Thursday, July 31, 2008

Chisos Death March

Today is the day. Colima Warbler. Into the mountains and back. 12 miles round trip.

I actually started in the dark with my headlamp, binoculars, camera, lunch, first aid kit and almost two gallons of water and Gatorade (almost 16 pounds of fluids alone). The earlier the start, the cooler the temps. Mark, the day before, had mentioned that I should do the Pinnacle Trail. It is shorter, but steeper so you get to the bird’s altitude quicker. Okay, sounds like a plan.

I’m glad I did it, but what a killer.

A buddy of mine had purchased for me one of those ball caps that you soak in cold water. It has a cellular structure that allows it to keep the water for hours. It helps with sweating and evaporation and ultimately helps you stay cool. I had “charged it” and put it in a zip-loc bag. My intention was to use it on the way down. I had it on in 30 minutes into my hike.

I was almost at the top when I had one of the best encounters of the whole trip. Only 20-30 feet in front of me, I kicked up a BOBCAT! I was not paying attention to the trail; my attention was in the trees. It must have been snoozing under a rock right along the trail edge. It bolted just a few feet up the trail, scratching madly in the dirt for traction. It went off to the right and circled back. It hid behind a brush pile and watched me, maybe 50 feet away. After cleaning out my underwear, I managed a few photos with my dinky lens. I was prepared, on the spot to swap it out for my telephoto lens. When I stooped down, he certainly became interested in what I was doing. I took that as a sign to move along.

About 100 yards down the trail, I swapped out my small lens for my 100-400mm. I did not want to have another cool encounter and be stuck with a dinky lens. For grins, I went back and there he was. For just a few moments, I took some photos. Over the sequence, you can see his eyelids get heavy. How awesome. I left him to his nap.

Within two hours, I had covered the 1600 foot altitude change. I immediately started to hear the trills of the COLIMA WARLBER. Within 10 minutes, I was looking at one. Life bird 606. I even managed a poor photo of one. It really stunned me how easy it was to find them. The trick of getting one is not finding it, but simply getting to the Chisos Mountains during the breeding season and making the hike.

During my time there, I managed some great birds, including Hepatic Tanager, Western Tanager, Painted Redstart, Band-tailed Pigeon, and Mexican Jay. The Western Tanager gave me some fits. After leaving the mountains, it suddenly hit me that it could have been the Flame-colored Tanager. The FC was a first year male and looked somewhat like a very pale first year Western. The Western I had was pale. It was not until I got home that I finally saw photos of the Flame-colored. My bird was certainly a Western. I never found the Flame-colored, though it was seen by others after me.

For those of you may not know, I’m a doctor. Oh, yes, I read my books, watch medical shows on the Discovery Health Channel, own a reproduction Civil War amputation kit, and have been told I look like Anthony Edwards from “ER” (I think he looks like me, but whatever). So, I was keenly aware of some possible medical issues from hiking into the mountains, mainly, dehydration. So, I drank a lot of fluids. In fact, I was excited that I actually had to pee! They have these crafty little bathrooms up there. So, like a good doctor, I paid attention to my urine. Far more yellow than it should have been. “Oooooooh, not good”, I said out loud. That’s a sure sign of dehydration given my fluid intake.

Now, it was decision time. It was noon, and I had used up a little more than half of my water. I had to get back down yet and do it during the hottest part of the day. I gave myself about 30 more minutes to find the Tanager. I did not. To make matters worse, I knew I could not do the Pinnacles trail on the way down so I opted for the gradual grade of the Laguna Meadows Trail. No shade for miles. Almost all of my water was gone by the time I got back to my car. I immediately dumped my hat into my cooler, pulled the plug on the drainhole (also called a “bunghole”) and immediately placed my head under the flowing ice water. Ice water never felt so good. The Coke was great, too.

Now, some of you might be thinking my head was in my bunghole (as opposed to under a bunghole) for doing such a silly thing (i.e. climb a mountain in the desert for a bird). But, I am not stupid. I knew my limits. “Watch the water. Watch the time. Watch the birds”. It’s all pretty simple. Sure I would have liked to spent more time looking for the Flame-colored Tanager, but all reports are that it was seen very early the day and then not again until the following day. I was not going to be like one of these clowns that summits Everest…and then dies. I was not going to be the target of a National Park rescue operation at your expense as a taxpayer. I saw one other hiker the entire day. That’s it. One. For all I know, right now, he is a desiccated bobcat stool sample. Enjoy the trip, find your birds, but don’t be a moron.

(All that said, I did not realize at the time how great a bird the Flame-colored Tanager is for a United States list. Apparently, very good. Had I known, then perhaps I would have tried again. Perhaps not. We will never know now.)

Sure enough, it was too hot to cook when I finally got back to camp. Dinner was at the lodge with a beautiful sunset over the Basin.

Clown Quails and Sweat

Up with the sun…again (that Michigan time vs. west Texas time really works in your favor. It is not hard getting up with the sun in west Texas if you get up at 6am in Michigan. I thought a trip to the top of the mountain via Skyline Drive would be nice. The sunrise up there is very pleasant. It is even more pleasant when you know you saw two Montezuma Quail (#605) on the roadside on the way up. At first, they looked like rocks. But, the one was striped. When I stopped the car, they were not sure what to make of it. They shuffled off into the grasses. I managed some quick photos before they left. I saw them again on the way down. I was pretty satisfied now. I knew those little farts where going to be some of the toughest birds to find on my whole trip. My entire mood was different. Yes folks, I saw a bird, and I was on the top of the world!

From the State Park, I moved on to Big Bend National Park. By the time I arrived at lunch time, temps where well into the 90’s. It was really, really hot. Like an oven. So why in the world did I even come here? The only location in the United States to find Colima Warbler is the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend. That’s it. No other place has them. If you want them in the US, you go to Big Bend and you do it when they are breeding.

I chatted with Mark Flippo at the interpretive center in Panther Junction. He is the bird man on staff. I mentioned that I was here for the Colima Warbler and he gave me 15 minutes of solid information on it and other birds, including the Flame-colored Tanager that had been photographed there a few days before.

With the whole day ahead of me, I set up camp (where it is probably 5000 feet above sea level), ate in the shade, and thought to myself “Damn, its hot!” So what can you do when its hot? Go someplace “really hot” and then go back to where it is only “hot.” I headed off to Castolon, a small historic section of the park on the Rio Grande River. It was 110 degrees according to my car’s thermometer (which is generally pretty accurate). I asked the woman at the store (yes, they have a store there!) what I might see at Santa Elena Canyon. “Dirty water.” Nice. The canyon really was impressive. The Common Yellowthroat was a surprise. I didn’t expect the little bit of marshy habitat that was there. The Sam Nail Ranch was neat too. Just a little oasis in the desert from the days when Sam Nail ranched the area. His well keeps the trees alive (remember I was in a desert; not many trees!). When I returned to my camp, the 95 degrees wasn’t so bad. But, it was still too hot to cook, so I ate at the lodge. I also purchased a locally made ceramic coffee mug. I try to get one from a key vacation stop when I travel. I now have mugs from North Carolina, Texas (two actually), Alaska, Florida, Arizona, and Montana.

I slept poorly. The winds were a bit rough over night. When they died down in the early morning, Common Poorwills were calling.

So-So Sort of A Day

Sun up was spent birding the park on foot. All the usual suspects where there, but no Montezuma Quail. The bird guides recommend a 60-mile drive through the mountains so I certainly took it. There was nice picnic area along the way where the birding was shaping up to be good, but the flies there were too much for me. No quail. No Band-tailed Pigeon. Western Wood-Pewee, Western Bluebird, Violet-green Swallow, White-throated Swift, Say’s Phoebe, and Canyon Towhee where all cool, but I was a bit disappointed. I, unfortunately, did not allow myself much time to check out the McDonald Observatory. I spent some time walking the road just outside the park in hopes of finding the Common Black-Hawk that was known to be nesting there. Knowing that this bird only sometimes soars and spends more time running in creeks catching snakes and crayfish did not make me think my chances were high, but it was worth a shot. No luck. The Gray Hawk (total surprise!) and Zone-tailed Hawk were nice consolation prizes, but I had already seen them elsewhere in my travels.

The threat of afternoon thunderstorms convinced me to eat at the lodge. After dinner, I birded the park again (the photo on the left is the park as seen from the Skyline Drive). No quail. I knew this bird was going to be tough (despite what some of the literature says) and they seemed to have evaded me. Driving over 70 miles and hiking 3 or 4 miles in prime habitat and I missed ‘em. This was the only part of my trip where I could get them and it appeared I would not. The javelina wandered through again at some point during the night. No belching.

History Abounds

I parted ways with Rebecca and was on the road before the sun came up. I was prepared to take I-10 west from San Antonio towards El Paso, but TC said US-90 was better. Hondo, Texas? Uvalde? Water towers #3 and #4. From the road at 75mph, some birds with that distinct Texas feel included Black-bellied Whistling Duck and Vermillion Flycatcher. The Prairie Falcon was cool, too.

Lunch was in Alpine, Texas. The Edelweiss Brewery and Restaurant is located in the Holland Hotel, a structure dating back to 1912. I believe the elderly woman playing the piano in the lobby was also from 1912. Maybe 1812. I’m not sure. Either way, she was good. Their four beers on tap where all very, very good: Alpine Blond, Outlaw, Texas Black Gold, and Texas Tea Porter. I gathered from those around me that the service was a bit rough, but I had no trouble. I also learned that I look official when I come in to these places. I get my folders out and scribble notes onto paper and into my Palm Pilot. My waitress wanted to know who I was with and who I write for. “I write for me, ma’am” was my reply. If I was wearing a cowboy hat, I would have surely tugged the brim.

Ultimately, I was not headed to El Paso, but the Davis Mountains, instead. One bird and one bird only lured me there: Montezuma Quail. While this small mountain range is not the only place to find them, it is considered the surest. (For you birders, by the way, at this point I followed the itinerary in Jerry Cooper’s ABA book. I highly recommend the book.)

Before heading to the Davis Mountains State Park, I spent some time at Fort Davis National Historic Site. From 1854 to 1891 (excluding the Civil War), this was a fort that offered protection to travelers moving between El Paso and San Antonio. It was named after Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War. Some structures are the still standing while others are nothing more than stone foundations. I found the Rock Wren flitting about on the 120-year old mess hall foundation kind of interesting. Beyond that, I did not think it was horribly birdy, but I was not expecting it to be. Nevertheless, the history there was fascinating.

A few miles up the street? Davis Mountains State Park. It was my home for the next two nights. According to my sources, I should get the quail here. After setting up my campsite, I just birded the park on foot until nightfall. Cassin’s Kingbirds may have been nesting near my site; they were always present. Acorn Woodpeckers and Rufous-crowned Sparrows were a given at the feeder station. It has been said that the quail come to the station for water, but I had been warmed the thunderstorm earlier in the day may have ruined the whole plan. There is no need for them to come to the station if they can get water elsewhere.

At this point in my trip, by the way, it was planned to meet up with my buddy Joe Bartell ( who recently moved to Colorado) and his wife Corrinne. Unfortunately, Federal paperwork for her immigration prevented her from coming into the country on time and neither could join me. They got married last year. Perhaps, the Federal government was concerned about our safety. Wow, those British accountants……watch out!!!!! My entire trip was solo.

As the sun was setting, I noticed a lump on the outside bathroom wall. A closer view showed it was a frog. It turns out it was the Canyon Tree Frog. If I remember correctly, it is only found in Texas in the Davis Mountains and Chisos Mountains. It can be found in New Mexico, too, but for Texas, two places and that is it. They were likely attracted to the insects that came to the bathroom lights. I found three, in fact. One was on the window sill. I was standing on my tip toes to get a better look, when I suddenly realized I was on the woman’s side of the building. A peeping Paul, I am not, but it probably looked that way. I left quickly.

My sleep was interrupted that night. I don’t know the time, but something….somethings…where clearly scurrying around in my campsite. I could hear their snorting and chuckling as they moved about. At one point, the javelina (have-uh-LEEN-uh) pressed his nose right against my tent door and exhaled. Gee, thanks. I quickly grabbed my glasses and looked out my tent window. In the moonlight, I counted four. At sun up, I counted four rocks where the javelina had been. Nevertheless, there were javelina and one did belch into my tent. I’m sure of it. They had just moved on before I found them in the dark.

Mission Possible: Missions and New Beers

After a breakfast at IHOP (we need more those in Detroit!), we went to some of the Missions that are a part of the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park on the south side of town. Very impressive structures. Some of these missions date back to 1718 and are still used today. We found the sign on one door particularly interesting: basically “Leave your guns outside.” It was on the chapel door! “I love you, my Christian brother! Just as long as you don’t flash the wrong gang sign. If you do, I get to put a cap in your ass! But I love you!” What a crock.

All of this took on an even more interesting feel based on what we witnessed getting there. It’s a four-way stop. The car in front of us stops. The passenger gets out, walks to the street corner, and stands there. The driver gets out, walks to the other corner, and stands there. Two woman spill out of the car and start knocking each other around. It’s a clown car! How comical. How sad.

After spending some time there, we went off to Sea World. Most people get to pay $50 to get in. No joke. How much did we pay? Nothing. Rebecca’s military status got us both in for free. Anheuser-Busch picks up the tap. For me, a big highlight was the Brew Master’s Club. Basically, you pick four beers off the list and they bring you the itty-bitty sample glasses with fruits, cheese and chocolates. Our guide, Carlos, took us through beer and food pairing ideas. Wild Blue, Stone Mill Pale Ale, Beach Bum Blonde Ale, and the Bare Knuckle Stout were all pretty good. While I know my beers, I don’t really have a handle on how to partner them with food. In the past, I have never really been a fan of fruit beers, but if you have them with lights cheeses, and grapes as an appetizer, you are all set. Smoked Gouda goes well with stouts, too. Chocolates are also good with pale ales (though I don’t eat chocolate). It was all free.

I think a highlight for Rebecca was when her photographer/brother got a picture of her feeding the dolphin. She could have fed him more, but the little kid next to her horn-swaggled her out of her fish. He seemed to think that just because he knew the magic word, he should get what he wants. I’ll have to try that during our upcoming contract talks. “I want a pay raise. Pleeease?”

Two Key Birds And Some History

Up before the sun (are you seeing a pattern here?). After a quick breakfast at the Hill Top Café, I sped off the Kerr Wildlife Management Area. I had discovered a source online before I left on my trip. The fellow claimed that this location was great for both the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo. In fact, he claimed it was the best place for the Vireo in all of Kerr County (the heart of the Hill Country). The overcast skies kept the temps cools. At Bobcat Pasture, just like the guy said, I found the singing BLACK-CAPPED VIREO (life bird #603) in a matter of minutes. I had a few more within an hour.

The cattledrive was unexpected. While hiking a short distance from my car, I noticed the sound of cattle and cattle drivers getting closer. Before I knew it, dozens of cattle were between me and my truck. The facial expression of bull # 15 said it all “Who the hell are you?” I’m from suburban Detroit, not a farm. What are you supposed to do when a monster cow is between you and your car? After debating it for a few minutes, I simply walked up to my car and climbed in. Huh, that was simple.

I also did the wildlife drive through the property. I would periodically stop and get out at various locations. At one stop, a “chip” note caught my attention. Seconds later, a warbler with a black throat and white belly flew feet over my head. Before I could get on it, it flew back across the road. I found it on the edge of the tree. GOLDEN-CHEEKED WARLBER! (#604). It’s golden cheek was simply glowing in the now shining sun. Very cool. Unfortunately, the look was brief, but still worth it.

Lunch time was at the Fredericksburg Brewing Company. Enchanted Rock Red Ale, Not So Dumb Blonde Ale, Peace Pipe Pale Ale, Pioneer Porter and the Whitetail Wheat Ale were on tap. The Blond Ale and Pale Ale were just too hoppy for my tastes. The others were very good and burger was top-notch.

As a part-time history guy, I had to take a moment and walk though the house where Chester Nimitz was born in 1885. He went on to lead the United States Navy during World War II. His birthplace is now an upscale art store.

I continued the history theme and went on to the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. A tour of his ranch is available and very worth it if you are into that sort of thing. For the record, Lady Bird still does not have a stone on her grave even though she died a year ago. She is buried next to him on a small plot across from the ranch house. It is really too bad the bulk of his legacy will be the Vietnam War. It clearly overshadows a lot of cool things that he did during his administration.

TC had me on back roads for a while before I got to the main expressways north of San Antonio. Oh, what fun driving! What I would have done to have a little sports car for that section of road. I found “Red Barchetta” by Rush to be very appropriate driving music. Fortunately, I was not being chased by the “gleaming alloy air car, two lanes wide.”

A brief stop at the Gaudalupe River State Park was a bust. It was said that Green Kingfisher can be found there. Well, great, but not with 100s of sweaty people in the river.

Dinner was supposed to be at the Faust Hotel in New Braunfels. It is the home of the Faust Brewing Company. I should have read the webpage more closely. At no point does it say “Come enjoy our food and beer.” I, however, have been to various brewing companies and they often have GREAT food, so I assumed I could eat there because it did not say “no food.” Well, guess what? No food. Not even pretzels. I drive 30 miles out of my way and they don’t even have a God-damned pretzel? Oh, and they only brew one beer. It happens to be Walter’s Brown Ale and it happens to be one of the best brown ales I have ever had. The nutty finish was really something else. Serve food, brew more beers like Walter’s, and they can really do well, I’m sure.

I headed to San Antonio to spend some time with my sister, Rebecca.

Where's The Water?

Again, up with sun. My GPS (referred to from now on as TC (Targeting Computer)) cleverly took me around Dallas/Fort Worth and through Emory (where I snagged another water tower photo). I was on my way to the Texas Hill Country, specifically Pedernales Fall State Park north of San Antonio. This is said to be a great place for Golden-cheeked Warbler, another Federally Endangered bird (found breeding only in Texas). Unfortunately, my mid-day arrival was hardly peak bird time. I spend the better part the afternoon trying to locate one, but I couldn’t do it. The Painted Bunting, however, knocked my socks off. It was only the second one I had ever seen (and that first one was a female bird). What a stunning bird. The Falls themselves are very cool, but I was there during a slow time. Apparently, during rain storms, the river swells so quickly, people can get swept away. After walking around on the open rocks, I could easily see how. What a neat place.

While looking for lodging, I bumbled into an antique store. The first thing I see? A coffee mill from the Enterprise Manufacturing Company. I, unfortunately, did not have the $1800 he was asking for. Plus, I was limited on space in my truck. I would have to buckle the monster into my front seat. I would have loved to add that one to my collection. I bet I could have argued it was a passenger if I were to try and use the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes….

The night was spent at the Kerrville-Shreiner City Park. It was state owned, but they sold it to Kerrville. Camping along the Guadalupe River was very nice. Plus, few people where in the park, so I felt like I had most of it to myself.

Zero For Two

I was on the road by sunrise. My route took me to western Arkansas so I had to cut across Missouri. I snagged a few photos of water towers along the way. By lunch time, I was a bit hungry and thirsty. I happen to be in passing through the small town of Aurora, Missouri, and they happen to have a brewery called Bootleggers! I totally bumbled into it. I found the four beers samples, Dark Bock, House Special, Light Wheat, and Pale Ale, to be very plain. None of them where bad by any means, but at no point did I really think “Wow, this is great!” I did, however, have a big problem with the names. Come on! “Pale Ale”. That is the best they could come up with! “Hey, weary traveler, let us “Wow!” you with our…….Pale Ale!” I have had a few beers in my day, and the names from some of these microbreweries can be a lot of fun and often have local connections. They need to get with the program. There is a Civil War battlefield up the street, for Pete’s sake. So much potential: Artillery Ale, Ammunition Ale, Amputation Ale….ok, scratch that last one, but you see my point. The Light Wheat was very puzzling. Wheat beers are great, and lights suck. Its that simple. Why ruin a good thing? They, however, made up some points with the fact that the brewery was located in an old bank. That was neat.

The roadkill were everywhere. Very sad. So many poor turtles never stand a chance. Too many dead.

Heading south along the west side of Arkansas, I had to pass both Pea Ridge National Military Park and Fort Smith National Historic Site. As some of you know, I want to visit as many National Park sites as possible. I found it a bit frustrating to literally drive right past the front gate of Pea Ridge, but I did not have time to stop. Perhaps next time. I was on to some place different….

The Ouachita (wash-EH-taw) National Forest is a home to a bird that I made a secondary target bird for the trip. Bachman’s Sparrow can be found there simply because they can utilize the habitat that is being managed for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Basically, burn your woods now and then, and you get both. Unfortunately, I did not find the sparrow. I had tips from an employee who even told what tree to stand by, and I still could not find the little buggers (he had three birds three weeks earlier). I had Yellow-breasted Chats, Prairie Warblers, Pine Warblers and a Red-cockaded Woodpecker (a Federally endangered bird), but no Bachman’s Sparrow. My travel itinerary for the first part of the trip was tight. I only had about 2 hours at that site. I thought that would be enough since I basically had the exact location of a breeding bird. It was dinner time, so I thought I would have some luck with evening activity, but it was not too be. I am now 0 for 2 with this bird. I also missed it in North Carolina in ’06.

With my head sunk in defeat, I moved on the Texarkana, Texas for the night. Driving there was a treat. The western part of Arkansas is truly spectacular. I really mean that. The heat can be a bit rough, I imagine, as demonstrated by the aluminum foil placed on the windows on the various trailer homes along the way….

On The Road Again!

I had some comp time from work and was on the road by 3:15pm. After my obligatory “My vacation begins!” dinner at the Wendy’s in Wapakoneta, Ohio, I was in Marshall, Illinois by sundown (about 6 hours of driving). I am a bit familiar with the major roads of the southern Indiana and Illinois, and the flooded fields from the heavy recent rains were very obvious. I was impressed with the Dickcissels in the fields outside the hotel (I rarely camp the first night).

Gadgets, Gear, and Gory Details

Over the next few days, I will post a detailed narrative of my trip to Texas (and their hottest June on record), with some stops in Arkansas on the way down and Tennessee on the return leg.

I tallied 198 species of birds, 18 of which were new. I could have tallied more, but I was not paying attention to every bird. My total list is now 620 species. The trip list as at the end.

I sampled 18 new beers, bringing my new total to 484 and also visited 9 National Park sites.

My Texas list now stands at 261, having added over 65 species. Tennessee now stands at 55 species. Arkansas is an anemic 43.

Cool birds, new beers and National Park sites are in bold. Life birds in BOLD CAPS.

I took almost 1,000 photographs, drove approximately 6,164 miles, averaging 25.17 mpg over two and half weeks. Fuel costs? $885 with the highest prices in Marathon, Texas ($4.47/gallon)

This was the first chance I had to field test my new tent. Moosejaw Outfitters was having a deal. If you brought them your old tent, they would sell you a new tent with a 20% discount and ship the old one to China (for the homeless courtesy of that earthquake). The Sierra Design Electron 2 is simply a great tent. It goes up and comes down in minutes. Plus, it comes with the gear loft, footpad and coffee hanger thing-a-mah-bobs. I don’t have a negative thing to say.

I also purchased a Garvin Nuvi 350 a few months back. Folks, if you don’t have one of these little dashboard beauties, get one, especially if you travel or are a birder. Input the address, or instruct it to “find food”, for example, and off you go. I used it constantly. It is also an Mp3 player. While it was not perfect (I pretty sure that lady’s house was not a gas station), they work very well and very worth the money. My buddy at work and I were talking about my trip a bit when I got back. He encouraged me to get one in the first place. He commented, and I agree: if anything happened to it on a trip, we would find the nearest electronics store and buy a new one. I will never travel without one again.

Last summer, I dumped the big bucks for a Canon Digital Rebel XTi with a 100mm-400mm f5.6 nuclear powered, internal stabilizing lens with built-in coffee mill and inflatable life raft. All photos were taken with that rig, or the small stock lens. Some can use a bit of PhotoShop fiddling at a later date but as basically unaltered.