Birder Interrupted, Ch 26, Up the River and Around the Bend

Up the River and Around the Bend

22 April 2005

Heat and humidity surrounded us as we checked out of our motel. It was oppressive late last afternoon when we finally took advantage of the motel swimming pool. Strangely, we were the only ones taking the plunge. The cruel weather this morning invited another dip, but Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and four target species had greater pull.

Access to the 587-acre park was restricted to walking, biking and a tram. The sun biting through the steamy air ruled out walking. As for a tram ride, we were sure we could do better with bikes. We thought the biking meant two separate bikes but it meant side-by-side bikes welded together like a large toy. The target birds were waiting, and we paid the rental fee. The faster we pedaled the greater the airflow. That was cooling, but the effort to pedal was not. Our first stop was Kingfisher Overlook where three British citizens birded and a Green Kingfisher foraged. I then proceeded to get us lost by insisting to go the wrong direction. After some unnecessary pedaling, we arrived at the trail to our goal, the trailer loop. The park closed it recently but I wanted to see where RV birders once lived and attracted chachalacas, Green Jays, Altamira Orioles, Blue Buntings and other lower Rio Grande specialties. The area was a RV ghost town, devoid of people and birds. We found the tree a ranger said was home to an Elf Owl. If the owl was there, it was not going to come out in the hot sun. Linda also found a javalina and while ogling it, the beast made its displeasure known by coming uncomfortably close to her. We trudged back to our four-wheel hell on wheels, which was no longer in the shade. We climbed on, gripped the hot handlebars and pedaled with our last moment of strength. Somehow, we managed to see 13 species of birds before collapsing in the cool air-conditioned visitor center. I sped my recovery by standing in front of a huge fan, not caring that the heat and odor from my body was wafting out into the room. While I was beginning to feel better, Linda stared out the window at a White-throated Robin. By the time I drug myself to the window, the bird had disappeared. Barely invigorated by the new species, we braved the outside, thinking we could relocate the bird. We could not and we were soon numb by the heat so much we forgot to walk the few yards back to inform the park ranger about the rare thrush. All we cared about was dragging ourselves to the car.

In two days, Linda had seen two species that I missed. Yesterday was a Zone-tailed Hawk at Laguna Atascosa that she kept asking me to check. I didn’t even take a close look and dismissed it as a Turkey Vulture. Because the thrush was new, Linda poured over the details of her sighting and the field guide. Although neither of us had seen a White-throated Robin, her identification stands in my book. We both saw Ringed Kingfishers on the power line wires as our vehicle’s air conditioner roared on the way for a night in Zapata.

Before reaching Zapata, we detoured to San Ignacio for a chance for White-collared Seedeaters. We did not find them, but instead saw a half-dozen Red-billed Pigeons fly overhead. The pigeons and an immature Gray Hawk near the post office rounded out the day.

23 April

A quick check at the local cemetery for the White-collared Seedeater was a dead-end. From Zapata we backtracked south through the heat to bird the 0.85 acre Kepler Tract, an US Fish and Wildlife Service woods located adjacent to the famous Salineno Birder colony on the Rio Grande. Naturally, we became lost or at least unsure of our location, and I simply did not want to waste time taking wrong turns. We stopped at a small grocery store in the town of Salineno. A clerk walked me out to the road and pointed. A couple of miles later I thought we made a wrong turn, and stopped at a local fire station. If they did not know, who would? A staff member not only told me the directions, he came out to the road and pointed. We had earlier met people who didn’t know north from south, but here everyone seemed to go out of their way to get us to our destination. We finally arrived at the bank of the Rio Grande. It was no wonder that the fire department knew of the place. Much of it, including some out buildings burned a month ago.

The Salineno Birder Colony donated their 2-acre plot to the Lower Rio Grande Valley Land Trust to insure that it remains untouched. In return, the previous owners, including Pat and Gale DeWinds, permitted to use the region, had vacated for cooler climes. The bird feeders appear pecked clean. We were on our own. Because the area is, by some, as one of the best places to see Muscovy Ducks, we spent about an hour scanning up and down the river. I decided to walk the charred woods but did not see anything to write home about and joined Linda’s river vigil; if anyone was going to find the rare duck it would likely be her. Ten minutes passed before I left our observation post in Linda’s good stead. Walking up-stream, I found the woods unburned and occupied by a pair of Brown Jays tending an adult sized yellow-billed juvenile. I rushed back to retrieve Linda.

Besides the Brown Jays we saw, there was people activity. When we first arrived, we had noticed a big car containing a bird field guide. Two people returned while I was sifting through the burned Kepler Tract. Linda thought they might have been father and son. About the time the discovery of the jays, we heard a motor boat start from the south side of the river. The boat was small, and held two men, one operating the motor, the other looking at the banks. A few minutes later the boat disappeared only to return loaded with three women with anxious faces and a small child. The craft landed near us, the women disappeared into the vegetation, and the two men and the boat returned to the other side of the river. We pretended not to notice.

A quick tour at Chapeño produced Bronzed Cowbirds and Green Jays. Dwarfing them were eight Brown Jays, including a couple of yellow-billed juveniles. Altamira Orioles drifted through the vegetation and Black Vultures reminded us to stay healthy. Not far to the north was Falcon Dam, but we hurried back through Zapata and up the river north to Eagle Pass. The tropical lower Rio Grande was behind us. The West and western birds were ahead. Our trip list, standing at 258 species since Harrison, Arkansas, was growing every day. We were missing a few southeastern species, but we were not complaining. We had a profusion of sun borne vitamin D, toned a few hiking muscles and taken several chiggers on board. I had 21 bites and was still counting. DEET harnessed the mosquitoes slightly manageable, although the repellent did not agree with certain T-shirt dyes. We were closing in on a full month of fun on the road together.

*****

Not too many years after returning to Oregon in 1963, I worked in fire control, a part of the protection division of the National Park Service. When I walked through the burned and scorched trees of the Kepler Tract my thought was the fire did not appear to be naturally caused, but my opinion probably stemmed from my subconscious, of something already known but then forgotten. The fire was actually caused by a runaway trash fire, a fact learned while searching the web about 36 hours before we departed Oregon. The last few days before our departure were hectic times, worrying about details small and large, last-minute items to buy, phone calls and emails to make, and packing the car. According to the posted newspaper article on the web, the result of a wind-driven fire on 26 March destroyed two empty homes, then moved to the birder colony where it burned vegetation around the vacated lots in the birder colony, an out building, an owl house (not a typo for outhouse) and part of the Kepler Tract. The owl survived as did a building containing birdseed worth about $1,000. The 80 years of age Dewinds, who had evacuated the colony, moved back. They were reported to have seen several Brown and Green jays, Altamira and Audubon’s orioles and a Hook-billed Kite a few days after the fire. David Blankinship, wildlife biologist for Lower Rio Grande Valley and Santa Ana National Wildlife refuges, emailed me in early June that the vegetation of the area was recovering. He also related that the resident starting the fire was attempting to only burn trash that someone illegally dumped on his property. Nonetheless, he was given a citation for the damages.

The cause of the fire reminded me of campfires we later observed in an Arizona canyon. Based on stacks of water bottles and discarded garbage, the fires were apparently set by illegal immigrants. If one of those fires got out of control who would be cited? Because of the remoteness of the region, would the fire be controlled in due time? A truly controlled fire is one inside a good stove, but then you should be very careful. The politics of wildfires aside, recovery rate of the vegetation in dry Arizona would not be as rapid as in the tropical Kepler Tract. The Brown Jays and other birds at Salineno avoided the ashy Tract. Luckily, there was adjacent habitat on private land. Birds in the Arizona canyon might not be so fortunate. The Salineno resident living there has a stake in the community. Nonetheless, he was cited for his costly fire. For someone illegally passing through the Arizona Canyon, would the since of responsibility to community and laws pertaining to outdoor fires be observed?

During the planning stages of the 2005 trip, we included a visit to sites below Falcon Dam. Birding sites near the spillway and about two miles downstream from the spillway are well-known places to find species that might be difficult to locate elsewhere in the lower Rio Grande Valley. The area is a place for good possibilities to see Zone-tailed Hawk, Red-billed Pigeon, seedeaters, Green and Ringed Kingfishers, Hook-billed Kites, Muscovy Duck, Varied Buntings, Audubon’s Oriole and others. It is one, if not the only, place in Texas to possibly see Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and not pay a fee. Of course, there are no guarantees in what bird might be found, and in 2004, I began to realize there were no guarantees for access to Falcon Dam. Information became available that suggested that the region might be closed. I emailed and phoned a few local birders. No one was sure. Finally, I found the International Boundary and Water Commission Public Affairs Officer. An email reply stated that the area at and below the dam was closed. Dam. Reasons for the closure were not given, but after digging through layer upon layer of cyberspace I found that, apparently all dams on international borders were closed for reasons of national security. Maybe it was announced on CNN. Not ready to give up and as a firm believer that it never hurts to ask, I inquired about permission to access the area. My old Navy days in the bowels of the Pentagon or years at Smithsonian did not help. There was not even a reply. My last attempt to learn about the closure was met with an email from the Dam public affairs office. The river downstream from the dam was closed to protect “sensitive structures and instruments.” In addition, “they” wanted it closed to “prevent traffic from bypassing Port-of-Entry.” As David Letterman might say, “What! What!” “Look out!”

24 April

We nuked our morning oatmeal in the Eagle Pass motel, made a couple of canned chicken sandwiches for lunch and filled the gas tank for a 180-mile nonstop trek to Sanderson. The oatmeal and a couple of sandwiches meant not wasting time waiting in restaurants. Besides, we worried that the signs in most restrooms had to remind the staff to wash their hands. Perhaps we were also saving our health, not to mention preparing most of our food saved money. Linda’s immune system would not handle poorly handled food. We were eating fruit and salads kept fresh in our cooler, cooking with motel microwaves, and “cleaning” by using paper plates, plastic forks, sometimes using alcohol gel from a handy dispenser. The trade-off was some guilt that those throwaway items added to the Brownsville dumps of the world. We also had to make certain our blue ice packs were re-frozen, usually in a motel freezer, and occasionally partake in dreaded grocery shopping. Actually, the grocery shopping on hot days was a treat, especially in the frozen food section. Our motel at Eagle Pass was $63 including taxes, over $10 higher than the motel under the same franchise in Harlingen. Filling the 13-gallon gas tank this morning swelled our plastic account by $24.28.

A handy sack of Linda’s own blend of trail mix, sturdy, non-crushable cereals, nuts and raisins fortified our way across the Pecos River and into the western part of the state dubbed the Tran-Pecos. We entered the northern Chihuahuan Desert, a parched land of mountains and flats dotted with creosote and grasslands. Sanderson, the Cactus Capital of Texas, was our next stop. The old storefronts, a 1800s Spanish mission, adobe and faded wood buildings gave us a definite feeling that we had arrived in the west. Lack of a mall enhanced the quiet and isolated town. If there was a coffee to go establishment, we did not see it.  Desperadoes, including Poncho Villa, had toured Sanderson many decades before our arrival. I would have traveled through Sanderson in 1963 when the population was slightly over 2,000. Two years later flooding Sanderson Creek killed 24 and destroyed part of town. High unemployment, closure of the train depot and construction of nearby Interstate 10 were factors to bring the 1990 census to 1,128. Only 861 remained in Sanderson in 2000. Bids for tourism and ads for real estate may contribute to some growth in a town now needing to sell a coffee double espresso with a cherry for those needing tourist dollars.

A Curve-billed Thrasher foraged among buildings needing repair. The breast was pale, with prominent spots, and the ends of the underside of the tail feathers were obviously white. That would make it the subspecies oberholseri. The range for the subspecies in the fifth edition of the AOU Check-list is unclear. House Finches were abundant. Replacing the raspberry color we were accustomed to seeing was a cardinal hue of the southern subspecies potosinus. How do I know? Working on Oberholser’s birds of Texas during my museum days had exposed me to a few things and it was especially good to see them as live birds.

The landscape west of Sanderson was more open, less populated and wilder than most Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers’s westerns I saw at the movies in Harrison, Arkansas. Forbidden panorama that would suit the more realistic scenes behind Clint Eastwood and Tom Selleck faded in the horizons of all points of the compass. The region was also a good area to drive like hell, which we did, with the exception of watching the rear view mirror and slowing down to spend $25 for gas in Marathon. The town of about 800 grew by 200 since the early 60s.

With no time to spare, we headed south to Big Bend National Park. Located where the Rio Grande southeastward flow bends northeast, the park is about 25,000 acres shy of being as big as the King Ranch. Big Bend protects 118 miles of river shoreline, and 801,000 acres of wild desert and mountains ranging from nearly 2,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation. Big Bend is one of the least visited national parks. In 2004, 360,087 people visited the park, which are fewer than visited Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park on the lower Rio Grande. Only slightly over 114,000 visited the park in 1963. Almost half that amount came to the park during our April tour. Most of visitors at the Panther Junction Visitor Center were on big motorcycles. A quick check of recent sightings of birds inside the center was exciting. Common Black-Hawks were at Rio Grande Village and Colima Warblers were singing in the Chisos Mountains. One of the rangers at the desk said that the warblers were 2 miles up the Laguna Meadows Trail. Only two miles sounded good. Outside the center was an abundance of House Finches, a Curve-billed Thrasher and roaring hogs, the gas driven variety.

Our destination, a wide place in the road just west of the park, was about 30 minutes from Panther Junction. Emmons Peak loomed to a 7,852 feet, reaching skyward from the shoulders of the Chisos Mountains. We passed the Santa Elena Junction where the road wandered south past Sam Nail Ranch, a site on our itinerary. In a few more miles, we descended past the Maverick Mountains to the north and to the settlement called Study Butte. The Study part, pronounced “stoody,” is the way the settlements namesake pronounces it. However, we found people called the area Study Butte, pronounced Study as study for an exam or used the names Terlingua/Study Butte. Most referred to the area as Terlingua, even though the official Terlingua is a former nearby ghost town. Some residents claimed the area, the location of our motel, was East Terlingua. Both towns are the products of mining, mostly mercury, which may account for the confusion of the names of the two settlements. Most everyone we met in the area seemed sane. As for our location, wherever we were, we were there.

25 April

On the way to Terlingua, as our AAA guide would have us believe, Linda spotted our first Scaled Quail. I had not seen the species since I evaluated a new subspecies of Scaled Quail several years ago at Smithsonian. The birds were interesting not from a taxonomic perspective, but as living and beautiful entities. I marveled at how they blended into the gray-brown desert, but could not help thinking about their hybridizing with Gambel’s Quail. In 1963, Scaled Quail were in a genus separate from Gambel’s, California and Elegant quails. However, Lester Short, who held my friend Dick Bank’s job a few years earlier, had supposed that interbreeding of these quail was evidence to recognize only one genus. Thus, the genus Callipepla, which represented the Scaled Quail, and Lophortyx, which represented the other species of quail must have as their generic name, the older proposed genus Callipepla. Data would later support Short’s idea. As for me, Scaled Quail appeared uniquely fascinating, regardless of the fact that they sometimes fool around with Gambel’s Quail in western Texas.

This morning, I birded near the motel. What a pleasure. Most of the motels we had stayed were in no bird’s land unless you count grackles, starlings and House Sparrows. I recalled road trips with my parents. Habitat suitable for birds other than introduced starlings and House Sparrows surrounded about 50% of the motels we then lodged. I would bird a compound while the folks were packing up for the next round of miles. Frequently, I would find something new to add to my burgeoning life list. People now crowd those habitats of my youth. Today, I would enjoy where time had yet to leave its unrelenting mark. Exiting our Terlingua motel room, I crossed a worn board walkway. From the adjacent sandy parking lot, I turned to catch a Cactus Wren growling its song from the apex of the roof. A soft breeze perked up as the sun blazed from the horizon. Trekking toward the Rough Run and Dogie Mountains on a dirt road, I soon saw several Black-throated Sparrows, Pyrrhuloxia and a Scaled Quail singing from the top of a cactus. The museum side of me instantly thought that these remote quail must be pure strains. Populations of upland game birds often consist of introduced birds of mixed subspecies, making later identifications to subspecies difficult to impossible. The quail I was watching was unadulterated by reintroductions. It was a blue blood, a pure breed. One roadrunner stood as sentinel on a high barren mound overlooking the dry wash I was exploring and the motel beyond. A Cassin’s Sparrow was a surprising addition just before a couple of four-wheelers, those noise sputtering little off-road dirt bikes for people with balance problems, scared it and the roadrunner. For several minutes after the engine noise abated, the disturbed birds were stone quiet. As I hurried back, the quail called.

The drive back to Panther Junction was uneventful birdwise. Of course, the stone mountains and flowered desert were a major event, but we rushed to get to Rio Grande Village. We knew the lower 1,850-foot elevation would be hot. It was. Mark Flippo, park naturalist, had emailed a couple of months ago directions for our target, a Common Black-Hawk. More up to date directions at the visitor center sent us down the road past an RV camp to Daniel’s Ranch and a set of lofty cottonwoods. Linda, ever sharp-eyed, spotted an adult and the nest. After directions, including “no not that tree, the one to the right, “and the “third branch from the…,” I finally saw the adult. Eventually we located a second bird. We were happy to add it to our life lists. Moments later two Black-tailed Gnatcatchers and an unexpectedly yellow Bell’s Vireo revealed themselves. I was more used to seeing the pale grayish and white western subspecies of the vireo.

The heat and humidity were wearing us down as we drove to the end of the road and walked the short distance to the Rio Grande. South of the border was a Black Phoebe, just like the one wintering in our back yard in Oregon. We could not count it. Finally, it flew the short distance across the river and perched on a stem growing from U.S. soil. Number 279.

On the climb back up to Panther Junction, we stopped at K Bar to look for a power pole Jon Dunn had said to check. An Elf Owl had used an old woodpecker cavity. It was 4 pm, which was, of course, much too early for seeing the smallest of North American owls. We bumped back to the pavement and stopped at the visitor center. Panther Junction was again abuzz with motorcycles and their friendly pilots. A Cactus Wren was audible over the racket. I asked at the desk if Mark Flippo was in. He soon appeared. He looked busy. Recalling days at the museum, enduring budget cuts and increasing workloads, I understood and tried to be brief. Mark was enthusiastic but probably tired of people asking the old questions about finding Colima Warblers. He did have some new information, which I would try tomorrow, and he volunteered where to look for nightjars.

26 April

The alarm clock shook me in the early morning darkness. Linda’s immune system needed a day off. I left Terligua, alone, following the headlights into Big Bend. Phainopepla wings flashed in the rising sun a couple of miles west of the junction to the Chisos Basin. Turning right, I headed up Green Gulch and toward the strange rough mountain oasis. The origin of the name Chisos varies from a spelling after the Chizos Indians to a Spanish corruption from hechizos meaning bewitchment of enchantment. The Chisos Mountains, like a stony Phoenix rising from the parched ashes, are an eroded Cenozoic volcanic uplift that about 26 million years ago actually slide downward several thousand feet. Erosive forces continue in the austerely beautiful landscape.

The car heater melted the chill during the six-mile climb up Green Gulch. The park map marked the road to the basin as too winding for trailers over 20 feet and RVs over 24 feet. The twists, turns and climb brought ever-changing panorama that competed for the need for attention to driving. Larger and darker green plants more fond of environments that are more merciful replace the gray-green leaves of the dry hostile desert. Split second glimpses of Canyon Towhees and Mexican Jays slip into view before the next curve. I loved mountain driving, wished for the sports car of the mid 60s, and marveled at how blue headed were the Mexican Jays. With thoughts of old sports cars, how far I would have to hike to find Colima Warblers, Sterling Moss, would I even find the warbler, braking just before the next corner, what other birds might I see today, did I have enough water, it was a wonder I didn‘t wreck. Somewhere after the first sharp curves, I had forgotten that the eastern Mexican Jays are bluer than are those from Arizona. I did remember that the Canyon Towhee would have been Brown Towhees in 1963.

Chisos Basin was deep in the shadows of the mountains that virtually encircle it. After days of thorn forest and hot dry desert scrub, the comfort of high mountains and tall trees provides comfort. The thin soil supports Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and madrones, all trees familiar to a Northwesterner. The basin was awash in green lushness amid the rocks and clean mountain air. I was also energized because a life-long dream was, I hoped, about to happen. Even before I planned the 60s trip, I had daydreams about hiking in the Chisos Mountains and finding a Colima Warbler. During planning of the early leg of the trip, the Colima Warbler was the species that most compelled me to bird the United States. Beginning in 2004, I often joked to Linda that finding a Colima Warbler was maybe the most important reason for the trip. Now, I know that it was not. The most important part of the trip was the whole trip. However, I was standing in the Chisos Basin, staring up the face of the mountains, in the cusp of seeing a Colima Warbler. It was exciting. It was a beautiful time of expectations and unsurpassed scenery. In my very early dreams of this time, I was alone, but, today, this was a moment to share. I pretended Linda was at my side.

Outside the parked car, the shadows of the mountains, 2,000 feet above the 5400-foot Chisos Basin, gave a pleasant chill to the morning. Sunrise would be hours away here. Two hikers were tightening their bootlaces in the parking lot. I asked about Pinnacle Trail and mentioned Colima Warbler. “The what?” I explained that I was looking for a rare warbler that breeds in northern Mexico and only in the Chisos Mountains in the United States. “Oh, well, huh, good luck.” I walked down a few yards to the trailhead and began the trek to my dream bird.

At first, the trail is straight and easy, with vegetation and rocks mostly taller than I am. This seemed almost confining in contrast to the open and relatively flat terrain below. Sun was glancing from the summits of the peaks ahead, and a surprised Canyon Towhee jumped from the dimly lit trail. Loose rocks crunched under each step. Soon I was climbing a stairs cut into the trail. Small plateaus, flat and grassy, were interspersed between long and steep climbs. I had heard that decades ago that cattle and horses grazed over much of the park, including Chisos Basin. I did see old but familiar horse or mule droppings along the trail. About three-fourths of the way to the summit a pair of Scott’s Orioles entered my mind. I needed to divert my mind from wondering which was going to come first, running out of water or strength. Despite earlier training, this was the first non-horizontal hiking I had done in a month. The old lure of what was around the next bend and the possibility kept me going. Before I could say switchback, I was climbing higher to the right, then the left, and in the region where Mark Flippo said to look for the warblers. A largish bird flew across the trail. What was the silent bird? I could not relocate it. On the drive from Terlingua, I had listened to the CD track of the target about 20 times. The pay-off was two Colima Warblers heard singing somewhere between the 5th to 8th switchbacks. I’m not sure. I lost count between grappling for rarified air and catching my first view of a Colima. One male came into view. It reminded me of a large and faded Nashville Warbler. Lloyd M. Bentsen, son and nephew of the Bentsens who donated property that became Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, once said, “I knew John F. Kennedy, Mr. Quail, and, believe me, you are no John F. Kennedy.” I knew Nashville Warblers, but the bird I was seeing was no Nashville Warbler. This was my dream warbler, better than a Kirtland’s and somehow more exciting than the probably extinct Bachman’s Warbler I missed by months in 1962.

By 11:30 am, I had seen Spotted Towhees more spotted than most subspecies, White-throated Swifts twittering in and around the cliffs, heard Canyon Wren songs reverberating off the hard Chisos rocks and met the first hikers on the trail. The two thirties something men had earlier been heard talking on their way up the switchbacks below. We talked briefly about the difficulty of the trail. They trudged upward while I ate a snack and let my pulse get back to normal. I hiked onward. By earlier standards, the trail was relatively flat just below what appeared to be the summit, but I had other places to visit today.

With reluctance, I headed back. On the way, I met a couple a few year my senior. They were from Alexandria, Virginia. He volunteered in the Botany Department at Smithsonian. Small world. They missed seeing Colima Warblers. Most no one else I met that I talked to had ever heard of the warbler. Not far below, I met a ranger wrangling four mules carrying concrete for repairs of a relay station on Emory Peak. The sheer footed mules explained the old dropping I had seen since these quadrupeds had hiked the trail more than once. About half way down my knees began to react to the steep descent. Annoyance became wincing pain to genuine worry. This wouldn’t have happened in 1963. I have foolishly pushed myself physically, but this time I stopped to rest. Perching on a rock, I realized I had been sitting behind the wheel much too long. I had grown softer than I normally might be. The rest helped a little, and cutting through the more gently slopped lodge helped more. At the bottom, a Canyon Towhee was foraging at the feet of a man sitting in front of the store. He said his hip replacement wouldn’t allow him to hike. How could I complain? The Colima Warbler finally was found.

I checked in at the visitor center. A Lucy’s Warbler was reported at Cottonwood on the Rio Grande southwest of Chisos Basin. Although tempted, driving to Cottonwood was shelved. I did go as far south as the Sam Nail Ranch, found Bell’s Vireo and Virginia’s Warbler, and turned around at Sotol Vista just past the Homer Wilson Ranch. Peterson remarked to Fisher on their trip, just a few years before I hoped to visit Big Bend that the grass was beginning to recover. He meant the vegetation was recuperating from cattle, goats, sheep and horses owned by several ranches that occupied the region before it became a park in 1944. Sam Nail did not leave the park until 1946. The ranchers are gone, and by 1972, the park service purchased 8,562 acres of ranches and other private land within its borders. Before the environment was completely hoofed and mouthed to death, Sotol, a xeric plant was almost eradicated. The sugary trunks and leaf bases of the tall spiky plant feed their cattle. The flower heads also form the basis for an alcoholic beverage.

The day no longer was holding morning’s chill and the desert heat became ruthless. The climb up Pinnacle Trail and worse, the descent back, tiring and painful, and the drive back to the motel was too long. Because of my late arrival, Linda began worrying that I had fallen off a cliff or been bitten by a rattlesnake and then fallen off a cliff. The worst thing that happened was my failure to understand Linda’s new camera I borrowed for today. Being digitally stupid, I had not depressed the shutter button past the focusing sound. My Chisos Warbler day was recorded only in memory. At the time, I did not know that or that my snake bitten body had fallen over a cliff. I was just anxious to get home, which, of course is where the heart is.

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