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Colima Warbler & Mexican Whip-poor-will

Trevor and me just after I got my life Colima Warbler and just before we got pounded by a storm in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. Trevor graciously carried the backpack all the way up and all the way down.

On June 14, the afternoon of our first full day in Big Bend National Park, we hiked toward life birds in the upper reaches of the Chisos Mountains. This is a pilgrimage that every serious birder who is healthy and able enough makes once in a lifetime—the climb to Colima Warblers. I like hiking and backpacking so I wasn’t put off by the climb. That said, my son and I took only one full-sized backpack and I let him carry it. I’ve been having a little bit of back and hip irritation the past year, and I figured why unnecessarily risk a sore back? Trevor was willing to carry the 35 lb pack, so I could photograph birds on the way up.

A pair of very tame Mexican Jays flew in looking for a handout as we climbed toward the high country in the Chisos Mountains.

We followed the Pinnacles Trail toward Boot Springs and our only worry about the climb was the heat. It was about 95F when we set off from the lodge in the Chisos Basin, so we took it very slowly for the first couple of miles, stopping every ten or 15 minutes to rest and drink water. We were in no hurry. As a matter of fact, I didn’t want to get to the high country until later in afternoon so we could have more bird activity in the best habitat. The climb up was slow and uneventful, but we did enjoy a visit from a pair of very tame Mexican Jays.

I was very happy to have a Zone-tailed Hawk soaring and screaming at the base of the massive pinnacles that give the Pinnacles Trail its name.

As we got pretty close to the base of the sheer rock pinnacles for which the trail is named, I heard a hawk scream and looked up to see a long-winged hawk that looked a lot like a turkey vulture. It was one of my main target birds on the whole trip and a bird that I had seen exactly once in my life, 30 years before—Zone-tailed Hawk. These are generally described as silent hunters, but this bird was calling repeatedly as it circled the cliff face. It was pretty high and flying against a bright white sky, but it gave me many chances to photograph it as it circled. By over-exposing the photos I kept the hawk from being terribly silhouetted and got some OK if distant photos.

A little farther up, as the trail passed through stands of oak, I started hearing an unfamiliar warbler. Sure enough, it was Colima Warbler. They were surprisingly hard to get good looks at and really tricky to photograph. For anyone climbing the Pinnacles Trail in late spring or summer to see Colima Warbler, I would highly recommend paying attention as soon as the trail reaches stands of oak, well before the Boot Springs area. Colima Warblers were much harder to see in the Boot Springs area a couple of miles ahead. Along the trail before it goes up and over a lip at the Pinnacles and then down into the Boot Spring Basin, many of the oaks are below the trail, so the birds are often level with you or even below you. Around Boot Springs, Colima Warblers were always overhead and hidden in foliage. With some work, I managed some barely identifiable photos of the warblers in the oaks below the trail.

Colima Warblers were common and easy to hear on the hike up the Pinnacles Trail. They were much harder to see well or to photograph.

As we followed the trail up through the warbler-filled oaks, a very light drizzle started. Actually it started and stopped about four times. The rain caught us by surprise because we were still mostly hiking in the sun. We could see that the source of the rain was a dark cloud barely poking over the lip of the trail above us. It didn’t look ominous and we hadn’t heard any thunder, so we figured it would just be a little burst of rain. As we hiked along, Trevor would often get a few hundred yards ahead of me as I stopped to look at and photograph birds. Unfortunately, he was well ahead of me when it suddenly started to rain hard. We had carried rain ponchos up with us, but by the time I caught Trevor we were superficially wet and it was still hot. I foolishly decided that we would just push ahead to camp and not get out the ponchos. But instead of letting up, the skies opened up and we were suddenly in a deluge. It was a drenching rain with lightening flashing. As we slogged ahead toward are camping site we were pummeled first by rain and then by small hail. The temperature dropped by 30F and where we had been worried about heat stroke a hour before, now our teeth were chattering and we were chilly approaching cold. Luckily my camera was safe because I have a portable rain cover that I got out with the first drizzle. Unfortunately, we had packed very light for a brief overnight summer backpacking trip. Neither of us had brought a change of clothes, except, by great fortune, Trevor had brought a sweat shirt to use as a pillow. He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. I was wearing a lightweight long-sleeve shirt and long pants.

After 40 minutes of hiking in a downpour, we got to our designated campsite BC02. It was mostly flooded with an inch of water (who would expect that in Big Bend in the summer?). We had a moment were we considered just turning around and hiking out. It was about 5pm when we got to our campsite. We had between three and four hours of light left, which would be enough time to make it out. But we decided to see if we could get the tent set up without getting everything too wet. Surprising, we did. Even in a steady rain, the tent only had a few puddles inside by the time we got the rain fly in place. I quickly started to throw in all the stuff from the backpack and it was mostly good news. The sleeping bags were pretty dry and Trevor’s sweatshirt was completely dry. We would be ok. It was summertime and even though it felt cold to our wet bodies, the temperature was in the low sixties and not dropping below the upper fifties (at worst) for a nighttime low. We had winter sleeping bags since that is all I own, so we would certainly be warm enough.

I stripped out of my wet cloths but there was no way to hang them in the tiny tent. So I just wrung them out and pushed them aside. While it rained for another 90 minutes I made us some hot Ramen noodles, which raised our spirits. By about 630 the rain was letting up and I decided to walk around to try to dry out my cloths a bit. Trevor decided to stay in the tent and read and dry out. By 7 the rain had stopped and the sun was peeking out, but it was going to be an early sunset in the canyon. I left my camera behind when I took my walk because I didn’t want to take a chance on it getting wet. Of course, that was the moment when two Band-tailed Pigeons (one of my photo targets for the trip) decided to perch right in front of me in good light. It would have been a nice photo, but instead I just appreciated a great look at this often elusive bird. My clothes were no longer soaking when I got back to camp but they were still pretty wet.

We were both exhausted from little sleep the previous two night and the hot/wet/cold weather. We fell asleep at dusk and I work up sometime later to the ringing song of a life bird—Mexican Whip-poor-wills. They were calling from all directions. At one point, I could hear four different birds. At campsites BC03, BC02 and BC01, Mexican Whip-poor-will is easy to detect by sound in June. I woke up half a dozen times during the night, each time hearing whip-poor-wills but I did not hear anything that sounded like it might be a Flammulated Owl, another possible life bird for the spot.

Trevor on the hike out of the Chisos Mountains. He is still wearing a sweatshirt after getting wet and cold the night before. Fifteen minutes later the sweatshirt was off and we were both hot.

The next morning I got up and made coffee and walked around a bit in my wet cloths to try to dry out. We broke camp early and hiked out getting warmer and drier as we went back down the slope. We were back at the Chisos Basin Lodge by noon and we treated ourselves to a night in the lodge with AC and a hot shower.

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