished from vantage points. Savannah Sparrows foraged in the lane for seeds and insects. The road ended not far from there. I attempted to drive to the end but all I achieved was the partial removal of a car-width black protective piece of plastic from under the front of the car when I crunched down into a steep dip. I reached under the front of the car, popped off the few plastic rivets that were still intact, and stuck the bulky item in the trunk. [At the end of the trip, when I returned the car to Thrifty, the check-in clerk didn't think it was worth noting. Must be a common occurrence out there.]
To reach the part of the lake we hadn't yet seen, we had to return to our starting point. From there the road traversed a long concrete dam, which provided a view of the desert stretching away far to the south. Below us in the lush vegetation near the outflow stream a single Great Egret foraged in the wet grass. Next to our car on the rock margin of the lake we found two very attractive American Pipits sporting their pinkish summer plumage. We also found a resting flock of Franklins Gulls. An Eastern Meadowlark serenaded us from a patch of weeds. We had a quick glimpse of a pair of wrens as they darted into a pile of broken concrete. We figured that they had to be either Canyon or Rock Wrens, so we played the song of the Rock Wren. This prompted one of the birds to shoot out of the rock pile twoard us so fast that I thought it was going to come right into the car through Aprils open window. Just in time it braked and dodged down under the car. Its response confirmed their identity as Rock Wrens.
On our drive back to the inn we stopped at a few places, all of which were in typical Chihuahuan Desert scrub.
We found a Loggerhead Shrike perched along the highway and a wary Greater Roadrunner. A roadside picnic area yielded Pyrroloxia, Lincoln's Sparrow, Wilson's Warbler, Canyon Towhee, and Ash-throated Flycatcher. At one time we had three Ash-throated Flycatchers in the same field of view, which was pretty good. We pulled off at a few other places, such as near a rock palisade, at Wild Rose Pass, and at an overpass under which Cave and Cliff Swallows were nesting together.
We were amazed at how quiet our rental car was.
For dinner we drove into Fort Davis, where we enjoyed an excellent meal at the Limpia Hotel, followed by a scrumptious slice of coconut cream pie. We were amazed at how fancy the hotel's dining room was. After dinner we walked around town and then drove back to the lodge.
Instead of returning directly to the lodge we explored a scenic drive on the hillside opposite the lodge, hoping to hear nightbirds like Common Poor-will. We viewed a beautiful sunset and saw our second Black-tailed Jackrabbit and more Mule Deer. The wind was very strong, so we couldn't hear any birds. We did most of our birding from the car after dark, like this:
We turned in a little after 9 p.m.
Monday, April 23 Today we slept until 7:30 a.m. to catch up on our sleep and then decided to try breakfast at the lodge. Outside, a group of Spanish-speaking workers looking at some distant javelina browsing on the hillside. After much effort, April eventually spotted them. I picked out a feral goat in a noble pose atop a distant pinnacle. We split a seriously huge breakfast burrito at the lodge and then drove to the Visitor's Center to obtain the combination to the lock on a gate to a private parking area at Limpia Creek.
The turnoff to the parking area was only a couple hundred yards south of the park entrance. Our car was practically invisible from the highway. We hiked along the stream bed for five hours. Among the abundant cacti were Torch Cactus (Echinocereus chloranthus) and Claret-cup Cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus).
The upper Limpia Creek basin was dry and the hiking easy.
We stopped frequently to look and listen for birds and other wildlife.
At one stop a Canyon Wren serenaded us.
We saw lots of good birds Ash-throated Flycatcher, an White-eyed Vireo (uncommon), Northern Cardinals, male and female Pyrrholoxia (like black and gray cardinals, respectively), a bunch of Wilson's Warblers, endless male and female Summer Tanagers, hordes of Chipping Sparrows, a northbound Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and both Canyon and Rock Wrens. The Ash-throated Flycatcher became our buddy, hanging around with us.
We continued walking down the creek bed, which looked like it was made of volcanic flowstone, very pretty, with intermittent ponds. On both sides of us were steep agave-covered slopes. A Zone-tailed Hawk took off from a cliffside and described slow circles as it used the rising warm air as an elevator. Three Broad-winged Hawks soared over us with their legs dangling the way Black Vultures often hold theirs. The lower end of the valley was covered with shrubby willows growing in gravel.
Having missed the Common Black-Hawk while birding the area from the highway yesterday, we made a special effort to locate it. Most years a pair breeds in the cottonwoods along Limpia Creek. As we approached a grove of particularly tall cottonwoods, an adult Common Black-Hawk flushed ahead of us and then circled us, providing excellent eye-level views.
Having achieved our primary goal along Limpia Creek, we climbed a hill back up to the road and then hiked a mile back to the car, passing a roosting flock of Turkey Vultures and an unusual-looking flower, which turned out to be a milkweed called Antelope Horns (Asclepias asperula).
From there we drove to Fort Davis, where we had lunch at a roadside restaurant called Phat Burger. Excellent malted milkshake! We decided to take in some local culture by visiting the Fort Davis Historical Site. We were greeted by a coachwhip snake (Masticophis flagellum), which a park ranger told us never tames down in captivity. It had a burrow under a century plant whose center spire amazingly grew a full inch during our visit to the site.
Inside the fort we watched a video about the history of Fort Davis and then explored the interiors of several restored homes and barracks.
When we'd finished exploring the historical site, we stopped at an authentic railroad caboose that had been converted into an ice cream parlor, appropriately named the Caboose. Here we had some excellent ice cream cones. We drove southwest from Fort Davis to a wildlife viewing area we'd seen on our roadmap. Just west of town the landscape changed drastically from desert scrub to attractive rolling, grass-covered hills. Intermingled with herds of cattle we saw loads of pronghorn.
We also saw a flock of Brewer's Blackbirds, a life bird for April. Then we had to rush back to the state park to sign back in by 5 p.m. at the Visitor's Center because we'd been in a restricted area at Limpia Creek. Check out this sign that was on one of the doors:
We drove to the bird feeding site and sat there for about four hours, watching birds and chatting with other visitors. We saw Rufous-crowned Sparrows at arm's length, two Clay-colored Sparrows, Black-headed Grosbeaks, tons of White-winged and Mourning Doves, Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Townsend's Solitaires, and Western Scrub-Jays. Here are a Canyon Towhee and a Cactus Wren:
Eventually some Mule Deer walked into the area and disrupted things to the point that we really didn't have any chance at all to see any of the secretive quail. As it was getting dark, we all decided to visit the Elf Owl site. As we started walking I looked up just as a Lesser Nighthawk flew over, our first of the trip. At the owl pole we watched the hole from which the owl had emerged on our first visit. One fellow had a flashlight, so we all got excellent views of the owl poking its head out of the hole as well as eye-level views of it perched in some low branches. It was a wonderful sight.
After that we all walked back to our cars near the feeding station and used my Questar scope to view Jupiter and four of its moon, Venus at three-quarter phase, the double star at the bend of the Big Dipper's handle, and the Great Nebula in Orion.
Tuesday, April 24
On Tuesday we got up at 6:30 a.m., packed, and left Davis Mountains State Park but not before April spotted something perched atop a distant sotal yucca. We put the binoculars on it and discovered that it was the Osprey. Its striking face pattern was clearly visible from a mile away.
Today we were headed for Big Bend National Park via the towns of Alpine and Marathon, both of which are county seats. In Fort Davis we picked up doughnuts, milk, and coffee. We stopped to read all of the historical markers along the way. At one stop I put the scope on two Red-tail Hawks perched side by side. While watching the red-tails we spotted a herd of pronghorn and five elk.
We drove through Alpine, is a charming town about 25 miles from Fort Davis. Alpine looked significantly wealthier than any other town we'd seen since leaving El Paso. Homes were nicely kept up, and there was a regional hospital as well as a college. We stocked up on food at a grocery store and then continued 30 miles to Marathon, which is a friendly wide spot in the road. We drove about five miles out of town to Post (Peña) Park, which turned out to be a birding gold mine. I'd read that this was a good place to find Golden-fronted Woodpecker, which April had never seen. No one else was there when we arrived. We had the huge cottonwoods, lush grass, small pond surrounded by cattails, picnic tables, and sprinklers keeping it all green, all to ourselves. It was an oasis in the desert.
On the pond swam a pair of American Coots. A Scissor-tailed and Vermillion Flycatchers were conspicuous. We kept hearing Golden-fronted Woodpeckers but at first they were shy was hard to spot. We finally did see them, both male and female, through the Questar, amazing views. The best deal was when we went to the south edge of the park and birded along the outflow from the pond. We tried pishing and playing a couple of different bird songs to get a Bell's Vireo to come into sight. I finally played the call of the Western Screech-Owl, which brought out about 15 species, including the vireo. We saw a total of 36 species in this tiny, remote park, including Lark, White-crowned, and Lincoln's Sparrows; Bronzed Cowbird with a fiery red eye; Bullock's, Orchard, and Scott's Orioles; Pyrrhuloxia; Canyon Towhee; Cactus and Bewick's Wrens; Say's Phoebe; and at least four pairs of Vermillion Flycatchers.
We also enjoyed all of the the abundant wildflowers in the park.
As we were getting ready to leave, April found a female Vermillion Flycatcher sitting on her nest, which explained why we'd only seen males during our visit.
Back in Marathon we drove slowly down the relatively deserted streets, viewing the extreme poverty. It was amazing to see so many corrugated metal roofs, houses with cracks and patches, and fences made of all kinds of different materials. Some people had gardens, but most homes appeared unkempt and lacking trash pickup for the last decade.
We split a tasty sandwich at a Marathon restaurant and explored the attractive downtown area. Almost exactly 11 years ago to the day while assisting my friend Sam Fried on a Hartford (Connecticut) Audubon Society trip to Big Bend National Park and the Davis Mountains (read trip report), I'd spent the night in Marathon, at the Gage Hotel. I was pleased to discover it was still doing well.
As is true between most towns in West Texas, there were no facilities of any kind in the 60 miles between Marathon and Panther Junction, the entrance to Big Bend National Park. We watched the landscape change from grassy to scrubby to parched as we pivoted around the distant Sombrero Peak.
Turkey Vultures were abundant. We saw few other species, only a Loggerhead Shrike about every 10 miles and a few Cassin's Kingbirds. We stopped at roadside pullouts and found more wildflowers. This is Purple Prickly Pear (Opuntia violacea).
This is Cane Cholla (Opuntia violacea).
At the Panther Junction Visitor's Center we bought our $20 national park permit, filled up the gas tank next door (very important!), bought some beverages for the road and then continued up through the pass into the Chisos Mountains and then down into the Chisos Basin.
We decided to spend the rest of the afternoon hiking the Window Trail, which runs four miles west to a pourout, where site at which water from the Basin spills hundreds of feet to the desert below. We parked at the group campground. The first thing of interest we found were some Giant Agave Bugs (Acanthocephala thomasi) sucking the stems of every century plant we could find.
It was so intensely bright at this mile-high elevation that without sunglasses we were uncomfortable. The trail was moderately level, downhill most of the way to the Window and uphill all the way back (naturally). Footing was sometimes tricky, with the gravel shifting underfoot.
We found another Cactus Wren nest. They pick very protected spots to nest, full of thorns and spines.
On the descent we hiked along the bases of cliffs and talus slopes, dwarfed by the surrounding mountains.
A common flowering shrub along the way was Ocotillo.
Near the end of the trail, not far from the spot where the water drops over the edge of a cliff, the stream bed became much smoother. Steps had been carved into the rock to make passage easier. In some places the rock edges were razor-sharp.
The polished rocks at the point where the water tumbled over the edge was far too slippery for us to feel like chancing a close approach. There were no handholds at all, so we decided to appreciate the view from a safe distance.
The birding along the way was slow but rewarding, with good views of some uncommon species. We found plenty of Scott's Orioles, a Varied Bunting too close for us to use our binoculars, a Bewick's Wren carrying nesting material to a hole in a dead branch, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, a Blue-throated Hummingbird that flew past us twice, and Canyon Wrens, whose wonderful descending whistles echoed from side to side across the canyon. We looked in vain for one of my nemesis species, Black-chinned Sparrow. I pished in a tiny Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. We both heard it, but April didn't get to see it.
The hike took us about four hours, roundtrip. We took our time, stopping to bird and also sitting down once for a while just to enjoy the ambiance. Still, by the time we got back to our car we were pretty exhausted partly because the temperature was in the high 80s with occasional strong gusts of wind. There was also a steady headwind on the first part of the hike, caused by air funnelling through the window of rock at the pourout. Another reason we were exhausted was that I took the wrong trail at a fork. We emerged at a different starting point than where we'd started and had to backtrack about half a mile to the correct trail. The scenery was breathtaking the whole way, including good views of the primary peak in the Chisos Basin, flat-topped Casa Grande, 7,325 feet above sea level.
Back in the car we drove out of the Chisos Basin, passed Panther Junction, and continued west 30 miles to the town of Terlingua, population 267 in 2000. The sun was going down and the light made the scenery much softer than it had looked at midday. Looking back at the Chisos Mountains rising from the plain was very pleasant.
We stayed at the Big Bend Motor Inn in Terlingua every night for the rest of the trip. Mostly we ate next door at the combination FINA gas station, general store, and restaurant. At dinner that night I ran into Mark Smith, a tour guide from Oregon I'd met in Trinidad two months earlier. What a spectacular contrast in ecosystems between there and here. And what a small world.
Wednesday, April 25
After grabbing a bite to eat next door, by 7:15 a.m. we'd headed east from Terlingua and turned south on the gravel Old Maverick Road that leads to Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande. Here we watched the sun rise. The canyon carved by the Rio Grande is vertical sided and three times taller than the Washington Monument. Photographs don't begin to show the vastness, but I took plenty of shots anyway.
Here's a 360° panorama, from south to north (left to right). Cool, eh?!
We parked at the end of the road , hiked though loose sand almost to the canyon entrance (the water was too deep for us to ford), then returned to the parking lot and birded among the lush willows and other trees and brush along the entrance road.
Drying mud had formed interesting patterns, solitary bees had burrowed into the sandy sediment, and some small animal had left evidence of its passage.
We heard Yellow-breasted Chats and Bell's Vireos all around us. Seeing them was another matter. Evenually we spotted the chat, perched about twice as high as it sounded; it was hidden among the leaves. We got great looks at Bell's Vireo, whatever "great looks" of a small, drab, gray bird might be. We also found a pair of Carolina Wrens, an unexpected species this far west. Cardinals and Summer Tanagers were also conspicuous. April snagged another Greater Roadrunner. Some of the other species we saw included Scaled Quail, Painted Bunting (wow!!), Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and a Wild Turkey that was anything but wild.
We spent some time birding with a fellow from France who lives in Ireland, showing him the non-wild Wild Turkey, among other birds. I saw a Verdin, but April didn't get to see it. An Olive-sided Flycatcher teed up high atop a dead tree, and a Zone-tailed Hawk seemed to be patrolling its territory along the cliff face. We were able to see the bars on its tail very well. April found and identified husband-and-wife Inca Doves and tracked them to their eye-level twig nest. It was such a productive site that we stayed in the area until 11 a.m.
From Santa Elena Canyon we headed east eight miles to Cottonwood Campground on the Rio Grande. The terrain was desolate, mostly gravel, with plants few and far between. Here's a panoramic shot and a close-up of a fruiting Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata), one of the most common desert shrubs.
Here in the lowlands at only 2,150 feet, the temperature was noticeably higher than it had been during the first part of our trip. En route to Cottonwood Campground we stopped at the Castolon Store for some cold drinks. While we were there, part of a school group we'd see again later arrived in a convoy of vans. Soon we were surrounded by adults hauling out massive quantities of food and fixings, getting ready for the influx of kids. Then the kids arrived. We were entertained by the scores of teenagers far from their usual urban haunts.
We spent a couple of hours at Cottonwood Campground, which was practically deserted. In this grove of ancient cottonwoods, the sound of the breeze through the leaves and the high temperature put me in the mood for a nap.
April stayed near the car, birding and checking things out, finding mostly Western Kingbirds, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, and Vermillion Flycatchers. Next thing I knew April was shouting for me to wake up. There was a big commotion overhead with Kingbirds attacking a fabulous Gray Hawk, one of our target birds. There were actually two Gray Hawks. They had a nest almost directly above the car. We heard them call to each other, sort of a whistled scream. Time after time they flew far south over the river, into Mexico, and returned. It was wonderful.
We birded our way through the rest of the campground, finding Lucy's Warbler, Orchard Oriole, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and Phainopepla. The most abundant species was Vermillion Flycatcher, followed by Golden-fronted Woodpecker and Ash-throated Flycatcher. Here's a male Western Tanager and an Ash-throated Flycatcher.
Back on the road again, we drove north to Tuff Canyon. Along the road we saw strange geological carvings with layers formed at widely separated times in the past.
Tuff Canyon is a slot canyon, a flat-bottomed chasm with steep sides. We decided to hike its full half-mile length even though it was a hot day. In the canyon we found a pair of truly wild House Finches and a pair of Verdins at their nest.
We found two very attractive flowers in the canyon: Yellow Rocknettle (Eucnide bartoniodes) and Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis), a dwarf relative of the catalpa.
Next we stopped at Mule Ears Viewpoint. Here are the Mule Ears and images of the surrounding area.
A marker at the site explained the geology of Goat Mountain. Across a broad valley we could see a ranch house. The rancher who had lived there had grazed enormous herds of sheep in the area at the beginning of the last century.
We continued driving about 10 miles to the Sam Nail Ranch. Although there are no buildings left, we enjoyed walking through the pecan orchard that the Nail family had planted many years ago. On my 1996 visit the windmill had been producing a steady flow of water, which attracted scores of birds to this desert oasis. On this visit we found it nearly vaneless and no longer in service. Even though a bench was still there, without no water there was no reason for birds to congregate, and there were none -- just lots and lots of tiny biting flies.
Hot and tired, we left the Sam Nail Ranch and drove 50 miles southwest, past Terlingua and on to the town of Lajitas on the Rio Grande. The river is about 50 feet wide there. All of the water in the river at that point originates in Mexico. We were told that the Rio Grande is the most endangered river in North America and one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the world. There is virtually no water in it by the time it reaches Texas. Colorado and New Mexico take every drop.
En route to Lajitas we stopped at the Terlingua Store, where we bought some cold beverages and talked to a local woman about the one radio station we'd been able to find, Coyote Radio, KYOTE, FM 100.5. She told us that it's sort of an illegal radio station because the community can't get the FCC to license it because it broadcasts at a power of only about 2 watts. Its the weirdest station -- they play music covering a huge time span, all different styles, with a 20-second break between songs. The delay is caused by the 200-disk CD changer -- that's how long it takes the machine to change CDs. Local volunteers run the machine.
In Lajitas we walked down to the river, which is almost hidden by head-high dense riparian vegetation. We found a few Mexican Ducks and a flock of 10 White-faced Ibis resting on a gravel bar in the river. Mexico was on the far shore. So was a boat the Mexicans use to cross over from Mexico to Lajitas.
Distances are vast out there. Check out this sign. The Chisos Mountains look so close, but if you drove at the posted speed limit of 45 mph, it would take an hour to get there.
On our way back to the Big Bend Motor Inn we had a brief glimpse of a Mississippi Kite, our first of the trip. After showering and dressing up a bit, at 7 p.m. we headed out for Old Terlingua to the Starlight Theatre & Restaurant, which several people had recommended. Here's what Old Terlingua looks like, with new dwellings interspersed with ruins of the homes of the original cinnabar miners. At one time the Terlingua cinnabar mine produced most of the mercury in North America.
Mercury makes people insane, which is where the saying "Mad as a hatter" originated (hatters used mercury-based chemicals to tan hides). Some of the things we saw in Old Terlingua were pretty weird, like these macabre signs, mailboxes out in the roadway, and the most rustic roadside rest stop we'd ever seen.
The Starlight Inn was worth the half-hour wait. The food was sensational, the best we had anywhere in Texas. Our waitress soon felt like an old friend. The people at the neighboring tables were all foreign -- German, British, Australian -- you name it. We began to wonder if any Americans visited Big Bend, or if only foreigners know the secret.
Thursday, April 26
The Colima Warbler is found nowhere else in North America but in the higher elevations of the Chisos Mountains. This was the target bird of the trip, our sine qua non. To reach the necessary elevation requires a long hike from the Chisos Basin. Knowing that temperatures start to climb soon after dawn, we left the hotel this morning before 6 a.m.and drove in darkness to the Basin. We saw lots of stars, so many that it was difficult to identify the common ones. The Milky Way was a gleaming pennant across the sky. Unfortunately, because I was so intent on starting today's hike at dawn, we'd arrived almost an hour before sunrise. We napped in the car while waiting for the sun to come up enough so we could see the trail.
We started our hike at 7:15 a.m. at the trailhead just as the sun tipped the peaks. The temperature was about 54°, a little chilly, but soon our hiking warmed us up.
We were far above and east of the Window, to which we had hiked on our first day in the park. The scenery was sensational, especially as the sun first struck the peaks.
Cactus was in bloom everywhere.
As we climbed, the vegetation changed to oak/juniper woodland with large expanses of woody shrubs on the dry hillsides.
We saw some good birds early on, such as Crissal Thrasher and Rufous-crowned Sparrow, along with superb views of Spotted Towhee, a western species that April had seen under our birdfeeder in Fishers, Indiana, the previous autumn. Also present in good numbers were Hutton's Vireos and Bushtits.
We even tagged one species that had eluded me all my life: Black-chinned Sparrow. One of the neatest things we saw was a Black-chinned Sparrow repeatedly buzzing a Broad-tailed Hummingbird perched atop a sotol agave. To get him back, the hummingbird then did the same thing to the sparrow.
We also had superb views of Cordilleran Flycatcher, Nashville Warbler, Hermit Warbler (which is so rare here that I had to document the sighting and submit it to the Texas Bird Records Committee), and Townsend's Warbler. We also found our first Colima Warblers, although the views left a lot to be desired. They were invariably high in the oaks and hidden in the leaves.
No doubt giddy with delight at the Colima Warblers, another life bird for her, April donned a fallen flowerhead from a century plant.
An older gentleman came hiking up the trail. We struck up a conversation and learned that he was from Nova Scotia. I mentioned that the only birder I knew from Nova Scotia was Ian McLaren, with whom I'd corresponded 20 years ago about the occurrence of Little Egret in the New World. The gentleman replied, "That would be me!" Amazingly small world.
Ian asked if he could bird with us for a little while. Of course we said yes. Birding with the king of Nova Scotia birders! Fabulous! While Ian was with us we identified a Gray Vireo that took some real tough observing to work out. We had to listen to a recording of the call of the bird to make absolutely certain of our identification. Some of the grayish vireos are definitely hard to tell apart.
Ian eventually realized that he needed return and check out of the Chisos Basin Lodge to avoid being charged for a additional day. April and I kept hiking ever upwards.
Farther along the trail we met a man who introduced himself as Chuck Gooding, a birder from Elkhart, Indiana, only 145 miles from our house. April and I continued up the trail, trying to decide whether to keep going or turn back. We'd already found our target bird. Still, it was only 10 a.m. We had hiked at a leisurely pace so far and both felt really strong, so we kept going. The mountain was quiet and we were steeped in savage beauty. Suddenly we were surrounded by a boisterous swarm of 80 school kids, the same ones we'd met earlier during the trip, at the Castolon Store. They bounded effortlessly up the trail, while their chaperones brought up the rear. We crossed paths several more times during the day when they stopped so their leaders could lecture on the some aspect of the local environment. April and I also took breaks to rest and to look up birds we'd seen.
At the halfway point of our hike, here's the trail marker we read.
We'd reached a verdant high-elevation oak/pine forest with grassy ground cover. Here in its preferred habitat we saw a lot more Colima Warblers. They were calling territorially from the treetops, where they were not that easy to see, but there were many of them. We found several groups with about six in each group. Here the Western Scrub-Jays with which we'd become familiar were replaced by turquoise-colored Mexican Jays.
After a few more hours of hiking we had stopped birding and were just mechanically moving our feet. Whoever had erected the trail markers must have known how we'd be feeling and had left the mileages off the markers.
The most reliable place in North America to see Colima Warbler is in the Chisos Mountains. The most reliable spot in the Chisos Mountains to see Colima Warbler is at Boot Springs, named for a rock pinnacle that resembles an inverted boot.
Fittingly, not far from Boot Springs we had our last and by far best view of a Colima Warbler. Incredibly, it was on the ground ahead of us along the trail, feeding like a sparrow. I got out the camera. The bird was just hopping along, taking its time, not dashing around like the others had been doing. Here's the shot I took of it.
From this point we still had another three miles to go to return to the Basin. Walking and conversing with some of the leaders of the school group helped us keep up a faster pace, but even then we didn't reach our car until 4:30 p.m. We'd been hiking for more than nine hours. We were amazingly hungry, so we went to the Basin lodge for dinner. There we ran into my fellow bird-tour leader, Jon Dunn, and his Wings birding group. We chatted with Jon for a little while, exchanging tips on what birds were where. We had a fine dinner and were more than ready to return to our lodging. And although April is an avid golfer, even the tempting course behind the inn couldn't pull her away from a hot shower and a comfortable bed.
Friday, April 27
Today we got off to a slow start because we'd exhausted ourselves completely the day before. We left the Big Bend Motor Inn with plenty of peanut butter sandwiches and bottled water. As we were leaving we saw seven Cattle Egrets fly over. In this parched land they looked as out of place as had the Osprey in the scorched Davis Mountains.
We headed east toward Panther Junction, where we stopped at the Visitor's Center to turn in the documentation concerning our sighting of the rare Hermit Warbler during our Colima Warbler quest.
Today's itinerary was to cover the east side of the park, including the Dugout Wells oasis, Rio Grande Village, and the Boquillas Canyon Overlook. Dugout Wells, 10 miles southeast of Panther Junction, was similar to the Sam Nail Ranch in that the windmill wasn't running so there was nothing to attract birds. We found 24 more Brewer's Blackbirds but little else but a stock-still Black-tailed Jackrabbit, a Scaled Quail shouting from a bush, and lots of Opuntia cactus.
Continuing another 10 miles southeast, we pulled into a park in the campground community of Rio Grande Village. Much of the area was flooded, a real surprise after our days in the desert. One of our first sightings was of a Gray Hawk diving on a Mexican Duck as if it were trying to catch it. It broke off its dash a few scant yards from the duck, which was larger than the hawk. We walked along an irrigation channel for half an hour, picking up Yellow Warbler, a Peregrine Falcon, and our first Black Vultures of the trip, along with many species we'd already seen, including another Zone-tailed Hawk. We noticed a man and his family with a Questar, introduced ourselves and my Questar, and spent an hour birding with them. They were from Denton, Texas, on a year-long home-schooling RV tour of America. Two photographers from Santa Fe, New Mexico, also joined us. The eight of us ended up birding together and pulling in a Painted Bunting, which made the photographers and the family very excited. They had been looking for a Painted Bunting for a long time without success. It was the highlight of their morning.
The family invited us to follow them to their campsite so they could show us what they'd found there. Near their RV were active nests of Golden-fronted Woodpeckers and Summer Tanagers. We saw the Gray Hawk again in the cottonwoods at the campground. After the family had driven away, April and I explored a boardwalk that bisected a common reed (Phragmites) marsh near the river. In this area we found a Snowy Egret, a Black Phoebe carrying food, and a Green Heron.
We followed a trail from the end of the boardwalk to a promontory that provided a view of hundreds of square miles of the Rio Grande basin. From above we had an excellent view of a Merlin as it approached from Mexico and flew continuously for several minutes until it passed out of sight far to the north. Here's what the area looked like -- the boardwalk through the marsh, the campground behind it, the Rio Grande on the left, and the Chisos Mountains far to the west.
This shot shows how narrow the Rio Grande Valley is here. A difference of a few feet is all there is between lush greenery and barren gravel.
Here's a short video panning from Mexico to the north.
Although the U.S. now prohibits Mexicans from crossing the border except at guarded checkpoints, along the trail we found an offering of Mexican items for sale -- decorated walking sticks, scorpions crafted from copper or aluminum wire, necklaces, bracelets, and other works of art. The homemade sign said, "Donation is asceptable for bay fuud."
We felt a bit apprehensive along the river because the Park Service had erected a lot of signs warning of the dangers of being alone and out of sight of other people when near the border. Far away, on the Mexican side, we could see farmers tending their fields. They looked respectable to us, similar to farmers anywhere in the U.S., except for the fact that they were cultivating the soil by hand instead of with machines.
Returning to our car, we drove to the Rio Grande Village general store, where we bought cold drinks and ice cream. While there we met Michael and Rosario Douglas, a couple we'd seen at dinner at the Chisos Basin Lodge the night before. Michael is a meteorologist originally from Canada and now based in Norman, Oklahoma. Rosario was born in Chile and raised in Panama. She is a specialist in succulent plants like cactus. They've traveled all over the world.
We sat together in the shade at a picnic table outside the store for about three hours during the hottest part of the day, getting to know each other and having a very nice time, one of our few social events of the trip. A White-winged Dove and a Eurasian Collared-Dove took turns literally walking around our feet picking up tidbits. Another Zone-tailed Hawk flew over.
After the temperature had started to drop, we drove five miles east to the Boquillas Canyon area. Along the way we stopped at an overlook, where we found more walking sticks and handmade wire jewelry that had been placed there for sale by Mexicans from Boquillas. We felt even more apprehensive here than we had at Rio Grande Village because broken window glass littered the parking lot. Park Service signs said that cars left unattended there were frequently broken into. Signs in both areas warned that it was illegal to purchase any items from outside the U.S. without paying duty. Signs placed by the Mexicans said that donations would go to help the children of Boquillas.
Across the river we watched three men on horseback following a trail in our direction along the river. We waved at them, and they waved at us. They dismounted, and two of them waded across the waist-deep river toward us. One carried walking sticks, so we figured they probably were coming over to collect the money left by visitors and to replace purchased items. We left some money for the Boquillas children and left. Later I found that one of those wire scorpions must have jumped into my camera case when I wasn't looking.
The apprehension created by the signs, the broken window glass, and the ease with which the border was being crossed sort of reduced our birding enthusiasm. We decided to head back to Terlingua, but not before squeezing off a shot of the distant town of Boquillas del Carmen, across the river in the Mexican state of Coahuila.
Not far beyond Panther Junction we pulled off the road next to a rocky draw because we heard a Varied Bunting singing. While searching the area we found a new bird for the trip, a Virginia's Warbler. We also found the usual hoards of Chipping Sparrows, some Rufous-crowned Sparrows, Bell's Vireos, Cactus Wrens -- an amazing assortment considering that the thorny scrub looked the same for miles in every direction. The Varied Bunting was apparently on territory as it sang and sang and sang while giving us mouthwatering views. The light was golden, and our views of all of the species were exquisite. The Virginia's Warbler led us on a merry chase up and down mesquite-covered ravines until April was finally able to get a good look at it. This was the first time I'd seen all four warblers in the "gray" group — Colima, Lucy's, Virginia's, and Nashville — in a single day.
Farther on I saw a tarantula crossing the road and turned around to go back to look at it. April spotted two javalinas not far off the road, our best views of those wild pigs yet. We contined back to Terlingua as the Chisos Mountains reflected the last sunlight of the day.
In Terlingua we enjoyed cheeseburgers at the gas station/restaurant next to the Big Bend Motor Inn. After dark we took my million-candlepower flashlight and went for a drive along back roads, looking for nocturnal creatures. We clearly heard but never saw a purring Lesser Nighthawk on the ground not far from us but completely invisible. Trying to find it, we walked out into the desert, which was very easy to do because there was only one plant every 10 feet, with nothing but bare dirt and gravel between them. We approached the bird closely several times. Each time it seemed to fly off and then return. We got to hear it trilling over and over again, which was a treat.
As we continued driving we came upon a large snake with a bulge in its middle, making its way across the road. As we were examining the snake, another car approached. I illuminated the snake with my flashlight so the other car could see the snake and avoid running over it. That worked.
It was windy and getting rather chilly, so after driving about 10 miles at slow speed we turned around and returned to the Inn. Along the way we found a freshly road-killed Lesser Nighthawk. Ironically, another Lesser Nighthawk was circling the light in front of our inn, catching moths, when we returned.
Saturday, April 28 This was our last full day in Big Bend. Dawn brought an unexpected dampness to the air, with mist and clouds everywhere we looked. This was a first for our trip, which until now had been totally devoid of any cloud cover or rain.
After talking with some hikers in the parking lot, we decided to visit a place they told us about where the water from the Windows pourout collects. From there the water is pumped all the way back up to supply water to the Chisos Basin Lodge. We bought bottled water and a cinnamon roll at the store, running into our friends Michael and Rosario there. We drove back toward the Chisos Mountains, turned south on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, and then turned left onto a very narrow rutted dirt road across from the entrance to the Sam Nail Ranch. We followed this road two miles to a gate across the road and parked at a wide spot.
The area was full of Devil's Head cactus (Echinocactus horozonthalonius), Purple Prickly Pear, Texas False-Agave (Hechtia texensis) (in the middle image), and Torch Cactus.
The morning was cool surprisingly cool, only about 62°. Far off we could see the bright green cottonwoods that indicated where water flowed down from the Windows pourout. We both donned sweatshirts and started hiking east toward the misty mountains. Along the way we had crippling look at another male Varied Bunting and saw lots of Black-throated Sparrows.
Hiking on this road was easy. The crispness of the air and the angle of the sunlight made us feel especially energetic. We stopped to examine the non-user-friendly agave called lechuguilla, a distinctly Chihuahuan Desert plant.
We explored an area we think was called Willow Spring, then continued to a municipal-sized water tank, where we climbed onto a large boulder, laid back, and just let things happen around us. Apparently we were sitting very close to a Canyon Wren's nest because two Canyon Wrens were continually hopping around just below us, coming and going with food. It was very relaxing to just sit and watch the wildlife.
We noted a small grayish lizard as it crawled out onto a large boulder. After a few minutes it started doing frantic push-ups, lifting its body away from the hot rock. Another lizard, quite a bit smaller than the first, appeared on the side of the rock. As soon as the first lizard saw the second one, it inflated its throat, showing bright turquoise/aquamarine blue on its throat and undersides. It continued doing push-ups while the smaller lizard gradually approached it. We thought this might be mating behavior, but nothing happened. After a while the smaller lizard simply walked away from the larger lizard, who continued doing its morning push-ups.
We continued up the hill and met a hiker, who asked us if we had ever hiked to Cattail Falls. When we replied that we hadn't, he ventured that it was a pretty easy climb, worth the hike, and recommended that we try it. His name was Rick Bartel. He lives in Crofton, Maryland, and works at the Census Bureau in Suitland, Maryland. In another Small World episode, we found that he knows most of the people I worked with in the late 1980s when I, too, worked at the Census Bureau in Suitland. We hiked about three miles to Cattail Falls with Rick.
Along the way we saw stopped to note how as the leaves of the century plant unfurled, the impressions of the spines remained in the adjacent leaves. It was very artsy.
We also saw more cacti in bloom.
The cool air from the base of the falls was detectable from a long way off, as were the cottonwoods and willows growing in the shadowed base of the ravine. Close to the falls we reached a place where there were large boulders over which we had to climb.
At the trail's end we found a 100-foot high shimmering trickle of water cascading down in a sheet from the pourout high above. Growing in this cool, shady spot were ferns and all sorts of other plants. We sat, rested, talked, and watched a pair of Rock Wrens probing and feeding on the face of the cliff and picking up small insects from the foot of the waterfall. We also watched a Blue-chinned Hummingbird harass the Rock Wrens and then perch and preen. It was a very enjoyable spot.
One of the most conspicuous and interesting plants growing there was Longspur Columbine (Aquilegia longissima) with enormous blooms and 7-inch spurs. Neither April nor I had ever seen yellow columbines before.
We especially enjoyed an industrious Rock Wrens. Here is a short video of one foraging on the wet rocks.
Our descent from Cattail Falls was quick and easy.
We said goodbye to Rick, who amazingly had hiked down from the Basin and who still had to hike back up there again to get to his car. On our way back to our car we stopped to study the myriad cicadas that were emerging in the desert. We found one and examined it, and then found a second one that had become entangled in a spider web. April wanted to rescue it. She found a stick and used it to flip the cicada out of the web. I cautioned her to be very careful because I'd noticed a spider sitting next to the cicada. It was a huge Black Widow (Latrodectus sp.) with its diagnostic red violin-shaped mark on the underside of its abdomen.
We returned to the inn, had a really good lunch at the FINA station/restaurant, and took a well-deserved nap. After the midday heat had passed we decided to head southwest and explore an area we hadn't yet seen. We drove 20 miles southwest to the Big Bend State Park headquarters in Lajitas, where we purchased a day-use pass. Our goal was to explore Closed Canyon, a 0.7-mile slot canyon along the Rio Grande. The signs warned against entering Slot Canyon if rain was predicted within 100 miles because the canyon walls are too steep and too smooth for a person to pull themselves up in case of a flash flood. We hadn't seen a drop of rain on our trip, and it looked like it hadn't rained in West Texas in years. However, the sky had clouded up, so we were wary.
From Lajitas we followed an incredibly scenic two-lane asphalt road (Rt. 170) along the Rio Grande. Mudstone along the road had been carved by the elements into artistic shapes. Mountains rose on both sides of us, with the river appearing as a muddy stream bordered by green. The Mexican mountains just across the river were extremely beautiful -- rugged and remote.
Dark clouds continued to gather, looking very threatening. We reached Closed Canyon just as it began to sprinkle rain. We parked and hiked a few hundred yards toward the canyon entrance, at which point April prudently decided to return to the car while I hurried ahead to squeeze off a few shots before it started raining.
As we pulled back onto the highway the rain started falling harder. Turkey vultures were still flying, which usually indicates that rain isn't imminent. I spotted a pair of javalinas crossing the road ahead, moving from low to high ground -- not a good sign. We sped up so that we could see them and watched them disappear into the brush high up the slope and then over the crest. They looked like chubby warthogs.
The vultures turned out to be wrong. When the rain finally broke loose, it was accompanied by a tremendous hailstorm. Marble-sized hailstones covered the hillsides and road until they looked snowcovered. The noise inside our car was tremendous. The temperature dropped from over 80° down into the 60's.
The intensity of the rain increased until every pourout on the hillsides was a waterfall. The road itself was a river. We had to stop because of the cars that had stopped in the road ahead of us. No driver wanted to try to ford the rushing floodwaters that were carrying large rocks across the road. Here's a short video of what we were seeing. Now watch as the first vehicle, an SUV with a bold driver, crosses the rock-strewn flooded road.
Arroyos that an hour ago had looked like they hadn't seen rain in years suddenly brimmed with frothing muddy water.
The rain started at 5:50 p.m. and continued until nearly 7:30 p.m. During most of that time we were parked in the road, waiting for the water to subside so we could drive through low-lying areas covered in floodwater.
Eventually we made it back to the inn, had dinner next door, then hit the hay. It had been another long, fascinating day in West Texas.
Sunday, April 29
This was our last day of the trip. Our goal was to drive north to Guadaloupe Mountains National Park for a quick visit and then proceed west and rendezvous with the Dillards at Hueco Tanks State Park before returning the rental car and flying home from El Paso.
We snacked as we dressed and packed the car, then headed north 75 miles on Texas Rt. 118 to Alpine. Along the way we saw houses that were mostly ramshackle and widely separated from each other. We wondered what people did for a living out there, what kind of social life they had, and how it felt to be 20 miles from the next human being. Low gray clouds continuted to hang over the desert, giving the landscape a desolate appearance.
Along one stretch, tall bushes grew close to the roadside. A barefoot man wearing a tuquoise-colored shirt stepped out from behind the bushes and into the road, waving for us to stop. I was very uneasy at this situation, which looked like a possible ambush to me. I didn't stop but instead continued to Alpine, where about 20 minutes later I reported the incident to two Border Patrol agents. They told me I'd done precisely the correct thing, as other men could have been waiting in the bushes for us to slow down. We'll never know.
From Alpine we took Rt. 90 west and north for 140 miles through Marfa, famous for the strange lights that appear there at night, and then through Valentine, Van Horn, and north into Guadeloupe Mountains NP. The only interesting birds we saw along the way were Burrowing Owls perched atop fence posts, like this one.
We reached the park with just enough time to sample one of the shorter hiking trails, a semi-domestic loop near the Visitor's Center. Here we came upon one of my favorite insects, a bombardier beetle. Theses beetles have a hardened chamber at the tip of their abdomen from which they eject a hot, caustic liquid, a great deterrent to would-be predators. Here's the little fellow tipped up, doing his can-do headstand and ready for action if we got any closer.
We left the park and headed west into a steady drizzle, which was probably fabulous news for the parched vegetation. We called the Dillards to tell them that our planned rendezvous at Hueco Tanks State Park looked like a wash-out (literally) and made arrangements to meet them a couple of hours later at the El Paso Country Club.
Our rendezvous went smoothly, and soon we were walking along an irrigation channel near Sam's daycare center. Our time together was far too short, although it did produce a close pair of Mississippi Kites and our one and only American Robin for the trip.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. We returned the car to thrifty rental, made our flight in plenty of time, made our connection in Denver easily, and arrived back home in Indianapolis on time. All in all it was a wonderful trip, one we will always remember.
Map of Big Bend National Park