Dear Fiends and Family,
Greetings! We hope that this, our fifth annual Christmas letter, finds you in good spirits (I will grant that it would be difficult for a Christmas letter to be other than annual). We've had a good year, and, as you may have deduced from the address change, our major activity has been having a house built. About the only negative aspect of the year has been the Middle East situation. We have two relatives, Eileen's younger brother Paul, and her sister Kathleen's husband Patrick, who are in Saudi Arabia now; they are always in our thoughts. On the brighter side, my job continues to be very rewarding and challenging. Eileen is substitute-teaching again this year, and is getting more frequent and more enjoyable assignments as her seniority increases.
Last December we took a trip to coastal Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, which is described in an attached article which Eileen wrote for the local birding club newsletter. I got one life bird (Whooping Crane) and one life mammal (Javelina), while Eileen got 30 life birds and broke 500. During January and February, most of our time was spent looking for a house. We soon figured out what we wanted and could "afford" (a moderate-sized ranch) and also found out that we would have to build to get it as the few existing ranches in Rochester are mostly very small. We signed a contract to build at the end of February, and then anxiously awaited completion, scheduled for early July. March and early April were largely devoted to sorting, organizing, and packing much of what we owned. Although our 700 square foot apartment was adequate when we first moved there, we accumulated many things in four years and were badly cramped at the end. We had intended to move out a year and a half ago, but decided to go to Alaska instead.
We did squeeze in a couple of weekend trips for special birds during the winter: Jackdaw in a Pennsylvania prison and Ross' Gull near Baltimore. The Jackdaws were a remnant pair from the invasion about 5 years ago, and took a long, cold, soggy day to see not especially well. We drove 7 hours one Friday evening and another hour in the fog Saturday morning, after a cold few hours of camping, to look for the Ross' Gull. It was uncooperative Saturday, appearing only once, and very briefly. So we drove another 3 hours to my Mom's place in Virginia, visited for a few hours, slept for a few hours, and tried again Sunday morning. This time we got to see the bird extensively and very well.
Over Easter we visited some of my old haunts in Virginia to photograph several wildflowers not found in upstate New York, including Birdsfoot Violet and Fire Pink. We greatly enjoyed leaving Rochester, still quite wintry, to visit the (relatively) warm and flowery Blue Ridge Mountains. Of course we got to visit my Mom again, for a bit more time than on the Ross' Gull trip. In May we visited Pt. Pelee (Lake Erie, near Detroit), which was not nearly as good for migrant birds as last year; and the Bruce Peninsula (splitting Lake Huron from Georgian Bay), where we photographed several new flowers such as Birdseye Primrose and Dwarf Lake Iris (a tiny deep purple iris found only on the shores of Lake Huron).
At the end of May, we took a week and a half trip to Big Bend National Park and several other locations in western Texas; see Eileen's account of this trip, which is included with this letter. Our primary target was Colima Warbler, a bird which, in the U.S., is found only in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend. We were fortunate enought to find 17 Colimas; Eileen located a nest as well. Upon returning, we took another trip to the Bruce Peninsula, and managed to photograph two very rare orchids, Ram's-Head Lady's-Slipper and Calypso. Another weekend we canoed in the Adirondacks and found a Three-toed woodpecker nest and some "albino" Pink Lady's-Slipper orchids.
Our attention then returned to moving, which we did in early July as planned. It took us about two weeks to get settled into our new home, which has 3 bedrooms, 1.5 baths, a family room, contiguous living and dining rooms with a cathedral ceiling, a contiguous dinette/kitchen, and a first floor laundry. The basement is quite large (1660 square feet) and currently is home to a ping-pong table, an exercise bike, and a rudimentary darkroom area. We recently set up the darkroom area, and look forward to using it and improving it in the near future. We've just finished off (drywall and paint) the attached two-car garage, which is a blessing in winter. We have about a third of an acre property, nowhere level, with about twenty 40-foot linden and hickory trees in the back yard. The latter half of July and all of August were devoted to putting in a lawn and landscaping. We're very happy with our new home, and have been enjoing it immensely.
Late in the summer my Dad stopped in on his way from Vermont to West Virginia; it was great to see him. Over Labor Day weekend we went to Algonquin Park in Ontario to try for wolves again. We were not as successful as last year, hearing wolves only once in the far distance. But we did have the usual assortment of red foxes, moose, and beautiful hikes. In September and October we took 6 or 7 weekend trips to the Adirondacks, with highlights being many howling coyote packs, peregrine falcon, and gray jay. The weather was rather uncooperative during the peak of the fall color, but the trips were lots of fun. We photographed two late-blooming and uncommon wildflowers, nodding ladies'-tresses (a delicate orchid) and fringed gentian. The latter took four weekends to photograph as they only open up fully in sunlight and the weather was so poor.
Since October, we've spent a lot of time catching up on things. We visited my Mom and brother Chris for Thanksgiving and spent much of the weekend sorting through and paring down our mineral collections. It was fun looking at a number of specimens that I hadn't seen in 15 years. As Christmas draws near, we are planning a trip to Baja for the holidays, stopping off in El Paso on the way to visit Eileen's folks. This is in consolation for our planned excursion to the Canadian Rockies, Glacier, and Yellowstone last summer; the closing date for the house fell right in the middle of when we planned to be there. We hope to be able to make the trip next summer instead.
We hope that all is well with you and that you'll write us and tell us what you've been up to. Happy holidays!
A Christmas-time Odyssey in Texas
Eileen L. Keelan
This year Brian and I decided to spend Christmas vacation somewhere warm and pleasant, with lots of birds to study and photograph. We chose to explore coastal Texas and the Rio Grande Valley because of the range of habitats represented, and because I had never been there. Brian had visited the valley once, and had seen the southern coast, but nothing farther north than Corpus Cristi. Our two main "target" species were whooping crane and javelina (or collared peccary), a mammal that resembles a wild pig, though they are unrelated.
Day 1: We left Rochester on 23 December with gray skies, snow on the ground, and temperatures close to zero. We arrived in Houston with sunny skies, snow on the ground, and temperatures close to zero! Spirits not dampened, we gathered our luggage, picked up the rental car and headed north for the Big Thicket. A stop at a grocery store along the way yielded the supplies needed for camping, though it was too cold that first night to sleep in a tent. Instead, we stayed at a motel in Woodville after enjoying a delicious meal at El Burrito, a Mexican restaurant in Cleveland, Texas.
Day 2: Too excited by the adventures ahead to eat a real breakfast, we munched doughnuts in the car while heading for the visitor center at Big Thicket. This preserve is a large, wooded area in Southeast Texas about two hours northeast of Houston. It is often referred to as a "biological crossroads" because of the large number of diverse plant communities it comprises. Here are found representatives, both plant and animal, of eastern hardwood forests, southern wetlands, and arid southwestern habitats.
On the road to the visitor center we saw and heard several brown-headed nuthatches, a life bird for me and what turned out to be the first of 30 lifers during this fascinating week (Brian got one - - whooping crane). At the center we talked to the ranger and collected several informative pamphlets and maps, then set off along the Kirby Nature Trail, a 1.7 mile loop through several Big Thicket communities: slope forest (comprised of American beech, magnolia, and loblolly pine); baygall (a very wet area named for sweetbay and gallberry holly); cypress sloughs (with huge, old trees dripping with Spanish moss, and gnarly "knees" rising from the roots); and oak forest (featuring swamp chestnut oak). One interesting plant that grew in patches of damp soil was cane, a relative of bamboo (it has been hypothesized that Bachman's warbler was a cane specialist, analogous to bamboo specialists in Asia). There were many vines, including rattan, a member of the palm family, from which wicker-like furniture can be made.
After this delightful hike, we headed for a different unit of the Big Thicket and walked along the Sundew Trail. This area has, among other plants, carnivorous pitcher plants and sundews, both species different from the ones which may be found locally. The pine forests here contained three species: lobolly, longleaf, and shortleaf; in such habitat, the two other specialties of the region, Bachman's sparrow and red-cockaded woodpecker, may be found.
In the afternoon, we drove to Beaumont, checking briefly for fish crows, at the western edge of their range. The drive through Cameron Parish, Louisiana (a life state) was very enjoyable and yielded good views of many shorebirds, herons, and nutria, an introduced mammal similar to beaver, which is fairly destructive to native habitat.
We returned to Texas in the evening with the intention of camping at Sea Rim State Park, along the Gulf coast. Temperatures were still very low and there was a stiff wind blowing in off the water making it seem even colder. Our camp stove, despite much coaxing and a few threats, refused to work, though it had worked well enough at home to set off the smoke alarm. This exigency required backtracking to Port Arthur and spending another night in a motel.
Day 3: We rose very early and skipped breakfast in order to be at Sabine Pass by dawn. This proved to be an excellent location for photography. We got very good looks at king rail, seaside sparrow, and some mercifully vociferous short-billed dowitchers -- three more lifers.
(Historical Note: During the Civil War, the Confederate Army guarded the upper Texas coast against Union invasion. At Sabine Pass, on 8 September 1863, Lt.Dick Dowling and 46 Confederate soldiers defeated four Union warships and approximately 1200 men. The Dick Dowling Days festival is held each year on Labor Day Weekend to commemorate the battle, which must be one of the all-time great underdog victories in history.)
We returned to Sea Rim for our first view of it in daylight. It is a state park consisting of 15,109 acres of Gulf coast beach and marshland, ten miles west of Sabine Pass. Due to a shortage of time, we only took a quick hike (gallop might be a more appropriate term) along the Gambusia Trail, a 0.7 mile loop. This trail, which takes its name from the mosquito fish genus, is a board walk through a marshy area, from which scads of white-faced ibis, herons and marshland sparrows were visible.
We then headed to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), eating peanut butter sandwiches for lunch en route. Highlights of this foray were two of what must have been the world's largest raccoons, an armadillo, and a most beautiful Krider's red-tailed hawk. The hawk sat on a low tree-branch and then a fence post at close range, allowing us long looks and pleasing photographs.
We drove south to High Island, out the Bolivar Peninsula, took a ferry to Galveston, and got another motel. The weather, though sunny, was still too cold/windy for camping, and our recalcitrant stove was still failing to earn its keep on this purported camping trip. The restaurant we chose for Christmas dinner, one of only two open on the island, could only have been classified as pathetic. Another birder's Christmas (sigh).
Day 4: We were up early to bird Galveston Island. The west end, especially the area designated by local birders as Rail Road, was marvelous for seeing and photographing birds. Tricolored herons flushed from the side of the road every few yards and we obtained good photos of a little blue heron and long-billed curlews. Clapper rail was a life bird for me, and I got to see and photograph several very well. We made a quick stop for gas and a bite to eat. The friendly store owner went out to his car and got a pair of pliers with which Brian finally managed to fix the stove. The temperature was at last beginning to get warm enough to make a styrofoam cooler necessary to keep the drinks and few perishable items cold.
At Indian Beach, just south of Jamaica Beach, we looked for Sprague's pipit without success, although a Sedge Wren made an appearance; this is one of the few native grassland areas remaining on the island. Following Lane's guide, we proceeded towards Freeport, where he said Sprague's pipits could be found on the level slopes. Wondering if Lane did not consider the term "level slopes" to be somewhat contradictory, we arrived at the location and found a sign stating: "Stay on the road. Do not drive on the levee slopes." Aha! It was a typo! That mystery solved, we drove down the dike, checking the levee slopes for the pipits. None were found, leading us to speculate that "Sprague's pipit" had also been a typo. At least there were plenty of mottled ducks.
We drove for the rest of the afternoon and camped that evening at Goose Island State Recreation Area. The habitats of this area include shallow bays, mudflats, marshes, meadows, live oak groves, and dense shrub thickets, making it an excellent area to observe a variety of birds. Our campsite was a beautiful and secluded. We ate dinner to the tune of brown thrashers twanging everywhere, and awoke in our tent during the night to hear a pair of great horned owls duetting.
Day 5: After waking at 0600 and enjoying our usual camping breakfast of oatmeal and hot chocolate, we drove to Tivoli. Careful examination of the far side of a plowed field revealed four greater prairie chickens just where Lane said they should be. We put the scope on them and for several minutes watched them engage in their courtship display.
From Tivoli, our next stop was Aransas NWR. This 54,829 acre refuge is located on the Blackjack Peninsula, named for its blackjack oaks. It is composed of deep sandy soil, covered by grasslands, live oaks, and redbay thickets, surrounded by tidal marshes, and broken by long narrow ponds. Aransas is most famous for containining virtually the entire wintering grounds of the endangered whooping crane. Near the turn of the century, there were only 14 individuals left, but the population in the wild is now over a hundred and there are a similar number in captivity. Although this species has been cross-fostered in sandhill crane nests in Idaho, this project has been discontinued because the birds which have lived to adulthood are not breeding successfully.
From the observation tower along the refuge loop, we were able to see the a family of whooping cranes at great distance. Even in the scope they were rather small but clearly whooping cranes and very beautiful. From here we also saw the first of many fox squirrels. We hiked a number of the trails along the loop road in hopes of seeing javelinas, and were at last successful on the Big Tree Walking Trail. This 1.0 mile loop passes through some gorgeous live oaks, many of which live up to the trail's name. We saw many fox squirrels in the oaks, feral hogs on the beach, and a group of about 15 javelinas at the edge of the woods. Javelinas are not directly related to true pigs, though similar in appearance and habits. They stand up to 22 inches high at the shoulder and weigh up to 65 pounds, have coarse, bristly, black and white hair, and short, straight tusks. We enjoyed seeing this life mammal forage through the woods and hearing their soft grunts as they passed by us.
(Another historical note: The pirate Jean Lafitte is reputed to have disbanded his crew in the area of Aransas and buried "enough treasure in those woods to ransom a nation." We didn't find it.)
Birding and photographing on the east side of the Rockport peninsula in the afternoon was lots of fun. Particularly impressive were a compact raft of nearly a thousand redheads, and a strung-out flock of 125 marbled godwits. On the way back to camp we visited the champion (world's largest) Virginia Live Oak, on Goose Island. The tree is spectacular with huge, spreading branches; it is over 1000 years old and surrounded by many of its offspring, which are good-sized trees themselves. Back at the camp, a barred owl hooted as we bedded down for the night.
Day 6: We slept a bit later than usual today, ate our customary breakfast, and broke camp. Our morning's activity was taking a 4-hour tour of the inland waterway on a boat called the "Wharf Cat", the objective being closer views of whooping cranes. We were fortunate enough to see about 20 of the cranes in family groups that included the adult pair and one young bird. Each family defends a large feeding area from other crane families, and the young never stray far from the adults. The boat trip also yielded excellent views of two white-tailed hawks, both vultures, both pelicans, and roseate spoonbills.
After getting off the boat, we drove directly to Mustang Island with a brief stop for lunch and to mail off rolls of film to be developed. Notable encounters on the island were a black-bellied whistling duck (rare in winter) in a pond by the side of the road, and a lesser black-backed gull on the beach. Padre Island was lovely at sunset with its beautiful dunes. After dark, a three hour drive brought us to far southern Texas; our supper at a Bonanza restaurant in Kingsville was excellent. Accomodations were at a dubious motel in Harlingen, as there were no nearby camping areas.
Day 7: We headed for Laguna Atascosa first thing this morning. At the visitor center, I got to see another life bird, golden-fronted woodpecker; she was only the first of many that day. There was an impressive concentration of nearly 50 mockingbirds in one small group of trees at the start of the Paisano Trail. We hiked this flat, pleasant path, which passes through mesquite and several Mexican species of trees, and saw chachalacas and both long-billed and curve-billed thrashers. There were olive sparrows and green jays calling but they did not afford good looks.
Driving along the Bayside Tour, we caught sight of a white phase reddish egret dancing and canopy-feeding along the water's edge. Brian stalked it for nearly half a mile to obtain photos, at times having to jog to keep up with it! A bird that was nearly dismissed as a female cardinal, upon closer inspection proved to be a pyrrhuloxia.
From Laguna Atascosa we drove to the dump at Brownsville to look for Chihuahan ravens and Mexican crows. The ravens were easily picked out from among the crowds of laughing gulls, and an obliging breeze ruffled their feathers so that the distinguishing white on their necks showed. Finding the Mexican crows took a little longer, and involved dodging bulldozers in the busy dump.
We then proceeded to Sabal Palm Sanctuary to look for the golden-crowned warbler, a rare Mexican vagrant. Though it had been seen and heard only 15 minutes before our arrival. it had departed into the thick underbrush, and nobody could relocate it. However, we did get to observe a buff-bellied hummingbird (rare in winter) for several minutes; this was my 500th life bird! (It had been #600 for Brian four years ago.) Immediately afterward a group of green jays passed though -- what an outrageous plumage!
We arrived at Santa Ana NWR at dusk and took a quick hike around boardwalk A, admiring the very impressive oak trees and their trailing fringes of Spanish moss. Our campsite was at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, a beautiful area noted for its pauraques. Like Santa Ana, the plant and animal communities here represent a northern extension of the Mexican sub-tropical biota. The weather was beautiful, and a good night's sleep followed.
Day 8: We were up at 0600 and ate breakfast in the car on the way back to Santa Ana. This refuge was established in 1943 to protect and preserve a 2,080 acre remnant of a rapidly vanishing native riparian woodland. We spent the morning hiking here, covering about six miles. We photographed white-tipped doves, fox squirrels, green jays, chachalacas and tufted titmouse (black-crested morph) at Photo Blind B. Great kiskadees were evrywhere, calling stridently. At Photo Blind A, we were pleased to see a green kingfisher and two least grebes. Cattail Lake harbored two stunning Altamira Orioles.
We left Santa Ana at about 1:15 pm and drove to the Santa Margarita Ranch, again eating peanut butter sandwiches in the car. At the ranch brown jays called raucously and two javelinas ran across the road.
After quickly checking Salineno and Chapena, we hiked the entire area below the Falcon Dam spillway. A ferruginous pygmy-owl had been located by some other birders and they kept an eye on the bird until we could see it too, which was much appreciated. Later, I then found a black-headed oriole at the exact same spot where Brian had found a nest several years ago! And finally, after hearing but only glimpsing olive sparrows almost everywhere since Laguna Atascosa, one hopped out of the brush and foraged for a minute right in the path ahead of us! On the way back, Brian heard the rattle of a ringed kingfisher along the river and caught a quick glimpse of it, as well as a peregrine falcon. We took the wrong fork of the road on our way out, which added to the length of our hike, but were rewarded by our only good views of common pauraques.
We were pretty tired after 10 miles of hiking, and it was still two hours back to camp. Pizza in Rio Grande City on the way was a help, but it still felt great to crawl into our sleeping bags.
Day 9: We were up at 0600 and began breaking camp. A ringed kingfisher rattle prompted a mad dash to the river, which paid off nicely, with great looks in both binoculars and the telescope. We finished the packing and started the long drive back toward Houston, stopping at the Sabal Palm sanctuary to miss the golden-crowned warbler again. It was scared back into the underbrush by thoughtless birders, who illegally left the trails and trampled the native vegetation, which was already stressed by the frosts. In the afternoon we saw another white-tailed hawk and two Harris's hawks south of Kingsville; a quick drive through the King Ranch yielded several curved-billed thrashers, flocks of lark buntings, and many deer. We spent that night in Victoria and had another delicious Mexican meal, this time at a place called the Siesta Restaurant.
Day 10: We arrived back in Houston this morning, driving past a field containing 10,000 snow geese! Perusal with the scope revealed that about 10% of them were blue geese and there were also about 100 white-fronted geese (the orange-billed Canadian subspecies, as expected). So this was where all the geese were!
Once safely at the airport and waiting to board the plane, we decided that the most difficult thing to locate on this entire birding trip was the place to return the rental car. We imagined what it would be like to spend the rest of our lives circling Houston in a rented vehicle. Even the golden-crowned warbler wasn't as bad -- at least we had some idea where it was!
The flight to Rochester was uneventful except for one thing. When picking up our things at the baggage claim area, we discovered that one piece of luggage had been damaged and our little camp stove -- the one that had caused us so much trouble earlier in the trip by refusing to work, the one that we had to borrow tools for several times to try to fix, the one that forced us to face the prospect of cold camping and cold meals, the very one that we began asking each other why we'd ever bothered to haul along with us in the first place, but the one that finally was fixed and worked for the rest of the trip -- was gone. We hope it ended up someplace warm.
Travels in the Trans-Pecos
Eileen L. Keelan
When Brian and I decided that a summer trip was in order, we planned it with several objectives in mind: we wanted to be able to include our families on a trip all of us would enjoy; we hoped for good weather; and it would be nice if we could add a new bird or two. To meet those ends, we decided to visit Big Bend National Park in Texas. Brian's mom, who is a geologist by training, and who lives in Virginia, was thrilled at the prospect of studying the park's geology. I had visited the park previously with my mom and dad, who live in Texas, and all three of us looked forward to returning. Brian is always happy to explore a new area. And we had the highly probable chance of finding Colima warblers, a new bird for all of us and a "park specialty". In fact, the Chisos Mountains, the only mountain range located entirely within a national park, is also the only location in the United States where this Mexican warbler can be found.
Day One: On Friday, 25 May 1990, Brian and I finished the last minute packing for our long-awaited trip to Texas. After a quick lunch of pizza, our friend and neighbor, Sharon, drove us to the airport. We managed to wrestle our luggage up to the ticket counter and check in, then work our through the construction to our gate. Though our final destination was El Paso, we did not have the most direct route: first, we flew southeast to Newark, New Jersey, then west to Denver. Here, we joined Brian's mom, Mary, who had flown in from Washington, D.C., and continued on to El Paso together.
We had been planning this trip since January. The only part of the plans that we hadn't shared with Brian's mom was that we would meet her in Denver. As far as she knew, we would all meet in El Paso., We kept this little secret for five months and looked forward to surprising Mary in Denver. Unfortunately, Mary arrived at the gate first and when she checked in, the ticket agent said, "Keelan, party of three." "No," Mary said, "I'm traveling alone." "No, you're not," the agent replied. "Yes, I am!" said Brian's mom. "Well, you'll be sitting with two other people who have the same name as you." By this time, both of them were beginning to catch on and when we trotted up Brian's mother looked pleased but hardly surprised. We did have a nice flight to El Paso, enjoying the sun setting in the mountains as we descended.
We were met at the ariport by my folks and my nephew Corey and the six of us went to a Mexican restaurant for a delicious late supper.
Day Two: We were up early and enjoyed a breakfast of orange juice and homemade sweet rolls, then packed the station wagon for our five-day trip to Big Bend National Park. The park is located about five hours drive southeast of El Paso, where the Rio Grande makes the big bend to the north that gives the park its name. We (Brian's mom, my mom and dad, Brian, and me) headed out on Interstate 10 through the Davis Mountains, south to Alpine and Marathon. Because we were enjoying the scenery and birds, we took our time driving, stopping several times to look at Cassin's sparrows and kingbirds, curve billed thrashers and lark sparrows. At one stop we put a beautiful Swainson's hawk in the telescope and had a flock of scaled quail at another.
One stop was unplanned and caused by a flat tire. When we got out to look at it we discovered a three-inch length of thorny branch stuck in it; Texas is probably the only place where you can run over a plant and puncture your tire.
While waiting for the tire to be repaired, in the town of Fort Davis, Brian and I went for a walk. The late May weather was hot and dry, a welcome change from the damp spring in Rochester, though it meant that very little exertion brought on a big thirst. (The fellow at the garage asked where we were from and when we told him El Paso, he said, "Whew! It sure is hot there!") We enjoyed a Say's phoebe and a yellow-billed cuckoo that seemed out of place. We were also treated to the unusual phenomenon of a faint but complete circular 'rainbow' around the sun.
Tire repaired and lunch eaten we continued on our way. Quite a few cacti, specifically cholla, were in bloom, providing a colorful contrast with the desert floor.
We drove through the town of Marathon and headed south to the Persimmon Gap entrance to the park. While we were enjoying the scenery all along the way, we had to agree that our first view of Green Gulch on our way into the Chisos Basin, was in a class by itself. The sun was beginning to set and the mountains were silhouetted against the darkening sky, and tinged with red around their edges. We couldn't resist the impulse to take several photographs.
It was nearly nine pm by the time we reached the lodge. We pulled into the parking lot tired and hungry only to discover that we were too late for dinner and almost too late to check in! The lobby, we discovered, closed for the night at nine c'clock. Keys were obtained, however, and the moms and dad retired to their rooms while Brian and I borrowed the car for a mammal run. We drove the length of the road to Rio Grande Village and were rewarded with sightings of muledeer, and jackrabbits. On our way back to the lodge, we drove therough the Chisos Basin campground and saw three javelinas by the side of the road. This hour-long jaunt at the end of a very full day finished us off and we were only too happy to fall into bed.
Day Three: We woke early to the sound of barnswallows flitting around outside our doors and to the sight of Casa Grande, a majestic rock formation rising up from the basin, directly behing the lodge.
After breakfast in the lodge restaurant, we piled into the car and headed for Santa Elena Canyon, via Castolon. Our first stop was at the old Sam Nail ranch. In 1916, Sam and his younger brother, Jim, built an adobe house here, dug a well, and put in a garden. They lived here until 1918 when Sam got married. Today, most of the house and garden have been reclaimed by vegetation, but the water provided by the well they dug still supports some of the exotic trees attracted to it when Sam still lived there. The ranch is reached by a short path from the main road and there we enjoyed a welcome bit of shade and a summer tanager, yellow breasted chat, and Bell's vireo. Our next stop was at Cerro Castellan, where we photographed and explored a peak that was once an active volcano. The road passes just north of the peak and we had only to get out of the car to find ourselves in the middle of a bed of tuff -- volcanic ash compacted into rock. We continuted toward Castolon, stopping to bird along the river, and were excited to hear a painted bunting in the dense bushes. It took us quite a while to locate it and Brian was the only one to see it really well, but we all enjoyed the view we had -- a painted bunting is a very exciting bird!
By the time we reached Castolon, our next stop, we were more than ready for cold drinks. We stocked up on them there in the little store that still has the feel of an old frontier trading post about it. But it wasn't long before we were back on the road and headed for Santa Elena Canyon with a stop first at Cottonwood Campground which yielded long views of vermilion flycatchers (wow!) and hooded orioles.
We had already seen the canyon once that day, a distant view from Sotol Vista. Although this point on the Castolon Road is fourteen airline miles away from it , there is no mistaking the distinctive "hole" it cuts into the mountains. Our next view of it was from the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook and it is an awesome view. The walls reach 1500 feet above the floor of the desert. There is a nature trail which takes you to the interior of the canyon but it was closed when we were there due to a washout.
We returned to the lodge by way of Maverick Road -- "road" being a term used very loosely to describe what we drove over -- with a brief stop at Study Butte just outside the park for cold drinks and a browse through the rock shop. Dinner and bed were both very welcome at the end of another long day.
Day Four: Another barn swallow wake-up call heralded the day. After breakfast, we pointed the car in the direction of Rio Grande Village -- a campground, gas station, and small camp store -- where we parked and got out to hike the Nature Trail. It was in the village that we got our first views of roadrunners but once we spotted one we kept seeing them everywhere -- under the car, trotting out of the bushes...
The temperature was 108 at this lower elevation and the air was very humid so close to the river. Brian noted a hawk soaring overhead that looked remarkabley like a gray hawk. After consulting the geographic guide he was pleased to realize it was a gray hawk, a bird he had only seen twice before. We also saw a superb painted bunting, that posed very cooperatively on the top of a mesqite bush several times. One interesting aspect of the trail were the grinding stones -- holes pounded into the rocks by the Native Americans who once lived here and used for grinding meal. There were numerous holes along the trail, several inches deep, of varying diameters and quite smooth. Further along we stopped to look at a horned lizard basking in the sun.
From Rio Grande Village we drove to the Boquillas Canyon Overlook. No one was there except a man selling minerals. The sun was blazing and the river meandered slowly across the desert. It was hard to believe that that lazy-looking river was responsible for carving out the mangificent Boquillas Canyon.
After leaving here, we tried driving south on Glenn Spring Road, but it proved to be too rough and we did not get very far. So we returned to the main road and drove on to Dugout Wells, now a picnic site but once known as the "cultural center of the Chisos" because one of the few schoolhouses in the Big Bend country in the early part of the century was located there. It is called dugout because the first home built there was a dugout shelter. We hiked the self-guiding nature trail and grouped everyone together for a photograph before moving on.
Nest we visited Painted Gap, where we photographed a beautiful hedgehog cactus in full bloom, its brilliant magenta flowers a contrast to the surrounding vegetation; Croton Springs; and Government Springs, the latter recommended in the guide book as a likely place to view wildlife. The spring was nearly dry though and we saw no mammals. We did get to see, with a bit of work, a varied bunting, doing its best to remain out of sight in the leafy branches.
We returned to the lodge through Green Gulch, always a pleasure to see again, and enjoyed dinner at the restaurant, then fell into bed, intent on a good night's sleep; tomorrow, Brian and I planned to hike to Boot Springs.
Day Five: For a change, we woke up before the swallows. Brian and I ate a breakfast of leftovers and filled our daypack with bottles of gatorade and water, and a lunch to eat along the way. We set out from the lodge shortly after four am, about two hours before dawn. We had two reasons for this early start. One reason was that we had calculated that the hike would take us approximately nine - ten hours. Since one purpose of the trip was to spend time with our families, we wanted to return as early in the afternoon as we could. (Our folks would not be going the Boot Springs with us. Instead, they would sleep a little later, have a more leisurely breakfast, and hike the Lost Mine Trail, which runs along the slope below Casa Grande and affords one of the best views in the park.) The other reason was that we hoped to get through as much of the uphill portion of the hike as we could before the sun came up and made it more difficult.
After a slight difficulty in finding the trail head in the dark, we were under way, along the Laguna Meadow Trail, which the guide book describes as a "strenuous day hike." We reached the meadow by dawn, without any problems, and were greeted by rufous-crowned sparrows and black-chinned sparrows, whose bouncing-ball song is one of the most delightful of all the songbirds. From the meadow, an ancient marshy area that used to be a camping area for Indians, we took the Colima cutoff to Boot Spring and it wasn't long before Brian heard the first Colima warbler. By the time we were through we had heard seventeen of the warblers and had had very good looks at several of them. We even saw a nest and the resident warbler disappear inside it. We rested for a few minutes at the spring and enticed a tufted titmouse, black-crested morph, to land on my hand with a few cookie crumbs. He returned several times, though he was too shy to take any crumbs. We also enjoyed the antics of a rock squirrel and listened to the drumming of an acorn woodpecker -- not that we had much choice; he chose the metal side of the ranger cabin to pound on!
We hiked on past the springs in order to enjoy the view of Arizona cypress and Douglas fir. In the tops of these we could hear several Cordilleran flycatchers and though we kept trying we never got to see one. However, we had ample opportunity to learn that call!
We did not retrace our steps on the way back down but instead took the Pinnacles Trail, also described in the guide book as a "strenuous day hike". It is slightly shorter than the Laguna Meadow Trail but is also steeper which is why we chose to take it on the way back instead of climbing up it. By now the sun was high and there was little shade but the views were beautiful. And though there were fewer birds on the return trip we did see many white-throated swifts swooping around near the cliffs.
We reached the lodge around two in the afternoon, hungry and a bit foot-sore. The trails we had hiked we were wide, clearly marked, and very pleasant, but they were also hard-packed and, in some cases, rocky. Since our total distance for the hike was about 11 miles, were we glad to sit down and enjoy some lunch.
At about this time, we discovered we were having some troubles with the car battery and rather than risk getting stranded in the desert decided to take it to the garage at Study Butte and see if they could help. They recommended we take it to Terlingua and though they could do nothing for it either, we did enjoy our trip to the town. From 1900 to 1940, about thirty mines in the district produced more than one hundred thousand flasks of quicksilver. The mines closed after World War II and today Terlingua is a ghost town.
As we drove back through Green Gulch on our return to the lodge, we stopped at the one agave that was in bloom on the theory that it ought to attract hummingbirds, none of which we had seen yet. We parked on the side of the road, got out and grouped expectantly in front of the agave -- and sure enough, the hummingbirds started flocking in! First to arrive was a Lucifer hummingbird and we had barely recovered from that excitement before it was joined by another. And another! We passed around the binoculars and set up the telescope on it, looked it up in the Geographic guide, and congratulated each other (it was new for all of us except Brian who had seen a female in Arizona) and in the midst of all this activity in flew a black-chinned hummingbird. We certainly enjoyed the excellent opportunity we had to observe the little birds feeding; when we finally left, after nearly an hour of watching, the birds were still flitting around the agave.
Day Six: Today was to be our last day in Big Bend and we began it with a hike on the Window Trail. It is described as being of "medium difficulty, 5.2 miles round trip." We started early and had lovely views of the mountains and of the "window" itself in the morning light. Along the trail we saw a small herd of javelinas grunting softly and nosing through the brush. We also heard more black-chinned sparrows and saw a blue grosbeak at just the right angle for the light to show off the bright blue color. In the interest of time, we did not take the entire loop but returned to the lodge via a cutoff through the campground. We packed the car and headed back to El Paso, driving through Study Butte, then Alpine, and the Davis Mountains, making as few stops as possible so as to reduce the strain on the car battery when restarting. The first thing we did in El Paso was go directly to the dealership for a new battery. Then it was home to freshen up and to collect my sister Kathleen and her son, Corey, so we could all go out to dinner together. These additional passengers gave us a new basis for comparison: looking back, the car didn't seem to have been quite so crowded in Big Bend as it was now! At least we weren't going nearly as far. The meal we enjoyed at Forti's Mexican Reatuarant was a fitting end to a very happy day.
Day Seven: We woke this morning to the sound, not of barn swallows, but of white-winged doves cooing in the back yard. Brian's mom returned to Charlottesville today. Brian and I spent the morning relaxing and then joined Kathleen for lunch at Leo's Mexican Restaurant. She returned to work and we went back home for a swim in the pool and to photograph the white-winged and Inca doves in the backyard. It was a pleasant, calm day , topped off by the arrival of Kathleen's fiance, Patrick, from Nurnburg, Germany where he was stationed with the Second Armored Cavalry.
Day Eight: The day begain with another trip to the airport, this time to take Mom and Dad there for their flight to California where they would meet my brother Paul. He too was flying into California only his flight originated in Korea. He had just completed a tour of duty there with the 501st Aviation Regiment and was looking forward to a few days relaxation in California before going on to his new assignment at Fort Bliss, with the Third Armored Cavalry.
After seeing Mom and Dad off, Brian and I drove to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico about 4 hours' drive from El Paso. This refuge is well-known for its wintering sanhill cranes and geese, as well as the whooping cranes from the Gray's Lake population. We had the loop drive virtually to ourselves. Unfortunately, there weren't many birds there either! We did enjoy the drive however, and did see large flocks of olivaceous cormorants, which was a new bird for me.
We arrived home just in time to get cleaned up and go out to dinner. We were looking forward to a meal at Rubio's, a Mexican restaurant which Brian has heard a lot about from me. With the help of a map and Patrick's directions, we got only slightly lost. The food, as promised, was delicious, and the service, as always, was excellent. From Rubio's we went to Fort Bliss, to see Kathleen in a performance of South Pacific, in the theatre there. We joined Patrick when we arrived and then ran into my brother Robert and his wife Mahrla. Rob was the lighting director for the play and also had a small speaking part. Both he and Kathleen were superb! After the play, Robert, Mahrla, Brian and I stopped to have a cup of coffee or glass of lemonade and chat. It was good to see them, especially as we didn't have much chance to visit on this trip.
Day Nine: Brian and I had hoped to interest Kathleen and Patrick in joining us on our day-trip to the Guadalupe Mountains today, but Kathleen had another performance of South Pacific that night and was afraid she might not make it back in time.
So the two of us headed out for Guadalupe Mountains National Park about two hours east of El Paso. Our first view of the mountains was of El Capitan; this peak is said to be the most photographed spot in Texas! We did our best to make this statement true, than continued on to McKittrick Canyon. Since we only had a day to spend in the park, we had chosen this canyon because it is the most accessable one with good habitat. By the way, the Guadalupe Mountains are of the same formation as Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, a drive of about an hour or so away.
We arrived just as a park ranger was about to start off on a scheduled guided walk and we decided to join him. There were only two or three other hikers in the group which made it an ideal size. The ranger was very knowledgeable about the plants, animals, and birds of the park and quite friendly so we enjoyed the hike immensely. There were plumbeous solitary vireos on nests everywhere, and we heard many singing Grace's warblers, though we never saw one. We continued along the trail even after the guided portion ended, until we arrived at the area called "the grotto." Here, we saw Venus maidenhair fern, which is very rare in the East, and Chapline's columbine, a beautiful yellow flower with very long spurs, which is found nowhere except in the Guadalupes. We spent a while here, photographing the plants and getting good looks at a blue-throated humminigbird. We also got to see well a Cordilleran flycatcher, at last.
Our only problem on this trip was that we had forgotton to bring sunscreen, a mistake of potentially disastrous consequences. At least we had remembered to dress properly for the sun and so the burn was limited.
We arrived home in the early evening and began to pack for our flight back to Rochester tomorrow.
Day Ten: Today was our last morning of waking up to white-winged doves. We finished the packing, loaded the car and set out for the airport. We stopped first, however, at Rubio's for a "farewell breakfast": Robert, Kathleen, Patrick, Brian, and me. It was delicious, as usual; Rubio's, I am convinced, makes the finest French toast in the country.
Once at our departure gate, it was time to really say good-bye, which is never easy. Our flight to Rochester was uneventful and it wasn't long before we were back to our routine. But we have the photographs and memories of a wonderful trip to look back on and we look forward to more such trips in the future.