Big Bird Bend

Instead of just plugging away at the drive from Florida to Colorado, we decided that we needed at least one more little adventure. I had found an article about the top ten state and national parks in Texas, which listed Big Bend National Park as #1, and birding as one of its main attractions. Hmmm. Camping gear, check. A little time for the drive and to see the park, check. Reservations, not needed in summer. (Note: that should give one pause.) Binoculars, check. OK, let’s do it.

Getting to the park is, as Maureen mentioned, quite a bit of driving. The ranger at the main visitor center at Panther Junction advised us that Rio Grande Village, where we had planned to camp, was in fact the best choice (a) with a dog and (b) for birding. We arrived and set up camp, and immediately started seeing birds. The first red bird to visit our site was a Summer Tanager. Later, though, we saw many Vermilion Flycatchers, which have dark backs and a dark mask and are otherwise bright red and beautiful. They appear to like the low-hanging branches of trees.

Other birds that came by included White-winged Doves, a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Greater Roadrunners (fun!), and Turkey Vultures, of course. Some inconsiderate campers had left food out, which is against park rules because of javelinas, and had attracted a number of vultures.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

The bird highlight of the day for me was spotting a painted bunting on our evening walk. Its colors are so varied and bright as to seem almost unreal. It was too far away for a photo (you can see one here), but seeing it was a treat.

The next morning, we took a walk as soon as we were up, postponing breakfast to maximize coolness and (hopefully) bird sightings. It was a really great walk for birds! We headed from the campground towards Daniels Ranch. We saw many flycatchers and other songbirds, several woodpeckers, and one hawk that we think may have been a Swainson’s Hawk.

After camp breakfast, Maureen and I hiked the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail separately, since no dogs are allowed on the trail. It was hot by this time, so we both saw a blue heron, but no other notable birds. The views of the Rio Grande were a bit underwhelming–much different from what I expected. There were also small “displays” of wire animals in a few places on the ground, with prices and money jars. We had been warned against buying illegal goods from sellers near the border, but I didn’t know they would be selling right on the trails. 


When I returned from my turn on the trail, we opted to go for a drive and see some other parts of the park. Part of our motivation was the heat–in the 80s and climbing. Several miles up the road we stopped at a picnic area at Dugout Wells. There were Cottonwood trees there, which Maureen learned from the interpretive sign is usually an indication of water nearby. It was somewhat shady, and we ate a quick lunch from the cooler. We also met a man who was bicycle touring, but had stopped to “wait out” the hot part of the day. We gave him some water and wished him well, but as I’m writing this 6 hours later and it’s still brutally hot, I do wonder about how he fared. (We later heard from this bicyclist that he had survived, but that he did not need to ride in Big Bend in the late spring again.) The views from this spot were spectacular, too.

Our next objective was Chisos Basin, which is kind of an island of mountains within the desert park. It is here that the park’s lodge and restaurant are located. It is also about 15 degrees cooler than the desert portion on this hot day. We both did the Window View hike (again separately) and enjoyed the vistas.

After a shared cold soda and replenishing the cooler ice, we headed back towards camp. We side-tripped to the Boquillas overlook past the Boquillas Border Crossing (not open today). We did not get out of the car, however, as some of the trinket sellers were there and no other tourists were around. We did get some nice views of the river and the fantastic Boquillas Canyon. 

By this time it was about 3:30 pm and we began to really understand why reservations are not required for camping in Big Bend from mid-April to mid-November. There was no shade at our site and the car reported a temperature of 99 degrees! We took shelter in one of the empty concrete-pad and shelter sites and, like our biking acquaintance, proceeded to “wait out” the heat. About two hours later, we were able to return to a small bit of shade in our site. The camp store (the only air-conditioned building available within twenty miles) was already closed, and we had no other place to stay for the night, so we really had few good options. At least at the site Rebbe could dig a hole in the dirt for himself. I wished I could tolerate the insects enough to do the same!

We toughed out the rest of the evening, cooking dinner once we could stand to light the camp stove, and then heading for the showers. The shower provided only a temporary relief, but they did have wifi in the shower area, so we had a moment of communication with the outside world. The temperature was still in the 90’s when we went in the tent, so both sides of the fly were left open. This meant many insects were dive-bombing the tent (luckily being kept out) until we turned off our headlamps. The heat made it a rough night, which meant we were up and ready to go early the next day. All in all, we were happy about adding Big Bend to the adventure.

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