By Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager
West Texas is a land of few people, wide open spaces, and rugged mountains at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert. This desert extends far south into Mexico, and is far from a lifeless, brown expanse. On the contrary, it is a land full of birds, wildlife, and a wide diversity of plants. In the third week of April, I led a group of 11 DNS members to west Texas for a week of wildlife, wildflowers, and wild scenery. John Harrod, a Texas native and Dupont Environmental Education Center Manager was my co-leader and did a great job identifying the multitudes of wildflowers we saw. West Texas had received a healthy dose of rain prior to our trip, and we were told it was the best wildflower bloom the area had seen in 30 years. Lucky us!
Our trip focused on exploration of the Davis Mountains and Big Bend National Park. These are mountainous areas that rise above the low-lying Chihuahuan Desert that are cooler, wetter, and contain stands of pine/oak/juniper forest. The first part of our trip found us in the Davis Mountains which are a hotbed of bird activity. We focused on finding some of the specialties of the area and stayed at Davis Mountains State Park which has a nice bird feeding station. This is the most reliable spot in the world to see the Montezuma Quail, one of the most sought-after birds of our trip. In the days leading up to our visit, however, it had not been seen. Luckily, while we lingered at the feeding station on our first morning, a beautiful male waddled down out of the grassland and into plain view below the feeders.
This trip was timed to take advantage of relatively cool temperatures, the peak of the cactus bloom, as well as the onset of bird migration. It made for a very full and exciting adventure with many thrilling discoveries. The cacti bloom was a treat, and some of the names bring to mind painful images. Horse crippler, devils’ head, prickly pear, pincushion, and fishhook cactus all conjure dense thorns and bloody fingers. Seeing these amazing plants in bloom, however is a different story. Most sport large, lovely, colorful flowers, and some have names that reflect this quality, such as rainbow cactus and strawberry cactus. One of the most abundant in the Davis Mountains is the Claret cup cactus, which is eye-catching, and set a high bar early in the trip.
Part of our visit to the Davis Mountains included a guided tour of the botanic gardens at the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute. Our plant identification skills were boosted considerably by their very knowledgeable and friendly staff. We ended up staying there the whole day, and hiked into a beautiful canyon and to the top of a rocky hilltop for amazing views and a geological interpretive experience of the area.
The second half of the trip was an adventure deeper into the Chihuahaun Desert and much further from civilization. The much-anticipated Big Bend National Park rose in the distance as we neared it. It’s tall desert peaks began as small hills, but arose as fiery, wild and craggy snags as we approached. This is one of the most beautiful places in the desert southwest, if not the entire United States.
On our first full day in the park, half of the group hiked 11 miles around Emory Peak while the rest of the group ventured to the west end of the park. The avian reward of the 11-mile hike is the chance to find one of the rarest birds in the United States…the Colima Warbler. This small brown bird lives mostly in the mountains of northern Mexico, but it is also found in the oak forests of the Chisos Mountains in the park…the only place they nest in the U.S. After speaking with multiple people who where hiking the trail opposite us who had ALL seen a few of the warblers, the pressure was on to find it. We found ourselves in the spot where they are most likely to be heard and seen. (Click below to hear the song).
It was a steep slope of dense oak high up on the mountain. We heard two of the birds singing, but could not find them. We zig-zagged up and down the switchback trails to get a look. Finally, it was singing very close, and was in plain view! Everyone got a wonderful look at it, and we breathed a sigh of relief.
Meanwhile, the other half of the group was having fun along the Rio Grande. This river courses through high-walled canyons in sections of the park, and it is extremely dramatic. The only disappointment is the size of the river itself, which is pitifully small compared to what it once was. Most of the water is siphoned off for human uses before it reaches the park.
We spent 3 glorious days in Big Bend National Park, learning about the geology, plants, birds, and other wildlife, and took in the scenery around every curve of the paths and roads we traveled. After we left the park, we stayed at the famous Gage Hotel in Marathon, Texas. This hotel combines Texas, Cowboy, and Mexican architecture, art, and culture with luxurious accommodations and food. What a top-notch way to end the trip!
This week-long Delaware Nature Society trip will be offered again in April of 2016. If you are interested, please contact us at 302-239-2334 ext. 134 to be added to the list of interested persons. More information will be available soon.