Gambel’s Quail – seen at the bird-blind, Franklin Mountains State Park
Today we said goodbye to Jake at El Paso airport and said hello to Bob & Sue – a very smooth change-over. This pretty much marked the end of our Texas odyssey – the first leg of our Great American Birding RoAd Trip. We’d started the day with an early morning trip back to Davis Mountains State Park in an attempt to find Montezuma Quail. We heard several calling along Skyline Road but, predictably, failed to see any. After dropping Jake off we did spend the afternoon easing Bob & Sue back into American birding, by visiting Franklin Mountains State Park. This proved reasonably productive, with twenty or so commoner species and two much needed additions to the Texas list – Gambel’s Quail and Steller’s Jay (interior west race).
Steller’s Jay (interior west race) – West Cottonwood Springs Canyon. A much welcomed addition to my Texas list
So turning to the numbers – in the 16 days we’ve actually birded in Texas, our State list finished on a provisional 310 species – with a couple still to check, we’ve travelled over 2,650 miles (Texas is a pretty big state!) and my all-time American List has risen to 403.
Much of the credit for such a good list goes to Jake who did a great deal of research before we set off and whose keen powers of observation and persistence produced many of the best birds. Jake, we’ll surely miss you on our continuing journey. It was a pleasure sharing so many good birding moments with you. Travel safe.
As a reminder of the good times, here are a few of our trip ‘catch phrases’ picked upon from a variety of characters met along the way:
‘They’re killing Americans in El Paso’
‘I hear they do pretty good chicken wings in this place’
‘Chestnut-sided Warbler – went thata way’
‘Gotta TV here John’
Till the next time…
The remarkable Carolyn Ohl-Johnson and her equally remarkable Christmas Mountain oasis reserve
Today was our last full days birding with Jake in Texas, before driving to El Paso to drop him at the airport and, hopefully picking up our long-time birding friends Bob & Sue. We’d read on the internet before we travelled about the amazing desert oasis reserve, created by Carolyn Ohl-Johnson, at Christmas Mountain. The reserve lies on the north west edge of the Chisos Mountains and was first created in 1996. It is a magnet for migrating birds as well as home to some very special hummers – Lucifer Hummingbird. It’s not an easy place to find, the final four miles being up a rocky dirt track and you have to book well in advance with Carolyn – but the effort is worth it. Our visit coincided with their ‘Big Sit’ and by the time we came to leave they were up to 43 species – shooting for 50. It didn’t take us long watching the feeders to glimpse our first Lucifer, as it darted in to feed, but it took us another couple of hours to manage even a grab shot. We left Carolyn’s oasis, with several new additional species, and headed for Fort Davis and the splendid ‘old colonial’ Hotel Limpia. An afternoon of birding brought us, what I suspect will be, one of the highlights of our Texas tour – a mini twitch to find a superb Lewis’s Woodpecker. This north-west and central States species winters in small numbers as far south as Texas but this individual kindly decided to wait around for us to see it.
The star bird of Christmas Mountain, Lucifer Hummingbird – a rare breeding Mexican overshoot, with it’s distinctive iridescent purple frilled throat-patch
Other good birds seen at the oasis included Black-headed Grosbeak
In the afternoon a ‘mini twitch’ delivered us one of our Texas highlights – Lewis’s Woodpecker, at Prude Ranch
A touch of ‘old colonial’ luxury, in marked contrast to our usual motel accommodation, the Hotel Limpia at Fort Davis – ending our Texas leg of GABRAT in style!
Colima Warbler the rarest breeding warbler in the USA – Boot Spring Canyon, Big Bend
Today was dedicated to birding in the Chisos Mountains, looking for a handful of scarce, high elevation, species including the rarest breeding warbler in the USA – Colima Warbler. The highest point in the range is Emory Peak at 7,825 ft and the Pinnacle trail, which we took, takes you over 6,000ft. In total we did 20 kilometres, leaving at 07.30 and arriving back at base camp ten hours later. Fortunately the weather was cloudy and relatively cool – ideal for day-long birding. We had heard stories of people setting off at 3.00am to avoid the worst of the mid-day sun, but leaving in day-light meant we could bird all the way up the mountain. Without realising it we’d already passed through one of the best areas for the warbler by the time we reached the rim of the plateau. We carried on to Boot Spring Canyon, another favoured location and, after a couple of hours fruitless searching, managed to located a single bird foraging in the canopy of a large Oak tree at the head of the canyon. This sighting made all the hard work of a long, and at times, difficult ascent all worth while. On our way down we again passed through the current favoured area and had more great views.
Amongst the many goods birds we saw was this Blue-throated Hummingbird
Acorn Woodpecker – outside our cottage, Chisos Mountain Lodge
Today we travelled west from Concan on the Edwards Plateau to the Chisos Mountains is the far west of Texas, close to the Mexican border, in a bend of the Rio Grande. Most of the eight hour drive was spent crossing the Chihuahuan Desert. We arrived at Big Bend National Park by mid-afternoon and birded a couple of sites before checking-in to our cottage at the Chisos Mountain Lodges. A bit of local birding then before dinner and turning in for the night, in preparation for our big day in the Chisos Mountains. On our journey over we got held up for twenty minutes whilst they concluded another pre-race heat of the Big Bend Open Road Race between Sanderson to Fort Stockton – apparently one of the most prestigious saloon car time trials in the USA.
Say’s Phoebe, in the grounds of the Lodge
Another speciality of the local area – Townsend’s Solitaire
One of the 160 competitors, completing a preliminary heat in the Big Bend Open Road Race
Driving conditions during todays thunderstorm
We had tremendous thunderstorms this afternoon travelling back from Lost Maples State Natural Area, our first birding stop of the day. We had an interesting walk up the canyon but saw nothing different from South Llano. After the rain we did managed to get out around the campsite and had some excellent birding, including three new species. Tomorrow we’re heading 350 miles west to Big Bend and hopefully a hat full of new birds and some pretty special scenery.
After yesterdays two female Lazuli Bunting, it was good to find a male in our own ‘back yard’ this afternoon
Ringed Kingfisher on the River Frio, behind our cabin (photo courtesy of Jake)
We seen several species of snake since we started our trip, though we’ve only managed to positively identify Rat Snake and this, possible, Water Moccasin – one of the more deadly species
Golden-cheeked Warbler – an endangered species which only breeds in Central Texas
We spent the day, up in the hills eighty miles north of Neal’s Lodge, at the State Park of South Llano River. We walked the trails in the morning – too hot with too little water, but some good birding all the same! We quickly got to grips with the two key species, Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler and a supporting cast which included Scott’s Oriole, two more vireos – Hutton’s & Bell’s, Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay, Bewick’s Wren and Pine Siskin. We spent the afternoon relaxing in the bird hides and watching a variety of species, the highlight of which were two female Lazuli Buntings.
Black-capped Vireo – the other range-restricted target species
Scott’s Oriole – another America tick for me
Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay – a comparatively recent split from Western Scrub-Jay
Away from birding, Jake and I spotted this sign in a local South Texas town – the perfect combination! It was, of course, a drive-thru
The last of our Valley target birds – White-collared Seedeater, seen at San Ygnacio
The WiFi signal is pretty non-existent here so I’ll keep this blog short. We’ve arrived at Neal’s Lodge, Concan, on the edge of the Texas High Country, having said farewell to the Rio Grande valley in style this morning. We set-off from our motel in Zapata in search of the last of the Valley specialities – White-collared Seedeater. Most of the recent reports have been from a site we visited yesterday, without success, and even then they’ve mostly been of fleeting views or ‘heard only’s. We decided to try our luck at one of the traditional locations for this species, San Ygnacio – a tiny parcel of land right by the Rio Grande. We hadn’t been there more than a quarter of an hour when Jake located a singing male atop a distant tree. Tickable views but nothing special. There were birds everywhere and we started to amass quite a list, including four species of bunting – Lazuli, Varied, Painted & Indigo, Yellow-breasted Chat, Blue Grosbeak, House Finch, Green Kingfisher, Caspian Tern – and eventually much better views of our target species. A great bird, in a great location, and a good way to finish off ten days of birding southern Texas.
Also seen at San Ygnacio – the usually skulking Yellow-breasted Chat
Once at our overnight stop of Neal’s Lodge (we’re here for three days actually), we began to see plenty of birds. Some, like this Yellow-throated Warbler were new for the trip
Others, like this Black-chinned Hummingbird, although not new were, nevertheless, nice to see around the feeders, outside our lodge
Red-billed Pigeon – really a Mexican bird but seen from the US side of the Rio Grande
We’re currently heading west along the Rio Grande, stopping off at the few places where you can actually get to the river. The reason for doing so is that there are some birds which barely have a foot-hold in the USA – along the banks of the river and some which are basically Mexican birds but seen from American soil. They all count. Our list increased by ten today – made up of a few of those special birds and more regular stuff that we’ve previously not connect with. Tomorrow we head for the hill country of West Texas.
Another reasonably local speciality – Vermilion Flycatcher
Varied Bunting, another South Texas species (photo courtesy of Jake)
And for the non-birding followers of this blog – a photo of Jane and Jake at the Roma Bluffs over-view, with Mexico and one of the few official crossing points in the background. They’re actually watching for Groove-billed Ani..
A cultural experience not to be missed (or possibly repeated!) this evening, Jake and I tried what we thought was a local Mexican beer. Well it was, only with several added ingredients including tomato, salt, lime & spices. Tasted more like fermented gazpacho – interesting!
Elf Owl – the worlds smallest – weighing in at just 40g and measuring less than 6 inches
Our day was spent at more of the Lower Rio Grande premier birding sites, including Bentsen Rio Grande State Park, Anzalduas County Park, Frontera Audubon Thicket & Valley Nature Centre, Weslaco, adding another dozen new species. However, the real action came this evening when we were on our way to the parrot stake-out in McAllen. As we turned off the highway Jake noticed a kettle of raptors overhead. We got out to take a couple of record shots of, what we assumed would be, Broad-winged Hawks – later identified from photos as Mississippi Kite, when Jake identified a Swallow-tailed Kite! Later finding a second individual amongst the three hundred or so other raptors. We then headed for Bentsen for a rendezvous with a certain owl species. I’m pleased to say that the police officer who pulled me over for exceeding the speed limit was very understanding and let me off with a warning – thank you officer! We arrived just in time to see the Elf Owl – the worlds smallest owl, emerge from it’s hole, high up in a telegraph pole. We could just about make it out in the gloom of the Texas sunset. A fantastic end to another great day in The Valley.
‘Kettle’ of 300 Mississippi Kite over McAllen this evening (115 in this photo alone!)
Swallow-tailed Kite – a really unexpected bonus bird
Seen in Bentsen Rio Grande State Park this morning – the common, but no less stunning, Cardinal and the much less common Altamira Oriole
‘The Wall’ – fortunately, doing little to keep out the (avian) migrants!
Today we spent our time visiting two reserves along the Mexican border. In fact, Santa Ana, which we did this morning before and after coffee, is the other side of ‘the wall’. Highlights from this site included the rare Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Tropical Parula, Altamira Oriole, Olive Sparrow & Black-crested Titmouse. We also came across a few migrants, including Blackburnian Warbler and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. In the afternoon we visited Estro Llano, where the highlights included Pauraque, Wilson’s Phalarope, Cinnamon Teal & American Wigeon.
Northern Beardless-tyrannulet – a very rare US breeding species but not especially eye-catching. We took a beating from the mosquitos to get these shots!
Tropical Parula, seen in the same location as the above
Female Blackburnian Warbler – a US ‘tick’ for me
Pauraque – despite the large size of this ‘goat-sucker’ species it can be extremely difficult to locate roosting on the ground – well done Jane for finding this one