Big Bend National Park, Brewster County, TX - Guided Bird Trip with Melody Kehl for a single bird

April 15-19, 2015
Seven months ago when a birding friend and I hired Melody Kehl, of Tucson, as our guide to find the Five-striped Sparrow in a gulch very close the Mexican border, she invited us to join her trip to Big Bend National Park in the spring to see the rare Colima Warbler. Since my goal is to see as many North American birds as possible, I knew that Big Bend was the only place in the USA to see that bird. So, I jumped in on the trip and had been looking forward to it ever since. The best thing about Melody’s trip was that she knew a shorter distance to see the bird than most other guides I had researched. For her trip, she expected a maximum of five miles round trip on a steep trail rather than the nine to fifteen miles that other guides had mentioned.

Day #1 April 15th:
When April rolled around, preparations for the trip took precedence over some of my other birding options. When April 15th arrived, I was at Melody’s door at 6:15 a.m., ready to join them (her husband, Erich, helped drive). On our way to El Paso to meet other participants, we stopped in San Simon, AZ along I-10 East, to pick up Jackie Lewis, one of Melody’s support team. Jackie has the distinction of being the sole year-round resident in the town of Paradise in the Chiricahua Mountains of SEAZ. She operates the George Walker House B&B and her yard provides great habitat and feeders for birds — a must stop for many birders.

At the Roadrunner Rest Area in the Las Cruces area, we ate lunch (Melody provided salads for us) and birded lightly.

Sculpture made of recycled materials
L-R: Melody Kehl and Jackie Lewis

A later stop at the Deming Cemetery, NM, provided our best “bird fix” along the way. We saw more than 20 American Robins, 4 Western Kingbirds, a Wilson’s Warbler and the usual desert suspects. My best sighting was a Gray Flycatcher, one of my favorites.

Of the fourteen invited participants, six of them who lived in Texas planned to meet us at Big Bend for dinner. The other five had flown into El Paso. The birder I had met at the Tubac Hawk Watch (Bob Acton) was one of the five we met there. An older woman, Lynne, was 72, so we were the two oldest on the trip. Birding photographer,"Beno", and Grant and Lea filled out our group. After meeting one another in the lobby of the Quality Inn, the eight of us enjoyed a very good Mexican meal at a hole-in-the-wall family-owned restaurant (L & J Cafe) that’s been in business since 1927. When we saw about 50 cars parked in the alley restaurant area upon arrival, we figured this low-end section of town was indeed the "#1 spot" for dinner.

Day #2 April 16th:
Up early for our 7:00 a.m. departure from El Paso, both the van and the car from Tucson headed south for Big Bend National Park. For our packed lunches, we stopped to eat and to bird at Fort Davis County Park in Jeff Davis County. My favorite sightings there were the Eastern form of the Curve-billed Thrasher, two Cassin’s Kingbirds and one Lark Sparrow.

Lunch at Fort Davis County Park (photo below)

Eastern form Curve-billed Thrasher (note the anatomy)
Lark Sparrow

And, then, we arrived.

Melody's birding group at Chisos Mtn Lodge Dining Room

View from the deck outside my room. Note the pinnacles in the background. 

The elevation of this rock below, known as Casa Grande, was at an elevation of 7325'.  I could also see this from my back deck and I'm showing it here because it became my "guide" on the trek for the Colima Warbler.

Casa Grande

Day #3 April 17th:
By 6:50 a.m., all fourteen of us were on the Pinnacles Trail in search of a single bird. I've read that fewer than 200 pair of Colima Warblers arrive in Big Bend NP in early April to nest and raise young before returning in August to their home in the Sierra Madre Occidental of Central Mexico. To see the bird requires hiking up to its habitat.
From the moment we stepped foot on the Trailhead at Chisos Basin, I knew it was steeper and rougher than I had imagined from photos of nice dirt trail with pebbles. We started with thick loose gravel and built-in steps. Immediately, I opened my trekking poles and used them the entire time, both up and down the trail. I would use almost every last drop of the 100 ounces of water I carried in my CamelBak, plus using all 8 or 10 Clif Blok energy chews with electrolyte support that Melody provided for us. 

Motivating all of us was a very tiny little brownish-gray warbler with a white eye ring and golden under-tail coverts. After the rough beginning, the trail did smooth out into dirt trail but still included a lot of "steps".

And higher still, the trail stretched out toward Casa Grande rock.

Birdsong and birds accompanied us. Mexican Jays were our constant companion looking for handouts but we were stingy with our supplies. The Black-crested Titmouse was a Life Bird for some. It's raised black crest begins right above its pale forehead; its little dark eye and short dark bill are also easy to spot on its light face.

Best sightings for me on the upward trail were the White-throated Swifts and two Golden Eagles. With the eyes of so many birders, we also spotted a Zone-tailed Hawk.

These birders, new to me, teased me about hiking in high heels because I wear Z-Coil hiking boots with a strong spring in the heel. I've worn them for over ten years to help alleviate compression in my lower back; they're my shock absorbers. But I do watch my step, so I was not actively birding while we hiked but stopped to look at birds that other people called.

Because Melody didn't hear the Colima Warbler at her usual 1.5 mile marker up the trail, she asked if we wanted to continue. Of course we did; so upward we walked to Emory Peak Saddle and rested there for 15 minutes before heading toward Emory Peak. With no sound of the Colima on that trail, we returned to the Saddle and turned on the Boot Springs Canyon Trail where, eventually, we did hear our target bird, the Colima! But we were up on a trail; the warblers were down in the water in a huge tangle of shrubbery, vines and fallen limbs, perhaps 75' below us. 

COLIMA WARBLER was heard down in the Boot Spring far below us in the cottonwoods 

Having already hiked upward over four miles, we had little desire to go downhill for another mile or more to search for the bird. After listening to its call several times, we began our return. There was no "pishing" or using song-playback for it in the National Park.

Melody and happy birder coming toward the saddle from Boot Springs Canyon

Grant, Bob and Lynne
Resting at Emory Peak Saddle (trailhead for Boot Springs Trail)

The best sighting I recall on the return trek was the large bird found by Kay, a very new birder who saw it first but didn't know what it was. Even Melody was surprised to have the Band-tailed Pigeon.
Band-tailed Pigeon (photo by Bob Acton)

Coming to terms with the disappointment of not seeing our bird, but definitely glad we had heard it, we relished another good long rest to "listen for the bird".

After the rest period, we continued down the mountain at our own speed. The younger ones were soon out of sight.

We shared our food with the Mexican Jays and watched them come close.

We had hiked up and past all those pinnacles I could see from my room at the Lodge
I started feeling some shooting pain in the cartilage around my left knee. My knee braces didn't seem to be helping. Melody had some heat-producing ointment that we applied and I continued on. She told me it would not be long before we were all the way down. But I remembered Casa Grande and we were right beside it.

Casa Grande rock from Pinnacles Trail

Probably, we were only half-way down the mountain. As the knee continued to give way during the descent, I began to walk for about five minutes, then rest for one; repeatedly down the "hill".  Four of us went down together: Lea, Jackie, Melody and me. I called us the Final Four. But after 12 hours on the trails, I was glad to reach the trailhead where the van awaited us. Jackie, an EMT, suggested I ice the knees so I skipped dinner with the group to do so. Later, I rubbed my legs and knees with Bio Freeze, took an Aleve and slept soundly.

Day #4 April18th
Before breakfast, we birded the grounds of the Chisos Basin Lodge.  A Summer Tanager and Scott's Oriole were the highlights.  
I felt very good. No pain and my knees were working well. Others were quietly sharing their aches and pains.
On our way to Rio Grande Village, we stopped at Panther Junction where we saw three Scaled Quail, a Yellow and Wilson's Warbler as well as a Cassin's Sparrow.

Rio Grande Village was full of birds so we all came to life again!  Several sightings were First of Year (FOY) for me: Yellow-breasted Chat, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, and Brown-crested Flycatcher. Much of the excitement here was finding birds on nests (Vermilion Flycatcher, Black-chinned Hummingbird and Black Hawk).
Blue Bonnets
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Summer Tanager
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Brown-crested Flycatcher 
Common Black Hawk

The male Black Hawk was hunting for the female on the nest. Each time he'd drop down for prey, she would call out, making us wonder just what it was she was saying!
Our final stop on our final birding day was at Christmas Mountain Oasis. An older woman named Carolyn had created this habitat for birds and wildlife and by reservation, we had come to enjoy whatever showed up. What a nice set up for photographs and good birds!
Varied Bunting
Green-tailed Towhee
Lincoln's Sparrow
Varied Bunting 
Sun setting on Christmas Mountains
Lazuli Bunting (unusual coloring)
White-crowned Sparrow (Gambelli's) & Pyrrhuloxia
Elf Owl (male & female) Nest hole below the branch   [Photo from Bob Acton]
On the dark dirt and rough road out of Christmas Mountain Oasis, I was riding in the second car in which the radio wasn't working. There was a Common Poorwill that flew down to the road in front of Melody's lead car (I missed seeing it) and a second sighting was funny because of Joan's personality. She's a good-natured go-getter and carries a good-sized camera. The lead car radioed a sighting of something big by the side of the road,(a message our vehicle didn't get) so as we all moved slowly forward Joan lowered her window and was prepared to take a photo. When she asked where "it" was, she was told it was right in front of her. She jumped back, raised the window and didn't take a photo. A Mountain Lion had been looking into her eyes - too close to photograph!
"The Window"     [Photo from Bob Acton]

Day #5 April 19th:
After breakfast, we said "Good-Bye" to the Texas participants and departed the Chisos Mountains Lodge at 8:15 a.m. for El Paso. Our one pause, other than rest stops, was at Marfa Courthouse where we stretched our legs and enjoyed the Pine Siskins in the lawn, the Inca Doves sipping dew from blades of grass, the Barn and Cliff Swallows overhead and a single Western Kingbird on a utility wire.
In El Paso, we parted ways with those flying out from the airport or staying another night at the motel.
When we dropped Jackie at her place in the Chiricahuas, it was tough to turn and leave without doing more birding!
It was almost midnight when I reached home. And, despite not seeing the bird I had longed to view, the overall birding on the trip was awesome. We tallied a total of 92 species between 4/17 & 4/19. A definite "thumbs up" for a well-planned trip! 

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