Saturday, December 27, 2008

Big Bend Trip Day 4: Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

We spent the morning and early afternoon driving from the Chisos Basin some 50 miles to where the Rio Grande cuts through the Santa Elena Canyon.

Leaving the Chisos

Most of the route is designated the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and it certainly merits the name. The road takes you through beautiful desert terrain covered with cactus, yucca, Century and other plants.
Century Plant
At other points it winds through hills covered with volcanic ash and basalt, and past strangely-shaped rocky outcrops.
A few miles along the drive is the abandoned Sam Nail ranch, an absolute must for birders.
At first sight, the ranch doesn't appear very impressive: a patch of trees and bushes with two windmills,only one of which is still working.
Dee walking down to the ranch
Sam Nail Ranch
However, the working windmill feeds a tiny pool which attracts numerous birds because it is the only open water source for many miles.
The pool

We sat quietly a couple of yards away from the 3' by 4' pool and were enthralled by the constant succession of birds that came to drink or bathe in the water. I don't think I've ever before been able to watch so many birds at such close range.

The most common visitors were White-crowned Sparrows and Hermit Thrushes; the pool sometimes attracted five or six Thrushes at once.
One of many Hermit Thrushes

Other birds that came to drink were Verdin, Pyrrhuloxia, Northern Cardinals and White-winged Doves.
White-winged Dove

Every few minutes Northern Mockingbirds would swoop noisily down to the pool, scattering all the other species.
The trees near the pool had Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Spotted Towheee, Common Raven, Loggerhead Shrike and Ash-throated Flycatcher, while our walk back to the car turned up a Phainopepla and a Greater Roadrunner.
Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Back in the car again, we drove through more spectacular scenery, stopping to buy snacks at a small store.

Outside the store at Castolon

Sections of the road were covered with mud from recent flooding but when we reached the Rio Grande river, we were surprised to find that the water level was comparatively low.

The Rio Grande

We had a snack lunch at the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook, where the Rio Grande has carved a narrow channel through the 1500' high rock escarpment.

On the way back to Chisos, we stopped off at the Cottonwood Campground in the hope of seeing more birds. Unfortunately, as at Rio Grande Village, the campground here was largely closed because of the recent flooding and the only birds we saw were Yelllow-rumped Warblers.

Cottonwood Campground


Birdwoman said...

Your pictures are gorgeous and your descriptions of your trip just make me want to hop on a plane today and head on out there. What a magical place. It makes me happy just to know it exists.

Kyle said...

I've really been enjoying all of your Big Bend posts, Jeff. Looks and sounds like you had a wonderful trip! When my kids get a little older, I'm going to have to pack the whole family up and head out there again.

Thanks for sharing this great vacation with us all!

Isaac said...

Go when it's cooler. I went to the canyon in March and it was already 95. (The basin up higher, though, was a comfortable 75-80.) In July, it was 112. I don't care how dry it is, 112 just plain hurts.

Jeff said...

Hi, Birdwoman
"Magical" is a good word for Big Bend!
We just wish we'd arranged to spend more time there. Next time ...

Jeff said...

Hi, Kyle.
Many people there had children with them, and the kids all seemed to be having a great time. The deer and javelinas were particularly popular.

Jeff said...

Hi, Isaac.
I can imagine it's pretty brutal out there in hot weather. We're thinking of a late spring, though, because of the birds. My wife was raised in Utah and I lived 4 years in Libya, so we're okay with desert heat.