Saturday, May 18, 2019

Texas Times: A Warbler Blitz

"If I was going to get started in birding, what is the best way it can interest me?  What is the catch about it?"

A hiker asked us why about our upcoming pursuit when he saw us packing backpacks and many supplies to camp up in the mountains for a night.  Our conversation overshot and carried over to other people and they realized that we were taking a tasking hike with a certain bird in mind.

We all took turns telling him why birding was awesome, and I remember telling him something similar to this:  "What's fun about birding is that it's like a constant treasure hunt.  You can find cool birds, take many trips to different places to see different birds, you develop friendships with people along the way, you learn new things everyday, and at any given time you can find anything that is common to really rare.  I tell people who have an interest in getting started to buy a field guide, look through it, and select a handful of birds that interest you and make it a goal to see some of those standout birds.  After that, the others start to become more interesting too".

Caleb, Josh, David, and I were in the big parking lot at the headquarters of Big Bend National Park.  It was getting close to 6:30 P.M. that evening on April 29th, 2019.  We were about to embark on an adventure up into the Chisos Mountains from the park headquarters, which is a 4.5 mile one way hike.  Camping supplies were being transported with us too, as we were taking a trail to the Boot Spring Trail to eventually camp out at Boot Spring after an arrival well past dusk.  Our beforehand activities were making more people look over other than the first hiker who originally asked us what we were doing.  He might have passed along what we were doing to his group.  Birding must be attention grabbing for some, as more people started asking us questions.  They were a group of hikers and they had a filming crew with them.

I don't remember what David and Josh were doing, but Caleb and I got asked a few questions, and we looked over to see that people had camera gear and while one guy was asking us questions, another one was filming.

He asked, "What is it your looking for and what are you doing to look for it?"   I answered, "We are hiking up for the night, camping, and are hoping to see the Colima Warbler.  It's a pretty small bird, and many birders come up here for it".

He continued to ask, "Why is this bird so special to make birders want to come up here for it?"  Caleb chimed in with an informative answer and said, "Colima Warbler is mainly a Mexican species that barely enters into the United States in this part of the Chiso Mountains in Texas as well as smaller numbers that reach the Davis Mountains.  The Davis Mountains aren't accessible for much of the year, which makes this hike up into Boot Spring the choice for almost everyone seeking this bird.  Birders will do crazy things to see birds with limited ranges, and this hike is a famous one for birders".

Caleb said it all, and I can't remember exactly what else we were asked.  The people who talked to us were very interested in our birding pursuit, and seemed thrilled to have the interest of ours be a part of what they were putting together.  They followed that by taking Caleb and my picture, and asking for our permission and signature to be on the show they were filming.  We were glad to have our pursuit be a part of something, and hopefully they'll end up using our short interviews.  I asked them what show it was they were filming for and they answered, "It's this show called Vice.  And good luck with seeing that bird".

Seeing a group of people who were outsiders to birding take interest in our hobby and see what was interesting about it was awesome.  They were amazed that one bird would bring so many people from afar to one place in hopes of seeing it.  Speaking of that bird, it is indeed called the Colima Warbler, and all four of us were determined to get our chances of enjoying it.  Like Caleb said in front of the guys, the Colima Warbler barely enters into the United States in the two mountain ranges in the southern edge of west Texas, and the Chisos Mountains give 99% of chances as the Davis Mountains are hard to access.  The bird's main habitat lies above 5,000' and consists of oak woodlands, pinyon-juniper and shrubby hillsides, and it may also be found in narrower canyons like the Boot Canyon we would camp out at that has mixes of oak, maple, cypress, and some Douglas fir.  We had a 4.5 mile hike ahead of us to Boot Spring for this bird, a hike that is steep in parts and has a lot of switchbacks as one ascends to the habitat were the warblers are sought out.  This is a famous hike among birders.  It's easy for some, but for most it is a challenging hike.  And most birders will attempt the hike because they want to see a Colima Warbler.  Caleb pointed out that he often hears birders referring to the hike as "The Colima Death March".  I love the assigned name to the hike, and I was pumped that my buddies and I were going to attempt the "Colima Death March".

We bought plenty of food for the hike back in Alpine, Texas, and we finished up packing our needed gear at the headquarters parking lot and started hiking up into the Chisos starting with going on a trail that went through the Chisos Basin.  Between the parking lot and beginning stages of the hike, some of the birds we encountered were Mexican Jay, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Scott's Oriole, and the striking Varied Bunting.  What's interesting about the Mexican Jays is that they are a different subspecies than the ones that are found in Arizona, and they are darker colored and they sound a bit different too.

A loose sleeping bag I was carrying that was tied onto my backpack came loose and it wasn't possible to stay tied.  I didn't mind to carry my sleeping bag up for the entire hike, and David was carrying his the entire way.  Josh had a compact sleeping bag with him, and Caleb had a hammock he was bringing along.  We each had our flashlights and warm gear.  Before the hike and following a Facebook post I made talking about our hike, I had a birder comment about nearly dying of hypothermia back in the day on the same hike due to a huge thunderstorm that unexpectedly came over the mountain.  Thankfully there weren't any threatening clouds over us for such a storm to happen, but we did go prepared.

I've also heard stories of Mountain Lions stalking birders and hikers who venture into the Chisos Mountains during their Colima Warbler pursuits.  By reading the Big Year novel, there is one such example.  I've also talked to a birder who has had a personal encounter with a lion who acted sketchy on the trail.  I saw the hike as a chance to hopefully see the elusive creature for the first time in my life, and I knew that our death march of four would be a little sketchy to a lion.  Big Bend National Park doesn't hesitate to let people know about Mountain Lions and Black Bears as they go up into the wilderness.

Climbing further into the mountains, we hiked trails that went up through the Chisos Basin before we would reach the higher elevations of the Boot Canyon Trail.  The climb was fun but tiring at times, and we would takes breaks along the way.  White-throated Swifts buzzed overhead.  A few Zone-tailed Hawks scoured ridge tops.  Acorn Woodpeckers sat on bare branches in the open.  A "whit" call that was poorly heard was either a Dusky or Gray Flycatcher.  Mexican Jays continued to sound off.  A handful of Black-crested Titmouse seen and heard reminded me of what Josh said earlier in the day in the Davis Mountains, "Tommy, they will be everywhere".  Songs of Canyon Wrens and Scott's Orioles are always welcome tunes to hear when they decide to play.

Black-crested Titmouse
Mexican Jay

The hike would take a little longer than we thought it would.  Stopping and taking breaks was necessary at times, and we constantly talked about birding adventure.  It takes longer to get dark in Texas than it does in Arizona, and it didn't really get dark until after 9 P.M.  Our flashlights came into good use for over a mile before we would reach our camping point at Boot Spring.  The calls of several Mexican Whip-poor-wills starting up as they'd begin their night is one I enjoy listing to as it reminds me of an intriguing peace.  We would tally up to fourteen of the nightjars from the start of the Boot Camp Trail to the .8 mile of where we would camp out at.  Once at the campsite I was about ready for sleep.  Before hanging up our backpacks to be bear proof, we had peanut butter and honey sandwiches for dinner.  Camping is always awesome, and is one of the best ways to enjoy birding.  Caleb and Josh would try owling and scorpion hunting briefly.  They tried to play Flammulated Owl a few times without luck, but as David and I sat back at camp, we thought it was an actual Flam calling.  Not cool, Josh and Caleb.  David and I did try and fool them that we had a Spotted Owl before the Flam calls were discussed, but our joke didn't come close to working.  One owl that did call before we got to sleep was a Western Screech-Owl.  I was tired but anxious about the next day, because I knew we would start looking for Colima Warbler, as well as some other awesome rarities...

The fourth full day of the trip, April 30th, would come in back-and-fourth throughout the early 12 A.M. through 3 A.M. hours of the night.  I was having a hard time falling asleep during the span.  The time was passed by looking up at the stars and moon above, and by listening to several Mexican Whip-poor-wills singing.  It seemed as if they had decided to camp around us themselves, because they wouldn't stop singing from the same close by spots the entire night.  I loved it, and here is a video recording of the serenading song that I took of the Whips singing up in the Chisos Mountains.

I ended up getting some decent sleep before it got light out and birds would start singing.  We birded around the camp spot for a few minutes before hiking down the Boot Spring itself, where most of the interesting birds reports were being seen from.  We heard a few Oreothlypis warblers calling, which could have easily been Colima Warblers as that is the genus they are in, but we weren't able to get any visuals on the calls.

Before our trip, we knew that other than Colima Warblers, Boot Spring was also hosting a territorial Slate-throated Redstart.  It was exciting to have this bird be a possibility on the side of Colima Warbler.  As I have seen this bird in Arizona a few times with more distant views, I was hoping for a closer view in Texas.  A Dusky-capped Flycatcher was also reported near Boot Spring, which is another rarity for Texas.  Once we made our way towards Boot Spring to look for these birds, we could hear the Slate-throated Redstart singing loudly from a distance.  Caleb and I got ahead of Josh and David, and it didn't take long for us to see the Slate-throated Redstart singing near the top of a tall tree.

Slate-throated Redstart

After waiting with some patience, I was hoping the bird would come down and sing a lot lower.  But when a life bird comes into play, I can be very impatient.  As I listened to the Slate-throated Redstart right near me but yet still high up in the trees, Caleb went ahead of me and I followed him a few minutes later.  Once I caught up to him, he told me he heard and saw a Colima Warbler up a short distance that was in a more shrubby setting along with some juniper habitat.  I walked to the spot he had it and could hear the Colima singing.  It wasn't far off of the trail, and after I made a few pishing sounds, the warbler flew in and gave me a few decent views.  The sight of a Colima Warbler in front of me was awesome and quite hard to believe it was happening at first.


Caleb went back to get Josh and David and they walked by the singing Slate-throated Redstart at first because it continued to stay high up in the trees.  We all searched for Colimas were Caleb had found the first.  One bird sang up in the direction from a slope on the opposite side of the trailside slope we were on and this one had to be accessed from a drainage.  It wasn't long before we were bushwhacking up towards it.  The drainage was thick and steep after awhile, and the Colima we pursued gave us a few fleeting glimpses once we caught up to it.  I decided to go back while the others continued on and up the steep drainage.

The tall trees and narrow canyon at Boot Spring was thrilling for me.  I went back towards the Slate-throated Redstart again and not much changed-it was still too high up for the views I wanted.  After walking back up the trail again for a short distance, I encountered my second Colima Warbler of the day.  It wasn't very cooperative for photos, but a close binocular look was awesome.

One of the fun things about the trip was that the four of us would bird as a team much of the time, but at other times, we would go off to ourselves and enjoy what we wanted to enjoy individually.  At this point in the Chisos, I wanted to look for and see Colima Warblers in a much lazier way than the others were willing to do.  I ended up going back to the spot where Caleb originally found the bird singing, and I hiked down the trail further past that point.  Josh and Caleb were along that stretch, and the trail went along what was mostly a dry creek and it had steep slopes on both sides of the trail and creek.  Several Colimas could be heard singing past this point.  Caleb did what Caleb usually does and climbed one of the steep slopes and disappeared for awhile, and Josh and I waited in hopes that the Colima we heard singing nearby would give us some awesome views.  This time around, patience proved to work best and Josh's eagle eye spied the bird eventually perched and out in the open, with a perfect view!

Colima Warblers are similar to Nashville and Virginia's Warblers, but are noticeably larger, have a brownish back and flanks and have have darker orange-ish yellow undertail coverts.  April and May are the best times to look and find this bird when they are singing.  Josh and I were content with our views after this one and we focused on other birds after.

One of the cool things about David is how much he enjoys warblers.  He stayed in the drainage the others climbed up to for a long time, and he eventually filled an entire frame up with a perfectly crisp Colima Warbler photograph.  While Colima was a lifer for all of us, Josh, Caleb, and I had all seen Slate-throated Redstart in Arizona.  This was David's shot at getting it as a life bird, and when he was looking at this Boot Spring Slate-throated Redstart, the bird came in lower for a few brief minutes and David as able to get a great photo of it too.  It made me want to get a better view and photograph.  After climbing up a steep slope to get more level and close to the fir that the Redstart was singing from, I finally managed to get a few shots of this species!

Our scattered group continued to be out and about enjoying what we wanted to enjoy in Boot Spring.  I ran into Caleb as he was birding down in a drainage, and he heard the Dusky-capped Flycatcher calling a few times.  When we all ended up in the same spot again, we listened for the Dusky-capped for awhile without any further luck.  Besides rarities, there were other awesome birds at Boot Spring.  White-throated Swifts were prevalent in places as they resembled torpedoes overhead.  Blue-throated Hummingbirds are rather common in the Chisos, and we encountered five of them.  Dusky and Cordilleran Flycatchers represented the empids in the area.  Mexican Jays and Black-crested Titmice were loud and numerous.  Bewick's Wren was abundant, and a close up Canyon Wren is always a good highlight.  A Painted Redstart was neat to see after seeing the Slate-throated Redstart, and other warblers present included MacGillivray's, Yellow-rumped, Townsend's and Wilson's Warblers.  Hepatic and Western Tanagers were both present, as were plenty of Black-headed Grosbeaks.

Painted Redstart

Black-crested Titmouse

Canyon Wren

Blue-throated Hummingbird

Cordilleran Flycatcher

After spending over four hours of birding at Boot Spring, we had the champion lunch of peanut butter and honey sandwiches before making the hike back down for 4.5 miles towards the Big Bend National Park headquarters.  On the way down we encountered a few more Colima Warblers and awesome views of the cliffs and mountains surrounding the trail.  Our Texas first Golden Eagle made it's appearance on our way down, as did Virginia's and Grace's Warblers.  By the time we reached the parking lot of the headquarters, we were close to dead.  It called for some sitting down and soda before going back on the road again to drive again for hours to bird the Texas Hill Country.

Townsend's Warbler

Black-crested Titmouse

Looking up at the Chisos while drinking before heading out of Big Bend National Park was a reminder of why the passion and hobby of birding is as great as it is.  We successfully completed the "Colima Death March" while going on a warbler blitz in a place none of us have ever been before.  Birding takes us places, there's no doubt about that.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Texas Times: Among The Oaks and Cottonwoods

As night approached on that second day of our trip, April 28th, we had already driven about 900 miles from that Phoenix airport into the westernmost "tip" of Texas.  No words really need to be said to explain the vastness of Texas, but driving through a section of it can seem like forever.  Roads are fun to travel on when birding in new places.  They are the link to success, and no matter how long these roads may be, they are going to inevitably lead to those awesome places.  During longer stretches of driving, I knew that the stops ahead of us were worth every second of the time.  It's also fun to spend time with cool people!

After leaving Reeves County and Balmorhea Lake, we dropped down into Jeff Davis County, which is home to our next stop and pursuit, the Davis Mountains, most of which are privately owned.  The Davis Mountains have amazing potential for birds, and have reminiscent bird life of those in southeastern Arizona's sky island mountain ranges such as the Huachucas and Chiricahuas.  A population of Buff-breasted Flycatchers breed in the Davis Mountains.  Other birds that may be found include Montezuma Quail, Mexican Whip-poor-will, Spotted Owl, and Rivoli's Hummingbird.  Texas specialty wise, Colima Warblers have bred in this range, and have been found hybridizing with Virginia's Warbler.  A chapter of the Nature Conservancy holds a preserve in these Davis Mountains, which would be our shot to search for these mentioned birds among others.  Sadly, the Davis Mountains Nature Conservancy Preserve has a lot of limitations on when it is open, and that didn't fall in line with the April 28th and 29th that we would be visiting.  Caleb and Josh came up with an alternative plan of owling on the 28th, camping out, and then birding in mountainous oak and juniper habitat during the April 29th morning hours.

We stopped at a place called Limpia Creek as we pulled up at our first roadside stop, well after dark.  It was here that we would listen for owls and nightjars.  Things got fun as we heard our first owls for Texas, Elf and Western Screech-Owls.  Fenced off private property made it hard for us to access the habitat to pursue visuals further off of the road, but both species ended up treating us well and came within viewing range.  Two women pulled up, who were also birders from out-of-state, and they enjoyed the owls with us.

Western Screech-Owl

Elf Owl

After owling, the four of us were exhausted and went to camp out under the stars in our sleeping bags.  The crashing location was a place called Lawrence Wood Picnic Area, which would be our birding destination in the morning for the Davis Mountains due to the Nature Conservancy Preserve being closed.  I remember sleeping well throughout the night, and at times another new night bird made it's way onto our Texas lists that is Common and sang out loud "Poor-will.  Poor-will".

After a decent and much needed sleep, I woke up slightly before dawn as April 29th, the third full day of our trip, was upon us.  The Common Poorwill continued to say his peace at times, and a Western Screech-Owl briefly joined in with his.  Once dawn hit, a chorus of many different songbirds was impressive.  Before it was really all that light out, we started birding.  What we were really hoping for was Montezuma Quail, as the habitat was great with oak, juniper, and tall grassy areas on steep surrounding slopes.  Birds who filled up our outing included Wild Turkey, Acorn Woodpecker, Western Wood-Pewee, a handful of Gray Flycatchers, Cassin's Kingbird, Hutton's and Plumbeous Vireos, White-breasted Nuthatch, Canyon, Rock, Bewick's Wrens; Western Bluebird, Cedar Waxwing, Black-chinned Sparrow, Canyon Towhee, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Scott's Oriole, and Hepatic Tanager.

Wild Turkey 

Gray Flycatcher

A few clear whistles echoing loudly from the slopes above us into the flat terrain we were on indicated a new life bird for me as David called out, "Black-crested Titmouse".  I was pumped at the sound of a new life bird and I wanted to see it right away.  Josh chimed in and said, "Tommy, they will be everywhere on this trip.  Everywhere".  I was glad to know that they would be everywhere, but I have a knack for wanting to see a life bird after I hear it.  While I didn't rush running up into any slope after a bird that I knew would be abundant for a good portion of the trip, I did keep my ears out for them if they would come any closer.  It didn't take long for the whistles to start coming from the end of the picnic area, and I made may way over to catch my first glimpse of the Black-crested Titmouse.

The Black-crested Titmouse has a range in North America that covers a lot of Texas and some of Oklahoma.  It is tied to oak woodlands, and it's range continues much further south into similar habitats in Mexico.  This species used to be one species with the widely familiar and eastern-tied Tufted Titmouse.  The two have hybrid contact zones where their ranges meet near the central strip of Texas, but otherwise, their range doesn't overlap. 

Caleb, David, Josh, and I spent close to three hours birding Lawrence Wood Picnic Area, and we had close to fifty species.  It was a fun and productive location to bird.  From there we went down to the southern base of the Davis Mountains, where we stopped at a few places and birded before continuing further south into west Texas.  A rest stop along the Highway 118 that we were on was a good one.  It had tall cottonwood and other riparian trees along a creek.  A Common Black-Hawk flew out of the trees as it gave it's distinctive call.  Working the riparian habitat along the creek gave us migrants of Swainson's Thrush and Northern Waterthrush among 27 species in a quick stop.  

After leaving the area of the Davis Mountains, we started to make our way towards Big Bend National Park, which was a three hour drive.  Big Bend was where we'd bird in several places before hitting up the Chisos Mountains within the park for a long hike to conclude the day.  Along the three hour drive, we passed through this small town called Alpine, which probably wasn't named too well considering there weren't any pine trees in sight.  We got plenty of food and gear we would need for the hike.  After grocery shopping, we encountered Alicia's Mexican Restaurant.  The food there was incredible, and it marked that second day in a row of having a great lunch at a Mexican restaurant.  

Driving through some grassland-ish areas along the way was fun.  Birds we had included Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Cassin's Sparrow, and Lark Bunting.  We had dropped into Brewster County, which is the home of Big Bend National Park.  The aftermath of the lunch meal left us in need of some loud music, and I said, "Caleb, can we listen to Amaranthe?"  Caleb let me bust it out, and while Caleb already likes the music of my favorite band, after playing a 20 song playlist Josh and David told me they enjoyed Amaranthe's music too.  Score.

Lark Buntings

Before we knew it, we entered into Big Bend National Park.  As with most national parks, this one could be driven for long distances.  While the Chiso Mountains were our primary destination for entering this park, there were other places to visit too.  Cottonwood Campground was the first place we visited after driving a considerable distance south within the park.  I reached a point of tiredness and dozed off for a half-hour.  When I woke up again, we were driving into Cottonwood Campground, which I immediately thought was a cool-looking spot.  The campground is well named and is filled with cottonwoods, has grassy under-stories, and the open under-stories below the cottonwoods are lined with thick mesquite and paloverde trees.  Barely south of the campground is the Rio Grande River, and halfway across that river width is the country line of the United States and Mexico.  It was a crazy thing to think about.  But first, we stuck to the campground.

Lucy's Warblers and Painted Buntings filled up the campground sounds with their songs, but the first big highlight came quickly when Josh looked behind us and said, "Guys, I've got a Golden-fronted Woodpecker on that sign".  We turned to look and see the bird Josh called out and it became a lifer for us, my fourth already at the time just in west Texas.  The Golden-fronted Woodpecker didn't stay on the sign long, and flew to nearby trees.  Throughout the time spent at Cottonwood Campground, it was fun to study this species (as there was a pair of them present) and to observe them up close during the time spent.  

Golden-fronted Woodpeckers are very closely related to Gila and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.  The trio sounds similar to one another, and in most respects, they look similar to one another in appearance, size, and structure.  In the United States, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers reside throughout much of Texas and a small portion of southwestern Oklahoma.  They hybridize regularly with Red-bellied Woodpeckers where their range overlaps.  Golden-fronted is obviously the most striking out of the three species mentioned, and it is found mainly in decidious forests but also plenty of drier, mesquite dominated habitats as well.  South of Texas, it's range continues further down into Mexico. 

In close to two hours of birding Cottonwood Campground, other bird highlights we had among 52 species were Greater Roadrunner, Anna's Hummingbird (pretty scarce in Texas), Vermilion Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Bell's Vireo (some of which were definitely from the eastern population), Crissal Thrasher, Clay-colored and Black-throated Sparrows, Green-tailed Towhee, Orchard and Bullock's Orioles, Pyrrhuloxia, and stunning Painted Buntings.  

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Lark Sparrow

Anna's Hummingbird

Summer Tanager

Vermilion Flycatcher 

Painted Bunting

It was also interesting to walk down to the Rio Grande River and look just across the river and into Mexico.  Seven common species filled our Mexico lists while we stood in the United States, including Northern Cardinal and Black and Say's Phoebes.  Caleb tried to chase a Greater Roadrunner into Mexico, but that plan didn't work out.  

As we finished up at Cottonwood Campground after throwing around a football for fun, we would make our way much further into the heart of Big Bend National Park to the headquarters and trailhead that would take us up into the Chiso Mountains.  That will be another story to tell.  What was cool about driving along on our way was a remarkable view point of the Rio Grande River that showed a big "bend" in the river, which is where the park gets it's name from.