West Texas


The 2016 Evolution meetings were convened in Austin in mid-June 2016. Since I was headed west to the meetings, it seemed like a great time for me to revisit West Texas and pick up some life and quite a few life photos.

It turned out that a multi-city Delta flight from San Antonio to Austin to Atlanta was cheaper than a roundtrip ticket to San Antonio (I will never figure out airline pricing), so the trip fell into place quickly.

My non-birder but great travel companion son, Trevor, was stoked to go on the trip with me, so Trevor and I flew to San Antonio five days before the Evolution meeting and rented an SUV. We spent five days exploring west Texas ending up in Austin. Trevor kept the rental for another day after he dropped me off so he could explore Austin and San Antonio and I went to my science meeting for which I would not need a vehicle.

This trip targeted a few life birds and then many birds that I had not seen since the 1980s when I lived in Albuquerque NM for three years as a master’s student at the University of New Mexico. I wish I could say that I have total recall of every bird I’ve ever seen in my life, but birds that I saw briefly on one occasion in the 1980s are, from the standpoint of really knowing the bird, life birds. I drove to Big Bend National Park for my first visit in March of 1982 and now I was revisiting this awesome National Park 34 years later. (So far as my memory could tell me, the park had not changed at all—awesome).

It was a long trek from the San Antonio airport to Big Bend but we hit little traffic and it was fun to see the landscape transition from green and lush (maybe unusually so since Austin has had months of record rains) to among the most parched regions of North America. I had one key target bird on our drive into the Big Bend National Park—Cassin’s Sparrow. I had seen Cassin’s Sparrow exactly once in my life, in the vicinity of Artesia NM in the 1980s. I certainly didn’t have a photo of Cassin’s Sparrows. But our route from San Antonio to Big Bend took us right through perhaps the best Cassin’s Sparrow area in the world. The problem was that we’d be going through the Cassin's Sparrow habitat during the mid-afternoon in the middle of the summer. It doesn’t matter how dense birds are if they are hunkered down and not singing.

Just before the Cassin’s Sparrow spots that I had marked on my map, we had to stop at the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center. My son is a history buff, and we had both read all of the Larry McMurtry novels in the Lomesome Dove series in which Judge Roy Bean is a bit character. But this part of Texas is the backdrop for all of the McMurtry novels, so we had to see a reconstruction of a saloon and frontier outpost. The Bean buildings were fantastic—especialy the authentic saloon—but the real bonanza was xx, who worked the front desk of the visitor center and knew the birding prospects of the entire region really well. We told him that we were planning to camp at Rio Grande Village and he informed us it had been over 110F along the river in recent days and would be unpleasant for camping. He recommended that we camp in the Chisos Mountain Basin which was much higher and cooler. We took his advice and it was comfortable. He also gave us advice for bird finding, including looking for Elf Owl at Dugout Wells, which turned out to be more good advice.

We left the Bean Museum at about 3 pm and a few miles down the road we stopped and tried for Cassin’s Sparrow. The habitat was perfect and there were a few Cassin’s Sparrows around, but they were greatly outnumbered by Black-throated Sparrows and they were not generally responding to tapes. I say “not generally” because on about our fifth stop playing Cassin’s Sparrow tapes, just as it was seeming hopeless, with no warning a bird was suddenly chipping so close that it was too close for a photo. It was perched about 4 feet to my left giving me a great eyeball view but of course as I swiveled for a photo, it flew off and dropped down into dense vegetation. I was sure that had missed a photo of Cassin’s Sparrow for the trip.

Scaled Quail were abundant in the region of Big Bend National Park but they were really tough to photograph as they flushed from roadsides. I finally had a chance to photograph them at Christmas Mountain Oasis later in the trip.

However, an hour later as we were driving just north of the entrance to Big Bend National Park, I saw four Scaled Quail run across the road. Scaled Quail is another bird that I had not seen sense the 1980s and that I wanted a photo of one. Unfortunately, the quail were long gone by the time we stopped the car and got out, but we immediately heard a singing Cassin’s Sparrow. This bird was doing flight displays and then perching in the top of a bush two hundred feet out in a field, and I managed to get distant, but identifiable, photos.

We spent the last 2 hours of light driving south into Big Bend National Park flushing covey after covey of Scaled Quail and enjoying the sunset over the Chisos Mountains.

We missed Cassin's Sparrow in the heat of the afternoon but we found one just north of the entrance to Big Bend National Park after it cooled down a bit.

That night as we camped in the Chisos Mountain Basin, I awoke several times to the calls of Western Screech Owls and Poor-wills in the middle of the night. We certainly were not in Alabama anymore.