Monday, September 22, 2014

Big Bend National Park - The Birder's Park

ABA-area listers know Big Bend National Park for the Colima Warbler.  A handful of these drab Mexican warblers breed in the park's Chisos Mountains, the only place in the entire country where they can be found.  Colima Warblers aren't the only reason to visit this remote park, however. The birding there is nothing short of excellent, especially for an Easterner like me. Hummingbirds abound, Scaled Quail can be found running every which way, and passerines and hawks flock to the cottonwood oases. In fact, Big Bend has had more species of bird than any other US National Park!

Subsequently, on the first morning, it didn't take long for me to spot my first lifer. Two Lesser Nighthawks were flying along the gravel road I was on. They perched in the tree, and I nabbed a few photos - the first nightjar species I've photographed!

Lesser Nighthawks in the lower desert.
A few other desert species began to make appearances, including a few western Red-tailed Hawks and my lifer Pyrrhuloxia, the drab (but somehow more interesting) counterpart of the Northern Cardinal.  Near Santa Elena canyon, I spotted a small group of Gambel's Quail scurrying along the bottom of a wash. A Greater Roadrunner, the first of many, ran across the road (big surprise there).

The drive down to the Rio Grande was nice, but the birding really picked up at the Cottonwood Campground along the banks of the river.  Stunning Vermillion Flycatchers were seemingly everywhere, as were Golden-fronted Woodpeckers.  Inca Doves were also preposterously abundant around the cottonwood trees. The lifers were coming easier than I had anticipated.

My first-ever Inca Dove, in all its tiny, scaly glory.
I kept hearing an odd hawk calling from a nearby clearing, and I couldn't quite pinpoint the species. It slowly dawned on me that it was a Gray Hawk, one of only a few that live in the US. I tried desperately to track down the bird. I ran toward the clearing, thinking for sure I would see it.  But there was one problem - the muddy Rio Grande lay between me and the bird I was hearing. Even if I saw the bird, it would count as a Mexico bird but not as a North American.  However, in a complete and random stroke of luck, the hawk appeared, and flapped enthusiastically across the river into the US, and landed in another thicket.  I ran excitedly back to the car, but en route I spotted a small passerine flicking through some shrubs. It popped up with a bit of light pishing, revealing a gnatcatcher with an all-black undertail - a dead giveaway for lifer Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. A yellow headed Verdin was singing atop the same bush, giving me another great life bird.

We headed over to the eastern side of the park to look for more birds. The best sighting there was of a Common Black Hawk in the campground, an ABA lifer (though not a year bird - I saw a few in Tortuguero back in March).  There were even more Vermillion Flycatchers over there, and one was cooperative enough for a photo. Painted Buntings were common in the campground as well. Higher up in the desert I saw a drab female Varied Bunting - not the brighly-colored male I was hoping for, but still a cool bird.  Black-throated Sparrows, one of the more attractive sparrows in the US, were abundant among the desert scrub.

Common Black Hawk, one of only a few breeding birds in North America

Vermillion Flycatcher
My first day in Big Bend National Park was pretty spectacular - and not only because of the bird life. The scenery in this remote part of the country is breathtaking. Through the haze, the rugged Chisos loom above the entire park.  I would be atop those mountains the next day, doing my best to spot the Colima Warbler on the aptly-named Pinnacles Trail.