Monday, April 28, 2014

Guest Post/Photos from Ian and Ruth McGeorge

* Prior to their trip, the McGeorges had contacted us with some questions, which we were happy to answer, with the promise of a trip report in exchange. This is far more detail than anticipated, and a fantastic look at the region we call home (and seeing it through the eyes of other travelers will be more helpful, perhaps, than those of locals). All text and photos are courtesy of Ruth and Ian.

South West Texas/South East New Mexico 2013

Ian and Ruth McGeorge, England, UK.

This was a trip that Ruth and I had planned since last visiting Big Bend in 2003 (a long wait!).
Back then we had travelled from Manchester in England to Houston, then via Brownsville, all the way up the Rio Grande and as far west as Terlingua -  Big Bend was more than we had ever hoped for but we still missed out on one or two birds, which kept gnawing away at us in the intervening years.
So, the morning of 28th April 2013 saw us blinking at the bright sunshine outside our window on the edge of El Paso International Airport (we had arrived the previous evening via Manchester/Philadelphia/Phoenix). The first day was a rest day, getting our bearings and finding that (despite making careful prior arrangements) our credit cards were almost immediately blocked by an incompetent UK banking system. House Finch, White-winged Dove and Red-tailed Hawk were little compensation but at least the birding had begun!

29th April gave us our first “proper” birding excursion, into the Franklin Mountains State Park, looking quite stark and bare from a distance. The temperature crept into the 90’s that day, not something we experience much in England as a rule. I had strained a ligament in my back a few days before the trip, so this limited my mobility in the first week or so of the holiday. Some of the hikes that were planned had to be revised somewhat and birding was mainly around the picnic areas and slightly less-challenging trails. Still, as we eased ourselves in, we enjoyed birds such as Canyon Towhee, several Turkey Vultures, a perched Red-tailed Hawk, 3 low-flying White-throated Swifts, 6 Black-throated Sparrows (very dapper birds, albeit not new to us), a Brewer’s and a Rufous-crowned Sparrow. Road-runner called nearby but didn’t show. Although we had seen such birds on previous trips to the States, they were none the less great to catch up with again. Two adult and one young Mule Deer were mammals we had not come across before, as were 2 Rock Squirrels close by.
We returned to the outskirts of El Paso and eventually found Arroyo Park (as with some other sites visited, we had used the quite-dated-but-still-useful Lane/ABA Birder’s Guide to the Rio Grande Valley to supplement information gleaned from various websites – mention should be made at this juncture of the very helpful and friendly tips and advice given to us by Heidi and also Steve Gross, we really appreciated their quick and informative responses to our e-mails).  It was late afternoon with not a great deal of bird activity but we were treated to our first ever Wood Pee-Wee – maybe not the most striking of birds but new to us and the first lifer of this trip. Other birds included 3 Swainson’s Hawks, a stunningly bright male Wilson’s Warbler, Western Kingbirds, a few Northern Rough-winged and Barn Swallows, a couple of Black-chinned Hummingbirds, some very friendly dog-walkers and an annoying kid on a mountain bike. 

Western Kingbird
We liked the feel of the Franklin Mountains SP, so returned the following day. Although I was still suffering from back pain (we birders are true heroes in the face of adversity…) it wasn’t going to spoil things and our first male Townsend’s and male Black-throated Gray Warbler, single birds feeding about three feet apart in the same small tree, made me forget my twinges. American warblers can be a sight for sore eyes when compared to our more uniform Eurasain phylloscopus warblers, so this duo was an exciting and unexpected find for us. Flipping through the various American field guides over the years, these two species were on my most-wanted list. We pretty much had the place to ourselves, a strange experience compared to birding back home. In addition to the same species as seen yesterday, we caught up with 2 Scaled Quail at the feeder station, several House Finch (we were to see plenty more over the next couple of weeks or so, but never tired of the crimson males), a Rock Wren and a fairly distant Cooper’s Hawk. 

We had wanted to see a little of New Mexico and the Guadalupe Mountains, so the next day saw us heading out of El Paso to spend the next couple of evenings at Roswell. As we left the outskirts of El Paso we found a colony of Cliff Swallows beneath a road bridge and enjoyed fairly close views without disturbing them (always a pre-requisite of birding anywhere in the world!).
We made a small number of stops on the way through New Mexico, spontaneous pull-ins at the roadside really, picking up several Ash-throated Flycatchers, male Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warbler, Chihuahuan Ravens and Swainson’s Hawks. Passing through Ruidoso, we popped in to The Museum of the American West, where a small flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds (3 males, 2 females) were present in some trees by the car park.

The temperature plummeted overnight, as predicted by the various TV weather forecasters, so we wrapped up as best we could in 40+ deg.F, dropping from the high 70’s the day before. Coming from the north west of England, cool and crappy weather is nothing new! After sampling the delights of the various “out-of-this-world” exhibits we drove to Roswell cemetery, which we understood could produce some good birding. Plenty of sparrows had dropped in, with dozens of Chipping and White-crowned, plus 6 Lark and one White-throated. A few Dark-eyed Juncos included both pink-sided and gray-headed. We never got tired of seeing Western Kingbirds and there were plenty around here, along with several hermit Thrushes, about 30 American Robins and a Spotted Towhee. All the features pointed to what we were pretty sure was our first Hammond’s Flycatcher but a more experienced eye for Empidonax-spotting would have clinched it one way or another. Another pair of Swainson’s Hawks was a welcome addition to the day’s list.

The next day saw us head out to Bitter Lake Wildlife Refuge, a place that we had seen on the map whilst back home. It looked promising so we made our way there, picking up one of our only American Kestrels of the trip. We hadn’t planned to spend too long here but were more than pleased to take our time, even though we still didn’t do it justice. It’s clearly a great place for wintering cranes and wildfowl but there was still a wonderful array of birds to enjoy. Wildfowl that would draw crowds from miles around back in the UK was great to see without any jostling from competing birders, such as Green-winged Teal, Blue-winged Teal, American Wigeon and Lesser Scaup. One of the bonuses was seeing our first Cinnamon Teal, 3 beautiful drakes and one duck. Seeing about 150 Ruddy Ducks was a reminder of days gone by seeing this bird in the UK before the Ruddy Duck cull took its toll – that was down to the theory that Ruddy Duck (an introduced/escaped species in the UK) was inter-breeding with the White-headed Duck, already an endangered bird in Europe. It’s a rare thing to find one back home nowadays.  A flock of about 20 White-faced Ibis was a pleasant surprise but even more surprising was the large number of Wilson’s Phalaropes passing through, perhaps 300 or more. The females were in full breeding plumage and were simply stunning. Again, this is a rarity in the UK, the last one we saw there being about 20 years before. Waders were much in evidence, with about 100 Black-necked Stilts, around 50 American Avocets, plus Killdeer, Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet and Snowy Plover, whilst Sandpipers included Spotted, Stilt, Least, Western and Semi-palmated.
Northern Harrier and 3 Red-tailed Hawks were the only raptors seen. A couple of Forster’s Terns patrolled the pools. Around 400 Cave Swallows were winging their way across the refuge. Other water birds included our first Western Grebe (ever since I saw this species in its amazing display on a TV nature programme many years ago I have wanted to see this bird, regrettably not displaying on this occasion), Pied-billed Grebe  and 2 White Pelicans (one with the breeding “crest” on its bill fully operational). The odd Yellow-rumped and Wilson’s Warbler were pleasing, as were a Spotted Towhee, 1  Brewer’s and  5 White-crowned Sparrows. Our visit here was rounded off with our first Western Meadowlark.

American Avocet
On then to stay at Carlsbad, from where we headed next day to Rattlesnake Springs and what was to be maybe the best birding of the whole holiday. The cold front that had come down across New Mexico and West Texas had brought a fall of migrants that also desposited a number of U.S. birders at the Springs. We met some fantastic, welcoming birders there, some of the nicest people you could hope to meet (aren’t all birders like that?), including two men who, we were told, were two of NM’s top birders. They certainly helped us with a couple of i.d. queries and, to boot, were Packers fans, just like Ruth! On the road in to the Springs we saw a pair of Scale Quail and then, after parking up, started tucking in to the feast before our eyes. In no time at all we saw our first rather raucous Cassin’s Kingbirds, followed immediately by eye-catching Black-headed Grosbeaks (2 males and 2 females - very much on our wanted list).
Our first dainty Lucy’s Warbler (only heard at first) wasn’t far behind, then on the same fenceline sat a Dusky Flycatcher (i.d. clinched by our Packers buddies). Tennesse Warbler surprised us, having been mistakenly identified initially on a very brief half-concealed view as Red-eyed Vireo. Another lifer!

All this was before we even got to the Springs proper, where we then caught up with probably my most wanted bird of the trip, Phainopepla  -a pair was present – we missed them in Big Bend back in 2003 and they were well worth the long wait! Red-eyes, crest, white wing flash, the lot! Also high on our most-wanted list was the amazing male Western Tanager, so when we suddenly caught sight of one of these beauties, the day couldn’t get much better, lifer number 7 for the day – so far….
The supporting cast included some birds that we had seen on previous trips but were nonetheless outstanding – plenty of Vermillion Flycatchers (the males shining like beacons from low-hanging branches and power lines). A couple of Bell’s and 1 Plumbeous Vireos played second fiddle to a stunning male Varied Bunting, 2 equally stunning male Painted and 1 also equally stunning male Indigo Bunting. Hanging around the Springs we also found Gray Catbird, Common Yellowthroat, 5 Yellow-breasted Chats (another personal favourite, very striking), a pair of Eastern Bluebirds, Hermit Thrush, lifer no. 8 for the day in Northern Waterthrush, about a dozen or so Wilson’s Warblers, 2 bright male Yellow Warblers and plenty of Yellow-rumped. 3 Black and 1 Say’s Phoebe showed exceptionally well, as did Summer Tanagers, Western Scrub-Jay, 2 House Wrens, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Ladder-backed Woodpecker and a superb but shy Green-tailed Towhee.

Other ground-feeders included both Chipping and White-crowned Sparrows, Lesser Goldfinch and a Gray-headed Dark eyed Junco. Rounding up the list for the Springs were 2 male Orchard Orioles, again a species that we have seen before but still a treat to the eyes.

One of the other visiting birders, Bob, told us about the Washington Ranch, literally round the corner and hosting an over-wintering Lewis’ Woodpecker! This seems too good to be true, even though it had been seen hours before. Once we had parked the car, our first Lewis’ Woodpecker flew across to the dead trees, right where Bob said it would be. Although the plumage can perhaps be quite subtle in certain light, this is truly a beautiful bird and never in our wildest dreams did we expect this. It’s one of those birds that you see over the years in a field guide and think it’s just never an option. Lifer No.10 almost immediately appeared above our heads in a tree, a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak feeding alongside a male Black-headed – wow! We strolled round the ranch, picking up more Vermillion Flycatchers, Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Blue-winged and Ring-necked Ducks, another Common Yellowthroat, our second-ever-in-the-space-of-3 hours Northern Waterthrush, Black Phoebe and Wilson’s Warbler. Passing a tree, some movement caught my eye and a little patience gave up our first Blackpoll Warbler, a male. I had actually poorly seen a dingy autumn bird on the east coast of England many years before but this was something special, what a striking bird despite its black and white plumage. Lifer No.12 for the day came in the form of a flock of about a dozen Pine Siskins, streaky and a little on the unspectacular side - I have to say that the male Siskin back in the UK does win in the beauty stakes.  
And so on to the end of the birding day, almost… as we drove out across some open weed-strewn land to exit the ranch we stopped to scope a large flock of sparrows, many Chipping, with the odd Lark and White-crowned thrown in for good measure, plus about 20 Dark-eyed Juncos (all looked to be Gray-headed?). Then amongst the flock I caught a flash of blue and orange and there before our eyes was a male Lazuli Bunting – a staggering sight and, again, one of those field guide birds that I didn’t really think I would ever catch up with. Almost as soon as we landed upon it, it flew but fortunately went straight up into a bare tree and sat while we drank it all in. The male American buntings are an amazingly colourful bunch, this species being my favourite by a country mile. So, 13 lifers today, a day to savour for a long time to come.

Buntings were on the menu the next day, as we chanced upon a flock of 10 Lark Buntings, 5 males and 5 females, on the road to Dog Canyon in the Guadalupes, along with 3 pairs of Scaled Quail.      As we drove to higher elevations the weather became a little breezy and cool but our temperature soared with the sight of our first Scott’s Oriole, 2 males seen here, both coming to hummingbird feeders. The intended targets for these feeders were by no means absent, as we sat on a porch swing and whiled away a half hour watching our first Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, joined occasionally by a few Black-chinned. Flying across the mountainside and then low overhead were 3 Violet-green Swallows, the sunlight occasionally showing exactly why they bear that name. Other birds encountered were 2 Say’s Phoebes, plenty of Chipping Sparrows, a singing Plumbeous Vireo, more Dark-eyed Juncos and Wilson’s Warblers, a Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Canyon Towhee and another fabulous male Western Tanager. A Goshawk was a big surprise and we had brief but good views of this raptor.                                                                             
We stopped off on the way back down at Sitting Bull Falls and spotted our only Orange-crowned Warbler of the trip, feeding low down in the vegetation by the car park. 3 White-throated Swifts whizzed around above us and we both heard and saw 2 Canyon Wrens, another very dapper bird.
Slaughter Canyon was our first stop the next day and the temperature was back in the mid 80’s. We actually saw very little here, although still managed both male and female Western Tanager, a female Scott’s Oriole, Canyon Wren and Broad-tailed Hummer, so mustn’t complain.                            

We thought we would try our luck again at Rattlesnake Springs, having had such a monster day there already and having missed on that day both Painted Redstart and Kentucky Warbler, neither of which we had seen before. And we didn’t today, either! Although we again saw many of the species we had seen on our previous visit (and thoroughly enjoyed them all over again) we did in addition find one each of  both Rufous-crowned and Lincoln’s Sparrows, so well worth the second visit in our view. Off we then headed to Van Horn for the next leg of our journey.

Although Van Horn wasn’t quite what we had expected (don’t really know what we had expected), staying at the El Capitan hotel was an amazing experience, so atmospheric. The drive back to the Guadalupe Mountains provided an occasional Gambel’s Quail and Roadrunner across the highway as we made our way to the Pine Springs visitor centre, meeting some very welcoming and pleasant staff in the process. We were impressed with the Centre and even more so by the pair of Western Tanagers that were saw outside soon after. Western Scrub Jay, Summer Tanager, Yellow-rumped and Wilson’s Warblers, Blue Gray Gnatcatcher, Bewick’s Wren and Black-headed Grosbeak soon followed and I was especially pleased to find another Lincoln’s Sparrow feeding in the car park.     Bird of the day, though, was a male McGillivray’s Warbler, feeding within a few feet of us at the base of a bush. Within a minute we found a female of the same species. Although we had seen this beauty in Big Bend 10 years previously, these views were so much more lengthy and rewarding.            

The Frijole Ranch house had just been opened to a small party of visitors, so we tagged on and were glad we did, a very interesting little place. Occasionally, when people find that we are from the UK, they tell us how fascinating our history is but, believe me, Texas is rich in exciting and very unique history. Unfortunately the birds at Frijole were not that interesting or evident but the best find there was another major highlight of the trip – our first Texas Horned Lizard! Ruth just pulled me back from stepping on the poor blighter and we were then able to get some smashing pictures of it – never thought we would ever see one! The trip back to Van Horn late afternoon turned up a few Loggerhead Shrikes, before we took a diversion to Van Horn Cemetery, where Heidi had given us a tip for Gambel’s Quail – she wasn’t wrong! After a short, slow, respectful drive round, Ruth spotted a pair close to a gravestone – what a truly stunning bird, one of the most exciting views of any bird on the trip. We headed back to the hotel, past an active Say’s Phoebe and saw our only Common Nighthawk of the holiday right outside the hotel, at dusk.

The next morning at McKittrick Canyon was very windy and we saw little, other than Blue Gray Gnatcatchers, Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Plumbeous Vireo. Pine Springs yielded little in the way of new species, or any actually, so we headed back early to Van Horn. We stopped on the drive back to take a picture or two at the Figure 2 Ranch and, whilst there, heard a song that was unfamiliar to us. After scanning some open ground, we landed upon a singing Horned Lark, the only one of the trip.
9th May saw us heading off to Balmorhea, where we had next planned to stay. Although we had seen some accommodation on the internet, it wasn’t (again) quite what we expected, a lovely place none the less (with several Wild Turkeys roaming around some of the back roads). We headed straight to Lake Balmorhea and had the time of our life! Waterbirds, waders, there was plenty to see. We very quickly found 3 American Pipits (a real rarity back in the UK), along with the only Savannah Sparrow to be found by us this time round. Other sparrows included Lark and White-crowned. 2 male Pyrrhuloxias, one constantly singing, were special – always reminding me of a washed-out Cardinal that has taken a punch on the nose. Red-tailed Hawk and Osprey were the only raptors present (apart from the ubiquitous Turkey Vultures). Almost the highlight of the day was a flock of about 30 Lark Buntings, some stunning male birds showing well. The actual highlight of the day was our first ever Clark’s Grebe. Sadly, no Western Grebes were here, which we had anticipated seeing rather than it’s cousin, though we did also find 6 Eared (Black-necked in the UK) and about a dozen Pied-billed Grebes. Aside from a few duck species, there was plenty to enjoy with both Snowy and Semi-palmated Plovers, Killdeer, Spotted and Least Sandpipers, a couple of Long-billed Dowitchers, plenty of leggy Black-necked Stilts  and American Avocet (a beautiful wader). Willet, Lesser Yellowlegs and a handful of Wilson’s Phalaropes pretty much completed the list here.                                                       

We had decided by now that we would head for Fort Davis for the evening, but stopped first at Balmorhea State Park. We had hoped to see more birds and less people here but none the less found females of Blue Grosbeak and Lesser Goldfinch and a Northern Rough-winged Swallow.        The habitat changed as we got nearer to the Davis Mountains, the landscape getting more interesting as we drove up to Buffalo Scout Camp Road – this was an attractive area and, although it was getting toward late afternoon, we were thrilled to catch sight of a pair of Zone-tailed Hawks drifting at mid-height across the road – worth the stop just to see them. Black-throated and Lark Sparrows were picked up here also. After finding accommodation for a couple of nights in Fort Davis we went for a stroll and the day was made complete by our first Acorn Woodpecker on the top of a telegraph pole in the middle of town (although we had committed the cardinal sin of not having a pair of bins with us) – all the same, a great end to a rewarding day.

After a wonderful breakfast in the Fort Davis Drugstore (what a fantastic place to eat!) we pottered around the Davis Mountains State Park for a while. We were both a little tired and the weather was cooler, with some rain later in the afternoon. We were heading up to the MacDonald Observatory for an evening of star gazing, so hoped that the cloud cover would disappear, which it partly did later on. We watched male Black-headed Grosbeak and Scott’s Oriole at the Interpretive Center bird blind/screen, whilst a couple of Black-chinned Hummingbirds entertained us. Lesser Goldfinch, House Finch (as everywhere) and “Black-crested” Titmouse also put in an appearance. Roadrunner scurried across one of the paths whilst we enjoyed the sight and sound of a Bewick’s Wren or two singing their hearts out. We spent part of the afternoon at the Fort Davis National Historic Site. As an Englishman brought up as a child on a diet of westerns and “cowboy and indian” films, the chance to visit a real cavalry fort was one I wasn’t going to miss. We really enjoyed it, the people have done a great job. Wandering by the various remains and restored buildings we saw 3 Rock Wrens, one of them in song, another Lark Sparrow (one of the most attractive to our eyes of the American sparrows), Canyon Towhees and heard but couldn’t see a Canyon Wren on the rocks at the back of the Fort. Back to the hotel then for a rest before the evening at the observatory.

The following day we headed out onto Highway 166. The weather was again a little cooler, with rain mid-afternoon but it wasn’t going to dampen our spirits. Swainson’s Hawk, Western Meadowlark and Cassin’s Kingbird were seen before we got to Point of Rock, where we had frustratingly brief views of Canyon and Cactus Wren, both singing (not us, the birds). A male Ladder-backed Woodpecker showed well, however, as did an Ash-throated Flycatcher, seemingly oblivious to our presence. Bloys Camp yielded our first Bushtit of the trip but little else of note. The main event of the day was hopefully going to be at Lawrence E. Woods picnic site, where we had been told it would be impossible to miss Acorn Woodpecker – and they were impossible to miss! Four birds flew back and forth constantly, calling and arguing between themselves, it seemed, all the time we were there. Eventually they separated into two pairs. I had waited 10 years to get a great ‘scope view of this species, ever since I had very briefly seen one in flight on the road to Alpine back in 2003, whilst I was driving at a rate of knots. To say it was worth the wait was a spectacular understatement. They may look a little clown-like facially but are a striking bird and, along with the Phainopepla, they made the whole trip worthwhile. I was now officially a happy bunny but was even happier when we suddenly spotted our first ever Western Bluebird, a male, sat on a low-hanging branch.

Western Meadowlark
We had checked out that morning and headed for the Indian Lodge in the State Park, where we had pre-booked 3 nights some months before. It was everything we hoped for, what a stunning location. The next morning I was out at dawn and greeted before long by several male and female Blue Grosbeaks, two females being very territorial over a patch of scrub. One of the very few Cardinals of the trip popped up, whilst two more Bushtits were very welcome (very similar in shape and habit to our Long-tailed Tit back home). It was nice to see another Rufous-crowned Sparrow and Cassin’s Kingbirds were certainly around! After breakfast we spent a little time around Lympia Creek but didn’t find much, other than a few Cave Swallows, Lark Sparrow and “ male and one female Brown-headed Cowbird, not seen previously on this trip. We returned to the State Park and had a wander around the various trails – Ladder-backed Woodpecker (male), Western Wood-Pewee, Bewick’s Wren (one carrying nesting material), male Summer Tanager drinking from a puddle, several male Black-headed Grosbeaks (1 in song), Blue Grosbeak, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, a singing male Black-throated Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow and a Yellow Warbler were all eclipsed by a male Scott’s Oriole, we could never get tired of seeing them! We saw all the usual suspects at the interpretive Center, plus a small flock of Pine Siskins. As we left here, an Acorn Woodpecker landed on a telegraph pole close by – still felt like the first time we’d seen one! In the evening we found a Say’s Phoebe by the Lodge.
Another morning walk before breakfast was well worth the effort. As I started to walk, a Phainopepla appeared, briefly showing it to be a male before it took flight. What a cracker. Ash-throated Flycatcher and a few Cassin’s Kingbirds soon followed, before a flock of about 10 blackbirds flew low overhead, one of which was a fine male Yellow-headed. Brown-headed Cowbird and a singing Rufous-crowned Sparrow completed the pre-breakfast list. After chow, we stopped off at the Prude Ranch, where Ruth hoped to get in a spot of horse-riding; unfortunately they had nothing available due to a pre-booked party that day, but we did see another Acorn Woodpecker and an extremely close Cooper’s Hawk taking flight from a small tree.                                                                            

We had decided to go back to Lawrence E. Woods, as we also wanted to walk the Madera Canyon Trail for one or two birds that we had hoped to see, but had so far eluded us. We again found Acorn Woodpecker as we arrived (or, rather, they found us), 5 birds this time, still flying form tree to tree. A couple of Western Scrub Jays popped up and we found a pair of Western Bluebirds this time, the female looking like she was attending a probable nest site. A few more Pine Siskins were followed by our first White-breasted Nuthatch, which was frustratingly chased away almost immediately by an Acorn Woodpecker before we could take out time to enjoy it. We stocked up with cool drinks and headed off on the Madera Canyon Trail. Bushtit, Chipping Sparrow and a singing Lark Sparrow were the only birds seen for quite a while, until we chanced upon another of our “most-wanted” – a Black-chinned Sparrow, which was drinking from a small pool. Further along the trail we found another (?) singing from a tree top, giving great views. The highlight of the day for me, though, came in the shape of a fine male Hepatic Tanager – it was very confiding, landing on a low tree branch about 15 feet away before flying to join its mate close by. Great to see all the features close up which separate it from the Summer Tanager, although the female looked a little greener above and yellower below than shown in the Sibley Guide – could have just been the light. We did also chance upon an Empidonax flycatcher – with decent views the features leaned toward it being a Dusky. Back down at the car, we then promptly found a female Hepatic Tanager! I took an evening walk on the Montezuma Trail back at the State Park – no quails but it was great to be above the Turkey Vultures and look down on them as they went to roost in some trees below.

The next day we were leaving Indian Lodge and the Davis Mountains – and very sad to be doing so; we could certainly see what all the hype was about, a magnificent place. My pre-breakfast walk gave many of the same species as previous mornings, with the added bonus of a male Scott’s Oriole singing from the top of a pine almost outside our door.

Red-tailed and Swainson’s hawks featured on our drive down Highway 17 South and 90 West. On the rough farm roads to a rather dry McNary Reservoir we still found some waders, including Black-necked Stilts, Lesser Yellowlegs, Killdeer and a solitary Solitary Sandpiper. A flock of about 4 dozen Red-winged Blackbirds seemed to be moving through, we found another Roadrunner and then 3 pairs of Gambel’s Quail – what a sight. A storm was brewing and thunder and lightning was around. As the rainstorm threatened, we were briefly birding at Fort Hancock Reservoir, with American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, a beautiful female Wilson’s Phalarope and a Least Sandpiper. A pair of “Mexican” Mallard was tucked in a channel nearby. At Fabens we drove down to the border fence, just so we could say that we had almost made it to Mexico on this trip, and notched up another Roadrunner. We came across a smallish man-made lake/stretch of water somewhere between Acala and Tornillo, upon which sat about 60 Ruddy Ducks, a dozen or so Shoveler and 3 American Avocets, which seemed to be swimming out in the middle.

Wilson's Phalarope
After a day back in El Paso catching up on buying presents for family and friends and ourselves (we thought we deserved it), the 16th May was singled out for another site that I had wanted to visit – Hueco Tanks. This turned into a hot day, so we just took our time mooching round. The Indian pictographs that we saw were amazing, although we were not booked to go elsewhere in the State Park, where those that had not been vandalised by graffiti could be found. Still, we enjoyed what we saw and frankly, we were also fascinated by some of the “graffiti” from the 1800’s, still a slice of history in our book. Bird-wise, which is mainly why we went of course, it was well worth the effort. We saw our only Verdins of the holiday, a beauty of a bird, including an adult feeding a fledged youngster. A couple of male Western Tanagers were, perhaps, out last chance to see them on this trip. A pair of both Black-throated and Brewer’s Sparrow were present and we touched lucky with another male Broad-tailed Hummingbird. Canyon Wrens were singing and we managed to get our best view of the trip here. We accidentally flushed a pair of Scaled Quail and picked up two Hairy Woodpeckers in flight. Our only Warbling Vireos of this trip were found with just a little patience, with Bell’s also showing up. A Says’ Phoebe flitted around and a male Wilson’s Warbler was eclipsed by another, closer, female McGillivray’s Warbler. The last lifer of this journey came in the form of a fine Cordilleran Flycatcher - it was surprisingly confiding and gave us ample opportunity to check out all the features in quite some detail, the i.d. confirmed by reference to Sibley’s and discussion with the warden back at the centre – a little gem of a bird.

Our final day was going to be somewhat laid-back, but we still made it back into the Franklin Mountains for another quick look round the picnic areas. As well as expected birds, such as Black-throated Sparrow, we found a Cactus Wren visiting its nest, our best views of this bird in the 3 weeks we had been birding. We finished at the bird feeding area, meeting a very friendly chap who put out the bird food and had helped to install the pump that kept this little oasis going. A White-throated Sparrow drank from the trickle, a pair of Scaled Quail pottered around and we finished off with what proved to be our last view of one of the most colourful birds we had seen on our holiday, a male Western Tanager coming down to quench its thirst.

And so came to a close 3 weeks of birding heaven, plenty of new species, some of which we did not really think we would catch up with, some we had hoped to catch up with and, with the Lewis’ Woodpecker, a bird we had never even contemplated seeing.

There couldn’t really be a down side with such a wonderful array of birds but, not managing to make it to Big Bend this time, just left us hungry for more. So, in the words of MacArthur…….

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