I was treated to a whirlwind birding tour of the Panhandle Region by good friends Drew Harvey and Anthony “Fat Tony” Hewetson during the weekend of 18-19 November. Spending a fair amount of time around the Lake Meredith National Recreation Area, Caprock Canyon State Park, and windfarm lands between Lubbock and Amarillo, they helped me find several new Year Birds as I aggressively approached my goal to observe 400 species of bird in Texas during 2017. My highlights included Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Western and Clark’s Grebes, Virginia Rail, Rough-legged Hawk, Winter Wren, Bald Eagle, Burrowing Owl, Prairie Falcon, and Rusty Blackbird. We missed a couple of species we expected to see like Ring-necked Pheasant, Common Merganser, and Red Crossbill. I don’t hold it against my companions though, the wind was terrible Saturday and it was hard to predict where things might have hunkered in. Besides spending a very enjoyable couple of days with fellow naturalist, we added 14 species to my year list. With these additions, I landed at 399 species (note: we thought I had crossed 400 but I had to remove 2 species from an earlier trip trip to the Guadalupe Mountains due to mis-identification or inability to confirm ID).
Since I had an extra day and was only four hours away, I decided to make a run back down to the Guadalupes and clean up those birds (re-observe and confirm for the year). Most folks that know me realize I rarely pass up an opportunity to camp and hike in the West Texas Mountains. Even when adding six hours of out of the way driving on an already long (normally six hour) drive home. My plans were modified when I called the park and was told that the campground would likely be filled to the brim. I guess the Boy Scouts and everyone else was taking advantage of the week off from school during Thanksgiving Week. So, instead of camping at the lower slopes of the mountains, I took advantage of the access of Federal lands in New Mexico and slept on Bureau of Land Management lands about 20 miles north of the park headquarters. It was peaceful. Looking up at a star-studded sky, shooting stars, and the inky silhouette of the Guadalupe Mountains.
Morning came with shoulder pain and chill. The low dipped to the mid-20s. I didn’t set up a tent and instead slept directly on the ground (on my backpacking mat). The cold kept me confined to my mummy bag which limits my arm movement overnight and, since I’m a side sleeper, puts a lot of pressure on my shoulders.
All that discomfort was forgotten when I got to the park. I had hiking and birding and re-centering to achieve today. But not before a freaking traffic jam at the Pine Springs campground! I’ve never seen so many people at this place. The Guads are literally hours from heavily populated sites, fairly primitive in its offerings of conveniences, and a respite from the sheepish humdrum of mechanized society. Not this day though. Between noisy Boy Scout groups (were there multiple? are they always so unapologetically loud?) and tourists driving their cars the 200 yards between campsites and restrooms, it felt like I might have just entered an urban park on Easter weekend.
It all ended up being fine though. I found a place to illegally park my car. All parking spots taken, I took one of the many open RV sites but still managed a notice to move. I wondered where exactly they wanted me to move to. Perhaps out of the park and take as many people with me as I could. Getting on with my purpose, I hiked around the foot of the mountains and along Pine Spring Creek. I kicked up tons of sparrows including my target, Brewer’s Sparrow (cleaning up a bird from earlier). I also saw several Cassin’s Finches, another bird needing cleaned up. And with Phainopepla, I was assuredly over 400 for the year! I could now focus on just experiencing my surrounding and work on getting a few photographs.
Extracting myself from the overly concentrated society that had taken Pine Springs, I headed to Frijole Ranch to enjoy the usually birdy site and to take the looping hike to Smith Spring tucked within a foot-slope canyon of the mountain. Frijole Ranch was popping. As soon as I walked up to the historic home site, I was greeted by Stellar’s Jay and Mountain Bluebird. The Acorn Woodpeckers were thick among the wispy canopy. I was really hoping to see a Willamson’s Sapsucker but couldn’t find it during two hours of searching. The hike to Smith Springs was uneventful yielding Dark-eyed Juncos, Northern Flicker (red-shafted), a Northern Harrier, and Woodhouse’s Scrub-jays. The spring and creek were of course a wonderfully peaceful reward for the effort though. On the hike back I did see another Stellar’s Jay and a single Band-tailed Pigeon.
I had to wrap up my visit to the mountain despite wanted to spend more time exploring. The road home was long and I still wanted to visit the agricultural lands just west of the mountains in Dell City. It took nearly an hour to get there but the road was great. I picked up two new species for the year, Lark Bunting and (my target and a Life Bird) Sagebrush Sparrow. Additionally, I saw a herd of Pronghorn Antelopes enjoying the fresh greenery of an alfalfa field (I assume) and flocks of American Pipets and Horned Larks among many other species (check list here).
On the way back home, I took a brief detour to Balmorhea Lake in the small town of Balmorhea. I was still holding out hope for a Common Merganser and thought this site might also yield the Common Loon I needed for the year. Plus, you just can’t predict what interesting western species show up at this place. After paying the $5 use fee, I started birding the lake by scanning a raft of white geese and immediately recognized a loon that was hanging among them. Common Loon, check! Bird number 405 for the year! I spent another hour looking picking out some cool birds; Clark’s and Western Grebes, Hooded and Red-breasted Merganser, more Lark Buntings and Brewer’s Sparrows, Say’s Phoebe, and Vermilion Flycatchers. Despite dipping on the Common Merganser, the visit was well worth it.
The drive home was uneventful but passed fairly quickly due the looping review of all the long weekend’s pleasantries.