Our members love birds and love to travel! We plan to feature stories and photos from our members throughout the year so you can “Travel with SIB.” Let us know if you have a story you’d like to share about your travels!
In mid-April 2021, we, like so many others, were suffering from cabin fever. With the exception of a short trip back to VA in the fall of 2020, we had pretty much been confined to the house, neighborhood walks, and bi-monthly grocery trips.
Now, armed with vaccinations, air filter, Lysol, masks, and SIBLEY BIRDS WEST, we were ready to travel. Not ready to face the hurdles to international travel, we decided to follow Greeley’s advice and “Go West, not so young man.”
Our prime destination was Big Bend National Park, but as is typical of our trip planning, it quickly grew to cover central Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. Some of our destinations were new, others were revisits of places we have enjoyed in the past.
Goals for this trip were varied. History, birding, wildflowers, hiking, parks, and catching up with friends were just some of the main ones.
This foray into post- Covid travel was a mixed bag, fewer crowds, but fewer amenities also. We missed some guided tours and re-enactments. Some venues closed. All in all, we accomplished what we set out to do……get away, see the country, visit National Parks, enjoy ourselves.
We were gone 46 nights and traveled 7483.7 miles, absolutely no idea how many miles we walked (my tracker is dead). Very rough estimate— 100-150 miles
We visited 29 parks. Twelve of them were National Park sites, One, Honanki, was in a National Forest. The rest were state, county, municipal or privately funded.
We identified 100+ species of birds, not all new, and saw a lot more we couldn’t identify. Although I know we disappointed some of our more serious birder friends with our lackadaisical approach, we really enjoyed finding new birds that we don’t see here. Less enjoyable were the grackles(boat-tailed & great-tailed) and the house finches that kept popping up in weird places, making me think I had found a new bird.
It was day 8 before we saw any new birds. At that point, I was beginning to think the Great-tailed Grackle was the only bird in Texas.
My first sighting of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was a thrill that never lessened as I continued to see them throughout Texas. Their long-forked tail makes them stand out as they perch on fence posts and wires. This tail also helps them twist and turn as they catch insects in mid-air.
Without a doubt, the highlight of our birding adventure was the Swainson’s Hawk we saw as we drove to Marfa, TX. It wouldn’t have been possible without my wonderful husband who doesn’t mind my squeals, and is willing to stop as quick as safely possible, inch up the road, make U-turns so I can take the pictures from the other side. Very little traffic also helped.
This is the 2nd one we have seen. The other one was flying on a grey day, so the photos aren’t anything like these.
Swainson’s hawk is also known as a grasshopper or locust hawk, since it will devour these when available. They will prey on small rodents when feeding their young. In autumn, they leave the plains for South America, where dragonflies are a favorite food.
Another interesting bird was the Crested Caracara. My first thought upon seeing this bird was that it was a leucitic vulture. As we passed a group of vultures on the side of the road, one of them appeared to have a white neck. It was only after seeing another one at the LBJ Ranch State Park that I realized what I had seen earlier. While this bird looks like a hawk, behaves like a vulture, it is actually a falcon.
They are non-migratory birds whose northern range covers central Florida to Arizona and Texas. Like the vultures it is often found with, the Cara Cara has few feathers on its face, the better for eating carrion. Its long legs and flat claws allow it to spend a lot of time walking and foraging.
Without a doubt, one of the most colorful birds was the Vermillion Flycatcher. As with the other flycatchers, they swoop from their perches to catch flying insects, often returning to the same perch. If the insect is big, they will give it a few whacks to subdue and soften it for easier eating. I am not sure if this carries over to US birds, but, in Mexico, the vermillion flycatcher is known as the Good Luck Bird, especially if it is facing you. If its back is to you, that could be a bad sign.
As we set off on our journey, there were two birds I wanted to see, mainly because of their names, which I had no idea how to pronounce. Why they couldn’t just be content with calling the Pyrrhuloxia( peer-uh-LOX-ee-a.) a desert cardinal, I don’t know. Shaped like a cardinal, its coloring is different. Whereas we are used to the bright red Northern Cardinal, the Pyrrhuloxia is grey, with red highlights and a yellow bill.
It turns out that both of my unpronounceable birds have easier common names. Although it is not in a cardinal, the Phainopepla (FAY-noh-PEP-la) is known commonly as a black cardinal. Other nicknames such as black flycatcher, black-crested flycatcher, shining crested flycatcher, shining fly-snapper, and silky flycatcher are more accurate since it is in the family of Silky Flycatchers.
Like a lot of birds, the male with his glossy black feathers is much more striking than the charcoal grey female. They both have orange/red eyes with add to their good looks.
In the US, these birds are usually found from Southern California, across Southern Arizona, the southwestern “boot heel” of New Mexico and the Big Bend area of Southern Texas. We saw them in Big Bend and Sedona AZ area. They are also one of few birds to have separate nesting and feeding territories.
We have all heard the little Carolina Wrens singing their hearts out. If you think the volume emanating from that tiny body is loud, imagine what sounds come from the Cactus Wren, which is at least 2x the size of the tiny Carolina Wren. Unlike the cheerful song of the Carolina Wren, the sound of the Cactus Wren has been likened to that of a car engine that won’t start. As their name implies, they thrive in desert areas among the cholla, saguaros and prickly pear cacti. Unlike the other wrens, this one does not cock his tail over his back, but, rather, fans his tail, showing white feathers.
Our lodging while exploring the western section of Big Bend NP and Big Bend State Park was a cabin in Terlingua TX. Our next-door neighbor was a birder from AZ who had come in hopes of seeing the Colima Warbler. There was a wild fire in the area where the warbler was usually seen, but there were reports of sightings as the birds fled the fire. He pointed out my first Scaled Quail who we followed through the brush trying to get photos.
Also known as blue quail due to their coloring or cottontop for its white crest, the dry grasslands of the SW provide this bird with cover for nesting and foraging. They seldom fly, but scurry about, as did this one. It was the early in breeding season so this was a lone quail. Later on, they are usually in coveys, where they sleep in a circle, all facing outward.
Although we had seen Gambel’s Quail before, it was still fun to see them, looking for all the world like they were chasing the proverbial ‘carrot on a stick”.
A ‘cousin’ of the Scaled Quail, this chunky bird prefers to run rather than fly, although we did see several in trees. Like most quail, they are most often in coveys. When her eggs are due to hatch, the female calls to her eggs. The chicks cheep to each other while in the eggs. Then, leaving a section of membrane, they, in a synchronized movement, emerge from their little “doors”.
When we saw Western Tanagers, we had no idea that one would become a neighborhood visitor to our backyard feeders in the following winter. These gorgeous males were foraging among the ocotillo blooms in search of insects. Our visiting female is not as striking in color, but still an exciting rare visitor to SC. Since it is winter, she is more willing to eat fruits and suet.
One of the strangest encounters was with a Canyon Towhee in Chaco Culture National Historic Park, which was well worth traveling the washboard dirt road to get there. I was sitting in the car with doors open while I changed the battery in my camera. In hops this little bird. No amount of “shooing” would dislodge him until he was ready to go. Cornell describes this bird as plain a brown bird as they come. A little rust on its head and bottom, it lives in scrubby desert, avoiding suburban areas. However, I thought it was cute and adventuresome.
No western birding trip would be complete without the iconic, loveable Greater Roadrunner. Our first sighting wasn’t even real, but a large metal sculpture along I-10 in Las Cruces, NM. Built in 1993 from recycled materials by artist Olin Calk, this bird has had several makeovers and a couple different homes before finding his permanent home.
Contrary to many of our childhood TV memories, coyotes are a threat as they can run 2X faster than the roadrunner.
Despite living in vastly different environments, like seabirds, Roadrunners have a gland in front of their eyes that enables them to excrete excess salt without losing water via urinary tract.
“Greater Roadrunners eat poisonous prey, including venomous lizards and scorpions, with no ill effect, although they’re careful to swallow horned lizards head-first with the horns pointed away from vital organs. Roadrunners can also kill and eat rattlesnakes, often in tandem with another roadrunner: as one distracts the snake by jumping and flapping, the other sneaks up and pins its head, then bashes the snake against a rock. If it’s is too long to swallow all at once, a roadrunner will walk around with a length of snake still protruding from its bill, swallowing it a little at a time as the snake digests.” **The Cornell Lab Website ALL ABOUT BIRDS
Article and photos (with exceptions noted) by Jackie Brooks of Seabrook Island, SC