2021-01-02 Big Bend’s Ross Maxwell Drive

White-Winged Dove - Zenaida asiatica
A few White-Winged Doves roamed the area on this snow-covered wintry morning at the Sam Nail Ranch. I drove from Terlingua Texas to Santa Elena Canyon via the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, and stopped to enjoy several places on the way.
Santa Elena Canyon Sunrise - Scenery
I rose before dawn and drove from Terlingua to Big Bend’s Santa Elena Canyon to photograph the first light on the canyon walls.
Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker - Sphyrapicus varius
I originally misidentified this bird as a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, but it has been kindly pointed out that it is a Red-Naped Sapsucker. There were plenty of woodpeckers in camp, but these sapsuckers outnumbered all the rest. Cottonwood Camp is a primitive site eight miles from the end of the road at Santa Elena Canyon. I was lucky to book a night’s stay and enjoy one of the birdiest sites in Big Bend National Park.

New Year’s Day and Saturday night, I stayed in Terlingua Texas. I waited there until I could take advantage of my Sunday night reservations for camping in Cottonwood. Saturday morning I drove south to explore the southern reaches of Big Bend. I’d been to the Sam Nail Ranch last March (2020), while on the inbound leg of my first Texas birding adventure, but that site is only four miles down the 31 mile road called The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. My timing was flawed last March, as it coincided with Spring Break, and there weren’t any overnight accommodations available inside the park. The Sam Nail Ranch was the only visit I could pull off. I tried to visit on my Texas exit in May, but the pandemic put a stop to that plan.

Spring at the Sam Nail Ranch site was memorable. A windmill produced regular guzzles of clear water to sustain pecans and other trees, and a host of thirsty birds. I knew I wanted a return trip, and this Saturday was my first opportunity. What a contrast this winter visit was from last March! Six inches of cold, wet snow on the ground, some of it still clinging to trees and brush, would have been hard to imagine last spring. There was still beauty here, but fewer birds than my last visit. The cold weather and snowy conditions discouraged any plans I may have had about lengthy vigil. Cardinals, Pyrrhuloxias, Spotted Towhees and other species did not seem as thirsty as they were last spring. Complicating matters, the ice covered trails through the old homestead site made navigation on foot a challenge (even if I weren’t carrying all my photo gear). I cut my time short at this location and headed south to explore the rest of the road’s attractions.

It was a sunny day, and the layer of snow decorated the desert. I took pictures of the scenery at a few stops along the road. A great landscape photographer would plan either an earlier or later time of the day for capturing its beauty. Eight miles before the end of the road I passed Cottonwood Camp, where I had Space #11 reserved for next Monday. I was intent on seeing the gap in the rock called Santa Elena Canyon, where eons of persistence by the Rio Grande carved its way through the hardest of limestone in pursuit of a path to the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville Texas. The sight of the river coming through the middle of the rocky uplifted range was impressive, but the sun came from behind the range, making it difficult to capture a satisfactory photograph. I resolved to return Sunday morning and catch the sunrise, where the crack-of-dawn sunlight might wash the rocks in its warm glow.

The end of the road at Santa Elena Canyon, I found crowds of vehicles lined up along the roadside. I discovered this was where guided kayak and raft tours put in or out of the river. Running the river in a raft was not what I’d planned for this day. I did an about-face, and drove 8 miles back to explore the Cottonwood Camp site. I found the camp surprisingly birdy! As the name should imply, large cottonwoods grew in a parklike setting on the river’s floodplain, with designated campsites sprinkled through the primitive facility. I stayed for several hours and found some cooperative, and some shy bird subject to entertain me before heading back north to my Terlingua camp. I spent the rest of my time at the Terlingua catching up on the image preparations I’d accumulated during the day. After reviewing the images I captured on my scouting mission, I saw where I needed to improve my results, and on Sunday I set out well before dawn to get those shots I missed on Saturday.

I drove back to Santa Elena Canyon on Sunday. Less than two miles from my destination at the overlook, the first light came washing down the stone cliffs. When I reached the overlook, the sun had just peeked over the horizon. I was much happier with the morning’s images than those I took Saturday afternoon. The gallery below provides both views, along with the birds from both days.

After shooting for two days, the bird species I photographed were American Robin, Chihuahuan Raven, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Phoebe, Golden-Fronted Woodpecker, Greater Roadrunner, Great Horned Owl, Hermit Thrush, Ladder-Backed Woodpecker, Northern Mockingbird, Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, Spotted Towhee, Verdin, Vermilion Flycatcher, Western Bluebird, Western Meadowlark, White-Winged Dove, Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, and Yellow-Rumped Warbler. Birds I caught with my eye, but not my lens included Northern Cardinals, Pyrrhuloxias, White-Crowned Sparrows, Dark-Eyed Juncos, Red-Tailed Hawks, Canyon Towhees, and Black-Tailed Gnatcatchers. I guess you can’t have it all.

Click map markers to reveal further information