2020-03-07: Bird Adventures In Big Bend


The Texas adventure I dreamed about for years began in California, but passed through Arizona and New Mexico before reaching the promised land. Preparations for my journey began in early February by researching destinations, reaching out to Texas birders, and acquiring books and maps. Finally, on Friday, February 21, I hit the road. I made stops along the way at the Salton Sea, several places in Arizona and I spent an interesting week in Las Cruces, New Mexico, splitting my time between birding and RV repairs, before crossing into Texas on March 3rd. 

Perhaps some of you have heard Texas is a BIG place! Even if you hurry, it takes a long time to get from any Point A to Point B. But I was not in a hurry. In 1968 and 1972, I passed through Texas on visits to Louisiana. On each of these trips, I treated Texas as a place to get through, rather than a place to enjoy. Not this trip, I vowed. This time I planned to savor the journey and enjoy the gifts she might share with me. I chose two-lane roads whenever I could and avoided freeways like a plague.


Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis
Up-close and personal view. Because of the working well and wind pump at the site of the old Sam Nail Ranch homestead in Big Bend, it is a great place to meet a variety of birds.

Big Bend was an attractive destination while I conceived of places I wanted to see. In researching potential stops on the journey, those most knowledgeable about Texas Birding insisted March was too early for a Big Bend tour, and that May and June would be better. Still, I could not bring myself to pass by this iconic location without taking at least a quick peak before continuing south and east to the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Friday was a long day driving from Las Cruces, New Mexico into West Texas, and ended when I reached Alpine, Texas early that evening. I spent the night parked behind Penny’s Diner, a 24-hour cafe housed in a shiny chrome art déco streetcar. I set my alarm for 6 a.m. and ate an early breakfast, then I headed south into Big Bend National Park and set my sights on the Sam Nail Ranch, one of the earliest homesteads in Big Bend. I reached my destination at about 9 a.m. and it didn’t take long to meet birds. Curve-Billed Thrashers, Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers and Rock Wrens found me before I reached the renown water source up the trail.

I can make myself small in the field by sitting on a folding stool I carry in a pouch slung over my shoulder. By small, I mean unobtrusive. And if I sit quietly on my stool, with the camera mounted low on my tripod facing a scene where birds frequent, my presence doesn’t prevent them from gathering, as they would if I stood over them at my full height.

After I collected several hundred images, I gathered my gear and set out along the trail to the water source feeding an old grove of pecans, where birds gathered to drink. A windmill, left over from the time when this was an active homestead, still drew water from below ground. When the wind blew hard enough to give the metal vanes a rapid spin, the pump would lift the water to the surface. When it did, it would send a few pints of clear water from the outflow pipe into small puddles that the birds exploited for bathing and quenching their thirst.

Inca Dove - Columbina inca
After spending most of the day in Big Bend National Park, I drove to Marathon (Texas), where I discovered these Inca Doves at the Gage Gardens near the town center.

I only spent a couple of hours here and met lots of local bird-life during my stay. Dozens of mockingbirds dominated the little theater where the water played out on the surface, and when they swarmed in, the other birds gave ground. Besides the Northern Mockingbirds, there were plenty of Northern Cardinals, Pyrrhuloxia and White-Crowned Sparrows. During my vigil I also met a Hermit Thrush, a Yellow-Rumped Warbler, a Spotted Towhee and a Lincoln’s Sparrow.

Later I learned that because of Spring Break, all camping spaces in the park were occupied, and all national parks forbid roadside overnight camping. Eager to reach southern Texas, I was already on the fence about extending my visit another day, but these two setbacks made the decision for me. Most attractions offered by Big Bend required driving several hours to reach, and without the option of staying overnight inside the park, it would be impossible. I drove north out of the park to Marathon, Texas. During my drive I stopped at a roadside pullout marked Exhibit, and took a break from the road and fixed myself a meal. While there, I noticed sparrows (Black-Throated) and gnatcatchers (both Black-Tailed and Blue-Gray) next to the road, so I collected a few harshly lit, mid-day images. When sunlight is strong and directly overhead, shadows and highlights diminish the details of the subject. Highlights washout to bright blobs and shadows block up to black holes, sacrificing most of the subtle beauty one would like to capture. A high thin layer of clouds can act as a light diffuser, but there were no clouds this day.

When I got to Marathon later that day, the light was good, so I checked my resource literature I brought, and found a reference to nearby Gage Gardens. Soon I found a well-manicured park close to the town center, with trees, lawns, water features and… BIRD FEEDERS! Initially, I walked through the park with only my binoculars, but when I found Inca Doves, I went back to the RV for my camera gear. This was my first encounter with Inca Doves and I overdid it by taking too many images, though I won’t apologize for my enthusiasm. Besides these new friends, there were White-Winged Doves, House Sparrows, House Finches, White-Crowned Sparrows, Dark-Eyed (Gray-Headed) Juncos and Vermilion Flycatchers.

To my delight, I learned the Oasis Cafe in Marathon was open for breakfast on Sunday, so I found a spot to stay the night on the side of the road north of town, and worked on the images collected during this long and wonderful day. The price I paid for my enthusiasm during the day was the time I had to spend sorting through all the images separating the wheat from the chaff. But that’s why I set out on this expedition, so for me, it’s all good.

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