Big Bend National Park, Brewster County
11-12 May 2015
This blog entry will review a quick hike up Pine Canyon to look for Northern Pygmy-owl and a longer hike into Boot Canyon with a complete bird list.
After finishing the bird survey at Black Gap WMA, I was finally able to get to Big Bend National Park for some needed rest and relaxation (composed mostly of long hikes and birding). I had one final chore before officially being on vacation in the park. I had promised previously to deliver a photo album to one of the Mexican guides in Boquillas, Mexico. I took advantage of this side excursion to have lunch in another country and a couple of cold cervezas during the 100 degree heat of mid-day. The food and beer gave me the opportunity to contemplate and I decided to hike a new trail that evening back in the park. I had heard through one of the Texas Facebook birding groups that Pine Canyon, located on the northeast side of the Chisos Mountains, held a somewhat rare owl called a Northern Pygmy-Owl.
I had never hiked the Pine Canyon Trail before and told myself I would just scout the beginning of the path in preparation for a complete hike later. It was already getting on evening and I didn’t want to hike an unknown trail alone just before dusk. However, the uniqueness of the trail, combined with a potential rare-owl quarry motivated me to continue beyond each new bend until finally, even after finding the owl, I met a tall pour-off that marked the end of the trail.
I was never able to see the owl among the canyon forest but heard it call consistently for brief periods along the way. This recording confirms the identification but can be confused with another rare (for Texas) owl called Northern Saw-whet Owl. I tried to see the owl on another trip to the canyon 3 weeks later but again was only able to detect its unique call.
After an enjoyable foray through Pine Canyon, I started the 10 mile dirt road back to hardtop but stopped to watch the setting sun paint the neighboring Sierra del Carmen Mountains across the river in Mexico. This is always a pleasant scene and reward after a long day in the Big Bend. After getting back on hardtop, I turned east towards the Rio Grande Village campground for a quick shower (the only public showers in the park) and to check/return messages (public wi-fi). Dark had arrived when I started the long drive back west to the center of the park and my campsite in the Chisos Basin. I had plans to get up early and set off for Boot Canyon in the high country. The desert flats had other plans; on the drive back I noticed a small snake crossing the road and had to stop and see what it was. This little 12-16 inch snake ended up being my first wild observed Chihuahuan Nighsnake, Hypsiglena jani. After a few quick photographs and memorable moments, I was back on the road through Green Gulch and the switchbacks leading into the Basin.
Despite getting up on time, I didn’t hit the trail until nearly two hours after I had hoped to do so (it took me a while to get breakfast made and clean up). I took the Pinnacles Trail via Juniper Flats making good time until mid-way up the steep, switch-back laden slope between Toll Mountain and Emory Peak. Two hours after starting, I had ascended the slope and took a break to catch my breath, hydrate, and eat a snack. I briefly visited with a couple other hikers and then set off for Boot Spring along the Boot Canyon Trail. Compared to the hike up and to this point, the remainder of the trail was a breeze and I made excellent time. Upon arriving at Boot Spring, I observed a bright orange Tanager singing from within the canopy. This was the previously reported Flame-colored X Western Tanager hybrid. Some ID confusion has resulted from this bird but barring a definitive alternative, the presumed ID should be accepted.
I have never seen the spring flow on my several trips into the canyon. This time there was a slow trickle indicating the recent life-giving rains and generally improving conditions after severe and prolonged drought. This small amount of moisture seemed to energize the noon-time crowd because the site was active. I noted several nice regulars in the area; Blue-throated Hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Cordilleran Flycatcher (on nest), Colima Warbler, Painted Redstart, White-breasted Nuthatch, Acorn Woodpecker, and Mexican Jays among others. Several of these birds are only regularly found within the Sky Islands of West Texas or, more specifically, the high Chisos Mountains as in the case of Colima Warbler and Mexican Jay. These extremely localized species are a couple of the big birding draws to the park. Despite these draws and the high volume of recent postings on the Texas Birds listserv sharing sightings from Boot Canyon, I was alone for several hours and only noted a few hikers passing through the canyon. I welcomed the quiet and solitude and was given a rare opportunity to study my surroundings and reflect upon the uniqueness of this mountain oasis. I left Boot Canyon after nearly three hours. On the hike back to camp, I stopped at another birdy portion of Boot Canyon closer to the boot than the spring. Here, in addition to another Colima Warbler and Painted Redstart, I noted Hermit Thrush and Spotted Towhee, a pair of species which breed in the mountains of West Texas but are only winter residents throughout the remainder of the state (or western 3/4 in the case of Spotted Towhee). The only other noteworthy birds observed through the remainder of the hike was a possible flyover Short-tailed Hawk, a rare hawk that had been previously reported but that I could not confidently identify in the air, and a Common Black-Hawk (a very nice observation itself). A link to my complete eBird list is available here or on this downloadable PDF 11 May 2015, Species List, Boot Canyon Hike.
That evening, I enjoyed a well-earned dinner at the Basin restaurant, along with a couple of beers from Big Bend Brewery (I highly recommend anything from this brewery). A late storm blew in near dark and shifted all of my activity to inside of a tent. I thought it was a good time to catch up on field notes from the previous few days but the sound of rain was compelling and sleep quickly conquered.
Romey Swanson is a professional wildlife biologist and naturalist active with several outdoor and conservation groups throughout Texas. Adventures with a Modern Texas Naturalist is a chronicle of his experiences and observations.
Reach Romey at: firstname.lastname@example.org