Birding Big Year 2016

May 17, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 5: Chihuahuan Desert to Davis Mountains

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Birds, Parks, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 1:21 am

McDonald’s Ranch, Hachita, New Mexico

Sunrise comes late to Cave Creek Canyon, but no matter; we are both up at dawn.  I follow the creek downstream in anticipation of encountering all the birds that migrated through last night’s dreams.  Harry catches up and we walk the closed campground loop.  The road and creekside campsites look as if they have just recently been rebuilt. A 500-year flood nearly erased all memory of the canyon on September 17-19, 2014. The creek is flowing harmlessly now, but today’s torrential winds channeled between the high cliffs remind us that the canyon keeps what it captures. It’s too breezy here for birds – except for one.  A lone Hermit Thrush bounces along the ground like a junco.  Big Year Bird #141 jumpstarts the day.

We’ve a long drive to Texas by sundown, but I am in no hurry to leave.  South Fork Cave Creek of the Chiricahua Mountains is as spectacular as Zion – both the National Park in Utah and the predestined resting place of the Saints.  I insist on birding the upstream trail into the Chiricahua Wilderness Area.  I first fell under the spell of South Fork on May 14, 1992, while birding with my mentor the late great Bob Jennings. The former director of the Oxley Nature Center in Tulsa deserves as much credit for my present-day obsession with birds as anyone.  It was here along this Sycamore-lined, crystalline creek that Bob introduced me to Elegant Trogon, Whiskered Screech-Owl, Strickland’s Woodpecker and Plumbeous Vireo.  Twenty years had passed between that visit and the one Harry and I made on March 28, 2012.  But now, Harry is insisting that he has never been here before.  When the Jeep reaches the end of the road, I realize why.  The 2014 flood has removed perhaps a mile of it and completely obliterated the picnic area.  South Fork has been rechanneled, regenerated, and reborn.

Harry remains back at the vehicle; I press on disoriented and somewhat disturbed of soul.  Time changes everything, creeks and protégés.  I did not expect this secret paradise to remember me, but I had hoped it would safeguard my recollections. Ah memories…

They spring up like flowers and wither away; like fleeting shadows, they do not endure.

The canyons will not keep them and nothing is the same – not even the birds.  I walk a few hundred yards deeper into the woods and collect new sentiments: Painted Redstart, Brown Creeper, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

If ever there is a place to forget the itinerary it is in Portal.  Here Cave Creek is liberated from the canyon, and the Jeep is bathed in sunlight. We park beside the Portal Store, Cafe & Lounge, ready for a real breakfast.  I navigate past the shelves of camping supplies and narrow aisle to a side room that is the crowded cafe.  Five mismatched wooden tables and small kitchen counter occupy the space.  One table is empty and we claim it.  Against one wall a local sits alone, offering advice to tourists a few feet away.  Another couple sits silently, lost in their cell phones.  I quickly realize the cafe offers free WiFi and take advantage of the opportunity to get word out to Susan – I’m still alive!  The menu has few items, but no matter.  I can almost taste the maple syrup dripping off my soon to be served short stack of pancakes. The waitress/cook/owner carves a groove in the wooden floor from the kitchen to our table, delivering over a gallon of coffee one cup at a time.  Outside the window, an Acorn Woodpecker fights with finches at the feeder.  A Cactus Wren calls forth a scorching sun. Time to go.

East-bound on New Mexico Highway 9, we pass Animas and unperceptively ascend the continental divide. Just before the so-called summit, a Greater Roadrunner …well…runs across the road, and I would expect nothing less.  This cuckoo is no dummy.  He can an outrun a birder, kill a rattlesnake, and live off the fluids of its prey in this parched and arid landscape.  I have no such skills, and am reminded that in a land of needles, fangs, and thorns, only the cautious and capable travel should venture ever deeper into the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert. We gas up at Playas junction just to be safe.

Ever east, we encounter no sign of human existence except the occasional west-bound green and white pick-up of the ubiquitous US Border Patrol. Agents seem to outnumber rancher and resident 6 to 1.  Even in Hachita, a rusted, dusted graveyard of a once noted town, reveals no humanity.  The 2010 census records 49 souls here (2015 Census lists 57!), but we see none of them. In seconds we are both entering and exiting town limits.  But that which catches my eye for a fraction of time, demands that we turn around and revisit the site.  At the crossroads the town lies south.  On the north is the typical posts and cross-pole entrance to a ranch – McDonald’s Ranch.  A pair of modern-day golden arches mark the way.  We drive through and dream of fries.  A corroded VW bug with four deflated tires sits permanently parked nearby with a scarecrow of sorts behind the wheel.  Back in town, we idle like vagrants, photographing old churches, adobe walls, and collapsed cabins. The streets are laid out 1st through 5th and A through C, just as an old rail town should be. I would not be exaggerating to compare present-day Hachita to a war-torn Syrian outpost, and yet I am strangely attracted to her.  No doubt full of stories of America’s Old Southwest, Hachita sprung like a desert flower, but now fleeting, withered, there is no reason to endure.  She no longer keeps her memories. There are no shadows at noon in the desert.

Like grand explorers we press on through Columbus, edging ever closer to “the pass.” Harry and I pass the time trying to guess where the newly designated Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument begins and ends.  Established less than two years ago by President Obama, the monument boasts:

…a rich diversity of Chihuahuan Desert wild lands and unique Pre-American, New Mexican, and American history including training sites for the Apollo Space Mission, the Butterfield Stagecoach Trail, Billy the Kid’s Outlaw Rock, Geronimo’s Cave, World War II aerial targets, and thousands of Native American petroglyphs and pictographs.

Soon enough we enter the backdoor to El Paso via Santa Teresa.  An angry wind whips the Mexican dust and flings it at Texas.  No wall can hold it back.  Poverty spreads across the south bank of the Rio Grande, while commerce and truckers rage on along both sides of I-10. This is my second trip through “the pass” and I still have nothing good to say about it.  I miss Hachita.

Milepost 85, I-10 diverges from the Rio Grande and aims us toward 6,891-foot Sierra Blancha. Somewhere west of the “white mountain” a Swainson’s Hawk glides alongside I-10 and checks off as #146.  These Hawks are on the move north from Central America, and I will see plenty of them over the Almo Valley in a few weeks. Desolation dominates until Van Horn, then resumes again to the Apache Mountains. Finally, at Kent, we leave the chaos of I-10 and settle into the verdant and pastoral Davis Mountains as seen from Texas Highway 118.  Time well spent this morning in Portal is costing us the opportunity to explore the McDonald Observatory.  We see the giant domed structures that house the telescopes, but visiting hours are over.  There is just enough day left to secure a campsite at Davis Mountains State Park.

For a Tuesday, the park seems quite full. We find a handful of empty sights in the most distant loop and settle on one with relative privacy.  Immediately, I am seeing first-of-year birds like Northern Cardinal, White-winged Dove, and Canyon Towhee. The routine plays out.  Find a site, take care of fees, and bird until dark.  After all, the whole idea of the trip is to bird the morning when birds are most active, drive during the day when birds are non-vocal and resting, bird all evening at the day’s final destination, then get up and start all over again.  The problem thus far has been too much driving, shaving off precious time in the morning and evening.  According to all my sources, Davis Mountains State Park is THE place to check-off Montezuma’s Quail, a strangely marked bird of grassy canyons mixed with oak.  My best source is the camp host, who informs me that about this time in the evening the quail occasionally wander out of the grass and onto the road.  The appropriate habitat just so happens to border the campground, and off I go, hoping for a quick pick and a new “lifer.”  When no birds appear, I hike up slope into the canyon on the off-chance I can flush one.  The host also says that you have to nearly step on one to get them to flush.  It’s a big hillside…may the odds be ever in my favor.

I wander back into camp, exhausted, skunked, and quail-less.  I rummage through the food pantry looking for something quick to satisfy the hunger, and watch Canyon Towhees bravely hop into the open door of my Jeep looking for something to satisfy their hunger.  “Sure, you can hitch a ride with me back to Almo.” A few minutes pass, and then it’s off again to the large oaks down toward the shower house.  The shower can wait, but this repetitive one-note call in series of four, then three, and finally two has me baffled.  I might need a crash course in Morris Code.  It’s almost too dark to make out field marks.  There he is!  I lock-on with steady aimed binoculars and follow his movement from the tree’s dark interior into the light of an outstretched branch.  Well I’ll be…. it’s a Black-crested Titmouse!  Formerly lumped with the Tufted Titmouse, this bird has been determined genetically to be a separate species, whose distribution in the US is restricted to central and west Texas. I end the evening with a totally new-to-me species!  Life Bird #461; Big Year Bird #151; and Trip Bird #98.

Take shower – check.
Gaze at stars – check.
Double-check the checklist – check.
Collapse in exhaustion – ……….

(Stay tuned for Epic Birding Trip Part 6: Davis Mountains to Edwards Plateau)


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