Wednesday, April 12, 2023

The Colima Warbler Revisted

 I could almost write a book about some of the clueless, snarky, and sometimes downright strange comments I have received while doing my periodic hikes up the Chisos Mountains in the middle of Big Bend National Park for the locally endemic Colima Warbler.  If you want to ever see this bird in the USA you have to come here.  There is no way around it, none.

This is my 5th ascent to this monument to birding.  The holy birding mecca of west Texas. The trips roll of my tongue.  1994, 2013, 2016, 2018, and now 2023.  Despite just 5 trips up and back, I am 5 for five for the goal bird but I have become somewhat outspoken on giving advice about how best to do it, (maybe too outspoken?) but the few who have followed my route have thanked me and the others well, sometimes it has not gone so well.  Yes, you need to hit the trail 2 hours before sunrise, yes, you have to carry a flashlight, and yes, bears and cougars can be encountered.  We were followed by a cat in 2018, and you could smell the scent of cat urine at one spot we were taking a break.  It was unmistakable to all that we were being watched.  But going early also means Mexican whippoorwills calling and sightings.  So it is a trade off.  Owls are rarely if ever heard.

Nobody we pass ever seems to have the right shoes (today someone was hiking in shower sandals and was past the saddle and getting towards the rim, I hate to be his feet tonight).  Nobody takes enough water despite the signs of taking 2 liters (no yelling at the NPS about this). I have had people maybe a half mile in and not even to the initial crest of the hill look exasperated when I told them they had barely begun the ascent.  Others come by at 10 maybe 2-3 miles in with the plan of doing the whole brutal 12-mile loop.  My large camera or binoculars have always created a stir.  One college girl in 2016 even asked me if my camera was overcompensating for something.  "My wife would think it was the other way around." I replied.  Then giggling, she offered me $50 bucks if I could impress her.  Her girlfriend gave her a push, "That is my money in your pocket, I'd rather have lunch when we get back down, I don't want to lose it seeing his junk."

Another guy quipped today, so what are you looking at with those binoculars, naked people? A birder who had caught up to us (Donna) and who I was helping find the bird, retorted, "you first." to the gentleman.  I looked at my wife who was biting her lip.  Sometimes too much information on the trail is not a good thing, but yes, Olaf has an infamous story about that, too.  I guess buy the book, "A chapter in my Boobies, peckers, and tits" happened here, on this trail and over this very spot.

Yet another woman seeing my bins "or camera" asked me what looked to her like the question she had been thinking about all the way up the hill.  "Does Texas have its own blue bird?"  I looked at her, she was holding proudly her binoculars.

"Well, no, the same one as the entire region, why?"

"We just saw one down the trail."

"oh, Mexican jays." I replied understanding.

"Yes the Mexican blue bird."  But she did not see to look satisfied with that revelation.

Today we also met some Indian tourists.  They looked all professional, with high end hiking sticks, new packs and they were displaying some serious use of those sticks, like that was the goal not a by product.  I got out of her way. She said something to me that I had no idea what it was (it almost sounded like "help me please!") Maybe  was her look but it was like they had watched a Youtube of how to use hiking sticks.  The wife, however, decked in pink, because...I guess everyone hikes in pink was using so much force with the sticks she was wearing herself out and was carrying a full pack, and yet they were only a half mile up the trail.  She also had on bad shoes (okay too much shoe watching), but had on an orange UT Longhorns hat on (pink clothing, orange hat??  Quite the clash) farther up the trail they stopped and one could hear arguing in Hindi.

Then there is everyone with enough water carrying gallon jugs by the handle.  Ouch that looks painful!  Today we saw some water stashed by someone for the trip down.  I have to confess I have done that at Glacier back in the day.  Some of it may still be there.  All yuccas, pine trees, rocks look the same on the way down.  I almost lost a stashed mountain bike once, but I digress.

I have also had some odd events, some I have been a casual witness for and a couple caused solely by "strange old Olaf" (naked birding for one),  I'll just leave you with two and not that one.

Let me see....  

1) I had to go up alone once because the person who started with me, had as it would turn out either a mild heart attack or some serious dyspnea just past the water tank. Doing a big year and on a tight schedule I had to go get the bird and get back, so I told him to go down the hill, I would fly up get the bird at dawn and come back. He lived but when I was returning, I was able to put my spotting scope on our vehicle in the parking lot from way up and it was at some distance but his head was clearly falling out the window and it sure looked like his tongue was hanging out.  We called that the "Q sign" in my surgery residency.  A rare "Dotted Q sign" meant a person was out with tongue hanging out with a fly on it.  That was a terrible prognosis, but a Q sign was not much better.  I ran down the hill.  My friend (a non-birder by the way) was just asleep.  His chest discomfort had abated.  I diagnosed him with an MI and called 911 in Florida in 2019.  I was not taking anymore chances them and he got stented in the ER.

2) My friend Jim Brown and I invented a religion up this trail with the sacred Ocotillo and involving Lucifer hummingbirds, ritual bathing, and sacramental wine, pretty much all one needs for a good religion.  Now Ordained for the Church of St, Ocotillo, I look forward to performing more weddings, saying prayers, or just observing the sacred.  I do funerals but those are less fun. We travel with an Ocotillo, who born in Texas in 2018 and has returned home this week.  He (named Occy)  has 40,000 miles on him.

I might ask Carolyn who owns the Christmas Mountain Oasis to join, but she may ban me from her Lucifer hummingbird spot and that would be tragic.

Lucifer Hummingbird yesterday, with the Ocotillo in bloom they are feeding on them and not feeder birds although this male had taken up a territory and was not giving it up.

I have run into many birders up on the trail, nobody it seems or few do their homework.  The Lucifer spot? Never heard of it, where to see Colimas?  None, or little knowledge.  
They leave too late up the trail or waste their time looking way too low, even in the parking lot.  One person swore she saw it at the parking lot.  Even showed me a picture.  It was a Say's phoebe.  Mexican  Everyone just looks at me but again, you need to be on the trail at dark.

Even last night owling, I was not sure the other three looking for Elf Owls got the plan.  I would have showed it to them, but they were out standing at where the road loops at Dug Out Wells.  We just left.  So we bring chairs, park them by a tree, 30 minutes to full darkness, the bird obviously calls from the tree and I have my light out.  I don't know.  Maybe they came to hear the Western Screech owls?  It was not rocket science but no one came to see what we had.  Sometimes you got to do a little skua birding. There are only a few cottonwoods left in there thanks to the NPS, cutting them out.  Poor owls, what will they do?  

So today, after owling last night, we took off at 0530 on the Pinnacles trail for the top.  Big Bend is my favorite National Park and I have vowed that if I can't get up to the rim at least, I am checking into a nursing home and throwing away my bins.  When I feel old and fat, depressed and mortal, off I want to go to see the Chisos and "buy myself" a couple more years from the inevitable.  I needed Big Bend this year, I really did.

The Park service has redone the trail taking out the route near the water tanks and added some distance to it.  It may be less steep, but I am not sure that helps.  I also felt lost until we made it to the first campsite where it levels a bit.  I also met the first person ever on the trail at night and he was coming down the hill.  We heard some close whippoorwills but I did not try to find them.  I had one almost land on my daughter once.  There were no bears, no cougars, and not a mammal of any sorts.  

We took a break at the Saddle and I took out my camera as the light was coming up.  I walked up to the usual spot on heard one and then saw one in terrible light but then after ten minutes, all was quiet.  We worked our way to the rim where a group of Louisiana kids were making a racket.  It was great to see them out there even if they were too loud.  They were all waiting for the turn at the pit toilet there...priorities in the backcountry.  I assumed they would leave and go down but they were there when we came back around.  It was too noisy up there and ever since the forest fire, it is not a good birding space and it was cold on the top of the basin so we went down to get better photos.

I have had some bad camera experiences with this bird...

1994--"so what does this bird look like?"  I am sitting pooped with my pack on.
"brown cap, yellowish orange behind, eye ring on a drab warbler"  I reply
"If I show it too you, can we go back to the car?"  I nodded.  "There right in front of you."
It was a perfect shot on film.  That photo was lost.  It was my lifer bird then and I have never again seen that photo

2013-- I had to make choices, bird in tree, camera in backpack 30 feet down the slope and two woman (by voice) descending from the Rim and were a switchback above me.  I was not wearing clothing.  A pareo was 10 feet the wrong way where my birding buddy Jim was standing.  I had the bird....choices

2016--actually the exact same place, again even tougher choices.  Bird in tree, and then flitted off, heard and seen, tick for the big year.  Friend possibly dying in the parking lot.  Look for another to photograph or get my a$$ down the mountain and see if he is okay.

2018--taking Mexican whippoorwill photos during the darkness when I notice battery is almost empty, I was certain I had packed a spare.  Sun comes up, see the bird, ready to snap photo and nothing....power goes off, dig for a spare battery..."what" spare battery excuses, and I did not want to die trying.  It is tough enough getting up the mountain

Not National Geographic but good enough, this bird never comes out well for me and horribly harsh lighting.  The only reason I got these three was because a "Donna" from Massachusetts stopped us and looked like she needed some help getting a lifer bird.  I took a bit but another showed (or the same one I had seen a few minutes before she came).  She saw it and her trip up the mountain was made.

Heard 9, saw 4 photographed 3.  A good morning on this bird.  Colima photograph--TICK!!

It was Silja's third trip to the Rim, my fifth.  The first was a backpack trip, 1994 BYOW, bring your own water

It was a hot trip down the mountain as it was later than we wanted but it was good to help another birder.  We got to the bottom, saw some butterflies I need to identify and then ate lunch and bugged out to the RV.

They say they are redoing the Chisos Lodge next year.  Aramark gets a new hotel to make money from for free.  They own the Big Bend Adventures Resort and RV park in Terlingua (our rig is too big for the park).  It has the worst toilet I have ever seen, one has brown ooze like a bucket's worth running down the side.  The rust, $2 showers, toilet paper everywhere was bad enough.  It will be a mess up at the Basin so we were glad to come this year, BUI DO NOT STAY IN TERLINQUA AT THE Aramark lodge here!  So in 2024 I do not know what to recommend, maybe call your congressman to get rid of Aramark.....if they cannot do toilets at an RV park, how can they clean your scrubs?  What a TFSDD%%# company.  all imho.

anyhow, the Colima warbler, revisited again, and they were spectacular.



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