Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Tricky Dick and the Big Bend

Many people remember what they were doing when JFK was shot, others remember where they were when they learned Elvis or Lennon died, and some, yes, some, even remember the day the music died.  I remember exactly where I was on April 22, 1994.  I was driving into the McDonald Observatory in Ft. Davis, Texas, and I saw a person lowering the US Flag to half-staff.
“What happened?” I asked out the window..
“Nixon just died.”  The person said.  “Tricky Dick Nixon is dead.”
Was I some huge fan of President Nixon?  Did I think he had been pushed out of office unfairly? Did I admire the man?  The answers…no, no, and NO.  Then why does that day linger in my brain like the aftertaste from a bad burrito I ate that evening in Pecos, Texas?
The day before, April 21, 1994, I completed my first real bird chase, nabbing a Colima warbler on top of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park, when my wife asked me when I was taking a break that if that bird I was looking for had yellow under it’s tail and a brown cap.  "There it is!" She said proudly. It was perched near my backpack. 
That began an odd love affair I have with west Texas and Big Bend National Park.  So much so that when I was last here in 2016, I vowed that I would walk up Pinnacles Trail every so often as a family hike and if I can’t make it, I going into assisted living and giving up birding.  Those are strong words and my wife just looks at me like I’m odd when I repeat them.  

Considering I've had a rather bad year in terms of an injured rotator cuff, a bum ankle, and generally feeling old, slow, and out of shape, and highlighted with the mortality of life that crept into my thoughts with my grandmother’s death, I needed some mental reassurance and as such….unlike the last three Easter trips that all went to Colorado, this year, we were off to the Big Bend of the Rio Grande River in Texas to renew and recharge my spirit.  I got prepared for west Texas by watching my two favorite west Texas movies, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, and Tin Cup—not classics of the cinema just favorites.
We flew in Good Friday and spent the first night in Texas at a very quirky bed and breakfast in Marathon called Eve’s Garden.  The place is comfortable, colorful, fragrant (the rooms basically open up into a greenhouse of flowers), and it has the best breakfast of any B&B I’ve ever stayed at.  I stayed here in 2013 with a fellow birder named Jim Brown “Arvid” when we sort of blew in and out on our way to get 3 days of birding done for that project.  This time it seems even more colorful.  

There were a few hummers at the Public Library a block away, mostly black-chinned, 

and we found numerous Vermilion flycatchers down at the Post Park south of town.

I call my church the church of St. Ocotillo, the tenets created by “Arvid” and me back that same year, 2013.  Our sacred plant, and using some tenets of the Aztec religion deifying hummingbirds and the sun, when I heard Lucifer Hummingbirds were being seen nearby, and Lucifer meaning of the Latin as “light bringing” therefore, this would be the holiest of hummingbirds in association with the sun god. 

Carolyn Ohl-Johnson lives in a forlorn corner of the Christmas Mountains way northwest of the park.  She has created an oasis out of the creosote, rocks, and sand of the property she had purchased years ago and has become THE place to go to find Lucifer hummingbirds in Texas.  

Back during my big year, a pretty male showed up to Ash Canyon in Arizona, so I never had to come here to look.  This year, she has been reporting a few of the sacred birds.  I had tried to find the place without specific directions when we drove down from Marathon, I got lost and all we found was a white donkey, that our rental pick-up wasn’t 4x4, and that they shoot people trespassing on the Terlingua Ranch property.  I emailed her for an official invite and directions.

That next morning now armed with a map, but less one of my birding partners, my daughter, who decided to sleep in, we made the trek to her Christmas Mountain Oasis.  It is a cool project she has accomplished.  Three Lucifer hummingbirds waited for us perched at first light before feeding, mating, and then dispersing off to the blooming sacred ocotillo to hang for the rest of the day.  By 8am, it was all over but my wife and I had seen the stunning hummer.  



I could say it was like a religious experience but alas…that would be pushing it. 

We spent the rest of the morning hiking up the Lost Mine Trail, which doesn’t go to a mine, (as in it is lost, I suppose) and we left a little late due to the hummer side trip, and it got really hot descending back to the truck.  In the trips here previously, I had never been up this trail.  Another stunning view from the top, one picture even had me in it.

That evening after 5 miles on foot, we drove down to the Rio Grande to see how hot it was down there.  It was just 97 degrees, I’ve seen it over 110 in April.  We had a group of Chinese students take our photo in front of St Elena Canyon showing what the only wall on the Mexican border should look like (Mexico is the wall on the left).  

I photographed a roadrunner, then ocotillo, then a roadrunner in an ocotillo, and then my lady hiking companions by ocotillo,

 I did see a blue-throated hummingbird feeding in ocotillo but it was too quick for me to get my camera up and then we went back to Study Butte to La Kiva to eat Easter dinner.  We were hot and tired, this restaurant was a great find, as like the hotels down here, the food previously was the worst part of traveling down here.

On Monday, the assault up the dreaded Pinnacles Trail, began at 0515, after arising at 0400, a full two hours before first light.  Some people call me crazy for going up this trail with headlamps and spot lights but as it was 55 degrees when we left and two hours after sunrise would break 80 on its way to 90 degrees, it makes for a much more comfortable hike.  The darkness also, in my opinion, makes it less daunting as until you get to the “saddle” ¾ up, you don’t know where you are.

There is always something new that happens to me on a repeat trip.  This year, it was many Mexican whippoorwills that serenaded us from about 0615 to 7am.  I had never heard or seen them before up here.  I don’t know why, either.  This was my forth nighttime assault on this mountain.  This year as I was trying to see them with my light we traversed a dozen switchbacks without realizing we were doing it.  It was like the birding Gods, namely the Aztec Lucifer God was helping us out.  We even got buzzed by one while resting at the saddle eating breakfast on the trail. 

We reached prime Colima warbler habitat right when it became prime warbler activity time.  This range is the only place to ever see this bird in North America and I am 3/3, but I had never photographed one.  I lugged up my big 500mm lens just to get one.  I knew it was very early for them, April 2nd is about a couple days after the early edge of their arrival, but the trip was set by my daughter’s Easter break so it was the best I could do.  Besides, the hike up the mountain was more for the hike than the bird.  No Colima’s were calling from the down hill side of the gap, I’d seen them here on two years, but not this time.  We made it to the top, so no assisted living for me…this year!

We hiked around the rim for a while, finally on an overlook of the next canyon south, a Colima started to call angrily at me and we saw it flit from the bushes going up the valley, and then it got mixed up with a feeding flock of black crested titmouse (titmice?) and gnatcatchers going down across the trail into the trees of the valley and we lost track of it without a photograph.  It continues to be my photographic nemesis bird, I’m 0 for 4 now in that, but at least we saw one.  A Titmouse, at least, posed for me. 

Bird seen, my hiking buddies were limping and looking like they had experienced enough of the Pinnacles trail and warbler finding, they were sucking down our rations of water like they were a part of the desert, so we headed down, finishing our 9 miles of fun just after noon and with the outside temperature now reaching 88 degrees.  

There were other good birds seen, a zone-tailed hawk riding the thermal just above my head just below the wall calling was the highlight.  This one looked so much like a vulture that without seeing its yellow feet, I might have not gave it a second look (although the call was quite unmistakable).   A playful squadron of white-collared swifts buzzing us at the top was also fun. The best birds were definitely the whippoorwills, a Texas first for me, and of course just making it up filled me with confidence, a burst of energy, and a resolve to fight on for a few years more until I can convince someone else stupid enough to come back down here with me to attempt this hike again.

ash throated flycatcher

cactus wren

cool cactus flowers

Ladderbacked woodpecker

Mexican jay

Spotted towhee

white-collared swifts

After a siesta, we celebrated our success at the Starlight Theater at the Terlingua Ghost Town just west of the park.  It is an old theater.  The music was true Texas...

They say it is ALSO the birthplace of the “Chili Cookoff.”  

I don’t know about that but it is the most populated ghost town I’ve ever been to.  The nearby church has been invaded by cave swallows and this place, including the store next door, has been taken over by the kitsch and slightly crazy.  I ate quail as somehow, eating a quail, seemed right and good for a change in west Texas.  

scaled quail trying to be supper

Some drunk guy at the bar tried to tell me “Tejas” meant “friend” in Navajo and I just smiled and nodded as I wasn’t sure why the Texans would use a Navajo word to name Texas instead of a Spanish word but My Big Bend Brewery “Tejas” beer was the best beer I’d drank on the whole trip.

My wife bought us a baby ocotillo plant to bring home.  My daughter named it Occi.  He is just 4 inches high.  We will plant it in our house and put it in a place of honor.  I do wonder though, if it dies, will that be bad luck?  I wonder what Nixon would say?  Maybe, like the break in at Watergate, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.  I fear I may be regretting this ocotillo purchase, but as they say, life is one big adventure and it seemed a lot less extreme than bringing a Lucifer hummingbird home.  Nothing good would ever come of that.

Ah Big Bend….it just keeps on giving and giving.  A local put it succinctly on a bumper sticker.  Some call Terlingua hell, we just call it home.  I’m not sure I could ever live down here, but every so often, I just got to return....just remember if YOU go, carry lots to drink around here.

Stay thirsty my friends


  1. Big Bend is one of my favorite places in Texas too. We stopped by for a few days too on our way between El Paso and Weslaco. Thanks for sharing your experiences there and what it means to you.

  2. Great adventure! Thanks for sharing. My son and I had a similarly fun time on the other end of the Rio Grande at the end of January. Lots of magic down there!

    1. always something birdy going on along that river

  3. I continue to be thankful that i went for the Colima when I was a spring chicken so I don’t feel the need to do it as an old fart! :)

    1. yea, but in a masochistic sort of way, I like that hike, like I said, something cool always happens, this time, whippoorwills

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.



This is not a bird trip organized for sissies.  Seeing the King aside, this almost seems like work.  The typical day is up at 0530, load up ...