Big Bend National Park, Texas, October, 2015


 Big Bend National Park in Texas

    I was staying at a very nice motel in Marathon, Texas, the Marathon Motel and RV Campground.  I'm not going to do the travel guide thing here, but I like the room a lot and found it a very good place to rest and update my journal.  Even though it is the closest accommodations outside the park, it is still an hour and ten minute one-way drive to the Visitor Center and another half hour to the trail heads in the Chisos Mountains.  So I got a campsite inside Big Bend and went off the grid for the next four days.


October 17, 2015 -- The Lost Mountain Trail

    I went up this five mile, steep mountain trail starting late in the morning, so I didn't see a lot of birds.  There were Ravens, Vultures, and what I thought were Pinyon Jays.  I found out later that these are Mexican Jays and that this is the only part of their range that extends into the U. S.    After finishing up the hike, I drove to the campground and poked around that area.  There were Roadrunners all over the campground and it was easy to get some nice pictures of this entertaining bird.  I also saw a weird catlike animal with a long bushy tail.  That turned out to be an animal that the locals call a Ringtail.  On Wikipedia it is a Ringtail Cat, Bassariscus astutus.  It's a member of the raccoon family with a range from Mexico into some of the southwestern states.  

Roadrunner, Chisos Basin Campground, Big Bend National Park, Texas, October, 2015


Coyote, FM 624, Texas, October, 2015 -- really saw this guy outside the park, but since I showed The Roadrunner, I want to give Wily Coyote equal time.



October 18, 2015 -- The Window Trail - mid morning

    I was at the trailhead in time to get an early start, but then I saw that there were openings at the campsite.  So I grabbed a good one.  I'll explain the process in a "logistics" memo at the end of this section.  Anyway, I claimed my site, set up a tent, and then went for the walk.  In the beginning of the canyon at the end of the trail, I saw a lot of Lesser Goldfinches.  All along the trail, there were Mockingbirds, Roadrunners, White-winged Doves, and Ravens.   I heard a lot of Mexican Jays, recognizing their calls from hearing them the previous day.  They showed themselves a few times. 

    On the way out, I heard a lot of squabbling noise out in the brush.  It was pretty loud and sounded like it was pretty far away.  I still stopped to give it a look and I'm glad that I did.  It was a covey of Scaled Quail and they were only about twenty feet away.   The range of this bird is in Mexico, the very far west edge of Texas, and Arizona.  So it was a fortunate sighting for me.  The bird gets its name from the way its feathers form a pattern on its breast that look a lot like the scales on a fish. 


Scaled Quail, Big Bend National Park, Texas, October, 2015


  For the walk back, I stored all my optics, including the camera, in the backpack to make the hike easier.  On the steep climb near the campground, I had to get the camera out quickly.  I almost missed my chance to get a picture of a bird that has been eluding me for over a year.  It looks a lot like a female Cardinal and I have taken many pictures of female Cardinals hoping that it was this bird.  Today it was the bird.  It's called a Pyrrhuloxia.


Pyrrhuloxia (not a Cardinal!!) , Big Bend National Park, Texas, October, 2015


    I'm sure that you know what this guy is.  It's a Brown Tarantula out looking for sex.  He walked right across the trail and even though his bite isn't much worse than a bee sting, I gave him plenty of space.  This is a giant spider, about four inches across.  It weighs about thee ounces which is heavier than lots of birds.  He behaved like a top predator and marched through the terrain without fear.  In his world, I doubt that many creatures will mess with him.

Tarantula, Big Bend National Park, Texas, October, 2015


October 19, 2015 -- Thoughts at Big Bend

    (1.)  A very knowledgeable and helpful ranger (thanks to her I saw the Scaled Quail) told me about the Black Bears and Mountain Lions in the park and what to do if I see one.  She said that attacks on adults are extremely rare.  So it seems to me that to be completely safe from Mountain Lions, an adult should bring along a child.

    (2.)  On this mornings hike on the Window Trail, I brought all my gear, including a lightweight tripod for the camera, a lightweight tripod chair to sit on, lunch, drinks, and toilet paper in case the Pope shows up.  Now before anyone gets offended by the Pope remark, let me explain.  I had to plan one of my September birding trips to avoid traffic from the Pope's visit to Philadelphia.  I have not been keeping track of his itinerary and maybe he might show up in Big Bend.  I was thinking about the expressions that mean "It's obvious!" that are "Is the Pope Catholic?" and "Does a bear s@#t in the woods?"  The people that I know mix it up on purpose and say "Is a bear Catholic?" and "Does the Pope s@#t in the woods?"  So that's why I brought toilet paper for the Pope.  I wasn't trying to be offensive, blasphemous, or irreverent.  I was trying to be HELPFUL.  And even though the Pope did not make an appearance, the toilet paper still turned out to be useful.


along the Window Trail at Big Bend National Park, Texas, October, 2015


   On the Window Trail, a man and wife couple told me about a big beetle ahead on the trail.  When I saw it, I called them back.  "That's not a beetle!"   It was a huge scorpion!  The average size for this insects in Big Bend is about two inches.  This was lots bigger than that.  Easily three or four inches.  I stayed back and did the best I could to get his photo.  



Scorpion on the Window Trail, Big Bend, Texas, October, 2015  




October 20, 2015 -- Hot Springs and Rio Grande Village

    These two spots are close together and at the very southern edge of the park, along the Rio Grande River.  Hot Springs is a former resort started in 1909 and abandoned in 1952.  You get to it by a very narrow and winding dirt road that is really scary in some spots.  It isn't that you are so high up, if you drive off the edge.  It's partly because you feel like you are out in the middle of nowhere and don't want to get stuck.  The buildings are nicely preserved.  The Rio Grande is just a quiet little stream here, not any bigger than some of the things we call creeks in our water rich northeast.  Walking along the river, you can see petroglyph markings on the cliffs left by long past Indian tribes.  You can also see markings in the mud along the river - some with boots like mine and some with bare feet.  It seems that many different cultures are leaving their marks in this spot.   It seems very old and still very alive.

    This is not a good time for birding at Hot Springs, but still I saw Rock Wrens, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Black Phoebes.

Mexico on the other side of the Rio Grande stream at Hot Springs, Big Bend, Texas, October, 2015




purple bush at  Hot Springs, Big Bend, Texas, October, 2015  



Rock Wren at Hot Springs, Big Bend, Texas, October, 2015  



Abandoned store at Hot Springs, Big Bend, Texas, October, 2015  



 Rio Grande Village

     There is a very large RV and tent campground here, mostly empty during this non-peak period.  The Visitor Center closed here for the summer and hasn't reopened yet.  Too hot and humid.  Even the famous Black Hawks are nowhere to be seen, although I did get a good picture of the nest they built surprisingly close to the RV campground. 

    The birds that I did see were Roadrunners, Cooper's Hawk, Vultures (including one so big that I thought briefly that it might be a condor!), Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, and Western Wood-Pewee.


Roadrunner at Rio Grande Village, Big Bend, Texas, October, 2015  



old man of the desert, Rio Grande Village, Big Bend, Texas, October, 2015  


October 21 -- more thoughts at big Bend along the Window Trail - "Vivid Seeing"

    I was thinking about how the brain steps up the amount of data that it processes in an emergency (look at the very last entry in the Rio Grande Valley posting titled "more about how memory works") as I was walking on the Window Trail.  I noticed how vivid the scenery looked.  I expect that the experience of having the scenery or an event appear super realistic or vivid is something that most people have experienced.  Maybe for a few minutes or an hour on a beautiful day, when things are going just right, you look around and the world looks really bright and scintillatingly beautiful.  I'll call that "vivid seeing".  So when I had that experience this morning, I wondered, "how does this work?"  I am pretty sure -- having done absolutely no research -- that it is a less dramatic instance of the response of heightened awareness that occurs in an emergency situation.  In both scenarios, the emergency and the episode of vivid seeing, the brain is putting more power into an expansion of the sensory input that it processes.

    Here's what happened today;  it's different than what I've previously experienced.  While I was enjoying the brilliant cactus and brush studded field in front of me, startling green because of three inches of rain the previous week (the region usually gets fifteen inches per year), I noticed a tiny bird sitting quietly atop a far away bush.  I thought that with just normal seeing, I would not have seen that bird.  Automatically I took the bird's picture.  It's not a keeper.  The bird turned his head.  Anyway, when I looked back at the slope, the vivid seeing was gone and everything looked just normally nice.  Of course, I was disappointed.  But thinking that this way of seeing was something that the brain just turns on, I wondered if I could flip the switch on purpose.  I tried.  It worked.  I went back to seeing the world in a super clear, super bright, super realistic way. 

    I think that with practice, I can learn to do this whenever I want to.  This would be a bad thing to do all the time.  For example, doing this while driving a car might get you killed; doing this at work might get you fired; doing this while watching TV would be just stupid.  How do you do it?  That's exactly like asking how do you touch your nose.  You have learned to move your finger to your nose as a routine and easy thing to do.  But how do you make your brain fire to accomplish the action?  You don't know and you don't care.  It's the same with this.  You just need to play with it until it becomes like touching your nose. 

    I walked down the trail practicing vivid seeing.  Later I thought that this is what I was after when I left Pennsylvania for Big Bend.  Finding a nugget of avian treasure on a long distance quest is nice.  A quiet place to write is nice.  Vividly seeing the world is better than nice.


October 19 and 21, 2015 -- The Window Trail

    I spent most of my birding time at Big Bend hiking on the Window Trail.  That's because it was recommended as one of the two best birding sites in the park, because I was seeing interesting birds, and because I like this walk.  It ends in a long, cool canyon with high walls (100 to 150 feet).  At the end of the canyon the trail stops at an opening onto a cliff face between two high steep edges that look like a window.  Most hikers have this beautiful ending to the trail as their objective.  I liked it some, but I preferred the canyon floor and sides where tiny birds were flitting about.  These included:  Mexican Jays, Red-tailed Hawks, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Lesser Goldfinch, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Red-naped Sapsucker, Northern Flicker, Say's Phoebe, Black-crested Titmouse, Canyon Wren, Cactus Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Spotted Towhee, Vesper Sparrow, Black-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco (a western sub-species), Cardinals, and the birds that I mentioned seeing on the first walk.  In particular, another birder and I spent a good bit of time watching and identifying Rufous-headed Sparrows.  These are another one of the birds that have just a tiny U. S. range extending out of Mexico.  


Spotted Towhee, Window Trail, Big Bend, Texas, October, 2015  



Acorn Woodpeckers, Window Trail, Big Bend, Texas, October, 2015  



Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Window Trail, Big Bend, Texas, October, 2015  



butterfly, Window Trail, Big Bend, Texas, October, 2015  



October 19 thru 23, 2015 -- Camping at Big Bend

    It doesn't rain much in the Chisos Mountains, but there is a fair amount of wind at night.  Both were factors leading to my decision to leave the top fly off of the tent.  Without the sail-like top cover, the wind will just blow through the screens of the body of the tent.  I'll lose rain protection, some privacy, and some warmth -- all of these not a big deal.  I'll gain a fabulous view of the total dark sky above while I stay warm in my sleeping bag.

    The first night, while waiting to get sleepy, I pulled out a copy of "Return to Wild America" by Scott Wiesenthal and reread his chapter on his Arizona visit.  The book is a tribute to another book that's titled "Wild America that was inspirational to Wiesenthal an many others.  In that book, two great naturalists trek from Nova Scotia, down the east coast, through the Everglades and the Gulf coast, into Mexico, up California, and ending in the Aleutian Islands.  Wiesenthal did the same trip as a 50 year anniversary tribute and also as a checkpoint/commentary on the changes in the state of the environment over those years.  Although my little trip overlaps partly on the trips of these three great naturalists, I'm not pretending to be on a similar mission.  Here's the main reason that I'm not.  These guys knew and know a lot -- a real lot.  They dedicated their lives to learning about nature, not as part-time hobbyists who have birded for a long time and so know a lot about that.  They lived/live as full-time scientists and researchers and writers and philosophers.  Just so that you will know that I'm not just blowing smoke on this, here are a few sentences from the chapter I was reading in "Return to Wild America": 

    ...  it's on page 204 and currently buried under a bunch of camping equipment.  It may take a few days for me to get it back out ...

    ...     "The sulphur-bellied flycatchers...   ...the rarest butterflies in the United States."


    Wiesenthal knows nature -- rocks, fish, trees, flowers, birds, insects.  He knows people.  He knows conservation and nature politics.  He knows how to tell a story. 

    Seeing how far away from this standard that I am and that in the time that I have left on the planet that there is no chance for me to bridge that gulf, common sense dictates that there is no point in my continuing this activity.  A better use of any reader's time will always be to pick up one of these author's really fine books that are packed with good info.  But I'm a stubborn person -- half Polish American and the other half a mix of many of the other stubborn ethnic groups (including Native American) that form an American spirit.  So I'll keep going anyway.  Maybe I'll discover something useful about lichens.

    Putting the book down, I switched off the lantern and was plunged -- not into blackness -- into starlight.  I could still see the ridge of mountains near my campsite.  I could still see a lot of the objects around me, although they were shadowy and presented as contrasts of their whites and darks.  The sky above was a panorama of light -- black with points of light bright and sharp, others fuzzy and sometimes blending together to make a glow.  The moon is waxing now and more than a quarter.  So that also spread its ethereal light on the ground around me.  Gazing up into the night sky, comfortable and warm on my makeshift bed, I thought that relevancy might not be a requirement.  It might be enough to just want to see some of this stuff for myself. 



Mountain and sky from the Chisos Basin campground, Big Bend, Texas, October, 2015 


Bird blind at the Chisos Basin campground, Big Bend, Texas, October, 2015  -- I actually did see birds from the hammock, including a Ladderback Woodpecker.




night sky at Chisos Basin campground, Big Bend, Texas, October, 2015  


Logistics -- Useful if you are going to this park

    There are lodges in the park that are really expensive.  I priced them at $175 and $153 for the days that I was there and there were only a few rooms available.  I did not check out the inside of the rooms, but the outsides look just like an average motel.  So don't expect a fancy resort room, if you go this route.  The appeal is a comfortable room in the heart of the park. 

    The nearest rooms outside the park are in Marathon.  I really liked the Marathon Motel and Campground.  I expect that the Gage Hotel and the other places in the town are also good, but I don't know.  The key here is that the advertised distance to the park of 36 miles is true, but misleading.  That just gets you to the border of the park.  It's another 29 miles to the Visitor Center and after that about 20 more miles to the Chisos Mountain trails or about 30 miles to Rio Grande Village.  The park is huge.  So if you are staying in Marathon, which many people do, you need to account for an hour and a half driving one way into the park and the same back out each day.

    A good way to go is to camp.  It's safe and fun and $14 per night ($7 for Seniors with a Lifetime pass).  There are no showers.  That wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.  The process is a little quirky.  The park campgrounds do not take reservations.  You arrive, pick an unclaimed site, and then register.  The problem is that the campground does fill up and I don't know what you are supposed to do when that happens.  You probably will be able to get a site the next day, but you may need to be flexible for a night.  Young adults-- no problem.  This could be an issue for families with small children.  Be prepared with a backup plan and don't arrive late in the day and be surprised if the campground is full.


My tent site at Big Bend