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Big Bend National Park & Big Bend Ranch State Park trip, April 26 to May 6, 2015

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Offline Jonathan Sadow

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I hadn't been to the Big Bend area since the fall of 2014, so it was time to go again.  I think the readers of this group know the feeling....  Because the trip would span the end of April and beginning of May, the height of spring migration and after an abundant rainy winter, I decide to emphasize observations of flora and fauna on this trip.  So on Sunday, April 26, I made the long drive from Austin to Study Butte-Terlingua, where I spent the night at the Chisos Mining Company Motel.

Monday, April 27:
It'd been quite a while since I'd driven down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, and I'd never done it with reference to the late William McLeod's Big Bend Vistas, so I decided to do that.  It gave me a chance to check the wildlife at Sam Nail Ranch and to pursue one of my bete noires, the Apache Canyon trailhead.  It's marked on maps, but I somehow had never been able to find it.  After some careful plotting, I eventually found what could be cairns for the trail that more or less matched the trace of the trail as indicated on the maps.  I'll hike along it one day when I have more time.  While there, I got to take a photo of an excellent example of Strawberry Cactus, many specimens of which were blooming thanks to the recent rains:

15427001 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

I continued down the road, checking out the geology, eventually passing Castolon, checked out Cottonwood Campground for wildlife, and finally made my way toward Santa Elena Canyon. I stopped at the overlook near the Dorgan-Sublett Trail, which I had never done, and took a photo of the Chisos with the Sierra Quemada in the foreground:

15427004 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

With the recent rains, the park looked more lush than I could remember for quite some time, and of course, down by the Rio Grande the vegetation was really lush:

15427006 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

It was also very noticeable looking into Santa Elena Canyon - it was as green as I could ever remember:

15427007 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

I made my way back to Study Butte-Terlingua via the Old Maverick Road, which was in very good shape, and had a nice dinner at the Chili Pepper Cafe.

Tuesday, April 28:
I spent the morning checking out the Panther Junction Visitor Center and obtaining my permit for the next two nights.  For those unaware, BIBE has finally moved into the 21st Century and is using the computer-generated paper permits now rather than the old hand-written ones with the wire attached that blow away in a strong wind (perhaps of interest to some on this forum who lie going off the beaten trail, the gentleman in line after me obtained a permit for a rather ambitious solo hike in the Dominguez Mountain area involving zone camping for four nights).  I drove down to Rio Grande Village, and after lunch spent a couple of hours checking out the birding activity in the Daniels Ranch area.  My point-and-shoot camera isn't the best for wildlife photography, but I got a few decent shots, such as this Curve-Billed Thrasher collecting nesting material ('tis the season):...

15428001 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

... a slightly-leucistic male Vermillion Flycatcher...

15428002 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

... and a female Summer Tanager.

15428003 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Unfortunately, I didn't see the Common Black Hawks, although their nest was present in the usual spot, so I couldn't take a photo of them.  When I visited two years ago, they were both present, but this was the moment my camera battery died, and I had neglected to charge the spare, so I still don't have a photo of them.
Next, I headed over to the Nature Trail.  Down by the river I saw perhaps the most unexpected bird of the trip, a Hooded Oriole, but was unable to get a photo of it.  I did take a photo hiking up to the overlook, the most interesting thing about the photo being...

15428004 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

... in the bottom-right, where one can see the back of a white horse that immigrated illegally from Mexico. It eventually wandered to the river spur of the Nature Trail and almost encountered a couple of people hikng down it.  Returning to the campground, at the pond I spotted a Great Blue Heron looking for dinner:

15428007 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

As I noted previously, 'tis the season: in the parking area I spotted a male Greater Roadrunner attempting to woo a mate with a gift of an insect, but she didn't appear very interested:

15428009 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

The recent rains have had one notable effect on Rio Grande Campground - some of the campsites now require scuba gear to occupy:

15428010 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

After that, it was back to Study Butte-Terlingua for the night to prepare for my backpacking trip into the Chisos.


Offline Jonathan Sadow

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Wednesday, April 29:
I spent the morning making sure all of my gear was together, drove up to The Basin, had one last substantial meal at the Lodge restaurant, and by 3 P.M. was on the Pinnacles Trail, headed toward my destination for the next two nights, BC3.  This is where I stayed the previous time I went into Boot Canyon during spring migration, two years ago, except this time I actually had a camera with a fully-charged battery, so now I could take pictures!  The recent rains caused everything to leaf out nicely along the trail; in some parts, it almost seemed like one was in a boreal forest somewhere up north:

15429002 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

With a functional camera, I could now take plenty of pictures of the animal most likely encountered in the High Chisos, the Mexican Jay in its eternal quest to beg or steal food off of passing hikers:

15429005 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

By 6 P.M., I was over Pinnacles Pass and into Boot Canyon.  The lowering Sun provided opportunities for images of not only Boot Rock and the canyon but of Crown Mountain, Nugent Mountain, and the Sierra del Carmen far beyond (and the Moon really far beyond):

15429006 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

The Boot Canyon area was relatively crowded, with all four BC campsites taken for the night.  I shoved down some Mountain House teriyaki chicken, read, and went to sleep to the sounds of Mexican Whip-poor-wills whip-poor-willing.

Thursday, April 30:
Today I would proceed up Boot Canyon seeing what I could see.  Before that, however, I explored a bit around the Boot Canyon campsites.  The campsites are located on an old landslide deposit that extends into the canyon, so from the campsites one can look into the canyon to varying degrees. Probably the best view is from BC2:

15430004 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

In the middle of the image one can see an Arizona Cypress, which is interesting because Boot Canyon is the only place in Texas where it grows.  If you look carefully at the bottom left, there's a patch of green which is actually algae in a pool of water;  thanks to the recent rains, there were little pools of water like that all along the canyon.
My main goal for the day was to spot a Colima Warbler.  One of the things that make the Chisos Mountains so special is that it is the only place in the United States where this bird nests.  Anyone who wants to add it to their national list has to go there.  I'd seen them on previous hikes into the Chisos, but on my visit two years before I failed to spot a single one, although I could hear them singing from the canyon walls.  I was determined to see one this time.  Given the circumstances, not surprisingly, I wasn't the only one birding the canyon.  Not far past the cabin I encountered a gentleman who said he was from Tennessee and that his son was hot on the trail of some Colima Warblers at the moment.  A bit farther down the trail I ran into the son, and after a few minutes of patient listening for calls, he finally put me on one, and I got my view.  As it turned out, not much farther down the trail I had a Colima Warbler fly into a tree not ten feet from me.  I tried to get a photo, but it flew just before I could take the picture.  The guy told me that he had also spotted a Painted Warbler, which was not surprising given that I had seen one during one of my previous hikes into Boot Canyon, but I dipped on that.  I also missed the Flame-colored Tanager hybrids reported by others, rarely seen in the United States, and in fact didn't see any tanagers at all for some reason.
I continued up the canyon, and near one of the stream crossings encountered a couple wherein the female bent down to take a photo of something.  I checked it out and found it to be a Canyon Treefrog:

15430005 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

With the frog not moving, I determined that I could take a better close-up shot, and I did, although not in the way I intended.  While trying to figure how to focus the camera manually, the frog, apparently annoyed that I had been hovering over it for some time, decided that the best defense is a good offense.  Thus, it proceeded to hop onto my right thigh, which is where I got a really good close-up shot of it...

15430006 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

... and then it proceeded to hop onto my right arm.  I tried to get another shot of it, but my attempts to re-position it on my arm apparently annoyed it, whereupon it hopped onto my pack and then presumably into the brush.  After making sure the frog wasn't on my pack, I finished hiking the trail to the South Rim and a break for lunch.  As usual when I make it to the South Rim, I couldn't resist taking a shot from the Rim...

15430007 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

... and a panorama:

15430008 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

While I was resting after lunch, coming down the trail from the Southwest Rim I heard a lot of voices.  As it turned out, "a lot" would be an understatement.  A group that I estimate had more than a hundred people passed by me and went down the Boot Canyon Trail.  I think it was a school group, as most of the people appeared to be teenagers with just a few adults.  I decided I'd complete the loop and return to camp via the South Rim/Laguna Meadows and Colima trails rather than try to see more wildlife doubling back along the Boot Canyon Trail;  I'd been able to see the warbler, and the large group probably would cause the wildlife to hunker down for a while after its passage.  On the way back, I couldn't resist a picture down Blue Creek Canyon with the Homer Wilson ranch house and the Sotol Vista overlook in the same field of view...

15430011 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

... and a shot of Emory Peak.  Can you see the stand of aspens (not easy, as most of them are hidden by other trees in front of them)?

15430012 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

As I returned to the campsite along the Colima Trail, I saw a reminder of the Chisos's special place as a sky-island ecotone.  At around 7,000 feet of elevation, the High Chisos is mainly a pine-juniper-oak forest, but a few inhabitants from the Chihuahuan Desert far below manage to sneak up to the Chisos.  Thus, along the Colima Trail one can see a boulder that rolled off Emory Peak that has given some agaves from the desert a home in the mountains next to an Alligator Juniper:

15430013 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

You can also see leaves of a Graves Oak at the image's edges, a tree found only in the United States in the Chisos and a couple of other Texas mountain ranges.  I returned to my campsite (but not before I remembered the Big Bend Chat crew and shot a video Boot Spring report!), had Mary Jane's chili (quite good, and it should be for its price...), read and went to sleep.  The Boot Spring campsites had cleared out somewhat; besides my site at BC3, only BC4 was occupied that night (the inhabitants of which I never saw away from their campsite; they seemed perfectly content to hang around there the entire day).

Friday, May 1:
I ate breakfast and prepared to break camp, and while doing so encountered vistors:

15501003 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

It appeared to be a family group, with buck, doe, and fawns in the area.  On my way down the Boot Canyon Trail, I was reminded again that it was prime birding season, as I passed a group of 14 birders going up the canyon, and at Pinnacles Pass I encountered several more.  One of them claimed to have seen a Short-tailed Hawk from there which I missed.  Come to think of it, when at the South Rim the day before I saw three hawks flying over the Sierra Quemada, two of which appeared to be Red-tailed Hawks chasing a third hawk that appeared to be somewhat different....  As I began descending the Pinnacles Trail, I caught my first view of The Basin, along with the rest of the Chisos, the Santiago, Christmas, and even Davis Mountains, nearly 100 miles away:

15501004 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

I think the tree on the left side is a Gray Oak.  I went down the long switchbacks and decided to take a break on Juniper Flats.  My resting place afforded me a nice view of Toll Mountain:
15501008 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Proceding down the trail, the abundant wildflowers were a reminder of the bountiful rains that had fallen recently in the park:

15501009 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr
I made it back to trailhead just past 2 P.M., in time to enjoy a nice lunch at the Lodge restaurant and then check into my room at the Lodge.  Later, I made a fascinating discovery at the restaurant - there was a pair of Say's Phoebes on territory around the restaurant...

15501011 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

... because they had chosen to nest on one of the light fixtures under the eaves of the restaurant's roof:

15501012 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

(sorry about the picture quality - my point-and-shoot camera is not well-equipped to take photos in variable light conditions at a distance with fast-moving subjects)
You could hear the nestlings softly chirping, and every couple of minutes a parent would come in with an insect for the nestlings to eat.  Sunset was near, so I had to take a photo of The Window from the restaurant:

15501013 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

It was nearly a full moon that night, so of course I had to experiment with low-light pictures of the surroundings.  With no tripod, I had to place the camera on top of a light fixture in order to get a steady shot of the area around the Window View Trail, with Jupiter prominently displayed right over The Window:

15501020 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

The camera has a hand-held low-light setting, but naturally it can't produce images as good as those with a tripod:

15501023 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

After my exertions of the past couple of days, I slept well that night.


Offline Jonathan Sadow

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Saturday, May 2:
Today would be my last in the the park.  After checking out of the lodge, I decided to see what flora and fauna I could see down the Window Trail.  I didn't see much, although I did spot the first Pyrrholuxia of the trip, and I got an image of Dagger Yuccas in bloom...

15502001 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

... and an agave about to bloom...

15502002 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

... and this sight, which at first may appear to be unremarkable...

15502003 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

... but actually is remarkable because it's an example of a Weeping or Drooping Juniper, a plant found nowhere in the United States except in the Chisos Mountains.
I drove to Study Butte-Terlingua and spent the night in the Mission Inn.  Later, I found out that a Northern Pygmy-Owl had been found in Pine Canyon that very day.  If I had only known....  Tomorrow started the next phase of my trip, at Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Sunday, May 3:
The majority of the day was spent driving to Presidio, eating lunch, obtaining supplies, and driving to the Sauceda complex.  By the time all of this was accomplished, it was around 4 P.M..  I still had a couple of hours before I had to cook dinner, so I decided to go the short distance to Horsetrap Spring and check out the wildlife.  This turned out to be a wise decision.  In two hours I sighted nearly two dozen bird species within the vicinity of the spring.  I took several bad photos of birds, but one that came out rather well was of a Scaled Quail, which took the uncommon step of alighting on a boulder to call:

15503004 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Horsetrap Spring itself is a nice little oasis situated in desert scrub only about half a mile from Sauceda:

15503006 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

I went back to the bunkhouse, where I would be staying, and prepared dinner. It was the first time I'd stayed there since the kitchen was opened up for public use, and I found it quite nice for meal preparation (it also helped that I was the only staying there and thus the only one using the kitchen).  By the time I had prepared, eaten, and cleaned up after dinner, it was almost sunset, so it was time for more photos:

15503014 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

As the sun set, the Blacktailed Jackrabbits came out. The two in this image seemed rather territorial, and after I took the image the one on the left proceeded to chase away the one on the right:

15503015 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

The Moon was just past full, so as it rose above the ridge behind the bunkhouse, I had a chance to continue experimenting with low-light photography:

15503016 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

I went to sleep with plans for the next day that didn't quite turn out the way I planned.


Offline Jonathan Sadow

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Monday, May 4:
I had never driven down the road to Madrid Falls before, and I decided this would be the time.  So, after breakfast, I set out down the Javelin road and took the turnoff to Madrid Falls.  The rest of that trip didn't happen.  Less than a mile past the junction is the Cuesta de los Mexicanos, which the road climbs at a steep angle.  As one climbs the slope, there is a ledge a few inches tall that one has to hop over, and my front wheels jammed against it.  Normally, that ledge wouldn't be a problem for my vehicle, but combined with the steep slope and the loose rock that comprised the road, I could feel the vehicle start to lose contact with the road surface and slip.  I backed down the road to the bottom of the slope, parked, and walked up and down the entire slope to check it out, doing some road maintenance along the way.  I tried again, and the same thing happened;  even with the drive train in 4WD low, I wasn't getting enough torque out of the front axle to get over the ledge.  By this time, I had taken over half an hour on this and realized that by the time I'd figured it out I might not have any time left for hiking.  Thus, I decided I'd go to plan B.  In my previous visit to the park I'd hiked the Mesa de Leon, the ridge just to the west, and had noticed on the map that next to the mesa was Panther Canyon and the trail that eventually goes to the East Rancherias trailhead, and on that trail was an archaeological site called Casa Reza.  At that time, I resolved that I should visit it when I had more time, and now seemed to be the time to do it.  So I decided to retrace my path to the Javelin road and go down that.  By now it was lunchtime, so I stopped at Javelin Pens and ate it, then drove to the small trailhead parking spot for Mesa de Leon and parked.  From there, I hiked to the Panther Canyon trailhead and proceeded down the trail.
Like in Big Bend National Park, the ocotillos were in bloom here.  However, it seemed to me that in Big Bend Ranch State Park the ocotillos were further along in their blooming;  the flowers didn't seem quite as bright, and the green leaves that sprout after rain were somewhat faded.  Perhaps rain had come earlier in BBRSP, and the plants were now past their peak:

15504002 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

The geology in that image is interesting.  The west side of the Mesa de Leon is in the background.  If I interpret it correctly, there are four distinct lava and ash-flow tuff units there, from three different erruption sites, spanning about 150,000 years that errupted a little over 27 million years ago.  There isn't much water in the canyon, other than springs, and the few places that do have standing water are quite popular:

15504003 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

If you look carefully, you'll see that the small yellowish objects in the water are wasps having a drink.  There's animal life up on the rocks as well - I think this is a Plateau Spotted Whiptail:

15504004 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

About two miles from the trailhead, one encounters Casa Reza, occupied about a century ago:

15504005 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

If you look down into the canyon, you'll see why it is where it is - it's just above the Ojo de Leon.  From the ruins, you can hear the spring gurgling:

15504006 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

The smaller structure was the kitchen, as evidenced by the stove inside it:

15504007 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

The other structure must have been the general living quarters.  As you can see from the grafitti on the walls, I'm hardly the first person to visit it, with one visitor vandal coming just a few months before:

15504009 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

In this panorama, you can see the trail going off to the right.  Panther Canyon actually veers off to the left, while the trail goes down Acebuches Canyon to the right until it hits the trailhead on FM 170 about seven miles away:

15504011 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

If you look closely at this image, you can see lots of flowering Dagger Yuccas on the slopes of Panther Canyon in the background.  Incidentally, the cliffs near the top are the same rock that makes up Tule Mountain in BBNP and is about 4 million years older than the rock I'd been hiking through:

15504012 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Even after a hundred years, some artifacts are still lying around:
15504014 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

As I retraced my steps back to the Javelin road, someone was kind enough to make a cairn topped by a big feldspar cobble, and a Southwestern Earless Lizard decided to use it to assert its territorial claim:

15504017 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

About halfway back there's a collection of trees in the canyon bottom.  According to the map, Panther Spring is supposed to be just south of here, but the trees tell me that this probably is it:

15504018 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

I got back to the vehicle, drove to Sauceda, and was able to cook, eat, and clean up after dinner just in time to take more sunset photos:

15504019 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Tuesday, May 5:
It was time to leave Big Bend Ranch State Park.  I wanted to check out a couple of places on my way out, but even before I left Sauceda I got a picture of a Checkered Whiptail:

15505002 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

When I had driven in two days before, I noticed that a feature on the map called Tanque Lara was, for the first time I had ever seen it, filled with water. I went by it on my way out, and it still had water in it:

15505004 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

More importantly, swimming in it were the only ducks I saw on the trip - a few Northern Shovelers:

15505005 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Farther down the road, I took the time to stop by Ojito Adentro.  I didn't see a great variety of birds there, but what I did see was interesting. none more so than a Zone-tailed Hawk.  These birds have an interesting hunting strategy.  They tend to soar around like vultures, look like vultures from beneath, and in fact are known to associate with flocks of vultures soaring around.  Their prey, chiefly small mammals and reptiles, are accustomed to vultures soaring around and pay them scant attention.  The Zone-tailed Hawk uses this to its advantage.  By soaring around, it fools prey into thinking it's just a vulture, but then it drops down and snatches up the unsuspecting prey.  I heard one call and then eventually to my delight saw it fly into a tree and sit down on a nest:

15505006 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

I was fortunate enough to see a canyon lizard, probably a male Presidio Canyon Lizard, sitting on a boulder near the spring. You can see how well camoflaged they are.  The park is the only area in the United States that you're likely to see this subspecies:

15505008 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

For the rest of the trip I spent a night at Chinati Hot Springs, then finally left the Big Bend area and drove home.  As for the next time I'm going out there, if Big Bend Chat is having a meetup at the end of the year, then save me a camping spot, because I'll be there....


Offline dougstar

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Great report.  Thanks,  was in need of a fix.
I too am reading MacLeod's Big Bend Vistas.  Did you find you could make better sense of the geology after reading the book?


Offline Andreas

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 :eusa_clap: your wonderful TR made my day! Thank you very much for the detailled observations and outstanding photos.
"Any time you're throwin dirt you're losin ground."

Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men


Online mule ears

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Jonathan what a great report both flora and fauna (and geology)!  The area is so green, wish I could see it but alas will have to wait until Dec. and the BBC anniversary gathering, I hope to meet you there.   :13:
temperatures exceed 100 degrees F
minimum 1 gallon water per person/day
no shade, no water


Offline badknees

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The ZT hawk was a really good find . Thanks for posting.
Not all those who wander are lost.
J.R.R. Tolkien

Through the Mirror


Offline Talusman

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Amazing Report! I know that takes some time to put all that together. This was done very well. Great pictures of the wild life especially. I learned a lot just reading the report. Thank you very much for sharing. Reports like this add a lot of value to this site! Heron shot is my favorite!
"To Think is easy. To Act is difficult. To Act as one Thinks is the most difficult!"


Offline catz

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Great report and pictures!!  :notworthy: :13:

"A slightly leucistic Vermilion Flycatcher".  Say wha?
Wake me when it's time to go.


Offline Homer Wilson

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Awesome! But those pictures are too green and lush to be bb, you must've accidentally ended up somewhere else...


Offline badknees

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Great report and pictures!!  :notworthy: :13:

"A slightly leucistic Vermilion Flycatcher".  Say wha?

Look at the VF's belly.....
Not all those who wander are lost.
J.R.R. Tolkien

Through the Mirror


Offline Robert

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  • He who limps is still walking. - Stanislaw J. Lec
Very nice late season trip report. Lots of great photos. Thanks!



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