Everyone has that bucket list trip they want to experience. It is usually that far-off place that appears in magazines or everyone else’s Christmas card photos, but some day it may be a reality for you. This year, I had an opportunity to cross something off of my bucket list. My location of choice was the deserts of west Texas.
Why here you ask? My birds of choice to observe are warblers. These delicate little creatures travel hundreds of miles from the tropical rain forests back to North America every spring to sing their high-pitched warbling song from the treetops. When they aren’t singing they are actively hovering and foraging about the dense foliage of trees looking for insects to eat. Many are very brightly colored and pleasing to the eye.
Through the course of 30 years, I have had the fortune of observing all but two species of regular occurring warblers in the United States. One of these species includes the Colima warbler, a regular nester confined to the pine-oak forests in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park.
Finally, mid-May came and my bags were packed, all preparations completed. I kissed my wife goodbye and boarded a plane destined for El Paso, Texas. Once there, a rental was secured and a five-hour drive ensued to our destination. We drove through pounding rains with some stretches of hail on the road looking like March rather than May. Luckily the hail was on the ground, not pounding on the vehicle.
We found our destination with ease, and met another couple who were waiting and got a good night’s sleep. The day had finally arrived, the hike of the grueling Pinnacles trail up into the Chisos Mountains. An internet search reveals the trail is 3.1 miles long, ascending 1,664 feet to an elevation of just under 7,000 feet with an average grade of 10% up to 26%.
With a flashlight in hand, we started up the trail early. Occasionally birds were waking up and belting into song, such as rufous-crowned sparrow, cactus wren and black-crested titmouse. Soon we began encountering more unique species such as Mexican jay and a band-tailed pigeon. We pressed on, reaching the ridgeline in three hours to be greeted by white-throated swifts whizzing by. With boomerang wings, they swiftly fly through the air in search of airborne insects.
We were now on the trail into Boot Springs Canyon. Our bird of choice could be anywhere now; however, after 1.3 more miles we didn’t hear what we were hoping for. The scenery was stunning, however, with jagged peaks and rock walls all around. Occasional views spanned for miles as we were on top of the world in this small isolated mountain range.
As luck would have it, we ran into another birder. This was his second attempt at the Colima warbler. So the regular pleasantries were exchanged, and the obvious question … have you seen it yet? With a grin, the gentleman says to us, "I heard a couple along the trail thus far, how about you?" Sheepishly we said, "No, we haven’t had luck." He says, "Well, I hear one chipping now, over this way. You hear that?" and he points in time with the sound.
Granted, I am hearing impaired, so I was not picking up on the sound, but my group all break out in smiles. I looked carefully in the direction they focused on. Low and behold, I saw something. A small gray nondescript bird moved about the oaks up the hillside. As we watched the bird finally the bird broke into the clear, showing an obvious large white eye-ring, drab gray body but a bright yellow under-tail. That’s it!
Seemingly a pair moved in tandem through the oaks, keeping in contact by the chipping the gentleman pointed out. Not the most beautiful bird in the world, but a definite prize in our book! Unfortunately they moved too quickly to afford good views with a camera, and after a few exhilarating minutes they drifted out of sight.
We would get a couple other views of this prized bird later, but believe it or not, these birds would not be the crowning moment of the trip. Stay tuned for my next installment!