Grand Forks photographer Russ Hons has an eye for bald eagles. If you don’t believe it, these images will go a long way to disprove your skepticism. (Check out more photos from Russ Hons here.)
I never imagined when my family left El Paso, Texas, in 1970, that it would take me almost 50 years to return for a visit, but it did.
This time, I’m back in the Trans-Pecos region as the guest of a friend, Val, who has recently purchased a home here. It was her suggestion that I fly into El Paso and visit my old haunts, and so I did. Great idea. I’m eternally grateful to her. We enjoy birding and hiking together when we get the chance.
My friend loves this kind of stuff,so I couldn’t find a better partner for this lark of a mission. Here at Terrace Hills Elementary, my fifth-grade science teacher, whose brother worked at the Houston Space Center, had us all avidly following the Apollo space program news. Here I took Spanish and with my friends played with my Trolls.
Here I learned how to carefully open a newly published book so that it would not be damaged.
I’m certain these vintage tables were used by my friends and me.
I’m in the blue dress sewed by my mother, front and center, sporting pretty much the same hairstyle I wear to this day, although in those days it was called a “pixie.” I adored this teacher, Miss Buck, who was from Amarillo, Texas. Each day, she read to her third-grade class a chapter of “Charlotte’s Web.” We took field trips to the planetarium, which I greatly enjoyed. Midway through the year, she married and honeymooned in Acapulco, which we thought sounded so romantic.
1968 is big in the news these days, given that it was a pivotal year in the nation’s history and it is the 50th anniversary. This convergence made it extra fun to be in the place where I spent that year, roaming around with my siblings and pals in the nearby Chihuahuan Desert, playing “Red Rover” in our front yard.
We went to the first house in which my family settled, on Mercedes. Memories of trick or treating in the neighborhood flooded back to me. It was in this house that I watched the Apollo news on our small black-and-white TV as well as the horrifying bulletins from Vietnam. We would often visit El Paso’s twin city, Juarez, Mexico, back in the day when it was easy to cross the border. My father would pay a local boy a nickel to watch our Ford station wagon while we strolled the streets and visited the glass factory. Once, President Johnson flew into El Paso, and my older brother and his Boy Scout troop got to go to see him.
My older sister was so chic. Wonder where my older brother was? Maybe off with the Boy Scouts.
As part of this lark, Val and I found the 7-Eleven a few blocks away, to which we kids would walk back and forth to buy icies. Often we would snag on goat head stickers that poked through our thin flip-flops. Once some naughty kid in my class put one on the teacher’s chair. I’m bringing home a goat head for my mother, which will tickle her greatly to show off to her neighbors.
Harcourt Drive was the house in which we lived the longest while in El Paso. When our landlord told us that he had sold the Mercedes house, my parents went off in the evenings to look for another. When they came home with the news that Harcourt it would be, I was jubilant, as my best friend, Debbie, lived just a few doors down. On this visit, I knocked on her door and inquired, but her parents had moved away, just a couple of years ago.
Here I was in ballet, and we Crook kids were all in Scouts. My father also managed the Fort Bliss movie theater, a terrific gig from our perspective, as we got to go to lots of ’em, loaded up on popcorn and soda.
Whenever we were out of school and not camping in the New Mexico mountains, we roamed freely in the desert. I routinely kept a horned toad in a cigar box in my bedroom. Roadrunners periodically scooted across our lawn.
Here we watched the first moon landing and read Life magazine and spent long summer days at the swimming pool. Here I listened to “Hey Jude” and “Crimson and Clover,” over and over. Here we watched “Gunsmoke,” “Mission Impossible,” “Laugh-In,” “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” and “Gilligan’s Island.”
The Harcourt house had changed so much that I struggled to find it (that’s another story in itself). Lots of superstructure has been added to the front of the house. When we lived there, we had two beagles, Lady and Duchess. Val has a beagle, so we re-created the scene. I could hear an ice cream truck in the Mercedes neighborhood and, boy, did that music take me back.
On my last day in Texas, I toured a lovely Catholic church and we did some more birding along the Rio Grande.
A portion of the border wall, Juarez in the distance.
At Rio Bosque Wetlands Park, we saw this burrowing owl. He eventually flew from this perch and bobbed up and down in his “Howdy Owl” mode.
Our final stop was Chamizal National Memorial, an National Park Service site that commemorates the friendship of Mexico and the U.S. and a peaceful border resolution. President Johnson was here in 1967 to seal this deal. I concluded that this would have been the day when my older brother got to see Johnson.
El Paso was my father’s last posting, and when he retired, we went home to Slope County, North Dakota, to my grandparents’ farm and ranch, and other than a brief time in Nashville, Tenn., for graduate school, North Dakota is where I’ve lived.
Wednesday, from my airplane window, I looked down on Juarez and my last view of the Franklin Mountains, and I read several issues of my New Yorker magazines. This story about canoeing the Rio Grande had special resonance for me.
As the final leg of my journey ended, it was so good to look down at the Missouri River and the green hills of Burleigh County, my heart filled with new and happy memories of West Texas adventures. My husband and daughter wrapped me in their arms and took me home, where the work of the garden awaits.
“Our plans never turn out as tasty as reality.” — Ram Dass
Mexican duck (subspecies of Mallard)
Total new lifers in Texas: 14 (No Colimas or Montezuma quails, but great birding nonetheless)
Total birds on this adventure: 112. This might be a record for me!
- Mexican duck (mallard).
- Blue-winged teal.
- Scaled quail.
- Gambel’s quail.
- Black vulture.
- Turkey vulture.
- Northern harrier.
- Common black-hawk.
- Gray hawk.
- Swainson’s hawk.
- Red-tailed hawk.
- Virginia rail.
- American coot.
- Spotted sandpiper.
- Solitary sandpiper.
- Lesser yellowlegs.
- Wilson’s snipe.
- Rock pigeon.
- Eurasian collared-dove.
- White-winged dove.
- Common ground-dove.
- Greater roadrunner (Paisano).
- Great horned owl.
- Elf owl.
- Burrowing owl.
- Common nighthawk.
- Common poorwill.
- White-throated swift.
- Black-chinned hummingbird.
- Broad-billed hummingbird.
- Acorn woodpecker.
- Golden-fronted woodpecker.
- Ladder-backed woodpecker.
- American kestrel.
- Least flycatcher.
- Say’s Phoebe.
- Vermilion flycatcher.
- Ash-throated flycatcher.
- Brown-crested flycatcher.
- Cassin’s kingbird.
- Western kingbird.
- Eastern kingbird.
- Bell’s vireo.
- Plumbeous vireo.
- Western scrub-jay.
- Mexican jay.
- Chihuahuan raven.
- Common raven.
- Violet-green swallow.
- Northern rough-winged swallow.
- Bank swallow.
- Barn swallow.
- Black-crested titmouse.
- Canyon wren.
- House wren.
- Marsh wren.
- Bewick’s wren.
- Cactus wren.
- Blue-gray gnatcatcher.
- Black-tailed gnatcatcher.
- American robin.
- Curve-billed thrasher.
- Crissal thrasher.
- Northern mockingbird.
- European starling.
- American pipit.
- Lucy’s warbler.
- Common yellowthroat.
- Northern parula.
- Yellow warbler.
- Yellow-rumped warbler (both Magnolia and Myrtle).
- Townsend’s warbler.
- Yellow-breasted chat.
- Green-tailed towhee.
- Spotted towhee.
- Rufous-crowned sparrow.
- Canyon towhee.
- Chipping sparrow.
- Clay-colored sparrow.
- Lark sparrow.
- Sagebrush sparrow.
- Lark bunting.
- White-crowned sparrow.
- Dark-eyed junco (gray-headed).
- Summer tanager.
- Northern cardinal.
- Black-headed grosbeak.
- Blue grosbeak (lots!).
- Lazuli bunting.
- Varie bunting.
- Red-winged blackbird.
- Eastern meadowlark.
- Yellow-headed blackbirds.
- Brewer’s blackbird.
- Great-tailed grackle.
- Bronzed cowbird.
- Brown-headed cowbird.
- Bullock’s oriole.
- Scott’s oriole.
- House finch.
- Pine siskin.
- Lesser goldfinch.
- House sparrow.
- Red-breasted nuthatch.
Monday’s West Texas expedition was to the Davis Mountains area in search of Montezuma quails. The Davis Mountains are what is known as a “Sky Island,” rising high above the Chihuahuan Desert and are one of the most beautiful places in Texas.
In addition to birding, our destination was the famous McDonald Observatory. On my last visit to Texas, we visited Fort Davis National Historic Site but had to force ourselves to drive on by the observatory due to time constraints. We were acquainted with it because of the StarDate daily program on public radio and thrilled just to have seen it.
Val and I ate lunch and then took in a program on the sun, which included views of the solar orb in real time. After the program, we loaded into a tour van and up we went, on what we learned was the highest highway in Texas, to tour two of the huge research telescopes. Our tour guide was funny and knowledgeable.
One of the most interesting things I learned is that the moon is moving away from the earth 3 centimeters a year, something that was discovered at this observatory. That and Jupiter causes the sun to wobble ever so slightly.
“All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered, the point is to discover them.” — Galileo Galilei
Our birding destinations of the day included the Davis Mountains State Park. Here they offer two specially designed buildings from which one can observe feeders and water features, loaded with birds. Both the state park and the observatory offer great scenic views of the area.
It was a great birding day. We “bagged” 47 different species of birds. The highlights were lots of blue grosbeaks, a broad-billed hummingbird and a new lifer for me — a western scrub-jay. But no Montezuma quails. Oh, well.
We capped off an eventful day looking at the full moon flirting with Juniper. And almost stumbled over a nasty looking giant desert centipede. Always walk in the desert night with a flashlight.
I am in Texas at the invitation of my friend, Valerie, who has a house here near the Davis Mountains. I have been a birder for more than 40 years, and she and I greatly enjoy birding together whenever we get the chance. Here we birded together five years ago, but it was February, so I jumped at the chance to visit in April, before it gets so blistery hot.
My penultimate goal was to observe the Colima warbler, which can only be seen in the U.S. in the high reaches of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park, a species I’d never seen. (It is not present in the U.S. in February, and my parents never took me to Big Bend NP all those years ago when we lived in Texas.)
Val picked me up in El Paso, where I lived as a very young girl. (More about that in a future blog.) We started birding the Chihuahuan Desert right away. The song of the cactus wren in my old neighborhood took me back in time.
It took us quite a while to drive to her West Texas home because we made frequent birding stops. In fact, it takes us quite a while to get anywhere for this reason. It wasn’t long before I snagged a new species, the Chihuahuan raven.
In the morning, we observed birds in her yard and then all around the town, including the cemetery, a very interesting walk in its own right. Our most frequent sighting for these days was the iridescent scarlet tanager. We took a tour of downtown Alpine, which has lovely murals that capture the images of West Texas culture.
The next day, we took the long drive to Big Bend National Park, a fitting place to spend National Park Week. Valerie is a retired National Park ranger, and one of her postings was five years in Big Bend NP as Chief of Interpretation. She knows and loves the landscape well and one can find no better guide.
We camped in Cottonwood Campground on the Rio Grande River, where we birded and interacted with other birders. She has a camper, but I set up a tent, unaware that a very windy night was to come. The constant gusts of wind flattened the tent on my face, and we both got very little sleep.
Nonetheless, we arose the next morning and began birding in earnest. Because of the water of the Rio Grande, the habitat makes for excellent birding. When we saw a bird, we noted its markings and slowly, unless it is a familiar species to us, came to agreement. Our reference sources are our field guides, a couple of birding apps on our phones, our lifelong knowledge of birds and the “Big Bend Bird Checklist” by her friend, Mark Flippo.
Neither of us take all that many photographs as we prefer to be looking through our binoculars and storing away the mental images. I did attempt to photograph the Vermilion flycatcher, but it is a poor quality photograph that doesn’t begin to do justice to the bird.
Here is a better photograph by a professional.
Equally as wonderful is the Scarlet Tanager.
All around are other campers and hikers, birders and photographers. Near to our campsite was a gray hawk nest.
Our next destination was the Rio Grande Village campground and a boat trip across the river to Boquillas, Mexico, for the day, via the border crossing in the national park. It was staffed by a ranger who knew Val from her Theodore Roosevelt National Park days, and we all had a friendly chat.
We paid the $5 for the boat ride across the river, although it is very low, as this is the livelihood of the locals. In Boquillas, I ate the best chicken tamales of my life and we enjoyed the laid-back village vibe. Val purchased some highly recommended tortillas from a village woman to bring back for herself and her friend.
Upon our return, we birded around the Rio Grande including some outstanding evening birding on the nearby nature trail. Then, it was on to Panther Junction, where we crashed with an old friend of Val’s who has been a wildlife biologist at Big Bend NP for decades.
I am particularly taken with the Chisos red oak that grows in Raymond’s backyard. Val, Raymond and I took a stroll in the dusk to find elf owls. We heard one, but did not see it. Although Val does not, I count it when I hear a bird as I can picture these in my mind. A hot shower and a good night’s sleep revived us.
The last day in Big Bend was focused on finding the Colima warbler. We drove to the Chiso Basin, stopped in the Visitor Center and prepared for the hike up the Chisos Mountains.
The Chisos are the farthest south range of the Rocky Mountains and a striking feature in the heart of Big Bend NP. Big Bend NP is a huge and wild landscape, on a big bend of the Rio Grande River on the border, and is comprised of 801,163 acres with many diverse ecosystems. The Chisos Basin is at 5,400 feet and the highest peak is Emory at 7,825 feet. We weren’t going all the way to Emory but nearly. We knew we had a long hike planned, complete with lots of birding dawdling. Although I love all rivers, including the Rio Grande, the Chisos Basin is my favorite area of the park and I was thrilled to be there again.
The ascent of the Pinnacles Trail is 1,655.84 feet to an elevation of 7,078.05 feet. I was feeling the mild effects of the elevation and very grateful that the temperature was fairly mild. I could never endure the height of the summer desert temperatures with my N.D. sensibilities. As we hiked, Val identified plants unknown to me.
We met up with hikers on the way. This woman had seen a Colima warbler about 20 minutes before and she was on her way down. We pressed on, frequently stopping in the shade to cool off. The orange from my pack revived me, a lifesaver.
All around were desert plants: cacti, agave, juniper, matrona and the Chisos red oak. The distinctive blue agave is called a Century Plant. It blooms just once, after several decades of growth, and then dies. The side-by-side photo below is an example of this phenomenon. The hummingbirds and butterflies and other pollinators flock to the blossom.
We wondered if this Century Plan shown below, somewhere on the Colima Trail, would fall off this rock to which it clung when it sent up its bloom.
As we reached The Pinnacles, white-throated swifts chattered about. Otherwise, the day was dominated by Mexican jays and blue-gray and black-tailed gnatcatchers.
At the end of a very long hike, more than 10 miles, we trudged back into the Chisos Basin, as the sun was setting. No Colima warblers. Raymond had warned us that due to the exceptional dryness of the year, the birds away from the Rio Grande were not as active. Valerie lived here for five years and has frequently visited and she has only seen “couple” of Colimas. I might have jinxed it when I bought this cool medallion for my walking stick.
My heart wasn’t completely broken though. I’ve weathered much worse. I had just spent a day soaking up the silence of this place, renewing my spirit, knowing that I was where the Colimas live and breed. We saw no other hikers for the last six miles. And we were both spent.
As we left the Chisos Mountains, a full moon was rising over the desert. The stars were spectacular, Venus a beacon on the horizon, and Mars very red in the southeast. Deep within, I’d stored the memory of another Chihuahuan Desert adventure, complete with numerous new bird species for my life list. More to come.
“Drunk on my milky light of the stars
Anyone staggers. If I seem mad
I am. And if you see that
You are too. Be glad.”
New bird list so far, 12 “lifers”:
- Scaled quail.
- Black vulture.
- Elf owl.
- White-throated swift.
- Ash-throated flycatcher.
- Plumbous vireo.
- Chihuahuan raven.
- Crissal’s thrasher.
- Rufous-crowned sparrow.
- Varied bunting.
- Scott’s oriole.
- Gray-headed dark-eyed junco.
I’ve been hearing northern Cardinals but had not seen one close up until Saturday. They don’t migrate — one of the handful of species that live in Minnesota all year.
I photographed this female (above) under one of our feeders in Bloomington.
We’ll soon be hearing more of them. Both the males and females sing in earnest in March and April to establish territories and attract mates. They are the opera stars of the bird world — each individual has 10 to 12 unique song types, although some diva cardinals can sing more than 25.
It’s music to my ears.
According to my guide book, to maintain contact, males and females also give short nonmusical, metallic sounding “chip notes” singly or in a series. The frequency and volume of these calls increase with the level of agitation.