Saturday, December 27, 2008

Our Trip to Big Bend

The posts following this make up a day-by-day report on our December 17-23 trip to the Big Bend National Park.

I've rearranged the posts so that they appear in chronological order.

Big Bend Trip Day 1: Houston to Marathon

Wednesday morning we flew from IAH to Midland-Odessa Airport, where we rented a car and drove to Marathon via Fort Stockton. The roads were excellent, as they were throughout our trip, but there was little of interest to see during the 2.5-hour drive.

We had arranged to stay at the Marathon Motel for two nights, in order to do some birding at a local park called The Post and to unwind before moving on to Big Bend.

The motel was a pleasant surprise. The rooms were comfortable and were set around an attractive adobe courtyard planted with cacti and other native plants.

Our Room

The motel's grounds provided a relaxed introduction to the birds of the area, including Eastern Meadowlarks, House Finches, House Sparrows, Mourning Doves, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Northern Cardinals, Eurasian Collared Doves and even a Red-tailed Hawk.

Red-tailed Hawk

The courtyard was particularly attractive to birds and we spent the rest of the afternoon sitting there watching Brewer's Blackbirds, White-crowned Sparrows, Pyrrhuloxias and Cactus Wrens.

Brewer's Blackbirds

White-crowned Sparrow

Cactus Wren

Our first day ended with a dreadful meal at one of the town's two diners - and a glorious sunset.

Big Bend Trip Day 2: Marathon & The Post

As Deanne isn't a great fan of early morning birding, she missed this beautiful sunrise behind our room.

She also missed a dawn trip to The Post, a local park with a good reputation for attracting birds.

The Post

The park had a nice range of birds, from American Coots and Marsh Wrens to Horned Larks, Swamp Sparrows, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Eastern Meadowlarks.

Eastern Meadowlark

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

On the way back to the motel, I had an excellent view of the first Greater Roadrunner of our trip.

Greater Roadrunner

Once Deanne was up and ready, we set off back to The Post for a couple of hours of birding together. The most abundant birds were White-crowned Sparrows but we also spotted Ladder-backed and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, White-winged Doves, Loggerhead Shrike and American Kestrel. We were both thrilled to see two of our favorite birds, Black Phoebe and Say's Phoebe.

Black Phoebe

Back in Marathon, we had another dreadful meal at the town's second diner and spent the rest of the day relaxing in the motel courtyard. We were surprised to see that the Cactus Wrens were busy collecting nesting material. Presumably either the Wrens nest throughout the year or else the mild weather had persuaded them that spring was already on its way.


Marathon is a tiny town with little to recommend it except the motel, a couple of small art galleries (both closed whenever we looked) and the restaurant in the Gage Hotel. The restaurant had very good food but was pricey: entrees ran $30 to $60!

The only vulture we saw on our trip

The bank in Marathon

The day ended with another spectacular sunset, followed by a star-studded night sky.

Big Bend Trip Day 3: Marathon to Big Bend

On Friday we set off mid-morning and covered the 40 miles to the Big Bend National Park entrance before noon. We were immediately surrounded by beautiful desert scenery and were soon welcomed by a pair of Say's Phoebes, Common Ravens and three Greater Roadrunners.
Say's Phoebe
Common Raven

As we were in no hurry to check in to our hotel, we drove southeast to the Rio Grande Village campground, the prime birding site in the park. On the way, we stopped off for a picnic lunch at Dugout Wells, another well-known birding spot.

It was quiet for birds but we did see Northern Mockingbirds, Pyrrhuloxias, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Spotted Towhee and a Ladder-backed Woodpecker. I also ran into our first Javelinas of the trip.
The view from Dugout Wells

Javelina at Dugout Wells

At Rio Grande Village we were extremely disappointed to find that most of the campground was closed because of recent flooding. So we were not going to be able to explore the birdiest site in the whole park!

Our disappointment was tempered a little by great views of a Vermilion Flycatcher, a bird that we'd only seen once before (at Anahuac NWR) and one of the species that we most wanted to see at Big Bend.

Vermilion Flycatcher

The only other birds that we turned up were Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

The disappointment that we felt at the closure of most of the Rio Grande Village campground vanished as we drove into the Chisos Mountains, where we were to spend the next three nights.


Approaching the Chisos Mountains

Whoever decided where to situate the resort certainly had an eye for locations. The buildings are clustered at about 5,400 feet in a basin surrounded by woods, cliffs and rocky peaks.


At one end of the Basin, a short trail leads to an overlook from where you can see the Window, a gap in the cliffs that lets you look through onto the desert below.


The Window

Through the Window

The Window trail was to provide us with lots of good birding over the next three days. A quick walk along it on this first afternoon yielded views of several birds, including Western Bluebirds, Canyon Towhees and Acorn Woodpeckers.


Acorn Woodpecker

The deck behind our room looked out over a small ravine that was a popular morning and evening route for Javelinas and White-tailed Deer.

From our deck

The first of many deer we were to see in the park


The resort is very well-organized. The hotel rooms are comfortable, the cleaning service is excellent and the main lodge has a good, reasonably-priced restaurant with great views over the Basin. It has a nice gift shop and there is a small store and a visitor center nearby.

We reserved our room in July but you need to book accommodation much further in advance for peak periods, including Christmas and New Year. There are no TVs or phones in the rooms, and there is no cellphone service in the park.

Big Bend Trip Day 4: Chisos Basin

I was up very early to watch dawn over the Window before our main planned activity for the day: the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.


The only birds I saw were Canyon Towhees and Amercan Robins.
Canyon Towhee
However, I did stumble on a family of Javelinas. While the parents were up and having breakfast, the juveniles were just on the point of waking up.

I also startled a young Carmen Mountains White-tailed Deer.

Later in the day, after returning from our drive, I walked the trail again and saw a wider range of birds. Western Bluebirds were everywhere, as were Canyon Towhees, Chipping Sparrows, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Pyrrhuloxias and Dark-eyed Juncos. I had my first-ever views of Clay-colored Sparrow and a Red-naped Sapsucker but unfortunately neither bird was willing to pose for a photo.

Western Bluebird
We spent the evening on our deck watching another spectacular sunset, followed by a night sky lit by the moon and innumerable stars.