West of the Pecos, Part V

Our hotel in Fort Stockton had the undeniable advantage of being placed next to an IHOP, so we were at least well-fed when we went to bed after our nine hours in the car. That was important because I needed both Dad and Ian to be in a good mood when I asked them to get up and get on the road by six a.m.; the best time to see birds is right after sunrise, and I wanted to be in Big Bend at first light.

Because they're both good sports, or perhaps because their resistance was low following a massive load of carbohydrates, they agreed, and when the alarm went off at 5:30 the next morning, they were both reasonably cooperative as I prodded them toward the car. Dad even volunteered to drive, allowing me to spend the first hour of the trip south marveling at the lack of light pollution. There were no street lights; there were no radio antennae flashing; there were hardly any lights at ranch houses. Except for the occasional set of headlights, there was nothing to compete with the stars. Finally, not quite an hour from the park, the eastern horizon began to appear, and as 8:00 rolled up on our dashboard clock, the sun fell on a small cluster of highlands ahead of us: the Chisos Mountains.

100_2823.JPGAs you can see, it's not a big range, measuring only about a hundred square miles, all of them within the park, and it squats in the middle of Big Bend almost like a spider with its legs curled up. What it lacks in area, however, it makes up in height and therefore in biological diversity. Its highest point is Emory Peak, over 7800 feet above sea level, and that upward reach helps trap moisture, as well as offering isolated and relatively sheltered niches for animals and plants who wouldn't make it in the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert. The forested slopes of the Chisos are the only place in the United States where you can see the Colima Warbler, a Mexican species which was, alas, still several weeks of migration away from Texas when we got there, but even before we reached the mountains, I was already finding plenty of interesting species to observe:

100_2825.JPGThis was the youngest of the three javelinas we encountered in the park, about ten miles from the Chisos. Though they are related to pigs, javelinas (technically known as Collared Peccaries) are no longer classified in the Suidae family, which is restricted to Old World species, and are instead given their own family Tayassuidae in the order Artiodactyla, which also includes hippopotami, antelopes, deer, sheep, goats, and cattle, as well as pigs.  I can also attest that they are remarkably unfazed by the sight of an SUV hitting the brakes, backing up forty yards, and rolling down its windows to allow adults and teenagers to hang out and snap photographs.

Our first stop was the visitors center at Panther Junction, where we hit the men's room, got our bearings, and logged the day's first life bird: a Curve-billed Thrasher perched in the scrub near the building, enjoying the warmth of the morning sun. That just whetted my appetite, though, and we quickly leaped back into the car and turned left into the heart of the Chisos. The mountains are arrayed around a central basin, in which the National Park Service has built a lodge, restaurant, gift shop, and store, but you can't reach it without driving up a steep, winding road through canyons lined with evergreens and the occasional warning sign about the local bears and mountain lions. After you crest the ridge and turn down toward the lodge, you're acutely aware of the massive opening in the western wall of the basin, known as the Window. It's a perfect place to photograph the sunset, but it's still pretty impressive just after dawn; you can see it here behind Dad and Ian:

100_2852.JPGExcept for the Window, the basin is surrounded by high rock walls, some of them forested, and filled with a mix of desert scrub and trees. As you climb, the scrub gives way to evergreens, and then the evergreens to broad-leaf trees, and then eventually bare rock, but the slopes around the lodge are a mix of everything from prickly pears to yuccas to junipers to pines to oaks, all overshadowed in the early morning by the massive shape of Casa Grande, 7300 feet of mountain:

100_2874.JPGIan had the camera for most of the morning, while I kept my binoculars busy. I was mostly looking at the usual hordes of White-crowned Sparrows and the occasional Mockingbird, but he focused his attention primarily on the area's ubiquitous (and fearless) deer:

100_2860.JPGMeanwhile, I kept getting brief glimpses of birds that tantalized me with the possibility of novelty. The rattling sounds from the nearby cacti turned out to be Cactus Wrens noisily breakfasting all around us. A quick darting movement across the path revealed white tail spots--a Spotted Towhee. No lifers, but the landscape was more than making up for that fact, such as when we learned exactly what the sea urchin-like plant resembling a giant aloe actually looked like when it bloomed:

100_2879.JPGIt was a century plant, which typically sits quietly, photosynthesizing and poking the occasional passerby, but which once in a very long while decides to send up a massive, twenty-foot flowering stalk. The one immediately to the right of me is still young and green and modest, while the one to the right of it has already made itself sexually available in a way that even Paris Hilton might find lacking in subtlety.

The Basin Loop Trail's rise up the hill soon began giving Dad's knee trouble, so he opted to return to the car while Ian and I continued our loop through the woodland. The scenery remained gorgeous, the birds still more or less invisible:

100_2894.JPGBut before long, my patience was rewarded, and  I started to see things that were not merely spectacularly beautiful morning skies over unique and improbable walls of red stone and fantastical plant life. A small grey bird with a pronouced malar stripe and a rusty cap hopped out of the brush into the path, revealing itself as a Rufous-crowned Sparrow. A bluish bird arrowed across the trail and vanished: a momentary glimpse of a Mexican Jay. I spotted a desert-colored bird hopping on a fallen log: a Rock Wren. But despite the birding success, the signage indicated that following the Basin Loop Trail might not be as simple as we'd thought:

100_2882.JPGReasoning that we might be safer heading back the way we came, down the slope we returned, though we did take a detour into a small cluster of apartments or hotel rooms, where the trees were full of calling birds, including another Mexican Jay and a small gray bird with a familiar song: "Peter peter peter." At home, this last might not interest me much, coming as it does from a common yard bird, the Tufted Titmouse, but I knew that this T.T. might be worth some attention because it lived in South Texas. Sure enough, the bird's crest, which in most parts of the country is the same mousy grey as the rest of the plumage, was noticeably dark; it was a Texas specialty, the "Black-crested" Titmouse, regarded as the same species as the T.T., but still a variety I'd never seen, and therefore well worth the extra effort.

We continued down the road, dodging the occasional car as we approached the parking area, but my ear was caught by a call I'd heard a few times already: a slightly buzzy whistle that dropped sharply down the chromatic scale, almost like the sound that accompanies the death of Pac-Man following a collision with a hungry ghost. I couldn't see the bird that was making it, but I was at least able to tell that it was singing in the scrub to the left of the roadway, and that if I was patient, I might see it come out.

It came out. It came out, perched on the floral crest of a century plant, and let loose its joyous noise. It was a Canyon Wren, a beautiful bird with a belly shading from salmon to white like a glass of Thai iced tea, and whose call I will never again mistake for anything else. Head held high, it serenaded us all the way back to the car:

100_2910.JPGThe morning sun was growing warm as noon approached, and we decided we had time to make one more stop before leaving Big Bend: a visit to the eastern end of the park, and the lower of the two canyons that the Rio Grande travels through within its borders: Boquillas Canyon. It lay thirty miles from us, giving us plenty of time to spot the one southwestern specialty that had still eluded us, the state bird of New Mexico and a species linked forever to the desert country all around us: the Greater Roadrunner.

Also, maybe we could grab some lunch.


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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on April 17, 2010 9:19 AM.

West of the Pecos, Part IV was the previous entry in this blog.

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