West Texas Birding
It was still dark the morning we hooked up our travel trailer and completed the final preparations to begin our 9-day West Texas Birding trip to South Llano River State Park; Davis Mountains State Park; Big Bend National Park; Boquillas Del Carmen, Mexico; and the Caverns of Sonora.
From Round Rock, we headed west on Hwy 29 through Liberty Hill, Bertram, and Burnet, where we stopped at the Burnet Seton hospital to get nine stitches removed from my head (long story involving a T-Post driver). Before leaving Burnet, we had breakfast at Crazy Gals Cafe, then continued west on 29 through Buchanan Dam, Llano, Art, Mason, then south on 377, through London and Junction, and finally to South Llano River State Park.
The forecast called for several days of heavy rain in the Texas Hill Country, but the future weather looked favorably drier in the western counties of the state - all we needed to do was get through one night of potential heavy rain at South Llano River and the rest of the trip should be sunny and dry.
The park was full, but we found a nice site (41), next to the trail leading to the Acorn bird blind. We spent most of the afternoon chasing birds in and around the Acorn blind. Around 5pm, we left Acorn and spent the rest of the afternoon at the Juniper and Agarita blinds. South Llano River State Park is a great place for birding - we saw many birds!
After spending the entire afternoon birding, we headed back to our campsite. Along the way, we came across a fellow camper packing up and getting ready to leave the park. "I'm getting out of here while I can!" he said. "What? On such a beautiful day?" I said. "It is supposed to start raining hard at 2am and it doesn't take much rain to flood out the low water crossing leading into the park. There's a back way out, but you can't take your trailer through it. One time I had to leave mine here for a couple of weeks and come back for it after the water subsided." "Do you think we'll really get that much rain?" I asked. "I'm not taking any chances." he said. A half hour later he was gone.
Early Sunday morning, concerned about the weather, I woke up at 2am and walked outside. It was cloudy, but calm and dry, so I went back to bed. At 4:15am we woke to the sound of distant thunder. We rested in bed listening and wondering if the storm was going to get closer and perhaps flood the low water crossing and delay our drive to West Texas. Knowing we would not be able to get back to sleep, we decided to pack up and head out. It was 5:15am. We barely left our campsite before the heavy rain began. We drove three miles, past the low water crossing, back to Junction to wait out the storm and have breakfast at the 24-hour McDonalds (that didn't open until 6:00am!)...
At 6:30am, it was dark and the rain was coming down hard, but we weren't in a hurry to leave, so we relaxed, enjoyed our McMuffins and coffee, and caught up on the day's news while we waited for the sun to come up.
About 7am the skies lightened and we were off again, feeling good, and heading west on I-10 towards Sonora. We drove through periods of heavy rain for the first hour of our drive, but skies began to clear as we journeyed 300 miles farther west towards Fort Davis.
We stopped for gas in Ozona, and again in Fort Stockton, then headed south on Hwy 67 for about 50 miles, then turned west on Hwy 90 towards Alpine. In Alpine, we continued west on Hwy 118 for 27 miles, through the mountain town of Fort Davis, to Davis Mountains State Park.
Davis Mountains State Park
The park was full, even though it was Sunday - when most folks pack up early to get back to their regular lives. Spring is a busy time of year - flocks of birders travel from park to park to catch the springtime bird migration (just like us).
Once we got our travel trailer unhooked and secured in campsite 29, we enjoyed chicken-fried steaks at the Black Bear Restaurant at the Indian Lodge. After dinner, we made our way to the first of the park's two main bird blinds. It had been completely redesigned since our trip to Davis Mountains State Park, four years prior.
After a long day of bad weather, driving, and birding, we relaxed and watched the movie Giant (1956 - Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson) - it was partly filmed at the Hotel Paisano in Marfa, Texas, located about 25 miles from Davis Mountains State Park.
Monday morning we took a side trip to the McDonald Observatory, 13 miles away, to take part in the Solar Viewing Program and take a tour of the 107-inch Harlan J. Smith and 362-inch Hobby-Eberly telescopes. We would have attended the evening Star Party too, but they aren't available on Mondays. We have been to the Star Parties before and will go again one day soon. They are spectacular!
Tuesday morning, we left Davis Mountains State Park and had a delicious country style pancake and eggs breakfast at the Fort Davis Drugstore and Old Country Inn.
Before leaving Fort Davis, we did a little shopping at Javelina's Hollyhocks next door, and then headed southeast down Hwy 118 back to Alpine.
From Alpine, we drove 30 miles east to Marathon, then headed south on Hwy 385 about 70 miles to Big Bend National Park's headquarters at Panther Junction. From Panther Junction, we drove another 20 miles to the Rio Grande Village RV Park where we began our three-night stay at Big Bend National Park and Boquillas Del Carmen, Mexico.
While getting settled into Rio Grande Village RV Park, we met a nice couple from Chicago that owned the 22-foot travel trailer parked in the site next to ours. They were interested in visiting Boquillas Del Carmen too, but were a little nervous to go by themselves. We agreed to go together and perhaps share some of the "guide" costs, etc.
Wednesday morning at 9am, we met Paul and Linda at the Boquillas Del Carmen border crossing. The border re-opened in 2013 after being closed for nearly 12 years, due to the events of 9/11.
Boquillas Del Carmen
The official at the Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry gave us a brief overview of the requirements for crossing into Mexico and returning to the US. Afterwards, we walked along a gravel trail leading to the shores of the Rio Grande River. A man on the Mexico side of the river saw us coming and began rowing a jon-boat to the US side to pick us up. The round-trip cost of crossing the river was $5 per person at the time of our visit.
Once we arrived on the Mexican side of the border, we were still a mile away from Boquillas Del Carmen. The options to get to town were by car; by horseback; by donkey; or just walk, if you don't mind the heat, or don't want to pay $5 for the round-trip. We decided to take the car ride in, but I think we will choose a donkey or horse next time. It would probably have been a smoother ride...
There's also a mandatory guide you must pay to accompany you while you are wandering about town. The customary "tip" for the guide was $20 per day. Once we arrived in town, the first stop was to Mexico's National Park headquarters to pay a $3 per person entry fee.
Once we paid all of the required crossing fees and tips, our guide "Gato" (cat) walked with us around town, but he could not speak English and our Spanish was weak. One of the first things we noticed about the sleepy town of Boquillas Del Carmen, was that the town's energy was 100% solar. It was probably too costly to tie into the nearest Mexican power grid, making solar power the only viable option. Power was supplied to the individual residences and businesses from a small solar power plant located at the edge of town. While walking about the pueblo, we shopped a few of the street vendors selling decorative towels, sotol walking sticks, and wire-crafted desert plants and creatures.
After about an hour of touring the town on foot, we were ready for food and drink. We decided to eat at one of the two Restaurants in Boquillas Del Carmen, called Jose Falcon's. The restaurant was owned and managed by Jose Falcon's daughter, who had reopened the restaurant in 2013, when the border crossing between the US and Mexico was reestablished. She amazed us with interesting stories of how her proud father ran the restaurant for 30 years from a wheelchair. He died about a year before 9/11 and the closing of the restaurant shortly thereafter.
There was a beautiful covered area that separated the restaurant from the gift shop. A light breeze blew through the shady courtyard and provided a cool place in the mid-day desert to relax and enjoy a fine meal of enchiladas and cold beer.
The other eating place in town, Boquillas Restaurant, is located directly across the road from Jose Falcon's. A little further down the road is the famous Park Bar. We didn't get a chance to try food or drink at either of these establishments, but plan to pay them a visit in 2017.
After lunch, we signaled Gato that we were ready to head back to the border crossing. A few minutes later, the old suburban came flying down the dusty road to pick us up. We crossed the river in the usual jon-boat fashion and walked back up the trail to the border crossing facility.
The customs process was remotely operated - you step up to a phone on the wall and call the customs folks. They ask you if you have purchased anything in Mexico, while they monitor you by camera. There's no telling where the customs people are located.
Old Ore Road
It was too early to call it a day, but the 105 degree temperature made it too hot to hike. We drove back to Panther Junction to shop for souvenirs in the park's air conditioned store and asked the rangers if there was a scenic drive or something cool we could do to finish up the day. They suggested a slow drive down Old Ore road, to take in the desert scenery.
Old Ore road was long and rough. We drove for about an hour one-way into the scorched desert. Numerous potholes kept us from driving faster than a slow crawl. We hadn't seen any other humans since embarking on this excursion and began to get worried about breaking down in the middle of nowhere, so we decided to head back. Gravel was banked up on the sides of the one-lane road and made finding a place to turn around difficult. We finally found a spot wide enough for a multi-point-turn, and began our slow journey back to the main road.
After a long day in Mexico and the Chihuahua desert, we returned to our campsite to relax, enjoy cold beverages, and watch the sun set with our new friends from Chicago.
The Window Trail
Thursday morning, we woke at pre-dawn to beat the heat and hike the Chisos Mountain's 5-mile Window Trail. At dawn, a few miles into the 45 minute drive to Chisos, a coyote carrying prey in its mouth was crossing the road in the distance ahead of us. As we approached, it got spooked and vanished into the desert.
We arrived at the Chisos Mountains area about 8am and stocked up on water and snacks at the park's store, located a short distance from The Window trailhead. The sky was clear and the air was cool. It was a great day for a hike!
We put on our hiking boots and hats, smeared on some sunscreen, loaded our small packs with water and snacks, and soon we were on the trail, feeling good, and hiking in Big Bend's beautiful Chisos Mountains!
The Window Trail is considered to be a moderate hike. We took our time exploring the two-and-a-half mile trail to The Window. The fascinating rocks and plants and animal life we experienced along the trail were magnificent.
Once we arrived at the end of the trail, I walked carefully to The Window opening, half expecting to find an outer ledge to stand on and take pictures of the view, but such a platform did not exist. It wasn't long before I realized that my next step on the slippery rocks might be my last!
The hike back to the park store was considerably warmer. The temperature was beginning to rise rapidly and we were glad to be finishing our hike instead of starting it. We passed a few hikers getting a late start, thinking they will regret not getting on the trail earlier.
We knew we were getting closer to the end of The Window Trail as we saw Casa Grande Peak get larger with every step.
Before heading back down the mountain to Rio Grande Village, we enjoyed a delicious burger lunch at the Chisos Mountain restaurant. Afterwards, we drove back to Rio Grande Village and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing inside our travel trailer and sampling craft beer by the local Big Bend Brewing company.
Thursday morning, around 7am, we began making preparations to get on the road again. We said goodbye to our new-found friends from Chicago and left Big Bend to begin the 287 mile journey to the Caverns of Sonora. We headed north from Panther Junction on highway 385 back to Marathon.
In Marathon, we stopped at the French Company Grocer for croissants and coffee, then continued north on 385 to Fort Stockton for gas, then headed east on I-10 to the Caverns of Sonora.
We arrived at the Caverns of Sonora in time to get settled into a tree-covered campsite and take the last daily tour of the cavern. The Caverns of Sonora is located in Sonora, Texas, a few short miles from I-10.
We had driven past billboards advertising the caverns on previous trips to West Texas, vowing to go there someday, so this time we included an overnight stay at the caverns as part of this year's west Texas trip. It is a magnificent cavern and is unquestionably worth a stopover.
After the tour, we grilled steaks for dinner and visited with fellow campers until dark.
Saturday morning, since we weren't in a hurry to leave, we woke up at a reasonable hour and decided to relax for awhile around our Caverns of Sonora campsite. We had breakfast under the trees and passed the time watching for migrating birds.
At noon, we packed up and left the Caverns of Sonora and headed about an hour east on I-10 back to South Llano River state park, where we spent the final night of the trip. We landed a nice campsite across from the Park Hosts and spent the afternoon revisiting the bird blinds. We saw many of the same birds and even wondered if they were the exact-same-birds we saw the week before.
The next morning, we gathered up our cameras and binoculars to go on a two-mile guided Bird Walk with one of the park rangers. The park ranger said we would have a good chance at spotting the endangered Golden-Cheeked warbler. We had never seen one and even heard they were extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find. Our guide took us gradually down the trail, stopping for anything that looked or sounded like it might be a migrating bird. After about an hour, we came to the location where she had seen the Golden-Cheeked warbler the day before.
"There it is!" she whispered. "Up in the top of that juniper tree!" I fumbled with my camera trying to get it ready for a good shot at the rare bird, but I was too late. It flew across the trail and away from us. We all stood quietly awaiting its return. This time, I was prepared... lens cap off and ready for a quick shot. After about 10 minutes, we saw it again, but I didn't get my camera focused in time, and the bird flew away as it had done before. We waited around awhile before deciding to proceed on the Bird Walk and perhaps catch the elusive warbler on the return trip.
We walked down the trail and saw and heard different species along the way. Our guide was very good at identifying birds by their song. We probably heard more birds than we actually saw. We reached the end of the trail and turned back towards the location of the siting of the Golden-Cheeked warbler.
As we approached the area, we saw it fly across the trail ahead of us as we had seen it happen two times before. We decided that the warbler was making a circular pattern around its nest and, after a short while, we all agreed it was time for the warbler to reappear.
I focused my camera on the tips of the juniper's branches, so I could get in a quick shot should the bird decide to land. "There it is!" someone whispered. I was focused and ready! Click, click, click, click, and in less than 10 seconds the endangered bird flew away again, but his picture remained...
A few hours later, while packing up for the trip back home, we were in sublime cheerful moods - we couldn't have hoped for a better way to finish our West Texas Birding Adventure!
Birds we identified on our trip: